While everyone is waiting for Andre Drummond, Jonas Valanciunas, and Anthony Davis to light the world on fire this season, there are always a few young players who make unexpected improvements. There are plenty of highly touted prospects expected to take a step or three forward this year. However, there will also be more obscure talents that seemingly come from nowhere to contribute. With that said, here are a few players we paradoxically expect to surprise the NBA this year.
Bismack Biyombo. Jokes about his age notwithstanding, when he was drafted, the book on Biyombo was that he was extremely raw, but he had the athleticism and instincts to develop into an elite defender if a team was patient enough to stay with him. Entering his third season, Biyombo has looked equal parts raw and athletic, and his lack of noticeable improvement during his second season soured many on his progress. Biyombo has started to show those signs of improvement this preseason, averaging almost 11 rebounds in under 29 minutes a game with more blocked shots than fouls. His offense is still pretty hopeless, but if Biyombo, who posted a positive RAPM last season, becomes an elite rebounder while adjusting to the nuances of NBA defense, the Bobcats could have something pretty special on their hands. Bonus prediction: Biyombo posts a superior RAPM to Al Jefferson this year.
James Anderson. Anderson spent the first three years of his career stuck behind Manu Ginobili, George Hill, Danny Green, and James Harden. After flopping in brief auditions in San Antonio, he showed a lot of promise in Houston, and will be starting on the wing for Philadelphia this year. Their best three point shooter, Anderson has been impressive in the preseason stepping into a higher usage role without making many mistakes. While he won't be a star, Anderson is in the perfect position to average 17-5-3 and elevate Philadelphia above the depths of historical putridity many are forecasting.
Tristan Thompson. I still do not understand the Bennett pick. Thompson, still only 22, improved greatly during his second season and seems primed to make another leap this year. After switching shooting hands, the previously bricktastic Canadian has nailed two thirds of his free throws during the preseason (small sample size alert), and is averaging almost 13 and 9 in a little over 25 minutes a game. Thompson might be squeezed for minutes if Varejao and Bynum remain healthy at the same time, but that does not seem particularly likely. With enough playing time, I would not be surprised to see Thompson average 16-11 with plus defense.
Patrick Beverley. To be fair, the veteran rookie was pretty fantastic last year. Beverley may end up starting and inadvertently helping Jeremy Lin's 6th Man of the Year candidacy, as he fits in better as an off-ball point next to Harden and Howard. Beverley, who gained notoriety in the playoffs, is a tenacious defender, tough rebounder, and solid shooter. He's not much of a shot creator; a problem for some teams, but the perfect role player for teams that have enough scoring.
Rockets PF. Terrence Jones and Donatas Motiejunas are both intriguing talents. Motiejunas is an agile 7 footer with a post game, a three point shot, and court vision to boot. Jones is in the mold of Josh Smith; a lefty combo forward with oodles of defensive potential and a versatile, if flawed, offensive game.
Orlando Johnson. The Pacers have drafted well recently. A second round pick in 2012, Johnson is a big guard who can rebound, pass, and hit the three. The Pacers' bench will be a lot more crowded this year, but if Granger continues to struggle to stay healthy, the opportunity will be there.
Malcolm Thomas. An excellent rebounder and shot blocker, Kawhi Leonard's college teammate hasn't found a steady NBA gig despite posting superlative defensive numbers everywhere he goes.
Hassan Whiteside. 20 points, 16 rebounds, 6 blocks per 36 minutes in the D-League last year. That has to be worth a roster spot somewhere, right?
Tyler Honeycutt. Playing in Israel this season, the UCLA product stuffed the stat sheet in the D-League last year, averaging 11 boards, 3 steals, and 2 blocks per 36 minutes. He's really skinny, which limits his defensive potential, but he apparently learned to shoot, as well.
Who will you be watching this season?