Every NBA season comes with a fair amount surprises, from teams you didn’t expect to make the postseason to players you just had to pick up in your fantasy league because they came out of nowhere.
This season, thanks to injuries around the league, a lack of depth at certain positions and trades that put players in better situations than they were with their old teams, a number of newly minted stars have stepped into the limelight and caught our attention. Here, we take a closer look at the 10 most surprising players to come out of their shells this season.
- Larry Sanders-In his first two seasons, Sanders started a grand total of 12 games and averaged 13 minutes, but in one season of opportunity, he has become one of the league’s leading shot blockers. Because of him, Milwaukee is the second best shot blocking team in the league and is on its way to the postseason for the first time since 2010.
- Jeff Green-After having heart surgery last year, there were some doubts about how effective Green would be coming back. Sure enough, the former Georgetown man has come back with fire in his eyes, averaging 12 points and 3 rebounds per game while tying a career best 0.9 blocks per game. His production for the Celtics has been vital in the absence of Rajon Rondo and an upbeat story in a down year for the team.
- Damian Lillard-Some experts had predicted success for Lillard due to his knowledge of the pick and roll coming into the NBA, but his emergence as the clear Rookie of the Year has blown everyone away. Averaging 19 points and 6.5 assists per game, Lillard doesn’t just look like a future all-star, but a franchise player and top 10 point guard that Portland can continue to build around.
- Isaiah Thomas-The Kings may not have realized last year the gem they had drafted in the second round of the 2011 NBA Draft. Thomas had a decent rookie season, but his 45 percent shooting and 14 points, 4 assists per game in 54 starts this season have christened him as the real deal. He can shoot the three pointer well, so if he can ever improve his defense he’ll be an extremely coveted asset.
- JJ Hickson-When the Blazers acquired Hickson from Cleveland, I doubt anyone knew they would get a guy who would average a double-double this season (13 points and 10 rebounds). He showed flashes of it after coming over last year, but doing it every night having started all 73 games is another matter. Hickson is a free agent at the end of the season and has earned himself a grand pay day from someone come summer time.
- Jimmy Butler-In the absence of Derrick Rose, the Bulls have needed all the help they can get. Surprisingly, a name increasingly growing in importance is Butler’s who has stepped in to start ten times this season. He averages just 8 points and 3.6 rebounds per game, but on a given night his impact is much larger than the stats show. His name comes out of practically nowhere this year and will play a major role in how well Chicago does in the playoffs as he provides their backcourt with a valuable weapon.
- Jonas Valanciunas-Stepping into a starting role in his rookie year, the Lithuanian rookie didn’t appear to be much at the beginning of the season, but after the team dealt away Ed Davis, his minutes have seen a slight increase and his stats have been on a steady incline over the last nine games. He’s averaged 15 points and 8 rebounds during that span and is becoming a decent shot blocker. For a rookie, he’s shown good potential and could be shaped into a solid center for the future.
- Nikola Pekovic-Through three NBA seasons, Pekovic has steadily gotten better, but without Kevin Love to compete with on the boards he’s really shown what he can do averaging 16 points and 8.8 rebounds per game this season. He needs to work on his defense, but Pekovic could be one of the hottest commodities on the free agent market this summer with stats like that.
- Tobias Harris-Since being traded to Orlando, Harris has emerged as a major piece of their future. Taking over the No. 12 jersey, Harris is averaging 16 points and 8 rebounds as a member of the Magic and appears to be blossoming as one of the best trades the team has made in recent history. The Magic now have a good young power forward in Harris, a solid center in Nikola Vucevic, an emerging young playmaker in Maurice Harkless and high draft pick on the way.
- Nikola Vucevic-Staying in Orlando and with Vucevic, few players have been more surprising this season than the Swiss big man who has averaged 12.5 points and 11.5 rebounds per game. Quality big men are hard to come by in this day and age and the Magic lost the most valuable one in the league last summer. But what seemed like a botched deal for the Magic actually did bear some fruit in the form of Vucevic who they can build their front line around for the future.