7 Biggest Under-the-Radar 2012 NBA Rookies Guaranteed to Surprise

Josh MartinNBA Lead WriterSeptember 13, 2012

7 Biggest Under-the-Radar 2012 NBA Rookies Guaranteed to Surprise

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    Does the name "Anthony Davis" ring a bell? How about "Harrison Barnes"? Perhaps "Jared Sullinger" strikes a chord?

    Certainly, these names and a handful of others should be among the most recognizable coming into the NBA this season. They were some of the most talked-about kids in college basketball this past spring and were plenty popular as debate topics among the national basketball punditry at the 2012 NBA draft.

    But in a draft that was supposedly so deep on talented prospects—and in a rookie class whose reach extends far beyond one day in Newark, New Jersey—there are bound to be more than a few youngsters who slip through the proverbial cracks and wind up shocking the world as a result.

    So while the marquee stars of the incoming class are busy battling for Rookie of the Year ballots, keep an eye on these seven sleepers, all of whom should register much more than a blip on the basketball radar by season's end.

7. Jae Crowder

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    At first glance, there would seem to be little, if any, leeway on the Dallas Mavericks roster for Jae Crowder to play much as a rookie. Rick Carlisle already has plenty of wings among whom to divvy up minutes, what with veterans like Shawn Marion and Vince Carter at small forward and O.J. Mayo and Dahntay Jones at shooting guard.

    Except Crowder doesn't really have a position, per se. The reigning Big East Player of the Year is a jack-of-all-trades, a basketball player first and foremost. He stuffed the stat sheet as a senior at Marquette (17.5 points, 8.4 rebounds, 2.1 assists, 2.5 steals) and did much the same in Las Vegas (16.6 points, 5.4 rebounds, 1.6 assists, 2.0 steals) with the Mavs' Summer League squad.

    Fans in Big D will love Crowder's energy, his hustle and his fearlessness when contending with bigger, supposedly more talented players.

    Think the swingman's version of Kenneth Faried—one of last year's rookie sensations—and you'll begin to understand what makes Crowder tick, and why he'll outplay his 34th pick during his debut season.

6. Bernard James

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    Playing time in Dallas shouldn't be quite as difficult to come by for Bernard James, and not because he went one pick (No. 33) ahead of Jae Crowder. Rather, James' preferred position and particular skill set make him a better fit to contribute right away to Rick Carlisle's cause.

    That is, James is a no-frills center who defends, rebounds and provides a physical presence up front. The 27-year-old military veteran showed as much during the Summer League, where he averaged 10.2 points, 9.0 rebounds, 2.6 blocks and 1.4 steals.

    As it happens, those were remarkably similar numbers to the ones—10.8 points, 8.1 rebounds, 2.3 blocks, 0.7 steals—he posted as a senior at Florida State.

    That sort of production will come in handy in Big D, where Chris Kaman currently stands as James' chief competition for playing time at the pivot. Kaman is a quality option in his own right, with the skill to score consistently in the low post, but is neither a particularly strong defensive presence nor a noteworthy cleaner of the glass.

    As such, James figures to find no shortage of time on the floor in relief of Kaman, especially given Carlisle's propensity for favoring defensive intensity and hustle.

5. Kim English

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    All eyes will be on Andre Drummond when the Detroit Pistons open training camp next month. Prying eyes and inquiring minds will want to know right away whether the massive rookie out of UConn will be the next Dwight Howard or Andrew Bynum, or if he'll wind up closer to Kwame Brown status.

    Meanwhile, Kim English will be taking care of his own business, showing the Pistons coaching staff that he can be more than just Rodney Stuckey's personal water boy at shooting guard.

    English was a silky-smooth scorer and outstanding defender during his four years at Missouri. He shot 39.4 percent from three for his career and upped that number to 45.5 percent at the Orlando Summer League.

    English's sharpshooting should come in handy in the Motor City, where the Pistons lack much in the way of a reliable outside threat. He'll provide a pleasant change of pace to Stuckey's attack-minded play and add depth to a potentially solid second unit.

4. Meyers Leonard

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    The Portland Trail Blazers did their best (or something) to make sure Meyers Leonard wouldn't "have" to start as a rookie. They extended a max offer sheet to restricted free agent Roy Hibbert but were rebuffed by the Indiana Pacers. Then they went through the same motions with Brook Lopez and wound up with similar results.

    Now it appears as though Leonard will be the starting center in PDX this coming season, if only by default.

    Not that Leonard, the 11th pick in the 2012 NBA draft, isn't or won't be ready to contribute right away. The 20-year-old out of Illinois is a legitimate seven-footer who can get up and down the floor and is surprisingly skilled for a player his size and age. He performed well for the Blazers in the Summer League as well, posting averages of 10.5 points, 8.3 rebounds and 1.5 blocks.

    He's a bit slim for his frame at 245 pounds, but with his quick feet and soft hands, he should be a perfect pick-and-roll partner for fellow rookie Damian Lillard in the Pacific Northwest.

3. Alexey Shved

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    Nothing says "under-the-radar" quite like an international man of mystery.

    No, not Austin Powers. I'm talking, instead, about Alexey Shved.

    Who's that, you ask? Exactly. The 23-year-old shooting guard starred alongside Andrei Kirilenko with CSKA Moscow last year and acquitted himself well at the 2012 London Olympics, where he averaged 11.4 points, 3.1 rebounds and a team-leading 5.9 assists for Russia.

    Shved has proven himself to be a complete offensive player, with the ability to run sets, distribute the ball to his teammates, shoot the ball and drive to the basket with equal proficiency. His creativity with the ball and stylistic flair have even led some to dub him the "Russian Ricky Rubio."

    Ironically enough, Shved will share a backcourt with Rubio once the sparkling Spaniard's knee recovers and he rejoins the Minnesota Timberwolves. Head coach Rick Adelman will probably slide Shved over to shooting guard, where his size (6'6") and scoring ability will come in quite handy.

    With only a comeback-bound Brandon Roy and the little-used Malcolm Lee to battle for minutes at the off guard, Shved should see the floor plenty as part of an exciting and skilled squad in Minnesota.

2. Donatas Motiejunas

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    Lithuania boasts a storied history of turning out skilled big men, dating back to the days when Arvydas Sabonis starred for the USSR.

    Next in line? Donatas Motiejunas. The slim seven-footer was a first-round pick in the supposedly weak 2011 draft, but he spent the season stashed away in Poland, honing his game for his NBA debut with the Houston Rockets.

    The basketball world got a clearer look at Motiejunas' many skills during the Las Vegas Summer League, where he averaged 16.3 points and 7.8 rebounds.

    Stats aside, Motiejunas looked like a matchup nightmare over the summer. He has the ball-handling skills to take bigger defenders off the dribble, the footwork and post moves to back down smaller ones, the shooting ability to stretch opposing defenses and operate in the pick-and-pop game and the athleticism to run the floor.

    Questions remain about Motiejunas' focus, consistency and defensive intensity, along with his strength and mental toughness. Luckily, he'll be backing up Omer Asik, with whom his strengths and weaknesses align perfectly. That should make him an attractive option for head coach Kevin McHale as a change-of-pace choice at center.

    Speaking of McHale, if you thought Motiejunas was already a smooth operator in the post, just wait 'til he gets a chance to work with his new boss, who just so happens to be one of the best pivots ever to play the game.

1. Jonas Valanciunas

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    As far as Lithuanian rookies are concerned, though, they won't get any better this year than Jonas Valanciunas.

    Yeah, I know, three Euros in a row, blah blah blah, whatever, he's really good.

    Or is supposed to be, anyway. Valanciunas didn't exactly open any eyes at the 2012 London Olympics, where he averaged all of 4.2 points and 4.0 rebounds in 11.5 minutes per game with Lithuania.

    In his defense, the 20-year-old Valanciunas was the most junior member of a rather veteran national team, one that nearly handed Team USA its second loss of the Mike Krzyzewski era.

    That being said, Valanciunas' struggles on the international stage raised some questions about his viability in the NBA. Will he be able to compete with bigger, stronger, more experienced opponents on a nightly basis? Will his skill set translate to the NBA game? Is he physically, mentally and emotionally prepared for the rigors ahead?

    Those questions will either be answered or proven irrelevant once he takes the floor this season for the Toronto Raptors, with whom he may well start at center. He's not quite as diversely skilled offensively as his countryman Motiejunas, though he is a bit stronger and has the deft touch to dominate in the paint.

    More importantly, Valanciunas, the fifth overall pick in 2011, is a hard worker who will hustle on both ends of the floor and won't be of concern when it comes to giving full effort.

    It's no wonder, then, that some have suggested Valanciunas would've been the second player off the board in 2012 and that he'll be a contender for Rookie of the Year honors this season.

    Even if nobody outside of Canada is paying attention.