Early Report Card Grades for NBA's Newest Alphas
Don't you just love passing judgment on the NBA's latest crop of top dogs?
This past summer's deep draft class and flurry of player movement have thrust more than a few into new alpha-option roles. And, fortunately for the nitpicker in all of us, most have played enough for us to grade their performances from afar, like a gossiping gaggle of middle-aged retirees with nothing better to do.
Every player is being evaluated relative to expectations and experience level. Rookies will be graded on a curve compared to veterans who are assuming the wheel.
Team performance matters, but individual displays are the driving force behind these progress reports. Players will not be penalized for captaining a lottery-bound squad unless the situation calls for it.
Temporary alphas stepping in as the result of an injury only earns inclusion if the player they're supplanting will miss most of the season. LaMarcus Aldridge has our sincerest apologies.
Ready? Set? Let's spill some red ink.
Aaron Gordon, Orlando Magic
Four players are averaging at least 20.0 points, 8.0 rebounds and 2.5 assists per 36 minutes while posting a true shooting percentage north of 60: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Anthony Davis, David West and...Aaron Gordon.
If the Orlando Magic weren't running an offense by committee with Evan Fournier and Nikola Vucevic, we'd have reserved more room to shower praise upon Gordon...and his 50 percent clip from long range.
Ben Simmons, Philadelphia 76ers
Including Ben Simmons with the main group would mean admitting that he's fully usurped Joel Embiid in the Philadelphia 76ers' pecking order. Though the redshirt rookie is averaging more touches per game than anyone in the NBA, we needn't get carried away.
Look at it this way: The Sixers really—no joke—have two 20-somethings with top-three-superstar ceilings. They don't need a clear-cut alpha.
Devin Booker, Phoenix Suns
Eric Bledsoe's exit ensures the Phoenix Suns are unquestionably Devin Booker's squad. But this transition already took place last year, when the team shut down Bledsoe and pressed the tanking button.
Kudos to Booker, though, for the beefed-up shooting percentages and assist rates. He's free to make that long-awaited, highly doubted defensive leap whenever he feels like it.
De'Aaron Fox, Sacramento Kings
Identifying an alpha for the Sacramento Kings is disingenuous to head coach Dave Joerger's rotation. He's giving at least 18 minutes per game to 10 different players, because, well, why the hell not?
De'Aaron Fox is gradually being groomed to join this group. He's already hit some big shots, and while defensive metrics will never draw hearts around a Kings player's name, the 19-year-old looks poised to make life difficult on rival ball-handlers for a long time.
LaMarcus Aldridge, San Antonio Spurs
Gregg Popovich should treat LaMarcus Aldridge to an organic wine-and-cheese tasting once Kawhi Leonard returns from his quad injury. The San Antonio Spurs offense wouldn't have survived their real alpha's absence without him.
D'Angelo Russell, Brooklyn Nets
Kristaps Porzingis is the only player averaging more field-goal attempts per 36 minutes than D'Angelo Russell. And while the latter is shooting worse than 30 percent from deep, in addition to under 70 percent on free throws, he's putting down a career-high 46.3 percent of his looks overall.
Hurry back from your left knee injury, D'Angelo.
Zach LaVine, Chicago Bulls
Zach Lavine is on course to join the Chicago Bulls rotation sometime in mid-December, according to the Chicago Tribune's K.C. Johnson. Yours truly, for one, looks forward to seeing whether he can hoist up 20 shots per game by mid-January.
Rudy Gobert, Utah Jazz
The Utah Jazz's defense is predictably stout when Rudy Gobert is jumping center. The offense? Not so much.
Gobert remains a devastating pick-and-roll finisher, but the Jazz have been unable to measurably increase his volume—in no small part because Ricky Rubio often seems inept when he can't fling bounce passes all night.
Losing Gobert for up to six weeks with a bone bruise in his right knee will likely cost the Jazz a playoff berth—which, in a way, validates his value as Gordon Hayward's successor.
Dennis Schroder, Atlanta Hawks: B-
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 19.9 points, 2.8 rebounds, 6.8 assists, 1.2 steals, 0.0 blocks, 44.7 percent shooting
Spouting good things about the starting point guard for a bottom-10 offense never sits right. Alas, here we are, doing it anyway.
Dennis Schroder's first year sans at least one All-Star safety net is going better than expected—in that it's totally watchable. The Atlanta Hawks are light-years below .500 and rank 21st in offensive efficiency. But they're scoring like the Denver Nuggets whenever Schroder plays, and he's drastically improved his finishing around the rim.
His defensive engagement levels waver. He forces a good amount of turnovers when guarding pick-and-rolls without fouling and isn't easily fooled on dribble handoffs. But he's slow to react on off-ball closeouts and, generally speaking, not a dependable team defender.
Atlanta is coughing up 112.7 points per 100 possessions when Schroder is in the game, the worst mark of any player on the roster. He can subsist in quality defensive units; the Hawks' most-used lineup, which includes Schroder, defends with top-five stinginess. Surround him with two perimeter stoppers and a quality rim protector, and he has the quickness to be more non-issue than liability.
Many of Schroder's most damning offensive traits remain. No one in the NBA is staging more drives per game, but he's a transparent decision-maker on the move. He's not an exceptional setup man, nor does he look to initiate contact.
Both his pass percentage and foul rate on drives are down from last season, and they weren't favorably positioned in the first place. The free-throw famine is particularly discouraging. He's getting to the line a tad more by way of additional volume alone. Among players to jump-start at least 100 pick-and-rolls, only Goran Dragic and Mike James get to the charity stripe less often.
That should change over time. It has to. Schroder cannot be a so-so playmaker who doesn't generate gimme points. Defenses have yet to fully respect his shooting near the iron. He'll see more bumps and thumps when they start placing stock in his finishing ability.
In the meantime, Schroder looks the part of a solid alpha scorer. He deserves some props for putting up numbers on non-Michael Carter-Williams efficiency for a team basically devoid of other shot creators.
Kyrie Irving, Boston Celtics: A+
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 20.3 points, 3.2 rebounds, 5.3 assists, 1.8 steals, 0.3 blocks, 42.9 percent shooting
Advanced Stats: 22.5 PER, 2.19 RPM, 50.42 TPA
Any number of things should sell us on perfect marks for Kyrie Irving. We have the Boston Celtics' league-best record. We have his 56.3 percent shooting in the clutch. We have his career-low turnover rate. We have his unnecessarily opaque, albeit rivetingly entertaining, philosophical sound bites.
Certain party-crashers will be uncomfortable with his grade. Irving's shooting percentages have dipped overall, particularly from downtown, where he's shooting under 32 percent.
Add to that we have the death of "Kyrie cannot pilot a dope offense without LeBron James" slants. The Boston Celtics go from running an average scoring machine with Irving in tow to envying how the Brooklyn Nets, owners of a 23rd-ranked attack, pile on points when he takes a breather.
Ebbing field-goal clips (and lateral playmaking) don't really matter within this context. Irving's accuracy always stood to decline after leaving the Cleveland Cavaliers. He's playing on a new team and, following Gordon Hayward's season-ending injury, doesn't have an All-Star forward to make his life easier.
More of his buckets are coming off assists—over 40 percent, up from around 30 in 2016-17. But he doesn't have a certifiable GOAT running mate setting the table in other instances. Al Horford is a well-rounded dream but he's no from-scratch maestro, and defenses won't fear Boston's bundle of breakout kiddies.
What's more: This Irving worship has just as much to do with his defense. He's playing inspired basketball on the less glamorous end. He isn't dying on as many screens. He isn't giving up on dribble penetrators as early. His off-ball switches have been—dare we say—absurdly good. His active hands complement his active feet, rather than the other way around.
Irving is third in deflections per game among guards to make at least five appearances, trailing only Kent Bazemore and Jimmy Butler. Paul George, Shabazz Napier and Thabo Sefolosha are the only other players collecting more than two steals and committing fewer than three fouls per 36 minutes.
Boston's league-leading defense might not hold forever, but Irving's effort sure seems like it'll stick for good. He's never been a more complete player than he is now.
Dennis Smith Jr., Dallas Mavericks: B
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 15.8 points, 4.2 rebounds, 4.7 assists, 0.9 steals, 0.3 blocks, 40.8 percent shooting
Advanced Stats: 12.7 PER, -2.27, -21.72 TPA
Outfitting Dennis Smith Jr. for alpha duty feels weird with Harrison Barnes by his side and Dirk Nowitzki set to play forever. But the Dallas Mavericks have given him unprecedented control over the offense relative to how they've handled rookies in the past.
Smith paces the team in both usage rate and touches per game—not abnormal for a point guard, but it's a noticeable deviation from last year's setup, when injuries, personnel and Barnes' own breakout coaxed the Mavs into a more or less equal-opportunity approach. They had six players who cleared 45 touches a night in 2016-17, compared to four now.
Gifting so much responsibility to a newbie has culminated in the usual struggles. The Mavericks aren't a potent offensive team to begin with and still score like a bottom-seven contingent when Smith has the reins. His athleticism and burst off the dribble, while notorious, continues to disarm. It doesn't take too much projection to see a path toward stardom.
Think along the lines of Brandon Ingram's development with the Los Angeles Lakers. Smith is far from a finished product, but he looks progressively more comfortable in his role and, despite lackluster efficiency, is already showing he can reach his spots on command.
Around 45 percent of his looks come at the rim, putting him in the 90th percentile of point-blank frequency, according to Cleaning the Glass. He doesn't yet rank in the top half of accuracy around the basket, but he's not a rookie-year Russell Westbrook project either. His 32.4 percent clip on three-pointers wows absolutely no one, but he doesn't get seduced into taking mid-range junk and eclipses a 35 percent success rate when launching off the catch.
About 16 percent of Smith's looks have also come with fewer than five seconds on the shot clock—second-most among starters who have at least five opening tips under their belt. He's barely shooting 40 percent on these attempts; he'll be better suited when Dallas doesn't hover around the bottom 10 in pace.
Even Smith's assist numbers are misleadingly low. The raw total doesn't warrant celebration, but he's trying to balance aggression with deference. He's passing on a larger share of his drives than Jeff Teague. Turnovers out of the pick-and-roll hurt him, as does inconsistent shooting from the recipients of his passes. He'll be fine here, too.
Mix in above-board shot-blocking for a guard, along with a low foul rate that has little to do with defensive inactivity, and Smith's first NBA go-round must be viewed as a work-in-progress success story.
Victor Oladipo, Indiana Pacers: B
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 23.2 points, 4.4 rebounds, 3.6 assists, 1.3 steals, 0.7 blocks, 47.4 percent shooting
Advanced Stats: 20.9 PER, 1.52 RPM, 13.27 TPA
Victor Oladipo's output should officially be considered sustainable. The Indiana Pacers have made sure of it.
As SI.com's Rob Mahoney wrote:
"That might be an even greater accomplishment for Oladipo, who had three years of data in Orlando to suggest that his work off the dribble was no surefire means of success. As it turns out, maybe Oladipo needed even more rope. Nate McMillan has given the 25-year-old license to fire away, to push the pace, and to lunge into passing lanes. Those prerogatives have turned him into an electric open-court player."
Only the Lakers, Brooklyn Nets and Golden State Warriors dedicate more of their offensive possessions to fast-break opportunities than the Pacers. This bodes well for Oladipo's rising free-throw rate and shot selection. More than 20 percent of his touches come in transition, and full-court plays are a surefire way to prop up career efficiency inside three feet of the hoop. Indiana's reliance on dribble handoffs within specific lineups will do the same.
Deciding whether Oladipo's improvement carries authentic meaning or merely registers as the byproduct of empty-caloric volume is the real challenge.
The Pacers are averaging more points per 100 possessions with him on the bench, and his elevated usage hasn't unlocked a more adept facilitator. He's committing turnovers on almost 19 percent of his pick-and-roll touches, the sixth-worst mark among ball-handlers who've churned through 90 or more of these plays, and averaging fewer assists per 100 possessions than Joel Embiid.
Oladipo deserves every last bit of praise for what he's doing as a shot-maker. His three-point hit rate is still miles above 40 percent, and he continues to shoot better than 50 percent in isolation. But he hasn't prevented the Pacers offense from leveling off and isn't playing well enough on defense to be colored a two-way talent.
All of which makes you wonder: Will Oladipo still be the alpha in Indy next year, or will Myles Turner seize the throne he was supposed to be occupying after Paul George's exit?
Blake Griffin, Los Angeles Clippers: B
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 23.1 points, 7.8 rebounds, 4.7 assists, 0.9 steals, 0.3 blocks, 43.4 percent shooting
Advanced Stats: 21.6 PER, 2.44 RPM, 28.75 TPA
So about that whole "Chris Paul who?" business that accompanied the Los Angeles Clippers' 4-0 start...we need to retract that snark.
The Clippers have dropped eight of the past nine games, including their last six. They have the league's worst defense since winning their first four tilts. The Cavaliers should send them an edible bouquet.
Patrick Beverley and Danilo Gallinari are both watching from the sidelines at the moment, which doesn't help the Clippers' already limited switchability, but a doorway into better defensive territory doesn't seem available. They're getting straight worked in the half court, according to Cleaning the Glass.
Blake Griffin has almost nothing to do with their demise. Opponents shoot a higher percentage against him at the rim than they do when challenging Kevin "Leaky Faucet" Love, and his Kawhi Leonard-esque three-point shooting has cooled. But he is not the problem.
Los Angeles is tallying 109 points per 100 possessions with him on the hardwood—akin to a top-four offense. That mark plunges to 103.4 when he sits—roughly bottom-10 material.
For better or worse, the Clippers' identity is tightly tethered to Griffin's post-ups, face-ups, lengthening jumper and capacity to orchestrate pick-and-rolls. No big ferries that much responsibility across so many departments. He and Ben Simmons are the only non-guards and non-wings to ignite 40 or more pick-and-rolls—and Simmons, at 6'10", spends most of his time at point guard.
Maybe the Clippers defense and murky health bill displace them from the West's playoff picture. Maybe they become sellers ahead of the trade deadline, angling for a one-season teardown before resetting the deck around Griffin next season. That worst-case scenario factors into his grade.
The best alphas headline postseason squads, and he doesn't get to use inexperience as an excuse like many other first-time captains. But penalizing Griffin for hypotheticals is too rash. His expansive offensive arsenal is all that's separating Los Angeles from total obscurity.
Lonzo Ball, Los Angeles Lakers: D
2017-18 Per-Game Stats; 9.0 points, 6.6 rebounds, 6.9 assists, 1.3 steals, 0.9 blocks, 30.3 percent shooting
Advanced Stats: 9.7 PER, -1.55 RPM, -7.32 TPA
Kyle Kuzma would like you to chill with the Lonzo Ball takez.
"Everybody wants him to be a Hall of Famer right now," he said, per Lakers.com's Mike Trudell. "There are 10-year vets playing way worse. He’ll be all right.”
Level-headed stances from 22-year-old rookies aren't allowed, Kyle. Let us be. How else are we supposed to feel good about ourselves if we can't use a sub-20-game sample to denounce the career arc of a 20-year-old beginner?
Oh, and also, you have a point.
Ball qualifies for the alpha conversation in part because of the fanfare attached to his name. Plenty of other Lakers, including Kuzma, have a higher usage rate, and head coach Luke Walton is getting into the habit of leaving Ball on the bench during crucial quarters.
Still, not one of his teammates comes remotely close to matching his per-game touches, and the Lakers are giving him ownership over the offense when he does play. Maybe Brandon Ingram or Kuzma turns out to be the franchise's face down the line. Ball holds the title for now.
On that note: Feel free to disparage his grade—to deem it drunkenly generous. You have a leg on which to stand. Ball has not been good, or even close to good, at the offensive end. His shooting percentages call Hollywood's sewage system home, and defenses are feasting on his serial passivity.
He isn't looking to score or even feign shot attempts. Among the 60-something players to initiate 45 or more pick-and-rolls, only Jrue Holiday and Patty Mills join Ball in notching a free-throw rate under five and score frequency south of 30 percent. That doesn't pair well with a sweeping reluctance to shoot, and the Lakers offense visibly suffers from his rampant hesitance.
Get this, though: Ball has been pretty good on defense. And we're not just talking about his rebounding; the Lakers let him snare opponent misses by design. He has active hands that are, for now, effectively overshadowing his suboptimal foot speed.
Ball verges on an expert ball-stripper—doubly so when he comes from the side or behind unsuspecting bigs with clumsy handles and grips. Guards aren't supposed to block as many shots as him. He leverages his length to swat drivers from behind and disrupts low-post brutes as a help defender.
ESPN's defensive real plus-minus rates Ball as a top-10 pest at his position. The Lakers let up fewer points per 100 possessions when he's off the court, but they'd still be a top-seven blockade with him in the game. Just four players have as many total steals (20) and blocks (13): Giannis Antetokounmpo, DeMarcus Cousins, Anthony Davis and Andre Drummond.
Flunking Ball entirely, with an F, ignores the promising flashes he's shown as a passer and defensive decision-maker—even if his returns on the dirty-work side wind up being an early-season outlier.
Kristaps Porzingis, New York Knicks: A
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 28.9 points, 7.9 rebounds, 1.2 assists, 0.5 steals, 2.2 blocks, 49.3 percent shooting
Advanced Stats: 28.1 PER, 1.62 RPM, 10.28 TPA
Kristaps Porzingis is making people believe in the New York Knicks again. Their cap situation is iffy over the next few years, and he's probably too good for them to bank on another top-five draft pick, but he's given the franchise a legitimate superstar cornerstone.
And he's not even playing his best position.
Close to 95 percent of Porzingis' minutes come at power forward, and the Knicks' frontcourt pileup won't allow that to change anytime soon. That's fine. Porzingis has thrived while firing away over smaller opponents. He faces more size at center and has yet to consistently adjust his shot selection when defenses throw 5s at him.
Plus, Porzingis has found a way to erase hostiles at the rim even as offenses pull him outside the paint. His 2.4 blocks per 36 minutes are a tick above his career average, and of the 250-something players to challenge at least 15 shots around the basket, he places first in opponent field-goal percentage.
Letting him play more center would accentuate this impact. He's facing just 4.4 looks at the rim per game, a demonstrative decrease from last season's 7.8. But we call this a champagne problem. That's all the Knicks have with Porzingis these days.
Could he be creating more points as a passer? Absofreakinglutely. But he's doing a better job dishing out of double-teams, and New York isn't exploiting the dual-big pick-and-roll option they have in him and Enes Kanter.
Should he be grabbing more rebounds? Most definitely. But that criticism rings slightly hollow when he's chasing around glorified wings at the 4; he's contesting more threes per game, in fewer minutes, than Khris Middleton, an actual wing.
Nobody's perfect. Porzingis is no exception. We must be careful not to overstate his alpha-option explosion. He has not suddenly leap-frogged Giannis Antetokounmpo as the NBA's best building block. That hyperbolic bathos is for suckers.
Porzingis does, however, have the Knicks playing like a 56-win team when he's on the court, according to NBA Math's FATS projections. For that, he deserves a big, fat "A."
And, eventually, a statue outside Madison Square Garden.