So far this year, we have seen the Lakers and Celtics make an early argument for the league’s best, while the Magic and Nuggets are only a step behind. However, not every team is simply performing consistently with their preseason expectations, and a handful of players have really stepped up and proved the doubters wrong.
1. The Milwaukee Bucks: While I’m not quite ready to buy a Brandon Jennings jersey just yet, I do like the aggressiveness he brings to a below average team playing without their All-Star shooting guard, Michael Redd.
The 20-year-old Jennings is averaging 18.4 points a game, to go along with four assists and a steal, as well as shooting 40 percent from behind the arc. This comes while playing less minutes than most starting point guards. This level of production is surprising from a guy that came off the bench to average five points a game for Italian League team Lottomatica Roma.
Andrew Bogut is also playing well, averaging 14 points and nine boards, while Hakim Warrick is contributing 12 points a game. The Bucks are off to a 3-2 start, and should become more dangerous with the return of Redd in a few weeks. As a pure shooter with a career average of 20 points per game, Redd stretches the defense and will allow Jennings more opportunities to drive to the basket. While I don’t expect the Bucks to be a playoff team this year, they now have a strong backcourt to build around, and are only one piece away from being a fringe contender.
2. Dejuan Blair: 6-foot-7 is a small power forward in the NBA, but combine numbers showed Blair to be closer to 6-foot-6. Because of this, he has never been a big time NBA prospect. However, Blair always seems to prove himself when he has to. When Pittsburgh played Connecticut last season, he was matched up against the 7-foot-3 Hasheem Thabeet, whom would go on to be the second overall pick in the 2009 NBA draft. In that game, Blair scored 22 points and collected 23 rebounds, compared to Thabeet, who tallied five points and five rebounds.
This performance apparently didn’t convince any NBA general managers, as Blair wasn’t drafted until the second round, where the Spurs picked him up with the 37th overall pick. In his first NBA game, Blair dropped 14 points and grabbed 11 rebounds, once again proving that he is the real deal. So far this season, Blair is averaging eight points and eight rebounds a game, playing limited minutes behind Hall of Fame power forward Tim Duncan. The Big Fundamental has taken Blair under his wing, so expect to see him add a strong midrange game to his powerful post presence.
3. The Houston Rockets: The Big Three in Boston of Pierce, Garnett, and Allen won a championship in their first year together. The Big Three in Houston of McGrady, Yao, and Artest looks pretty formidable.
This season, not one of them has played, and Artest has been traded, yet the Rockets are 4-2, and one of those two losses came in overtime to the Lakers. The best player on the team is probably ex-Laker Trevor Ariza, who was probably considered the fifth best player on the Lakers last season. However, Ariza has shown that he can be a leader as well as a scorer (20 ppg).
Additionally, sophomore point guard Aaron Brooks has been red hot, averaging 18 points and eight assists after a strong playoff performance that saw the Rockets lose to the Lakers in seven games. Another pleasant surprise came in the form of rookie shooting forward Chase Budinger. Like Blair, Budinger was taken in the second round, but has consistently outplayed the great majority of players taken (waaayyy) before him, averaging 10 points a game while shooting 52 percent from the floor. Each player on the Rockets plays tough, gritty defense and unselfish, efficient offense. Although the Rockets are not a true championship contender, they will be a tough out for any team in the playoffs, and could even make it to the Western Conference finals.