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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.