By Jeff Case, NBA.com
Posted Jan 9 2010 2:49AM
While we usually reserve this space in Five on the Rise to spotlight a player who stood out last week, we're changing things up a bit. In our review of the best Five on the Rise-type performances, we saw a trend: depth making an impact.
Whether it's contending for a championship or just trying to make the playoffs, quality depth is what makes either run possible. Last week, the Bobcats, Nuggets and Celtics -- all of whom have differing definitions of "contending" -- showed what depth did to help their causes.
The Bobcats opened the new year with a tough stretch: back-to-back road games against the Heat and Cavaliers, a day off, and then a home game against the rising Bulls. All Charlotte did was go 3-0, thanks mostly to some key baskets from offseason acquisition Flip Murray.
Denver has been without All-Star point guard Chauncey Billups since Dec. 16 and All-Star forward Carmelo Anthony has a right knee contusion that kept him out of Tuesday's game against Golden State. Yet there was J.R. Smith, hitting key baskets in a crucial Northwest Division win at Utah and making a pair of free throws to seal a controversial home win over the Warriors.
Rasheed Wallace signed with Boston to provide some veteran experience and clutch baskets in the postseason. We still have yet to see if that happens, but Wallace sparked the Celtics to a win over the Raptors last week while starters Rajon Rondo, Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce nursed injuries.
Thanks to those performances, Wallace, Murray and Smith all make their debut in this week's Five on the Rise. In fact, four of the five spots in this week's list are new faces. The one thing they all have in common? All five players kept their teams in the thick of whatever race (title-contending, playoff-chasing) that the teams were running.
NBA.com's Five on the Rise is a weekly look at which young players (and resurgent veterans) have yet to reach stardom and have made the biggest impact for their team in the last week. These rankings are just one man's opinion and are released every Thursday during the season. If you have an issue with the names on this list, or have a question or comment for Jeff Case, send him an e-mail.
G: Nate Robinson, Knicks -- After sitting on the bench in DNP-CD land for over a month, Krypto-Nate broke out on New Year's Day with a 41-point effort, which led NBA TV's Rick Kamla to say Robinson had the best New Year's Day of anyone on the planet. While that claim is tough to prove, undoubtedly Robinson has become a factor in the Knicks' rotation after a month in playing time purgatory. The Knicks needed all of his 41 to complete their overtime rally against the Hawks, but in New York's following game, it's becoming apparent that Robinson is back in the rotation. He played 23 minutes in a blowout of the Pacers on Jan. 3, scoring six points. Robinson was on the bench much of the season because the team played better with Larry Hughes, but as the New York Times points out in a recent article, coach Mike D'Antoni is going to play whoever helps the team win now. It will be interesting to see what happens when Robinson goes into a scoring slump, but for now, he seems to be a player on the rise in New York.
G: J.J. Barea, Mavs -- From playing time to scoring average, Barea is setting career highs in just about every statistical category. The stat we're most impressed with is this one: 10-4 -- that's the Mavs' record since coach Rick Carlisle made Barea a starter on Dec. 8. Barea put together a solid night in last week's win over the Kings (17 points) and gives Dallas' starting lineup a scoring boost in the backcourt while the Mavs weigh whether or not to put Josh Howard back into the starting lineup. While Barea has done a nice job in the backcourt, we're interested to see how his outside shot comes along and what the Mavs do next. Teams are backing off Barea and forcing him to score from the perimeter and in his 14-game run as a starter, he hasn't exactly delivered against the best teams. Just last week, he scored 10 points on 5-of-9 shooting against the Lakers, but the Mavs were blown out 131-96. "They're paying more attention to me, so it makes it a little harder, but I think it's all about my outside shot," Barea told ESPNDallas.com "If my outside shot goes in, it's easier to attack."
C: Andrea Bargnani, Raptors -- Bargnani caught our attention for his sweet baseline move and dunk on Tim Duncan in last week's home win over the Spurs. Then a few nights later, he put up 18 points and helped Chris Bosh keep Dwight Howard and the Magic frontcourt busy in a thrilling 108-103 win in Orlando. "Andrea did an outstanding job on Dwight,'' coach Jay Triano told the Toronto Sun. "He made him work all game. We tried not to double at any point. I thought Andrea did a real good job of playing him by himself and forcing him to take tough shots."
F: Kenyon Martin, Nuggets -- The Denver Post recently had a great article on how Martin has embraced the role as the Nuggets' middle linebacker of sorts, directing the defense on each posession and serving as the player who rattles young foes when they venture into the paint. Watching Martin work on defense is truly one of the under-appreciated aspects of the Nuggets, but of late, Martin has turned into quite the offensive force, too. He's recorded double-figure scoring in eight straight games, his longest streak since last season and the third-longest streak in his time with Denver. We'll be interested to see how Martin keeps up his offensive play and still manages the defense as Chris Andersen -- Denver's other low-post defensive whiz -- makes his way back from an ankle sprain.
F: Gerald Wallace, Bobcats -- Should he stay in the top five in rebounds per game (as he is now), Wallace would become perhaps the most athletic player to finish among the league's rebounding leaders since Shawn Marion was in Phoenix. We are consistently amazed each night by the rebounding totals Wallace puts up, especially considering his size (6-foot-7, 215 pounds) compared to the names above him (Joakim Noah, Dwight Howard) in rebounds per game. Heck, even Marion -- who is also 6-foot-7 -- has a five-pound advantage on Wallace. While Wallace doesn't have the clutch factor that Jackson and Murray possess, there's no doubt he's taking the burden of leading the Bobcats' playoff run on his shoulders. He's upped his scoring average each month this season, is second on the team in field goal attempts (trailing Jackson) and is averaging a career-best 7.9 free throw attempts per game.
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