It's more fun watching a player who was expected to ride the pine in the NBA succeed than it is to watch LeBron James or Dwight Howard do exactly what everyone thought he would do. At least I think so.
Gilbert Arenas picking No. 0 because scouts told him he would get zero playing time in the league, only to go on and become a perennial All-Star, is what sport is all about.
Franchises are also judged on their ability to find hidden gems late in the draft. Any GM can draft the best player in the country at the top of the draft (well, maybe not Joe Dumars), but it's more important to make the later picks count. The players are out there.
Here is a look at some of the best breakthrough performances through the midpoint of the 2010-2011 season.
Manny Harris of the Cleveland Cavaliers
An undrafted player out of the University of Michigan, Harris came to Cleveland without many prospects. Through the end of December he had yet to score double-digit points, nor did he garner 25-plus minutes in a single game.
On December 29th, Harris was granted his first start in the NBA, and he hasn’t looked back since. The Cavs are winless in the 12 games Harris has started, but he has averaged 11 points per game nonetheless.
In back-to-back games against Golden State and Phoenix, Harris hung up lines of 16/10/4 and 27/8/2, respectively. With the return of Daniel Gibson, Cleveland head coach Byron Scott has decided to keep Harris in the starting lineup and roll with the hot hand.
L 100-108: Phoenix—27 points, eight rebounds, 4-of-7 three pointers
Marco Belinelli of the New Orleans Hornets
In November Bellinelli scored in double digits in every game but two, averaging 13 ppg while making 2.5 three-pointers per game at a 45 percent clip.
His production has tailed off lately as he returns from an ankle injury, but he has been a good complement beside CP3.
W 108-101: Cleveland—20 points, five assists
Keyon Dooling of the Milwaukee Bucks.
Keyon Dooling has lived as a journeyman throughout his career in the NBA and is now with his fifth team, the Milwaukee Bucks. This season, as a recent replacement for Brandon Jennings, he has filled in very effectively.
Though not the scorer that Jennings is, Dooling has been a dependable guard, running the Buck offense very efficiently. As a starting guard Dooling has averaged 10 points and five assists per game while managing a 4:1 assist to turnover ratio.
L 80-95: Hawks: 15 points, four rebounds, nine assists, one turnover
Vince Carter of the Phoenix Suns.
A veteran like Vince Carter have a breakthrough performance? Hardly. The Suns didn’t have any surprises this season, and that’s partially the reason the blockbuster trade with the Magic occurred. No one stepped up—no surprise contributions like those of Jared Dudley and Channing Frye last season.
Vince Carter, commonly thought of as being on his last legs, has filled in seamlessly for Jason Richardson. Though averaging equal three-point production and two points less, Carter is producing more in both the rebounds and assists categories.
W 129-121: Knicks—29 points, 12 rebounds, four assists, 5-of-8 three-pointers
CJ Miles taking it to Josh Smith.
With nine 20-point performances off the bench, C.J. Miles is one of the most reliable reserve options in the league. Up to 12 points per game with solid shooting percentages of 42/33/78, Miles works effectively with his limited minutes.
W 117-105: Magic—26 points, 4-of-6 three-pointers
Head coach of the Miami Heat, Erik Spoelstra.
Two seasons, two first-round playoff exits. Spoelstra has done okay, but not great, in his short NBA coaching career.
When the trio of titans—LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh—arrived in Miami, few believed Spoelstra had the moxie to handle the three egos. A common agreement was that Pat Riley would, sometime before the start of the playoffs, relieve Spoelstra of his duties and claim them himself.
The truth is the young Heat coach has done wonderfully with James and Co.
The Heat have lost 13 games, but those preseason predictions comparing them to the '95-96 Bulls were ludicrous; it was going to take time to gel. They’ve currently lost four straight, but three of those occurred without their full complement of stars.
Now, as the No. 2 seed in the East, the Heat look set for a Conference Finals war with the Celtics.
Tyler Hansbrough of the Indiana Pacers.
With many unconvinced of Hansbrough’s potential, he entered the league, despite being chosen in the lottery, without much expectation.
Much like other undersized PFs Luke Harangody and Kevin Love, people questioned his ability to play above the rim in such an athletic league. Until recently the North Carolina product had done little to dispel the negative feelings about him.
The past seven games in which Tyler has been granted a starting position, he has averaged 12 points a game. Without the ability to be an elite defender, he is still proving that, given enough minutes, he can provide teams with much-needed production as a reserve.
L 87-90: Spurs—23 points, 12 rebounds
DeMar DeRozan in the Dunk Contest.
Since the end of last season DeMar DeRozan has been a much more assertive figure in the Toronto Raptors offense.
This season, he has increased his point production to 15 ppg. More importantly, DeRozan has begun attacking the rim on a more consistent basis and, on average, attempts twice the free throw attempts that he did during his rookie campaign.
In his past 15 games DeRozan is averaging an impressive 19.5 ppg. His offensive game has taken a giant leap forward from last season.
W 110-106: Magic—26 points, seven rebounds
Gary Neal of the San Antonio Spurs.
It seems that every year the San Antonio Spurs find a way to wrench production out of another unknown commodity.
Last year it was DeJuan Blair and George Hill. Before them it was Roger Mason. Now, it's Gary Neal.
In the past 16 games the Spurs have been the benefactors of nine double-digit output performances by Neal, including three 20-plus games against Dallas, Phoenix and Denver.
With Manu Ginobili in the starting lineup, the Spurs have been in need of their normal bench support. Neal has not filled the void left by Ginobili, but he and Hill are a reliable combo when the big three need a hand.
W 99-93: Dallas—21 points, five rebounds, 5-of-8 three-pointers
Kris Humphries of the New Jersey Nets.
Increased shooting percentage by 10 points. Increased rebounding and blocks. Very efficient player and defender. Nearly a double-double average.
In the 25 games Humphries has started, he has posted near double-double averages. With 8.5 points and 11 boards per start, he offers a nice, athletic change of pace next to the size of Brook Lopez.
Add in his block per game, and the Nets have a nice defensive combo under the basket.
At 54 percent shooting on the season, his decision-making is very sound, and he rarely costs the Nets possessions. In January Humphries has boosted his offensive production to nearly 13 ppg and 10 rebounds.
Is he the answer as a starting power forward? Probably not, but he is a great insurance policy whenever Derrick Favors or Lopez gets into foul trouble.
W 96-94: Chicago—20 points on 10-of-15 shooting, 11 rebounds
Tyson Chandler defending Chris Bosh.
Tyson Chandler is another veteran on this list who may not fit the traditional bill of breakthrough performance, but consider these numbers: Chandler is shooting a career-high 67 percent in his first season with the Mavs and has put up his highest numbers in points, rebounds and FT percentage since his ’07 season in New Orleans.
Chandler has blocked 47 shots up to this point in the season and has been a solid defensive presence in place of the departed Erick Dampier.
W 106-95: Miami—14 points, 17 rebounds, three blocks
Jrue Holiday of the Philadelphia 76'ers.
Nearly doubled points to 14.5. Three more apg, same shooting percentage despite twice as many shots. Up in rebounds and steals.
Holiday has doubled his point output with this season’s 14.5 average. Over the offseason Holiday worked on becoming a complete point guard, and it has worked so far to the tune of nearly six assists a night.
With four rebounds, a three-pointer, and a steal-and-a-half game averages, Holiday is working hard to keep Louis Williams on the bench.
His shooting percentages have remained nearly identical despite taking five more shots per game, making him one of the most efficient young guards in the Eastern Conference.
L 98-102: Lakers—19 points, 11 assists, two turnovers
Lamar Odom of the Lakers.
Who is the second most efficient big man on the Lakers roster? Andrew Bynum? Actually, it’s Lamar Odom.
In the midst of making his strongest All-Star claim in his career, Odom is basically averaging a double-double at 15 points and 9.6 rebounds. While taking only three shots less per night, Odom is averaging a better shooting percentage than the best center in the NBA, teammate Pau Gasol.
As the prototypical guard/forward, his versatile defense is still indispensable to the Lakers' three-peat title hopes.
L 99-109: Houston—25 points, 11 rebounds, two blocks
Wilson Chandler flushing one against the Bobcats.
All the hype has been surrounding Amar'e Stoudemire and the ensuing success upon his arrival from Phoenix. Nearly as essential is the consistency of Wilson Chandler.
In December, a month in which the Knicks went 8-5, Chandler averaged 19 points and 7.5 rebounds a game. He also hit 31 threes in those 13 games and shot 52 percent from the field while recording three double-doubles.
Most importantly, as a result of his surge in production the Knicks pulled off victories over the Nuggets, Thunder, Bulls and Hornets.
W 128-115: San Antonio—31 points, nine rebounds, four assists
Tracy McGrady backing down against the Hawks.
None of T-Mac’s stats are eye-popping, but his resurgence in Detroit has helped bring balance to a faltering organization.
With his workload at the point guard position increasing, Rodney Stuckey has been free to roam the 2-guard spot. His ability to distribute has allowed rookie Greg Monroe to increase production under the basket, posting double-doubles in four of the eight games.
McGrady’s effective play has occasionally brought back shades of his former Houston self that had otherwise gone unseen in his time with the Knicks.
W 104-92: Boston—21 points, four rebounds, eight assists, three steals
DeMarcus Cousins hitting the glass against the Hornets.
With Tyreke Evans, Jason Thompson and Omri Casspi all regressing since last year, DeMarcus Cousins has been a refreshing injection for the Kings.
With questions about maturity on draft day behind him, Cousins has worked hard to become one of the better young centers in the league.
In January Cousins has pumped up his numbers to the tune of 16 points and 7.5 boards a night. He is also adding over a block per game this month. With only a 44 percent shooting percentage on 15 shots per night, his assertiveness is getting better, but he will have to work on being a little more effective around the basket if he is continue his maturation process.
W 94-89: Phoenix—28 points, eight rebounds, six assists
Anthony Randolph looks on as Mike Conley Jr. throws it down against the Warriors.
Conley has increased his production in all categories across the board. Career highs in points, rebounds, assists and FG percentage suggest that, as long as he continues to improve, the Grizzlies' stability at the point guard position will be set for the foreseeable future.
Until December 11 Conley was averaging 16 points and seven assists. During those games Conley was much more assertive than more recently in the season. He was regularly creating double-digit shot opportunities for himself.
W 97-95: Miami—16 points, five rebounds, six assists, 6-of-12 shooting
Serge Ibaka of the Oklahoma City Thunder.
The biggest advantage the Lakers had over the Thunder in last year's playoff series was dominance in the post. With Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum and Lamar Odom, they overmatched the Thunder.
Now, with the emergence of big man Serge Ibaka, the Thunder have moved all the way up to the third seed in the Western Conference. Averaging double-digit points with 66 blocks on the season, Ibaka provides stability on both sides of the ball.
In the 18 games in which Ibaka has started, the Thunder are 13-5. Though Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant carry the load on offense, the emergence of a post threat to balance the floor cannot be overstated.
W 115-108: Utah—22 points on 9-of-13 shooting, 11 rebounds, four blocks
Josh Smith pins a shot against the Bucks.
Josh Smith’s biggest addition to his game this season is his ability to shoot the three-ball. So far, he has 31 makes on 37 percent shooting. The importance of this is that Smith can stretch defenses to the three-point line so that Al Horford has more room to work under the basket.
Smith continues his defensive tear with 1.5 steals and two blocks a game, so the maturity on offense is transforming the Atlanta forward into an all-around threat.
Smith has also upped his free throw shooting to 73 percent, up from his embarrassing 62 percent last season.
So far Smith has recorded 22 double-doubles, only four shy of his total from all of last season.
W 107-98: LA Clippers—22 points on 9-of-17 shooting, 3-of-5 three-pointers, 10 rebounds, three steals, two blocks
Brandon Bass of the Orlando Magic.
After an increase in minutes, Bass has doubled both his point and rebound production. He has continuously offered the Magic guards another dependable option underneath the basket for days during which Dwight Howard’s shot isn’t falling.
With a 50 percent field goal percentage, he and Howard are one of the most productive frontcourt tandems in basketball. Showing up big in victories over San Antonio and Boston (17 and six, 21 and nine, respectively), Bass is earning every start he gets.
W 86-78: Boston—21 points on 8-of-15 shooting, nine rebounds, one steal, one block
This season, Augustin has upped his game across the board. A doubling of his point production and a three-fold increase in assists has made him very valuable in Charlotte.
With the addition of a three-point game (1.5 makes per game), he is now able to pull opponents out to the edges to defend. Most importantly, Augustin is averaging a better FG percentage while hoisting twice as many shots every night.
W 96-91: Chicago—22 points, 12 assists, 2-5 three-pointers
Glen Davis getting into it with Ron Artest.
In one season Davis' scoring average has increased from 6.3 to 12.5 ppg. With the additions of Jermaine O’Neal and Shaq to the Celtics' frontcourt, Davis is still the most important post player off the bench for the Celtics. Even after Kendrick Perkins returns, Davis is their most productive reserve.
Davis’ efficiency hasn’t suffered from a doubling of shot attempts. His percentage has actually gone up to 46 percent, and his 77 percent free throw shooting is an increase as well.
W 93-79: Toronto—15 points, 11 rebounds, eight assists, two steals
Aaron Afflalo swelling up.
Aaron Afflalo has been a model of consistency for the Denver Nuggets.
He has started every game this season, and the UCLA product now averages 35 minutes while shooting 51 percent from the field.
His high percentage has boosted his scoring average to 13 ppg. From behind the line he shoots 40 percent, and he has already made 58 threes on the season.
Halfway through the year Afflalo has already made more free throws than any previous season. His 85 percent average from the free throw line is second only to Chauncey Billups on the Nugget roster.
L 112-113: San Antonio—20 points, five rebounds, four assists
Kyle Lowry driving past Shaquille O'Neal for the lay-up.
With career highs in points, rebounds, assists, blocks, steals and three-pointers, Lowry is quickly becoming one of the most well-rounded reserve guards in the league. Providing all the little things outside of consistent scoring, he functions as the ideal complement behind Aaron Brooks.
W 103-87: Memphis—17 points, 18 assists, five steals
Nick Young pulling up on LeBron James.
Since moving into the starting lineup 16 games ago, Nick Young has been pouring in the points. Since the trade of Gilbert Arenas, Young has averaged 21 ppg and made 36 three-pointers.
Resulting from Young’s increase in playing time, the Wizards have actually managed to grind out six wins. This may not sound impressive, but in the 24 games prior the team only won five.
Young’s role in the offense has greatly increased. Alongside No. 1 pick John Wall, he has managed to increase his shooting percentage while doubling his shot attempts.
With a 40 percent three-point rate and an 85 percent clip at the free throw line, Young and Wall might be the best young perimeter duo in basketball.
W 136-133: Sacramento—43 points, 7-of-10 three-pointers
Dorell Wright, Brandon Rush, and Danny Granger.
Dorell Wright leads the NBA in three-pointers made. But it isn’t just the offensive end of the floor where Wright is excelling. He has 60 steals on the season and averages a block per game on the defensive end.
Wright, who floundered in his years with Miami, has really found solid ground in Golden State. With a career high 16.5 ppg, he is a great complementary player for Monta Ellis and Stephen Curry.
Wright has started every game this season, and in the last 14 games the Warriors are 9-5. In those games, Wright has increased his average to 20.5 ppg with 46 three-pointers.
L 107-114: Miami—30 points, 6-of-13 on three-pointers
Eric Gordon shooting over Tony Parker and Tim Duncan.
Playing alongside Kevin Durant for Team USA this past summer helped Eric Gordon mature into a complete basketball player. The teachings of coach Mike Krzyzewski are taking form this year, much to the dismay of the other 29 NBA teams.
Gordon has increased his points per game by eight; his rebounds, assists and FG percentage have also gone up. He is also shooting 47 percent from three with 80 makes.
With all the attention on Blake Griffin this season, part of what Eric Gordon has done continues to go unnoticed. Gordon has currently scored 20 or more points in eight straight games. Earlier in the season he posted a 12-game streak of identical numbers.
Gordon currently ranks eighth in the league in scoring, ahead of superstars Carmelo Anthony and Dirk Nowitzki. The young Clipper guard is announcing himself in a big way this season, and there's no evidence that he will slow down anytime soon.
W 99-92: Lakers—30 points, 4-of-7 three-pointers, six assists, four steals
Michael Beasley working the step-back on Matt Barnes.
During his two years in Miami, Beasley struggled to fulfill his potential after being picked second overall. He was meant to be the ideal complement to Dwyane Wade, but things just didn’t work out.
In one season with the T-Wolves, the potential seen during his time at Kansas State has finally shone through.
Averaging over 20 points and five boards and a three-pointer per game, his offensive game is rounding out very nicely. As the featured offensive option in Minnesota, he is shooting a similar percentage as his days in Miami while carrying a much heavier responsibility within the team philosophy.
With Beasley shining alongside other youngster Kevin Love and the emerging Darko Milicic, the T-Wolves may be one or two pieces from playoff contention.
W 112-103: Knicks—35 points, six boards, four assists, three steals
The most improved player in the league.
After leaving Utah, Matthews has truly blossomed in Blazer black. Undrafted in '09, Matthews earned a spot with Utah, where he came on strong late in the season and into the playoffs. He averaged 13 points in the playoffs while starting all 10 games for the Jazz.
This season he has upped his average to nearly 16 ppg while increasing his production from the three-point and free throw lines. Making nearly two three-pointers a game, his value is primarily on the offensive end, much like a Rip Hamilton.
Though he does average nearly two steals per game, his rebounding numbers are anemic, but on a Blazer team that was supposed to sport Greg Oden and Marcus Camby under the basket, his deficiency ideally would not have been missed.
Since his insertion into the starting lineup, Matthews has averaged 19 points per game with 45 steals and and 65 threes. His recent play has made injured All-Star guard Brandon Roy nearly expendable. The Blazers are currently 24-20, and Wesley Matthews is a huge reason why.
W 86-83: Denver—20 points, 10 rebounds, two blocks
Derrick Rose pummeling the rim against the Indiana Pacers.
Derrick Rose has been a top NBA point guard since he entered the league, but his emergence this year as an MVP front runner and all-around stud has been a wonder to behold.
The young Bull is quickly becoming a force at the guard position equal to, or more so than, Dwyane Wade. Compared to Wade’s line of 26.6/4.9/6.5 of last season, Rose’s 24.7/4.7/8.0 makes him a top five all-around offensive power in the NBA, second only to the Heat duo in the Eastern Conference.
With a 10 percent increase in his accuracy beyond the arc, defenders can no longer sit off the streaky guard.
Rose has been bringing his best against the best teams:
W 99-96: Miami—34 points, four rebounds, eight assists
W 90-79: Boston—36 points, 15-of-19 FT
W 88-84: Lakers—29 points, five rebounds, nine assists
L 98-91: Lakers—30 points, five rebounds, eight assists
With Chicago tied with Atlanta for the third best record in the East, Rose has the Bulls primed for a potential Eastern Conference title appearance for the first time since the departure of His Airness.