Former UCLA stars ready to shine

JOHN MCMULLEN, Sports Network

, Last Updated: 3:40 PM ET

PHILADELPHIA -- Labour Day has passed, the kids are back in school and the leaves will soon begin to fall here in the northeast.

That means the calendar has flipped to September and most of America is gearing up for football and postseason baseball.

Here on the basketball beat, we are still seven weeks away from the NBA season and still firmly focused on the FIBA World Championships in Turkey. Personnel moves have slowed to a trickle and while there are a few key contributors left on the open market, most of the NBA's general managers have built the foundation for their respective teams and mapped out a strategy for the 2010-11 season.

Typically, contenders try to tweak a few things here and there, while the pretenders cry "salary cap constraints," and make plans to take a few steps backwards in hopes of landing the No. 1 pick in the upcoming draft, a prize that figures to be either North Carolina's Harrison Smith or Baylor's Perry Jones next summer.

This year, however, things have been a bit different. With their eyes on the prize and the NBA champion Los Angeles Lakers, Pat Riley and the Miami Heat completely revamped their club, pulling off one of the biggest coup's in NBA history by luring LeBron James and Chris Bosh to South Beach to play alongside Dwayne Wade.

Meanwhile, the two-time defending champs went the more traditional route, convincing Phil Jackson to stay on as head coach and tweaking a veteran-laden roster by adding defensive-minded role players like Matt Barnes and Theo Ratliff.

Players like James, Bosh, Wade and Kobe Bryant are constants, however. You know they are going to be good -- real good. By and large, you even know what veteran complementary pieces like Barnes and Ratliff are going to offer.

The fun stuff starts with young players poised for vast improvement. In fact, every year a group of players really elevates their games. Some are surprises and some are expected to reach that next level.

Here's one man's view of the five players that are ready to take the next step in 2010-11:

1. Kevin Love - power forward - Minnesota Timberwolves - I've always "Love'd" Kevin's game dating back to his days at UCLA. With Al Jefferson being shipped out to Salt Lake City, Love will get every opportunity to be the focal point of Kurt Rambis' interior group. Love hasn't garnered a ton of minutes for Team USA over in Istanbul but he makes the most out of every single second Mike Krzyzewski gives him and has outplayed the team's other big men -- Lamar Odom and Tyson Chandler. Love has a top-tier basketball IQ, is a plus rebounder and plays defence with the kind of effort coaches crave. Offensively, he's deadly with the medium-range stuff and can stretch out to 20-feet or so. Health is the only concern when talking about Love. He missed the first 18 games last season with a broken hand.

2. Jrue Holiday - point guard - Philadelphia 76ers - The book on Holiday before the 2009 draft was the cliched "raw with the huge upside." Normally, I shrug off talk like that since it's become commonplace among NBA personnel people. But one longtime scout who I respect assured me Holiday would be the best point guard from that '09 draft in five years, a bold statement considering Tyreke Evans, Ricky Rubio, Jonny Flynn, Stephen Curry, Brandon Jennings, Ty Lawson and Darren Collison also went in Holiday's class. When the Sixers turned the keys over to Holiday last season, you could see exactly what all the fuss was about. A true quarterback that thinks pass first, Holiday is already one of the top 10 defensive point guards in the league. Experience should turn the former UCLA guard into an All-NBA defender and a more consistent jumper could turn him into an All-Star.

3. Blake Griffin - power forward - Los Angeles Clippers - Griffin, of course, missed his entire rookie season after suffering a stress fracture in his left knee. You always have to be concerned with leg injuries when you are talking about bigs and the 6-foot-10, 250-pound Griffin plays with the sort of recklessness that will put enormous stress on his body. That said, a stress fracture isn't going to affect Griffin's rare work ethic and outstanding athleticism. He lacks polish on the low post and isn't the can't-miss franchise guy like a James or Dwight Howard, but Griffin should team with Chris Kaman and rookie Al-Farouq Aminu to give new Clips coach Vinny Del Negro an imposing frontcourt.

4. Rodrigue Beaubois - swing guard - Dallas Mavericks - The Mavs need to get younger and Beaubois flashed some serious athletic skills during limited playing time in his rookie season. Jason Kidd and Jason Terry aren't exactly ready to step aside but Beaubois offers a change of pace that could be a shock to the system of the opposition if he plays with consistent effort.

5. Darren Collison - point guard - Indiana Pacers - Collison, another former UCLA star, was really good while filling in for the injured Chris Paul during his rookie year in the Big Easy. However, with Paul entrenched for now in New Orleans, the Hornets dealt Collison to Indiana where the second-year player now has an opportunity to grow with one of the game's best young scorers, Danny Granger. Collison probably doesn't have the size or strength to hold-up on the defensive end on a consistent basis but he's already proven he has the ability to run a team and get his own shot.


Videos

Photos