By Julie Parise, CBSNewYork.com for WFAN.com
NEWARK, N.J. (WFAN) -- After what has been a rough week – and an overall dismal season – for the New Jersey Nets, the team will face LeBron James and company at the Prudential Center Sunday as they take on the Miami Heat.
Many local fans have written off this year's team with a losing record as the same old Nets. But the team's rising star, 26-year-old Kris Humphries, is highly optimistic about the future of the franchise.
And there's no reason Humphries shouldn't have a positive attitude, despite suffering a sprained ankle during last Wednesday's Knicks-Nets match-up at Madison Square Garden. After six relatively quiet years in the NBA, New Jersey's starting power forward is having quite the season – both on and off the court.
The 6'9 Minnesota native is averaging a career (and team) high of 9.6 rebounds while making a strong case for the NBA's Most Improved Player Award. He also just happens to be dating reality TV star Kim Kardashian -- a solid year to say the least.
It seems Coach Avery Johnson and his team got more than they bargained for when they landed Humphries, along with forward Shawne Williams, in a January 2010 trade that sent Eduardo Najera to the Dallas Mavericks. But unlike many others, Humphries isn't all that surprised over what ESPN is calling his "life-changing" year. In fact, he said it has been a long time coming.
"I kind of expected it," he told CBSNewYork. "Nothing has changed in my training as far as my preparation. It's just about getting in the right situation with the right coach who really gave me the opportunity to expand my role and become a starter, and really play a lot of minutes."
Humphries, the 14th overall pick in the 2004 NBA Draft, had the choice to leave at the end of last season, as the second year of his contract with the Nets was a player option. And from the sound of it, he doesn't regret his decision to stay.
"Even though we've had a tough year as far as wins, I think a lot of us players have gotten better. We've learned a lot this year," he said.
Admitting that it "didn't look good" for him at the beginning of the season, Humphries has surprised most. As he continues to average career highs in minutes (26.3) and field goal percentage (.524), he pointed to his working relationship with Johnson as a large contributing factor to his breakout season.
But some sports bloggers and many fans are instead quick to point out the importance of Humphries' famous off-the-court relationship.
Deeming it the "Kim Kardashian effect," many can't help but notice the correlation of Humphries' success to his recent romance, and the basketball player isn't ruling out the possibility that the leading lady in his life may be part of his slam dunk season.
"You know, it's interesting. Just being around her, seeing how hard she works, and everyone in her family and what they do, it's motivating for me," Humphries said. "I want to be the best that I can be. I wouldn't say it's the only reason I've had a great year, but it definitely factors into that."
His performance this season, in which he's recorded a team-high amount of double doubles, has been more than enough to quiet critics who thought his relationship with Kardashian would only have a negative effect on his ability to play well.
"A lot of people would think it would be a distraction, but for me it's been motivation," Humphries said, calling the road to his recent success in the NBA "a battle."
"Since I came to the league, nothing's been given to me," he said. "I just continued to work...and earn the minutes and opportunities I've been given."
It's clear that Humphries sees his love life and his career as two separate entities. The paparazzi, though, hardly give the couple any breathing room. Last week, the lovebirds were photographed incessantly as they took a shopping trip in the Meatpacking District. And with engagement rumors (false) in abundance recently, there's plenty of opportunity for the young athlete to become preoccupied.
But to this NBA player, the media is a non-issue.
"I kind of have blinders on to all that," Humphries said. I don't really see it the way that everyone else sees it. I just think this year I've been focusing on basketball."
And with no playoffs for the Nets this season, the big focus – not just for Humphries, but for his entire team - is improvement.
"We're trying to build something for the future," said Humphries, pointing out the talent of the team's star point guard, Deron Williams. "It's only uphill from here."
He called Nets fans "great," but said he's looking forward to the team's move to Brooklyn in the 2011-12 season.
"Once that happens, that should ignite the Nets, we'll have Brooklyn behind us, millions of people, kind of build that tradition the Knicks have."
Building a tradition will certainly be an uphill battle, but as long as Humphries plans to continue his slam-dunk season, it should be an easy movement for fans to get behind. And hey, it never hurts to have a Kardashian on your side, either.
Julie Parise is the features editor for CBSNewYork.com.
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