NBA at Midseason: 10 Most Surprising Players in 2016-17 So Far

Dan FavaleFeatured ColumnistJanuary 23, 2017

NBA at Midseason: 10 Most Surprising Players in 2016-17 So Far

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    Which NBA players have spent the first half of the season annihilating expectations and surprising the living bajeebus out of us hoops heads?

    I'm so glad you asked.

    Plucking out the most unpredictable feel-good stories is a matter of copping to ignorance. Maybe we saw a player breaking out of a rough patch, making the most of his rookie season or taking a leap. But we didn't, under any reasonable circumstances, see him having a career year, entering the Association with an immediate boom or cracking into super-duper-ultra-mega-star territory.

    Established superstars are automatically ineligible for this exercise. Many of them, like Kawhi Leonard, are pushing the bill on what we know about them, but they haven't knocked us down in startled, if confused, glory.

    We want the people who popped out of the birthday cake we didn't know was in the room—the players who have reached personal heights we didn't originally think possible this soon or at all.

Honorable Mentions

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    Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Detroit Pistons

    What happens when one of the NBA's most effective defenders buries more than 40 percent of his threes and recasts himself as a top-shelf pick-and-roll architect?

    He becomes the best player on the Detroit Pistons—better than either Andre Drummond or Reggie Jackson.

    Just ask Kentavious Caldwell-Pope.

     

    Marc Gasol, Memphis Grizzlies

    Marc Gasol hoisted 66 triples through the first eight seasons of his career. He's already jacked 152 threebies this season at a 38.8 percent clip.

    Oh, and at 31-going-on-32, he's averaging more field-goal attempts per 36 minutes than ever.

    Late-career reinventions are rare, and they're seldom this extensive. Memphis Grizzlies head coach David Fizdale deserves a medal for thoroughly unlocking the most aggressive—and therefore best—iteration of Gasol we've ever seen.

     

    Brook Lopez, Brooklyn Nets

    Brooklyn Nets head honcho Kenny Atkinson has helped turn Brook Lopez into a viable three-point marksman (34.7 percent on 5.2 attempts per game) and serviceable passer (career-best 16.9 assist percentage).

    Someone oughta get Atkinson and Lopez a medal, too.

     

    Jabari Parker, Milwaukee Bucks

    Jabari Parker is basically the same player he was last season. 

    Except he's shooting 40.1 percent from three. And profiles as an elite-passing forward. And is holding his own more often when defending both 3s and 4s.

    OK, so maybe Parker is nothing like he was in 2015-16. He's much better.

     

    Isaiah Thomas, Boston Celtics

    Raise your hand if you saw Isaiah Thomas averaging more points per game (29) than DeMarcus Cousins, Anthony Davis, Kevin Durant, James Harden and everyone else who isn't Russell Westbrook.

    That's what I thought.

Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks

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    Whatever you were expecting from Giannis Antetokounmpo in 2016-17, it wasn't this. We've never seen this.

    Basketball-Reference.com says he spends most of his time at shooting guard, but he plays like a point guard who's tasked with defending forwards and absorbing spot-center responsibilities. He leads the Bucks in total points, rebounds, assists, steals and blocks while sustaining a per-game line that is the first of its kind.

    Antetokounmpo has a higher assist percentage than Stephen Curry and Kyrie Irving but faces more shots at the rim than LaMarcus Aldridge. He has used more post-ups than Myles Turner but initiated more pick-and-rolls than starting point guards Darren Collison and Ricky Rubio. His three-point clip is crud (28.8 percent), but he's shooting almost 40 percent just inside the arc.

    This absence of a definable role and function has not prevented Antetokounmpo from finding his niche among other superstars. He is worth more to his team this season than anyone not named James Harden or Russell Westbrook, according to NBA Math.

    Figuring out what in the actual hell Antetokounmpo is doesn't matter as much as who he's become: a top-five talent who, like the 2015-16 version of Stephen Curry, deserves consideration for both the Most Improved Player and MVP awards.

Harrison Barnes, Dallas Mavericks

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    Harrison Barnes continues to be efficient amid career-high usage—a role-to-performance relationship for which he wasn't supposed to be good enough.

    While his share of the Dallas Mavericks offense has dipped since they began fielding the new starting five of Seth Curry, Deron Williams, Wesley Matthews, Dirk Nowitzki and himself, Barnes' shot attempts still dwarf the volume from his Golden State Warriors days. His three-point percentage has dropped off, but his precision inside the arc hasn't waned. 

    Big chunks of Barnes' game remain predictable. If he's not pounding away in isolation or the post, he's at the top of the key waiting for the ball and an opportunity to drive. Or he's stashed in the corner, Warriors-style. He doesn't get to the foul line nearly enough for a featured weapon, and his assist rate has stayed stagnant despite an uptick in touches.

    All of this is secondary to his overall success as a scorer. Adjusting to No. 1 or No. 2 duty takes time. Barnes is showing he's nothing if not capable of developing under a brighter light—while essentially committing to a new position, as ESPN.com's Zach Lowe wrote:

    Barnes just shrugged and became a full-time power forward in Dallas. And with the Mavs now starting Dirk Nowitzki at center in a super-small (and super fun!) lineup, Barnes almost always takes the tougher frontcourt assignment—even if it's a post behemoth like Karl-Anthony Towns.

    That isn't fun. It hurts. Barnes played a lot of small-ball power forward in Golden State, and famously guarded Zach Randolph in a playoff series. But doing it full time for six months is a different thing.

    Say what you will about Dallas' offense averaging more points per 100 possessions without Barnes. He's still proving a lot of people wrong.

Malcolm Brogdon, Milwaukee Bucks

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    Some expect rookies who spent four years in college to enjoy a smooth transition into the NBA. But no one anticipated Malcolm Brogdon establishing himself as the league's second-best newbie.

    Pick a statistical category at random, and Milwaukee's first-year guard is bound to be among the most esteemed beginners.

    Of every rookie to see time in at least 25 games, Brogdon is third in assist percentage, second in assist-to-turnover ratio, third in net rating and seventh in true shooting percentage. No novice comes close to matching his 43-plus percent success rate from downtown, and he places in the top two of total points, assists and steals.

    Earlier in the season, it looked like Brogdon might be an upgrade for the Bucks over Matthew Dellavedova. Now it's just a fact.

    Brogdon is able to slide between either guard spot more seamlessly and, at 6'5", has little trouble defending small forwards. Opposing pick-and-roll ball-handlers are mustering just 0.53 points per possession against him—the best mark in the NBA among 155 players who have guarded at least 50 such sets. He has even found success in limited time when bodying up against back-to-the-basket brutes.

    Despite the recent five-game slide, the Bucks are a maturing superpower. And Brogdon is a bigger part of their success, both immediate and future, than anyone initially imagined.

Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers

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    Joel Embiid is not only making the Philadelphia 76ers watchable. He's making them...good. As a rookie. Who didn't play competitive basketball for two years.

    It doesn't matter when Embiid was drafted—first, third, 33rd, whatever. He is playing at a level that transcends his experience.

    Tim Duncan was the last freshman who averaged at least 19 points, seven rebounds and two blocks. He, unlike Embiid, didn't play on a minutes cap. And he, unlike Embiid, didn't have three-point range.

    Hell, Embiid isn't even supposed to be shooting 34.8 percent from the outside on more than three attempts per game. The Sixers selected him knowing he had a jumper, but he launched just five treys in his lone season at Kansas. His almost-average accuracy from long distance is a happy surprise—and a benefit of his two-year stay on the sideline.

    Nothing, however, tops the impact Embiid has on Philly's once-unsightly product. The Sixers are registering a top-eight net rating (plus-3.2) when Embiid plays—not a typo, just a small miracle.

    Maybe you envisioned a scenario in which the Cameroonian skyscraper was a success out of the gate. But there was no predicting his meteoric rise from prospect to legitimate All-Star candidate.

Eric Gordon, Houston Rockets

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    The Houston Rockets as a whole are obliterating expectations. And they're doing so while recycling New Orleans Pelicans letdowns Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson, who rank No. 2 and 3, respectively, on the team in points per game.

    Gordon in particular has been a revelation. We saw stretches of flame-throwing potential in New Orleans, but there was nothing that prepared us for a 39.3 percent three-point clip on 9.2 attempts per game—outside accuracy and volume only ever matched by Stephen Curry.

    Even if you called Gordon's long-ball savvy, he's so much more than a sniper capitalizing on the existence of James Harden. It's his success independent of the MVP candidate that makes his performance so disarming, as Kevin O'Connor explained for The Ringer:

    Gordon averages 28.3 points and 4.8 assists per 36 minutes with a usage percentage of 33.7 when Harden is off the floor, compared to only 16.9 points and 2.5 assists with a usage of 19.1 when Harden is on the floor. In plain terms, Gordon seamlessly transitions from role player to star depending on what the team needs from him. "When James is off the floor, having [Gordon] on the floor is just massive," Morey told me last month. "He's a do-it-all player."

    Already a lock for serious Sixth Man of the Year hugs, Gordon's nightly detonations have also earned him some All-Star panache. He received more fan votes than Damian Lillard and got more love from the player ballots than Eric Bledsoe.

    Regardless of how good a fit Gordon is for head coach Mike D'Antoni's green light-laden offense, there's no way seeing him plant a flag in fringe-star territory was part of Houston's four-year, $53 million plan.

George Hill, Utah Jazz

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    Add George Hill to the list of point guards who may field max-contract offers in free agency this summer.

    Seriously.

    Hill has missed more than half the season while dealing with toe, thumb and concussion issues, and he's still managing to piece together a career year. Assuming his numbers hold, he'll be the fourth player in league history to average at least 18 points per game on 40 percent three-point shooting with an assist rate of 23 and turnover rate below 10.

    His company: Vince Carter, Michael Jordan and Fat Lever. (So, whoa.)

    These numbers carry profound weight with the Utah Jazz. They are 17-5 when Hill plays, and his on-off splits are superstar-level ridiculous:

    Jazz...MPOff. Rtg. (Rank)eFG%TOV%Def. Rtg.Net Rtg.
    With Hill690111.9 (4)54.5 (3)13.2 (7)96.6 (1)15.3 (1)
    Without Hill1523104.4 (19)51.7 (12)15.4 (27)103.4 (6)1.0 (11)

    For context: The 14.3-points-per-100-possessions swing Utah incurs with and without Hill is greater than the one suffered by the Cleveland Cavaliers with and without LeBron James (12).

    Props to the Jazz for playing winning basketball when their primary pilot isn't available, but even more kudos to Hill for being the engine that makes a dark-horse contender go.

Tyler Johnson, Miami Heat

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    Tyler Johnson is one of the primary guards for a bottom-three offense that pumps in more points per 100 possessions when he's on the bench. That hardly implies an on-court epiphany. 

    But the 24-year-old is quietly validating the four-year, $50 million contract he signed over the offseason. He is one of the few Miami Heat players who can make defenses pay for collapsing on Goran Dragic drives and has become more patient and judicious when navigating pick-and-rolls.

    Johnson does still need to kick some of his nastier habits. He gathers his handle too soon when dribbling around screens and settles for far too many pull-up twos outside the paint.

    Any warts he's laboring through on offense, though, get offset by his scrappiness on defense. Miami does not shy from switching his 6'4" frame onto bigger players. He's still learning to bump off pick-and-roll sets but does an exceptional job stonewalling off-ball movement. 

    It shouldn't be long before Johnson is a demonstrative plus on the offensive end. Guards who can play on or off the ball and are almost unstoppable around the rim come into their own at some point—particularly when their decision-making is, for the most part, on point.

    And Johnson, despite his developmental curve, has the lowest turnover rate among the 37 players clearing 14 points per game with an assist percentage of at least 16.

Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets

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    Most of us entered the season knowing Nikola Jokic was the Denver Nuggets' best player. And we knew head coach Mike Malone was doing a disservice to his 21-year-old superstructure—and the team's record—by stashing him behind and alongside Jusuf Nurkic.

    None of us—the most unrelenting bandwagoners included—had any idea the unleashed edition of Jokic would be as good or important as he is now.

    Just look at the difference in the Nuggets' play since they made him their starting center:

    Nuggets...W-LOff. Rtg. (Rank) eFG% AST%Def. Rtg.Net Rtg.
    First 25 Games9-16102.7 (18)48.8 (23)55.8 (17)107.4 (25)-4.7 (25)
    Last 17 Games9-9114.8 (2)55.9 (3)64.4 (2)113.8 (30)0.9 (12)

    Denver's rise coinciding with Jokic's starting-five return is no coincidence. He has the highest usage rate of any everyday rotation player during this stretch, along with the second-highest assist percentage. 

    The defensive downslide is no coincidence, either. Jokic doesn't fare well defending away from the basket, and his rim protection is a wild card—he's allowing opponents to shoot 60 percent around the hoop during this resurgence.

    That's something you live with when someone is having such a huge impact on your offense. Jokic is averaging 20.2 points and 5.0 assists on 63.8 percent shooting, including a 44.1 percent clip from three-point land, through his last 17 outings. And his season-long efforts are once again generating historical buzz.

    Prior to 2016-17, only one player in the three-point era put up 20 points, 11 rebounds and five assists per 36 minutes for an entire campaign: Kevin Garnett. Jokic, along with Russell Westbrook, is now on track to join him.

Lucas Nogueira, Toronto Raptors

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    Did we enter this season thinking Lucas Nogueira could sop up some of the minutes left behind by 2015-16 standout Bismack Biyombo? Sure. 

    Was he supposed to emerge as, quite possibly, the Toronto Raptors' second-most important player, behind only Kyle Lowry? Absolutely, positively not.

    And yet, according to NBA Math, no one except Lowry has been more valuable to the team's cause than Nogueira. There's some statistical babble in here—mainly the lineups in which he plays. More than 72 percent of his minutes come beside Lowry, who elevates the worth of those around him in his sleep.

    But Nogueira's contributions aren't all crammed with caveats. His ceiling is merely higher than we thought.

    "The sky is the limit for the kid because he's got a lot of God-given talent," Raptors head coach Dwane Casey said, per the Canadian Press' Gregory Strong (via CBC Sports). "He just needs to make sure he continues to work at it, to seriously approach his job in that way because he's a great kid. He's a lovable kid, all of his teammates love him, the coaches love him."

    Primarily a paint protector and rim-runner, Nogueira has flashed potential elsewhere. He covers the floor well in transition and creates a ton of separation with his picks. The Raptors can get by when he shares the floor with Jonas Valanciunas, because he isn't afraid to take jumpers or slip screens from beyond the foul line.

    Nogueira still has a lot to prove—more fluid arm motions and offensive activity top the list. Toronto wouldn't have brought in the now-healthy Jared Sullinger over the offseason if it were totally sold on the 7-footer. But Nogueira is already an upgrade over Biyombo, a development few, if any, saw coming.

Otto Porter, Washington Wizards

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    Otto Porter's production and efficiency have steadily increased over each of his first four seasons in pretty much every category. But his transition from "defense-oriented combo forward who sometimes scores" to "one of the most dangerous shooters in the game who plays good defense" is a pleasant shock.

    "I mean, y'all don't understand he's a shooter?" Washington Wizards teammate Kelly Oubre Jr. said, presumably incredulously, per the Washington Post's Candace Buckner. "He's one of the best shooters in this league, man. So people keep sleeping, we keep getting points and the team keeps getting wins and that's the only thing that really matters."

    Preach, Kelly.

    Porter has the highest effective field-goal percentage of the 88 players who are firing up at least 10 shots per game. Carmelo Anthony, Stephen Curry, Zach LaVine, J.J. Redick and—wait for it—Nick Young are the only other players shooting 45-plus percent on 150 or more spot-up three-point attempts.

    More than 80 percent of Porter's buckets are coming off assists, and he's undeniably dependent on the attention drawn by Bradley Beal and John Wall. But he is not a one-trick scorer. His three-point conversion rate has held firm in the scant minutes he's logged without Wall, and he's shooting 52.2 percent on drives with a fantastic foul rate (16.7 percent).

    Another summer salary-cap boom was always going to thrust Porter into the max-contract discussion regardless of whether he exploded this season. For good measure, though, he's climbed past Beal as the Wizards' second-best player. 

     

    Dan Favale covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @danfavale.

    Stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com or NBA.com and accurate leading into games on Jan. 23.