8 Surprise Starters Who Have Caught on This Season

Zach Buckley@@ZachBuckleyNBANational NBA Featured ColumnistDecember 17, 2015

8 Surprise Starters Who Have Caught on This Season

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    NBA prognosticators have a wealth of available tools to help make educated guesses about what's coming next.

    But anyone who follows the sport understands that the basketball gods have a thing for unpredictability. Not every narrative has a logical rhyme or reason behind it.

    Take the upcoming eight players, for instance. Each entered the 2015-16 campaign either locked in a battle for a starting spot or seemingly without a chance to land such a gig.

    Some had yet to prove themselves on this stage. Some looked like their best days were behind them. Others appeared to have both their present and future tied to a supportive reserve role.

    And somehow, all of them have spent the season exceeding expectations, while forcing their way into the opening lineup and giving their respective clubs an unexpected boost.

Kent Bazemore, Atlanta Hawks

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    Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

    Some players earn starting spots by default, being the lesser of two (or more) evils, if you will.

    Kent Bazemore isn't one of those players.

    His primary competition for the Atlanta Hawks' starting small forward gig, Thabo Sefolosha, has done everything he can to fill the void created by DeMarre Carroll's offseason departure. The 31-year-old Sefolosha is shooting a career-best 51.1 percent from the field, hitting 35.6 percent of his three-point attempts and harassing opposing perimeter scorers.

    But Bazemore has a leg (at least) up on Sefolosha in nearly every aspect of the game. Bazemore, long viewed as an energetic defender, has poured in a personal-best 12.7 points per game and posted a .486/.423/.889 shooting slash. His stat line includes an above-average 17.4 player efficiency rating (Sefolosha's is 13.5), and Bazemore has held opponents 2.8 points below their field-goal average.

    "He's proven to be a threat," Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer said of Bazemore, via Chris Vivlamore of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "He can attack you if you start closing out to him too hard."

    Both Bazemore and Sefolosha have started for the Hawks, but the former recently reclaimed the role.

    While these situations can always be subject to change, Atlanta could have a hard time demoting Bazemore. He has seven outings of 15-plus points (compared to one for Sefolosha), and the Hawks have gone 10-5 in games Bazemore has started against 3-4 when he hasn't (2-3 in the five outings he's missed).

Clint Capela, Houston Rockets

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    Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

    The Houston Rockets entered this season with a logjam up front. Stretch bigs Terrence Jones and Donatas Motiejunas each had a promising resume behind him, and rookie Montrezl Harrell added an insatiable motor to the mix.

    So, who claimed the coveted starting spot alongside Dwight Howard? None of the above. That job has instead gone to springy sophomore Clint Capela, a player who's quickly made a habit of testing conventional wisdom.

    He made 12 appearances for all of 90 minutes during his rookie campaign, before topping both numbers during Houston's trek to the 2015 Western Conference Finals. This time around, he's teamed with Howard in a twin-towers look that seems too big for today's small-ball game. And yet, the dual-center combo is the Rockets' most efficient two-man tandem at plus-15.9 points per 100 possessions (min. 50 minutes).

    Capela, whose lanky 6'10", 240-pound frame features a freakish 7'4.5" wingspan, has made a fittingly massive impact on the box score. His per-36-minute marks nearly mirror those of Howard: 14.6 points, 12.5 rebounds, 2.1 blocks and 1.8 steals to Howard's 13.9, 12.9, 1.9 and 1.2, respectively.

    "He's not the most refined player, but he tends to get to the right spots on both ends of the floor," NBC Sports' Dan Feldman wrote of Capela. "... He's a quality pick-and-roll finisher, and he crashes the offensive glass hard. He also combines the foot speed to defend the pick-and-roll and the leaping ability to protect the rim."

    Capela could become Howard's long-term replacement in Houston, but for now, the two team together on a surprisingly effective, super-sized front line.

Raymond Felton, Dallas Mavericks

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    Casual fans will have one of two reactions to this slide: Raymond Felton starts for the Dallas Mavericks?! Or, Raymond Felton is still in the NBA?!

    There is a wildly surprising side to this story, but it's not in response to either of those questions. Rather, it's this—Raymond Felton has the largest on/off split of any Mavericks regular. Dallas has outscored teams by 6.1 points per 100 possessions when he's played. When he hasn't, the club has been outscored by 5.9 points per 100 possessions.

    "Those who forgot about me or those who forgot about the nine years of work that I put in this league before last year, just letting them know that I'm still here," Felton said, via Vice Sports' Jonathan Auping. "It's really just coming out and showing everyone that I can still play basketball. That ain't changed."

    To be clear, Felton had come dangerously close to falling off the face of the NBA world. After landing with Dallas in a June 2014 trade, he suffered a severe ankle sprain during the preseason. He failed to crack the Mavs' rotation after that and wound up posting career lows across the board in 2014-15, including 29 games played and 9.7 minutes per.

    Considering that followed a few years of decline—after averaging 15.5 points and 8.3 assists in 2010-11, he managed only 11.7 and 5.8, respectively, over the next three seasons—it was easy to believe his hoops window had closed.

    But, pressed into duty for the under-manned Mavs, the former No. 5 pick has proved he still has a pulse. He's averaged 11.9 points, 4.6 boards and 4.3 assists in 14 starts—numbers only 11 players are posting this season—and is one of only 10 players to record a triple-double.

Channing Frye, Orlando Magic

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    Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

    Channing Frye's second go-round with the Orlando Magic has been a testament to the importance of context in player evaluations.

    On the surface, he looks less effective than he was last season, a disappointing campaign on the heels of signing a four-year, $32 million pact. His counting categories have dropped across the board, thanks in large part to a massive cut in playing time: 17 minutes a night, down from 24.9.

    But dig a tiny bit deeper, and it becomes abundantly clear that this is a bounce-back year for the sweet-shooting big man.

    For starters, his accuracy rates have headed the right direction. After hitting a career-worst 39.2 percent from the field, he's bumped that number up to 43.3. More importantly, he's gone from being a good three-point shooter (39.3 percent) back to a great one (44.9).

    "Channing's a little bit like Kyle Korver or guys like that," Boston Celtics coach Brad Stevens said, via Josh Robbins of the Orlando Sentinel. "... You fear 'em like they average 30 [points] because of the way that they can change a game with making shots. They can go on 9-0 runs by themselves that could change the outcome of a game."

    Frye's shooting helps balance the floor for an Orlando offense built around post-ups, dribble penetrations and pick-and-rolls. But it's his effectiveness at the other end that has won him favor with new head coach Scott Skiles.

    Frye is holding opponents to 41.5 percent shooting—4.1 points below their average and 9.4 lower than last season. That's how his on-court influence has gone from being a net-negative (minus-7.6 points per 100 possessions in 2014-15) to an overwhelming positive (plus-12.5).

Gary Harris, Denver Nuggets

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    Gary Harris' rookie run with the 2014-15 Denver Nuggets involved more observing than anything else. He only took the court 55 times and averaged just 13.1 minutes when he did.

    That alone landed him in an uphill battle for the starting shooting guard slot. The difficulty only increased when the Nuggets handed the offensive keys to rookie Emmanuel Mudiay, who Denver could have easily decided would benefit from having a veteran presence beside him.

    But when opening night came, Harris was out with the starting group. And the only thing to slow him since has been a concussion that sidelined him for six straight games.

    Inside the lines, he's routinely flashed the two-way ability that made him the 19th overall pick in 2014. Offensively, he's been striping shots from point-blank range (59.1 percent at rim) and long range (42.1 from three). Defensively, he blends good instincts with great intensity to form a pesky combination that Nuggets coach Michael Malone consistently deploys against opponent's top perimeter scorer.

    "He's a guy that is one of our best two-way players," Malone said, via Christopher Dempsey of the Denver Post. "He's shooting the ball exceptionally well. He's one of our better perimeter defenders, and he's been doing a great job of moving without the basketball, getting us easy baskets."

    Harris' biggest failure last season was a lack of opportunity. Now that he's finally received one, he isn't letting anything prevent him from making the most of it.

Jon Leuer, Phoenix Suns

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    Whether tickling the twine from distance or crushing the last leg of a double alley-oop, Jon Leuer has used his fifth NBA season as a formal introduction to the hoops world.

    After donning three different jerseys over his first four years, the fourth has been the charm for the 6'10" sniper. A draft-night swap sent him to the Phoenix Suns, who needed both floor spacing and more stability than the disgruntled, volatile Markieff Morris could provide.

    Morris still got the starting nod on opening night and during 16 of the Suns' first 18 outings. But Leuer has since stolen it away with volume he'd never previously produced and efficiency Morris has been unable to match.

    During his 10 starts, Leuer has tallied 11.5 points on 51.5 percent shooting, 6.4 rebounds and 2.1 assists. His 41.1 three-point percentage ranks second among players his height or taller (min. 25 attempts). The Suns play like a playoff team when he's on the floor (plus-1.3 points per 100 possessions, would be 14th) and a bottom-feeder when he's not (minus-4.4, 22nd).

    "Leuer's pick-and-pop efficiency has been great, as has his ability to take a dribble and dish it if he's cut off on a drive," noted ArizonaSports.com's Kevin Zimmerman. "He was labeled as a sub-par defender coming out of Memphis, and he's actually been pretty good on that end."

    With Morris' name continuing to swirl around in trade winds, Leuer's role in this rotation should only increase.

Ian Mahinmi, Indiana Pacers

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    Over the summer, the Indiana Pacers moved on from their frontcourt of the past (Roy Hibbert and David West), then added a potential center for the present (Jordan Hill) and one for the future (Myles Turner). There were also publicly laid out plans for the team to embrace a smaller, faster type of game.

    The two additions and stylistic change did nothing to improve the stock of incumbent big man Ian Mahinmi, who had previously given the Pacers three seasons of solid-not-spectacular play. The 29-year-old entered the campaign having started only 21 of his 367 regular-season games and owning forgettable career per-game marks of 4.3 points, 3.8 rebounds and 0.7 blocks in 15.1 minutes.

    But Mahinmi knew the ins and outs of head coach Frank Vogel's system, which may have helped the veteran secure a starting spot. Mahinmi has tightened his grip on the gig over the past 22 games with numbers that dwarf his previous bests: 7.9 points, 7.0 boards, 1.5 assists, 1.2 blocks and 1.0 steals. His 16.4 PER is also the highest he's ever had as a rotation regular.

    "To finally get to this point feels good," Mahinmi said, via Nate Taylor of the Indianapolis Star. "I feel I've paid my dues. I finally found a place where I'm happy and my teammates are pulling for me."

    Mahinmi's combination of size and athleticism has allowed the Pacers to increase their offensive speed without sacrificing too much at the other end. Indiana is sixth in defensive efficiency, and Mahinmi's 97 defensive rating easily leads the club.

Marvin Williams, Charlotte Hornets

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    Marvin Williams has long been haunted by his prominent draft position. It's as if fans blame him for being selected second in 2005, right before franchise-changing point guards Deron Williams and Chris Paul came off the board.

    Obviously, Williams is several stories below that level of play. But remove his draft placement from the equation, and he's had a relatively effective career.

    Entering this season, though, there were serious questions of whether being relatively effective would help him hold off the stable of young bigs the Charlotte Hornets assembled behind him. With recent top-picks invested in both Cody Zeller and Frank Kaminsky, Williams seemed a likely candidate to have his playing time sliced.

    It's been just the opposite.

    He's logging more minutes now (30.8) than he's had since 2008-09. He's also corralling a career-high 7.0 rebounds, while lifting his scoring (9.8), three-point shooting (36.4) and PER (14.4) to heights he hadn't reached since 2011-12. He's a more active long-distance shooter than ever (5.2 threes per 36 minutes), and his impact has extended to both ends (holding opponents 0.8 percentage points below their average).

    "He's definitely been our most consistent player—without any question," Hornets coach Steve Clifford said, via Ashley Mahoney of the Charlotte Post. "He's definitely been our most well-rounded player. He does everything."

    A draft bust who does everything? It's probably time to start rewriting Williams' scouting report.

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