Ranking the Biggest Player Surprises of the NBA Season Thus Far

Tyler Ward@twardyyyAnalyst IFebruary 19, 2012

Ranking the Biggest Player Surprises of the NBA Season Thus Far

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    There have been many surprises this season, ranging anywhere from Jeremy Lin's emergence, to the play of the Atlantic-leading Sixers to the horrendous play of the 4-26 Charlotte Bobcats.

    That's what makes the NBA so great. You never know what could happen, as evident by the Golden State Warriors' upset of the Dallas Mavericks in the playoffs and Derek Fisher's famous shot with 0.3 seconds left.

    It'd be quite interesting if some of these players on this list continue to succeed at the professional level. Hopefully, some of these players won't be one-hit wonders and they'll go on to have stellar NBA careers.

    We'll see what happens.

    But for now, we can only go by what we've seen over the last few weeks and speculate what we think is going to happen.

    In the following slideshow, I will be ranking the biggest player surprises of the season thus far. And boy, there are some good ones.

Honorable Mention: Greivis Vasquez and His Contributions

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    The former Maryland Terrapin was thought to become a decent bench warmer, but no one expected him to be a solid contributor on a team, even if it's the New Orleans Hornets.

    Selected by the Memphis Grizzlies with the 28th selection in 2010, Vasquez was seemingly sent out of the City of Blues to the Mardi Gras city for Quincy Pondexter.

    It turned out to be a good deal for the Hornets.

    Pondexter has been alright for the Grizzlies this season, but Vasquez has become a key component for the Hornets.

    After starting the season 4-23, Vasquez has helped lead the Hornets to three straight victories, including ones over the Utah Jazz, Milwaukee Bucks and the Jeremy Lin-led New York Knicks last night. In those games, Vasquez has scored 12, six and 15 points, respectively, while dishing out 10 assists against Utah and 11 assists against New York, successfully giving him two of his three double-doubles on the season.

    From the end of January to last night, Vasquez has had a remarkable run, scoring in double-digits in six consecutive games, including two 20-point efforts against the Phoenix Suns and Sacramento Kings.

    As of right now, it looks like Vasquez will receive a bigger role in the Hornets' plans.

10. Marc Gasol's First Selection to the All-Star Game

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    I'll be the first to tell you that I am one of Marc Gasol's biggest fans. I think he's a great player and is one of the main reasons why the Grizzlies are two games above .500 right now.

    But I really don't think he was worth the All-Star selection. Don't get me wrong, I'm happy for him and wish him the best, but I just think there were players more deserving than the Spaniard.

    Currently, Gasol is averaging career-highs in minutes (37.8), points (15.1), rebounds (9.9), assists (2.7), blocks (2.2) and steals (1.1) per game.

    Those are solid numbers, but I believe there are other Western Conference stars who deserve some recognition.

    Who are some of these players? Well personally, I believe that Gasol's teammate Rudy Gay, Utah teammates Paul Millsap and Al Jefferson, Denver's Danilo Gallinari, Phoenix's Marcin Gortat and perhaps Sacramento's DeMarcus Cousins merit consideration for the annual game as well.

    Regardless, it is nice to see a Grizzlies player represent the team in the All-Star Game, so I'm ecstatic for that.

    Hopefully, Gasol will see some solid playing time in the All-Star Game, as he will become just the third Grizzlies All-Star in the franchise's history (Pau Gasol in 2006 and Zach Randolph in 2010).

9. Brandon Rush's Lights-out Shooting in Golden State

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    Brandon Rush's shooting has been among the league's best this season, thus he is deserving of a spot on this list.

    Rush, the 13th overall selection in the 2008 NBA draft, was originally taken by Portland that year. However, he was shipped out a couple of weeks later along with Jarrett Jack and Josh McRoberts to Indiana for Jerryd Bayless and Ike Diogu.

    He was traded again on Dec. 19, 2011 to Golden State in exchange for Louis Amundson.

    But it may have been a blessing in disguise.

    More used as a spark off the bench, Rush has played 27 games for the Warriors this season, starting one of those contests.

    Along the way, the former Jayhawk has accumulated a healthy 52.6 shooting percentage (41-for-78) from beyond the arc, good enough for second in the league. Miami Heat's Mike Miller ranks first, but has played in eight less games. The two are also the only players in the NBA who are shooting over 50 percent from three-point range, as well.

    Additionally, Rush has made more three-point field goals (41) than two-point shots (40).

    Prior to the season's start, Rush was only a lifetime 40.2-percent shooter from beyond the arc (295-for-734). He has definitely improved on that this season, as he could very well have one of the best three-point shooting seasons in NBA history.

    As of right now, Rush ranks 13th in NBA history in three-point percentage, and he will definitely polish those numbers as his career moves on.

8. Anderson Varejao Becoming the Cavs' Leader

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    When the season began, if you told me that Anderson Varejao would be one of the Cleveland Cavaliers' two best players this year, I would have laughed in your face with no hesitation.

    As of right now, I'm glad no one told me that because the Brazilian has played some of the best basketball of his career.

    Unfortunately, he suffered a fractured wrist a couple of games ago and it has now been reported that he could miss somewhere around four to six weeks, which amounts to a little over 20 games. Before his injury however, Varejao was playing stupendously.

    One of 10 players to average a double-double this season (points and rebounds), Varejao has been a key component to the Cavs' minor success.

    He has, without a doubt, been one of the best rebounding frontcourt players this season. Varejao is currently averaging 4.4 offensive rebounds per game, tied for first in the entire NBA along with Sacramento's DeMarcus Cousins.

    To go along with those numbers, Varejao is also putting up averages of 10.8 points and 11.5 total rebounds per game, both career highs.

    His play has been remarkable this season, but it's a shame that we will not see him for another month or so.

7. Luol Deng's First All-Star Selection

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    Every year, there's bound to be snubs in the All-Star Game. It's the way it works. There's just too many talented players in the NBA and 12 slots are just too few.

    When Chicago's Luol Deng was selected to the annual contest, many people were amazed, including myself.

    Yes, the former Duke player has had a decent season, but it hasn't even been the best of his career. Averages of 16.2 points, 6.9 rebounds and 3.3 assists just aren't All-Star numbers. Not to mention, Deng isn't even the most valuable player on his team.

    It puzzled me to say the least, as it seemed as though players such as Atlanta's Josh Smith, Milwaukee's Brandon Jennings and Boston's Rajon Rondo were more deserving than Deng. Heck, I firmly believe that Toronto's Jose Calderon and Orlando's Ryan Anderson warranted a selection over Deng.

    But regardless, there's nothing we can do about it now.

    Don't get me wrong, Deng is a great player. He has had a solid season thus far, but I just don't believe that he should be in the All-Star Game. Josh Smith is undoubtedly the biggest snub in the Eastern Conference, and he should be participating in the event before Chicago's No. 9.

6. Marcin Gortat Showing He's the Suns' Frontcourt Leader

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    Before the season started and I was drafting my fantasy teams, I was bewildered that the Suns' Marcin Gortat was ranked in the mid-50s on most standard leagues. I didn't think he'd be able to play better than players like Tim Duncan, DeMarcus Cousins, Andrew Bogut and others.

    Now as the season has continued, I see why he was ranked so highly.

    After spending three-and-a-half years in Orlando, Gortat was shipped to Phoenix last season as part of the Vince Carter and Jason Richardson trade.

    Prior to his arrival out West, Gortat had not averaged more than 16 minutes per game.

    But when he landed in Phoenix, Gortat immediately received a bigger role, as he averaged nearly 30 minutes per game in the 55 games he participated in. During that span, the Poland native posted averages of 13 points and 9.3 rebounds per game.

    This season, Gortat has played and started all 31 games for the Suns and has arguably been their best player along the way. Yes, even better than Steve Nash.

    As of right now, he is currently averaging a shade over 33 minutes per game, shooting 55.2 percent from the field. He is also averaging 15.4 points, 10.3 rebounds and 1.6 blocks per game, all career highs.

    He is also just one of 10 players in the NBA who is currently averaging a double-double (as in points and rebounds).

    The emanation of Gortat has been one of the biggest surprises of the NBA this season, without a doubt.

5. Ricky Rubio Was Worth the Wait

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    When Spaniard Ricky Rubio announced he was entering the NBA draft in 2009, people salivated over him.

    Everyone seemed to think that he would become the next great NBA player. Analysts and writers immediately started comparing him to Steve Nash and Jason Kidd, but I didn't believe that would be the case for the young point guard.

    A few months ago, Rubio announced that he would be coming to America to play in the NBA. Again, everyone was ecstatic and I still didn't believe he'd be a decent player.

    Apparently, I was wrong.

    Rubio has shown he was worth the wait since first appearing in the Wolves' loss to Oklahoma City on opening night.

    The 21-year-old has played in all 31 games for the Minnesota Timberwolves this season, starting 21 of them. As the season has continued, Rubio has posted 11 double-doubles, including two almost triple-doubles against the Kings and Rockets. Needless to say, he's been an intricate piece to the Wolves' puzzle of success.

    Currently, the point guard is averaging 11 points per game. His 8.6 assists per game are good enough for fifth in the entire NBA and his 2.39 steals per contest ranks second in the league, right behind Memphis' Mike Conley.

    After years of suffering, the Wolves finally seem to be on the right track with a young corps that includes Rubio, Derrick Williams, Wes Johnson, Kevin Love and Nikola Pekovic. If they want to succeed in the future, Rubio will need to continue to be his normal self, just like what he's done all season long.

4. Kyle Lowry's Stellar Season

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    Question: Which player is a dark-horse candidate to win the Most Valuable Player Award at the end of the season?

    Answer: Houston's Kyle Lowry.

    Lowry has been great for the Rockets this season, to say the least. He has also become the team's best player as well, even out-playing Kevin Martin and Luis Scola.

    Originally taken with the 24th overall selection by Memphis in 2006, Lowry was primarily used in a back-up role. He was dealt to Houston in 2009, as part of a three-team deal that gave the Grizzlies a first-round selection (which was used on DeMarre Carroll).

    However, Lowry's arrival in Houston didn't make much sense, as the team already had an up-and-coming player in Aaron Brooks running point. Lowry would not start a single game for Houston for the rest of the season, or during the 2009-10 season.

    With Brooks in a limited role, the Rockets listed Lowry as their starter entering the season, and he'd go on to start 71 games as the year progressed.

    Given the starting nod prior to the start of this season, Lowry has instantly become one of the best point guards in the NBA. The former Villanova star is currently averaging 14.8 points, 7.6 assists, 5.3 rebounds and two steals per game, all career highs.

    Lowry's astounding play has made him one of the best all-around point guards in the NBA, if not the best. He can score when needed, along with making difficult passes and setting up shots for teammates. His rebounding is superb as well, and his defensive capabilities are great, as shown by his two steals per contest.

    There is just one word to describe the point guard: underrated.

3. Nikola Pekovic's Surprising Play with Minnesota

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    To me, this is perhaps the most surprising player this season (outside of Jeremy Lin, of course).

    Pekovic, the 31st overall selection in 2008, was never thought to become a starting center at the professional level. But lately, he has shown that he has the potential of becoming a top-15 center in the NBA.

    Prior to the Wolves' meeting against the Rockets on Jan. 23, Pekovic had only played more than 20 minutes in a game just once. Since their 107-92 shellacking, Pekovic has received over 20 minutes in every game except two, in which he played 19 and 18 minutes.

    After getting the starting nod, Pekovic has posted eight double-doubles, four of which have come consecutively.

    His best game of the season was perhaps their last outing, as Pekovic accumulated a career-high 30 points and 12 rebounds against the Rockets. The three games prior, the Serbian averaged 19.3 points and 12.3 rebounds per game.

    Needless to say, he's shown that he could become a legitimate player in the NBA. His game has also shown that he deserves to be in the starting rotation more so than their other two centers on the roster, former No. 2 selection Darko Milicic and former All-Star Brad Miller, who has logged in a total of 35 minutes this season.

    In the last 13 games in which Pekovic has started, he has averaged 16.8 points, 10.2 rebounds and one block per game. He has also shot over 53 percent in 10 of those games as well.

    The sudden emergence of Pekovic has given the Timberwolves a formidable frontcourt duo, as All-Star Kevin Love is the other half.

    The Wolves, after years and years of mediocrity, finally look like they're gaining stardom. And Pekovic has definitely helped that cause.

2. Ryan Anderson Shows He's Legitimate

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    If someone would have told me when the season began that Ryan Anderson would be an actual contributor as the Magic's starting power forward, I would have chuckled. It honestly didn't seem possible.

    But, Anderson has perhaps become the Magic's go-to guy as the season has progressed.

    Since entering the 2008 season with the soon-to-be Brooklyn Nets, Anderson started just 49 games prior to this season. As of right now, the Magic have played 29 games with the former California standout starting every single one of them alongside Dwight Howard.

    Prior to the season, Anderson had averaged no more than 22.3 minutes per game, 43.6 percent shooting, 10.6 points per game and 5.5 rebounds per game.

    Now he's bettering those numbers, as Anderson is currently averaging 31.2 minutes, 44.8 percent shooting, 43.5 percent from three-point range, 16.6 points per game and 7.1 rebounds per game. Additionally, he's averaging 3.5 offensive rebounds per game which puts him in the top 10 in that category.

    Anderson is also leading the NBA in three-pointers with 87. New Jersey's Anthony Morrow and Milwaukee's Brandon Jennings are tied for second with 63.

    As of right now, it is definitely plausible for Anderson to lead the league in three-point shooting when the regular season concludes.

    We will get a chance to see Anderson during All-Star Weekend, as he will be participating in the annual three-point shootout.

1. Jeremy Lin's Remarkable Rise to Stardom

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    Linsanity. Linspiration. Super Lintendo. Just Lin Baby. Mr. Lincredible.

    Knicks point guard Jeremy Lin has been the talk of the sports world over the last couple of weeks as the Harvard graduate helped the Knicks return to the playoff hunt.

    Prior to the Knicks game against the Nets at Madison Square Garden, it was announced that Lin would be the team's starter for that game. He would go on to register 25 points and seven assists in the game and the rest is history.

    Since their victory that night, Lin helped the Knicks to six straight victories, amassing 28, 23, 38, 20, 27 and 10 points in those games, respectively. He also posted three double-doubles in those games as well.

    Linsanity came to an end last night, as the Knicks fell to the Hornets, 89-85. Lin poured in 26 points and also dished out five assists and registered four steals. However, he did commit nine turnovers, which is a season-high in the NBA.

    There is no doubt that Lin has come out of nowhere and become the Knicks starter at point guard. But, Lin has committed 45 turnovers in those seven games, the most in a seven-game stretch in NBA history. However, that can be worked on and it is expected to happen when a player has not had much experience at the professional level.

    But I digress.

    Lin's accomplishments over the last seven games hasn't just helped him, but it's also helped the Knicks. Perhaps the most well-known team in the NBA, the Knicks have returned to the playoff picture thanks to Lin. His play over the last seven games has helped him grow from a bench warmer to a full-fledged starter.

    With all the headlines, the NBA was seemingly forced to put him somewhere in All-Star Weekend, as we will see him play in the Rookie-Sophomore Game and in the Taco Bell Skills Challenge. According to reports, Lin will also help high-flying Iman Shumpert in the dunk contest.

    Lin's story is undoubtedly the biggest player surprise of the 2011-12 season.