NBA Early-Season Surprises: Players
The NBA is full of surprises. Every year, players from a wide spectrum of situations catch everyone off guard and exceed expectations. Some rookies outperform their draft position, some veterans find the fountain of youth and some new acquisitions thrive like never before after a change of scenery.
This season is no different. Three weeks into the 2012-13 campaign, several players are already turning heads and playing better than anyone expected. Later in the week, we’ll look at several teams that have been surprisingly good in the early stages of the season, but today we’re focusing on individuals. Here’s a list of players who have emerged as early-season surprises and come up big for their respective teams.
James Harden | Rockets | 26.7 PPG, 4.8 RPG, 4.7 APG, 1.6 SPG, 21.57 PER
While Harden has cooled down since scoring 37 points and 45 points in the first two games of the season, the 23-year-old has proven that he can be a franchise player. Harden’s 26.7 points per game is the second-highest average in the league, trailing only Kobe Bryant. Harden has been everything the Rockets were hoping he’d be and then some. He’s much further along in his development than most players his age and he clearly has superstar potential. Harden has singlehandedly kept Houston in some games and, keep in mind, he’s still getting acclimated to a new city, team, coaching staff, system and starting role. He’ll only continue to get better as he gets more comfortable with the new situation. While Harden’s scoring has made him a household name, he’s also exceptional in the pick-and-roll and one of the best non-point guard facilitators in the league. He can create for others just as well as he can create for himself. Harden has been outstanding through nine games and, right now, the thought of him signing for anything less than a max-level deal seems absurd.
Jamal Crawford | Clippers | 20.7 PPG, 1.9 RPG, 1.3 SPG, 25.02 PER
Not only is Crawford looking like the early frontrunner to win this season’s Sixth Man of the Year award, he may be selected as an All-Star for the first time in his career without starting a single game for the Clippers. He’s averaging 20.7 points, which is the tenth-best average in the league, despite the fact that he’s playing just 28.1 minutes per game off the Clippers’ bench. He’s the only top-40 scorer who’s playing less than 29 minutes a night and he’s leading the NBA in scoring per 48 minutes. Prior to this season, the highest PER of Crawford’s career was 18.50 during the 2009-10 season, when he last won Sixth Man of the Year with the Atlanta Hawks. This year, Crawford’s PER is 25.02 and his stats have been up across the board, including a career-high 20.7 points and 52.2 field goal percentage. The Clippers signed Crawford so that he could provide instant offense off the bench and that’s exactly what he’s done. He’s leading the team in scoring – averaging more points than perennial All-Stars Chris Paul and Blake Griffin – and he’s a big reason why Los Angeles is currently 7-2.
Kyle Lowry | Raptors | 18.3 PPG, 6.3 APG, 5.8 RPG, 3.0 SPG, 32.01 PER
Prior to being sidelined with a bruised right foot, Lowry was putting up remarkable numbers. For awhile, Lowry was leading Toronto in points, assists, rebounds, steals and field goal percentage. The 26-year-old was making an impact all over the court and doing his best to keep the struggling Raptors competitive. If Lowry can continue to play at this high level when he returns in one-to-two weeks, he may be selected to his first All-Star game. Not only has Lowry made an impact for the Raptors on the court, head coach Dwane Casey credits Lowry for giving Toronto’s young core a swagger and confidence that they didn’t have last season. As he gets more comfortable and develops chemistry with his new teammates, Lowry should only continue to get better. Last year was considered a breakout year for Lowry, but so far this season he’s averaging a career-high in points, rebounds, steals, blocks, field goal percentage, three point percentage and free throw percentage. Lowry has been phenomenal for the Raptors this season and has by far the highest PER in the NBA at 32.01 – by comparison, second-place LeBron James’ PER is 29.02.
Damian Lillard | Blazers | 19.3 PPG, 6.4 APG, 3.3 RPG, 1.3 SPG, 18.52 PER
This time last year, Lillard was being projected as a second-round pick and few people had heard of the Weber State point guard. Now, he’s taking the league by storm and seems to be leading the Rookie of the Year race. Lillard exudes confidence and he’s mature beyond his years. It’s easy to see why Lillard’s stock soared in the months leading up the draft and why so many executives fell in love with him. He can score the ball at will and get his teammates involved as well. In several years, Lillard may be one of the best point guards in the league. He leads all rookies in points, assists, steals, three-pointers made and free throws made. He has made an impact in Portland right away and exceeded all expectations out of the gate.
Tim Duncan | Spurs | 17.8 PPG, 9.6 RPG, 2.8 BPG, 1.1 SPG, 27.91 PER
Surprisingly, Duncan is having one of the best seasons of his 16-year career. In recent years, it seemed that Duncan was on the decline, but he’s been extremely productive this season. In fact, Duncan’s PER this season is 27.91, which is the highest of his career, even higher than his MVP seasons in 2002 (26.46) and 2003 (27.14). Duncan is 36 years old, but he’s playing like he’s 26 years old. Not only is Duncan putting up double-doubles on a nightly basis, he’s also averaging a career-high 1.1 steals per game and a career-low 1.3 turnovers per game. Last season, Duncan recorded three or more blocks in 12 of the 52 games that he played in. This year, through 10 games, Duncan has already had eight games in which he recorded three or more blocks. He’s contributing on both ends of the court and is a big reason that San Antonio is 8-2 with impressive wins over the Oklahoma City Thunder and Los Angeles Lakers.
DeAndre Jordan | Clippers | 10.2 PPG, 7.1 RPG, 2.4 BPG, 1.0 SPG, 18.96 PER
Over the offseason, Jordan worked extremely hard to improve his offensive game. He wanted to develop as a low-post scorer so that he could be an offensive weapon for the Clippers and stay on the court late in games. His hard work clearly paid off, as Jordan has made huge strides on the offensive end. He’s much more confident in the paint and no longer hesitates when he catches the ball down low. He has developed a go-to hook shot that he knocks down with consistency and he recently had back-to-back 20-point games for the first time in his career. Jordan is proving that he’s worth the four-year, $43 million deal that he signed last offseason. He was already one of the most athletic centers in the league, but now the 24-year-old is becoming a well-rounded big man. Jordan has been incredibly efficient on the offensive end, shooting a league-best 68.9 percent from the field. If Jordan can continue to play at this level, he may be this year’s Most Improved Player and the Clippers may be better than expected.
O.J. Mayo | Mavericks | 21.3 PPG, 3.4 RPG, 2.9 APG, .590 3P%, 20.19 PER
For the past four years, Mayo was a solid role player for the Memphis Grizzlies. Now, with the Mavericks, Mayo is proving that he can be a star when given the minutes and touches. He has kept Dallas afloat while Dirk Nowitzki has been sidelined and he’s likely going to get a big payday after the season if he continues playing at this high level. He’s proving that he can be a top option on offense and, at 24 years old, he’s just scratching the surface of his potential. Since high school, Mayo has been hyped up as the next big thing. For the first time in his NBA career, he’s finally getting the opportunity to be the man and, as a result, he’s living up to the hype and looking like the star that everyone expected him to be.
Raymond Felton | Knicks | 16.1 PPG, 6.3 APG, 3.1 RPG, 1.4 SPG, 18.16 PER
After a dreadful 2011-12 campaign with the Portland Trail Blazers, Felton had to prove that he was still a starting-caliber point guard and he has done just that this season with the Knicks. Felton has done an exceptional job running the offense and he’s getting his teammates involved. The Knicks chose Felton over fan favorite Jeremy Lin so he entered the season with huge shoes to fill. However, just like his last stint in New York, the team is winning (they’re currently 7-1 and sit atop the Eastern Conference) and the excellent ball movement has been a big reason for their success. Felton has exceeded expectations and revived his career. Now, it’s on Felton to continue producing at this high level.
Jrue Holiday | 76ers | 19.1 PPG, 8.6 APG, 4.0 RPG, 1.6 SPG, 18.02 PER
Holiday has been playing well since inking a four-year, 41 million with the 76ers. While Philadelphia was hoping to have Andrew Bynum on the court by now, Holiday has been the putting the team on his back in the center’s absence. Holiday is averaging career-highs across the boards including points (19.1), assists (8.6), rebounds (4.0), steals (1.6), blocks (.5), field goal percentage (.451), three point percentage (.455) and PER (17.95). While he needs to limit his turnovers going forward, he’s doing a better job of running Doug Collins’ offense and facilitating. Holiday has been Philadelphia’s best player and he’s making huge strides in his fourth season. It’s easy to forget the Holiday is just 22 years old, which means he still has plenty of time to continue developing as a player. When Bynum returns, Holiday’s job will be much easier. The duo will be able to play an inside-outside game and form a very talented one-two punch.
Anderson Varejao | Cavaliers | 14.3 PPG, 13.1 RPG, 3.3 APG, 23.17 PER
The Cavaliers turned down plenty of trade offers for Varejao over the offseason and now it’s obvious why they didn’t want to move the 30-year-old big man. He has been excellent for Cleveland, averaging a career-high 14.3 points and 13.1 rebounds as well as .760 free throw percentage (which is the first time he’s shot over 70 percent from the charity stripe in his career). Varejao is contributing on both ends of the court and taking pressure off of Cleveland’s young core of Kyrie Irving, Dion Waiters and Tristan Thompson. He has also emerged as a leader in the locker room, which is yet another reason why he has many fans within the organization. It’ll take a very attractive offer for the Cavs to part ways with Varejao. They’ll only move him if they get an offer they can’t refuse because he brings too much value to the franchise, on and off the court. Then again, if Varejao has another 35-point, 18-rebound performances like he did last week against the Brooklyn Nets, his trade value will only continue to increase and Cleveland may not have a choice but to move him while his stock is high.
Andre Drummond | Pistons | 6.5 PPG, 4.7 RPG, 1.0 BPG, .698 FG%, 23.59 PER
Drummond was one of the biggest surprises of the preseason, averaging 9.8 points, 5.8 rebounds and 1.5 blocks in just 17.5 minutes. Now, through 11 regular season games, Drummond has picked up right where he left off. He has been a difference maker every time he has stepped on the court and he’s making an impact much sooner than anyone expected. The 19-year-old was supposed to be a project that was several years away from contributing. Instead, he’s giving Pistons head coach Lawrence Frank no choice but to play him. Detroit is currently 2-9 and Drummond has been one of the few bright spots on this team, which means it’s likely only a matter of time until his minutes increase. The Pistons couldn’t be happier with his production and he’ll only continue to get better going forward.
Rasheed Wallace | Knicks | 7.3 PPG, 3.8 RPG, 1.0 BPG, .460 FG%, 20.94 PER
After taking two years off from basketball, Wallace has made a successful NBA comeback and emerged as a significant contributor for the Knicks. He fits in with this group and knows his role, which is why he has been so successful. He has been providing the Knicks with scoring and energy off the bench. His 20.94 PER is a career-high, which shows just how effective he has been in 13.5 minutes per game. Not only has Wallace contributed on the court, he gives the team a swagger and attitude that they didn’t have before. He’s a strong locker room presence and he gives New York another veteran with ample playoff experience. When the Knicks signed Wallace, he was a low-risk, high-reward addition. So far, the move has paid huge dividends and he’s been everything the Knicks could have asked for and more.
DeMar DeRozan | Raptors | 19 PPG, 5.3 RPG, 2.0 APG, 1.0 SPG, 16.58 PER
The Raptors gave DeRozan a contract extension that’ll pay him $40 million over four years and DeRozan has rewarded the Raptors with career-highs in points, rebounds, assists and PER. DeRozan has benefited from the acquisition of Kyle Lowry and it seems like he’s finally taking the next step in his development after regressing last season. While he could still improve his .452 field goal percentage and .263 three point percentage, he’s making strides and he’s been a pleasant surprise for Toronto. At 23 years old, his best basketball is likely still ahead of him, which is why locking him up for four years was the right move.
Omer Asik | Rockets | 11.1 PPG, 13.2 RPG, 1.2 BPG, .737 FT%, 14.09 PER
Entering this season, Asik had only started two games in two years. The 26-year-old had been a key reserve with the Chicago Bulls, and played limited minutes behind Joakim Noah. However, Asik was always productive when he was on the floor and was regarded as one of the best defensive players in the league. The general consensus over the offseason was that Houston overpaid for Asik since he was inexperienced and unproven, but he has thrived through nine games with the Rockets. All eyes were on Asik once he signed the three-year, $25.1 million deal, but he has lived up to the heightened expectations that come with a big payday. Asik is not just playing well on the defensive end, he’s averaging a double-double and contributing more than expected on the offensive end. He’s looking comfortable as a starter much sooner than expected. He’ll continue to improve as his confidence increases and as he develops chemistry with his new teammates.
Andrei Kirilenko | Wolves | 14.1 PPG, 8.3 RPG, 3.1 APG, 2.2 BPG, 21.24 PER
How have the Timberwolves continued winning with so many players sidelined? Kirilenko is delivering vintage performances and filling the stat sheet on a nightly basis. During Kirilenko’s last few seasons with the Utah Jazz, he looked like a shell of his former self. However, since returning from his one-year hiatus in Russia, Kirilenko is more confident and productive than he has been in years. He has been exceptional and he’s keeping the Wolves competitive until Kevin Love, Ricky Rubio, Brandon Roy, Chase Budinger and Nikola Pekovic return from injuries. Kirilenko’s numbers resemble the stats that he put up in 2003-04, when he was an All-Star with the Jazz (14.1 points, 8.3 rebounds, 3.1 assists, 2.2 blocks, 1.4 steals and 21.24 PER this season versus 16.5 points, 8.1 rebounds, 3.1 assists, 2.8 blocks, 1.9 steals and 22.79 PER in 2003-04). Kirilenko has been extremely impressive and he isn’t playing like a 31-year-old. If he can continue to turn back the clock and make plays all over the court, the Wolves will be a scary team once they get all of their pieces back and a tough out come playoff time.
Kemba Walker | Bobcats | 18.8 PPG, 5.5 APG, 3.9 RPG, 2.5 SPG, 20.33 PER
The Charlotte Bobcats are 4-4, which is incredible considering they won just seven games total during the 2011-12 season. They may top last year’s win total before the end of the month. Mike Dunlap has done a terrific job coaching the team, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist has been making plays all over the court and offseason acquisitions such as Ramon Sessions, Ben Gordon and Brendan Haywood have played well. However, Walker deserves some credit for the team’s turnaround as well. In his first season as a full-time starter, the 22-year-old point guard is posting career-highs across the board including points (18.8), assists (5.5), rebounds (3.9), steals (2.5), blocks (.4), field goal percentage (.423), free throw percentage (.860) and PER (20.33). Walker looks much better than he did during his rookie season, when he had a difficult transition from college to the pros and struggled with all of the losses. Now, Walker is playing much better and his confidence and comfort level seem to be much higher.
Larry Sanders | Bucks | 9.4 PPG, 8.3 RPG, 2.4 BPG, .608 FG%, 16.95 PER
Entering the season, it seemed like Sanders would be buried on the depth chart behind Milwaukee’s other big men such as Samuel Dalembert, Ersan Ilyasova, Ekpe Udoh, John Henson, Drew Gooden and Joel Przybilla. There was even some talk that Sanders could be dealt since the Bucks had a logjam of big men. However, the 23-year-old has played well and earned a spot in Scott Skiles’ rotation. With more minutes and touches, Sanders is producing at an extremely high level. He’s averaging nearly a double-double, blocking nearly three shots per game and his 60.8 field goal percentage is the fourth-highest among all NBA players. Sanders has been extraordinary through eight games and his contributions have helped the Bucks get out to a 6-2 start, which is the second-best record in the Eastern Conference.
Nikola Vucevic | Magic | 11.2 PPG, 8.7 RPG, 1.0 BPG, .464 FG%, 13.77 PER
The Magic have played better than expected this season, winning three of their first nine games. Several of their young players have been playing at a high level including Andrew Nicholson, Moe Harkless, E’Twaun Moore and Nikola Vucevic. The latter is averaging 11.2 points and 8.7 rebounds, and he has already recorded five double-doubles in 10 games after recording just two double-doubles last year during his 51-game rookie season with the Philadelphia 76ers. Vucevic is shooting a career-high 46.4 percent from the field and 73.3 percent from the free throw line. Vucevic came to Orlando with big shoes to fill, but now it seems like the seven-footer is the Magic’s center of the future and at just 22 years old, he still has plenty of untapped potential.