Ranking Top NBA Breakout Players so Far This Season

Dan Favale@@danfavaleFeatured ColumnistNovember 13, 2017

Ranking Top NBA Breakout Players so Far This Season

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    Winslow Townson/Associated Press

    Feel-good breakouts are the best part of every new NBA season.

    Big-time prospects making long-awaited leaps into superstardom. Rookies playing like veterans. Good players becoming really good players.

    Who doesn't love this stuff? Especially now.

    Every team is more than 12 games into its schedule, so we've entered the sweet spot for breakout performers. Players have enough appearances under their belts for us to wonder whether these jumps are sustainable, and the natural progression of time has weeded out some pretenders.

    Breakouts will be presented in order of increasing impressiveness while taking into account the likelihood they hold relatively true all year. Incumbent superstars will not be invited to this party—not even if they've noticeably improved their game. We'll call this "The Giannis Antetokounmpo Rule."

    We want only those who are just now knocking at stardom's door, turning themselves into household names or changing in obscurity for lasting relevance.  

Honorable Mentions

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    Joe Murphy/Getty Images

    Jeremy Lamb, Charlotte Hornets

    Raise your hand if you saw Jeremy Lamb averaging 16.7 points and 3.2 assists per game while shooting 45.7 percent from deep and playing better defense than Michael Kidd-Gilchrist?

    Congrats to the people with their limbs in the air. You're all officially unabashed liars.

    Lamb would get a top-10 nod here if his role and production didn't stand to significantly dip once Nicolas Batum returns. If we're still wondering if he's the Charlotte Hornets' second-best player two months from now, feel free to publicly shame me using your medium of choice.


    Lauri Markkanen, Chicago Bulls

    Lauri Markkanen's rookie per-36-minutes splits: 17.1 points, 9.2 rebounds, 1.7 assists, 0.7 blocks, 43.3 percent shooting, 35.1 percent clip from three.

    Dirk Nowitzki's sophomore per-36-minute splits: 17.5 points, 6.5 rebounds, 2.5 assists, 0.8 blocks, 46.1 percent shooting, 37.9 percent clip from three.

    Did anyone else just get chills?

    Baby Dirk is playing like, well, a Baby Dirk should. He's also part of a Chicago Bulls mishmash lineup that has outpaced opponents by 22 points in 67 minutes—the eighth-best differential among 222 combinations that haven't yet logged 70 minutes. Seriously.

    Rookies tend to hit walls, and the Bulls are organically tanking. Top-seven picks also aren't strangers to good basketball. That makes it difficult to consider Markkanen's breakout too disarming. But still: Whoa.


    Memphis Grizzlies Bench

    Can a group of players combine for one breakout? Let's say yes. The Memphis Grizzlies bench as been that good. 

    We won't put their backups in the top 10, because we have to appease logistical purists. But if we did, rest assured they would land fifth or higher.

    Only the Golden State Warriors' second-stringers are outscoring opponents by more points per 100 possessions. One of Memphis' two most-used lineups is an all-bench gaggle (assuming Dillon Brooks goes back to the pine with Ben McLemore healthy), and it's a plus-21 through 72 minutes. The Minnesota Timberwolves' starting lineup, by comparison, is a plus-19 over 242 minutes of action. 

10. Spencer Dinwiddie, Brooklyn Nets

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    Sam Forencich/Getty Images

    Age: 24

    2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 9.8 points, 2.9 rebounds, 4.9 assists, 0.9 steals, 0.0 blocks, 38.4 percent shooting

    Advanced Stats: 17.0 player efficiency rating (PER), 1.76 total points added (TPA)

    Spencer Dinwiddie is picking up where he left through 59 appearances with the Brooklyn Nets last season—only more so.

    "He's bought into our offseason development program," head coach Kenny Atkins said, per Newsday's Greg Logan. "He wasn't the most confident player when he came in, being out of the league a little bit. He just keeps growing. He's gotten stronger and more confident."

    Confidence isn't an issue for Dinwiddie now. He's ultra-aggressive and comfortable working as a de facto focal point. He's averaging more than 15 drives per 36 minutes. For context: Isaiah Thomas, last year's leader in per-game drives, burned through 13.5.

    Dinwiddie isn't a beacon of efficiency on these attacks. He's shooting under 36 percent on drives and barely 20 percent over his last five outings. But he doesn't commit many turnovers and is making smarter passes. And though he struggles as a scorer on drives, he's lethal when working from the pick-and-roll.

    Close to 70 players have initiated at least 40 pick-and-rolls this season. Dinwiddie ranks 10th in points scored per possession, sandwiched right between Mike Conley and Kemba Walker. And his 34.8 percent hit rate on standstill threes is high enough to place him off the ball in equal-opportunity lineups.

    Brooklyn's fourth most-used lineup is an all-bench mob captained by Dinwiddie that piles on more than 120 points per 100 possessions. Microsamples aren't always telltale of what's to come, but the Nets hang nearly 110 points per 100 possessions overall on their opponents when Dinwiddie playing—second to only Trevor Booker's offensive rating. 

    And Dinwiddie has joined some special company in the process. One other player is averaging at least 15 points and eight assists per 36 minutes while finding the net on at least 38 percent of his triplets: James Harden.

9. Mike James, Phoenix Suns

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    Barry Gossage/Getty Images

    Age: 27

    2017-18 Per-Game: 12.4 points, 3.1 rebounds, 3.9 assists, 1.0 steals, 0.3 blocks, 41.7 percent shooting

    Advanced Stats: 16.7 PER, -5.04 TPA

    Some of the luster has worn off Mike James' hey-I-exist detonation. He's shooting under 39 percent over his last seven games, and the Phoenix Suns are re-exploring their losing-streak roots. 

    But the offense continues to be better with him. The Suns score like a top-12ish machine when he's in the driver's seat—by far and away the cushiest mark among remaining guards. And they have every incentive to keep riding him, since their other alternatives are gone or ill-suited.

    Eric Bledsoe is in Milwaukee. Brandon Knight is out for the year with an ACL injury. Tyler Ulis is getting rocked. Devin Booker has traces of the playmaking gene, but he's not ready to carry James Harden's burden—that of a No. 1 scorer and distributor. 

    Phoenix's offense has played like a fireball when Ulis runs solo, without Booker or James, something it cannot say about the latter. But James, while undersized at 6'1", still has three inches on him and projects as the scrappier defender. He invades personal space with the tenacity of a more in-check Tony Allen, making him a better fit beside Booker. 

    In the time Booker and James have spent on the floor without other guards, the Suns post a top-five offensive rating and outscore opponents by 3.9 points per 100 possessions. Sub in Ulis for James, and they're getting manhandled by more than 20 points per 100 possessions, with an offense that would place dead last.

    Smaller samples like this can be dangerous, but James imparts a certain calm. He doesn't pick up his dribble when bobbing through traffic and is more economical than Ulis out of the pick-and-roll. His numbers aren't flashy, but they don't have to be. He's played his way into Phoenix's plans.

    That transition from relative unknown to objectively necessary is all the flash he needs.

8. Victor Oladipo, Indiana Pacers

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    Chris Schwegler/Getty Images

    Age: 25

    2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 23.0 points, 4.3 rebounds, 3.8 assists, 1.4 steals, 0.7 blocks, 46.7 percent shooting

    Advanced Stats: 20.7 PER, 11.44 TPA

    As the Indiana Pacers offense begins its slow trek toward solid ground, Victor Oladipo continues to ball out on another plane. 

    Well, for the most part.

    Bits and pieces of his sweltering start have tapered off. His accuracy on pull-ups has dropped to a mortal 40.5 percent (12-of-23 on threes, though), and he's just three for his last 13 in isolation.

    And yet, even during the Pacers' most recent four-game losing streak, he cleared 20 points per game on average efficiency from downtown. Indiana will gladly accept this "regression" to the mean—assuming this isn't a slump before another storm.

    That possibility is on the table. The Pacers play fast relative to their own standards (top 10 in pace) and have gifted Oladipo with absolute ownership over their offense. He leads them in usage rate by a hefty margin and is averaging 19.5 field-goal attempts per 36 minutes—more than Paul George hoisted during any of his final three seasons in Indy.

    Few offenses look to get on the break as often as the Pacers. Around 17.5 percent of their possessions come in transition—fifth-most in the league. This full-court approach accentuates Oladipo's newly gained freedom even more, underpinning a lot of what he's doing at a career level. As Rob Mahoney wrote for SI.com:

    "That constant pressure reframes what Oladipo does best. Rather than be an underwhelming complement to [Russell] Westbrook or the so-so finisher he was in Orlando, Oladipo is finding great looks at the basket and drawing fouls along the way. This is the first time in his career that Oladipo has been able to get to the line consistently...in part because nearly half his free throws have come in transition. Tilt the court to make everything downhill and suddenly Oladipo looks damn difficult to stop."

    Oladipo won't can more than 45 percent of his treys for the season, but he breaks loose enough on dribble handoffs and in transition to float personal-best shooting around the rim. Ditto for a free-throw rate that still ranks favorably among guards. Quantity alone will keep him above the 20-point threshold, laying the groundwork for more dives into his misapplied roles with the Oklahoma City Thunder and Orlando Magic.

    Whether this merger between volume and leeway can embolden an above-average offense—and maybe a playoff berth—remains to be seen. And the mixed results delivered from the Pacers wrench Oladipo's spot on this list down a peg or three. But his own comfort and production to this point suggest this breakout is neither outsized nor alien—just overdue.

7. Robert Covington, Philadelphia 76ers

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    Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

    Age: 26

    2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 15.7 points, 5.7 rebounds, 1.3 assists, 1.4 steals, 0.8 blocks, 47.4 percent shooting

    Advanced Stats: 16.4 PER, 28.63 TPA

    So this is what happens when you put Robert Covington on a real basketball team.

    Working beside prolific playmakers and fellow floor-spacers has opened up his game. He can be sloppy and erratic when putting the ball on the floor, and he's somehow shooting under 34 percent (5-of-15) on cuts. But he's morphed into one of the game's most dangerous outside shooters.

    Covington is putting down almost 49 percent of his long balls on top-10 volume—efficiency he's propped up without taking many corner threes. Of the 69 players, who've launched at least 30 shots on spot-up possessions, his effective field-goal percentage (68.6) ranks sixth, just behind Otto Porter Jr., Wesley Matthews, Al Horford, Jeremy Lamb, CJ McCollum and Evan Fournier. 

    Higher-quality looks are a luxury of playing with Joel Embiid, J.J. Redick and Ben Simmons, but Covington is adding more total offensive value than anyone on the Sixers, according to NBA Math. Philly scores nearly 107 points per 100 possessions when he's in the game, up from 95.0 without him—the difference between ranking eight and 29th in efficiency.

    Convenient lineup configuration does boost these results. More than 75 percent of his minutes come next to Ben Simmons and his mythical court vision. But Covington isn't entirely a product of his castmates. He's the best plug-and-play option on the team, allowing him to function at a high level alongside pretty much anyone. He doesn't demand the ball on offense, similar to Redick, and his pesky across-the-board defense creates truckloads of fast-break opportunities.

    Paul George and Thaddeus Young are the only (healthy) players averaging more deflections per game, and Philly, not surprisingly, forces more turnovers as a team when Covington is on the floor. That, along with first-rate defensive rebounding for his position, is a pivotal part of generating offense—even though the Sixers aren't especially adept at scoring after forcing mistakes or grabbing misses, per Inpredictable.

    Bake in Covington's far-flung job description at the less glamorous end, which includes everything from rim contests to pick-and-roll duty, and you can see why the Sixers are bent on locking him up long-term as soon as he's eligible for a renegotiate-and-extend, per NBA reporter Marc Stein.

6. Clint Capela, Houston Rockets

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    Bill Baptist/Getty Images

    Age: 23

    2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 12.8 points, 11.3 rebounds, 1.3 assists, 0.9 steals, 1.9 blocks, 68.9 percent shooting

    Advanced Stats: 27.7 PER, 42.49 TPA

    Clint Capela's performance thus far could fall higher or lower on this scale. It all depends on how much you want to reward a player for busting out within the exact role he held last season.

    Sticking Capela smack-dab in the middle of this field feels right. 

    He doesn't create his own offense, but he owns the NBA's best field-goal percentage and is shooting 73.7 percent out of the pick-and-roll—the third-highest success rate among roll men who've gobbled up 30 or more possessions. He doesn't yet play 25 minutes per game, but he's third in win shares per 48 ticks, trailing only...Stephen Curry and Anthony.

    He can be pushed around by rivals on the block, but he's surviving in space. Ryan Anderson is the only member of the Houston Rockets who faces more isolations per game, and though Capela may be bested by crafty ball-handlers, he gets a hand on shooters and cuts off drivers before they're too deep.

    His turnover rate is uncomfortably high for a low-usage player, but his hands aren't made of stone. He seldom coughs up touches in the pick-and-roll. The 6'10", 240-pound center isn't especially strong, but he sets quality screens and has parlayed his length into the Association's second-highest rebounding rate.

    "To me, it's just a matter of time," Rockets head coach Mike D'Antoni told ESPN.com's Tim MacMahon. "I'll be very surprised if he doesn't become, if not the best center in the league, one of the best. I'll be shocked."

    Forecasting some best-center love is a reach. Higher-volume studs like DeMarcus Cousins and Nikola Jokic will monopolize space on the frontcourt pedestals. But Capela knows his role: screen-setter, rim-runner, shot-swatter, rebounder. And he owns it. 

    His stock will only improve once Chris Paul and him have a chance to chisel out some chemistry, and he'll join Rudy Gobert on the blueprint for how non-shooting 5s can broach building-block status if he continues to sink 70-plus percent of his free throws.

5. Jayson Tatum, Boston Celtics

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    Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

    Age: 19

    2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 13.7 points, 5.7 rebounds, 1.8 assists, 0.7 steals, 0.8 blocks, 50.0 percent shooting

    Advanced Stats: 17.1 PER, 26.63 TPA

    Jayson Tatum might be a 25-year-old veteran playing in a teenager's body. 

    Injuries to Gordon Hayward and Marcus Morris all but assured him a prominent role on the Boston Celtics this season. His play has secured him an even larger one.

    Yes, he's an offensive stud. We knew this. But he has ditched many of the long two-pointers he fired up in summer league for more three-pointers—which he's burying at a 52.9 percent clip. And he's already a viable one-on-one option. The Celtics don't milk his inside-out skill set to a T, but they've let him dabble in isolation and jump-start some pick-and-rolls. 

    Tatum's defensive tool box is more expansive than advertised and a huge factor in his rookie-year detonation. That head coach Brad Stevens is playing him at three different positions isn't that much of a discovery. Boston's clipboard sage doesn't abide by traditional constructs; he probably fines people for saying the word "positions."

    Except, even he displays a surprising level of trust in his newbie.

    Tatum isn't being stashed or sheltered by pick-and-roll prevention. He's fully immersed in it—and he grades out as the Celtics' most efficient ball-handler gnat, albeit on volume that pales in comparison to Marcus Smart's body of work. He also leads the team in isolations guarded per game as well as total blocks (not a typo.)

    Parse the league's historical ranks for comparative rookie output, and you won't find many non-bigs. Seven beginners, age 21 or younger, have cleared 16 points, seven rebounds, two assists and one block per 36 minutes through the previous 20 seasons: DeMarcus Cousins, Tim Duncan, Pau Gasol, Nikola Jokic, Lamar Odom, Paul Pierce and Karl-Anthony Towns. Tatum, a 6'8" combo wing, is on pace to become the eighth.

4. Otto Porter, Washington Wizards

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    Ned Dishman/Getty Images

    Age: 24

    2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 17.9 points, 7.1 rebounds, 1.7 assists, 2.0 steals, 0.7 blocks, 57.1 percent shooting

    Advanced Stats: 21.9 PER, 50.30 TPA

    Mystery contributor time!

    • Player A Per 36 Minutes: 18.4 points, 7.6 rebounds, 2.1 steals, 51.1 percent shooting from three
    • Player B Per 36 Minutes: 21.5 points, 5.8 rebounds, 2.6 steals, 39.6 percent shooting from three

    Take a moment to place your guess.

    Moment's over. Player A is Otto Porter Jr. Player B is Paul George. And this comparison exists for the sole reason of saying: Sup, John Wall?

    The Washington Wizards point guard openly recruited George over the summer while talking with The Undefeated's Marc J. Spears—calling for a third superstar at the public expense of Porter. Wall has since offered verbal dap for his teammate, and his entire pitch, while bizarre, is a nonissue. The point here: Porter has been really, really, ridiculously good.

    Never mind his outrageously accurate clip from deep. That number will drop, but he swished 43.4 percent of his triples last season while registering as the NBA's best high-volume shooter. Everyone who hasn't been napping for the past year-plus could see this or something similar to it on the horizon.

    Porter's defensive activity isn't a revelation either. He gets deflections and switches a bunch. He could stand to close out harder on shooters and may never be a demonstrative post-stopper, but he seems to make a few strides every year. No one on Washington has a higher defensive ceiling—aside from Kelly Oubre Jr.

    But Porter's performance starts to disarm when looking at his loosening offensive leash. He isn't just a spot-up sniper these days. He's driving and rolling and everything. 

    Markieff Morris' absence has paved the way for him to get run as the pick-and-roll diver. He's finished 11 possessions as the roll man this season; he churned through 24 of those sets through 80 appearances last year. He still doesn't put the ball on the floor a ton relative to other starry wings, but he's averaging nearly one extra pull-up attempt per game compared to 2016-17.

    Washington has even turned him loose for a few minutes here and there with both Wall and Bradley Beal on the bench. The offensive results aren't great over these teensy-tiny samples, but the experiment itself lends validity to Porter's progressing independence. The Wizards may have found their third star after all.

3. Aaron Gordon, Orlando Magic

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    Fernando Medina/Getty Images

    Age: 22

    2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 19.0 points, 7.7 rebounds, 2.5 assists, 0.8 steals, 0.9 blocks, 55.9 percent shooting

    Advanced Stats: 23.1 PER, 37.49 TPA

    Meet one of the two early-season favorites for Most Improved Player honors. Aaron Gordon might even be the best pick, bar none. Kristaps Porzingis is playing space-odyssey basketball, but the Orlando Magic are more likely than the New York Knicks to remain part of the Eastern Conference's playoff picture. That additional cachet buoys Gordon's case.

    Aspects of his hot start won't hold. If Gordon is still drilling more than 55 percent of his threebies in a month or two, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Stephen Curry, James Harden and LeBron James will need to make room in the MVP discussion.

    Mostly everything else about Gordon's performance feels sustainable. As The Ringer's Jonathan Tjarks wrote while boarding the "Gordon for Most Improved Player" bandwagon:

    "Aaron Gordon won't shoot 57.5 percent from 3 all season, but he doesn't need to. As long as he can make 3s at a league-average rate, he has an almost indefensible combination of size [6'9", 220 lbs], speed, and ball-handling at the power forward position. The Magic have been waiting years for Gordon to learn how to shoot, and all of the pieces start to make a lot more sense in Orlando if Gordon is spacing the floor and averaging 20 points a game."

    Finally moving over to power forward full-time has been a panacea. Gordon is not only an offensive mismatch at the 4, but he's less inclined to test his mettle as an off-balance shot-maker and excessive dribbler.

    A smaller share of his shots are coming near the rim, but he's a more active pick-and-roll diver and popper. He retains the freedom to explore his handle, and his per-minute assist numbers are in lockstep with his career average. But he's not as predictable on drives. He's never fought harder on the defensive glass. 

    Basically: Gordon looks like the best, most complete player for a surprise contender—a projection no one could have made in full before the start of the season.      

2. Ben Simmons, Philadelphia 76ers

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    Rocky Widner/Getty Images

    Age: 21

    2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 17.4 points, 9.0 rebounds, 7.8 assists, 1.8 steals, 0.8 blocks, 48.6 percent shooting

    Advanced Stats: 19.3 PER, 31.66 TPA

    Whatever we anticipated from Ben Simmons, however tremendous and seamless we expected his rookie season to be, nothing could have prepared us for what he's doing now.

    Oscar Robertson is the only other rookie to close his debut campaign averaging at least 17 points, nine rebounds and seven assists per game. Pull the first-year qualifier, and a mere eight players have still matched Simmons' statistical benchmarks: Robertson, Larry Bird, Wilt Chamberlain, John Havlicek, Grant Hill, Magic Johnson, Fat Lever and Russell Westbrook.

    Even more ridiculous, this doesn't feel absurb. None of it. Not one bit.

    We don't need to see a larger sample to think he'll maintain this output all year. He should. He will. His play style belies his experience. He has a great feel for the game, with a style punctuated by a hybrid blend of patience and under-control immediacy.

    Giannis Antetokounmpo is a top-five player without an established jumper to his name. Simmons has the same trajectory. He doesn't chuck threes. All six of his outside looks have been last resorts, coming from the backcourt. He avoids long twos but is converting less than 31 percent of his jumpers between 10 and 16 feet.

    No one should care. He reaches the rim on command. Almost 42 percent of his shots have come inside the restricted area, from where he's shooting better than 68 percent, and he creates space by leveraging his decision-making on the move.

    Simmons ranks third in drives per game, behind only Dennis Schroder and DeMar DeRozan. Only DeRozan(!) passes on a greater share of his downhill attacks, and Simmons keeps the defense on its toes by tossing up the occasional floater.

    The greatest endorsement of Simmons' rookie crusade, though? His lack of dependence on Joel Embiid. Philly is a net minus when he plays without The Process, but he headlines a handful of effective non-Embiid combinations that lean on his ability to wear many hats, often all at once.

1. Kristaps Porzingis, New York Knicks

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    Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images

    Age: 22

    2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 30.4 points, 7.3 rebounds, 1.1 assists, 0.4 steals, 2.3 blocks, 51.3 percent shooting

    Advanced Stats: 30.5 PER, 19.37 TPA

    Does anyone know whether the Knicks have scheduled the unveiling of Kristaps Porzingis' statue outside Madison Squad Garden yet?

    Playing without Carmelo Anthony, as the unchallenged alpha, looks good on the 7'3"—7'5"?—skyscraper. Defenses have his number, but he's responded by staying active off the ball, hovering a few extra inches beyond the arc for additional space and just straight up dropping J's and nifty point-blank finishes in the faces of his enemies.

    No one has attempted more shots when defenders are within two feet. Porzingis is shooting better than 58 percent in those situations while making the most of his easier opportunities. He's draining 40-plus percent of his catch-and-fire treys and posting an effective field-goal percentage of 70.7 as the pick-and-roll diver—the fourth-best mark among players who've cycled through 30 or more such touches.

    Spending most of his time at power forward does compromise his defensive position. He's contesting 4.7 shots near the rim per game, down from 7.8 last year—a roughly 44 percent decrease.

    The flip side: Opponents are hitting just 33.3 percent of their looks around the basket when challenged by him. More than 240 players have contested at least 15 attempts near the hoop, and not one of them comes close to matching Porzingis' stinginess. He appears slightly more comfortable working in space, save for a few bad beats off the dribble and on cuts. New York runs an average(ish) defense when he's on the court.

    Sustainability is an issue and thus far the sole potential buzzkill. Porzingis probably won't maintain a career-high efficiency while jacking so many looks in tight spaces and registering the league's highest usage rate. And, per Marc Berman of the New York Post, he has already revealed he's played through elbow soreness that may require an offseason procedure—never a good sign.

    Still, the bet is that he's closer to his new normal than not. He profiled as a superstar long before now; he was just supposed to incur a steeper learning curve without a marquee safety net. Instead, he's ahead of schedule—impressively, unfathomably and, somehow, believably so all at the same time.


    Unless otherwise cited, all stats are courtesy of NBA.com or Basketball Reference and current leading into games on Nov. 13.

    Dan Favale covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter (@danfavale) and listen to his Hardwood Knocks podcast co-hosted by B/R's Andrew Bailey.


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