10 Most Surprising Players of the 2012-13 NBA Season

Josh Cohen@@arealjoshcohenCorrespondent IIJanuary 1, 2013

10 Most Surprising Players of the 2012-13 NBA Season

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    The 2012-13 season has been a breakout campaign for 10 surprisingly productive NBA players.

    None of these guys was playing nearly as well at then end of last season. Through a mix of newfound opportunities and outstanding efficiency, they've risen to the occasion and delivered some of the most impressive play of the season.

    Regardless of whether these players are contributing to contenders or languishing in the NBA cellar, they deserve to be celebrated for their individual accomplishments.

    Let's rank the NBA's biggest surprises, working our way up to the most shocking performer of the season so far.


    All stats accurate as of Jan. 1, 2013.

10. O.J. Mayo

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    An injured and ineffective Dirk Nowitzki has hampered the Dallas Mavericks, but that has given O.J. Mayo the opportunity to finally be a go-to scorer.

    Mayo has done an admirable job trying to shoulder Dirk's burden on offense. His 18.3 points per game are easily the most of any Maverick, and he's doing it with the best three-point shooting of his career. He's shooting .455 from beyond the arc, which puts him in a tie for third-best in the NBA.

    For a guy who Memphis repeatedly tried to trade who averaged about 15 points per game and shot around 43 percent for his career coming into this season, this is a great leap forward.

    Perhaps the best measure of Mayo's importance is the Mavericks' performance. When Dallas wins, he scores 25.2 points per game on .555 shooting. In Mavericks losses, those stats free fall to 14.0 and .384, respectively.

    Many thought that Mayo simply needed a change of scenery to up his performance. In his first year as a Maverick, he is proving that theory true.

9. Kemba Walker

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    After struggling to acclimate to the NBA game as a rookie, Kemba Walker has made great strides forward in his second year.

    He has increased his points per game from 13.3 to 18.7, and his .426 field goal percentage is a nice improvement from his .382 mark last year.

    Though he was drafted primarily as a scorer, Walker has displayed a much more well-rounded game this season, emerging as a true point guard.

    Now that D.J. Augustin has left Charlotte, Walker has stepped up as the Bobcats' main distributor, leading the team with 6.0 assists per game. His 1.9 steals per game are tied for sixth in the league, indicating how far Walker has come as a defender.

    With Charlotte floundering as one of the worst teams in the league, Kemba's improvement is a silver lining in yet another lost season. The Bobcats have never had a true go-to scorer like Walker before. Just imagine what he'll be able to do when he gets some better players around him.

8. J.J. Hickson

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    In the fifth season of his NBA career, J.J. Hickson has finally become a beast in the paint.

    On his career, Hickson has averaged 9.3 points and 6.2 rebounds per game. In 2012-13, he has stopped drifting out as much and has dominated around the rim, putting up 12.5 points and 11.0 rebounds in just 28.9 minutes per game.

    At this point in his career, it seemed unlikely Hickson would ever average a double-double. Nevertheless, what's even more impressive is how efficiently he has done it.

    Now that he is taking more of his shots at the rim, Hickson is shooting a career-high .557 from the field, the seventh-best field goal percentage in the league. Even though he's playing less than 30 minutes a game, you don't have to adjust the scale to see Hickson's impact on the glass—he's fifth in the league in rebounding regardless.

    It seems silly to think that a 6'9", 242-pound man wouldn't think to just focus on playing on the block. Yet it took Hickson five years to get to that point, and he's finally realizing his potential.

7. Omer Asik

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    Omer Asik was an ace interior defender off the bench for the Chicago Bulls, and many were clamoring for him to get more playing time.

    Now with the Houston Rockets, he has gotten the opportunity to start, and he has played a more complete game than anyone thought he could.

    He has still been a defensive force, of course. Asik occasionally got mentioned as an NBA All-Defensive Team candidate when he was a Bull; he's going to be a lock for that honor now that he is playing more this season.

    What's been truly shocking, however, are his offensive contributions.

    The third-year center is averaging a double-double this season, with 10.4 points and 11.6 rebounds per game. That's remarkable for a guy who had scored about 3.0 per game in Chicago.

    Admittedly, Asik's offensive game is downright ugly. But he knows how to play within himself and only take shots he can make. There's no artfulness to his scoring, but when Asik hits .509 from the field, opponents must account for him in the paint.

    For a guy who wasn't trusted to take more than 2.4 shots per game before this season, Asik's scoring is as surprising as it gets.

6. Serge Ibaka

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    Now that James Harden is gone, Serge Ibaka has taken on a larger offensive role for the Oklahoma City Thunder.

    Last season, Ibaka did hit .535 from the field, but he only scored 9.1 points per game due to his limited role in the offense. Without Harden, he's up from 7.4 shots per game to 10.6, yet he's scoring even more efficiently, averaging 14.2 points on .565 shooting.

    Ibaka has improved his mid-range jumper and is more effective in the post this season. As a point of reference, he has developed to the point where he is fifth in the league in field goal percentage.

    All the while, this 2012 NBA All-Defensive First Team player has gotten even better on that end of the court.

    It's about more than just blocking shots, though Ibaka once again leads the league in that category with three per game. He is no longer leaning so heavily on his raw athleticism, improving his floor positioning and his movement to play more technically sound defense.

    But it's no big revelation that Ibaka is playing great defense. The pleasant surprise for OKC has been his offensive maturation.

5. Jrue Holiday

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    The Philadelphia 76ers could have been lost without Andrew Bynum, but Jrue Holiday has stepped up to carry the team himself.

    Playing down a star center, the Sixers have cast Holiday as their primary scorer. He has risen to the occasion, upping his average from 13.5 points per game in 2011-12 to 18.6 in 2012-13.

    As if carrying the team's burden offensively weren't enough, Holiday has been an effective facilitator. Even with Thaddeus Young and Evan Turner as his highest-scoring teammates, Holiday has found a way to dish out 8.9 assists per game, third in the NBA.

    Here's some perspective on how well Holiday is playing this season: The only other player to average 18.0 points and 8.0 assists this season is Russell Westbrook, a less efficient scorer with more weapons at his disposal.

    Holiday was supposed to blossom in an inside-out combo with Bynum. Playing without him, Holiday has improved even more than anyone anticipated.

4. J.R. Smith

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    Eight years into his NBA career, J.R. Smith finally has the opportunity to be a big-time scorer.

    Outside of Carmelo Anthony, the New York Knicks don't have anyone else who can consistently create his own shot. With Amar'e Stoudemire injured and Raymond Felton shooting poorly this season, New York has needed Smith to take on the responsibility of a bigger offensive load.

    Though the sixth man has been plagued by inconsistency throughout his career, Smith has made New York's faith pay off. He is averaging a personal-best 16.1 points per game this season, opening up the Knicks offense and coming through when his team needs him most.

    The proof is in Smith's play in Melo's absence, when he's shouldered the load as New York's primary scorer while displaying both the confidence and ability to hit tough shots in clutch situations.

    Smith has shown glimpses of electrifying play in the past. Mostly, however, he has been a headache both on and off the court.

    This season, he has been as effective as ever on offense while playing his most inspired defense. You don't expect this big of a turnaround from a guy who has played as long as Smith has.

3. Larry Sanders

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    If there's anybody in the NBA who deserves more playing time, it's Larry Sanders.

    On a cursory glance, it doesn't seem like he's doing anything extraordinary. He's only putting up  8.0 points and 8.4 rebounds per game. Though those are career highs, his 2.96 blocks per game, good for second in the league, are his only obviously impressive stat.

    Then consider that Sanders is only playing 24.7 minutes per game. That he can block nearly three shots in so little run is amazing; adjust his stats to a 48-minute scale, and his impact becomes even clearer.

    Sanders has been an absolute monster on the glass, pulling in 16.2 rebounds per 48 minutes. That mark is good for ninth in the NBA, one spot ahead of Dwight Howard.

    Though he hasn't done much as a scorer, Sanders' efficiency extends to his offensive game as well, where he is shooting 54.1 percent on the season.

    His production has forced the Bucks to play him more, but Sanders is still fighting for the amount of minutes a starter normally gets. That is perhaps more surprising than his play itself.

2. Greivis Vasquez

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    Dating back to his college career at Maryland, Greivis Vasquez has always been a heady player and a hard worker. However, there were doubts that he would be athletic enough for the next level.

    Now in his third NBA season, Vasquez has come out of nowhere to give the New Orleans Hornets a steady presence at point guard.

    The Pelicans-to-be are lacking a true point guard, and so the 6'6" Vasquez has had to run the offense. Getting starter's minutes for the first time in his career, he is delivering with 13.5 points and 8.8 assists per game.

    New Orleans needs a talented distributor to develop its young players, and Vasquez has certainly come through in that regard. He's not the most electrifying guy on the floor, but as long as he's fourth in the league in assists, no one is going to complain.

    Never expected to make it as a pro, Vasquez is now one of the few bright spots for New Orleans in a disappointing season.

1. Anderson Varejao

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    To say Anderson Varejao is having a breakout season would be an understatement.

    First of all, guys are supposed to break out well before they turn 30. Secondly, 30-year-olds are supposed to be either in their prime or past it, not putting together the first All-Star season of their career.

    That's exactly what Varejao is doing in his eighth year in the league, posting career highs with 14.1 points and 14.4 rebounds.

    He's always been a nice, physical big man, but Varejao has never done anything like this. Varejao's lifetime rates are 7.7 and 7.6, respectively, and he did not put up a double-digit average in either category until last season.

    So a guy who didn't start a full season until he was 27 is now leading the league in rebounding by a wide margin. He's 1.9 rebounds per game ahead of Zach Randolph's mark. Omer Asik and Dwight Howard are tied for third with 11.8 boards, which is closer to Al Horford's ninth-place mark of 9.8 than it is to Varejao's rate.

    We've always thought that Varejao was a nice hustle player who's willing to bang around inside. All of a sudden, he's the most dominant rebounder in the NBA. That's more than enough to make Varejao the surprise of the season.