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Players to Watch in Second Half

The SportsXchange

When the NBA returns to action Tuesday following the All-Star break, contenders will be looking to improve their form and their playoff seeds down the stretch, while lottery-bound clubs will be looking to find building blocks for the future.

The Sports Xchange asked its NBA correspondents to identify a player to watch for the second half of the season. Here are the team-by-team responses:

ATLANTIC DIVISION

BOSTON CELTICS

Second-year forward Jared Sullinger, whose rookie season was cut short by back surgery, had a run of six straight double-doubles end in the final game before the break because of illness. Included in that stretch was a career-high 31 points and 16 rebounds in a game against the Sacramento Kings. Assuming he is not traded, Sullinger's continued growth will be an interesting thing to watch down the stretch.

BROOKLYN NETS

Guard Shaun Livingston does not like to talk about it, but he is enjoying a remarkable season considering low preseason expectations. At 6-foot-7, the eighth-year pro causes matchup problems and can play point guard, shooting guard and small forward. As an integral part of coach Jason Kidd's new smaller lineup -- in a double point guard backcourt with Deron Williams -- Livingston is a defensive catalyst who is playing some of the best basketball of his career.

NEW YORK KNICKS

Shooting guard Tim Hardaway Jr. is among the rookie leaders in scoring (9.2 points per game) and 3-point field-goal percentage (38.5). Coach Mike Woodson is showing increased faith in Hardaway, especially when games are close down the stretch. The first month of the season, Hardaway averaged just 13 minutes a game. In February, that number rose to 30.2 minutes per game. Look for him to enter the starting lineup on a permanent basis by March.

PHILADELPHIA 76ERS

Rookie center Nerlens Noel, acquired in a draft-day trade last June, continues to ramp up his workouts as he recovers from the torn left ACL suffered last February, during his lone season at the University of Kentucky. After one such workout, on Feb. 6, first-year coach Brett Brown told reporters that Noel still has "a long ways to go," though Brown previously said that there would be some benefit to getting Noel some game experience this year. Brown, who has worked with Noel on his shot, believes Noel will develop into an elite defender along the lines of the retired Theo Ratliff, who led the league in blocked shots three times during his 16-year career.

TORONTO RAPTORS

Center Jonas Valanciunas is still learning the nuances of the position in his second year. His rebounding is an important factor for the Raptors, who are 15-7 when he grabs 10 or more boards. However, coach Dwane Casey wants to see more toughness -- what he calls "clean physicality" -- in general from his team and specifically from Valanciunas, who must deal with some imposing big players. It means being more physical in setting screens, boxing out and taking the charge. He needs to stand his ground firmly instead turning or moving in those situations. It is a part of the game that becomes even more vital in the playoffs, and Valanciunas needs to work on it.

CENTRAL DIVISION

CHICAGO BULLS

Point guard D.J. Augustin was waived by the Toronto Raptors in December, but is proving indispensable to the Bulls. He is contributing as a scorer, a distributor and the team's best 3-point shooter. With point guard Derrick Rose sidelined by another knee surgery and hard-nosed veteran guard Kirk Hinrich destined to spend time on the injured list every now and then, Augustin is holding things together for the Bulls. Without him, there is no chance they would be challenging for a top-four seed in the East. Can Augustin finish the season strong and earn himself a more stable contract this summer, either with the Bulls or another team?

CLEVELAND CAVALIERS

Forward Anthony Bennett, the No. 1 overall draft pick in last year's draft, is making his move. He played his best basketball of the season in the week heading up to the All-Star break, including a 19-point, 10-rebound performance against the Sacramento Kings. Bennett also had 14 points and eight rebounds against the Los Angeles Lakers. He is a "stretch 4" who got off to a horrible start to his professional career, and he is still averaging just 3.8 points and 2.8 rebounds in 12.5 minutes per game.

DETROIT PISTONS

Guard Rodney Stuckey never lived up to early expectations that he would blossom into an All-Star-caliber player. A lot of people were surprised that Stuckey was not moved during the offseason, but he reinvented himself as a high-scoring sixth man, averaging over 14 points per game. With the recent insertion of swingman Kyle Singler into the starting five, Stuckey is the only consistent scorer off the bench. When he missed seven games with a shoulder injury this season, the Pistons went 1-6. They need steady production from him in the last 30 games to make a successful playoff push.

INDIANA PACERS

For all of Indiana's star power, Lance Stephenson might be the decider. With the shooting guard's ability to dial up the intensity, he is key in setting the tone. Consider: The Pacers are 34-7 when Stephenson scores in double figures, 6-5 when he does not. For the season, he is shooting 50.2 percent from the floor and converting at a spectacular rate when going to the basket. Within 5 feet of the rim, he is 177-for-261 (67.8 percent). One of the league's most improved players, Stephenson is a huge reason the Pacers are one of two clubs with 40 wins. If his numbers drop off a bit, Indiana would be a different team.

MILWAUKEE BUCKS

Nineteen-year-old rookie forward Giannis Antetokounmpo is starting to show flashes of his potential, and he is drawing the attention of opponents. Moved into the starting lineup in mid-December, the "Greek Freak" slumped into the All-Star break (2-for-16 in his past three games). Overall, he averages 6.9 points and 4.5 rebounds in 47 games (21 starts). He still needs to work on his shot (42.7 percent), but he is progressing. Regardless of how the season plays out -- and what Milwaukee does in the draft -- Antetokounmpo is an enormous part of the Bucks' future.

SOUTHEAST DIVISION

ATLANTA HAWKS

Center Pero Antic could have an impact on the team's fortunes once he returns from the stress fracture in his right ankle that kept him sidelined since Jan. 23. The rookie from Macedonia was chosen, but could not play, in the Rising Stars Challenge as part of the All-Star Weekend. Antic saw his minutes rise significantly after center Al Horford sustained a season-ending injury. Antic averaged nearly 22 minutes and 10.2 points in the last 10 games before he got hurt, too. For the season, Antic is averaging 5.8 points and 3.4 rebounds. He is expected to play again by the end of the month and he available for Atlanta's playoff push.

CHARLOTTE BOBCATS

Center Al Jefferson fought a chronic ankle injury early in the season and missed nine games. Then he played hurt for an extended stretch. Now he is close to 100 percent, and the numbers look phenomenal. He averaged 26.4 points the past 10 games, producing five games of 30 or more. Moreover, his effectiveness in the low post is creating opportunities for others, particularly the 3-point shooters. If Jefferson can continue his recent pace, the Bobcats will be legitimate playoff contenders. If he cools off or opponents sell out to stop him, as was the case in recent losses at Phoenix and Brooklyn, when he was held to 10 and 12 points, respectively, then the Bobcats could be in trouble.

MIAMI HEAT

Shooting guard Dwyane Wade is the key to the Heat's hopes for a three-peat. Wade -- if healthy -- can be the dynamic second scorer the team needs to accompany forward LeBron James. Wade missed Tuesday's game against the Phoenix Suns due to a migraine headache, but it was his knees that were the real pain in the first half. The Heat are quick to rest him as needed this season -- he missed 14 games already -- but he remains highly effective when he plays. His shooting percentage, for example, is a career high 54.8 percent, which is amazing for a shooting guard and especially a 32-year-old with battered knees. Wade is averaging 18.7 points, and the Heat are hoping to squeeze one more great playoff run out of him.

ORLANDO MAGIC

Rookie guard Victor Oladipo, the No. 2 pick in the 2013 draft, was both exciting and inconsistent in the first half of the season. In the past few weeks, he emerged as a leader, sparking back-to-back victories over the Oklahoma City Thunder and the Indiana Pacers. The Magic are hoping to turn him into an NBA point guard after he played as a shooting guard in college. If they decide his future is at point guard, it would affect how they draft this summer.

WASHINGTON WIZARDS

All-Star guard John Wall, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2010 draft, leads the Wizards in scoring (19.8 points per game) and tops the Eastern Conference in assists (8.5 per game). However, the speedy playmaker with an improved jumper does not show his top form every night, and the Wizards' overall inconsistency reflects that. At times, he settles for perimeter looks rather than attacking the lane. There are stretches when he lets down defensively against a fill-in point guard or fails to push the pace for a team that wants to run. Wall's athletic gifts and burgeoning skill set are evident. Using them all consistently is the next step.

SOUTHWEST DIVISION

DALLAS MAVERICKS

Once he finally returned from offseason foot surgery that kept him out until Jan. 18, point guard Devin Harris filled an immediate need off the bench behind starter Jose Calderon. Harris, though, can be brittle, and he twisted his right knee and ankle Tuesday against the Charlotte Bobcats and missed Wednesday's game against the Indiana Pacers. Harris is averaging 8.9 points and 3.8 assists through 12 games. His reliability on defense and running the point is critical to the Mavericks' success down the stretch. Without him, they would be forced to turn to rookie point guard Shane Larkin.

HOUSTON ROCKETS

The correlation between the Rockets' seven-game winning streak entering the All-Star Game break and the recent tear of center Dwight Howard is no coincidence. After signing Howard to a four-year, $88 million contract last summer, the team struggled initially getting Howard the touches to justify its pursuit of him. However, over the past seven games, Howard averaged 24.7 points on 60.0 percent shooting from the floor (and 65.6 percent from the free-throw line) and 12.1 rebounds. The offense found the balance the Rockets sought all along, and if Howard keeps excelling, the Rockets' perimeter shooters -- shooting guard James Harden, forward Chandler Parsons and point guard Jeremy Lin -- will become that much more dangerous.

MEMPHIS GRIZZLIES

Memphis signed 6-foot-9 forward James Johnson out of the NBA Development League in December after Johnson had washed out with several NBA teams and was cut in the preseason by the Atlanta Hawks. Johnson is averaging 8.5 points, 4.2 rebounds, 2.6 assists, 1.6 blocks and 1.2 steals in 22.1 minutes. He also leads the league with 16 blocks of 3-point shot attempts, and that same athleticism allows Johnson to drive to the rim. He is a consistent energy-giver on the second unit, and he will be an unrestricted free agent at season's end. The word is out: Johnson is a different player now.

NEW ORLEANS PELICANS

Anthony Davis' coming-out party is one of the biggest stories of the NBA season. The 6-foot-10 All-Star power forward seems to grow in some small way nearly every game. He can beat any big man down court, he protects the rim, and he expanded his offensive game to include a reliable 15- to 17-foot jumper. He also began putting the ball on the floor with a quick baseline spin move that often leaves a defender in his tracks. Davis is learning how to pass the ball out of the increasing double teams he faces.

SAN ANTONIO SPURS

Manu Ginobili suffered a strained left hamstring in late January. The 10th-year guard from Argentina was averaging 12.1 points and 4.5 assists a game before the injury. More important, he was coming off the bench and directing a second unit that leads the NBA in scoring (44.9 points per game) and assists (10.8 per game), and ranks fourth in rebounding (16.5 per game). He missed eight games, and the team went 5-3. Ginobili is scheduled to return to action right after the All-Star break. The Spurs need him to be healthy down the stretch if they have any plans for a serious run in the playoffs.

NORTHWEST DIVISION

DENVER NUGGETS

Forward Kenneth Faried will be looking for a big contract heading into the final year of his current deal. Faried is a popular, energetic player, but the Nuggets need to figure out if he fits into their system. If he were more of a scorer, he could play at small forward, but while his shot has improved, he is a player who gets his points from offensive rebounds and motion. He cannot create his own offense. At times he was exposed as a defender at power forward, but overall he is solid on that end. Still, he has to show he is worthy of a long-term contract in the season's final 31 games. His play over the final two months also could be an audition for a team looking to acquire him in the offseason.

MINNESOTA TIMBERWOLVES

If and when the Timberwolves fall completely out of the playoff picture, look for rookie forward Shabazz Muhammad to get a boost in playing time. Looking to win now, coach Rick Adelman has been unwilling to give Muhammad anything close to significant action. However, Muhammad, the 14th overall pick in last summer's draft, is president of basketball operations Flip Saunders' first pick, and Saunders very much would like to see that pick get an opportunity. Forced into the rotation Feb. 8 because of injuries to other players, Muhammad responded with 12 points.

OKLAHOMA CITY THUNDER

The biggest move Oklahoma City will make in the second half is getting All-Star point guard Russell Westbrook back in the lineup. Westbrook has been sidelined since undergoing arthroscopic right knee surgery in late December. When Westbrook returns, will he derail the chemistry the Thunder created in his absence, or will he add to the team with the best record in the NBA? Will his presence force forward Kevin Durant to tone down the MVP-caliber game he displayed in the first half?

PORTLAND TRAIL BLAZERS

Rookie shooting guard CJ McCollum missed the first 35 games with a broken foot. He was in the rotation in all but one of the Trail Blazers' 16 games since then, and in the last three, he scored 43 points on 15-for-28 shooting, including 7-for-13 from 3-point range. The Blazers need his punch off the bench, so McCollum undoubtedly will play a key role the rest of the way.

UTAH JAZZ

The unheralded Jazz player who might become a household name in the future is Alec Burks. The shooting guard entered the All-Star break on a tear, scoring 24 in a road win over the Los Angeles Lakers and 26 the next night in a victory over the Philadelphia Sixers. The third-year pro, who had a career-high 34 points against the Miami Heat this season, has good size (6-foot-6) and uses his bouncy athleticism to drive to the hoop without fear. Burks, who played two years at Colorado before being drafted 12th overall in 2011, now has 10 20-point games in mostly a six-man role. That is more than anybody on Utah's squad except for guard Gordon Hayward (13). Burks, whose contract can be extended in the offseason, is the Jazz's leading scorer per 48 minutes (23.6 points).

PACIFIC DIVISION

GOLDEN STATE WARRIORS

When swingman Andre Iguodala was acquired from the Denver Nuggets in the offseason, the only negative cited was that it created an embarrassment of riches for Warriors coach Mark Jackson. Which talented player would he move to the bench to make room for Iguodala? Jackson chose forward Harrison Barnes, who has not adjusted well to the change. It would not be an issue if not for the fact the man who replaced him -- Iguodala -- has not performed up to expectations, either. Known in Philadelphia and Denver as one of the most versatile midsized players in the game, Iguodala has not scored well for the Warriors (9.6 points per game) and has been basically nonexistent on the boards (4.7 rebounds per game). Most disappointing, he has not been the facilitator Golden State envisioned (4.4 assists per game). The Warriors need Iguodala to regain his form in the second half.

LOS ANGELES CLIPPERS

With injuries plaguing guard J.J. Redick, the Clippers could benefit from some offensive consistency out of guard Jared Dudley. Dudley averages 7.7 points per game in 26 minutes, but he delivered quality minutes in only a handful of games. He last scored in double figures when he finished with 10 points against the Dallas Mavericks on Jan. 15. If Redick cannot stay healthy, Dudley will need to deliver if the Clippers expect to make a deep run in the postseason.

LOS ANGELES LAKERS

With the Lakers practically guaranteed a ticket to the draft lottery, the future of forward Ryan Kelly is on the clock. The rookie from Duke has shown he can score, but he has been overwhelmed on defense. Kelly never will be an above-average defender, but he could enhance his future by developing into a consistent shooter and a reliable offensive option off the bench. He will have plenty of opportunities to sharpen his shooting skills in the second half as the lowly Lakers stumble to one of their worst seasons.

PHOENIX SUNS

Guard Goran Dragic has performed like an All-Star-caliber player since Eric Bledsoe went down with a knee injury in early January. He is asked to do a lot for the Suns, and with Bledsoe not a lock to return before the end of the season, there are concerns that he will wear down. Dragic had a string of seven consecutive 20-point games, including a career-high 34 points (on only 13 shots) in a win over the Golden State Warriors last week. Ish Smith has had some good moments as a backup, but sometimes when Dragic leaves the game, the Phoenix offense falters -- reminding veteran Suns watchers of the lulls they would witness when Steve Nash sat down during his MVP years.

SACRAMENTO KINGS

It is hard to separate the Kings' primary three -- center DeMarcus Cousins, forward Rudy Gay and guard Isaiah Thomas combine for more than 60 percent of the team's scoring -- but finding a consistent fourth player to complement them is proving difficult. Guard Ben McLemore was the Rookie of the Month in November, but his minutes subsequently dwindled, and he is averaging only 3.5 points in 35 games since Dec. 7. A first-round draft pick last year (No. 7 overall), McLemore has been invisible for stretches that lasted too long, and he has struggled defensively. The Kings need to determine whether he was the smooth player who averaged 9.1 points in his first NBA month.
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