By Jeff Case, NBA.com
Posted Feb 4 2010 1:18PM
Though we've used this space to highlight young players who have caught our eye, there are two veterans who can't be denied a place here any longer.
It wasn't that long ago that Andrei Kirilenko and Kenyon Martin were considered two of the NBA's rising stars in the frontcourt. Hard to believe, but six seasons ago, the duo made its first (and only) All-Star Game appearance.
Back then, Kirilenko was keeping a rag-tag Jazz team in the thick of the West playoff race while Martin was a key cog in a Nets team shooting for a third straight Finals appearance (which never happened).
While Martin (17 points, seven rebounds) had a much bigger impact on the 2004 All-Star Game than Kirilenko (two points, one rebound in 12 minutes), both had established themselves as solid defensive players with an occasional knack for scoring, too.
The similarities don't end there. Both signed huge contracts in the summer of 2004, though Martin moved on to Denver in the process. After their big paydays, though, both have dealt with injuries and diminished roles, making them appear to be overpaid role players.
Their career symmetry is back again as Kirilenko and Martin have found the fountain of youth of late, keeping Utah and Denver in a tight Northwest Division race. The Jazz were a stellar 10-4 in January, notching big wins over the Heat, Blazers, Suns, Cavs and Spurs. The Nuggets were an even-more-impressive 12-3, an astounding record considering they were without All-Star Carmelo Anthony and team leader Chauncey Billups for different stretches.
In the last week, Kirilenko played a huge role in wins over the Suns, Blazers, Kings and Mavs, frustrating opposing forwards and protecting the basket like back in those special days of 2003-04. Meanwhile, Martin has shown his old aggressiveness on the boards, pulling in double-figure rebounds as Denver picked up wins over New Orleans, Houston and a big road win over the Spurs.
Who knows how long these career revivals will last for Kirilenko and Martin? Both have teased before with flashes of their former All-Star selves. The longer they keep it up, though, the more interesting the Northwest race will be.
NBA.com's Five on the Rise is a weekly look at which young players (and resurgent veterans) have yet to reach stardom, have regained the form of their younger days and, most of all, 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.
The Next Five
G: Russell Westbrook, Thunder -- Westbrook gets the nod this week for his near triple-double en route to a schooling of Hornets rookie guard Darren Collison. Westbrook, who played with Collison at UCLA, helped limit New Orleans' new starter to a 4-for-12 shooting night and five turnovers. Westbrook, for his part, had 26 points, 10 assists and eight rebounds while impressing us, also, with just two turnovers. It marked the second straight game in which Westbrook flirted with a triple-double (he had 12 points, nine assists and nine rebounds in a win over the Hawks) and controlled the pace in both games. "I'm just trying to stay consistent," Westbrook told The Oklahoman. "Whether we win or lose, I think if I stay consistent it's a better outcome most of the time."
G: Goran Dragic, Suns -- Dragic has continued to rise all season for the Suns as their top backup and showed a ton of progress in January, which was easily his best month as an NBA player. He shot close to 50 percent from the field (49.5 percent) and averaged 10.1 points and 2.2 assists in about 17 minutes a game. After the Suns got word last week that Leandro Barbosa would miss the next six weeks following wrist surgery, Dragic gave his best Barbosa-like performances. He had 13 points in 15 minutes in a key win over the Mavs and although his stats weren't impressive in Phoenix's next two wins (over Houston and New Orleans), he did a steady job last week of helping Phoenix get on track after a mini-swoon.
F: Gerald Wallace, Bobcats -- Crash makes our list this week not only for his killer stats against the Kings (38 points, 11 rebounds, two assists, two steals, two blocks), but for how he got them. Go back and watch the highlights (or re-watch it on League Pass Broadband) and you'll see Wallace getting most of his points off cuts to the basket, transition hoops and alley-oops. Oh yeah, he had 15 free-throw attempts, too (making 12). In short, it was another case study as to why this guy is on the East All-Star team and some others are not.
F: Paul Millsap, Jazz -- Millsap must have heard us thinking last week of our topic as he, too, is another Utah player getting in on the vintage performance action. With regular starter Carlos Boozer on the mend from a strained right calf, Millsap did what he's always done for the Jazz: step into the starting lineup and deliver Boozer-like numbers. In his last four games (all his first starts of the season), Millsap averaged 23 ppg and 10.7 rpg, including a 32-point, 14-rebound game against the Kings and a 25-point, nine-rebound effort against the Mavs. The Jazz are dealing with the will-they-or-won't-they talk regarding a possible Boozer trade, and with an expensive backup in Millsap, it is a legit discussion. But Millsap, as usual, isn't making waves or demanding more playing time as Boozer's fill-in. "Somebody was going to have to pick up that load, and I took it amongst myself to try to step up and do that," Millsap told the Salt Lake Tribune.
C: Andrew Bogut, Bucks -- After being the early darlings of the NBA, the Bucks have come down to earth, struggling to an 8-7 record in January. The Bucks were on track for a losing record last month were it not for a late surge by Bogut last week to give Milwaukee wins in three of its last four games, including a pair of monster games against Miami. He had 17 points, 15 boards and four blocks on Jan. 30 at home vs. Miami and followed that up with a 22-point, 11-rebound game in a blowout win over the Heat in South Florida. Chalk some of that play up to a little frustration on Bogut's part, who told the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel he hopes to be an All-Star one day. "He has looked like an All-Star caliber center in a lot of games," coach Scott Skiles told the newspaper. "The problem is he still has the occasional game where he looks like the exact opposite."
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