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Thursday January 19, 2012 3:50 PM

A Star Is Born


Kyle Lowry making his mark as one of the top point guards in the game

Jason Friedman
Rockets.com

HOUSTON - Kyle Lowry is one of the best point guards in the NBA.

Allow that thought to settle and stir within your mind for awhile. Sounds outlandish? It shouldn’t. Because even in this golden age of point guards, Kyle Lowry – yes, the same guy who was selected late first round in the 2006 draft and later acquired by the Rockets for a song – is currently standing eye to eye with any other elite player you can name at the position.

Derrick Rose, Chris Paul, Steve Nash, Tony Parker, Russell Westbrook, Deron Williams, Rajon Rondo … Lowry isn’t just in that conversation – he is the conversation.

How else to describe the situation presently playing out for the 6th-year Philly kid from Villanova? With a style that is equal parts bulldog and bowling ball, Lowry currently ranks as the league’s No. 2 point guard (just a shade behind Paul) in terms of Player Efficiency Rating while sitting alone at the top in rebound rate (with no other point guard even within shouting distance of him in that category). Meanwhile, he’s tied for fourth in the NBA in assists per game, tied for first among point guards in 3-pointers made per contest and sixth among players at his position in 3-point percentage – the last two superlatives being especially impressive given the fact he largely spent the first four years of his career shooting well below 30 percent from downtown.

Who could have possibly seen this coming? Plenty, so long as you were paying attention. Anyone who watched the Rockets’ post-trade deadline run a season ago likely had a pretty clear inkling something like this was looming on the horizon. Lowry’s numbers for the month of March practically leap off the page: 19.8 points, 8.1 assists and 5.3 rebounds per game with a .427 shooting percentage from beyond the arc tossed in for good measure – stats that dovetail quite nicely with the 17.3 points, 8.7 assists, 6.6 rebounds per game and nifty .417 mark from deep he’s posted thus far in 2011-12.

Perhaps, then, it’s far better to focus on how rather than who. As with anything having to do with the development of Lowry the basketball player, the answer begins with a blue-collar work ethic and a desire to maximize every ounce of talent at his disposal. He is the quintessential gym rat, obsessed with the game and completely disinterested in the trappings of fame that come with it. He just wants to play ball, plain and simple. But plenty of players feel that way. It’s one thing to spend countless hours in a gym; quite another to make that time productive. And Lowry’s vastly-improved shooting stroke is proof positive that he knows how to make the most of his practice sessions. He has a plan for improvement and has thus far executed it to perfection.

That last point speaks to what might be Lowry’s greatest – and certainly most underrated – gift: his intelligence. It’s easy to observe the 6-0, 205 pound point guard bull his way to the basket, devour rebounds or defend like a demon and identify the obvious strength, toughness and ferocity he possesses. But watch him closely for awhile and it becomes just as clear that this is a player with a ridiculously high basketball IQ: it’s there in the way he runs the Rockets’ offense; it’s there in the way he’ll subtly slide in front of an onrushing defender to draw a foul; and it’s definitely there in the way he so deftly handles two-for-one situations at the end of every quarter.

Kevin McHale calls Lowry “a student of the game” and that label certainly fits given the frequent film study sessions the point guard has engaged in over the years with Brett Gunning, the Rockets assistant coach who’s worked closely with Lowry all the way back to their shared time at Villanova. But there is also a natural knack, an innate feel for pattern recognition and play design, that has helped put Lowry in the master’s class at his position. It’s a gift perfectly encapsulated in this quote from Philly.com’s Marcus Hayes’ terrific story on Lowry’s unique path to stardom:

“When I see a play one time, I've got it,” Lowry says. “When I see it twice, I master it. When I see it three times, I know where the loopholes are.”

The end result: a fully in-bloom player who has become the fulcrum of a resurgent Rockets team that has bounced back from a brutal opening schedule to win four games in a row and five of its last six. And while his numbers scream All-Star, listen closely and you can hear them whisper MVP, too. According to 82games.com’s on-court/off-court stats, the Rockets are a whopping 15.5 points better per 100 possessions when Lowry is on the floor; a number not even the likes of LeBron James, Kobe Bryant or Kevin Durant can touch (UPDATE: The latest numbers from 82games.com reveal that Lowry's on-court/off-court differential has risen to an even more impressive 24.7 points).

Such talk understandably makes Lowry uncomfortable. He’s confident enough to fully recognize how well he’s playing but that doesn’t mean he has any interest in discussing it. His ambivalence, in fact, is on full display the second his name and “All-Star” are uttered in the same sentence.

“I don’t care, I really don’t,” he says when asked what an All-Star appearance would mean to him. “It’d be a great accomplishment and I’d be really excited but at the end of the day I want to win for my team and play with my teammates. Like I said, if it happens it happens but it’s something I don’t think about. I mean, who hasn’t dreamt about it and wanted it to happen? But if it doesn’t it’s not going to kill me. At the end of the day, if I become an All-Star, it’s because of my teammates.”

Then in classic Lowry fashion, the Rockets’ point guard pauses for a moment to survey the landscape in front of him before barreling ahead to the heart of the matter: regardless of whether or not his greatness is recognized on a national scale, he wants it known that he’ll still be tirelessly working and endlessly studying to ensure the best is yet to come.

“I’m not done yet,” he declares. “I’ve got a long career to go. I’ve got a lot of time left in this game. I’ll never be satisfied with where my game is. I always think I can get better.”

CLICK HERE TO CAST YOUR VOTE FOR LOWRY FOR THE 2012 NBA ALL-STAR GAME

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