The NBA has 30 teams, and each team can fill a roster of 15 players. That means that, at any given time, a maximum of only 450 players will hold an NBA contract. That's 450 out of the hundreds of thousands of basketball players around the world who dream of one day wearing an NBA jersey. While 25-30 percent of the NBA’s well-known names make most of the headlines, it is the rest, the 70-75 percent of players that make the bulk of the league’s population, who have to hustle day in and day out to ensure that they have a secure future with the league. For every LeBron James, there are three Dexter Pittmans. For ever Kevin Durant, there are a lot of Lazar Haywards. For every Carmelo Anthony there was at least one Jeremy Lin.
And that is why the players in the NBA periphery, many of whom might spend their careers bouncing around the NBA D-League, international leagues, or warming NBA benches, might only ever get one shot at luck, one opportunity to make or break their career.
The shortened and condensed NBA season, where teams play more games in less time thus resulting in greater strain to the bodies of regular players, has been a surprising boon for these fringe players. No team can afford to play their stars big minutes under such grueling a schedule, and no team has escaped the cruel hand of injuries. So NBA squads have had to turn to their bench to look for new players ready to carry their load when the bigger names aren’t available to do so.
And thus, the NBA’s new, unexpected sensations arose, highlighted of course by the stretch of dominance – dubbed 'Linsanity' – enjoyed by the Knicks’ Jeremy Lin, who became the team’s temporary saviour in the absence of Carmelo Anthony, Amar’e Stoudemire, or any other decent point guard. While Lin enjoyed most of the hype, he wasn’t the only name to spring up out of nowhere, to be a no-name one day and a hero the next. Here are a few players who have had their own brand of ‘-Sanity’ this season:
Ersan Ilyasova (Bucks): Ersanity? To close followers of international basketball, power forward Ersan Ilyasova wasn’t exactly a nobody – The Turkish star was MVP of the FIBA U20 World Championship back in 2006, has played for the star-studded European squad Barcelona, and helped his national side win the silver medal in the 2010 FIBA World Championship. But the NBA’s mainstream knew little of Ilyasova, playing in small-market Milwaukee. An injury to starting center Andrew Bogut forced the Bucks to look to their bench for answers, and Ilyasova responded. He had started games for them before, but this season, his production rose to another level. From his career averages of 9 ppg and 5 rpg, Ilyasova raised his points and rebounds per game stats. Against the Nets last month, ‘Ersa’ exploded for 29 points and 25 rebounds. In a 15-game stretch since the middle of February, he has averaged 19 points and 10.7 rebounds! His efforts were finally rewarded when he was named the Eastern Conference Player of the Week two weeks ago.
John Lucas III (Bulls): John Lucas has been a professional basketball player for nearly seven years already, and it is only now that he is making a name for himself. Lucas played a backup role for the Houston Rockets between 2005-07, and in the stretch from 2005-2010, he played professionally for two different D-League teams, in two teams in Italy, in Spain, and then in China! It wasn’t until 2010 that he was given a chance by the Chicago Bulls. A player who never averaged more than 3.3 ppg, Lucas was suddenly thrust in the spotlight when an injury to MVP Derrick Rose created a void at the point guard position. In January, he got his first start for the Bulls, and had career-high 25 points, eight rebounds, and eight assists in a win! Since that breakout game, he has handled his role for his team brilliantly, taking the backseat to Rose when asked and stepping up when the moment demanded. When the Bulls played the Miami Heat and the Orlando Magic without Rose over the last week, Lucas stepped up to score 24 and 20 in those two games, both wins. He has been one of the reasons why, even though Rose has missed 14 games this season, the Bulls find themselves holding on to the best record in the league.
Nikola Pekovic (Timberwolves): The man described as the ‘Muscleman from Montenegro’ has helped the young Timberwolves take the league by storm this season. Yes, the team is blessed with power forward Kevin Love, rookie sensation Ricky Rubio, and bench strength in Derrick Williams and Michael Beasley, but this center from Montenegro, officially in his second NBA season, has been turning a lot of heads this year. The Timberwolves drafted him with their 31st pick in 2008 but he didn’t show up to play for them until 2010, serving the role of a scarcely-used backup in his first year, where he averaged just 5.5 ppg and 3.0 rpg. But after an injury to starting center Darko Milicic this season, Pekovic stole the starting spot with some dominating performances. This season, he has upped his averages to 13.5 ppg and 7.4 rpg, has scored over 20 points nine times and touched 30 (to go with 12 rebounds) once against the Rockets. He is a strong, dominant big man who has a good touch for scoring and rebounding, in a league that thirsts for skilled men with size.
Isaiah Thomas (Kings): Despite having a stellar college career, Thomas was the very last pick of the second round of the 2011 NBA Draft, meaning he was Number 60, the last guy to become a pro on draft night. While he wasn’t given much of a chance as a small point guard in a team that already had Tyreke Evans, Marcus Thornton, Donte Green, and Jimmer Fredette in the guard position, Thomas started to earn his stripes slowly until he proved to his coaches that he was the best playmaker on this young team. Soon, he earned the starting spot for the Kings as Evans and Thornton both struggled to stay fit, and he hasn’t let go since: the crowning achievement of his young career was being named the NBA’s Western Conference Rookie of the Month in February, where he averaged 12.2 ppg and 4.4 apg. From the last pick in the draft, he is now likely to finish the season in the NBA’s All Rookie Team!
Jeremy Lin (Knicks): No such list can be complete without the man who has symbolised the struggle of the underdogs. Lin made the most of the opportunity – injuries to the Knicks’ best players, a void at the PG spot, and a favourable system under Coach Mike D’Antoni – to turn his forgettable NBA career into a fairytale. A rookie with the Warriors last season, Lin played just 29 games and was relegated to the NBA D-League. He was cut by the Warriors, and then the Rockets, before eventually landing a contract with the Knicks. An after-thought back-up at first – behind Toney Douglas, Iman Shumpert, Mike Bibby, and soon-to-return Baron Davis - Lin turned the world on its head when he exploded for 25 points vs. the Nets. He went on an incredible streak, helping the Knicks win eight of their next nine games, mostly without Anthony and Stoudemire. In this stretch, he broke scoring records for most points in the first five NBA starts, hit a game-winner, outplayed Kobe Bryant, briefly saved his coach’s job, earned two Sports Illustrated and one TIME Magazine cover, and was named Eastern Conference Player of the Week. Now, even as ‘Linsanity’ dies down, this NBA-vagabond has done enough to secure a place in the league and a bright future for himself.
There is a Jeremy Lin, an Ersan Ilsayova, a John Lucas III, a Nikola Pekovic, and an Isiaah Thomas in nearly every NBA squad. There is a hungry rookie, an unknown talent, and a world-travelled veteran out there, each waiting for their shot at glory. These guys may not be the NBA’s biggest stars, but they make for some of the NBA’s most compelling stories.