Three Under-the-Radar NBA Players Reaching New Heights in 2012-13

Jared WadeContributor IDecember 14, 2012

Three Under-the-Radar NBA Players Reaching New Heights in 2012-13

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    When players don't perform as well as expected early in their careers, they are often written off. The media, and even those in the league, are quick to take a year or two of evidence and presume a player will perform that way for the rest of his career.

    Three players, however, are showing that we shouldn't be so quick to judge.

    O.J. Mayo, Jrue Holiday and David Lee are three such players. Each had question marks entering this season, but all three have, at least so far in 2012-13, had breakout seasons.

1. O.J. Mayo

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    Nobody showed much interest in O.J. Mayo this summer before he signed a two-year, $8 million deal with the Dallas Mavericks.

    That modest deal came after he watched draft-class peers Derrick Rose, Russell Westbrook, Kevin Love and Roy Hibbert sign deals over the last 18 months worth nearly $300 million combined.

    That was supposed to be his money. 

    Mayo was a heralded phenom, gracing magazine cover after magazine cover as he rose from high school star to college sensation at Southern Cal to the NBA's next big thing.

    Then, professional stardom never happened.

    He started all 82 games for the Memphis Grizzlies in both his rookie and sophomore seasons, but Mayo never mesmerized the way those who had known him since he was just Ovinton J'Anthony always expected. He soon moved to the bench, and the buzz subsided. 

    He wasn't supposed to be a sixth man.

    Guys like Jason Terry, Lamar Odom and Manu Ginobili transitioned into that role after years spent asserting their standing in the league. Then they acquiesced, putting team first, themselves second and doing whatever it took to help the team.

    Mayo wasn't really asked; he was just put on the bench. He didn't have his years to shine.

    Now he does.

    He is responding by playing basketball better than all but a handful of players in this league. His 20.9 points per game puts him eighth in the league, and Mayo is doing it on a career-high 48.9 percent shooting.

    Only two players ahead of him on the scoring list—the league's two best, LeBron James and Kevin Durant—are shooting better. Only Jason Kidd, who shoots almost exclusively from behind the arc, is shooting better than Mayo's 52.5 percent from three-point range.

    Before the season, Mayo told Tim MacMahon of ESPNDallas.com that he was prepared to thrive in Dallas.

    I think I'm a better player now than coming in (as a rookie). Even though the stats don't show it, I'm mentally and physically a better player. I'm just looking forward to going out there and getting the opportunity to show that I'm a starting guard in this league and I can compete with the other starting guards in this league and compete at a high level.

    These gaudy stats are unlikely to last the whole season. There is virtually no way he sustains this long-distance accuracy.

    But he is now the undeniable on-court focus for a Mavericks team that is scraping together more wins than it probably should be.

2. Jrue Holiday

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    Over the past three years, while the whole world incessantly argued about who is the best point guard in the NBA, Jrue Holiday just kept his head down. He just kept getting better. 

    While everyone talked about Andrew Bynum's knee injury, love of bowling and silly haircut, Holiday just kept bringing it every night. Now, he is turning what could've become a punchline season for the Philadelphia 76ers into one worth watching.

    The results haven't been overwhelming in terms of wins for a Philly team that has struggled to reach even a 12-10 record so far this season. But Holiday has been the bright spot in a season that has had few others.

    He is 17th in the league in scoring and third in assists.

    And this doesn't even tell it all. 

    On Tuesday, for example, he covered for the lackluster play of his teammates, scoring 21 points in the second half to ensure Philadelphia didn't cough up a game to the Detroit Pistons.

    He had been scuffling for a few games prior to this outburst. That was a minor setback in a remarkable season, however. His play has been impeccable enough that his averages of 18.4 points and 8.9 assists per game have put him neck-and-neck with Russell Westbrook (21.1 ppg, 8.4 apg) as being the closest point guard to averaging 20/10. (None do.)

    According to Dan Devine of Yahoo! Sports, Holiday's coach wanted him to shoot more.

    This year? Let's just say he doesn't need to be told twice, as illustrated in this TrueHoop article.

    No team is dependent on one player to create their offense as much as the 76ers are on Holiday. He has been responsible for 43 percent of his team’s total points this season, which leads the NBA. The “points responsible for” statistic includes offense generated from assists and points scored. 

    Those stats are a week old, but they haven't changed much and show just how excellent—and indispensable—Holiday has been for the Sixers this season.

3. David Lee

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    David Lee makes so many dollars every day. When the Golden State Warriors acquired him in a sign-and-trade with the New York Knicks for $80 million over six years, it was staggering, to say the least.

    Lee seemed to be a player whose name was made as much by the media frenzy in the city he played as his top-notch rebounding and ability to score.

    That is how it appeared early in his Golden State days, as the team continued to lose and he lacked the talent to impact the win column.

    His scoring and rebounding both immediately plummeted, and Warriors fans were wondering what their oft-maligned front office had gotten them into this time. To his credit, he did step up his play last season, but the damage was done.

    Lee had fallen off the national radar.

    So far this year, he deserves to be back on it. And he has resurfaced by doing all the stuff at which he excelled in Gotham—namely, scoring efficiently and grabbing boards. But it is the latter's effect on the team's defensive culture of accountability that might be making the most difference.

    Lee's defensive ability remains slight. Nobody fears him in the paint, and his rotations are neither a thing of beauty nor worth studying.

    But while he may not be forcing the opponent to miss shots, his ability to finish possessions has been huge. Tom Ziller of SB Nation argues that Lee's defensive rebounding dominance is a big reason the Warriors are much improved this year on that end of the floor.

    He notes that Golden State was the worst defensive rebounding team in the NBA last season. Now, it is first—and Lee improving from grabbing 20 percent of opponent misses last season to 24 percent this year has been a huge help.

    Writes Ziller:

    Assuming one point per shot for the opponents off of offensive rebounds, and assuming Lee's teammates wouldn't be picking up those extra rebounds (most of the returning players have static rebound rates), Lee's own defensive rebounding improvement is worth at least 1.5 points per game for the Warriors defense.

    That's a big deal. That by itself—ignoring any other defensive improvements on the team—is the difference between the Warriors having a  one-point positive scoring margin and having a slight negative scoring margin.

    Currently, he is fifth in the NBA in defensive rebounding. This, combined with his consistent scoring (19 points per game on 51.4 percent shooting, his highest in Golden State) means that Lee has moved beyond being just the overpaid guy the Warriors signed. 

    Now, he is the key interior cog on the fifth-best team in the Western Conference.