Under-the-Radar Talent Turning NBA Teams Around
The month of January this NBA season has had one major theme: turnarounds. In the blink of an eye, teams like the Boston Celtics, Denver Nuggets and others have gone from being near the bottom of the playoff barrel to being on hot streaks. These teams have none other than some talented players to thank for this recent success, and fans can only hope that it continues.
The players helping these turnarounds are a unique type. They are not stars, nor are they necessarily x-factors. Rather, they are men who, if hot at the right time, can provide an excellent spark and carry the team to multiple victories.
One player that definitely sticks out in this group is Wilson Chandler of the Denver Nuggets. He has been injured most of this season, but has recently proven how valuable he is when healthy. Be it via scoring or defense, he is not someone to be taken lightly.
His excellent play has the Nuggets back in action, and so will some other teams assuming their under-the-radar go-to guys can keep up the good work.
No. 6: Brook Lopez, Brooklyn Nets
Anthony Gruppuso-USA TODAY Sports
Brook Lopez is unlike any other player on this list, as he is a starting center with a player efficiency rating (PER) of 25.19. However, unless you're either a die-hard Brooklyn Nets or Stanford Cardinal basketball fan, chances are you don't pay too much attention to the guy.
The fact of the matter is that Lopez is playing like an elite center, averaging 18.5 points, 7.3 rebounds and 2.1 blocks per game this season. The rebounding total may seem low since he is 7'0", 265 pounds, but Lopez's defense this season has improved enough to make a difference for the Nets. In the paint, he is a tower of force that does not hesitate to swat the ball away or go after a rebound.
His commitment to excellence under new coach P.J. Carlesimo has the Nets on a seven-game winning streak, and that run of good luck will grow as Lopez flies out from under the radar and slowly becomes one of the league's more explosive scoring big men.
No. 5: Lance Stephenson, Indiana Pacers
USA TODAY Sports
The Pacers pride themselves on being a young and scrappy team held together by top-notch defense, but what of the men who can provide offense that gets the crowd fired up? This job is done best by Lance Stephenson, who has shown that he can simply do it all this year.
The man can dunk, drive the lane and even provide some help from long range. He may only be averaging 7.8 points and one steal per game, but the former Cincinnati Bearcat is shooting 39 percent from long range for the season and an astounding 46 percent in his last five games.
Simply put, Stephenson is just an incredible athlete. He plays with the tenacity of someone much larger than 6'5", 228 pounds, and his commitment to working and playing hard night after night is only going to help Indiana as the season progresses.
No. 4: Wilson Chandler, Denver Nuggets
USA TODAY Sports
Chandler has only appeared in six games this season due to injury, but finally made his return to the Nuggets on January 13. In his two games back, Chandler has averaged 13.5 points, six rebounds and 2.5 steals while shooting 44 percent from long range.
Granted, this is only a small sample of Chandler's work, and should not be the basis for analyzing his skill set as a whole. It does, however, show just how valuable a talent the former DePaul star is for Denver. Be it as a starter or off the bench, he is a lock to provide some excellent spark offense and play some feisty D.
His Nuggets are now on a six-game winning streak, and it's going to be great to see the team reach its full potential now that such a key member is back in the rotation.
No. 3: Jared Sullinger, Boston Celtics
Ed Szczepanski-USA TODAY Sports
The Celtics are now on a six-game winning streak, but are still the second-worst rebounding team in the league. This can be attributed to Brandon Bass being ineffective at power forward, and center Kevin Garnett starting to slow down at age 36.
GM Danny Ainge and head coach Doc Rivers must thus consider themselves very fortunate to have someone like Sullinger on the roster. The rookie out of Ohio State has excellent size at 6'9", 260 pounds and while he is only averaging 6.1 points and 5.9 boards on the season, his performance as of late is a testament to how bright his future in the league is.
Sullinger has averaged 25.2 minutes over his last five games, and has posted impressive averages of 10.4 points and 9.2 rebounds. He plays the low-post well, and knows how to use his size on both sides of the floor. So long as he can stay healthy, he has everything needed to become another Glen "Big Baby" Davis.
Assuming the Celtics continue to use him in an extended role, there is no reason to believe that their tough defense cannot carry them far throughout the regular season as well as the playoffs.
No. 2: Klay Thompson, Golden State Warriors
USA TODAY Sports
When the Warriors selected Thompson with the 11th pick in the 2011 draft, it was a puzzling choice. The defense-needy team already had two fine guards in Monta Ellis and Stephen Curry, so why bring another shooter aboard?
Well, at last season's trade deadline, the Warriors shipped Ellis to the Milwaukee Bucks for Andrew Bogut. Sure enough, Thompson was inserted into the starting lineup. In 66 games (29 starts), he averaged 12.5 points and shot 41 percent from long range.
This season has been a bit different for Thompson. He is averaging 15.8 points, but his percentages have dropped. He is only shooting 40 percent from the field (down from 44 last season) and 39 percent from long range.
Though he is still very much hit-or-miss on offense this year, Thompson has been of utmost importance to the Warriors. He provides Stephen Curry with a valuable go-to shooter, and he has also stepped up his effort on the defensive side. Versatility in the NBA is key, and Thompson growing in that area will help the Warriors become a great team.
No. 1: Avery Bradley, Boston Celtics
USA TODAY Sports
Due to offseason shoulder surgery, Bradley did not debut for the Celtics until January 2. Since his return, the team has gone 6-1.
This is because in spite of being on the smaller side at 6'2", 180 pounds, Bradley is one of the game's better up-and-coming pests. In his last five appearances, he has averaged 10.2 points and shot 36 percent from long range to go with a steal per game.
Bradley isn't going to regularly put up big scoring numbers like most shooting guards do, but that's not a bad thing by any means. Boston needs him to play defense and shut down the opposition, something at which he is remarkably good at.
I don't like to say that a team should rely on one player to be great, but based on how the Celtics have performed since Bradley's return, it's clear just how valuable he is to them.