Team Trend: The Denver Nuggets offense
Five years into his coaching relationship with J.R. Smith, Nuggets head coach George Karl continues to try to get Smith to mature. Smith's latest stint in Karl's doghouse began last Monday, when he was late to pregame shootaround the morning of Denver's game against the Phoenix Suns. Smith sat out that night's game as punishment, then played just one minute combined over the next two games. On Saturday night, Smith moved back into Karl's rotation, playing 19 minutes in a win over the Nets.
That Karl and Smith are apparently starting to get back on the same page is good news for the Nuggets, who need production from their sixth man. In Denver's two losses without Smith--at home against the Suns and at Portland--the team scored less than a point per possession, a mark the Nuggets had failed to reach just once in their first nine games.
Smith's impact on the Denver offense is not limited to the past three games. Over the course of the season, the Nuggets have scored 13.0 more points per 100 possessions with him on the floor, according to BasketballValue.com. And Smith has had a positive impact on offense (albeit not quite so large) in each of the past three seasons.
The funny thing about Smith's status as a difference-maker is that he has not played exceptionally well this season, making just 37.5 percent of his two-point attempts. Still, Smith is a better scorer than Denver starter Arron Afflalo, who was overextended when Smith was sitting out. Afflalo averaged 38.3 minutes in those three games and saw his shooting percentages suffer. Adding Smith to the wing rotation puts Afflalo in a more comfortable role playing between 30 and 35 minutes a night and makes the Nuggets a stronger team.
Player Trend: Kris Humphries, PF, New Jersey Nets
Humphries will have plenty to be thankful for this Thursday. Not only was the Nets forward linked to reality star Kim Kardashian earlier this month, he has earned a regular starting role for the first time in his career and has thrived with increased playing time. Remarkably, when Humphries got the nod on Nov. 11 at Cleveland, it was his first start since April 2007 with Toronto. In his six starts, Humphries has averaged a double-double--11.0 points and 11.7 rebounds per game.
In a reserve role, Humphries has been a solid contributor on a per-minute basis for several years. Per 40 minutes, his production in his starts (14.7 points and 15.6 rebounds) is not dramatically different from his per-40 minute averages last season (16.0 points and 12.4 rebounds). So why did it take Humphries so long to claim a larger role? For one, his defense has long been a liability, though Avery Johnson has praised what Humphries has brought to New Jersey defensively this season.
The bigger issue for Humphries has been scoring efficiently. Last season, his True Shooting Percentage of .495 was substantially worse than the league average of .543, and he has never posted a TS% higher than .516. This is the one area where Humphries' recent stats appear to be a fluke. Per Hoopdata.com, Humphries has made 15 of his 18 attempts away from the rim out to 15 feet. Based on last year's percentages, Humphries would be expected to make just 30.7 percent of those shots.
Even if--or when--his shooting touch returns to normal, Humphries can help the Nets with his rebounding and physicality. His performance in a starting role, combined with Derrick Favors proving more ready to contribute than expected, has rendered Troy Murphy unnecessary in New Jersey. Murphy has been a healthy inactive the past three games. With an expiring contract and an established reputation as a starter, Murphy figures to be trade bait if Humphries continues to hold onto his starting spot.
League Trend: Unheralded rookies outperforming touted peers
Give credit to True Hoop Network contributor M. Haubs of The Painted Area for noticing an unusual trend about this year's rookie class. So far, the success of the league's rookies has had little to do with where they were drafted. That's not true in the case of John Wall, who has been the league's most valuable first-year player by Basketball Prospectus' Wins Above Replacement Player metric (at 1.2 WARP, he's just ahead of Blake Griffin). After Wall, however, just one more of the draft's first nine picks has rated as better than replacement level thus far (Favors).
That young players like DeMarcus Cousins have had rookie moments should not be major causes for concern. More troubling is that experienced collegians like Wesley Johnson, Greg Monroe and Evan Turner have struggled to contribute right off the bat. In the case of Turner, the No. 2 overall pick, the comparison with Wall is especially unfavorable.
But for every disappointing lottery pick, there is a second-rounder who exceeds expectations. This year's standout has been New York Knicks guard Landry Fields, who has excelled as a starter from opening night. Fields' polished game was no secret among Pac-10 fans, but he got little national hype because he played for an undermanned Stanford team that finished tied for eighth in the conference. Fields has exceeded even his collegiate performance, especially on the glass. He's grabbing 20.6 percent of available defensive rebounds, which is phenomenal for a shooting guard (the average for the position is 11.0 percent) and nearly identical to his defensive rebound percentage as a senior in college.
Digging deeper, two undrafted players who made their way on NBA rosters this season have demonstrated they belong in the league. Gary Neal landed a guaranteed contract from the San Antonio Spurs over the summer and has rewarded their faith by knocking down 3-pointers at a 44.4 percent clip. Gary Forbes had to earn a spot on Denver's bench during training camp, but he's become a fixture in Karl's rotation thanks to his aggressive offensive play. He is using 21.7 percent of the Nuggets' plays, which is unusual for an undrafted rookie. Both Neal and Forbes rank among the league's 10 most valuable rookies thus far.
Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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