Who's the best Southern California product playing in the NBA right now? For no especially good reason, that question has been on my mind lately. None of the guys recognized as basketball's current ruling elite -- the Kobe Bryants, Chris Pauls, LeBron Jameses, Dwight Howards -- hail from these parts. In fact, it's been almost 25 years since anyone who played their college ball in SoCal was named to the All-NBA first team. The Captain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, was the last, all the way back in 1986. It's been over 30 years since anyone who played high-school ball in SoCal made first team All-NBA. That was Paul Westphal in 1980.
Unless you count Reggie Miller (who never even made second team All-NBA) or Paul Pierce (once named to the second team, never the first), it's been a while since we've supplied the basketball world with an all-time great, which is surprising given our population and proud hoops culture. The local pipeline, however, seems once again to be flowing pretty well. Some of the NBA's most buzzed-about young stars have emerged from the L.A. basketball scene, and almost every roster in the league includes a SoCal product.
This is the first in a series of pieces in which I count down the top 15 SoCal ballers currently in the NBA. We'll start today with numbers 15 though 11 and then work our way up to number one in subsequent posts. Afterward, I'll take some time to discuss bros who didn't make the cut, most of whom are either one-time stars who've passed their sell-by date or young bucks who could well crash future editions of this list if they continue beasting.
The parameters are as follows: to be eligible, you need to have either graduated from a SoCal high school or played your college ball here. That first part excludes, for example, Brandon Jennings, who began his prep career at Compton Dominguez but finished it at Virginia's Oak Hill Academy. And by "SoCal" I mean the Los Angeles area broadly understood to include its innumerable suburbs and Orange County, but excluding San Diego, Fresno and Santa Barbara. By my count, this gives us a data set comprising 34 players scattered across 24 franchises.
And the only criterion is present-day swag. There will be no honoring geezers for past excellence (sorry, Tayshaun Prince) or wishcasting based on youngsters' potential. What we're asking, essentially, is if you were concerned solely with winning an NBA title this year, how much would you covet a given player? Let's start the countdown.
15. Jrue Holiday (North Hollywood Campbell Hall, UCLA). Jrue embittered many a Bruin fan when he left Ben Howland's program after only one season, but it's looking more and more like the right move for him. He made good strides in his rookie campaign and this season has emerged as a productive, 35-minutes-a-night starter for the 76ers. His midrange game needs work and he turns the ball over too much, but he's quickly scaling the point-guard learning curve. He distributes the rock well, finishes in traffic and has legit three-point shooting range. Jrue was the first NBA player to be born in the ‘90s. He'll rank higher in next year's version of this list.
14. Josh Childress (Lakewood Mayfair). Back in the United States after two seasons with Greek club Olympiacos, Childress is playing solid ball for the Suns. He has a fluid offensive style and a knack for finding space in the paint, where he converts a high percentage of his looks. He's a very good rebounder for a three. He plays smart and knows his limitations. The disappearance of his three-point game is a bit of a mystery. In four seasons with the Hawks he made 36 percent of his threes but this season has attempted only two, missing both.
13. Trevor Ariza (Westchester, UCLA). Like Holiday, Ariza was a touted local prospect who left Westwood after just one, not terribly accomplished season. His NBA stock soared in 2008-09, when he became the perimeter stopper for the Lakers and starred in their championship run. Last year he was badly miscast in Houston as a primary offensive option. He's now in New Orleans, running alongside Chris Paul for the 11-2 Hornets. Ariza will never replicate the 48 percent three-point shooting he showed in the 2009 playoffs, but he still brings to the table speed, length, finishing ability and lockdown defense. Though it feels like he's been around a decade, he's only 25.
12. Craig Smith (Fairfax). The Clippers are as usual an apocalyptic mess, but don't point the finger at Smith. He's only playing the best basketball of his five-year career. An undersized bone-cruncher, the Rhino uses his NFL-caliber body to collect rebounds, score in the paint and just generally shove people around. He's below average on defense but incredibly productive otherwise: this season, per 36 minutes he's averaging over 15 points and eight rebounds while shooting 66 percent from the floor. He also has a surprisingly good passing touch. Somehow he slipped through the local recruiting net to end up at Boston College. Then he somehow slipped to the second round of the NBA draft. That the Clips don't value him enough to play him more than 17 minutes a night says a lot about their critical-thinking skills.
11. Matt Barnes (UCLA). Am I overrating him based on his awesome play for the Lakers this year? No. No, of course not. Who are you even to suggest such a thing? OK, maybe I am just a little, but I can't stop myself. The former Bruin star is balling well beyond what any of us expected. Per 36 minutes, he's averaging 16 points, 10 rebounds and four assists, and his True Shooting is at a stellar 61 percent. Barnes's kinetic style has energized the champs and transformed their second unit. If he keeps this up he could win the NBA's Sixth Man of the Year, provided he holds off teammate Shannon Brown.
Coming soon: numbers 10 through six!
Follow Dex on Twitter @dexterfishmore. Stats in this piece are courtesy of Basketball Reference.