- Arash Markazi, ESPN Staff Writer
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LOS ANGELES -- Walk into the Lakers locker room and look to the left and you'll find Steve Blake and Matt Barnes, the two new guys on the team being credited with the emergence of the Los Angeles Lakers bench.
Look to the right and you'll find Lamar Odom and Shannon Brown, the two other new guys on the team being credited with the Lakers not only making a run at a championship but potentially one of the best seasons ever.
Of course, Odom, who has been with the Lakers since 2004, and Brown, who has been with the team the past two seasons, aren't new to the Lakers locker room but you wouldn't know that by looking at their statistics this season.
Both players reinvented themselves over the summer and during the Lakers' 7-0 start have been arguably the two best players on the team not named Kobe or Pau.
Odom refined his game while helping Team USA win a gold medal during the FIBA World Championships in Istanbul while Brown took the lower-profile approach during tireless training sessions at Proviso East High in Maywood, Ill.
Normally role players coming off back-to-back championships get content and complacent. With a pair of championship rings already in their back pocket they start looking at ways to make more money and increase their profile. Yet while Odom and Brown have become celebrities off the court -- Odom is married to Khloe Kardashian and Brown is engaged to singer Monica after starring in her music video -- both players spent the offseason working on their game as if they had something prove.
"I wanted to show everyone that I'm more than just a dunker," Brown said. "There's a lot more to my game than just dunks."
It's a sentiment we've heard before. After Brown's dreadful showing in last season's NBA dunk contest he said, "I definitely don't want to be remembered as just a dunker, but as a great basketball player." It was like hearing Jim Carey or Robin Williams complain about not being recognized as a dramatic actor when all we want them to do is make us laugh.
As mesmerizing as Kobe Bryant is and as emotional as Pau Gasol can be, Staples Center is never louder than after a high-flying dunk from Brown. Everyone in the building holds their breath when he has the ball in the open court or is about to leap for an alley-oop and bursts when he jumps in the air, his waist almost reaching the rim, as he dunks the ball.
Those highlight-reel moments have been few and far between this season, as Brown has stopped short of the paint in favor of taking the outside shots he spent the summer perfecting in his old high school gym. Brown only gave himself about two weeks to enjoy his second championship before he went to work on his game, practicing the open shots he had been routinely passing up.
"I'm really enamored with Shannon's ability to shoot the ball," Lakers coach Phil Jackson said. "He's getting a good base, he has great lift. He's practiced those three-point shots, he's played very well and I think he's very confident in what he can do."
Brown, 25, isn't the only one who has improved his outside shooting. Odom, 31, playing in his 12th NBA season, is finally realizing his potential as one of the great all-around talents in the league. Before recording his fourth double-double of the season on Sunday against Portland, Trailblazers coach Nate McMillan compared Odom's ability to play all five positions to Magic Johnson's and said his basketball IQ "is as high as it gets."
McMillan wasn't just speaking as an opposing coach who has watched Odom from afar, he was an assistant coach for Team USA this summer and watched Odom's game blossom as he embraced being a leader for the young team along with Chauncey Billups.
Odom is leading the league in three-point shooting percentage at 69.2% and Brown isn't too far behind in seventh place, shooting 52.4%. While it's still early, it's a remarkable clip through seven games considering Odom has averaged 31.8% during his career and Brown shot 28.1% from beyond the arc during the playoffs last season.
Although Odom's numbers will take a dip when he's moved back to the bench to make room for Andrew Bynum next month, he is currently averaging more rebounds than he ever has in his career (11.1) and his most points (15.9) since he was a full-time starter four years ago. Odom, however, doesn't need to look at the numbers to tell him he's playing well.
"Most people like numbers and the game of basketball is not about numbers to me," Odom said. "Usually when your numbers go up people say you're playing well but that's not basketball. If the game was numbers it would be called 'numbers' or 'stat ball.' To me that's not basketball."
The numbers, however, do reinforce how much Odom and Brown have improved this season. Brown is averaging a career-best 9.9 points per game, fourth best on the team behind Bryant, Gasol and Odom, and is shooting 51.9% from the field, better than Bryant and Derek Fisher.
Brown, who was close to signing with the New York Knicks in the off-season, and Odom, who was close to signing with the Miami Heat two years ago, also realize their play this season is being recognized as much for the undefeated team they play for than simply being on pace to have career seasons.
"There have been times I've had four triple doubles in a row but when you play on a team that wins and on the big stage it means more," Odom said. "I'm playing on a good team and putting up big numbers when it counts. I've played stretches of basketball in my life where I was able to do whatever I wanted to do with the ball but when you put up good numbers on a good team people notice a little more."
Arash Markazi is a columnist and writer for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow him on Twitter.
5dSteve Ilardi and Jeremias Engelmann