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Nine To Watch In '09

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A Daily Babble Production

Welcome to 2009 here at CelticsBlog!  Hope you all had a pleasurable time celebrating the turn of the calendar.  We closed 2008 yesterday with a list of eight takeaway thoughts from the year that was in the NBA.  Today marks the latter portion of our two-list miniseries, highlighting nine not-exactly-superstars (yet for some, ever for others) worth watching on in the 12 months to come.  As always, we'll welcome your thoughts in the comments on which eye-catchers for '09 we've missed.  Into the new year we plunge...

1.  O.J. Mayo

As my father said recently, "I tend not to like wackos."  I spent a lot of time making my thoughts quite clear on the Grizzlies' guard's behavior during his pre-collegiate days, the short-short version being that I wanted no part of Mayo's ref-, opponent-, teammate- and other-human-baiting antics, on or off the court.  That said, after being pleasantly surprised with the way he carried himself this summer at the draft (though it certainly doesn't wipe away the past), I can't help but be intrigued by his tremendous skill set.  The guy is already scoring 20 points per game, shooting better than 40 percent from deep and posting a true shooting mark of 56.2 percent.  He can play multiple positions.  He's got an outside shot, an explosiveness around the rim and some touch on his tear drop.  Mayo's arsenal is insane, and it's only going to get better.  Watching the Grizz regularly has recently become my latest League Pass addiction, and Mayo is the primary reason why.  If he can behave himself, he's going to be a star sooner rather than later.

2.  Jameer Nelson

Great college player at St. Joseph's who I long believed didn't get enough credit for the toughness and strength in his compact frame and his willingness to work.  Fittingly, it would be once I finally began to give up on expecting him to break out that he jumped a level.  The Magic's point guard is having the best season of his career, averaging 16.7 points, 5.2 assists and 61.3 percent true shooting.  He just finished a month in which he posted 19.3 points and 5.3 assists per game on 56.2 percent field-goal shooting and 57.4 percent three-point shooting.  If Nelson can continue to play anywhere near his current level, he'll not only raise his personal stock exponentially, but he could also prove himself the man to take an already-dangerous Magic team to the next level.

3.  Daniel Gibson

The 26-5 Cavs sit at second in basketball in offensive efficiency (to complement their second-ranked defense), and that's with their career 40 percent three-point shooter checking in at 31.8 percent from beyond the arc this season.  What happens when Gibson finds his stroke again is anyone's guess.  Opposing coaches need another Cleveland shooter to stretch the floor for LeBron et al. like they need a hole in the head.

4.  Andrew Bogut

Toiling away in Milwaukee, the former number one pick has quietly turned himself into a solid performer in the pivot for Scott Skiles' Bucks.  He is averaging a double-double for the first time in his career (11.5 points and 10.7 boards per game), and he is shooting better than 55 percent from the field to boot.  On the defensive end, Bogut is holding opposing centers to 48.4 percent effective field goal shooting, and the Bucks are more than eight points per 100 possessions better defensively with him on the court than off.  He'll probably never be the player that certain point guards drafted after him in 2005 are and will be, but he is playing efficient basketball and continuing to improve.  At a position without a lot of true studs, that makes the big man from down under an intriguing commodity.

5.  Trevor Ariza

I know how much Celtics fans are itching to hear good things about anyone in purple and gold, but Ariza's play will play a vital role in determining the potency of the Lakers' bench come springtime.  He is having the best season of his career, posting 9.1 points and 5.1 boards in barely 24 minutes of play per game, and he is putting up a 54.9 percent true shooting mark as well.  Ariza still doesn't have a jump shot to write home about, but he has explosiveness around the rim, and he is a big-time hustle guy for the Lake Show.  The man has good quickness and length and has played tight defense all year, holding opposing small forwards to 48.1 percent effective field goal shooting.  The Lakers are 3.4 points better per 100 possessions defensively with him on the court than off it, and his guts-out plays (i.e. the two saves against the Celtics that led to three-point plays for the Lakers) have helped build a tougher, more blue-collar streak in this Lakers team.  If Ariza can put in the work this summer to make himself a better jump shooter once and for all, look out.

6.  Brook Lopez

There are plenty of rookies worth watching in addition to those named Rose, Beasley and Mayo, but this one in particular is already starting and putting up respectable production for the Nets (9.9 points, 7.8 boards and 2.0 blocks per game).  The Stanford twin was rumored to be going as high as fourth in the draft before his stock took a dive, and he fell to the Nets at the tenth spot.  He's got size, touch and good instincts at both ends of the floor.  The more he plays, the better he is going to get.  The future of a team built around him and Devin Harris doesn't look too shabby.

7.  Roger Mason Jr.

In a development that likely shocked no one, the gunner seems to have found a home in San Antonio, as so many role players have over the years.  He can handle the ball when necessary, but his real asset is his sharpshooting ability.  A very respectable 39.6 percent three-point shooter for his career, Mason is knocking down 46.9 percent of his treys in San Antonio this season and putting up a true shooting mark of 59.4 percent.  Along with rookie George Hill, he came up huge in keeping the Spurs afloat when Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili were out with injuries.  He has played admirably as a starter (averaging 12.2 points per game for the year), and he is now an integral part of the rotation thanks to how effective he is at stretching the floor.  It's a mutually beneficial relationship: Mason is good for the Spurs, and they in turn are good for him.

8a and 8b.  Mike Conley and Kyle Lowry

Sooner or later, one of these two youngsters is going to establish himself as the point guard of the future in Memphis.  The guess here for a while was Conley, but we're intrigued by what both former collegiate studs have to offer.  Conley's quickness and floor vision and Lowry's toughness and heady play each have their share of appeals, but both players are still feeling their relative-neophyte oats.  Should be a fun dynamic to watch in Memphis as these two battle for the right to play alongside O.J. Mayo for the foreseeable future.

9.  Marco Belinelli

With the Warriors in all sorts of injury trouble, the 22-year-old Italian guard finally received the chance to shine over the last few weeks.  He plays an exciting game, flying up and down the floor, and pulling up for his dangerous quick release jumpers from mid-range and beyond the arc with abandon.  He is a solid three-point shooter, hitting with 39.5 percent accuracy in his first two seasons in the league, and he has put up four 20-point performances in the last two weeks and change alone.  As a starter this season, he is averaging 15.8 points and 3.4 assists to go with 42.6 percent three-point shooting, and he looks comfortable playing Nellieball.  The more opportunities for this guy, the more excitement at ORACLE Arena in Oakland.

Which not-exactly-superstars will you be watching this year?