<i>(All stats and records are through Dec. 16.)</i><br><br>With a little more than a quarter of the regular season in the books, the Rockets are perhaps the NBA's biggest surprise. They are in second place in the Southwest Division despite the absences of Yao Ming, who is out for the year, and Tracy McGrady, who made his season debut on Dec. 15, and despite a difficult early schedule. Houston has made up for its lack of stars with balance: Four players are averaging between 14 and 18 points, including forward Carl Landry (pictured), an early favorite for Sixth Man Award.
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Brandon Jennings | Milwaukee Bucks
The surprise with the 6-foot-1, 169-pound Jennings is that he's made a significant impact this quickly. After all, the 20-year-old point guard skipped college and played sparingly in one year in Italy before being drafted No. 10 by the Bucks last June. But Jennings scored 55 points in his seventh NBA game, and his precocious floor game and better-than-advertised perimeter shooting have sparked the Bucks, who, not coincidentally, are exceeding expectations, too.
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Projected by many as no better than the West's eight-best team, the Suns raced to an 8-1 start that included a road win at Boston. Phoenix has cooled off a bit, but it's still in early position for home-court first-round advantage and is the league's only unbeaten team at home. Steve Nash and Amar'e Stoudemire have been excellent, but the real revelation is center Channing Frye (pictured), who has made 62 three-pointers after hitting only 20 in his first four NBA seasons.
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Ben Wallace | Detroit Pistons
After being on the verge of retirement last offseason, Wallace was coaxed into a second stint with Detroit. His role has been anything but ceremonial, as the 35-year-old has started every game at center and is averaging nearly 10 rebounds.
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Yes, they've only won once on the road. But the Kings, coming off a 17-win season, have hovered around .500 even though their most accomplished player, high-scoring guard Kevin Martin, has played only five games because of injury. Led by rookie sensation Tyreke Evans (pictured), Sacramento ranks in the top seven in scoring, shooting and offensive inefficiency.
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Josh Smith | Atlanta Hawks
Smith's maturation is a big reason why the Hawks are threatening to make the East a four-team race. The multitalented forward has always been productive, but this season he's eliminated ill-advised three-point shots (a career 27 percent shooter from beyond the arc, he's attempted three treys all season). As a result, he's shooting better than 50 percent from the field for the first time in his career and ranks among the league leaders in the NBA's all-around efficiency category.
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Gerald Wallace | Charlotte Bobcats
The 6-foot-7 Bobcats small forward ranks third in the league with 12.0 rebounds, more than double his career average. He's the only non-center or power forward in the top 25. It helps, of course, that Wallace is getting plenty of opportunities: He leads the NBA in minutes and plays for a Charlotte team that creates a lot of offensive-rebounding chances with its poor shooting.
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Joakim Noah | Chicago Bulls
Noah has been a rare bright spot for the Bulls. After putting up decent numbers in limited minutes his first two seasons, the 6-foot-11 center has emerged to average a point-rebound double-double. His 14 offensive boards against the Lakers on Dec. 15 were the most in an NBA game in nearly six years. He already has nearly as many double-doubles this season (11) as he did in his previous two seasons combined (17).
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Oklahoma City Thunder
That the Thunder are much improved isn't surprising. But their road success -- usually an elusive thing for young teams -- has been eye-opening. With third-year forward Kevin Durant (pictured) blossoming into a superstar, the Thunder already own road victories against San Antonio, Miami and Utah. In fact, with six wins in their first 11 road games, the Thunder are only two short of last season's total.
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Lou Williams | Philadelphia 76ers
The Sixers are struggling, but at least the 23-year-old Williams has shown signs of being a capable starting point guard. The fifth-year combo guard entered the season with a subpar 1.8 to 1 assist-to-turnover ratio and 41.5 percent shooting mark for his career. But he's improved to 2.84 to 1 and 49.7 percent this season, his first as a starter.
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