Coming into every NBA season, there are players expected to have breakout seasons or at least make significant improvements to their games.
Then, there are players who seemingly come out of nowhere to excel or have a bigger impact on their respective teams’ success than observers thought they would.
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It’s still only a few weeks into the young NBA season, but here’s a list of overlooked or underrated players in each division, as well as a rookie in each conference, making more noise early on than predicted.
Atlantic: Tony Wroten, Philadelphia 76ers
The Sixers’ sixth man didn’t even get a chance to play for the Grizzlies, the team that drafted him, and when he was traded from Memphis to Philadelphia, it seemed like a move of little to no consequence. But the former highly-touted prep recruit, who tore his ACL as a high-school senior and lost some of his stature, has seemingly harnessed his previously out-of-control talent, and is making an impact as a high-energy playmaker and athletic slasher. In the place of injured rookie point guard Michael Carter-Williams, Wroten put up a triple-double in the Sixers’ overtime home win over Houston, and while those numbers might not be the norm for him, he’s proving that he could be a keeper, especially if he can improve his outside jumper.
Central: Greg Monroe, Detroit Pistons
Overshadowed by the offseason additions of Josh Smith and Brandon Jennings, as well as the expected emergence of second-year center Andre Drummond, the low-key Monroe flies a little bit under the radar. But the fourth-year power forward, who didn’t receive a contract extension prior to the recent Halloween deadline, is again producing at a high level and has been the Pistons’ best and most consistent player this season. Arguably Detroit’s best passer, the big man is averaging a double-double, shooting the ball efficiently and is setting himself up for a nice payday elsewhere next summer, as Smith will likely move into his more natural power-forward role, alongside Drummond.
Northwest: Corey Brewer, Minnesota Timberwolves
While All-Star power forward Kevin Love gets most of the headlines, flashy point guard Ricky Rubio gets most of the highlights and even the likes of center Nikola Pekovic and scorer Kevin Martin are more high-profile members of the team, Brewer has been quietly having a very solid campaign. Minnesota’s starting small forward, Brewer was drafted by the Timberwolves out of Florida, where he won a national championship with Bulls’ All-Star center Joakim Noah, and bounced around the league before eventually finding his niche for the up-tempo Nuggets last season, then signing with his original team as a free agent over the summer. While he’s been a pleasant surprise offensively with his ability to run the floor and knock down open jumpers as a beneficiary of the passing of Rubio and Love, his most important contribution comes on the defensive end, as he’s one of the few players on the roster who could be described as defensive-minded.
Southeast: Jeff Teague, Atlanta Hawks
The older brother of the Bulls’ reserve point guard currently ranks second in the league in assists per game and is one of the reasons the Hawks are competitive. Teague received a contract extension over the summer and is living up to it, running the show for a balanced Atlanta squad under a first-year head coach, while remaining a dangerous scoring threat. Big man Al Horford is the team’s marquee player, Kyle Korver’s shooting prowess has been huge and newcomer Paul Millsap has also played very well, but Teague is a major reason the low-payroll organization could be a dark-horse playoff contender.
Southwest: Anthony Davis, New Orleans Pelicans
This one is cheating a little bit, as Davis was the top overall pick in the 2012 NBA Draft, had a solid rookie campaign and was expected to improve in his second season. But the outrageous numbers the Chicago native is putting up as an improved scorer and rebounder, not to mention his incredible defensive presence and versatility, go beyond what even his more optimistic supporters could have predicted. New Orleans’ talented guard trio of Jrue Holiday, Eric Gordon and reserve Tyreke Evans, all very capable scorers, have become deferential to Davis’ talent and regardless of how the Pelicans fare, he looks like a lock to represent the team when it hosts the All-Star Game in February.
Pacific: Eric Bledsoe, Phoenix Suns
Bledsoe is another player who many observers thought would make a jump, now that he’s a starter after the Clippers dealt him over the offseason, following his apprenticeship under All-Star point guard Chris Paul. But the explosive fourth-year point guard is already showing his full potential, putting up monster stats for the surprising Suns, a team thought to be tanking before the season started. While the fourth-year player didn’t receive a contract extension before the Oct. 31 deadline, don’t expect him to go anywhere, as Phoenix is likely to match any offer sheet, even one for a max contract.
East rookie: Nate Wolters, Milwaukee Bucks
Don’t be embarrassed if the name of the second-round pick out of South Dakota State doesn’t ring a bell, as the point guard wasn’t expected to be an impact player and certainly not as a rookie. But Wolters has earned the trust of Bucks head coach Larry Drew and has played big minutes, even starting five out of Milwaukee’s seven games, due to point guards Brandon Knight and Luke Ridnour being on the shelf. Although his numbers aren’t eye-popping and he must improve his shooting, Wolters has a good feel for the game, excellent size for the position and is a competent distributor.
West rookie: Steven Adams, Oklahoma City Thunder
Adams, a native of New Zealand who played one season of college basketball at Pittsburgh, was viewed as a project coming into his rookie year, but has been effective for the Thunder, a team not afraid to take chances on developing young players. Whether or not he eventually usurps Kendrick Perkins’ spot in the starting lineup remains to be seen, but the two centers have similar characteristics, in that neither is afraid to be physical inside. The more explosive Adams has a ways to go before he has the defensive savvy to match, but his size, strength and fearlessness should make him a valuable rotation player sooner than later in Oklahoma City.