Ranking the 10 Most Surprising Hot Starts in the NBA

Josh Martin@@JoshMartinNBANBA Lead WriterNovember 25, 2014

Ranking the 10 Most Surprising Hot Starts in the NBA

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Can you believe that the 2014-15 NBA season is already nearly month old? It seems like only yesterday that the San Antonio Spurs were collecting rings and eking out a home win over the Dallas Mavericks.

    And that Los Angeles Lakers fans were wondering how Kobe Bryant and company would eke out any victories at all after getting stomped by Dwight Howard's Houston Rockets.

    It's still far too early to draw any broad conclusions about what we've seen so far. No player or team's sample is yet even 20 games large, which leaves far too much time for those suffering from cold openings to warm up and, on the flip side, those off to scorching starts to slow back down to room temperature.

    But that doesn't mean we can't (or won't) take stock of what's gone down to this point, particularly as it pertains to those who've set the Association ablaze. For now, let's leave aside any measured separation of signals and noise to consider the biggest surprises to come out of these first four weeks of the still-young campaign. 

10. Tobias Harris

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    Impending free agency tends to bring the best out of those destined for it. Just ask Tobias Harris.

    The fourth-year forward out of Tennessee hasn't let the lack of a contract extension with the Orlando Magic deter him from taking the Association by storm. 

    "My thoughts are just that I’m all about being for my team right now. I’m all about where I’m at right now and that’s with the Orlando Magic," Harris told Magic reporter John Denton. "I’m not worried about (free agency) at all. I just want to help my team be the best that we can be. Each and every day I pride myself on helping my teammates helping us get better as a team and winning games. That’s my focus."

    So far, that focus has manifested itself in career highs nearly across the board for Harris, including points (18.8), rebounds (8.4), assists (1.8), steals (1.2), free-throw attempts (4.6), field-goal percentage (.469) and three-point percentage (.412).

    Of course, Harris has benefited from more playing time than ever (36.6 minutes) and has been the source of more mistakes (2.2 turnovers, 3.2 fouls) than ever before on account of an increased usage rate (24 percent). But the fact that Harris is not only putting his expanded opportunity to use but doing so as efficiently as he is, bodes well for him bringing home beaucoup bucks once July 2015 rolls around.

9. Pau Gasol

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    Can it be considered a surprise when a three-time All-Star and future Hall of Famer puts up 18.6 points, 10.6 rebounds and a career-high 2.5 blocks for a presumptive title contender? When the player in question is Pau Gasol, and he hasn't put up numbers like that since 2010-11, then sure, it counts as a surprise.

    Or, maybe it's just a reminder of how great Gasol can be when he's on a good team, surrounded by a quality roster, under the auspices of a coaching staff that appreciates the full depth and breadth of his skill set, in an organization that doesn't dangle him in trade rumors at seemingly every turn. As Bleacher Report's Kevin Ding put it:

    Gasol, 34, has been motivated this season to recapture his old form, a reflection of how stale his existence had become with the Lakers. Gasol's 27 points, 11 rebounds and three blocks Thursday [against the Toronto Raptors] marked his first time with that much productivity in all three categories since April 2010—before his last championship hurrah with the Lakers.

    What isn't new or unusual, though, is the fact that Gasol's back on the shelf. He's missed the Chicago Bulls' last three games on account of a calf strain.

    This, after sitting out 22 times last season and 33 times the campaign prior.

    Perhaps, then, it's no surprise when Pau posts big numbers, but only that he's ever healthy long enough to do so consistently.

8. Jordan Hill

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    Meanwhile, Jordan Hill, Gasol's de facto replacement as the Los Angeles Lakers' starting center, is making the most of his chance to shine. The Arizona product is averaging a career-high combination of 13.9 points and 10 rebounds, thanks in large part to an active six-game double-double streak—tied for the longest in the NBA this season. That includes a league-best 4.4 offensive boards per game.

    Hill, though, has been a productive big man for some time. His stats this season fall comfortably in line with his previous career output, at least on per-minute and per-possession bases.

    What's different, for one, is that Hill is now able to sustain his tremendous effort for upward of 30 minutes a night, as opposed to the 15-to-20 minutes that previously pushed his physical limit. To that end, the 27-year-old can credit his new alcohol-free lifestyle.

    "It was that time to step out of my old ways and to grow up," Hill told The Los Angeles Daily News' Mark Medina. "Now I feel really, really good. I can run and down more often. My wind is back. My body feels good. I feel like I could go for days."

    Hill's skill has clearly improved as well. His assists are way up (relatively speaking), to 1.9 per game, and he's molded himself into a reliable mid-range threat. According to Basketball Reference, Hill's hit half of his shots in the tricky three- to 10-foot range and a solid 45 percent between 10 and 16 feet.

    Not to mention the 78.2 percent he's shooting from the free-throw line.

    All of that makes L.A.'s two-year, $18 million investment in Hill this past summer look less like a glaring overpay and more like a steal.

7. Reggie Jackson

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    Let's do a quick comparison of two anonymous 24-year-old point guards, shall we?

     MinutesPoints2-Point FG%FTAsReboundsAssistsTurnovers
    Player A34.923.2.4667.05.27.43.3
    Player B39.320.1.4625.15.37.83.2

    In case you're wondering—which, if you're still reading this, you probably are—Player A is Russell Westbrook circa 2012-13 and Player B is Reggie Jackson through his first 12 games in 2014-15.

    That is to say, Jackson's put on a pretty darn good impression of the All-Star for whom he's standing in, and not just because they sport similar builds (i.e. 6'3", around 200 pounds).

    And, unlike a 24-year-old Westbrook, Jackson doesn't have Kevin Durant around to make his life easier on the court. Instead, he's had to toss up all manner of tough shots. According to NBA.com, 16.3 percent of Jackson's attempts have come with four seconds or fewer left on the shot clock, and a whopping 49.3 percent of his total tries have come within four feet of a defender.

    And while Jackson's three-point percentage (.254) is anything but pretty, it's important to note that he's launching them far more frequently than ever (4.9 times per game) and with little help to set them up (only 33.3 percent of his makes have been assisted).

    To be sure, Jackson's flashed this sort of potential before—as in his 32-point outburst against the Memphis Grizzlies in Game 4 of their first-round series.

    The difference now is that Jackson is performing not as a bit player, but as a central star, with plenty of money at stake, as Yahoo Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski noted:

    He’s generating a market value that’ll test the Thunder’s resolve in restricted free agency this summer. Every night, executives examine Jackson, and his offer sheet possibilities are climbing into the $13 million to $14 million range.

6. Dallas Mavericks

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    The Dallas Mavericks aren't exactly strangers to the art and science of putting up points. They've led the NBA in offensive efficiency three times since Dirk Nowitzki crossed the Atlantic in 1999.

    But that run of scoring success came more than a decade ago, back when Nowitzki was a spry 20-something, flanked by another surefire Hall of Famer (Steve Nash) and an multiple-time All-Star (Michael Finley), under the tutelage of offensive guru Don Nelson.

    Nowadays, Nowitzki, 36, is surrounded by a solid supporting cast but certainly not one that, at first glance, would evoke thoughts of historic offensive output. Tyson Chandler and Jameer Nelson are both past their respective primes. Chandler Parsons is just coming into his. Monta Ellis has been a great get for the Mavs since he arrived in Dallas during the summer of 2013 but can't quite sniff the proficiency with which either Nash or Finley once operated next to the giant German.

    And yet, here are the Mavs, guided by coaching wizard Rick Carlisle, not only leading the league in offensive efficiency—not just for this season, but for all seasons. Their current mark of 118.1 points per 100 possessions would put them ahead of Magic Johnson's Showtime Lakers, Michael Jordan's Bulls, Larry Bird's Boston Celtics, Nash's Suns and every other team ever on the all-time list.

    That type of offense, along with a more sound defensive effort, could be enough to put Dallas back on the precipice of a title come spring.

5. Toronto Raptors

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    Is it even fair to refer to the Toronto Raptors as dark-horse title contenders anymore? They own the best record in the Eastern Conference (11-2) and the biggest positive point differential (plus-12.2) in the entire league.

    To be sure, the fact that the Raptors are good isn't at all astonishing. Last season, the core of this squad went 42-22 and nearly nipped the Brooklyn Nets in the playoffs after trading away Rudy Gay in the wake of a 6-12 start. It only figures that this club's continuity, with Kyle Lowry returning to Toronto via free agency to maintain arguably the East's best backcourt alongside All-Star DeMar DeRozan, would yield yet another momentous step forward.

    And, sure, it helps that Toronto's schedule to date has been below average as far as opponent winning percentage is concerned.

    But that doesn't mean the Raptors can simply be dismissed, not in a conference where the presumed favorites (i.e. the Bulls and the Cleveland Cavaliers) are struggling with injuries and cohesion, respectively. Their bench has improved by leaps and bounds, with Lou Williams (36 points vs. Cleveland) and James Johnson joining Greivis Vasquez, Patrick Patterson and Tyler Hansbrough in the second unit.

    Moreover, this team has plenty of room for improvement. Third-year center Jonas Valanciunas is still finding his way in the middle, and the Raptors have the assets and flexibility to upgrade at power forward, over the solid but unspectacular Amir Johnson, if general manager Masai Ujiri feels the need to do so prior to the trade deadline.

4. Courtney Lee

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    Nobody should be shocked that the Memphis Grizzlies are off to a phenomenal start. Remember, this team won 50 games last season, despite Marc Gasol missing more than a quarter of it, and nearly put the Oklahoma City Thunder out of the running in the first round of the playoffs.

    That doesn't mean, though, that the Grizzlies, at 12-2, haven't benefited from their fair share of surprising starts.

    Courtney Lee, for one, has played like a bat out of you-know-where from the opening tip. The Western Kentucky product is peppering his resume with personal bests, from his 13.8 points and his 2.4 assists to his three rebounds and 1.2 steals.

    But it's the efficiency with which Lee is taking care of business that's the greatest cause for celebration here. He's hit an astounding 61.1 percent of his threes to date—second only to Tony Parker's 63.6 percent mark, which, in many ways, is mind boggling in its own right.

    All told, Lee leads all perimeter players in field-goal percentage (.541), with Milwaukee's Giannis Antetokounmpo checking in as the only other guard among the top 20 in that category.

    (And, frankly, characterizing the 6'11" Antetokounmpo as a shooting guard seems like a stretch, doesn't it?)

    To be sure, Lee has long been regarded as a quality marksman. He came into this campaign having hit more than 40 percent of his three-point tries in three separate seasons.

    That being said, Lee would be hard-pressed to torch nets to the extent he has through the season's first month, though he's clearly found a comfortable niche in the River City. 

    "It was a blessing that I was able to, where everything that I went through there to get out and come to a great situation," Lee, who was traded to Memphis by the Boston Celtics last season, told The Boston Globe's Gary Washburn. "But I enjoyed my time in Boston, the organization, teammates. Everybody was top notch. It just didn’t work out. I’m happy I’m in a better place.”

3. Shawne Williams

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    Contrary to popular belief, the Miami Heat are not, in fact, using smoke and mirrors to survive in the East with LeBron James back in Cleveland and Dwyane Wade once again sidelined by injury. Rather, they've arrived at their respectable 8-6 record with a steady diet of Chris Bosh serving as the go-to guy, Luol Deng doing what he's always done on the wing, Mario Chalmers settling in as the scoring guard for which his skill set had always seemed destined and...Shawne Williams shooting threes?

    Clearly, one of these things is not like the others. Williams, though, is proving that he belongs. He's hit half of his 4.4 three-pointers per game—43.5 percent of which have come from the short corners—to boost both his scoring total (a career-high 10.5 points) and his prospects of remaining Miami's everyday starter at power forward.

    It's a remarkable turn of fortune for Williams, who's struggled both on and off the court since arriving in the Association as a first-round pick of the Indiana Pacers in 2006. Williams' 14 starts in 2014-15 already constitute a personal best.

    Not bad for a guy who spent last season shuttling between the Lakers and the D-League's D-Fenders and had dropped out of the NBA entirely the season prior.

2. Sacramento Kings

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    Could it be? Are the Sacramento Kings finally ready to bust out of their nearly-decade-long malaise and back into the playoffs?

    Time will tell on that front, but for now, the Kings can be pleased with the progress they've made. They're currently 8-5—their best 13-game start since 2006-07—and could just as easily be tied for the third-best record in the West if not for blown double-digit leads in back-to-back games against Dallas and Memphis.

    The Kings, under head coach Mike Malone, have thus far fashioned their renaissance on the foundation of DeMarcus Cousins and Rudy Gay. The former has been pounding opponents inside—to the tune of 23.2 points, 12.3 rebounds and 2.6 combined blocks and steals—while the latter has chipped in 21.1 points, 6.5 rebounds and 3.8 assists from the perimeter.

    Strangely enough, Sacramento's offense remains merely on the fringes of the NBA's top 10, despite the best efforts of its dynamic duo, and its defense, while much improved from years past, is barely among the league's top half.

    Whether those particular numbers are indicators of a continued climb or harbingers of a downturn to come remains to be seen. For now, though, Kings fans can take comfort in their team's payout of its long-awaited promise.

1. Darren Collison

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    Rich Pedroncelli/Associated Press

    No, I didn't forget about Darren Collison. Rather, the former UCLA Bruin deserves a slide of his own for the extent to which he's shot past preseason expectations and vindicated the Kings for their faith in him.

    Collison came to California's capital essentially as a replacement for Isaiah Thomas. At first blush (and second, and third and fourth, for that matter), Collison looked to be a clear downgrade from his diminutive predecessor. After all, how could Collison, who seemed better suited to backup duty on a title contender, ever hope to duplicate the 20.3 points and 6.3 assists that Thomas contributed as a most-time starter last season?

    As it turns out, the Kings didn't need him to. Collison has thrived at the point in Sacramento, posting career highs in points (15.9), rebounds (3.5), assists (seven) and steals (1.6) while turning the ball over less frequently than ever as a percentage of his possessions.

    Collison may not be the pure talent that Thomas is, but he seems to be a better fit with these Kings. His willingness to pass and play off the ball feels like a breath of fresh air compared to Thomas' tendency to waste time with the dribble, leaving the likes of Cousins and Gay to wait anxiously for the ball.

    And with a salary that sits just below $4.8 million this season, Collison may well be the best bargain in the league at point guard, where the talent (and the pay) is as competitive as it's ever been.

    Josh Martin covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter.

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