10. DJ Augustin, Charlotte Bobcats – Augustin was supposed to struggle to hold of Kemba Walker this year, but has instead responded by becoming a true leader, shooting a great percentage and running a team at a heretofore unforeseen efficiency. Who at the start of the year thought Augustin would have more assists per game than the likes of Deron Williams, Ty Lawson and John Wall?
9. Danilo Gallinari, Denver Nuggets – He hasn’t replaced Carmelo Anthony’s offensive output in sheer volume, but he’s more than matched Melo’s efficiency thanks to a lot of threes and free throws. His game, less isolation based, is also a better fit for the Denver offense while his willingness as a defender and length have helped Denver be among the league leaders in offensive output. The Melo to NY trade looks like more and more of a steal… for Denver.
8. Anderson Varejao, Cleveland Cavaliers – The rookies will get the credit for the Cavs improvement this year, but the team was decent last year before Varejao went down with injury and is decent now with him healthy and the reason is simple – he’s one of the premier rebounders and defenders in the league. The Cavs are going to move some veteram pieces rebuilding. Varejao shouldn’t be part of it as he’s exactly the type of player this team will need to compete.
7. Marcin Gortat, Phoenix Suns – Another of the league’s leading rebounders, Gortat isn’t the defender that Varejao is, but he’s an incredibly efficient scorer. There were questions about how Dwight Howard’s backup would translate to a starting role, but now we have an answer: damn well. Extra credit goes to Robin Lopez for being one of the league’s premier backups.
6. Jeff Teague, Atlanta Hawks – Since being a revelation during last year’s offseason, Teague came in with huge expectations and he’s actually surpassed them. Sure, his offense has been inconsistent, but his defense has been phenomenal, and he’s among the league leaders in steals. He’s the key to Atlanta’s new trapping defense that is among the Bulls and Heat leading atop the NBA. If Atlanta is to take the next step, he’s the key.
5. Mario Chalmers, Miami Heat – Of course to do so, he’ll have to top Mario Chalmers, a sophomore who’s really becoming a great role player. Along with, like Teague, being among the league leaders in steals (extra important because Lebron and Wade on the break is unstoppable), Chalmers is also close to tops in field goal percentage. As a point guard playing off three stars, that’s invaluable. If he’s knocking down shots and creating transition, the Heat are nearly unbeatable. And if he has an off game, super rookie Norris Cole is there to back him up.
4. Ryan Anderson, Orlando Magic – Anderson shockingly leads the Orlando Magic in Player Efficiency Rating as the rare stretch 4 who both rebounds and gets to the free throw line. He’s also an actual solid defender, unafraid to bang and could develop into a star next to Howard. If the Magic are to compete at all, or keep Dwight, Anderson is key. So far, he’s seemed up to the task.
3. Andrea Bargnani, Toronto Raptors – From career high scoring to career high rebounding to career best defensive effort, Coach Dwayne Casey has been a godsend for Bargnani’s career. This is a team that competes every night and Bargnani has become it’s go to guy. He’s been extremely efficient and effective all year and might be the third best Center in the East and on his way to an All Star appearance. With Jonas Valanciunas coming next year to solidify the 5 and a super deep draft and DeMar DeRozan on board, the Raptors finally look like they can compete within a few seasons.
2. Kyle Lowry, Houston Rockets – There are two NBA players averaging 10 assists per game. One is Rajon Rondo, the other is Kyle Lowry. That’s impressive enough, but to go with it he’s grabbing 6-rebounds a game, 15-points per game, 2-steals per game, and shooting 92% from the free throw line. He’s been, at worst, the second best point guard out best behind Chris Paul and has clearly outplayed the likes of Ty Lawson, Russell Westbrook, Steve Nash, and Stephon Curry. He’s the best player that gets no notice and is the step below elite.
1. Spencer Hawes, Philadelphia 76ers – Apparently not getting tendered a contract last year turned Hawes into a vicious mix of Andrew Bogut and Kevin Love. He’s top 10 in blocks at almost two a game, third in rebounds at 10.6 a night, dropping 13 PPG and shooting 65% while being a legit 7’1″ and 245 lbs. All of that makes him a top tier center, but then you look at early defensive efficiency and realize he’s #1 among all players, including Dwight Howard and Andrew Bogut, and that the 76ers are getting huge wins on the road with a brutal schedule and… wow. If he isn’t the most improved and biggest surprise, I don’t know who is. Hopefully, this isn’t a contract year only phenomenon.