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With more talent on the Nets, Brook Lopez is playing at the level many envisioned for him.
In general, about 5-10 percent of NBA players would play productively for any coach, in any system. Another 5-10 percent will barely make an impact no matter where they are.
So that fat middle, maybe 80 percent of the league, is deeply impacted by variables such as coaching, system, teammates, etc. And the range of what those players can become is wide, as players can potentially move from "solid" to "spectacular" when everything clicks. And when these players finally fulfill their potential, spectacular can eventually mean perennial All-Star status.
Here are five guys who are proving this point this season by finally living up to the huge expectations heaped upon them when they first entered the league.
Growing up, Mayo was the best player in the country for his age group. Think about that. To be widely considered the top player in America for a particular age is an incredible accomplishment. When that player also has the requisite size for the position he plays, it typically translates into an NBA career (as opposed to a 13-year-old who's simply tall for his age and stops growing).
Mayo has been good in the NBA, and that's about it. Despite his stellar pedigree, he has proved to be willing to take fewer shots, run some point guard and become a grind-it-out kind of guy, and thus never elevated his game beyond "very solid" in Memphis.
However, Dallas Mavericks head coach Rick Carlisle has a long history of helping players reach their potential. In fact, that's a big reason why owner Mark Cuban hired Carlisle to coach his team. One thing Carlisle has done to help Mayo is let him have a full green light to shoot, especially early in possessions. Mayo has rewarded Carlisle's faith with a blistering start to the season, shooting a career-high 59 percent from 3-point range.
This is a direct reflection of his confidence to shoot the ball whenever he feels he can make the shot. Not second guessing what a good shot is helps a shooter immensely, and Mayo is taking more shots than he has since his rookie season in 2008-09. We shouldn't expect him to finish with a rate better than 50 percent from 3-point range, but he should end up in the mid-40 percent range while scoring more than 20 points a game (helped in no small part to his career-best four made free throws a game). That will put him among the top 8-10 shooting guards in the game.
Over the years, I have placed a low Division I college player on the court with NBA players and seen that young college kid shine like never before. Then, with players his own age next to him, he goes back to looking like what he really is -- a young player who makes mistake after mistake. In a sense, we're seeing this now with Lopez.
Always gifted as a scorer, but not always locked in the way his team would hope he would be game after game, Lopez is now playing next to real pros. Men. Veterans who have huge ambition, and expect to play for things like titles and rings for their new franchise.
The Nets don't need Lopez to accomplish anything special, and he is responding. He's getting far more shots inside than he did two seasons ago thanks to smarter teammates who are better passers and who know how to give him room to operate inside. He's getting more shots earlier in possessions instead of as the shot clock is expiring. So his looks are cleaner, and he is finishing them better than he ever has. This has inspired him on the defensive end, evidenced in part by his career-best 2.8 blocks per game, a full block more than his previous career high.
It's not my place to recommend holiday gift ideas to ballplayers, but there can be little doubt that Batum will be spending some serious time looking for the perfect present for his new coach, Terry Stotts.
Why? How about the fact Batum leads the NBA in 3-pointers made while shooting a career-high 7.6 per game, a full three more attempts per contest than his previous high set last season. And like Mayo, he's also getting them earlier in possessions due in part to the arrival of rookie point guard Damian Lillard. Indeed, 78 percent of Batum's looks are coming in the first 15 seconds of the shot clock. They are better looks, and Stotts wants him to fire away.
When a coach says "shoot," and a player gets open a lot, his confidence soars. Good results only deepen those feelings. Batum is basically Portland's best player thus far, and as Lillard matures, that combination next to LaMarcus Aldridge gives the Blazers a potential homegrown "Big 3" that can be very potent on both ends of the court, as Batum has the chance to be a special defensive player, too.
Rebounds come in different categories. "In area, no contest"-type rebounds look good on the stat line, but they have no value in terms of helping to see how one player can help a team more than another. "In area-contested" rebounds, however, are tougher to come by, and when guards can come up with them it greatly helps out a team.
Naturally, "out-of-area" rebounds are in a class by themselves, as are "out-of-area-contested" rebounds, which is how the elite rebounders make their living.
But why are we mentioning rebounds with a previously shoot-happy guard such as J.R. Smith? Simply because he's finally focusing his immense talent and doing grunt work like he never has before. He has been the best defensive-rebounding shooting guard this season not named Andre Iguodala. And the only reason why Smith is second to Iguodala is because Iguodala defends small and power forwards far more often than Smith does, which means he's closer to the rim more often and thus is closer to more rebounding opportunities.
Smith has more or less stopped thinking about racing down the floor for an electrifying dunk after an opponent shoots the ball and instead flows nicely to smart rebounding zones, where he can pounce on the ball should it land nearby. This focus surely starts with his defense, and he might be New York's most effective perimeter defender -- heady stuff for a top-five defense. He has always been an amazing shooter and athlete, but the complete player he has become is a big reason why the Knicks are off to such a great start.
There is a simple reason why most athletes develop their craft -- whatever it is they are currently doing is just not good enough. Michael Jordan added an incredibly reliable jump shot because he had to in order to counter the kinds of defenses he faced nightly. Magic Johnson and Kobe Bryant did the same, adding low-post games, just as Derrick Rose andRussell Westbrook improved their outside shots.
For DeAndre Jordan, who shares with Denver Nuggets center JaVale McGee the title for "most athletic 7-footer in the NBA," developing a strong low-post game wasn't all that necessary to be an NBA player. Size alone was enough to do pedestrian work. But it is necessary to help anchor a contending team, and Jordan has answered the challenge this season.
He moves robotically down in the post, but he's pretty steady, too, looking to bang his man down for an easy jump hook that he can make with either hand. The Clippers don't need it much, at least not yet, but they are feeding their big man a few times per game and he is delivering at a solid rate, more than he has in previous seasons.