NBA Players Who Will Finally Earn Their Respect in 2012-13
Whether you believe respect is given or earned, the fact remains that there are a number of players in the NBA who haven't been given their proper due.
For some, that respect will come as they continue to establish themselves in the league. One or two years does not make a career, so when many young stars prove that their early success was no fluke, fans and peers alike will recognize them accordingly.
In other cases, geography is the biggest black mark on a player's resume. Since small-market teams are rarely celebrated on the national stage, it's hard for those in the league's mid-sized outposts to be revered for the talents that they are.
That's all set to change this year: A number of the NBA's most overlooked and underappreciated players will make it impossible for the world to ignore them any longer. And as some of the league's also-ran teams turn into contenders, they'll be led by those who, to the surprise of many, have been stars all along.
Kyrie Irving, Cleveland
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If you haven't reserved your spot on the Kyrie Irving bandwagon, you may want to do so post-haste: Seats are filling up fast.
LeBron James is already on board—in an interview with CBSSports.com earlier this year, he said that Irving is a couple of years away from becoming "one of the best point guards that we have in this league." The only problem with James' statement is that Irving may already be one of the NBA's premier playmakers.
Irving's per game averages in 2011-12 (18.5 PPG, 5.4 APG, 3.7 RPG) were those of a seasoned veteran, and his Player Efficiency Rating of 21.49 was better than those of fellow point guards Steve Nash and Deron Williams. With two talented running mates (Dion Waiters and Tristan Thompson) ready to share the load with Irving, it looks like the post-LeBron era in Cleveland won't be so bad after all.
Nikola Pekovic, Minnesota
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Ricky Rubio and Kevin Love are the ones who get the most attention on the Timberwolves, but center Nikola Pekovic is an All-Star caliber talent in his own right.
It's almost criminal that the 6'11" Pekovic wound up at No. 105 in ESPN's recent NBA Rank project: His PER in 2011-12 (21.47) was 24th-best in the NBA.
The 26-year-old has good touch around the basket—he shot 56.4 percent from the field last season—and is a tough, physical presence for a team that does a lot of its work on the perimeter. And when Pekovic isn't dominating opposing centers, he's busy making the greatest, in-arena videos ever.
Joakim Noah, Chicago
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Bulls fans by and large love Joakim Noah, while supporters of the other 29 NBA teams love to hate him. But once you get past the crazy hair and the "Pistol Dance", it's clear that the 6'11" center is a fantastic player.
Just about everything with Noah's game is unorthodox: You won't see him on any basketball instructional videos anytime soon. That said, he's a remarkably effective talent with a seemingly limitless reservoir of energy. In 2011-12, Noah was a handful of rebounds away from averaging a double-double for the third straight season (10.2 PPG, 9.8 RPG). With star point guard Derrick Rose out for the foreseeable future, expect Noah to assume more of the scoring load in Chicago, possibly even picking up a few fans in the process.
Greg Monroe, Detroit
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Greg Monroe was snubbed from both the 2011-12 Eastern Conference All-Star team as well as the Select squad that scrimmaged against Team USA this past summer. However, if the Pistons' big man continues his current rate of improvement, it's safe to say that he won't be left off of too many All-Anything teams going forward.
Monroe had the 15th-best Player Efficiency Rating in the entire NBA last season (22.09), but it was lost in the midst of the Pistons' dismal 25-41 campaign. With the addition of Andre Drummond in the low post, and the emergence of point guard Brandon Knight, Monroe may just be able to lift Detroit from the doldrums while earning some well-deserved respect in the process.
David Lee, Golden State
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Golden State is poised to make its first appearance in the Western Conference Playoffs in six years thanks in large part to power forward David Lee.
Lee isn't much of a talker, nor is he flashy (although he did win the dunk contest at the McDonald's All-American Game back in 2001)—he simply puts in a workman-like effort each and every time he steps out onto the floor. The 6'9" forward is the type of player who may not standout during a game, but one who finishes with 16 points and 10 rebounds by the time the final horn sounds.
This season, Lee is more or less the de facto leader of a Warriors squad that many are predicting will finish over .500 for the first time since 2007-08. If that happens, their star power forward may no longer be one of the NBA's biggest secrets.
Kenneth Faried, Denver
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After finishing the 2011-12 campaign with a Player Efficiency Rating of nearly 22, it's safe to say that Denver Nuggets forward Kenneth Faried won't be taking anyone by surprise this season.
His nickname was no fluke: The 6'8", 228-pound forward was indeed a "Manimal" last year, averaging 10.8 points and 7.7 rebounds, all while playing with what seemed to be limitless energy. His jack-of-all-trades approach around the basket will be even more vital this year now that Denver's addition of swingman Andre Iguodala ensures that the team will continue to run with reckless abandon.
Denver is officially a force to be reckoned with, and as the Nuggets make their ascent toward the top of the Western Conference, you can be sure that Faried will get his fair share of credit for the team's success.
Al Jefferson, Utah
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Utah center Al Jefferson could very well be the best player in the NBA who rarely appears on national television.
The 6'10" big man is a walking double-double (31 in 61 games in 2011-12), and has been one of the more consistent players in the league over the past six years. But since the Jazz lack the cachet of the Oklahoma City Thunder or the Los Angeles Clippers, Jefferson remains a mystery to most.
Now that Utah has the talent to be an annual participant in the Western Conference Playoffs, the 27-year-old Jefferson may finally get his proper due. There aren't many who can put up 20 and 10 on a nightly basis, and the world-at-large is missing out on a special player.
Tiago Splitter, San Antonio
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Spurs' center Tiago Splitter has a deft touch around the basket (61.8 FG% in 2011-12) with fantastic per-36 minute averages (17.6 PPG, 9.8 RPG), but most people aren't aware since the 7-foot Brazilian star plays in the shadow of Tim Duncan.
That will change if Splitter gets a chance to play more than the 19 minutes per game that he logged last season. The 27-year-old center had the 32nd-best Player Efficiency Rating in 2011-12 (20.51), and was a master on the pick-and-roll according to Synergy Sports (1.32 points per possession, 5th-best in the NBA).
Splitter is too good for San Antonio to continue to stash on the bench, and once he gets a chance to shine, he (and not Duncan) will be the one casting the huge shadow.