Every NBA Team's Biggest Training Camp Revelation so Far
Training camp is a time for learning.
Coaching staffs figure out which players are going to be in their rotations, which lineups work best and what types of strategies they're going to employ when the games actually count. Players work on their skills, growing their games and honing their previously established assets.
And fans learn about their favorite teams.
Even though we're only a short way into training camp and teams have just a few preseason games under their collective belts, primary takeaways—ones that will be most meaningful during the regular season—are already emerging.
If you haven't had enough time to follow the nitty-gritty details for each of the Association's 30 squads, fear not. We've got you covered.
Note: All preseason stats come from RealGM.com and are current heading into October 13's games.
Atlanta Hawks: Progress Slow for Al Horford
When Al Horford is on the court for the Atlanta Hawks, he's a game-changing force at center, a star player who can serve as an offensive hub, put the ball in the basket with great frequency and help anchor a defense with his versatility and work in the paint.
But he has to be on the court in order to do so.
Horford hasn't played in a competitive situation since tearing his pectoral muscle in a Dec. 26 contest against the Cleveland Cavaliers. While he missed the majority of the 2013-14 campaign, the Hawks slipped from the No. 3 spot in the Eastern Conference, barely made the playoffs and then were eliminated in the first round, admittedly giving the struggling Indiana Pacers a stern test.
Well, after an offseason of rehab, rest and recovery, Horford still isn't quite ready to go. According to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution's Chris Vivlamore, the big man played in a five-on-five setting with contact for the first time Oct. 8, and he has yet to suit up in a preseason game.
Horford should be able to regain his former level of play, but after missing crucial time and failing to capitalize on an opportunity to build chemistry with his teammates and in Mike Budenholzer's system, that process could take a bit longer than expected.
Boston Celtics: Marcus Thornton Should Have Prominent Rotation Spot
Without Rajon Rondo, the Boston Celtics are significantly thinner in the backcourt, and that opens up the door for every other guard on the roster. Marcus Smart should get to play a big role in the rotation sooner than he might have expected, while Avery Bradley will be a key piece for the C's throughout the season.
But let's not forget about Marcus Thornton.
The sharpshooting guard spent time with both the Sacramento Kings and Brooklyn Nets during the 2013-14 campaign, but his playing time and role were both limited in each location. In Brooklyn, he occasionally provided big scoring numbers, but he still spent under 24 minutes per game on the court.
Thus far during his Beantown tenure, Thornton is proving he deserves more minutes, especially because he's one of the few players in the backcourt who can capably space out the court.
Through four preseason games, the shooting guard is averaging a team-high 15 points per game, doing so while shooting 43.1 percent from the field and 40 percent from beyond the arc. He's taken 6.3 triples during the average contest, and that combination of value and efficiency should be helping him carve out a larger role.
For Thornton, it's all about shining while Rondo is out and earning himself more minutes. So far, he's done exactly that.
Brooklyn Nets: Brook Lopez Making Quick Strides
Brook Lopez was supposed to skip a beat.
After missing most of the 2013-14 season with yet another foot injury—one that might even have forced him to work on changing the way he runs, which is about as fundamental of a change as can be—he's picked up right where he left off. Granted, he's only played in two games, but averaging 19 points and 5.5 rebounds in only 24.4 minutes per game is stellar work, especially when he's shooting 56 percent from the field.
"He's been the dominant low-post presence that we've missed," Joe Johnson explained during a conference call, via ESPNNewYork.com's Mike Mazzeo. "He's trying to fine-tune himself. We just look forward to everyone improving and getting better everyday."
And as Mazzeo noted, it wasn't just his scoring that's been impressive. Lopez's defense is continuing to improve, though it's still not perfect:
His defense against DeMarcus Cousins was solid. In the first quarter, Lopez stayed with a driving Cousins before blocking the Kings center’s shot. Cousins had just nine points. Sacramento’s speedy, penetrating guards did give the Nets a lot of trouble. This may be a problem all season.
Health will always be a concern for this 7-footer, but he appears to be bouncing back from last season's injury quite nicely. That's great news for the Brooklyn Nets and their hopes of securing a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.
Charlotte Hornets: Shooting More Threes
I just think if you study the league and what wins, the three things that yield over a point per possession the last, I think, nine years are … the best possession is if you get fouled, the second best possession is 0-3 feet, and the third best possession is a three, in particular the corner threes.
It’s every aspect of offense, but in this league, your shooting is your spacing. That’s why I think Marvin [Williams] was such a key signing for us. You can see it in practice. There’s a lot more room for all the other guys when he’s out on the floor vs. the other four men. And Cody [Zeller]’s improved shooting has improved our offense too.
So there’s different ways you can do it. But you got to have shooting. Look at San Antonio. Look at The Finals. If you can’t shoot, you’re not out there. In Orlando, the two great years we had … we had four good years, but the two great years we had, we literally never played anybody, besides Dwight [Howard], who couldn’t shoot threes. And it’s hard to guard.
During the 2013-14 season, the Charlotte Bobcats took 17.9 triples per game (the No. 27 mark in the league, per Basketball-Reference.com) and made only 35.1 percent of them.
But the preseason—and small-sample-size warnings abound—have seen a severe uptick.
Against the Philadelphia 76ers, the new Charlotte Hornets, clad in their spiffy jerseys, attempted 22 three-pointers and made seven of them, good for just a 31.8 three-point percentage. But when they took on the Washington Wizards, they went 13-of-28—a sparkling percentage of 46.4.
To put that in perspective, the 2013-14 campaign saw the Bobcats top out at a dozen makes from beyond the arc.
They never got to 13 even once.
Chicago Bulls: Derrick Rose's Shot Works
Derrick Rose isn't going to come back and dominate the league right away. That much has been made inordinately clear based on last year's preseason results and subsequent failure to stay healthy throughout the regular season, as well as his inadequate showing for Team USA.
During the 2014 preseason, Rose has been a solid contributor for the Chicago Bulls, averaging 11.0 points, 3.3 rebounds and 2.0 assists through three games. But while he's struggled to make his shots around the basket, the most encouraging sign of all is a stroke that's more consistent and more effective from the outside.
When it comes to taking perimeter jumpers, Rose hasn't exactly been shy. He's taken 2.3 deep looks per game despite spending under 17 minutes on the floor during the average contest, and he's knocked them down at a 57.1 percent clip.
"Push the ball; if they give me an open shot, take (it). When I was trying to force things, it made me look bad," he told Bulls.com's Sam Smith during the opening salvo of the preseason. Thus far, the strategy has worked, in part because he's been able to drill those long jumpers and space the court for Chicago.
It's also worth noting that Jimmy Butler's offense looks better, Nikola Mirotic has impressed for lengthy stretches, and the Pau Gasol transition has gone smoothly. But Rose's ability still has to take center stage.
Cleveland Cavaliers: Kevin Love Is Ridiculous
Keep in mind that the new-look Cleveland Cavaliers have only played in two contests. Both have been preseason affairs, and while one came against the Miami Heat in Brazil, the other was against Maccabi Tel Aviv, David Blatt's old organization.
Stats are going to be misleading when working with that type of sample, but we still can't overlook just how good Kevin Love has been.
In those contests, Love has spent only a combined 49 minutes on the court. Nonetheless, he's averaged 16.5 points, 9.0 rebounds and 2.5 assists per game while shooting 61.1 percent from the field and 62.5 percent from beyond the arc. If you prorate those stats to their per-36-minute versions, he'd be putting up 24.2 points, 13.2 rebounds and 3.7 dimes.
Last season, his per-36-minute numbers were as follows: 25.9 points, 12.4 rebounds and 4.4 assists.
So much for him producing empty numbers.
Dallas Mavericks: Al-Farouq Aminu Is Valuable
Losing Shawn Marion left a large void for the Dallas Mavericks, one that Chandler Parsons can't fill by himself. While the former Houston Rocket—whatever his weight may be—is a strong offensive commodity who can handle the ball, create looks for himself, serve as a distributor and drain deep attempts, he's not a standout defender.
Al-Farouq Aminu is, though.
During the preseason, the tough small forward has been a shot-blocking menace who has looked quite good defensively whenever he's been granted some consistent run. He's by no means a scorer, but his rebounding and versatility on the less glamorous end make him a sneakily valuable addition from this summer.
As Tim MacMahon wrote for ESPNDallas.com at the beginning of October, the plan in Dallas is simply to maximize his defensive value:
The Mavs envision Aminu as a Matrix-esque defender who has the versatility to defend four positions, primarily guarding the two forwards, much like Shawn Marion did the last four years. Aminu has embraced that challenge, taking Chandler's advice about studying Pippen and also watching a lot of tape of former San Antonio Spurs stopper Bruce Bowen.
'I've just been trying to dissect it so I can become a better defender and reach one of my goals of becoming one of the best defenders in the league,' Aminu said. 'A lot of stuff is mental. I think it's just small things like [hand placement] that's going to help me become a better defender and then just making the effort to do it.'
Plenty of other moves made more headlines in Dallas this offseason, but this one might end up being quite important.
Denver Nuggets: Timofey Mozgov Ready to Shine
During a Wednesday night game between the Oklahoma City Thunder and Denver Nuggets, Kevin Durant rose up for a massive slam dunk attempt, and Timofey Mozgov rolled over to try to play some help defense.
In years past, Mozgov would've been, well, Mozgov-ed. Blake Griffin can provide plenty of testimony to that.
But not this season.
Mozgov blocked the shot, sent Durant to the ground and ran down the court to finish the play with a dunk of his own. And it was one of eight buckets he'd make that night in eight attempts, just another impressive offensive performance for a player who's most assuredly on the rise. The Nuggets are placing more trust in Mozgov than ever before, and he's ready for the increased burden.
Through a trio of preseason outings, the Russian big man seems to be picking up right where he left off at the end of last season. He's handled the offensive responsibility quite well, averaging an impressive 15.7 points per game on 77.3 percent shooting.
Obviously, he won't maintain those numbers throughout the season, but it's clear Mozgov is no longer a punchline. Instead, he's a legitimate contributor for a squad with reasonable playoff aspirations.
Detroit Pistons: Right Players Are Shooting
The Detroit Pistons were awful at shooting the ball during the 2013-14 season, but they brought in plenty of snipers during the offseason. Now, Stan Van Gundy seems to be doing a nice job of ensuring that the right people are doing the shooting from downtown.
Through three games, nine different players have taken at least one triple per contest:
- Jodie Meeks (3-of-8 in one game)
- Kyle Singler (3-of-20 in three games)
- Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (7-of-15 in three games)
- Cartier Martin (2-of-8 in two games)
- Brandon Jennings (2-of-9 in three games)
- Jonas Jerebko (3-of-9 in three games)
- Caron Butler (0-of-3 in two games)
- D.J. Augustin (1-of-4 in three games)
- Lorenzo Brown (0-of-1 in one game)
Not on the list?
Josh Smith. He's made one of his two deep looks in three outings during the early portion of the preseason.
Golden State Warriors: Ahead of the Medical Curve
According to ESPN The Magazine's Pablo S. Torre and Tom Haberstroh, the Golden State Warriors are one of the teams taking advantage of new medical technology. In the Dubs' case, it's the UP by Jawbone, which monitors arm movement via a wristband:
So it was last season that Iguodala became one of several Warriors to wear the UP by Jawbone, a wristband weighing less than an ounce and covered in rubber that monitors sleep habits by tracking the arm's slightest movements. (Before the availability of such devices—and the ensuing graphs illustrating quantity and quality of sleep—teams could only gather data from questionnaires. 'And one thing we've found out,' Lyles says, 'is that guys who used to say that they got nine hours of sleep every night actually got more like five.') Iguodala also agreed to a no-screens-in-bed policy under Lyles and now bans his beloved TV from his bedroom. He stores his cellphone in the bathroom overnight. He keeps the temperature at precisely 57 degrees, to lower his body's core temperature. His game-day naps have been cut down to an hour. His new in-season routine, which begins at 11:15 p.m., proceeds as follows: stretch; do breathing exercises; read a book for 15 to 20 minutes; lights out by midnight; repeat. Iguodala attests to feeling 'more refreshed and not as groggy.'
Though there are questions about more invasive tests throughout the article containing that excerpt, something like this will undoubtedly help players feel fresher and increasingly ready for games. It may even cut down on injuries, which would greatly aid the Golden State cause.
"Keke Lyles, Golden State's director of athletic performance, had already been researching what amounts to an open secret about NBA slumber," write Torre and Haberstroh. "Players sleep as lightly as undergrads during finals week but nap harder than Spanish plutocrats."
With this new technology in place and a year of data at Lyles' disposal, Golden State should be in tip-top athletic shape heading into the year. If the early success of the preseason, particularly the blowout of the Los Angeles Lakers, is any indication, the strategies are already starting to work.
Houston Rockets: Donatas Motiejunas Ready for Bigger Role
The Houston Rockets have been trying to figure out the power forward spot in their lineup for a while now.
Last season, it was Terrence Jones who rose to the occasion, playing quality ball next to Dwight Howard and helping elevate the team's ceiling even further. However, he's not the only young player who could make a big impact at the 4.
During the 2013-14 campaign, Donatas Motiejunas played sparingly but averaged 12.9 points and 8.5 rebounds per 36 minutes while shooting 44.3 percent from the field. He was a floor-stretching power forward, even if he was still a seldom-used one.
After suiting up for Lithuania during the 2014 FIBA Basketball World Cup, Motiejunas is allowing that momentum to carry over into training camp with the Rockets.
In his first two preseason outings for Houston, he's made his only triple, shot 57.1 percent from the field and averaged a strong 10.5 points, 3.0 rebounds, 1.0 assists and 1.5 steals per game. Those numbers don't necessarily stand out in a per-game setting, but he's spending just 24 minutes on the court during the average contest.
Between an improved Motiejunas, Jones and Trevor Ariza, who can play the 4 in small-ball lineups, the Rockets finally have some legitimate options at their disposal.
Indiana Pacers: Scoring Will Be Tough
I'm not really sure this is a revelation so much as confirmation of what most basketball minds thought heading into training camp.
Losing Lance Stephenson to the Charlotte Hornets and Paul George to a broken tibia and fibula was already going to doom the Indiana Pacers to a lackluster offensive season, even more so than last year's performance. Especially because the team didn't have the means necessary to replace either of those important scoring pieces.
The preseason has shown us just how bad it might be.
Indiana has averaged 98 points per game while playing against the Minnesota Timberwolves, Orlando Magic and Dallas Mavericks, none of whom are expected to boast above-average point-preventing units. That's problematic enough, and it gets worse when you look at the team's top scorers.
Through those three outings, six players have been in double figures: C.J. Watson (16 points per game), George Hill (14), C.J. Miles (12.3), Donald Sloan (11.7), Roy Hibbert (10.5) and Lavoy Allen (10).
David West, Rodney Stuckey and Luis Scola will presumably join the club when the season begins, likely at the expense of some of the current members, but that's a lackluster group of scorers. Frankly, "lackluster" may be sugarcoating it a bit too much.
Los Angeles Clippers: Defense a Work in Progress
"I'm hoping that we play defense a lot better," Chris Paul told InsideSocial.com's Robert Morales after the Los Angeles Clippers allowed the Golden State Warriors to score 112 points in their preseason opener. "You know, we're trying to be a very unique team that defends very well and plays at a very nice pace, uptempo. That's not something that usually goes together like that, so we're trying to put all the pieces together, and trying to keep that continuity going with both units."
Paul's wish was not granted.
The Portland Trail Blazers would go on to score 119 against the Clippers.
This team is continuing to run, but it hasn't yet found the defensive identity that helped make it special during the previous year's campaign. Last season, Basketball-Reference.com reveals, LAC allowed 104.8 points per 100 possessions, giving it the No. 9 defensive rating in the Association.
With DeAndre Jordan anchoring the paint and Doc Rivers calling the shots, improvement is to be expected. But not everyone has meshed together at this very early stage of the proceedings.
The Los Angeles offense works, but defense is still a work in progress.
Los Angeles Lakers: Kobe Bryant Is Human
If you've become convinced over the years that Kobe Bryant is a basketball-playing cyborg who isn't forced to adhere to the laws that govern mere mortals, I don't blame you.
But he's not.
Returning from a set of major injuries—one that has limited Bryant to only six games over the last calendar year—is not an easy process, and that's going to show up in the shooting guard's game. His first shot of the preseason was an air ball against the Denver Nuggets, though he'd go on to drill some of his patented baseline fades throughout the contest.
During his first three games, Bryant has averaged a team-high 11.3 points to go along with his 1.7 rebounds, 4.3 assists and 2.3 steals. If you prorate those to the per-36-minute versions, he'd be posting 18.2 points, 2.7 boards, 6.9 dimes and 3.7 thefts.
Solid numbers, right? Problem is, he's shooting only 36.1 percent from the field and has yet to make a shot from beyond the arc.
Bryant should get back to his high level of play, but he's not there yet. Though he's showing flashes of that greatness, particularly when he drills a tough jumper, it's important to remember that his return is a process, not something that will happen overnight.
Memphis Grizzlies: Marc Gasol Is Coming for the Crown
Dwight Howard is still the NBA's best center, but there are plenty of players coming for his crown. Joakim Noah and DeMarcus Cousins are the big men who get mentioned most often, though forgetting about Marc Gasol would be a mistake.
Remember, he won Defensive Player of the Year during his last healthy season, and he's still fully capable of making those special plays that don't necessarily show up in a box score. He's been making those and the more glamorous statistical contributions quite nicely throughout the offseason, building upon his World Cup performance with Spain.
Despite spending only 17.7 minutes on the floor during the average contest, Gasol is putting up 11.3 points, 7.7 rebounds, 1.3 assists, 0.7 steals and 1.7 blocks per game while holding down the fort in the paint. He's now perfectly comfortable in David Joerger's system, and it shows.
The Grizzlies should be a strong playoff contender throughout the 2014-15 season, and it all starts with the man in the middle.
If the preseason even counts as such, he's off to a great beginning.
Miami Heat: James Ennis Emerging
A second-round pick during the 2013 NBA draft, James Ennis spent what would have been his rookie year playing abroad. Rather than filling a spot on the Miami Heat's bench or playing in the D-League, he suited up with Piratas de Quebradillas of the Puerto Rican BSN and the Perth Wildcats of the Australian NBL.
But now, he's playing with the big boys.
Ennis, showcasing a promising blend of athleticism and touch from the outside, has led the Heat in scoring through three games, averaging 16 points per contest. He's also contributed with 5.7 rebounds, 2.7 assists and 0.7 steals during the typical outing.
As Shandel Richardson wrote for the Sun Sentinel, it appears as though he could fill a wing void for the team that has been to the NBA Finals in four consecutive seasons:
Help could also come from Ennis, who has been one of the stars of the preseason. He continued his impressive audition by scoring 17 points in the 122-119 overtime loss to the Cavs. The Heat have lacked consistency from a young, athletic wing player since they began building the team around veterans in 2010.
The San Antonio Spurs exploited the Heat's age during the NBA Finals with Patty Mills and Kawhi Leonard. Ennis could be the player who allows Miami to follow the Spurs' blueprint of adding young talent to experience.
If his playmaking continues to look so solid—and Couper Moorhead of Heat.com has more details on that—he'll be a big contributor during his rookie season in the Association.
Milwaukee Bucks: Khris Middleton Wants to Be Included
The Milwaukee Bucks may have struggled to win games during the previous season, but they're overflowing with young talent.
Giannis Antetokounmpo has been widely anointed as a future star, while Brandon Knight still has plenty of potential left unrealized. Jabari Parker was a lottery selection in a stacked class, while the frontcourt duo of John Henson and Larry Sanders is still getting better and has inordinate amounts of upside.
But Khris Middleton is proving he deserves a mention too.
During his second year out of Texas A&M, the second-round pick (and he likely would've been a first-round selection had he remained healthy throughout his time at College Station) thrived from beyond the arc and broke out to the tune of 12.1 points per game. Now, he's building upon that success and showing that he deserves to be in the "players of the future" discussion.
He's scored 30 points during the early portion of the preseason, doing so while playing in two of the Bucks' three outings. And he's done so with quite a bit of efficiency, connecting on 61.1 percent of his looks from the field and and going 5-of-6 from downtown.
There are bigger names in Milwaukee, but don't overlook this one.
Minnesota Timberwolves: Gorgui Dieng Was Not a Late-Season Fluke
Gorgui Dieng was fantastic as soon as Rick Adelman got over his rookie aversion and allowed him to start receiving big minutes for the Minnesota Timberwolves. During the final 18 games of his first go-round, 15 of which he started, he averaged 12 points, 11.3 rebounds and 1.5 blocks.
Not only was he providing some efficient—albeit limited—offense, but he was also holding down the fort around the rim, helping make up for the penetration that the Minnesota backcourt allowed on a regular basis.
Now, fresh off a summer filled with quality play, including his work for Senegal at the World Cup, Dieng is building upon his rookie efforts. His offense has remained solid throughout the preseason, but his defense and work on the glass have both allowed him to stand out in a big way. Two games in, he's averaging 10.5 points, 9.5 rebounds and 2.0 blocks.
Nikola Pekovic's contract might force Minnesota into giving him major minutes, but Dieng is also forcing the issue. He's either going to receive heavy run at power forward or supplant the incumbent starter sooner rather than later.
Given the impressive nature of his rim-protecting skills, something that Pekovic struggles with on a daily basis, Flip Saunders can't keep him glued to the bench.
New Orleans Pelicans: Monty Williams Cares Not for Traditional Lineups
Since when do you have to put a point guard, shooting guard, small forward, power forward and center onto the floor at the same time?
Throughout NBA history, that's been the most commonly accepted grouping of five players, but the positional definitions are inherently subjective and arbitrary. There's no objective definition of any spot in the lineup, and a player's "natural" spot is largely based on summarizations of his playing style and size.
Monty Williams won't be confined by such foolishness.
"There will be occasions this season where the Pelicans will go big with Anthony Davis, Omer Asik and Ryan Anderson paired together," reported NOLA.com's John Reid on Twitter.
But...Omer Asik is a center, Ryan Anderson is a power forward and Anthony Davis can play either of those two positions! How are they all going to fit together?
It's wonderful, isn't it? The Pelicans simply don't feel the need to adhere to the notion of traditional positions, and they'll be better off for it.
New York Knicks: Triangulating Is Hard
I'm not talking about how to find your way when you're lost in the woods, but rather how difficult it is to run the triangle offense. The nuances aren't things that players pick up on overnight, and that hasn't been lost on J.R. Smith.
"It's going to take a few months," the volatile 2-guard said after he and the New York Knicks lost to the Boston Celtics by 20 points to open the preseason, via ESPNNewYork.com's Ian Begley. "Over the course of the year, understanding where everybody is going to be, [understanding that] 'some like it here, [some] like it like that.' It's going to take a while."
And Begley elaborates on the views of others in the organization:
Smith's view mirrors that of coach Derek Fisher and president Phil Jackson, who both said during training camp that it will take awhile for the Knicks to get comfortable in the triangle.
But Smith is the first Knick to put a semidefinitive timetable on just how long the process may take.
The Knicks didn't look good in their first night running the offense, shooting just 41 percent from the floor and turning the ball over 28 times.
It's important to remember that learning any offense, much less one this nuanced and that so few have pulled off successfully, is a process.
Oklahoma City Thunder: Russell Westbrook Will Take All the Shots
According to Pro Hoops History, "[Russell] Westbrook shot .853 shots per minute without [Kevin] Durant last year. Wilt [Chamberlain] shot .814 shots per minute the year he averaged 50 PPG."
Now, granted, this is a remarkably small sample we're working with. Westbrook only played 41 minutes without the eventual MVP on the court during the 2013-14 season. Plus, it's not as though he's going to match Wilt Chamberlain's level of efficiency.
But he's still going to shoot a lot.
Westbrook will have a great opportunity to average something like 35 points per game while Kevin Durant is healing from his Jones fracture, and there's no guarantee that his superstar teammate will be ready to return at the end of the projected six- to eight-week time frame.
This isn't exactly a revelation, of course. We've known for a long time that Westbrook has liked to shoot quite a bit.
However, nothing from camp has been more significant for the Oklahoma City Thunder than the Durant injury.
Orlando Magic: Elfrid Payton Arriving Quickly
Don't sleep on Elfrid Payton in the Rookie of the Year race. John Denton of NBA.com certainly isn't after talking to various members of the Orlando Magic organization:
Well, to hear Magic coaches and players tell it after five days of training camp practices, Payton should have no problem doing what he does – and by that it means shaking defenders off the dribble and creating for teammates with his fearlessness while driving to the rim – at the NBA level. Bigger challenges certainly lie ahead against the likes of superstar point guards Derrick Rose, Rajon Rondo and Russell Westbrook, but so far Payton has proven himself to be the same aggressive and attacking point guard that the Magic thought they were getting when they traded for him on draft night.
Payton was impressive enough during the Orlando Summer League, and he's proving that wasn't a fluke during the preseason. With his long hair flopping all over the place, No. 4 is averaging 6.0 points, 3.5 rebounds, 6.0 assists, 1.5 steals and 0.5 blocks during his first two outings for the Magic.
The scoring is a work in progress, but Payton is already playing high-quality defense and showing a knack for keeping his head up when driving to the basket, which allows him to find open shooters and rack up the assists.
"Part of his aggressiveness is a mindset of putting the ball on the (floor) and wanting to get it into the defense and make plays," Orlando coach Jacque Vaughn told Denton. "He has an ability to get into the paint. He has the size to do it. He has some natural instincts of what to do once he gets to the rim. So I’ve been very pleased with that."
The transition from the Louisiana-Lafayette Ragin' Cajuns to the Association is bound to be a tough one, but Payton is already ahead of the curve.
Philadelphia 76ers: Nerlens Noel Far from a Finished Product
Nerlens Noel is not going to take the league by storm during his rookie season.
Though the flat-topped big man looked like a future stud during summer-league action and was selected quite high in the 2013 NBA draft, he's not going to be a superstar during his first year coming back from an ACL tear that kept him out for the entirety of what would otherwise have been his rookie season. He'll be a great rim-protector and help jump-start the Philadelphia 76ers defense, but his offensive game is very much a work in progress.
"That's the Nerlens we've been seeing in practice," Brett Brown said after Noel recorded 10 points, nine rebounds, three assists and three blocks in 31 minutes of action against the Charlotte Hornets.
Even during that game, though, the young center shot only 5-of-13 from the field and missed all four of his free-throw attempts. In fact, Noel has connected on just 31.8 percent of his looks throughout a pair of preseason contests, and he's an ugly 0-of-6 at the line.
Defensively, Noel should be an impact player in 2014-15. But offensively, he'll remind the Philly fanbase why patience is a virtue.
Phoenix Suns: Anthony Tolliver Should Help Mitigate Channing Frye Loss
Losing Channing Frye hurts the Phoenix Suns quite a bit.
Though the strength of this team undoubtedly lies in the backcourt, his floor-spacing abilities from the 4 and overall versatility where quite valuable in the desert. Without him, it would've been much harder for guards like Goran Dragic to thrive by gaining penetration into the teeth of an opposing defense.
It's the Morris twins who will benefit most from his absence, as each will play a much larger role for the Suns. But Anthony Tolliver will be key for this squad as well, so long as he can keep shooting well.
Then again, "well" doesn't even begin to describe what he's done during the preseason. Tolliver has only played in one game, but he took eight shots. All of them were from beyond the arc, and three of them found the bottom of the net.
"We just want him to shoot the ball. We don't care where he's shooting from," Phoenix head coach Jeff Hornacek said after that contest against the Denver Nuggets, via Suns.com's Matt Petersen.
So long as he keeps connecting, no one will.
Portland Trail Blazers: Veterans Making Impacts
The Portland Trail Blazers might have some veterans on their bench, but they're still a young squad trying to make the proverbial leap in the Western Conference. That's easier to do with experienced voices on the roster, regardless of whether they're helping from the bench or in the starting lineup.
"Anytime you can bring knowledge to a team it's beneficial and it ultimately makes you better," Wesley Matthews told Sean Meagher of The Oregonian, referring to Chris Kaman and Steve Blake. "Knowledge with character guys, that's even more of a bonus."
The on-court contributions of the two new additions are still unknown. Kaman should have some quality outings left in him, but he's by no means a game-changing contributor. The same is true for Blake, outside of his passing skills in the right system.
Terry Stotts, the head coach in Rip City, is certainly on board with the veteran additions as well.
"Steve is a consummate professional," Stotts said of Blake. "He's one of the hardest playing guys that I've been around and leads by example. He's very competitive."
And as for Kaman: "What he offers Joel (Freeland) and Meyers (Leonard) is some mentorship, as well as veteran know-how."
Portland's bench was beyond awful in 2013-14. Even if Blake and Kaman only bring that professionalism and leadership to the table, they'll still help it make positive strides.
Sacramento Kings: Darren Collison Transition Has Been Smooth
In a vacuum, transitioning from Isaiah Thomas to Darren Collison is a downgrade. But with DeMarcus Cousins and Rudy Gay on the roster, both of whom are quite adept at scoring, gaining access to the passing skills of the new Sacramento Kings point guard has been a positive.
Entry passes are now on the menu in Sacramento, as are flashy dimes when driving to the hoop. Through three games, Collison has already recorded 15 assists, and he's doing so despite only playing 26.4 minutes per game.
As he gains comfort and familiarity with his new teammates, that number (even the per-minute version) should only continue rising. Collison's skill set appears to mesh with that of his most talented teammates quite nicely, and it should provide optimism for a franchise that so desperately needs it.
The 2014-15 season, due primarily to the difficult nature of the Western Conference, won't be an easy one for the Kings. But at least the organization is still moving in the right direction, slowly but surely.
Then again, should "slowly" really ever be used when taking about the speedy Collison?
San Antonio Spurs: Better in the United States Than in Germany
We're not going to learn much about the San Antonio Spurs during training camp.
The rotation is already established, and the vast majority of the players in it are known commodities at this stage of their careers. Gregg Popovich doesn't need to do much tinkering, because he'd rather save the legs of his veteran players and won't tip his hand before the games that count actually begin.
But we have learned one thing: The Spurs aren't very good at playing basketball in Germany.
Alba Berlin took down the defending NBA champions during their preseason opener, beating the Spurs on a dramatic buzzer-beater after trading blows all night long. A few nights later, Fenerbahce Ulker was on the slate, and San Antonio only mustered up a six-point victory, despite Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili all playing their normal share of minutes.
The moral? I'm not sure there is one.
But the Eastern Conference might want to get in Adam Silver's ear and push to have a few NBA Finals games in Germany.
Toronto Raptors: DeMar DeRozan Still Getting Better
DeMar DeRozan isn't done growing yet.
The 25-year-old shooting guard turned his success with the Toronto Raptors into an All-Star appearance during the 2013-14 season, but he did so while building his game around everything but perimeter shooting. After all, the athletic Raptor shot only 30.5 percent from beyond the arc, taking a fairly minimal 2.7 deep looks per game.
Three games into the preseason, DeRozan appears to be significantly more confident in his shooting touch. His stroke is more consistent, and the results have been fantastic: 62.5 percent on an identical 2.7 tries per contest.
He's been particularly good at finding space in the corners and knocking down the ensuing attempts. If he can continue doing that during the season, there's a great chance he repeats as an All-Star, even without players getting injured and opening up spots in that Midseason Classic for him.
DeRozan, though he had a great season, was a questionable All-Star last season, taking advantage of the inherent weakness of his conference. This year, an improved shot would allow for no such qualifiers.
Utah Jazz: Enes Kanter's Game Is Expanding
Could Quin Snyder end up turning Enes Kanter into one of the league's stretch frontcourt players?
"Coach Q came to visit me and we went to a gym," the fourth-year big man told Jody Genessy of Deseret News. "He said, 'You know you’re going to shoot some threes this year, right?' I was just like shocked that the first time he met me he gave me that confidence. It means a lot to me."
As Genessy notes, Kanter was 1-of-3 from long range during the first three seasons of his NBA career, but that hasn't dissuaded the Utah Jazz's first-year coach from following through on his message. Especially because he's now spending more time on the power forward, and, "In Snyder's offensive system, the power forwards are supposed to occasionally stretch the floor by extending their roam beyond the three-point line."
"I believe he has three-point range, so if he's taking long twos, just from a percentage basis, it's not good for him, it's not good for us," the new coach explained. "We want to attack the rim and get good stuff there. The long twos for a guy that can shoot threes, it's just got to be a habit of his to space behind the line."
So far, Kanter has done exactly that. In two preseason games, he's already matched his career output from downtown.
Washington Wizards: Otto Porter Building Upon Summer League
With Bradley Beal out for the opening salvo of the upcoming NBA season, Otto Porter should have a great chance to play more minutes and cement himself in the rotation. In many ways, it's the exact opposite of the situation he faced as a rookie, when an injury left him on the outside, looking in at the beginning of the year.
The Georgetown product has done nothing but make the most of his chances so far this offseason.
Porter was one of summer league's biggest standouts, and now he's continuing that strong play during preseason action. Through four games, he's averaged 10.8 points, 4.3 rebounds, 0.8 assists, 0.3 steals and 0.3 blocks while shooting 44.8 percent from the field and 42.9 percent from beyond the arc.
He's been more aggressive than he was as a first-year NBA player, and his increased levels of toughness are shining through with his play, even if he's still too prone to honing in on his mid-range game.
"What defines a successful rookie year? He learned," Drew Gooden said at media day. "Michael Carter-Williams, I know he won Rookie of the year, but I bet he would have rather made the second round of the playoffs. This guy is 6'8" and can play multiple positions. He's active. He can shoot better than I thought he could shoot, as a rookie, he can shoot the basketball. Otto's got a lot of potential."
Looks as though Porter is trying to prove his veteran teammate right.