- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 15, 2008

As the NBA’s All-Star fan balloting winds down in the next week, the usual suspects — Kevin Garnett, LeBron James, Kobe Bryant and Yao Ming — lead the way. Tim Duncan, Dwyane Wade, Tracy McGrady and Jason Kidd also rank among the leading vote-getters.

That’s definitely the best of the best right there — no-brainers when it comes to filling All-Star rosters. But who would make the All-Underrated Team?

When building a team, a scorer counts as one of the key ingredients for success. And who better to fill that role than the league’s sixth-leading scorer this season?

After two injury-plagued seasons, New Jersey’s Richard Jefferson remains under the radar despite enjoying one of the finest seasons of his career.

Averaging a career- and team-high 24.4 points to go with 4.4 rebounds and 2.8 assists, Jefferson hasn’t shown any ill effects from the ankle surgery that ended his 2006-07 season in January, playing all 36 games this year. And he is also versatile — another key ingredient to building a team — playing either guard or forward.

The most improved — yet still often overlooked — point guard this season is Toronto’s Jose Calderon. The third-year player from Spain averages 8.3 assists, sixth in the league. Even more impressive is his league-best assist to turnover ratio of 6.02.

Anchoring the frontcourt is the Clippers’ Chris Kaman, who ranks 10th in All-Star voting among Western Conference centers despite posting a breakout season with teammate Elton Brand sidelined with injury.

The 7-foot, 265-pound fifth-year player out of Central Michigan entered the season averaging 9.3 points, 7.4 rebounds and 1.2 blocks. But he has increased his production to 17.9 points, 13.7 rebounds and 3.00 blocks a game.

Dirk Nowitzki often gets the majority of the credit for the Dallas Mavericks’ success. But in the last five seasons, Josh Howard has steadily established himself as a force.

Howard, who ranks seventh in votes among Western Conference forwards, is putting up career highs of 20.7 points, 7.5 rebounds and 2.1 assists. And like Jefferson, Howard offers the versatility to play either small forward or shooting guard.

Rounding out the All-Underrated starting five is New Orleans forward David West.

Like Jefferson and Calderon, West is nowhere near the leading vote-getters on the All-Star ballot. But West — often overshadowed by teammates Chris Paul and Tyson Chandler — also is enjoying a career year, averaging 19.3 points, 9.4 rebounds and 2.3 assists.

There’s no way those five deserve more attention than Kobe, LeBron, Kidd, Duncan and Yao, but on the court they have a good shot at holding their own — especially if Phoenix defensive specialist Raja Bell — who always gives Bryant problems — serves as the All-Underrated sixth man.

And if each of the “starting” five can duplicate this season’s success in the future, they won’t remain All-Underrated much longer.

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