Building the All-NBA Sleeper Team, Pre-Training Camp Edition
It's time to catch some Z's. Even in the information age that doesn't allow too many blossoming players to fall under the radar, sleepers still exist in the NBA. And I'm talking about true sleepers, not players who are often touted as the next up-and-coming studs.
Let's not bring up Jimmy Butler and Kawhi Leonard here, for example. They've definitely earned enough national attention for the upcoming 2013-14 campaign. They aren't sleepers. They aren't even drowsy at this point.
This All-NBA sleeper team of 12 players is just about snoring. You'll recognize some established names, but establishment and status as a sleeper are not mutually exclusive.
Believe it or not, it's a pretty competitive bunch. This team may very well be strong enough to compete for the final seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs, assuming it actually existed.
So who would be on your team?
Starting Point Guard: Kyle Lowry
Team: Toronto Raptors
2012-13 Per-Game Stats: 11.6 points, 4.7 rebounds, 6.4 assists, 1.4 steals, 0.4 blocks, 17.5 PER
Kyle Lowry doesn't get enough respect.
Although he's not one of the truly elite point guards in the current NBA landscape, he's still not that far off the mark. Yet he rarely gets brought up in conversations about the league's best floor generals.
Lowry was plagued by injuries during his first season running the show for the Toronto Raptors, but now he's settled into the role and doesn't have much to worry about in terms of job security. As good as Dwight Buycks looked during summer league, he's going to be competing with D.J. Augustin for the right to play sparing minutes behind the more talented 27-year-old, not for the starting job.
Remember, at the start of the 2012-13 season, Lowry was en fuego.
During his first three games, the point guard averaged 23.7 points, 7.3 rebounds and 7.0 assists per game while shooting 57.5 percent from the field. Any guesses how many players put up a 23-7-7 on 57 percent shooting or better in a single game during the whole season?
Only 18 different players, and Lowry averaged those numbers over a three-game span. He has that type of upper-echelon talent, and the 2013-14 campaign puts him the perfect situation to show it off on a more consistent basis.
Starting Shooting Guard: Brandon Rush
Team: Utah Jazz
2012-13 Per-Game Stats (two games): 7.0 points, 0.5 rebounds, 1.0 assists, 0.0 steals, 0.0 blocks, 11.9 PER
If you forgot that Brandon Rush was in the NBA, I can't really blame you. After playing 65 games in 2011-12 thanks to the lockout, the Kansas product was only on the court twice throughout 2012-13.
An unfortunate ACL tear prevented Rush from having what should have been his breakout season with the Golden State Warriors, and it also overshadowed just how well he performed during his first go-around with the team.
The shooting guard played a pretty significant role off the bench and put up stellar numbers. According to Synergy Sports (subscription required), his offense was nothing if not elite on a per-minute basis.
During that 2011-12 season, Rush scored 1.12 points per possession, good for the No. 7 spot in the entire Association. Those aren't numbers to take lightly, especially since Rush thrived in virtually every area possible. Of all qualified situations (25-plus plays used), the 2-guard's worst was off screens, and he still ranked 84th overall.
Rush should earn a bigger role with the Utah Jazz, and he's going to play especially well in a contract year.
Starting Small Forward: Tobias Harris
Team: Orlando Magic
2012-13 Per-Game Stats: 11.0 points, 5.2 rebounds, 1.3 assists, 0.6 steals, 0.8 blocks, 16.0 PER
Tobias Harris' per-game stats are massively misleading, simply because they're a reflection of his time with both the Milwaukee Bucks and the Orlando Magic. Take a look at how he performed with each team, courtesy of Basketball-Reference:
That would count as a massive breakout, and Harris only got better as the season progressed.
Now there's a chance that this was a bit of a fluke. After all, teams didn't really have a scouting report on the small forward who couldn't even legally consume alcohol, nor were they inclined to generate one because the Magic were trying to tank not very good.
But I doubt it was fluky.
Harris really did look like he possessed all the tools necessary to be a standout small forward. He won't be a superstar, but he can absolutely be a Robin to someone's Batman, and that "21" near the top of this slide indicates that he has quite a bit of potential left to realize.
There's a solid chance you've never seen Harris play because—let's be real here—why would you have wanted to watch the Magic during the end of the 2012-13 campaign?
Change that as soon as you can.
Starting Power Forward: John Henson
Team: Milwaukee Bucks
2012-13 Per-Game Stats: 6.0 points, 4.7 rebounds, 0.5 assists, 0.3 steals, 0.7 blocks, 18.2 PER
In nine games as a starter, John Henson averaged 9.6 points and 7.2 rebounds per game. But that doesn't really do justice to the skills he displayed at the end of his rookie season.
Over his last five games of the season, the North Carolina product put up 15.0 points, 15.0 rebounds, 1.4 assists, 1.2 steals and 2.8 blocks per contest, and he looked just shy of completely dominant. Hell, he recorded 17 points, 25 rebounds and seven blocks against the Orlando Magic.
Since 1985, four players have recorded those numbers or better in a single game:
- Dikembe Mutombo
- Hakeem Olajuwon
- Shaquille O'Neal
- John Henson
Need I say more?
Starting Center: Nikola Vucevic
Team: Orlando Magic
2012-13 Per-Game Stats: 13.1 points, 11.9 rebounds, 1.9 assists, 0.8 steals, 1.0 blocks, 17.8 PER
Nikola Vucevic put up great numbers throughout his breakout season, but he still didn't get any attention, mostly because he played for the Orlando Magic.
That said, the 22-year-old center was incredible at times. He even notched 20 points and 29 rebounds in an outing against the Miami Heat. While the whole "the Heat don't have a true center" thing has to be mentioned, I can't completely discount that achievement.
In fact, Vucevic recorded 20-20s four times during the 2012-13 season, his first with the Magic.
To put that in perspective, there were only 18 20-20s recorded by the entire league throughout the year. Joakim Noah and DeMarcus Cousins were the two other players to appear on the list multiple times, and they each did so twice.
Not four times.
If Vucevic can continue developing his offense—and remember, he's only 22 years old—he'll be a truly elite center. Even if his offensive production stagnates, his work on the boards and defensive presence make him an underrated and high-quality starting option.
Backup Point Guard: Patrick Beverley
Team: Houston Rockets
2012-13 Per-Game Stats: 5.6 points, 2.7 rebounds, 2.9 assists, 0.9 steals, 0.5 blocks, 15.4 PER
The Los Angeles Lakers drafted Patrick Beverley out of Arkansas all the way back in 2009, but it wasn't until this past year that he made his NBA debut. During his rookie season, he made a sizable impact for the Houston Rockets.
Over the course of the regular season, the Rockets scored 110 points per 100 possessions both when Beverley played and when he sat, but the defense took a step in the right direction when he was on the court. In fact, Basketball-Reference shows that it may have been multiple steps; Houston allowed 5.4 fewer points per 100 possessions when he played.
That trend carried over into the postseason.
Beverley carved out a larger role for himself with his defensive prowess and ability to function both as a spot-up shooter and ball-handler in pick-and-roll sets, and he didn't disappoint anyone but Russell Westbrook.
With the former Razorback on the court, Houston scored 111 points and allowed 109.5 per 100 possessions during the first-round series against the Oklahoma City Thunder.
But when he sat, the offensive output dropped to 95.4 and the points allowed rose to 116.8.
Small-sample-size warnings are certainly in effect here, but that's still a monumental impact for a first-year guard.
Backup Shooting Guard: Jamaal Franklin
Team: Memphis Grizzlies
2012-13 Per-Game Stats: N/A
I tried to keep rookies off this collection of players, but Jamaal Franklin is the exception to the rule.
His name hasn't popped up much during NBA conversations since the Memphis Grizzlies drafted him in the second round. That's really a shame, because he's going to make a big impact as a first-year player.
His status as a sleeper was only aided by the fact that injuries kept him out of summer league action, thereby preventing him from starting to make a name for himself at the professional level.
But once the season starts, Franklin—who was the do-everything swingman for the San Diego State Aztecs with 17.0 points, 9.5 rebounds, 3.3 assists and 1.6 steals per game last year—will prove just how valuable he can be to the Grizz.
Memphis desperately needs to add some outside shooting to its rotation, and Mike Miller can only do so much at this stage of his career. Tony Allen is the only other true shooting guard on the roster, and it's not like he'll be lighting it up from the perimeter.
Franklin is exactly what the Grizzlies needed, and that's going to result in a season that makes people scratch their heads and wonder why it took them so long to realize this kid was the real deal.
Again, I wouldn't put a rookie in a featured spot here if he weren't a true sleeper.
Backup Small Forward: Kyle Korver
Team: Atlanta Hawks
2012-13 Per-Game Stats: 10.9 points, 4.0 rebounds, 2.0 assists, 0.9 steals, 0.5 blocks, 13.9 PER
Quick, name all the players in NBA history who have averaged over five three-pointers attempted per game during a season and still shot over 45 percent from downtown.
You probably thought of Stephen Curry first, then guys like Reggie Miller, Ray Allen and Steve Novak. And if you were smart enough to realize that I'm using this exercise on a Kyle Korver slide for a reason, then you probably understood that the Atlanta Hawks sniper was on the list as well.
There are actually just six players who have met those marks in a single season—Curry, Korver, Allen, Novak, Dana Barros and Glen Rice—and no one has ever done it twice. Miller never made it onto the list, even though he's certainly one of the best shooters ever.
Despite his incredible performance from behind the arc, Korver never gets put into the same category as the other guys. Sure, he doesn't create shots for either himself or his teammates like Curry does, but he's still up there with the Golden State Warriors sharpshooter as one of the best perimeter threats in the Association.
He'll fill that role for the Hawks once more in 2013-14.
Backup Power Forward: Amar'e Stoudemire
Team: New York Knicks
2012-13 Per-Game Stats: 14.2 points, 5.0 rebounds, 0.4 assists, 0.3 steals, 0.7 blocks, 22.1 PER
Does anybody outside of New York realize that Amar'e Stoudemire is A) still a productive basketball player when he's healthy and B) only 30 years old?
STAT posted a 22.1 PER during the 2012-13 season, if that gives you any indication of the type of impact he makes when on the court. His per-36-minute numbers are similarly impressive: 21.8 points and 7.7 rebounds on 57.7 percent shooting.
The problem is that Stoudemire has forgotten how to stay healthy, and his knees are completely betraying him. He appeared in just 29 games last year, and he was only able to earn 23.5 minutes per game when he was healthy enough to suit up in anything other than, well, a suit.
In July, Stoudemire's agent Happy Walters addressed how his client's health will affect his minutes with the New York Post's Marc Berman:
The idea of a 20-minute nightly maximum with a prohibition on playing both ends of back-to-backs has been one of the ideas that has been discussed.
“I don’t think anything has been decided,’’ Walters told The Post yesterday. “The doctors are still talking about that. But he’s not going to play a ton of minutes.’’
An extra-cautious approach on Stoudemire to have him on a minutes restriction lower than last season’s was a factor in the Knicks’ willingness to trade for Bargnani, feeling they needed another scoring big man. The Knicks played 18 back-to-backs last season, so that could potentially be 18 games Stoudemire misses. It’s not all that dissimilar to the Spurs’ treatment of the aging Tim Duncan.
That type of treatment has worked out fairly well for Duncan.
Even if Stoudemire is limited to around 20 minutes per outing, he's going to emerge as one of the best per-minute players in basketball.
Plus, karma has to treat him kindly at some point after this last horrific stretch of injuries.
Backup Center: Robin Lopez
Team: Portland Trail Blazers
2012-13 Per-Game Stats: 11.3 points, 5.6 rebounds, 0.8 assists, 0.4 steals, 1.6 blocks, 18.9 PER
Contrary to popular belief, Robin Lopez is not a joke of a center.
Sure, the floppy-haired big man isn't a great rebounder, and he's not exactly a standout on the offensive end of the court. But his defense makes him a valuable rotation player, and it was enough for him to earn the trust of the Portland Trail Blazers.
Rip City wouldn't have acquired Lopez lightly. The management knows it must do everything possible to create a winning team while taking defensive pressure off LaMarcus Aldridge, especially if it plans to eventually extend the power forward's contract.
Additionally, Synergy speaks rather highly of Lopez.
The Stanford product allowed only 0.81 points per possession throughout the 2012-13 campaign, his final season with the New Orleans Hornets (then again, I suppose it was everyone's final season for the Hornets). That was enough to rank him 72nd among all qualified players.
Lopez was particularly impressive guarding roll men in pick-and-roll situations. They shot only 30.1 percent against him, and it's not like he was sending people to the line. In 78 plays, Lopez didn't foul even a single time.
His defense borders on elite, and that's well worth having in the starting lineup.
End-of-Bench Reserves: Maurice Harkless and Andray Blatche
Rounding out the crop of wing players is the third member of the Orlando Magic to appear.
Maurice Harkless has an intriguing mix of size and athleticism, but now he just needs to add a little more finesse to his arsenal. If he can become a more competent free-throw shooter (57 percent last year), cut more intelligently and buckle down a little more often on the defensive end, he'll be quite the valuable player for Orlando.
In case you can't tell, I'm betting on the Magic exceeding their minimal expectations in 2013-14.
This big man was efficient off the Brooklyn Nets bench, especially when given the green light to score in a variety of ways. His spinning, fadeaway jumper is just as ugly as it is beautiful and effective.
Most importantly, the franchise gave Andray Blatche a chance, and he didn't let anyone down. Instead he posted a career-high 21.9 PER while averaging 19.5 points, 9.7 rebounds and 2.0 assists per 36 minutes.
Blatche won't have a huge role with the Nets in 2013-14, but he'll be a valuable contributor off the bench and may end up starting a few contests if Kevin Garnett needs to pull a Tim Duncan and record the infamous "DNP-old."