Don’t Lose Hope: These NBA Standouts Started Slow and Turned It Around

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    NBA stars rise on different schedules.

    Some are no-doubt elites almost from the beginning. LeBron James entered the Association as a 20-point scorer. Luka Doncic just debuted like no one had since Oscar Robertson. Stephen Curry kicked off his career by wowing with three-point volume and efficiency.

    But plenty of budding ballers needed more time to develop. And despite our current obsession with instant gratification, it’s OK if a prospect isn’t ready to rise right out of the gate.

    In fact, if you find yourself waiting for an NBA youngster to overcome a slow start, take solace in knowing the following five NBA standouts already blazed that trail.

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    Kyle Lowry‘s career trajectory is the road never traveled.

    The Memphis Grizzlies used the 24th pick to get him in the 2006 draft, then they shipped him to the Houston Rockets less than three years later. The Rockets coaxed better numbers out of him, but they also sent him packing three-plus years after he arrived.

    He had developed a reputation for not playing well with others—”Me and authority didn’t get along,” Lowry told ESPN’s Jordan Brenner—and didn’t have the production to justify the trouble. When he headed north of the border in 2012, he brought along career marks of 10.4 points and 4.8 assists per game on 42.0/33.0/78.3 shooting.

    Neither he nor the Toronto Raptors were sure about the other. As he wrote for The Players’ Tribune, “I figured I’d do my thing and show my talents, but in two years I would become a free agent and I’d be gone.”

    The Raptors, meanwhile, nearly sent him to the New York Knicks in 2013 before New York bailed at the last minute.

    But Lowry and the Raptors became the Association’s surprise success story. They entrusted him with a starting gig and later the keys to the franchise, and he responded with on-court leadership and stat-sheet awesomeness. Since joining Toronto, he ranks among the NBA’s top 20 in points (8,623, 20th), assists (3,506, eighth), three-pointers (1,223, seventh), steals (746, 11th) and win shares (62.9, 11th).

    He made his All-Star debut in his ninth NBA season (2014-15), and he hasn’t been left out of the festivities since.

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    Matt Slocum/Associated Press

    Khris Middleton knew about starting and stopping long before he harnessed the defense-shedding ability to change speeds.

    After building an NBA buzz over two-plus seasons at Texas A&M, his third campaign was disrupted by a meniscus tear. He only lost a month of games, but the damage went far beyond that. He wasn’t the same player, and his draft stock tumbled from first-round lock to the 39th selection of the 2012 talent grab.

    His NBA career started the way myriad second-rounders’ have: on the bench and far off the national radar. As ESPN’s Zach Lowe recalled, “Middleton fell behind fellow rookies Kyle Singler and Kim English.”

    For context, English’s last NBA appearance came in April 2013, and Singler amassed a 7.5 player efficiency rating over his final four seasons.

    After his rookie year, Middleton was traded from the Detroit Pistons to the Milwaukee Bucks to help match money in a Brandon Knight-Brandon Jennings swap. He was a different player with the Bucks, averaging 14.5 points on 45.0 percent shooting (40.5 percent from deep) over his first three seasons before a hamstring tore completely off the bone and delayed his fourth for three-plus months.

    But Middleton again rose in the face of adversity, proving just how powerful perseverance can be in this league. He averaged 20 points for the first time in his age-26 season. He made his first All-Star appearance the following year and was the primary supporting actor in Milwaukee’s rise to become a 60-win powerhouse.

    He’s a secondary scorer and playmaker who can lead the offense in either discipline, a shifty isolation creator, a lethal long-range shooter and a versatile defensive weapon. No one could’ve seen this ascension coming.

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    Paul Millsap was the 47th pick of the 2006 draft and a member of the 2006-07 All-Rookie second team. In almost any circumstance, that would make him a rapid-starter.

    But context is critical. Weighed only against his draft slot, sure, he did more than expected early in his NBA career. Change the expectations to what he has become, though, and you never could’ve foreseen Carlos Boozer’s former backup becoming a four-time All-Star.

    Plus, you should read nothing into Millsap’s All-Rookie nod. Those rosters were comically bad. Randy Foye, Jorge Garbajosa and Andrea Bargnani all grabbed first-team slots, while Millsap was joined on the second team by Walter Herrmann, Adam Morrison, Tyrus Thomas and Marcus Williams. Some participation trophies are harder to get than this distinction.

    Early-career Millsap was mediocre. He provided energy and smarts off the Utah Jazz’s bench, and he rarely s