By Brian Spencer
1) Blake Griffin, F, Los Angeles Clippers: A fractured left kneecap incurred in the waning days of preseason has Griffin shelved until at least late January, though there’ve been very few positive reports out of Clipper Land and we’re starting to wonder if this thing might drag on even longer. Obviously, there’s no reason to rush him back to the court, but it’s an inauspicious omen for a franchise that never seems to catch lightening in a bottle, much less a modest break. The 20-year-old was quite impressive during Summer League and preseason play, so hopefully this is just one of those things and not a sign that Griffin is injury prone.
2) Hasheem Thabeet, C, Memphis Grizzlies: The native Tanzinian has a long, long ways to go. It’s much too early to label him an out-and-out bust, but unless your name is Darko (who by the way still blames his failed NBA career on everybody except himself) second-overall picks aren’t supposed to look as immediately lost, overmatched, and overwhelmed as Thabeet has in limited duty. You can’t teach height, and Thabeet has plenty of that to spare at 7-3, but right now it’s hard to imagine him ever becoming more than a shot-blocking specialist with an extremely low ceiling on offense.
Key Per-Game Averages: 10:54 minutes, 2.9 points, 3.3 boards, 1.1 blocks
3) James Harden, G, Oklahoma City Thunder: His well-trimmed beard isn’t the only thing that’s made Harden an early fan favorite in Oklahoma City. This team has been quietly building up its perimeter depth over the past year or so, and though for now Harden is playing second fiddle to starter Thabo Sefolosha off the bench, his hustle, smarts, and willingness to do whatever is asked of him has entrenched him in Scott Brooks’ regular rotation. Though it may not be until next year, it’s only a matter of time before Harden slides into the starting lineup and sticks there. A future All-Star? Probably not, but has the look of a significant piece on a winning team.
Key Per-Game Averages: 22:23 minutes, 9.8 points, 38% FG, 3.4 boards, 2.5 assists, 1 triple, 1.1 steals
4) Tyreke Evans, G, Sacramento Kings: Phenomenal. This kid has done it all and more for the resurgent, exciting Kings, and is flirting with historic, rare rookie pers of at least 20 points, 5 rebounds, and 5 assists. As I said earlier this month, Evans has all the physical tools and mental intangibles to a be a perennial All-Star in this league for the next decade. What’s more, he seems like a winner and has been the driving engine behind his team’s respectable 14-16 record. Nobody thought the Kings would entertain realistic playoff hopes this season, but then few thought Evans would dominate as quickly as he has either.
Key Per-Game Averages: 37 minutes, 20.3 points, 46% FG, 5.1 boards, 4.9 assists, 1.5 steals 3.1 turnovers, 78% FT
5) Ricky Rubio, G, Minnesota Timberwolves: Let’s be honest: the Timberwolves totally botched this. It’s like the Chargers drafting Eli Manning with the first-overall pick of the NFL Draft, but deciding to keep him instead of trade him even though he was adamant about not wanting to be there. Rubio clearly had/has no interest in playing in Minnesota, but GM Randy Kahn stubbornly stuck to his guns, drafted him, and refused to trade his rights to any number of alleged suitors. Now, Rubio is in Europe playing for Regal Barcelona for at least two seasons (and currently averaging an underwhelming 5.1 points, 3.3 boards, and 4.9 assists) and the T’Wolves are stuck waiting for some kind of return, sometime down the road, on a top-five pick. It’ll be interesting to see what becomes of Rubio’s trade value; sure, he’s still considered a top NBA prospect, but winds change direction quickly.
Jonny Flynn to Earl Clark after the break…
6) Jonny Flynn, PG, Minnesota Timberwolves: It’s hard to get a read on the super-fast point guard out of Syracuse. He’s had both his good and bad moments, but as the season wears on it’s becoming more and more clear that the triangle offense might not be the best fit for his talents. You respect Kurt Rambis for installing a system he believes in and has experience coaching from his days with the Lakers, but rarely do good things come of trying to stuff square pegs into a round hole. As it stands, the T’Wolves core to build around consists of Flynn, Al Jefferson, and Kevin Love: the organization needs to find out how these three are most comfortable playing and cater to that. Flynn is a real talent, though, and could make Rubio that much more expendable.
Key Per-Game Averages: 29:18 minutes, 14.4 points, 43% FG, 4.1 assists, 2.3 boards, 1.1 steals, 3 turnovers, 0.9 triples
7) Stephen Curry, G, Golden State Warriors: The baby-faced Curry might look like the star player on your local high-school team, but his play thus far has lived up to the hype… especially considering that his coach revels in playing mindgames with his young talent. Curry has proven that he and Monta Ellis are entirely capable of sharing the court together (though size will always be an issue on defense), and though his effortless scoring is garnering most of the attention–he’s scored in double digits in 19 of his last 23 games–Curry’s ability to play the passing lanes and cause turnovers is underrated. He’s already had 11 games of 3+ steals.
Key Per-Game Averages: 31:53 minutes, 11.8 points, 44% FG, 4.5 assists, 3.7 boards, 1.8 steals, 2.6 turnovers, 1.3 triples
8 ) Jordan Hill, F, New York Knicks: The decision to pass on Brandon Jennings, who would have not only delivered instant buzz but instant results at the Garden, could haunt this franchise for years, especially if they fail to land one of their coveted free-agent targets next summer. Sorry, Chris Duhon, this team was sorely in need of an upgrade at the point: instead of sulking about missing out on Curry, they should have been ecstatic that Jennings was still on the board and taken him in a heartbeat. Yes, he was still very much a question mark on draft day, but Jordan Hill? Really? Does his presence more entice prospective free agents evaluating the Knicks than Jennings’ would have? To date, Hill has played mop-up/spot minutes in just 10 games, bringing his DNP count to 21 and counting. Woo.
Key Per-Game Averages: 8 minutes, 3.8 points, 2.2 boards
9) DeMar DeRozan, GF, Toronto Raptors: A starter from Day 1, the 6-7 swingman has jump-out-of-the-gym hops and is slowly but surely rounding his overall game into good shape. The Raptors aren’t asking much more of him than to play good man defense, hustle, and score when opportunity knocks; so far, so good. You’d like to see more rebounds and steals (he averages just 0.6 of those), but that should come in time: let’s not forget he’s not even of legal drinking age yet. Right now DeRozan projects as a solid role player with upside, but he needs to work on his jumper if he hopes to differentiate himself from the legions of somewhat one-dimensional, athletic, 6-8ish forwards in this league.
Key Per-Game Averages: 20:11 minutes, 7.5 points, 44% FG, 3 boards
10) Brandon Jennings, PG, Milwaukee Bucks: Though he’s cooled off somewhat from his torrid arrival on the NBA scene, which included a 55-point effort back on November 14 against the Golden State Warriors, Jennings has already exceeded all expectations and energized a fanbase looking for something, anything, to get excited about. His shooting has come back down to earth (42% in November compared to just under 38% in December), but in the same timeframe he’s increased his assists by more than 1 per. Early success breeds heightened expectations, but it’s important not to expect too much too soon. He’s still only 20 years old and very inexperienced; there will be many bumps in the road. Still, we could potentially be looking at one of the NBA’s best PGs of the future.
Key Per-Game Averages: 35 minutes, 19.5 points, 41% FG, 6.1 assists, 3.7 boards, 1 steal, 2 triples (on 40%), 2.9 turnovers, 80% FT
11) Terrence Williams, GF, New Jersey Nets: A strong start has quickly dovetailed into spotty-at-best production, questionable work ethic, and an apparent lack of focus; makes me wonder if he’s hanging out too often with teammate Sean Williams, who also seems to be letting his considerable talents go to waste. With an unbelievable 2 wins under their belt in 31 tries, the Nets are playing for little more than ping-pong balls this season, and all of its youngsters should be getting heavy minutes and working out their kinks. There’s simply no reason for Williams to be behind veteran vagabond Trenton Hassell on the depth chart, but it’s a good thing, I guess, that team brass isn’t simply handing Williams a starting job if he hasn’t earned it. It’ll have to be disconcerting for the Nets if this kid doesn’t show marked improvement in the second half of the season.
Key Per-Game Averages: 22:53 minutes, 8.5 points, 37% FG, 4 boards, 1.7 assists
12) Gerald Henderson, G, Charlotte Bobcats: There’s simply no room for the 6-5 collegiate sharpshooter on a guard depth chart stacked with veterans playing relatively well on a team that’s going to compete for a low playoff seed in the top-heavy Eastern Conference. His greatest value this year is probably as a situational three-point threat, but even then, it’s hard to imagine Larry Brown calling on a rookie during crunchtime. Check back next year.
Key Per-Game Averages: 8:54 minutes, 3.2 points, 38% FG
13) Tyler Hansbrough, F, Indiana Pacers: While some thought this prolific college talent slipped way too far down the draft board, Hansbrough is what he is: a steady scorer and rebounder who at 6-9 is probably too undersized to start at power forward and too slow to start at small forward and regularly match up with the NBA’s elite talent at that position. This slot seems about right, as does the franchise, at least under Larry Bird’s direction. The fundamentals are solid–very impressed with his ability to get to the free-throw line–and he figures to be a solid contributor for some time. Long-term, he’s best suited as one of the first frontcout players off the bench who can help his team get back in the game or maintain a lead. There’s definitely a place for guys like him.
Key Per-Game Averages: 19 minutes, 9.2 points, 36% FG, 5.1 boards
14) Earl Clark, F, Phoenix Suns: This is no way to reward my faith in you, Earl. Despite my prediction that Clark would cap off an impressive rookie campaign by being named to the 2010 NBA All-Rookie Team, the 6-10 forward has mostly been an afterthought in Alvin Gentry’s rotation for the semi-surprising Suns. He’s lost potential minutes to both Jared Dudley (not surprising) and Louis Amundson (unacceptable), and is unlikely to crack the rotation this year unless there’s an injury.
Key Per-Game Averages: 8:24 minutes, 2.7 points, 1.2 boards