When Golden State Warriors shooting guard Marco Belinelli arrived in the NBA, he was known strictly as a shooter and nothing else.
Unlike a lot of early or mid-first round picks, most of his rookie campaign was spent on the bench and learning the game rather than actually playing it. He played just over seven minutes a game in his 33 appearances, as the Warriors recorded one of the best records for a team that didn't make the playoffs.
He scored in double figures only twice the entire season, one of those games coming on the final day of the year.
People were starting to wonder whether he would make an impact or be another one of the Warriors' famed first-round flops that has plagued the franchise for the past 20 years.
"When he wasn't playing, when he said he wanted to be traded and all that stuff, I was like, man, we're going to lose a good player," Stephen Jackson told reporters this weekend about Belinelli. "He's a guy that got caught up in a numbers game, and I've been through that too. I'm glad he's taking advantage of his opportunity, because that's what it's all about."
It seemed as though his second season in the league was going to be much like his first, averaging 7.2 minutes per game in November. He failed to record double figures in the games he appeared in.
However, once December hit, so did Belinelli.
Because of injuries in the back court to Jackson and Jamal Crawford, the 22-year-old Italian is now a regular in Don Nelson's starting five.
While the Warriors continue to struggle, Belinelli has caught fire in the first real playing time of his career. He has hit double figures in 11 of 16 games this month and, as the calender turns to 2009, it doesn't look like Belinelli will be slowing down.
He not only has been one of their top scorers every game, averaging 15 points per game this month, but he has shown his versatility, serving as a part-time point guard when needed.
But it's his full-time efforts on defense that is the thing that is catching everyone's attention.
Nelson has taken notice, and—even though Belinelli is not the fleetest of foot—has put the young Italian guard against some of the best players in the league.
Not only did he drop 22 points against the defending NBA Champs last Friday night, his job against Ray Allen was the prime example of how far his game has come. His defensive effort goaded the Celtics' sharpshooter into committing one offensive foul after another, which resulted in The Big Three becoming The Big Two down the stretch.
Jackson says Belinelli "works on his game more than anybody," and "is always the first one in the gym shooting."
While it does sound like another classic sports cliche, it's hard to imagine that Belinelli's quick rise to one of the Warriors' best players would've happened if he didn't work on his game so much.
In a season of frustrations, the development of Belinelli is one of the few bright spots. The team's record may not be what the Warriors wanted it to be, but the progression and performance of one of their youngest players has to be a reason for the coaches and management to smile.