Pinpointing the Ceiling of NBA's Biggest Early-Season Surprises

Dan FavaleFeatured ColumnistNovember 13, 2013

Pinpointing the Ceiling of NBA's Biggest Early-Season Surprises

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    Surprise!

    About-face, kids, there's no one popping out of a confetti-filled cake behind you. And no, there isn't any actual cake being served either. Sorry.

    We're here to talk NBA surprises, the early-season studs that have everyone buzzing and, in some cases, their teams winning.

    Though we're still suffering through a time when trolls can scream "that's too small a sample size," we are getting somewhere. More than enough games are in the book for us to glean insight into which unpredictable performances are worth discussing.

    I'm not referencing efficient versions of Monta Ellis; I'm talking about young studs setting the world on fire and making other general managers jealous.

    They weren't necessarily duds, but they weren't supposed to play this sexy.

    And they'll make you forget I didn't come bearing cake.

     

    *All stats compiled from Basketball-Reference and are accurate as of Nov. 13 unless otherwise noted.

Markieff Morris, Phoenix Suns

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    Age: 24

    Position: PF

    2013-14 Per-Game Stats: 17.2 points, 6.8 rebounds, 1.7 assists, 1.7 steals, 27.4 PER, 62.7 percent shooting

    Markieff Morris has come out of nowhere, much like the Phoenix Suns themselves.

    Through six games, Morris had the sixth-highest PER of any player averaging at least 15 minutes this season. This coming from a guy who failed to post a PER of at least 13 after his first two seasons.

    Clearly, Morris' production levels aren't sustainable. But clearly, the Suns drafted the right Morris twin in 2011. Who knows what would have happened if they rolled with Marcus Morris? Maybe they don't trade for Markieff like they do Marcus, thus ensuring they don't become the early season's biggest surprise.

    Watching Morris dominate, I cannot help but think of D.J. Augustin, who performed admirably with the Charlotte Bobcats before flaming out with the Indiana Pacers and then begging for minutes with the Toronto Raptors. He was the product of a mediocre talent looking good on a bad team.

    Difference is, the Bobcats were actually a bad team. While the Suns won't win 70 percent of their games all season, they're a talented group of youngsters. So yes, Morris is for real. But no, his PER won't continue to tower above LeBron James' for much longer.

     

    Overly Optimistic Ceiling: Stretch 4 overlord.

    Inexcusably Pessimistic Ceiling: D.J. Augustin, but taller.

    Actual Ceiling: Everyday starter.

Nate Wolters, Milwaukee Bucks

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    Age: 22

    Position: PG

    2013-14 Per-Game Stats: 8.8 points, 3.5 rebounds, 5.7 assists, 1.0 steal, 14.9 PER, 38.8 percent shooting

    There are almost no words for what Nate Wolters is doing with the Milwaukee Bucks, probably because almost no one expected him to have this kind of impact.

    Wolters hasn't been great and must improve as a shooter, but he's been far better than good enough. His playmaking has been top-notch, he's a decent rebounder for a point guard—and man, talk about ball protection.

    What troubles me most about Wolters is the Bucks organization. Milwaukee isn't known for successfully honing promising talent, and I fear he won't be able to reach his ceiling until he escapes Wisconsin.

    Fortunately, he's already a better floor manager than Brandon Jennings. He has a better attitude too. So he has that going for him.

     

    Overly Optimistic Ceiling: Bucks' savior.

    Inexcusably Pessimistic Ceiling: Benchwarmer.

    Actual Ceiling: Sixth man/serviceable starting point guard, Jarrett Jack-style.

    *For further insight on Wolters, please contact Bleacher Report's Adam Fromal, who, until further notice, will head the Nate Wolters Is A Point God fan club.

Lance Stephenson, Indiana Pacers

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    Age: 23

    Position: SG

    2013-14 Per-Game Stats: 14.3 points, 5.9 rebounds, 5.8 assists, 0.3 steals, 16.0 PER, 47.9 percent shooting

    "Born Ready" showed up to ball this season.

    Thus far, Lance Stephenson has been the Pacers' second-leading scorer while emerging as their primary playmaker. And he can defend too. Everybody not named Luis Scola on the Pacers can defend as well, so that's not saying much, but still, two-way players are invaluable.

    This isn't just eight games of Stephenson playing out of his wazoo. "Danny Granger who?" has been my anthem since the middle of last season, when Stephenson showed flashes of promise. This year, he's taken those transient glimpses and converted them into longstanding excellence. And you know what? I'm sold. You should be too.

    Indy is for real. Stephenson is for real. Get used to it.

     

    Overly Optimistic Ceiling: Future supah-stah.

    Inexcusably Pessimistic Ceiling: Thabo Sefolosha's fraternal twin.

    Actual Ceiling: Second-best player on the Pacers—or whatever team he signs with once he prices himself out of their range this summer.

Michael Carter-Williams, Philadelphia 76ers

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    Age: 22

    Position: PG

    2013-14 Per-Game Stats: 17.4 points, 5.4 rebounds, 7.6 assists, 2.6 steals, 19.2 PER, 38.9 percent shooting

    Let's hear it for the 2013-14 NBA Rookie of the Year, shall we?

    Yeah, I'm going here. The only rookie with a real chance of usurping Carter-Williams is Victor Oladipo, and it's not going to happen.

    For starters, I'm almost certain his debut against the Miami Heat, where he made playing LeBron James and Co. look like child's play—or like the Sixers were supposed to—is forever ingrained in our memory. Mostly, he's just a stud.

    His shooting percentages have regressed to the mean, but he continues to post a respectable clip (39.5 percent) from deep. Not bad for a player whose shot selection and execution was supposed to rival that of Nick Young. (Have I gone too far?)

    Ball control remains a potential issue, but hey, he could still teach Derrick Rose a thing or two about protecting the rock these days. And just so you know, if he finishes the season averaging at least 17 points, five rebounds, seven assists and two steals per game, he'll be only the second rookie in league history to do so. The other? Magic Johnson.

    If you don't think that's possible, take whatever Internet-enabled device you're using and throw it out the nearest window. Or just think again. Because it's possible. I kid you not.

     

    Overly Optimistic Ceiling: Derrick Rose's offseason tutor.

    Inexcusably Pessimistic Ceiling: The Greg Stiemsma of point guards.

    Actual Ceiling: Inevitable Rookie of the Year/future All-Star.

Isaiah Thomas, Sacramento Kings

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    Age: 24

    Position: PG

    2013-14 Per-Game Stats: 18.0 points, 2.2 rebounds, 4.5 assists, 0.7 steals, 24.2 PER, 47.3 percent shooting

    Whatever Mike Malone is spiking Isaiah Thomas' Gatorade with, I want some—provided it doesn't stunt my growth.

    Thomas has been sensational for the Sacramento Kings. Of all the players in the NBA averaging at least 18 points per game, he's the only freakin' one playing fewer than 28 minutes a night. To say he's been instant offense would be an understatement; he's been better than that.

    I sincerely doubt Thomas will be able to score at this rate for the entire year, though it is possible. He's continued to improve since emerging as one of the most relevant Mr. Irrelevants ever, and I envision him being a Sixth Man of the Year candidate either this year or down the road.

    Someone's going to offer him serious coin in restricted free agency. My gut tells me it won't be the Kings, who have a backcourt logjam and might be more inclined to pay Greivis Vasquez.

     

    Overly Optimistic Ceiling: Tinier, more efficient version of Jamal Crawford.

    Inexcusably Pessimistic Ceiling: Sacramento King for life.

    Actual Ceiling: Nate Robinson 2.0.

Anthony Davis, New Orleans Pelicans

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    Age: 20

    Position: PF

    2013-14 Per-Game Stats: 20.9 points, 10.8 rebounds, 1.6 assists, 2.3 steals, 3.4 blocks, 28.7 PER, 46.8 percent shooting

    You were probably sold on Anthony Davis before this season even started. If you weren't, then you're not a fan of versatile dominance. That, or you understand the aesthetic value of having more than one eyebrow.

    In just a short time, Davis has developed into one of the league's best power forwards. He's in the top five for sure, and he'll climb even higher by season's end.

    Davis is a unique combination of physical and lanky, and you're rarely going to score on him at the rim. When he's not blocking shots, he's forcing turnovers. Did I forget to mention that? Yeah, sorry, you cannot take him off the dribble.

    On the offensive end, he still has a way to go, which should scare the hell out of everyone outside New Orleans. He can already put the ball on the floor and finish at the rim. Once his post game catches up to his face-up sets and the New Orleans Pelicans allow him to shoot more threes, he's going to be a 25 and 10 guy for sure.

    More impressive than anything is the company he's already put himself in. Only one other player in NBA history had at least 1,000 points, 600 rebounds, 130 blocks and 90 steals through the first 72 games of his career—David Robinson.

    Fear the Brow. Love the Brow. Worship the Brow. But please, don't grow out a Brow of your own.

     

    Overly Optimistic Ceiling: Greatest power forward of all time.

    Inexcusably Pessimistic Ceiling: Marcus Camby, but healthy. And with a jump shot. 

    Actual Ceiling: Better than Kevin Love/perennial All-Star/eventual Hall of Famer.

Eric Bledsoe, Phoenix Suns

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    Age: 23

    Position: PG/SG

    2013-14 Per-Game Stats: 20.9 points, 4.4 rebounds, 7.3 assists, 1.9 steals, 25.3 PER, 52.2 percent shooting

    This time, there really are no words.

    Turns out all Eric Bledsoe needed to do to transform from a promising prospect into a legitimate building block was escape Chris Paul's shadow. Bled has the supposedly tanking Suns looking like contenders, and he's done it as an undersized combo guard.

    While rotating from one position to the next, he's taken Phoenix by storm, hitting game-winners, blocking certain one-eyebrowed opponents and making believers out of everyone.

    His current production figures to be unsustainable, but if it holds, he'll become the 12th player in league history to average at least 20 points, four rebounds, seven assists and 1.5 steals in the same season in one of their first three seasons, joining players like LeBron, Magic, Paul and Isiah Thomas, among others.

    "Mini LeBron" has game, and the Suns will be forced to hand him a max contract this summer if they wish to keep him—which they should. He's going places, and unlike many players before him, he has the ability to take Phoenix with him.

     

    Overly Optimistic Ceiling: Top-three guard.

    Inexcusably Pessimistic Ceiling: Brandon Jennings.

    Actual Ceiling: Top-10 guard/future All-Star.