EURO TRIO HEAD NBA SURPRISES

Amid the solo successes, look at the NBA’s shock stars, Joshua Rogers declares.

With the regular season now over and the play-offs just around the corner, many of the year’s standout players will be rewarded for their efforts with individual honours and All-NBA consideration. Amongst the favourites to win some of these prestigious awards are LeBron James, Steph Curry, James Harden, Russell Westbrook and Anthony Davis, and barring some key injuries (think Kevin Durant), these are the names pretty much expected to be in contention every year.

But what about the players that have excelled this season that nobody was talking about at the beginning of the year?

They may not be on the best team, or put up astronomical numbers, or even be play-off bound, but these guys have had seriously impressive years and deserve some recognition for their rather unexpected brilliance.

So, in homage to those players that probably won’t get a mention now the season is over, is a rundown of some of the surprise packages of the 2014/15 season.

Rudy Gobert (Utah Jazz)

It is no fluke that the Jazz’ turn around in fortunes during the second half of the season coincided with Rudy Gobert taking his game to the next level.

When the Thunder made the trade for Jazz team mate Enes Kanter in February this year, many thought that the team from Salt Lake City would struggle even further. OKC believed Kanter to be a more polished centre than Gobert, and whilst he has enjoyed a solid first year in Oklahoma, it is Gobert that has proven to be the more effective player.

After the All-Star break the “Stifle Tower” soon established himself as one of the meanest rim protectors in the game; he finished the season 3rd in blocks with 2.30 per game and 14th in rebounding with 9.5.

In that same time the Jazz as a team were similarly outstanding, ranking as the NBA’s best defensive team, allowing opponents just 87.9 points per game and holding them to 41.8% shooting, with Gobert proving to be a significant reason for this improvement.

If the tail end of this season is anything to go by, 2015/16 looks like a bright year for Utah. Don’t be surprised if Gobert, along with Gordon Hayward and Derrick Favors, power the Jazz to that all important 8th seed next season.

Nikola Mirotic (Chicago Bulls)

Before the season started, most people anticipated that number 1 pick Andrew Wiggins was a dead cert to win Rookie of the Year. Although Wiggins is still favourite to win the award, Bulls forward Nikola Mirotic has done his best to make the race closer than expected.

Although drafted in 2011 as the 23rd overall pick, the 24 year-old has spent the last few years playing for Real Madrid, but injuries to key starters like Jimmy Butler and Derrick Rose gave Mirotic the opportunity to show the NBA what he could do.

Seizing his moment, the power-forward didn’t disappoint, averaging 20.8 points per game in March and being voted Rookie of the Month.

More or less given the green light from behind the arc by coach Tom Thibodeau, the Serbian came good for the Bulls when it mattered most, and Thibodeau obviously felt the same, opting to play Mirotic in most 4th quarters down the stretch over reigning Defensive Player of the Year Joakim Noah.

His relatively quieter first half of the season compared to Wiggins’ will be held against him when it comes to the Rookie of the Year award, but given that or a chance of going to the Finals, I’m sure he’d prefer the latter.

Giannis Antetokounmpo (Milwaukee Bucks)

Few big men are able to run the length of the floor successfully and set the tempo at which their team plays. Magic Johnson was the first to truly do it and LeBron has shown on more occasion that he is capable of doing so, but now there is another, and he comes in the form of 6ft 11 Milwaukee Buck, Giannis Antetokounmpo.

The “Greek Freak” has been a huge factor in the Bucks’ transformation this season under Jason Kidd and his evolution has been a majestic thing to watch. In just a year, the Bucks have gone from the worst team in the NBA, with a record of 15-67, to the sixth seed in the East and heading into the postseason, and the Bucks owe a large part of this success to Antetokounmpo.

Making a huge block on one end and running to the basket for a dunk on the other has become a staple part of Giannis’ game, and his enthusiasm and knack for highlight plays has brought a new sense of excitement and belief to the city of Milwaukee.

In his role as a point forward, carrying the ball more than ever, Antetokounmpo has flourished, and if the Bucks are to cause an upset in the play-offs, the “Greek Freak” will have to be at his frenetic best.

Hassan Whiteside (Miami Heat)

Fans of the Heat could be forgiven for looking back at the 2014/15 season with few fond memories; LeBron went back home to Cleveland, Chris Bosh was side-lined after the All-Star break with a potentially fatal blood clot, and the team narrowly missed out on the play-offs after going to four straight finals.

Despite this difficult season though, one player was a shining light in South Beach- Hassan Whiteside.

By averaging 2.6 blocks a game and 10 rebounds a game, including a career high 25 against the Lakers last month in a 100-94 win, Whiteside showed coach Spoelstra early on that the vacant spot in Miami’s centre position had finally been filled.

But, for all his defensive prowess, it was his exploits on the offensive end that was most remarkable, notching up 22 double-doubles whilst averaging close to 17 points per game in April.

This season has been undoubtedly one to forget for Miami, but with Chris Bosh’s slow return to health and Whiteside’s steady improvements over the offseason, Heat fans can be confident that next year will see a return to winning ways.

Other honourable mentions:

Draymond Green (Golden State Warriors), Enes Kanter (Oklahoma City Thunder), CJ Miles (Indiana Pacers), Gordon Hayward (Utah Jazz), JR Smith (Cleveland Cavaliers), Jeff Teague (Atlanta Hawks), Donatas Motiejunas (Houston Rockets)

Main pic: FIBA Photos

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