The man who currently is the only player in the NBA to average at least 15 points, 10 assists and six rebounds per game is on his second NBA team, was taken with the No. 24 pick in a weak draft and was dealt for essentially nothing during his third season. That man is Kyle Lowry of the Houston Rockets, and he's the best player in the NBA that nobody knows about, as nebulous as that designation may be. This also isn't really a fluke, based on how he has progressed over the years. This is who he is.
How Lowry got to this point is fairly unremarkable, at least in the grand scheme of surprise stories. He just kept getting better and better, and his team, in turn, slowly handed him more and more responsibility. It's a story worth telling -- and it's a story we will tell -- but it's not one with a breakthrough moment or a quick turn for the better.
In this way, though, Lowry is a case study for a trend worth considering going forward. The thesis being, are point guards the new big men?
It used to be that teams would draft project big men and hope to teach them basketball skills along the way because of the importance of that position. That still happens, to some extent. If not, guys like DeAndre Jordan wouldn't pull down nearly $11 million a season. But in recent years, we're seeing a new trend of point guards taking a little while to really find themselves, and, more importantly, teams giving them latitude to do so.
Lowry is just one example (we'll get to the others), but he's the best example. When he came into the league, he did so as the third- or fourth-best player on a great Villanova team. Many felt he came out too early, and after a rookie year where he only played 10 games, his team, the Grizzlies, drafted another point guard in the top five. When Lowry played, he was effective, but was so out of control at times that they never could really trust him with extended minutes. He put up good numbers and played his butt off, but had no jumper and couldn't really run an offense. He was a useful player, but forever doomed to part-time duty until something changed.
A trade to the Houston Rockets in 2009 gave Lowry a fresh start, but it still took a little while for him to break out. At first, the Rockets accepted him for what he was: a sixth-man sparkplug. His game improved enough where he was a key piece for a playoff contender, but he was still playing less than 25 minutes per game. That all started to change last season when then-starter Aaron Brooks got into a funk. Lowry started as Brooks came off the bench, then really took off once Brooks was traded at midseason. In March, he averaged nearly 20 points and eight assists per game as the Rockets stayed on the periphery of the playoff hunt.
This season, Lowry has carried that momentum over and then some, and it's not a fluke. His 37 percent mark from three-point range is in line with his percentage last year. His assist numbers are much higher than his career average, but there's an easy explanation for that: he has the ball much more. After acting as more of an off-ball player in Rick Adelman's system, which calls for the big men to operate in the high post as passers, Lowry has been given the keys to Kevin McHale's offense, and he's flourishing. His usage rate, which measures the percentage of possessions he ends, is up from 18.6 percent last year to 22.5 this year, and that's not even including all the possessions that end with a Lowry assist. Perhaps his staggering rebounding numbers are unsustainable, but the shooting and passing numbers surely aren't.
There's nothing especially magical about this story. Lowry has always been quick, strong and tenacious, and he still is all those things. But now, he's added a potent jump shot, which has made him that much more dangerous as a pick and roll player. Also, over the years, he's seen all sorts of defensive coverages, so he studied those and now has a great sense of how to get the ball to his teammates in the right spots. Essentially, he took his natural ability, and thanks to hard work, great coaching, opportunity and a great situation, he became one of the league's best point guards in his sixth year.
There are examples of this all over the league too. In Philadelphia, Jrue Holiday couldn't get off the bench as a rookie; now, he's their crunch-time sniper and budding star. In Charlotte, D.J. Augustin barely looked like an NBA player in his second year as he wilted under Larry Brown; now, he's applied those hard lessons and is one of the Bobcats' future pieces. Ty Lawson was a three-year college player, and even he took a year and a half to become Denver's guy. It took forever for Raymond Felton to be a viable starter; now, he's the floor general of arguably the West's best team early in the year. Even Lowry's former teammate, Mike Conley, developed from a guy who had trouble dribbling without turning it over into one of the league's most surehanded ball-handlers.
Those are just the non-obvious guys too. Rajon Rondo was a liability at times when Boston won the 2008 title. Deron Williams was benched for the immortal Keith McLeod as a rookie. Russell Westbrook led the league in turnovers during his rookie year and wasn't considered a franchise cornerstone until the playoffs during his second year. Derrick Rose didn't become Derrick Rose until his third year, when he won MVP. Those guys took less time than Lowry, but they still took time to develop.
So don't fret if you're a fan of a team with a struggling young point guard (I'm talking to you, Wizards and Bucks fans). As Kyle Lowry proves, sometimes, it just takes time for a point guard to come into his own.