Basketball fans and bloggers are a diverse bunch, but one common cause has united them in recent weeks: the need for Timberwolves forward Kevin Love to play more minutes. The movement got national attention when ESPN's Bill Simmons, who has over one million Twitter followers, voiced his support by tweeting, "FREE KEVIN LOVE! FREE KEVIN LOVE! FREE KEVIN LOVE!"
Understand Love is not some sort of ironic fan icon, a stiff whose lack of skill makes him somehow adorable. No, Love is an All-Star level talent and a former lottery pick, yet Wolves coach Kurt Rambis famously benched him late in the fourth quarter of a close game against the Sacramento Kings last week in order to give more minutes to the unimpressive, undrafted Anthony Tolliver. I don't claim to know the mind of every single NBA coach, but I can darn near guarantee you Rambis is the only one who would have gone with Tolliver over Love in that situation. Which other coach would bench his franchise player for an unproven former D-Leaguer in such a tight game, unless he was trying to make a point? In response, SB Nation's Canis Hoopus created this Decision-Making Chart detailing Rambis' thought processes for benching Love.
Two games later, Rambis limited Love to 25 minutes, despite the fact that Love didn't commit any personal fouls, which the well-regarded statistician and observer John Hollinger dubbed "ridiculous."
But Love is merely the highest-profile youngster who doesn't command nearly enough respect. Inspired by his plight, I give you now the top five hoopsters to whom you ought to pay attention, one at each of the five positions on the floor. Note I'm not claiming these players to be underrated, per se; my aim here is to simply draw your eyes their way in the future, because they can hoop, whether you know it yet or not.
I only considered players still on their rookie contracts, and omitted all All-Stars from the discussion. Award winners, like the Sacramento Kings' Tyreke Evans and the Houston Rockets' Aaron Brooks, were also not considered. I also omitted Brook Lopez, who would have made the All-Star team last season had there been any justice.
6-foot-3, 180 pounds, 17th overall pick in the 2009 NBA Draft
Holiday's rookie campaign probably didn't turn too many heads outside Philadelphia. He averaged a modest 8 points, 2.6 rebounds, 3.8 assists, and 1.1 steal, shooting only 44.2 percent from the field. Yet Holiday is far from just another mediocre rookie point guard. It's instructive to note he was the league's youngest player, at 19 years old, in 2009/10. For a player that age to come in and immediately make the sort of impact he did is impressive.
Holiday's range extends to the three-point arc, where he connected on 39 percent of his offerings as a rookie. But his blazing quickness makes him a threat to drive as well. He's still learning how to take care of the ball--his 2.1 turnover average is a bit unsettling--but again, he didn't turn 20 until the NBA Finals. There's a lot of room for growth.
His speed is an asset defensively as well, but he also possesses large, quick hands, another tool he'll learn to exploit over time.
The Pro Basketball Prospectus SCHOENE projection system, which uses age and size among its factors, says Holiday's closest comparison is Tony Parker. If he fulfills that potential, Philadelphia won't remain in the Atlantic Division cellar too long, especially considering Holiday has an outside shot, something Parker never developed.
6-foot-3, 222 pounds, 7th overall pick in the 2008 NBA Draft
If you watched the World Basketball Championships this summer, you may have an idea of what Gordon can do. He's a rather complete, efficient scorer despite his lack of height, as he's able to use his stocky frame to bully his way into the paint, or to back down unsuspecting defenders in the low post. He also has deceptive athleticism, which helps explain how he manages to throw down vicious dunks, like this one on Tim Duncan earlier this week:
But Gordon can shoot, too, with a career 38 percent mark from three-point distance. Rarely do spot-up shooters with his skill manage to draw fouls, but Gordon does, earning 0.385 free-throw attempts per field goal attempt prior to this season. With enough seasoning, he could develop into the big-time perimeter scorer the Clippers need to complement Blake Griffin inside.
Gordon doesn't contribute much on the glass, with only one rebound every 13.6 minutes in his career, a poor mark even considering his size. But considering the breadth of offensive talents, we can happily forgive him for this shortcoming.
Thanks to the hype surrounding Griffin, the Clippers will appear on national TV another 11 times this season. Tune in for Griffin, but stay for Gordon. It's not a decision you'll regret, even if L.A. winds up losing in a blowout.
6-foot-8, 200 pounds, 25th overall pick in the 2008 NBA Draft
An overlooked key to the Trail Blazers' success, the 21-year-old Batum is a veritable Swiss Army Knife on both ends of the floor. His long arms, mobility, skill, and smarts enable him to defend any position from one through three, and he can function as a small-ball four against certain opponents.
Batum's career numbers don't necessarily jump off the page: 6.9 points, 2.1 rebounds, and 3.1 assists? Not imposing. But consider his growth last year, when he averaged 10.1 points, grabbed 3.8 rebounds, and shot 51.9 percent from the floor and 40.9 percent from deep, in just his second season in the league.
Portland plays at one of the league's slowest paces, which makes it seem a poor offensive team and a great defensive team; the opposite is actually true. But the real effect of the slow pace, as it applies to Batum, is that it limits his open-court opportunities and artificially suppresses his per-game statistics. If he got to sop up minutes for the mediocre Golden State Warriors, for example, he could average 17 points per game without having a single play called for him.
As Bethlehem Shoals noted in this piece for NBA FanHouse, Batum may not be an ideal fit for Portland, which could make him a trade target for opponents. It's hard to think of a more talented young player who could conceivably find himself traded for anything less than a superstar, and I mean that. Batum isn't too far away from earning an All-Star berth, at this rate, which is why I agree with Shoals when he says he'd rather have Batum than the more heralded LaMarcus Aldridge on his team.
Anthony Randolph, PF, New York Knicks
6-foot-10*, 205 pounds, 14th overall pick in the 2008 NBA Draft
Long, lean, and incredibly athletic, Randolph has one of the highest ceilings of any player taken in 2008. To date, his biggest issue has been poor coaching. As a 19-year-old rookie, he joined a dysfunctional Golden State Warriors team and was in and out of coach Don Nelson's doghouse, a distinction seemingly every Warrior held. In just 17.9 minutes per game that year, he tallied 7.9 points, 5.8 rebounds, and 1.2 blocked shots, impressive numbers for everyone, let alone a player of his age and greenness. He showed more improvement the following season before a shin injury shelved him, and the Warriors made used his tantalizing skill to entice the New York Knicks to send All-Star power forward David Lee to the Bay.
Mike D'Antoni has a spotty record with managing players and egos--Shawn Marion perpetually felt disrespected, and Stephon Marbury is not among is admirers--so Randolph isn't guaranteed success with the Knicks. Despite all that, there should be no question Randolph is in a better situation here than in Golden State.
The key to helping Randolph realize his full potential is making him more efficient. Despite his size and athleticism, Randolph has shot just 45.4 percent in his career. He settles for jumpers too often, taking 31.5 percent of his shots from 16 feet or beyond, according to HoopData.com. The same site shows opponents block Randolph on 8 percent of his attempts. More patience around the rim and more disciplined shot selection will make him a dynamite offensive player, supplementing his already excellent rebounding and shot-blocking capabilities.
*: In a 2009 community appearance, Randolph said he had reached 7-footer status and weighed 222 pounds.
Greg Oden, C, Portland Trail Blazers
7-foot-0, 250 pounds, first overall pick in the 2007 NBA Draft
Oden may be the most unfairly maligned player currently in the Association. His litany of injuries, which has limited him to 82 games in three-plus seasons, is bad enough; that he plays for Portland is worse, because it gives writers an easy opportunity to compare him to Sam Bowie, another injury-ravaged Blazers big man drafted ahead of a prime-time perimeter scorer. It's lazy, unimaginative, and completely false.
Bowie, even healthy, was a pretty mediocre player, as his career 14.6 Player Efficiency Rating attests. There should be no doubt that Oden, on the other hand is a franchise-level talent, a potential superstar whose skill in the painted area on both ends of the court will keep Portland in championship contention so long as it continues to surround him with enough talent.
Career numbers? 9.4 points, 7.3 boards 1.4 blocks, and 57.7 percent shooting from the floor. Good, even great for his age, but there may be a tendency to compare him to, say, Brendan Haywood.
Try Hakeem Olajuwon. Based on size, age, experience, and a host of other factors, that's the comparison the Prospectus' SCHOENE system gave for Oden, and it's hard to really dispute that projection when you look past the cloud of jokes and injuries to really consider of what Oden is capable.
For his brief career to date, Oden has averaged 15.3 points, 11.9 rebounds, and 2.3 blocked shots per 36 minutes played. Given how much room he has for improvement--he's shot nearly 60 percent from the field for his career despite a still-coming-along post repertoire--and how many minutes he ought to average during his prime, he could become a legitimate 20-point, 13-rebound, 3-block monster. If you're reminded of Dwight Howard, you should be. And if the thought of All-Star shooting guard Brandon Roy, Oden, and Batum running the Rose Garden for the next 10 seasons doesn't make you wonder about their championship potential sooner rather than later, it should.