By Nick Tuths
You get blinded sometimes, watching the NBA. You shouldn’t blame yourself, because that is how David Stern set it up. Out of all the professional team sports in America, the NBA is the only one that has been specifically designed and marketed to push individual superstars. Their shine is just too bright, and it gets to feel like they (Kobe, Nash, Wade, LeBron, etc.) are the only ones being covered. They are having the stories written about them, they are on all of the front pages, and it’s their names stuck in the mouths of so many voice boxes on your favorite sports radio station.
But there is an inescapable truth in the NBA, and it this: For a superstar to succeed, he needs one or more of his teammates to play over their heads, or emerge during the season as somebody they can either defer to at times, depend on to help carry the load, or at least come through in the clutch to spell them when they go through a rough patch. Baron Davis and Jason Richardson did most of the shooting for the Warriors last season, but would they have beaten the Mavericks, or even made the playoffs without Matt Barnes’ energy, defense, and scoring? How far does LeBron go if Boobie Gibson doesn’t blackout from long range? Hell, is there any doubt that Tim Duncan would have slowed down considerably from wear and tear by now if his French point guard and Argentinian shooting guard (Parker and Ginobli) hadn’t blown up from obscurity to be able to give him long periods where he can coast, instead of having to smash up against the other teams’ biggest bodies for forty minutes, game in and game out? What about Deron Williams’ coming out party?
The thing is, these stories and events didn’t appear out of thin air. Gibson shot the ball well off the bench from the start of the season. Matt Barnes was sparking fast breaks and even hitting threes late in games from the All-Star Break on. And Deron Williams spent the season as the best-kept secret in the Western United States, surpassing Chris Paul as the best young point guard in the NBA. The problem is if these teams are outside of your market, you never get to hear about these things. This season, here are a few under-the-radar names to keep an eye on, so that you can be talking about them before your favorite radio host, or your least favorite co-worker.
Josh Smith – Atlanta Hawks: His position is purposely missing, because Smith is a freak athlete that can play the 2, 3, or 4. Already one of the best perimeter shotblockers and rebounders, last season Josh Smith improved his ballhandling ability, increasing his assists per game as well as shooting almost one hundred more free throws over the course of the season, and scored 20 points or more in 25 games, finishing as one of the hottest players in the L after the break. With the Hawks finally adding a talented big man, in Al Horford, Josh Smith will have even more opportunities to get out on the break after blocks and rebounds. Expect him to put up numbers that should have him at least, in the MVP conversation… but don’t expect him to be mentioned.
Nate Robinson – PG – New York Knicks: Much has already been made about Nate’s summer. And while Knick fans should exercise caution when praising their young superball, they have reason to be optimistic. In his last sixteen games before the season ended Nate had twelve games where he scored in double figures, mixing in three 20+ and two 30+ point efforts. He shot a blazing 51% from three-point range in his last eight games, and in one of New York’s final wins he put in a 34 point 7 assist effort. More important than the numbers though, he has shown newfound maturity on the court (no doubt that Stern’s suspension made an impact) and a willingness to allow the game to come to him. While he won’t be taking Marbury out of his starting slot this season, his evolution will allow the Knicks extra freedom in their rotations, extra rest for Marbury and Crawford, and provide a pestering presence for opposing backcourts. Plus, fans dig little guys… there is really no way around it.
Mike Conley – PG – Memphis Grizzlies: When he was in high school, everyone thought of him as “that nice little guard on Greg Oden’s team.” When he was recruited to play at THE Ohio State University, it was understood that as Oden’s best friend, he got a free ride to be his roommate. Even as the season progressed – and he emerged as the primary ball handler and floor-sergeant for the Buckeye nation – it still seemed that he was just biding time, waiting for ‘the big guy’ to heal and dominate. A funny thing happened though, on the road to the Final Four; Mike Conley became one of the best guards in the nation. And when Oden was saddled with foul trouble on the biggest Saturday in college basketball, it was Mike Conley that led his team to the NCAA title game. Conley is already (yeah I said it) one of the best ball handlers in the NBA. Even if he struggles at first, to get minutes with Damon Stoudamire and Kyle Lowry on the roster, expect him to force himself into the class of Deron and CP3 as the best young Points in the NBA.
Ronnie Brewer – SG/SF – Utah Jazz: Brewer fell out of favor with Jerry Sloan last year, struggling for function in Sloan’s highly structure (read: grinding) offense. However, with Williams blossoming Sloan has loosened the reins and allowed the to call more plays on the fly, and release into the open court. Ronnie Brewer had one of the best summers in the league, spending all summer working on his ball handling, and has emerged from his workouts dominating in practice. Sloan has been unusually open about praising him, which means he must be really blowing the lid of the gym. Brewer is an aggressive defender, a very good rebounder and passer for his size (6’7”), and can shoot the NBA three with consistency. He’s a rhythm scorer, which means it will be up to Deron to keep this new weapon involved, but that sounds like a challenge he’ll enjoy. A thriving Brewer changes the Jazz from competitive, to elite.
Jose Calderon – G – Toronto: Calderon is one of the many international players on the Raptors, so it’s easy to lump them together and not really pay attention. While former No. 1 draft pick Andrea Bargnani’s improvement will be what helps get the Raptors over the hump (hopefully) and into the second round; don’t be surprised to see Calderon become a fan and analyst favorite. As a backup guard to TJ Ford last season, Calderon carried an assist-to-turnover ratio that was better than 3-to-1. He shoots at a good clip from the outside, and defends well. But possibly more more important than all of that is that he can score in bunches when asked, and he is an absolute fireball. His teammates have admitted that his passion is contagious. Calderon is a wild competitor who gets his teammates involved, and who’s presence was so important that coach Sam Mitchell decided to play him thirty-give minutes a game in their last two playoff games.
Luis Scola – PF – Houston Rockets: Of course it will, once again, be all about Yao and T-Mac. But Scola might just be the kick this team needs to finally get out of the first round. At 6’9” Scola is not as versatile as many of his fellow international power forwards. He can not shift over to the 2 or the 3 and help bring the ball up the floor, nor can he move over to center and steal some minutes there, he isn’t big enough. His skill set is defined, but he does a great job staying within his game. He is a good shooter from both elbows and out to the three point line. He rebounds and finishes around the basket with a variety of moves. But most importantly, he passes to other big men – in the paint, or from the wings or high post – very well. He will help get Yao easy buckets. Scola is not some wet-behind-the-ears rookie; he has been playing professional basketball for almost a decade now, and was originally drafted by the Spurs, which is a selling point in itself. He is also a great change of pace from Chuck Hayes, who is a blue-collar rebound machine, more in the Ben Wallace mold. Scola is the type of player who will be involved in many baskets this season for the Rockets, even if he’s not scoring them or even recording an assist.
These guys aren’t always going to shine in the box scores, which is why you are being warned to look out for them in advance. Some of them will struggle with minutes, and have to prove themselves to their coaches. They are worth the wait. Baseball is a game of numbers; players are defined by their digits. Basketball is theatrical, their presence and performances are just as important, if not more important than their lines. These guys fly under the national radar, so to appreciate them, you’re going to have to sit down and watch them. Unless you enjoy the show, then feel free stand up and cheer.