PF/C Philadelphia 76ers
The rise of The Process has begun, and I am 100% here for it. Joel Embiid is finally healthy, and he may be more than we could have ever hoped for. Embiid's numbers are in-line with those from his brief appearance on the court last season. The biggest difference he’s made is simply the fact that he's been on the court. Philly's 24 wins are just five shy of their highest total in the last five years, and are a tribute to Embiid's consistency on both sides of the ball. Embiid's 101.9 Defensive rating (10th in the league) and 4.9 BP% (Block Percentage) have Embiid as an early frontrunner for Defensive Player of the Year. But its Embiid's personality among a team of subdued young studs, is what really makes this 76ers team one that's easy to root for. The Process fears no one and will dunk on anyone, but the best part is that he won't let you forget it. Embiid's attitude and hunger is something not only Philly but the NBA has been missing for some time now. It may not happen this year and it may not happen next, but this 76ers team is destined to be great, and it all starts with Joel Embiid.
PG/SG Indiana Pacers
Victor Oladipo and his band of misfit toys in Indiana have shocked the NBA and climbed into the 7-spot in the Eastern Conference sitting at 28-23 and 4.5 games ahead of the 9th place Pistons. Oladipo is finally playing like the star we thought he would be when he was drafted out of Indiana with the 2nd pick in 2013. Oladipo's production in the first half has been somewhat unheard of, currently beating his career average in points, assists, rebounds, field goal percentage and three-point percentage. Oladipo's 2.6 VORP (Value Over Replacement Player) ranks 16th in the league, the highest of his career. He also has been one of the more efficient players in the league, ranking 13th with a 23.7 PER rating. Oladipo's quiet killer attitude has been a welcome addition to this Pacers team and coach Nate McMillan has got to be loving the production of his new superstar. One can only hope Oladipo can continue his high-level of production long enough to give us a Lance vs. LeBron round 2 this April.
Kelly Oubre Jr
SF/PF Washington Wizards
The Washington Wizards for the most part this season have been an extreme disappointment, John Wall has been bothered by injuries, Otto Porter Jr. can't hit the broad side of a barn, and Marcin Gortat's rebirth has been halted by reality. There have not been many bright spots for this Wizards team in the first half of the season, but Kelly Oubre Jr's performance is certainly one. Oubre has always been a defensive nuisance to his opponents and has always played with high energy that was a gift and a curse to all Wizards fans. But Oubre's first half has included a career high average in both points (12) and rebounds (5) while shooting a career best 40% from three-point land. Oubre has stabilized the bench unit for Washington, which was its ultimate downfall in last year’s playoffs. Oubre's improvement has started to beg the question of why Otto Porter was signed to a max contract this summer. I'm not sure Oubre is ready to be a full-time starter, but with John Wall out for almost two months, we may see what he can do with a starter’s serving of minutes. If the Wizards are going to be able to shoulder the loss of Wall over the next six weeks it will all in all most likely fall on Oubre to maximize his production, the Wizards playoff hopes fall heavily in the hands of the 3rd year player from Kansas, will this be his coming out party? Or will he like many others on this team stumble back to reality?
PF Denver Nuggets
Trey Lyles, or "the guy who got traded for Donovan Mitchell" may not be making ESPN's Top 10 plays every week, but he is playing the best basketball of his career. Coming off the bench for the Denver Nuggets who are currently two games above .500 at 26-24, and in the 8th spot in the Western Conference, Lyles is producing where his team needs him most. In his third year in the association it seems like things are finally starting to click for the 6'10" stretch four from Kentucky. When free agent signing Paul Millsap went down with a left wrist injury costing him the first half of his first season in Denver, I thought that this Nuggets team was finished, too young and inexperienced to stay afloat in such a dominant Western Conference. But Lyles' career high 42.6 3P% and solid average of 11 points and 5 rebounds per game off the bench has helped the Nuggets find offensive and defensive stability in relief of star big man Nikola Jokic. With Millsap expected back after the All-Star break it will be interesting to see if Lyles' play has been strong enough to continue to play a role for this Denver Nuggets team. Seems to me that he could be a difference maker down the stretch for a team clawing at its first playoff berth in five years.
PF/C Houston Rockets
With the addition of Chris Paul this summer we knew this team would be a strong challenger of the mighty Warriors in the West. Like Paul has done most of his career, he has continued to make everyone around him better. But, if you ask me the key to this Rockets team dethroning the Warriors come playoff time is 6'10", 4th year center, Clint Capela. Capela who is currently averaging a double-double (14 points and 11 rebounds), has been not only better, but more efficient in the first half of this year. He is the only player through the first half of the NBA season to rank in the top 10 in both Offensive and Defensive rating, (5th and 9th respectively), Capela has given the Rockets a dominant force not only on defense but on the low-block. Capela's .240 WS/48 (Win Shares over 48 minutes) is over two-times the league average, showing that his production this season would be hard to be replaced. Capela is also changing the defensive reputation of this Rockets team, making guards think twice about driving into his paint ranking 7th in the league with 1.7 blocks per game. If Chris Paul is finally going to get to the ring he has been dreaming of Capela will need to keep producing at a high level.
All stats for this post courtesy of basketball-reference.com and ESPN stats and info.
Written by: Aaron Greenberg
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