NBA AM: Unconventional Rookies Shining
Damian Lillard is running away with the Rookie of the Year race and becoming a household name. Anthony Davis, when healthy, is doing what everyone expected him to do at this level. These aren’t huge surprises considering the hype surrounding these players coming out of college and the expectations that come with being a top-five selection in the draft.
However, this rookie class does feature some surprising contributors. There are several rookies who took an unconventional route to the NBA, but nonetheless have emerged as impact players in the first quarter of the 2012-13 NBA season. Here are five under-the-radar rookies who aren’t getting the attention they deserve after a surprisingly productive start:
Brian Roberts, New Orleans Hornets – Roberts has one of the best stories in the NBA. After going undrafted out of the University of Dayton, he spent three years playing in Germany. This time last year, he was overseas and, at 27 years old, it looked like his NBA dream would never become reality. Over the offseason, Roberts landed on the Hornets’ summer league team and recorded double figures in every game. He was the best player on the team and received a training camp invite as a result. He continued to shine during the preseason and was added to New Orleans’ regular season roster. Now, he continues to make an impact for the Hornets, averaging 7.8 points and 2.6 assists in 16.6 minutes. He has outperformed fellow rookies Austin Rivers and Darius Miller, and he stepped up as a scorer in Anthony Davis’ absence. Roberts has the sixth-best Player Efficiency Rating in this year’s rookie class (16.39).
Alexey Shved, Minnesota Timberwolves – With a 182-pound frame and a mouth full of braces, Shved looks more like a high school star than an NBA player. However, don’t let his appearance fool you; the 24-year-old belongs in the league. Shved has been playing professionally in Russia since 2006 and he starred on the Russian national team. He’s no stranger to big games or tough opponents. The Timberwolves signed him to a three-year deal over the summer, hoping to develop him into a contributor. However, Minnesota’s early injuries forced Shved to play more minutes than expected and start three games. Shved didn’t disappoint and he’s currently averaging 10.6 points and four assists in 26.6 minutes. Fellow Russian native Andrei Kirilenko has helped Shved with his transition to the NBA and the duo has duplicated the success that they had as a one-two punch last season for CSKA Moscow.
Bernard James, Dallas Mavericks – During the pre-draft process, James became a fan favorite because he completed a six-year term in the United States Air Force prior to playing in the NBA, serving three tours in Iraq, Afghanistan and Qatar. He enlisted in the Air Force when he was 17 years old and eventually rose to the rank of staff sergeant. This would’ve been a great story even if James never amounted to anything in the league, but that hasn’t been the case. James has been productive when Mavericks head coach Rick Carlisle has given him minutes, and he currently has the ninth-best PER (13.98) among all rookies. While young players’ minutes always fluctuate under Carlisle, James has done well when given an opportunity. Prior to the draft, the 27-year-old told teams that he was going to be a hustle guy. In Dallas, he has been just that – providing energy, rebounding and defending when he’s on the court. James is the first to admit that he’s not going to be a superstar in this league, but he may have a long career since he knows his role and finds ways to make an impact when his number is called.
Pablo Prigioni, New York Knicks – This is Prigioni’s first year in the NBA, but it’s not his first year playing professional basketball. That was back in 1995, when he joined a professional team in Argentina and started a remarkable international career. Over the next decade and a half, Prigioni became known as one of the best overseas players in the world, earning plenty of individual accolades and winning several championships. Over the offseason, the 35-year-old Prigioni joined the Knicks – his ninth professional team – for the rookie minimum. The Knicks had flirted with Prigioni’s agents for five years before finally signing him. Prigioni has appeared in 23 games and played well off of the bench. He is an excellent distributor, giving the Knicks someone to facilitate when Raymond Felton and Jason Kidd come out of the game. Prigioni is averaging just 3.3 points and 2.7 assists, but he makes everyone around him better and makes very few mistakes. Prigioni’s PER (13.93) is currently ranked 10th in the rookie class.
Nando De Colo, San Antonio Spurs – The Spurs have done it again. San Antonio selected De Colo with the 53rd pick in the 2009 NBA Draft and let him stay overseas for several years. He developed his game with Valencia of the Spanish ACB League and played with the French national team. Last summer, the Spurs lured De Colo to the United States and signed him a two-year deal. Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich wasn’t expecting De Colo to be a contributor this year, but the 25-year-old has made an immediate impact and played well when given minutes. He’s only averaging four points and two assists per game, which doesn’t jump off of the page, but his PER is 15th-best among all rookies, which is better than Bradley Beal and Harrison Barnes among others. Against the Miami HEAT he had 15 points, six rebounds and five assists in 34 minutes. He had 10 points, eight rebounds and six assists in 26 minutes against the Charlotte Bobcats. Last night, he had 14 points and six assists in 23 minutes against the Oklahoma City Thunder. Needless to say, De Colo has been a pleasant surprise for the Spurs.
Which rookie surprised you? Leave your thoughts in the comment section below.
Will Magic Trade J.J. Redick?
The Orlando Magic are currently 11-13 and a big reason for the unexpected success has been the outstanding play of reserve shooting guard J.J. Redick. Anyone who only knows Redick from his days at Duke University or early days in the NBA would have a hard time recognizing the 28-year-old today. Redick has made huge improvements in recent years, specifically as a defender, ball handler, slasher and distributor. While he still knocks down a few three-pointers each game, he’s no longer one dimensional.
Redick has emerged as a possible Sixth Man of the Year candidate, averaging 14.1 points and five assists in 31 minutes off of Orlando’s bench. He has been the team’s best player through the first quarter of the season, scoring in bunches and getting his teammates involved.
Redick, who is now one of the longest tenured Magic players, has also emerged as a leader for Orlando’s young core. Even though Redick is used to winning more games and making deep postseason runs, he has been nothing but positive and supportive this season.
Entering this season, it seemed like Redick’s days in Orlando were numbered since he was a veteran brought in by the old regime and in the final year of his contract, which means he can walk next summer as a free agent. The belief was that the Magic would trade him rather than lose him for nothing next offseason, when he may leave to join a contender or secure a starting role. However, the Magic brass has been impressed with Redick, on and off the court, and the team hasn’t made a decision on him yet. While a trade is still possible, the organization may decide to keep Redick and try to re-sign him next summer since he has been productive and settled down with his family in Orlando.
Where the Magic are at in the standings come February will likely determine what they do next. If the team is still exceeding expectations and fighting for the eighth seed, they may hold onto their veterans like Redick, Glen Davis and Hedo Turkoglu among others. If the team has lost momentum and seems poised for the lottery, they may trade the veterans to give the young players more minutes.
The Magic have some tough decisions ahead, especially when it comes to the overachieving Redick.
Darius Morris Continuing to Learn With Lakers
With Steve Nash and Steve Blake sidelined, the Los Angeles Lakers have needed Darius Morris and Chris Duhon to step up in their absence. Morris, who’s in his second season, was thrust into the starting lineup for 10 games after playing limited minutes during his rookie season.
“It was a great experience,” Morris said of starting. “I definitely got a lot better. It’s kind of crazy – I went from not playing second string to starting. I just thank God for the experience and I definitely got a lot better during that time. I’ve learned a lot, through the ups and the downs, and just being out there on the court. Working out a lot can’t simulate in-game experience.”
He has played well considering the circumstances. It’s not easy for a point guard to produce while adjusting to new teammates, new coaches and new systems. It’s also difficult to be the facilitator for several future Hall of Famers when you’re just 21 years old and have very little NBA experience.
“You don’t think about it, but being the guy who is running the show, they’re all looking at you and of course they all want the ball,” Morris said. “It’s up to you to make the right decisions, deciding where that ball needs to go. They do a pretty good job of respecting me when I have the ball in my hands, trusting me. It is kind of weird, being 21 when everyone else is in their 30s.”
Watch HOOPSWORLD’s entire conversation with Darius Morris: