Giving credit where credit's due
Carl Landry was a force in Houston and has increased his output with the Kings
With Thabo Sefolosha, the Thunder have held opponents to 44 percent shooting
Others deserving of more attention: Deron Williams, Taj Gibson, Scott Skiles
Kevin Durant. Tyreke Evans. Russell Westbrook. Brandon Jennings. All are among the names that have been thrown out there as the NBA's future elite, the guys who are putting up big numbers and have the potential to do even more. But some names have gone unrecognized -- or, at least, not recognized enough.
Here are some players (and a coach) whose efficiency and productivity deserve a little more credit. (All stats and records are through March 9.)
OFFENSIVE PLAYER: Carl Landry, F, Sacramento
At this point in his career, Landry is probably better known for being shot in the leg in an early-morning incident a year ago and losing three teeth in the arm of Dirk Nowitzki this year. But make no mistake: The guy is a force and his career path is on an upward arc -- assuming he can stay out of harm's way.
Just how little is his offensive game appreciated? He was the Rockets' second-leading scorer as their sixth man and their top low-post scorer, yet Houston shipped him to Sacramento before the trade deadline for Kevin Martin, who is shooting 40 percent this year.
Yes, there were extenuating circumstances because the Rockets had to give up something of value in order to trade Tracy McGrady. But it is not often that a team unloads its best interior threat, particularly when there is so much uncertainty about the long-term future of Yao Ming.
With the move, Landry is likely to lose votes for the Sixth Man Award because he is now the starting power forward for Sacramento, where he continues to display the scoring ability that he unearthed in Houston.
A second-round pick in 2007, Landry is averaging 17.6 points on 53.4 percent shooting in 10 games with the Kings, who run their offense through Rookie of the Year front-runner Evans. With increased minutes, Landry's rebounding has improved as well. He averaged 8.2 boards a game in March, up from 6.1 in February. Don't be surprised if in a year or two, as the Kings improve, Landry becomes a 20-10 player.
DEFENSIVE PLAYER: Thabo Sefolosha, G, Oklahoma City
With all the attention on Durant and the Thunder's incredible rise from a lottery team to legitimate contender, Sefolosha has been, for the most part, forgotten.
But he may very well be the next Ron Artest -- without the wackiness. One only needs to look at the players Sefolosha guards to see how effective he is, and why the Thunder are ranked third in the league in opponents' field-goal percentage (44.0).
Sefolosha has held Golden State's Monta Ellis to a combined 27-for-74 (36 percent) from the field this season. Brandon Roy went 5-for-17 against Sefolosha in November. Stephen Jackson made 9-of-26 against him in late December. Dwyane Wade went 16-for-40 over two games. O.J. Mayo has made only 9-of-35 over two games. Caron Butler was 4-for-16. Josh Howard was 2-for-14.
These numbers, of course, are not precise because of substitutions and defensive rotations, but the trend is there: Opposing shooting guards tend to struggle when they play Oklahoma City. Part of the reason Sefolosha is able to focus on defense is because he's not needed as a top scorer. Durant is second in the league in scoring (29.6 points), while Westbrook and Jeff Green contribute 16.7 and 14.5 points, respectively.
That leaves Sefolosha to go to work defensively, and at 6-foot-7, he has the body to do just that, using his wingspan to fill passing lanes, tip balls and harass opponents' best offensive player. It's the reason the Thunder gave him a four-year contract extension after getting him from Chicago in a pre-deadline trade last season.
ALL-AROUND PLAYER: Deron Williams, G, Utah
He may have gotten his first All-Star nod this season and been part of the 2008 U.S. Olympic gold-medal team, but Williams rarely gets mentioned in the same breath as LeBron James, Wade and Chris Bosh. And he should. He has developed into the best all-around point guard in the NBA, and with Utah's recent surge (the Jazz are in position for home-court advantage as the West's No. 4 seed), he deserves at least some consideration for MVP.
Williams (18.6 points, 10.2 assists, 4.0 rebounds) is the complete package: He is big, he is tough and he is getting better. Plus, he plays hard-nosed defense. Most coaches throw in a defensive specialist when they want to clamp down on somebody toward the end of the game. Jazz coach Jerry Sloan calls on Williams, whose bulk and quickness allow him to bully opponents either on the outside or the inside.
Perhaps it is because he plays in a small market. Maybe it is because he has been overshadowed by New Orleans' Chris Paul since they came into the league together. Whatever the reason, though, Williams is only now starting to get the recognition he's long deserved.
As a rookie in 2005-06, Williams struggled with the consistency on his jump shot. But after putting in extensive work over the summer, he has become a serious threat from the outside, able to use his body to create space and possessing the confidence to make the shot. He is shooting 47.8 percent from the field and 38.5 percent from three-point range this season.
ROOKIE: Taj Gibson, F, Chicago
This has been the year of the point guard for the rookie class. But while Evans, Stephen Curry and Jennings have received the majority of media attention, power forward Gibson is putting together an excellent season for Bulls coach Vinny Del Negro, who made Gibson a regular starter in late December and has gotten solid contributions since.
Unlike Sacramento's Omri Casspi, who seems to have hit the rookie wall and was sent to the bench by coach Paul Westphal, Gibson, a USC product, has shown no such malaise. (Though he does suffer from occasional plantar fasciitis, the reason given for his 12-minute, six-foul effort in Tuesday's loss to Utah.)
In just 25.3 minutes, Gibson is averaging 8.5 points and leads all rookies in rebounds (7.0), blocks (1.2) and double-doubles (10). With another 8-10 minutes on the floor, Gibson could reasonably average a double-double. Not bad for the 26th pick in the draft.
At this rate, Gibson can be counted on as Chicago's power forward of the future -- unless, of course, the Bulls fail to land Wade this summer and go after Bosh instead. The Bulls have coveted a solid power forward, and it seems they have it in Gibson, who is everything Tyrus Thomas was expected to be but wasn't.
COACH: Scott Skiles, Milwaukee
An example of Skiles' competitiveness: In 1995, as the starting point guard for the Washington Bullets, his backup, Doug Overton, capped a practice dustup between the two with a straight shot to Skiles' jaw. The very next play during the scrimmage, Skiles responded by decking Overton as he drove down the lane for a basket. It may have been a cheap shot, but it was Skiles being Skiles. And as a coach, his instinct is still there. It may be the reason that after a while he tends to grind on players.
Every coach has it in some way, but how they handle it once it becomes an issue is what separates the great ones from the mediocre ones. Hopefully Skiles will learn to adjust that part of his personality because the guy can flat-out coach.
You think his team is not taking on his personality? How about Jennings standing up to Boston's Glen Davis in Tuesday night's victory over Boston, the Bucks' fourth consecutive victory and 10th in their last 11 games?
One NBA insider said Skiles comes up with some of the most creative play-calling in the league and has a firm handle on the mismatches that give Milwaukee an advantage. He has handled Jennings masterfully, even as the rookie has struggled with his shot for a while. And Skiles has Andrew Bogut playing so well that he looks like the league's next great center.
He has incorporated both Jerry Stackhouse and John Salmons into the rotation effectively in the middle of the season and he has the Bucks in fifth place in the East. They are five games behind Atlanta for home-court advantage in the first round of playoffs. But Milwaukee still has two games left against the Hawks. And you better believe Skiles is already wound up about both.
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