Which surprise players are for real?

5-on-5 Roundtable: Most improved and those who appear so but really aren't

Originally Published: January 11, 2012
ESPN.com and the TrueHoop Network

Ryan Anderson, James Harden and Spencer HawesESPN.com IllustrationRyan Anderson, James Harden and Spencer Hawes are off to impressive starts. Can they keep it up?

John Hollinger highlighted 12 players who are off to shockingly good starts. Now it's our five-man crew's turn to chime in on the season's surprise performers so far.

1. Who is the early leader for Most Improved Player?


James Ham, Cowbell Kingdom: Ryan Anderson is playing out of his mind right now for the Magic. After averaging only 19 minutes a game for his career, Anderson is getting close to 31 this season. His per-36 numbers show that his increase in production has more to do with minutes played than improvement, which bodes well for the kid out of Cal.

Mark Haubner, The Painted Area: The early leader has to be Spencer Hawes, whose PER has nearly doubled to 23.6 with across-the-board improvement, but James Harden deserves a citation for taking the leap to stardom. As of the 2011 All-Star break, Harden was averaging 10 points on 41 percent shooting. Now, I find myself wondering, somewhat amazingly, if he's Oklahoma City's most dangerous creator with the ball.

Chris Palmer, ESPN The Magazine: James Harden is having a terrific season. So far he's the Thunder's second-best player. Ready for a phenomenal stat? Harden is averaging 6.8 free throws per game on just 10.1 field goal attempts. Absolutely head-scratching. And he's doing it all off the bench.

Michael Pina, Red94: Improving on what most would consider a breakout season in 2010-11, Kyle Lowry has erupted in the early going this season. He's flirting with triple-doubles on a nightly basis, hovering near the top of the league in assists, and playing consistent, fiery defense. Lowry is undoubtedly the Rockets' best player, and he may end up being their first All-Star since Yao Ming.

Timothy Varner, 48 Minutes Of Hell: If Harden is not the Most Improved Player, he should receive acknowledgement as the league's best sixth man. Harden's arrival as an every-night performer makes the Thunder the favorite to come out of the West.


2. The hot start of which surprise player most resembles fool's gold?



James Ham, Cowbell Kingdom: Spencer Hawes is playing well early, but his rebounding numbers are an aberration. Hawes is paying more aggressively, which is good. He is also playing closer to the basket, which is doing wonders for both his rebound numbers and his field goal percentage. As soon as Hawes starts wandering back out to the perimeter, his numbers will collapse.

Mark Haubner, The Painted Area: I don't know that Hawes will crash and burn, but it's worth noting that a key facet of his red-hot 63 percent shooting is that he's taking a lot more long 2s and knocking them down at a 62 percent rate, which is unsustainable. Hawes has hit about 40 percent from that range in his career, and the league average is about 38 percent.

Chris Palmer, ESPN The Magazine: The thing that worries me about Ryan Anderson is that the majority of his field goals are 3s (29-26). If he gets cold from beyond the arc, his numbers and overall impact will take a big hit. He needs to do more than just bomb treys.

Michael Pina, Red94: Philadelphia has depth, athleticism and young legs flying up and down the court, but something about its hot start seems fishy. Ladies and gentleman, I give you Spencer Hawes! He leads the league in defensive rating, is second in eFG% (shooting 14 percent higher than his career average) and, according to the numbers, is one of the league's 10 best rebounders. Pretty positive this can't continue.

Timothy Varner, 48 Minutes Of Hell: Byron Mullens is an emerging player, but only in the sense that he is emerging from complete and utter anonymity. As the season progresses, I suspect Mullens will regress back to his career averages.


3. Is DeMarcus Cousins a future All-Star?



James Ham, Cowbell Kingdom: Yes, and it won't take long, either. Last season Cousins struggled with shot selection, turnovers and fouls. He is still turning the ball over at an alarming rate and averaging 6.8 personal fouls per 36 minutes, but Cousins' shot selection has improved greatly and so has his rebounding.

Mark Haubner, The Painted Area: I'll say yes, Cousins will eventually make an All-Star team -- he's too talented -- though far fewer than he should make because of his erratic attitude. But will it be with Sacramento? The Kings can hope everything will progress in only a steady, upward direction, but as we all know, it seldom happens like that in this life!

Chris Palmer, ESPN The Magazine: Yes. No reason he shouldn't be. In fact, he has all the tools to be a top-three center at some point, but it's going to take a lot of improvement. Particularly from the neck up. A change in scenery might be in order, as well.

Michael Pina, Red94: Yes. This is due more to the position he plays -- and its lack of competition -- than any confident assertion of his talent, but as long as there's a team willing to list him on its roster, there's no reason why Cousins won't be an All-Star someday. He has the raw potential to average 20 and 10; whether he can stay focused is another story.

Timothy Varner, 48 Minutes Of Hell: No. Cousins is exactly who everyone says he is -- an All-Star talent with potentially career-crippling personality problems. Unfortunately, his personality will determine more about his future than his ability to fill a box score.


4. Is Andrea Bargnani finally living up to his billing as the No. 1 pick?



James Ham, Cowbell Kingdom: If the 2006 NBA draft were done all over again, LaMarcus Aldridge would be the clear overall first pick. Bargnani can score, but that's about it. He is a 7-footer who rebounds like a small forward, plays suspect defense and wills his team to be a sub-.500 club; not exactly first overall pick material.

Mark Haubner, The Painted Area: In the context of the 2006 draft, yes. Bargnani now stands with LaMarcus Aldridge and Rajon Rondo as the three All-Star-caliber players in that class. Most stunning is that the Raptors have allowed fewer points per possession with Bargs on the floor than off. Andrea has been one of the league's absolute worst by that metric for three straight seasons.

Chris Palmer, ESPN The Magazine: AB is playing really well, pumping in a career-best 23.7 ppg. I'd say if he makes a couple more strides on the defensive end, he lives up to the No. 1 pick, as far as the stat sheet goes. But No. 1 overall picks are supposed to turn a franchise around completely, and he hasn't done that.

Michael Pina, Red94: Bargnani is playing fantastic basketball right now, but he's no franchise pillar. A building block, yes, but No. 1 overall picks are supposed to serve as the foundation for teamwide renovation projects. Unless Toronto is able to pair him with one (or two?) certified stars, Bargnani and his lack of overall ability will prevent Toronto from venturing toward anything meaningful.

Timothy Varner, 48 Minutes Of Hell: Give Bargnani credit for a strong start, but he still doesn't look like a player around whom the Raptors can build their franchise. Until Bargs shows more than a little scoring ability, I continue to see him as a quality backup on a good team.


5. Should the Magic trade Dwight Howard for Andrew Bynum?



James Ham, Cowbell Kingdom: I wouldn't. Bynum's history of knee injuries severely decreases his long-term value, in my book. If Howard is really going to be traded, the Magic should have an open auction and send him to the highest bidder. Bynum is playing well, but I think the Magic can do better.

Mark Haubner, The Painted Area: Yes. I've yet to see a potential Howard trade which trumps Bynum, straight up. There are health risks, for sure, but Bynum is also looking more like an elite center than ever, and those are exceedingly rare commodities. I'd roll the dice.

Chris Palmer, ESPN The Magazine: If they know Howard wants to go, they have no choice. Bynum is the second-best center in the league, so it's not all bad. Until the Magic move Howard, they just won't be able to move forward.

Michael Pina, Red94: Yes. It's a safe bet that Orlando will watch Howard leave next season unless they stop their stubborn charade of hopelessness. Dealing him before the All-Star break is unlikely, but once it's over they need to move on. Through the first six games of his season, Bynum has played like the monstrous brute we've expected him to become. If you're Orlando, pull the trigger.

Timothy Varner, 48 Minutes Of Hell: Bynum is playing as well as any player in basketball, but his history of health issues continues to scare me. In the end, Howard is a better player and his body doesn't come equipped with red flags.