Pleasant Surprises

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It may be a little unfair to players like LeBron James and Kobe Bryant, but we’ve come to expect a certain level of brilliance from them, night in and night out. LeBron’s reached the stage where he can rack up a near triple-double on a random weekday evening, against a random NBA team, and it’s met with little fanfare on talk radio, or in the following morning’s newspapers. Along those same lines, Kobe is playing some of the best basketball of his career—he’s shooting 51% from the field—but it’s flown somewhat under the radar. Granted, that’s partly due to the headline usurping dysfunction that’s enveloped Laker-land at the start of this season, but it also results from the fact that we expect Kobe to do Kobe-esque things—in other words, to be amazing.

We have high expectations for the players that have consistently produced in this league—the likes of Kobe and LeBron—and rightly so. But there are some players that have let us down before, or that have had their careers derailed by injuries, suspect attitudes, or just bad on-court decision-making. The expectations for those players, heading into this season, were low, or at least lowered from previously unattained levels. Which makes it all the more surprising when they begin the season playing out of their skins. We’re only 15 games or so into what will be a long, arduous season, and many things will change, but the following 5 players are exceeding expectations so far. They’re not putting up LeBron James-type numbers, but the bar was never set that high for them. You might say that they are this season’s pleasant surprises.

O.J. Mayo
 
 

Let’s not kid ourselves, with Dirk Nowitzki still recovering from surgery, and the current incarnation of the Mavericks barely resembling the team that won the 2011 championship, not a whole lot of NBA neutrals are watching Mark Cuban’s team right now. Their current record of 7-7 suggests they’ve been about average, which would be a fair assertion, but the Mavericks are worth watching simply to witness the mini-renaissance of O.J. Mayo.

It’s easy to forget, but Mayo was drafted 3rd overall in 2008, finishing runner-up to Derrick Rose in the Rookie of the Year voting—he averaged over 18 points per game in his rookie year. But then the problems began. Mayo got into a fight with Grizzlies teammate Tony Allen over a card game debt, he was suspended 10 games after testing positive for a banned substance, and his production rapidly declined as he was restricted to the role of 6th man on a Grizzlies team where he became the 5th scoring option. Last season he averaged a career low 12.6 points per game.

As a free-agent Mayo was picked-up by the Mavericks in the off-season, but the expectations were low—reflected by the fact that he’s only making $4 million this year. At this point in time that seems like a bargain, however. Mayo, on a rebuilding Mavericks team, with lots of new faces, and with Dirk out, is the main man. He’s averaging 21.5 points per game and shooting a fantastic 49% from the field—both would be career highs if he could keep up those numbers. When Nowitzki does return, he will assume the role of 1st option on offense, and Mayo’s numbers should drop off, but the talented shooting-guard seems to have regained some lost confidence and is starting to resemble the player that everyone believed he could eventually become back in ’08.

J.R. Smith
 
 

For those that witnessed his awful shot selection in Monday night’s Knicks-Nets game—at one point in the game, he had a break-away and instead of hitting a lay-up, chose to step back and hit a 3 with 20 seconds on the shot-clock—the choice of J.R. Smith as a ‘pleasant surprise’ may seem a little, well, surprising. But if we focus on Smith’s performances as a whole this season, not just his recent missteps, than the choice becomes more defensible.

Smith has been a big factor in the Knicks’ early-season success. Carmelo has done much of the scoring, of course, but Smith has provided timely offense off the bench. His numbers are up from last year—14.7 points per game, as opposed to 12.5—and his percentages are much improved. He’s shooting 46% from the beyond the arc, which he won’t sustain, but it’s impressive nonetheless. And in general, despite last night, his shot selection’s been a lot better.

Of course, Smith has always had the talent to succeed in the NBA, but the application hasn’t always been there. Up until this point, Smith’s career has been blighted by maturity issues, terrible decision-making, and an unwillingness to work on the other important aspects of basketball—like playing defense. In “The Miseducation of J.R. Smith”, Jonathan Abrams’ excellent article on the erratic shooting-guard, he mentions that there have been numerous times previously when people have felt that Smith was about to turn the corner, become more mature, and fulfill his potential—always ending up disappointed, of course. It’s likely then, that Smith’s promising early season displays will probably be followed by more head scratching ineptitude, but you’ve got to take the rough with the smooth when it comes to Smith. And right now, just enjoy the smooth.

Brandon Jennings
 
 

Along with Tyreke Evans, Jennings was one of the more high-profile 2009 draftees not to have received a contract extension earlier this season—don’t forget Young Buck scored 55 points in a game during his rookie season. The Bucks’ unwillingness to pay Jennings just yet was understandable, however, giving that most NBA experts feel like he hasn’t progressed to the level that he should have since that rookie year, and of course, the Bucks are going to have to pay Monta Ellis pretty soon.

Heading into this season expectations for Jennings were a little muted. Would he be able to be a true point-guard for the Bucks, or would he be fighting with Ellis for shots?

So far Jennings seems to have answered that big question, and is exceeding expectations in the process. He’s averaging over 7 assists per game, reflecting the fact that he’s becoming more of a distributor in the Bucks’ offense, without completely sacrificing his much-needed scoring. Just as impressive is the fact that Jennings leads the league in steals, averaging 3.2 a game—illustrating a willingness to improve on defense.

Jennings’s improved play so far this year has resulted in the Bucks leading the Central Division with a 7-5 record, and if he can play at this level for most of the season, the team has a very realistic chance, given the problems faced by the Bulls and Pacers, of making the playoffs. Jennings’ great play might have something to do with the fact that he’s playing for a contract, but the Bucks are reaping the benefits regardless.

Brook Lopez
 
 

This off-season, at least in the twitter-verse, there might not have been a single player that was the butt of more jokes, had his games stripped down and torn to pieces more, and was generally more disrespected than poor Brook Lopez. In part, we can blame Dwight Howard for this—along with everything else infuriating in the off-season.

Lopez’s name cropped up time and again in a potential Nets deal for Howard, which as much as it was lambasted at the time (by myself included) seems like a better deal than what the Magic eventually got back in the Nuggets-Lakers-76ers transaction. The fact that the Nets were offering Lopez, and other pieces, for Howard led to an unfair comparison between the two centres and their respective attributes on the boards and on defense—Lopez, of course, has no attributes on the boards and on defense. The Nets big-man was also coming off an injury-riddled season, which lowered expectations ever further. But Lopez is slowly converting the cynics with his play this season.

He’s still a bit of a joke on defense—he can’t defend the pick-n-roll, and his rebounding is very poor for a starting centre—but Lopez is reminding people of his skills at the offensive end of the floor. He’s currently Brooklyn’s top-scorer, with 19 points per game, and has shown great ability down in the low-post. As well as those abilities down low, Lopez can hit the mid-range jumper, a very dangerous skill for a 7-footer to possess. What’s more, the Nets are starting to improve on defense, with Reggie Evans and Andray Blatche doing a good job of making up for Lopez’s rebounding deficiencies.

Again, it’s easy to make fun of Lopez, but he’s been surprisingly effective on a good Nets team so far this year—even with that terrible defense.

Jamaal Crawford
 
 

Just like J.R. Smith, fans that have had Jamaal Crawford on their team have done a fair bit of wincing over the years. Sure, when he’s on form he can take a game by the scruff of the neck and put his team out of sight with his ridiculous shooting range—he has that crazy, and rare, ‘irrational confidence’ trait. On the other side of that coin, however, Crawford can shoot his team out of games. He’s a pure gunner that lives and dies by the 3-point shot, or worse, by the ill advised contested 2-pointer.

This year, however, there hasn’t been a whole lot of wincing on the part of Clippers fans. Despite the team’s recent slump, Crawford has been knocking down shots for fun and playing hugely entertaining basketball. Coming off the bench, as the 6th man scoring option, he’s averaged 18 points per game, a team high, and was one of the biggest reasons why the Clippers began the season on a tear. His fantastic performances are a world away from last season’s debacle in Portland, where he only averaged 13 points per game, and shot under 40%.

Of course, it can’t be forgotten that it’s easy to go into a slump when you take shots that could be labeled as low-percentage, and unfortunately Crawford doesn’t contribute a lot else when the shot isn’t falling—his career rebounding and assist numbers are pretty laughable. But as of now Crawford is providing a scoring punch off the bench that the Clippers desperately need, given the problems last season when too much onus was placed on Chris Paul down the stretch. There may be games this year where Crawford makes Clippers fans scream at their televisions, but so far he’s been absolute money.

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