NBA Afterthoughts Who Are About to Become X-Factors

Zach Buckley@@ZachBuckleyNBANational NBA Featured ColumnistNovember 21, 2014

NBA Afterthoughts Who Are About to Become X-Factors

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    NBA perceptions can change in an instant. Today's 24-hour news cycle causes hot streaks to become overblown and slumps to send players plummeting toward obscurity.

    But a players' impact has a lot to do with opportunity and fit. A player can be in over his head or buried on the bench if his talents don't scratch an itch for his team. But that same player can transform into a valuable piece once he finds the right niche for his skills.

    This also hinges on the appearance of importance, something that often draws heavily upon a franchise's success. Role players on good teams and bad ones might do the same jobs, but their values are cast under dramatically different lights.

    For the six players on this list, they have been—or soon will be—given a second chance to redefine their careers.

    Some have found the right system to help unleash their full potential. Others have taken on larger roles than they have ever held. Still another could soon find himself plucked from a lottery-bound team and tossed into the championship race, a move sure to alter the way he is viewed by the basketball world.

    No matter their means of metamorphosis, all of these former afterthoughts are now (or soon to be) in position to become full-fledged X-factors.

Corey Brewer, SF, Minnesota Timberwolves

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    The last time swingman Corey Brewer's name carried any real relevance on the basketball court, he was helping guide his Florida Gators to national championships in 2006 and 2007. (Unless, of course, you count his head-scratching 51-point outburst last season.)

    He's a 10.0 points-per-game scorer for his career, who has never finished a season with a 15.0 player efficiency rating, the category's league-average mark. He doesn't have an overwhelming skill set, although he does a few things well. He hustles, defends, causes havoc in the open floor and occasionally bangs in a three-ball (career 29.4 three-point percentage).

    But he's rarely had the chance to do any of the above under the brightest lights.

    He has made three playoff trips in his career. Two of them came with Denver Nuggets teams that were bounced in the opening round. The other was with the 2011 world champion Dallas Mavericks, but Brewer logged only 23 minutes throughout that postseason run.

    His opportunity could be coming soon, though. No, not with the 3-7, Kevin Love-less Minnesota Timberwolves, but rather the on-paper contenders said to be on his trail.

    According to ESPN.com's Marc Stein, both the Cleveland Cavaliers and Houston Rockets are in the hunt for Brewer, with the latter appearing as the "more likely...landing spot" (for now, at least).

    Both teams could use defensive help on the perimeter. They also like to get out and run, one of Brewer's best attributes. The Rockets average the fifth-most fast-break points in the league (15.6), while the Cavs check in one spot behind them (15.5), per TeamRankings.com.

    Brewer's combination of energy and athleticism make him an intriguing option as a glue guy. He just needs to find a club worth bringing together.

Chris Copeland, SF, Indiana Pacers

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    Between Lance Stephenson's departure in free agency and Paul George's broken leg, the Indiana Pacers appeared to be left for dead. But the 5-7 Pacers have found a pulse, despite George Hill, David West and C.J. Watson encountering their own injury problems.

    Still getting by on the strength of its defense, Indiana has been able to squeeze out just enough offense to keep its head above water. Third-year swingman Chris Copeland has emerged as one of the more surprising sources of that production.

    The 30-year-old barely saw the floor during Indiana's 56-win 2013-14 campaign. He appeared in only 41 games and logged just 6.5 minutes a night during the regular season.

    This year, his playing time has exploded to 31.7 minutes, and his scoring average has followed suit. His 13.5 points per game ranks second on the team to only two-time All-Star Roy Hibbert's 14.0.

    Digging deeper into the stat sheet only increases Copeland's importance. The Pacers have outscored opponents by 1.9 points per 100 possessions when he plays and been outscored by 11.9 points per 100 trips when he sits.

    While best known for his long-distance shooting, Copeland said his new role involves much more than that.

    "They're looking for me to be aggressive," he told Bleacher Report. "... It doesn't mean shoot the ball; it just means make something happen. That might mean score some nights, sometimes it means create double-teams and find open guys."

    It means having a significant impact on his team's success, something he hadn't been able to do during his first two seasons.

Courtney Lee, SG, Memphis Grizzlies

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    Courtney Lee has had some decent years before but never anything like the one he's experiencing with the Memphis Grizzlies.

    If the season ended today, he would have career-highs in points (14.9) and assists (2.3). The most impressive items on his stat sheet, though, are his scalding shooting percentages: 56.6 from the field, 62.1 from three, 91.7 at the line.

    His shooting will eventually cool off. He enjoyed a similarly fiery stretch after joining the Grizzlies last January. During his first 12 games with Memphis, he averaged 14.2 points and posted a .564/.438/.914 slash line.

    But Lee has been far more than a shooter. He is on pace to have the highest assist percentage (11.9) and lowest defensive rating (103) of his career. Of the three Grizzlies regulars with a 20-plus PER, Lee's 20.8 is the best.

    This feels like something more than a hot start. It could very well be the maturation of a player who has finally found his home after bouncing around to five different teams over his first six seasons.

    "Courtney Lee has spent his professional life trying to find a place to call his own, a safe haven of hardwood where he can be more than that trade chip, that desirable contract," wrote Grizzly Bear Blues' Joe Mullinax. "... The long search for an NBA abode may finally be over."

    Credit the Grizzlies for seeing something in him no other team could. With 10 wins to show for their first 12 games, this championship-hopeful could wind up reaping major rewards for the find.

Austin Rivers, SG, New Orleans Pelicans

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    New Orleans Pelicans combo guard Austin Rivers is the son of Los Angeles Clippers head coach Doc Rivers. For the first two seasons of the former's career, that was really the only notable thing about him.

    A lottery pick in 2010, Rivers averaged 6.2 points on 37.2 percent shooting as a rookie. The following year brought only marginal improvements to his numbers: 7.7 and 40.5, respectively.

    With that data in hand, the Pelicans declined his team option for the 2015-16 season. Rivers boldly declared he was "going to go out there and play and make them pay for it," per Nakia Hogan of The Times-Picayune.

    So far, he is living up to those words.

    Through 10 games, he has posted career marks in field-goal (50.9) and three-point (38.5) percentages. He has cut down his turnovers lower than they've ever been (1.6 per 36 minutes). His offensive rating (113) and PER (13.2) have never been greater, and his defensive rating (109) has never been lower.

    His plus-6.9 on-court net-efficiency rating leads all Pelicans reserves. And his off-court mark of plus-4.8 is lower than anyone not named Jrue Holiday, Tyreke Evans or Anthony Davis.

    With good handles and a quick first step, Rivers can penetrate a defense with relative ease. More importantly, he's doing a better job of finishing once he gets there. He has converted 63.6 percent of his attempts within 10 feet of the basket, shots he made at only a 42.5 percent clip the past two seasons.

    On the strength of Davis' meteoric rise, the Pelicans are trying to position themselves to make a playoff run. But they don't have a lot of depth, and they don't have any of the most efficient perimeter players (both Evans and Eric Gordon have sub-40 field-goal percentages).

    New Orleans needs consistent production out of Rivers—even if it will have to pay for it down the road.

Marreese Speights, PF, Golden State Warriors

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    Absurdity has suddenly become the norm for Golden State Warriors seventh-year big man Marreese Speights.

    Just consider the following two sentences. Speights shares a locker room with Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson. Speights leads all healthy Warriors in PER (27.5) and true shooting percentage (67.3).

    That just doesn't make any sense. Neither does the fact he owns a higher offensive rating (122) than either of the Splash Brothers.

    Entering this season, Speights had been a career 46.7 percent shooter. So far, he's knocking down 63.2 percent of his attempts. His PER is nearly 10 points higher than his previous best of 17.9. Both his offensive (12.8) and defensive (23.0) rebounding percentages are the best he's ever had. Ditto for his .333 free-throw rate.

    "He's amazing. He just keeps producing every time we throw him out there," coach Steve Kerr raved, per Rusty Simmons of the San Francisco Chronicle. "... The production he has given us is remarkable."

    And the Warriors plan to let him prove this production is sustainable.

    Sure, they'll lean heavily on former All-Star David Lee whenever his hamstring cooperates. But Lee's return won't push Speights off the floor.

    "He's earned that backup role," Kerr said. "He's going to play a lot for us."

    Last season, when Speights was shooting just 44.1 percent from the field, such a statement would have given Warriors fans nightmares. This year, the same words could be comforting to hear.

Brandan Wright, PF/C, Dallas Mavericks

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    Dallas Mavericks forward Brandan Wright has attempted 67 shots on the season. He has converted all but 16 of those looks. There's more to the lanky reserve than his league-best 76.1 field-goal percentage, but that's the obvious starting point to this discussion.

    The seven-year veteran has been around long enough to understand how to play to his strengths. With a 6'10" frame, massive 7'4.5" wingspan and 35.5" maximum vertical (per DraftExpress), he has all of the physical tools to be a devastating finisher at the rim.

    But it has taken some time for him to figure out how to put his natural gifts to work. This is the first season in which the former lottery pick has a double-digit scoring average (10.1), and it's not as if he owns a deep bag of low-post tricks.

    As ESPNDallas.com's Tim MacMahon explained, Wright has learned where, when and how to attack the basket:

    Wright...flourishes at catching and finishing after rolling hard from a pick set for the ball handler. Wright also excels at slipping screens, cutting to the rim when he catches his defender cheating a half-step in anticipation of showing against the guard.

    And Wright has a knack for finding cracks in the defense, whether he's cutting from the weak side or exploiting a defense compromised by a drive.

    When Rick Carlisle calls Wright off the bench, he's unleashing the player with the NBA's second-highest PER (28.6). That's an unfathomable luxury to have.

    But Wright's value extends beyond that. As a strong interior defensive presence (2.9 blocks per 36 minutes), he provides a spark on both sides of the ball. And he's an excellent insurance policy behind starting center Tyson Chandler, who missed 43 games over the past two seasons.

    Wright's arsenal isn't deep, but there's plenty to be said for a guy who both knows his role and embraces it.

    Unless otherwise noted, statistics used courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com and NBA.com.