The NBA's 10 Most Pleasant Surprises Halfway Through 2022-23January 12, 2023
The NBA's 10 Most Pleasant Surprises Halfway Through 2022-23
Unmet expectations get a bad rap, and these storylines from the first half of the 2022-23 NBA season prove it.
Coming into the year, it was easy to look at a handful of situations around the league and feel a little down. Logic dictated the Brooklyn Nets would fall apart, the New York Knicks would again get their offseason moves wrong and that the Boston Celtics couldn't overcome a summer of injury and turmoil to return to conference-fave status.
Low expectations across the board.
All of those anticipated bummers failed to materialize, illustrating the joy that arises when we expect the worst and wind up with something much better.
These are the most pleasant surprises halfway through 2022-23.
The Brooklyn Nets' Failure to Implode
The whole operation still feels like it's teetering on a knife's edge, and I'm not sure how much credit Kevin Durant deserves for being the pilot that flew a commercial airliner into a hurricane (trade demand; successful lobbying for a coach firing) and then managed to fly it back out (MVP-caliber production).
Your "pleasantness" mileage may vary, but there's no doubt the Brooklyn Nets hitting the halfway point of the year looking a lot like the best team in the league is a surprise.
Considering where it looked like things were headed in the offseason and during the brutal stretch involving Kyrie Irving's suspension and Steve Nash's ouster, surprise might not quite capture it. This is more like a stunner.
Durant is making absolutely everything, drilling 60.0 percent of a gluttonous mid-range shot diet that, for everyone else, would provide only empty calories. He's in the running to win the fifth scoring title of his career and could become the first player in history to average at least 28.0 points per game with a true shooting percentage north of 68.0 percent. Fortunately, the knee injury he suffered on Jan. 8 against the Miami Heat doesn't project to cost him too much time.
Meanwhile, Irving reeled off a 50/40/90 December in support of KD, and the rest of Brooklyn's roster coalesced around its star duo to go undefeated for a full month.
Nic Claxton is swatting shots at a clip that ranks in the 98th percentile at his position while also switching on to guards without issue; TJ Warren is once again a dangerous scorer after two seasons on the shelf; Yuta Watanabe brings energy and smiles; and Royce O'Neale is somehow averaging 4.2 assists, defending like his hair's on fire and hitting 41.1 percent of his threes.
Questions remain about the free-throw-averse Ben Simmons' efficacy in the playoffs, and the Nets still need more size. But the team's current contender status remains remarkable. It was such a sure bet that everything in Brooklyn was going to fall apart. Instead, it's all come together.
Lauri Markkanen's Star Turn
It's not like Lauri Markkanen was a disappointing player prior to joining the Utah Jazz as part of the Donovan Mitchell return package. The No. 7 pick in 2017 averaged double figures in scoring every year of his career, showed some legitimate stretch as a 7-footer and was a quality starter at age 24 on last year's surprisingly stellar Cleveland Cavaliers.
But this? This was unexpected.
Markkanen has played at an All-Star level with the Utah Jazz, operating as a No. 1 option in a top-five offense with a volume-efficiency scoring profile that could, if sustained, go down as historic.
Utah Jazz @utahjazz
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Markkanen's off-ball mobility makes it impossible for most like-sized players to stick with him, and he's using the space he creates running off screens to drill 43.2 percent of his catch-and-shoot threes. On the ball, he's putting up 1.43 points per possession in isolation, which ranks in the 97th percentile. He's a bully against switches near the bucket, is within spitting distance of 90 percent from the foul line and doesn't allow the ball to stick in his hands, making him an eminently scaleable, "this guy fits anywhere" star.
When teams deal players like Mitchell as part of a larger teardown, the hope is to get back multiple assets—picks, rookie-scale contracts, cap flexibility—that might someday provide a replacement for the departing star. Utah acquired all that stuff, sure. But those are lottery tickets that may never pay out.
No worries there. In Markkanen, the Jazz have already hit the jackpot.
Tyrese Haliburton and Indy's Instant Rebuild
If we see a rash of teams trying and failing to rebuild without bottoming out over the next few seasons, the Indiana Pacers will be to blame. The shortcut they've taken isn't so easily replicable.
They fast-tracked their restart by adding Tyrese Haliburton in a deadline deal last season, bringing aboard an All-Star performer and culture-setter on a rookie-scale deal. The point guard flashed the ability to run a team down the stretch of 2021-22, but even the most starry-eyed Indy optimists couldn't have expected what he's become.
Haliburton is leading the league in assists and is on pace to post the first-ever season with averages of at least 20.0 points, 10.0 assists and 40.0 percent shooting from long distance. Numbers aside, his hard-wired "make the right play" approach has permeated the entire team, creating an uptempo, movement-heavy attack that ranks among the league's most exciting to watch.
The Pacers get out in transition more often than all but two teams in the league, and only the rangy Toronto Raptors and their collection of 6'9" sprinters add more points per transition possession. Framed more simply, Indy runs a lot and runs effectively, led by Haliburton's relentless pace-pushing and next-level vision.
His intelligence as an off-ball mover and competence as a shooter mean the Pacers can target second stars of any stripe as they enter the next phase of their growth process. Like Markkanen, Haliburton's varied skills make him exceptionally easy to build around.
The hard work isn't over for the Pacers, who are firmly in the mix for a top-six spot in the East. The toughest task is complete, though. In the 22-year-old, Indiana has the type of transformative star that creates an identity and attracts talent.
Rebuilds aren't supposed to be this easy.
The Beaming Sacramento Kings
In years past, new head coach Mike Brown's "Turn the f---in' jets on!" exhortation would have become the worst kind of meme. The Sacramento Kings would have given up after their 0-4 start, endured some kind of embarrassing in-house controversy or otherwise "Kangz-ed" super hard, and everyone would have used the clip to signify wild enthusiasm leading to predictable failure.
Not this year, though.
The jets have been on from the get-go in Sacramento, propelling the Kings to lethal offensive production led by likely All-Star Domantas Sabonis. The seventh-year center is endearing himself to the fanbase with brilliant work as an offensive hub and a willingness to play through an avulsion fracture in his right thumb.
De'Aaron Fox is slimmer than he was a year ago, darting all over the floor and carrying the Kings in clutch games with the NBA's second-highest scoring total in close-and-late situations. Among the 15 players with at least 60 clutch points, Fox is one of just three shooting over 50.0 percent from the field, and he's still comfortably atop that small group at a ridiculous 61.5 percent.
Kevin Huerter's mind-meld handoff game with Sabonis offers the Kings another viable source of scoring, Malik Monk is a live-wire bench leader, and veteran Harrison Barnes remains a steadying presence on the floor and in the locker room.
Perhaps the best signal of the Kings' foray into success on the court and in the marketing department: They can also claim the distinction of having the best post-win celebration gimmick in the league.
The defense remains a concern, and even amid all this immediate success, it can still be true that Sacramento made the wrong long-term move by trading Haliburton. But the Kings' ability to stick in the playoff race for the duration of this season feels legitimate. And lest anyone try to argue that a roster with Sabonis, Fox, Huerter and more supporting shooters than the Kings have had in a long time was supposed to do this, let's not forget that even before the "jets" meme, this team was expected to stall out.
A preseason over-under of 34.5 wins says everything about the legacy of losing Sacramento is overcoming in a thrilling 2022-23 campaign.
Brook Lopez's Renaissance Season
Start with a player whose scouting report has probably included the term "lumbering" since his early 20s, have him undergo back surgery that costs him almost all of his age-33 season and then ask him to play more minutes per game than he has in any year since 2015-16.
What are your expectations?
Even if you were a member of the Lopez family, you didn't imagine Brook Lopez could do what he's doing for the Milwaukee Bucks this season.
At 34, Lopez is averaging 14.5 points per game with a 61.5 true shooting percentage that would rank as a career high for any season in which he logged at least 20 games. He's also swatting a career-high-tying 4.1 shots per 100 possessions and playing the cat-and-mouse game in drop pick-and-roll coverage as well as any big man in the league.
Opponents shoot 54.9 percent inside six feet when Lopez is the primary defender, the second-lowest hit rate allowed by anyone credited with guarding at least 7.0 close-range attempts per game. And that doesn't even account for how often he forces opponents to give up on shooting near the rim altogether. With BroLo on the floor, Bucks opponents' attempt rate at the basket drops by 5.0 percent, a figure that ranks in the 97th percentile.
Lopez has been a good interior defender and a reliable high-volume spacer for years, but he's handling both tasks better than ever at an age (and following surgery) that usually makes it hard for players his size to stay on the floor.
Bol Bol Busting Loose
Bol Bol had never scored a dozen points in a game during his three-year career as a little-used reserve with the Denver Nuggets. He's already done it 15 times in his first season with the Orlando Magic, peaking with four 20-plus-point efforts in the month of November alone.
Bol's career reclamation is pleasant enough just looking at the numbers. A player who was in danger of slipping out of the league and who had logged only 81 minutes across 14 games last season is now a regular starter when healthy, averaging 12.0 points, 7.1 rebounds and 1.6 blocks while shooting 58.8 percent from the field and 38.8 percent on long-range tries. If he's not on the shortest of short lists for Most Improved Player, we need to scrap the entire award.
And yet you don't really get the full effect of Bol's rise from the ashes unless you watch him.
Teammate Paolo Banchero, the No. 1 pick in the 2022 draft, has seen him up close more than most.
"Everyone talks about the Victor dude from France," Banchero told HoopsHype. "I'm not trying to compare them, but Bol's 7'2", shoots threes, brings it up the court, makes passes, and blocks shots. I feel like people kind of forget about him, but Bol's a freak of nature."
What sorcery is this?
Players with Bol's frame, of which there might be only a handful on the planet, aren't supposed to move like that.
This version of Bol may have been foreseeable back when was a top-five recruit in his high school class of 2018, but the intervening years were marked by disappointment, character concerns, worrisome medical reports and underwhelming production. Bol carried a "bust" label through nearly a half-decade and still emerged as a productive starter with tantalizing upside at age 23. Just incredible.
Jalen Brunson Working Out Perfectly
Casual observers of this season's New York Knicks might conclude that the $104 million the team gave Jalen Brunson, currently the second-leading scorer on a team barely above the Play-In level of the Eastern Conference standings, may not have been money well spent.
They might see it as merely fine. Inoffensive. Maybe even acceptable.
First, understand those assessments sell Brunson short. Close watchers know he's been exactly what the Knicks have needed in a floor-organizer, shot creator and halfcourt bailout option. His 21.6 points per game come with a 32.0 percent assist rate and a defense-collapsing flip-and-floater arsenal that creates clean looks for an offense short on reliable self-starters. Whatever limited rhythm the Knicks' attack has stems from Brunson.
But even if the real descriptor of the Brunson signing and all the machinations that preceded it is much closer to "excellent" than "fine," keep in mind that even the latter would still mark it as one of the team's most successful moves in decades.
The bar for New York's offseason signings was low, but the Brunson deal cleared it with ease. Anyone who remembers deals for Joakim Noah, Amar'e Stoudemire or Eddy Curry and Jerome James (if you're into two-decade-old deep cuts) understands that.
Brunson may not be a No. 1 option on a contender, but the Knicks aren't paying him as if that's the case. He ranks 14th among point guards in 2022-23 salary, and his current rate of $27.7 million will decline over the life of the deal as the cap rises.
The Knicks got this signing right, and given the team's long history of money misspent, that has to count as a feel-good surprise.
Anthony Davis Still Has an MVP Gear
Prior to going down with a foot injury on Dec. 16, Anthony Davis confirmed he could play at (and above) the Orlando bubble level, which convinced many at the time that he was among the five best players in the league.
Glass-half-empty types aren't wrong to frame what AD did through mid-December as a painful disappointment. He flashed his megastar brilliance for a few weeks until injury dimmed the lights. For those wanting to see the best of Davis after two truncated, underwhelming campaigns, his brief supernova surge was a tease and a reminder that even the greatest AD stretches come with a sense of foreboding.
We're here to be positive, though, and it's hard to get past the redemptive vibes Davis' dominant play inspired.
Prior to going down, AD was averaging 27.4 points, 12.1 rebounds, 2.6 assists and 2.1 blocks while posting a career-best (by a mile) 66.2 true shooting percentage. The eight-time All-Star was also on track to set new career marks in Player Efficiency Rating and was arguably the front-runner for Defensive Player of the Year.
Davis' status in catch-all metrics only further validated his return to elite levels. He ranked behind only Nikola Jokić and Luka Dončić in FiveThirtyEight's RAPTOR and slotted into sixth place in Dunks and Threes' Estimated Plus/Minus.
Yes, his current absence hurts and probably means the Los Angeles Lakers yet again have no choice but to play for next year—a dicey proposition with LeBron James (also playing brilliantly) in his age-38 season. And sure, maybe all this proves is that Davis has a high ceiling he can only scrape up against occasionally in between sprains, stress reactions and whatever else crops up to shelve him.
All the same, AD's work over a 25-game pre-injury span proved something that was largely in doubt: He can still perform like an MVP when he's right. For a Lakers team that will spend whatever remains of its time with this core fighting through uneven regular seasons and hoping for a shot to play four playoff series at apex strength, that's no small thing.
The Boston Celtics Didn't Miss a Beat
Until the Golden State Warriors solved them in Game 4 of the 2022 NBA Finals, the Boston Celtics looked like a team ready to win multiple rings. They'd closed the regular season with a preposterously dominant run and had a combination of youth and defense that marked them as the team to watch over the next half-decade or so.
Even after falling to the Dubs, Boston's future was as bright as any team's in the league. And then, the offseason happened.
Robert Williams III had knee surgery in September just six months after a previous operation in March of 2022, followed by a PRP injection in October. Just like that, the key to the Celtics' monstrous second-half defense was on the shelf for what many expected would be half the season. And given the piled-up knee issues of the recent past, how could anyone be confident he'd return to form?
Throw in a torn ACL for key offseason addition Danilo Gallinari and the year-long suspension of head coach Ime Udoka, who was widely credited as the architect of the Celtics' league-best defense, and it got a lot harder to imagine the team returning to the Finals for a second straight season.
So much for that.
The Celtics started 2022-23 on an 18-4 tear, propelled by historic offensive production. Though they've experienced predictable shooting regression since then, Williams is back, interim head coach Joe Mazzulla hasn't missed a beat and Boston still sits atop the Eastern Conference with the best point differential in the league, ahead of last year's 51-win pace.
Consider all that preseason skepticism irrelevant. Boston's title window didn't shrink amid injury, distraction and controversy. If anything, this parity-riddled season means it's open wider than ever.
Jaren Jackson Jr. Putting It All Together
Every year, something was missing from Jaren Jackson Jr.'s game.
As a rookie, the No. 4 pick in the 2018 draft brought the massive defensive impact evaluators expected, improving the Memphis Grizzlies' defensive rating by 6.3 points per 100 possessions during his time on the floor. Unfortunately, the Grizzlies' offense cratered when he played.
The following year, Jackson turned in one of the greatest high-volume shooting seasons ever posted by a big man, hitting 39.4 percent of his 6.5 long-range attempts per game. Inexplicably, Jackson's defensive presence disappeared as Memphis was outscored by 2.7 points per 100 possessions during his minutes. A torn meniscus in the Orlando bubble kept Jackson out for all but 11 games in the following season.
Flash forward to year four, and Jackson again had to miss the early part of the campaign because of offseason foot surgery. Upon his return, the 22-year-old flashed the elite defense of his rookie season but couldn't find his stroke, hitting just 31.9 percent of his treys.
The give-and-take that has defined the Memphis big man's career is finally over. Jackson is tearing it up on both ends now, obliterating opponents' offensive efficiency and posting a block rate of 11.3 percent (after leading the league at 7.4 percent last season) that is on pace to set an all-time record. Best of all, Jackson is also contributing on both ends for the first time, drilling 36.6 percent of his threes and converting efficiently from all over the court. His true shooting percentage of 61.8 percent, if sustained, will easily set a new career high.
It wouldn't necessarily have been a mistake to expect something like this from Jackson, who'd shown isolated flashes of all the valuable parts of his game now contributing to a career year. But when four straight seasons elapse and a clearly talented prospect can't quite put all the pieces together, you start to wonder whether the puzzle will ever be complete.
We need wonder no more. Jackson is finally the floor-stretching Defensive Player of the Year candidate Memphis hoped he could become.
Stats courtesy of NBA.com, Basketball Reference and Cleaning the Glass. Accurate through Jan. 9. Salary info via Spotrac.
Grant Hughes covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter (@gt_hughes), and subscribe to the Hardwood Knocks podcast, where he appears with Bleacher Report's Dan Favale.