Rodney Stuckey, PG, Detroit Pistons
He’s not getting as many minutes as he would for a non-contender, but Rodney Stuckey has found himself in a better situation than most of his ’07 draft classmates because he’s never been asked to do more than he’s capable of, and has the luxury of learning the pro game from All-Star caliber teammates. Though known as a prolific collegiate scorer with a knack for getting to the rim and drawing fouls, Stuckey faced somewhat of a steep learning curve in his first NBA season. Coming from smallish Eastern Washington and having never played in a postseason NCAA tournament game, the 6-5 guard obviously had to adjust to a much higher level of competition than he was used to facing. Though he mostly manned the off-guard spot in college, the Pistons see him as their point guard of the future, so he had to pick up the most difficult position in the NBA for a rookie. And then there was the broken hand that kept him out of the lineup for the first 25 games.
His patience while enduring the NBA growing pains has paid off. Aided by the close tutelage of veteran teammates and fellow guards Chauncey Billups, Rip Hamilton, and Lindsey Hunter—not to mention coach Flip Saunders, who was a PG in his day too—Stuckey has made a smooth transition to the point position, steadily gained more and more confidence in his abilities, and will finish this season as the league’s best all-around rookie guard ahead of guys drafted before him such as Mike Conley, Jr. and Acie Law. His April splits are rock solid, especially given that he’s averaging only 27 minutes/per: 15 points, 4.6 assists, 3 boards, 1.1 steals, and 86% FT. This kid will be heard from–loudly–in the postseason.
Ramon Sessions, PG, Milwaukee Bucks
No less than eight second-round picks from last year’s draft have made an impact at some point during the season, but the 56th overall pick, Nevada’s Ramon Sessions, has made a late-season push to be considered the most productive of the bunch. Known as a quick, pass-first PG in college with good vision but a shot that needed work, the 6-3 rook was given an early ticket to the NBDL. But instead of sulking about it, he made the most of the playing time and was named the season’s first D-League Performer of the Week after averaging an eye-popping 30.5 points, 7.5 rebounds and 5 assists.
His NBA debut on March 9 against the Philadelphia 76ers was hardly noticeable, but after starting PG Mo Williams went down with a groin problem, and with the Bucks all but out of playoff contention, the youngster finally got his chance. Since April 1, Sessions has been one of the league’s most productive set-up men, period, in averaging a near double-double: 8.8 points, 9.4 assists, 4.3 rebounds, and 1.4 steals. His Month to Remember includes a recent stretch in which he’s registered at least 10 assists in four of the last five. True to his scouting report out of college, his jumper still has a ways to go (37% FG), but the Bucks may have found a promising backup.
Five more late-bloomers from the 2007-08 season after the jump…
J.R. Smith, SG, Denver Nuggets
We knew that he could dunk, that he could score in bunches, and that he hasn’t yet found an NBA coach patient enough to deal with his maturity level, which could be generally described as “a work in progress” over his first three NBA seasons. George Karl, certainly, seemed content to chain the 22-year-old Smith into his cavernous doghouse… until the light went on in J.R.’s head midway through the season. Since then, this kid has turned himself into the Nuggets’ fourth-leading scorer and most dangerous three-point shooter.
Since February 1, Smith has played the best basketball of his young career, averaging 15 points (including 2.6 three-pointers) on 49% shooting in about 21 minutes a night. We’ve always known he has the talent to be a big-time scorer, but the knock on Smith has always been his inconsistency, his lack of effort on the defensive end, and just acting a fool in general. To his credit, however, Smith has made significant strides in addressing these shortcomings, and has even been spotted taking a charge or two from time to time (gasp!). He’d probably only admit it begrudgingly, but Karl knows Smith’s post-All Star break play has been huge for the playoff push.
Luis Scola, F, Houston Rockets
When Yao went down, this Argentinean rookie stepped up. Drafted late in the second round all the way back in 2002 by the San Antonio Spurs, Scola was gifted to the Rockets last summer in a trade for basically nothing—with uber-talented bigs already on the roster like Fabricio Oberto and Francisco Elson (who was later traded to Seattle), the Spurs just decided there wasn’t enough room for him. Big mistake.
The 6-9 Scola was solid in limited minutes while Yao was still healthy, but his hard-nosed rebounding and effective, efficient play around the basket have put him in the Rookie of the Year conversation (even if he won’t win it) and cemented a spot for him on the All-Rookie First Team. In fact, Scola’s numbers stand tall against those of our ROY pick, Alfred Horford: over the past three months, he’s put up 12.2 points and 7.7 rebounds on 53% FG. If he’d done that all season-long, he’d have made an already tight ROY race between Horford and Kevin Durant a three-man race. As it is, he’ll have to settle for helping push his team into the postseason despite the absence of its best player.
Al Thornton, F, Los Angeles Clippers
It hasn’t translated into more wins for his team—this is the 2007-08 Clippers we’re talking about, a team that starts either Dan Dickau or Brevin Knight at point guard—but the inspired play of the 14th overall pick last summer has Clipper fans (all seven of them) dreaming of brighter days in the near future. Given that Elton Brand only just recently returned, we thought Thornton’s impact would be felt much earlier in the season. For various reasons, however (growth curve, maturity, the annoying presence of Tim Thomas, etc.) the explosive 6-8 rook didn’t take off until late in January. He hasn’t looked back since, and the heavy minutes he logged in the season’s second half are bound to pay dividends next year.
And now comes the part where I roll out the post-January stats, and where you think to yourself, “you’re right, that is pretty damn good:” 16.1 points and 6 boards. You’ll notice that the periphery stats are missing (assists, steals, blocks), which means there’s still a lot of room for improvement in Mr. Thornton’s game. The kid has plenty of hustle and athleticism in him, though, so I think it’ll come… and it will significantly help his cause to line up next to a healthy Brand and Chris Kaman in the frontcourt next year and perhaps even a real point guard.
Charlie Villanueva, F, Milwaukee Bucks
Charlie V probably isn’t thrilled to make this list, as he’s made it abundantly clear all season that he thinks he deserved to be in the starting lineup since Day 1. He was at least able, however, to save face from a forgettable start by putting up some monster numbers once given full-time duty. Before suffering a right calf strain late last week that likely put the kabosh on his availability for these last few games, the third-year forward hit for 38 points, 12 boards… and 7 longballs against the Toronto Raptors.
That outburst against the “rough-and-tumble” Raptors was but the culmination of a strong second half for Villanueva, who was awarded more minutes after Chinese import Yi Jianlian hit the rookie wall (hard) and was later shut down with a sprained knee. The month of April, particularly, stands out as the strongest month of his career, even though we’re only talking six games: 17.5 points, 9.5 boards, and nearly 2 three-pointers/per on 49% shooting. The Bucks are clearly more invested in Yi long-term, but at the very least the offensively minded Charlie V should push him for the starting spot in training camp, if not be decent trade bait for new GM John Hammond.
Travis Diener, PG, Indiana Pacers
Last and probably least, The Little White Dude That Could, Mr. Travis Diener. Little more than an afterthought at the end of the Orlando Magic’s bench during his first two pro seasons, the 6-1 Marquette product was pushed into a starting role midway through the year after incumbent starter Jamaal Tinsley proved incapable of overcoming his ever-lingering knee problems. He hasn’t exactly been spectacular—and the arrival of Flip Murray cut into his minutes—but Diener has been a pleasant surprise for the Pacers, who were probably ready to call it a day after realizing they had to sink or swim with Diener as their main floor general.
All he’s done is keep Indiana afloat in the hunt for a playoff berth all the way until the end and post an impressive 4.4 assist-to-turnover ratio on the season. As a starter, Diener averages a respectable 10.1 points and 5.8 assists, though his “shooting touch” (37%) leaves a lot to be desired. Still, the 26-year-old’s contributions have been very tangible, and there’s little doubt he’ll stay in the league for at least the duration of his current contract, which runs for another two seasons and $3.5 million.