(SportsNetwork.com) - Here are some quick observations around the NBA:
Character questions were a big reason why Lance Stephenson fell to the 40th overall pick in the 2010 draft. But now that selection by the Indiana Pacers has to be considered one of the biggest steals in recent years. His play this season should lead to a pretty good payday this summer when he'll be a restricted free agent. His game has really taken off, with the fourth-year shooting guard currently putting up career highs in points (13.3), assists (5.2), rebounds (6.7), field goal percentage (49.9) and 3-point shooting percentage (35.2). His 6.7 rebounds per game leads all NBA guards, and even more surprising, is that he leads the league in triple-doubles with three.
Speaking of draft steals, I'd be remiss not to be mention Isaiah Thomas. The diminutive point guard, who was the last pick of the 2011 draft by the Sacramento Kings, already surpassed expectations prior to this season, but has now taken his game to another level. He's averaging a career-high 19 points and 6.1 assists while shooting 45.1 percent from the field and 41.1 percent from 3-point range. In a recent matchup against Kyrie Irving, who was the top pick of that very same draft class, Thomas completely outplayed the former NBA Rookie of the Year winner in the Kings' 44-point rout of the Cleveland Cavaliers. He had 26 points and six assists, hitting 7-of-15 shots from the floor, including two from downtown, and was 10-of-11 from the line. Irving, meanwhile, shot just 3-for-14 from the field and finished with seven points and five assists.
You wouldn't know it by the stats in the box score, but Andrei Kirilenko's return to the lineup has had a huge impact on the Brooklyn Nets. He's averaging 6.3 points and 2.9 rebounds in just over 17 minutes, but his effort and play on the defensive end has been contagious, and it's helped the Nets go 5-2 since his return, which includes wins over the Miami Heat, San Antonio Spurs, Oklahoma City Thunder and Golden State Warriors. "I love playing with him," said teammate Shaun Livingston. "He has all the intangibles you might say. ... He brings stuff you really can't put a value on."
Jeremy Lamb was mainly a spectator in his rookie season after being dealt to the Oklahoma City Thunder in the James Harden deal. But with last season's starting shooting guard Kevin Martin leaving via free agency, Lamb is finally seeing consistent playing time and starting to show the skill set that made him the 12th overall pick in the 2012 draft. His play has drawn some very high praise from his teammates. "He can do it all," said Kevin Durant. "I mean, he's athletic. He can shoot. He can dribble. But I like his intensity. I like his focus and his hard work. With all that, anything can be done on the court by him. So we just need him to keep getting better." Following the Thunders' win over the Boston Celtics on Jan. 5, Kendrick Perkins gushed about Lamb's potential. "He made some plays that I thought showed signs of greatness," Perkins said. "I think he's going to be very special in this league."
Michael Carter-Williams is the prohibitive favorite to win the Rookie of the Year award. The Philadelphia Sixers point guard, who was drafted 11th overall, leads all first-year players in scoring average (17.5), assists average (7.0) and rebound average (5.8), and his 2.69 steals per game top the NBA. If indeed he's named the top rookie, he'll be the first winner not to be a top-10 pick since Mark Jackson took home the award in 1988 after being selected 18th by the New York Knicks.
The Thunder have struggled since Russell Westbrook went down with a knee injury in late December, but his absence could very well lead to Durant winning his first MVP trophy. Oklahoma is 5-5 without its All-Star point guard, but Durant has put up huge numbers in his absence, averaging 34.5 points, 8.1 rebounds and 5.3 assists.
Courtney Lee has given the Memphis Grizzlies a nice boost since being acquired from the Celtics earlier this month. In four games in his new home, Lee is averaging 14.8 points and shooting 53.5 percent from the floor. He had his best game Tuesday night, scoring 24 points on 9-of-15 from the field in the Grizzlies' 90-87 win over the Thunder. Memphis is 3-1 since Lee's arrival
The aforementioned Irving is the second-leading vote-getter among guards in the Eastern Conference in the latest All-Star balloting. Irving's play certainly hasn't earned him a starting berth, and it could cost Kyle Lowry and/or DeMar DeRozan a spot on the team. The pair has spearheaded the Toronto Raptors' surge, with the team winning 12 of its last 16 games and sitting atop the Atlantic Division by 4 1/2 games over the Nets. The fan voting for guards in the East has for the most part been a joke, with Ray Allen (fifth), Rajon Rondo (sixth) and Deron Williams (seventh) ahead of DeRozan (10th) and the Pacers' Stephenson (ninth) and with Lowry failing to crack the top 10.
The Denver Nuggets' Randy Foye is a lifetime 40.9 percent shooter from the field and 37.6 percent from 3-point range. But during the team's recent five- game winning streak, he looked like an elite shooter. Foye hit 31 of his 56 shots from the floor (55 percent) and was 20-for-37 from long range (54 percent). He averaged 18.4 points during that run, which is seven points above his career mark.