With big names down, other stars emerge

December 14, 2012

Could you have seen this coming? (AP Photo/Mark Duncan)

In Dallas, Dirk Nowitzki is down but there is a former phenom who is finally living up to the hype of being the third overall pick. In Philadelphia, Andrew Bynum is down but there is a player who is emerging from under the shadow Bynum’s impressive Afro.

In Golden State, Andrew Bogut is down but there is a player who is proving to be more than an overpriced creation of New York propaganda. And in Cleveland, Kyrie Irving was down but is soaring again with the assistance of a rare player who waited until his ninth season – at age 30 – to post a career year.

O.J. Mayo, Jrue Holiday, David Lee and Anderson Varejao weren’t necessarily expected to have breakout campaigns, but with nearly one-fourth of the season completed, they have been pleasant surprises for teams that have ready-made excuses to struggle. They have taken advantage of increased opportunities and changed perceptions that have either been diminished or non-existent in recent years.

The stardom that Mayo appeared destined to claim during a storied high school career and one season at Southern California appeared out of his grasp after he regressed from promising starter to reluctant sixth man in his four years in Memphis.


‘Bout time. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)

Before settling for a measly, two-year, $8-million deal with the Mavericks, he had to watch several members of his 2008 draft class get lucrative contracts – Derrick Rose, Russell Westbrook, Roy Hibbert, JaVale McGee and Kevin Love, whom Mayo was traded for after Minnesota selected him at No. 3.

Mayo, 25, has made the most noticeable leap in his fifth season, going from a bit player on the Grizzlies to an offensive focal point in Dallas. He ranks in the top 10 in scoring, averaging more than 20 per game, and has been incredibly efficient in making more than 50 percent of his shots from beyond the three-point line.

His production will probably dip when Nowitzki comes back, but he has helped the Mavericks maintain some respectability despite the absence of the former regular season and NBA Finals most valuable player.

Unlike Mayo, Holiday has grown accustomed to being overlooked and unappreciated.

He arrived at UCLA in 2008 as the Gatorade national player of the year but had to move over to shooting guard to share the court with senior Darren Collison. He was the fifth point guard selected when he went 17th in the 2009 NBA Draft. He was the least-heralded point guard on the Team USA select team, which featured former No. 1 picks Irving and John Wall.

The 76ers traded Andre Iguodala to Denver in a four-team deal that yielded Bynum last summer, in a move that was meant to give Bynum the chance to be the franchise big man and help Evan Turner fulfill his promise as the No. 2 pick. But while the team waits for Bynum’s knees to heal and for Turner to blossom, Holiday has emerged as Philadelphia’s most indispensable player and kept the team respectable.

Still overshadowed by Bynum’s bowling escapades and wacky hairdos, Holiday is on pace to become the fourth player in the past decade to average at least 18 points and nine assists, joining the elite company of Chris Paul, Steve Nash and Deron Williams. Holiday, 22, is currently dealing with a strained left foot, but was responsible for more than 40 percent of the 76ers’ points in his first 22 games.

Lee has already been an all-star, receiving the honor from Commissioner David Stern as an injury replacement in 2010. But his production was viewed as a product of then-New York Coach Mike D’Antoni’s system and he became expendable when the Knicks signed the more accomplished Amaré Stoudemire.

Golden State traded for Lee and gave him an $80 million contract, and over the next two seasons, he earned a reputation as a player who accumulated meaningless stats on bad teams.

This season, Bogut has yet to play but the durable Lee is among the league leaders in double doubles and ranks in the top five in rebounding. Wilt Chamberlain, Nate Thurmond, Neil Johnston and Jerry Lucas are the only players in Warriors history to average at least 18 points, 10 rebounds and three assists and Lee could become the fifth.

The Warriors are off to their best start since 1991-92 largely because Lee’s stats are leading to wins. Lee, 29, definitely has more help, with the emergence of Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson, but Lee has been outplaying his peers in duels and delivering clutch baskets in the closing minutes of close games.

Varejao has always been a high-energy player who is excellent in pick-and-roll offense, a nuisance on defense and a terror on the glass. Widely respected by league executives for his contributions that don’t always show up on the box score, Varejao is now the rare player who is posting a career year in his ninth season, at age 30, in Cleveland.

The past two seasons, the floppy-haired Brazilian big man has had trouble staying on the court, missing 92 of a possible 148 games because of various ailments. But Varejao has returned with a vengeance this season, leading the Eastern Conference in double doubles and has nearly doubled his career averages in points and rebounds.

Still under all-star consideration despite Cleveland’s poor record, Vajejao could also become the eighth player In the past 30 years to average at least 14 points and 14 rebounds in a season, joining Moses Malone, Hakeem Olajuwon, Charles Barkley, Dwight Howard, Kevin Willis, Danny Fortson and Love.

Few saw it coming, but it’s here.

Michael Lee is the national basketball writer for The Washington Post.
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Alexa Steele | December 13, 2012