On the court, young faces leave big traces

While the rookies have been surprisingly disappointing—with several exceptions, including Andrew Wiggins, Nikola Mirotic, and Nerlens Noel, among a few others—the race for league MVP this year has been incredibly close and it would be possible to make the case for as many as five or six candidates this year. LeBron James has been the best player, Stephen Curry has been the best player on the league’s best team, James Harden has improved his defense and his offensive capabilities have taken a Rockets team that has been devastated with injuries to a 56-win season and the second seed in the Western Conference playoffs. While these three are the most likely MVP contenders, several others have demonstrated their amazing ability and have been absolutely thrilling to watch. Despite the looming presence of old veteran stars, the NBA is going through a youth movement.

Perennial contenders Oklahoma City Thunder failed to make the playoffs in the absence of Kevin Durant. Still, Russell Westbrook went on an unbelievable run, leading the league with eleven triple doubles. At only 22 years-old, Anthony Davis of the New Orleans Pelicans has showcased his immense talent and his potential to be the best player in the world as early as next year. The one good thing about the Thunder not making the playoffs is that their spot was taken by the Pelicans. Although it is unlikely that the Pelicans will advance past the first round, it will be great to see Anthony Davis attempt to single-handedly carry his team in a series against the NBA leading Golden State Warriors.

Another MVP candidate who should not be overlooked is Chris Paul on the Los Angeles Clippers. Paul has bested his career averages in nearly every statistical category while playing in all 82 games this season. There was a stretch of several weeks where Paul was without co-star Blake Griffin. During that stretch Paul carried the Clippers to a winning record and now hold the three-seed in the Western Conference.

I mentioned earlier that the rookies this year were not terribly impressive, considering that the 2014 draft class was heralded as the best since 2003. There were several rookies who showed some serious promise this season, though, and it will be exciting to follow their development over the next few seasons. Coming into the 2014-2015 regular season, the most hyped rookies were easily Andrew Wiggins of the Minnesota Timberwolves and Jabari Parker of the Milwaukee Bucks. While he only managed to play 25 games due to injury, Jabari Parker’s first season with the Bucks has been promising as he has averaged 5.5 rebounds and 12.3 points per game while shooting 49% from the floor.

Wiggins has stood out this year as the favorite to win the Rookie of the Year award, and the Timberwolves front office must be pleased that they were able to acquire him from the Cleveland Cavaliers before the season began in exchange for Kevin Love.  Wiggins has been good offensively averaging about seventeen points per game while shooting 43.7% percent. Wiggins has truly shined on the defensive end where he had 4.6 rebounds, one steal and .6 blocks per game while managing to shut down the best scorers on opposing teams. Talented rookies generally stand out on offense and take a few years to develop their defensive proficiency, which is difficult to nail down at the NBA level, yet Wiggins has managed to already do so. If he can get better at shooting from deep, he has the potential to be a real star in the league.

Despite repeated injuries to point guard Derrick Rose, the Chicago Bulls have lucked out this season for several reasons. For one, at the age of 34, Pau Gasol has had a resurgence after leaving the Lakers and is averaging career highs in three point shooting, rebounds, free-throw shooting and blocks. Guard Jimmy Butler has become the leading man for the Bulls this season and is averaging career bests in every statistical category, and has a serious chance to receive the Most Improved Player Award this year. Finally, Nikola Mirotic has emerged as the biggest challenger against Andrew Wiggins for Rookie of the Year honors. While Mirotic, who is 24, is not a true rookie since he has spent several years playing professionally overseas, he has still been quite impressive, considering he was a late first round pick in last summer’s draft. Mirotic is a valuable asset in the current NBA landscape that favors big men who are able to play out of their normal position and stretch defenders on the floor. Mirotic can shoot three pointers decently well and has spent some solid minutes playing at small forward for the Bulls. What could have been a disastrous season for the Bulls has actually turned out okay, and there is certainly hope going into next year.

Besides Jimmy Butler, the other leading candidates for most improved player had to be Draymond Green of the Golden State Warriors and Giannis Antetokounmpo of the Milwaukee Bucks. Green is a defensive wrecking-ball who is able to guard at both the power forward and center positions. He is also talented offensively where he is shooting about 34% from the three-point range and grabbing 8.2 rebounds per game. Green was a second round draft and no one ever expected him to become a star NBA player. He is deserving of maximum contract and the Warriors would be smart to give him one, especially since the salary cap is expected to rise dramatically over the next two to three years. Antetokounmpo, otherwise known as “the Greek Freak,” has been thrilling to watch, and his athletic gifts are out of this world. He will become a superstar one day, and rather than read about him, I suggest you look him up on YouTube and observe just how freakishly talented he is. Despite the disappointing rookie class, a set of young stars, role-players and young “freaks” has shaken up the league for good.

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