Start Stanning for These NBA Surprises Before Their Bandwagons Fill Up

Dan Favale@@danfavaleFeatured ColumnistNovember 5, 2018

Start Stanning for These NBA Surprises Before Their Bandwagons Fill Up

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    Rich Pedroncelli/Associated Press

    Paging all NBA fans who like to sing the praises of the undercelebrated before it becomes common practice. We have some shiny new bandwagons for you to board.

    Serious hoops heads take pride in being ahead of the curve, as much of the offseason is spent trying to identify the next crop of breakouts and surprise leaps. 

    Many of these predictions fall flat. Plenty of others do not. But these hits and misses do not cover the spectrum of feel-good stories. Not even close. 

    Each and every year, a gaggle of players start to earn recognition for their progress after inviting little to no support over the summer. They don't necessarily come out of nowhere. Some are well-known names. But their national pull isn't nearly strong enough relative to the most talked-about subjects.

    For these players, that changes now. 

    Tiers will be used to contextualize the level of surprise attached to each inclusion's performance. Some players could qualify for multiple categories. In those cases, we'll defer to best-fit classification. (Rookies and sophomores won't be looped into the "Unhyped Most Improved Player" sections, for instance.)

    Sustainability will dictate eligibility as well. Nemanja Bjelica has my unending apologies, but his hot start feels a little too turbulent. Even if his shooting sticks—which, who knows—he's someone who could lose playing time should the Sacramento Kings ever cool off.

    Maybe you saw many of these selections coming. Hooray for you. And perhaps a few of them taper off by year's end. It happens. In the meantime, all of them are worth stanning for—while space on their fast-filling bandwagons remains.

Already Near-Capacity Bandwagons

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    Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images

    These players aren't exactly smack-you-in-the-face surprises. But they're exceeding expectations without all-consuming love from sectors outside NBA Twitter. Hurry up, though. Their bandwagons will reach capacity before most others—if they haven't already.

                 

    Willie Cauley-Stein, Sacramento Kings

    Willie Cauley-Stein was way ahead of us.

    "I'm ready to get paid," he told NBC Sports' James Ham. "This is what we've got to do, that's what type of focus I'm on…I'm ready for it. I've seen everybody else—all my peers. All right, I'm ready for that."

    Sacramento will have to pay a pretty penny to retain Cauley-Stein at this rate. He's going above and beyond at the offensive end.

    Better floor balance has granted him unprecedented breathing room. He has more space to roll toward the basket, yes, but he's uncorked a bunch of other moves within those decongested lanes. Everything from one-dribble floaters to meticulous backdowns to spinning faceups are peppered throughout his arsenal. The variance in his role more than offsets his downtick in efficiency.

    Defenses are already showing Cauley-Stein more respect. Bigs aren't dropping back on him as much, which has opened paths to the basket for his guards on hand-offs. His teammates have more room to cut, and they're confident he'll find them. He's dancing around three assists per 36 minutes for a second consecutive season.

    This isn't Cauley-Stein validating his place among solid starters. This is him hovering in the vicinity of Most Improved Player endorsements. He would have for sure been looped into that tier if the race didn't always skew toward guards and wings.

               

    Taurean Prince, Atlanta Hawks

    Trae Young has not crimped Taurean Prince's offensive intensity. If anything, the rookie floor general has enabled him to stay in attack mode. 

    Prince is picking up where he left off at the end of last season, and it shows. He leads the Hawks in usage and is shooting the ball more than ever. His overall field-goal percentage doesn't flatter, but it hardly tells part of the story.

    Ebbing efficiency is a transformational hazard. Prince is weening off his accessory role and working in more of a co-alpha capacity. Over 40 percent of his attempts are pull-up jumpers, and more than 25 percent come after burning between three and six dribbles. Both marks are by far and away career highs.

    Dig even deeper, and the numbers are even less indicative of the entire picture. Prince is hitting 66 percent shooting at the rim, and his free-throw rate has jumped from last season as well. And he's doing all of this while steadily improving his defensive stamina at the 4 spot. (His three-point percentage has, for the moment, dropped amid greater volume.)

    Tightening his handle and making quicker passes out of the pick-and-roll would just about finish off Prince's transition into a full-blown No. 2. That'll take time. The Hawks will be happy to wait. Prince has made plenty of offensive strides over the last year. There should be more to come.

                  

    Pascal Siakam, Toronto Raptors

    How did the Raptors manage to acquire Kawhi Leonard without giving up Pascal Siakam again? It doesn't feel fair. Just ask the rest of the Eastern Conference. Toronto is rampaging through pretty much everyone, and Siakam is a huge, if understated, reason why.

    Extra space and better ball movement looks good on him. He has room to stretch his legs and his handle. He'll fumble the rock and telegraph his passes every now and then, but he's pushing the limits of his off-the-dribble work. He's not just pouncing on straight beelines to the basket. He's using more angles and shedding defenders in traffic.

    Siakam's three-point shot is progressing in incrementals. His 21.4 percent conversion rate is down from last year doesn't force defenses to stay attached to his hip, but his 28.6 percent mark  from the corners is a career high.

    If he ever sniffs the league average from distance, the Raptors have a potential All-Star. This sounds funny but isn't a joke. Siakam fills the box score and is among the select few players who can switch across all five positions.

    To call him an eventual All-NBA candidate would be a stretch, but he's disruptive enough to mirror the trajectory of Khris Middleton—a player indefinitely on the peripherals of the All-Star discussion who might one day crack the official ranks.

    Other player to watch: Khris Middleton, Milwaukee Bucks (sort of obvious, but in an actually-not-that-obvious way).

Underrated Rookies

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    Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

    Never mind anyone selected in the top 10. Deandre Ayton, Luka Doncic, Jaren Jackson Jr., Trae Young, et al. are super fun, but they're getting more regular shine than any of these less heralded up-and-comers.

             

    Miles Bridges, Charlotte Hornets

    A certain dunce (me) thought the Hornets would struggle to roll out effective small-ball combinations thanks to an awkward roster setup. Head coach James Borrego has transcended the cast of workaday personnel to lean heavily on more mobile arrangements.

    Miles Bridges is a pivotal part of that program. He's logged time at the 2, 3 and 4 without getting torched on defense. He's shown some fragility versus off-the-dribble whizzes, but he's switchable and committed to contesting long jumpers. 

    His offensive IQ is ahead of schedule. He's not forcing anything off the dribble—it'd be nice if he weren't so deferential on drives—and taking the right shots. Over 80 percent of his attempts are coming at the rim and from beyond the arc, where he's shooting north of 90(!) percent and 39 percent, respectively. He should one day be a killer in transition, and he's already a devoted cutter for a Charlotte squad bent on increasing its off-ball movement.

    Book Bridges for plenty of All-Rookie votes.

              

    Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Los Angeles Clippers

    Big guards are en vogue, and the Clippers have themselves a trendy one in Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. He's barely distinguishable from most wings and defends like it, yet he carries himself in the half court with the smooth aplomb of born setup man.

    Turnovers are an issue. They always are for rookie playmakers. And Gilgeous-Alexander has a long way to go before he's a dependable source of high-volume stop-and-pop jumpers. But his offensive utility is shining through the learning curve.

    Gilgeous-Alexander is hitting threes at a high clip on just over one attempt per 36 minutes. The limited sample isn't a problem. Volume will come later. He also doesn't need to lean on his outside touch. The Clippers are putting the ball in his hands, and he's going to work. He should have lights-out efficiency on his driving layups and floaters before long.

    Most importantly, Gilgeous-Alexander appears comfortable in his NBA skin. Patrick Beverley is the only member of the Clippers averaging more time with the ball per touch, and the 20-year-old looks at home attacking out of the pick-and-roll. His 1.06 points per possession in this department place him in the 80th percentile.

           

    Josh Okogie, Minnesota Timberwolves

    Josh Okogie isn't shy. Newbies can be hesitant to look for their own shot when gifted playing time, especially when they're surrounded by veterans who are supposed to enjoy higher-volume roles. 

    In Okogie's case, he could be infinitely reticent to get his hands dirty on offense. The Timberwolves are teeming with players who like to shoot, and any rookie getting minutes from youth-averse coach-president Tom Thibodeau has presumably signed away his first born and had the wrath of the basketball gods instilled within him.

    Okogie is different. He gets shots up. He's attempting almost as many threes per 36 minutes as Jimmy Butler. Okogie can be erratic, but he's flashed some nifty finishing around the basket, and contrary to a handful of his teammates, he's not prone to love affairs with junky long twos. 

    Best of all, albeit also most alarmingly, his 6'4" frame has not stopped Thibs from throwing him on some of the league's bigger and starrier wings. The Timberwolves don't have other viable options beyond Butler, and Okogie is far more active than Andrew Wiggins has ever been in his career.

                

    Mitchell Robinson, New York Knicks

    Milwaukee Bucks Twitter got BIG mad when I (deliberately) overstated Mitchell Robinson's ceiling. He had  jacked an entry pass to Jarrett Allen, dribbled the length of floor, outraced Caris LeVert and finished with a dunk. I essentially called him the next Giannis Antetokounmpo. Harmless stuff.

    To be clear for those who cannot detect sarcasm or tasteless humor: Robinson is not Antetokounmpo 2.0. But he's a 7-footer who gets licks on the offensive glass, swats shots, jumps passing lanes, breaks rims and has the control and gait to be a fair-weather ball-handler.

    Once he polishes his defensive bearings—i.e. boxes out consistently and doesn't sacrifice placement in the post and around the rim for block attempts—the Knicks will have a draft-day mega-steal on their hands. In fact, given his pole position (No. 36), they already do. 

    Other player to watch: Elie Okobo, Phoenix Suns

Surprising Sophomores

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    Mike Stobe/Getty Images

    Ben Simmons, Donovan Mitchell, Jayson Tatum and Kyle Kuzma, among others, garner more than their fair share of love and attention. This space isn't for them.

    It isn't even for the OG Anunoby-, Bam Adebayo-, Jarrett Allen- and Jordan Bell-types. Liking them has been cool for too long. This one's for the slightly deeper cuts and bigger leaps. Top-10 picks from the 2017 draft are fair game, but they need to be rising out from the ash of rookie-year obscurity. 

            

    De'Aaron Fox, Sacramento Kings

    De'Aaron Fox is technically too high-profile for this exercise. The Sacramento Kings selected him fifth overall in 2017. He's not sneaking up on anyone. Then again, he kind of, sort of, most definitely is.

    More study and superlatives have been spent on fellow 2017 draftees Lonzo Ball, Markelle Fultz and Dennis Smith Jr. Maybe it's the team for which Fox plays. Perhaps he's not launching or hitting enough difficult, off-the-dribble jumpers. Whatever it is, the national oblivion ends now.

    Fox is good. Like, really good. And he's getting better. He could feasibly end up being the best point guard from his draft class. Everyone else looms large here—including Frank Ntilikina—but it could happen. 

    Better efficiency off the bounce is on the horizon. He's shooting 55.6 percent  between eight and 16 feet—second-best mark among anyone averaging more than 2.5 attempts from that range per game. Most of those looks have come on the move, in the form of pull-ups and floaters. His standstill shooting is a greater concern. He doesn't need to check that box at the moment. (He's shaking defenders and reaching the rim almost at will, by the way.)

    Smith is the only other other point guard from the 2017 class who registers as the No. 1 option, but he's never show the same on-ball poise. Luka Doncic is also coming for his pecking-order position. Even with a few players around him on the come-up, Fox is the lifeline for a Kings offense that has climbed out of the doldrums. (Spacing is now a thing!) His importance to their progress is a feat by itself.

             

    Josh Hart, Los Angeles Lakers

    Every LeBron James-captained team needs someone like Josh Hart—that guy who can make plays without the ball on offense and whose defensive motor seldom stalls. For this iteration of the Lakers, though, Hart is something more than a necessity. He's indispensable.

    He is the lone reliable plug-and-play option Los Angeles employs. Close to two-thirds of his shot attempts come without taking more than one dribble, and he's dropping in more than 44 percent of his catch-and-fire threebies. A devout commitment to running the floor ensures his offensive value will never waver within the Lakers' surplus of ball-dominant talent.

    Hart stands out even more on the defensive side. His hustle offsets some of the Lakers' half-court cohesion. He leads them in deflections per game and is someone they can trust to hang tight on an island and clean up pick-and-roll coverage.

               

    Jonathan Isaac, Orlando Magic

    Jonathan Isaac's feel for the game is coming around.

    Not much has changed for him on defense, because he never needed significant adjustments. He takes a ton of gambles and can get a little foul-happy—particularly for someone coached by Steve Clifford—but his activity is not without substance. He has improved his presence on the glass while spending more time at power forward; sends away shots around the basket without egregious block-seeking; and uses his wingspan to party-crash passing lanes and bust up entry and exit passes.

    It will take more time before Isaac resembles anything close to a well-rounded offensive product. But he's getting there. He's moving well without the ball and sporadically experimenting with pull-up jumpers and drives.

    Coaxing more from-scratch creation out of Issac is paramount if the Magic aren't going to deploy four- and five-out lineups without a headlining point guard. But this is his first full season. Orlando should revel in his gradual progress.

               

    Maxi Kleber, Dallas Mavericks

    Early-season absences from Harrison Barnes and Dirk Nowitzki opened the door for Maxi Kleber to remain a staple in the Mavericks rotation despite the arrival of DeAndre Jordan. Barnes' return has already knifed into some of his minutes, but Kleber is playing well enough to be a full-strength fixture.

    It helps that, at 6'11", he doesn't need to play center. All of his minutes are thus far coming at the 4, according to Cleaning the Glass.

    Power forwards are supposed to verge on glorified wings these days, but Kleber doesn't move like a stretch plodder. He's quick enough to dribble around defenders when they chase him off the three-point line, and he leverages his height to break up plays from behind on the defensive end.

    Take this with a spaceship's worth of skepticism, but Kleber is on pace to join Brook Lopez and Karl-Anthony Towns as the first three players to ever average more than two blocks and two three-point makes per 36 minutes in the same season.

                

    Frank Ntilikina, New York Knicks

    Frank Ntilikina may never pass the cursory box-score test. Whatever. He's laying the groundwork for a promising career.

    He continues to be an all-over-the-place defender. He never gives up on closeouts and has the length and speed to keep pace with some of the more cagey guards and wings. The Knicks have tried his hand against bigger covers (Khris Middleton, Taurean Prince, Jayson Tatum, etc.) without real success, but to even have the option of entertaining that switchability is an asset.

    That Ntilikina is starting to blend his defensive energy with offensive nerve is huge. He's not drilling step-back jumpers after cooking fools off the dribble, but he's no longer unassertive. He has shown more poise attacking set defenses and is no stranger to flinging sharp passes on the move.

    New York may not be sold on shimmying Ntilikina between guard spots, but he's growing as a table-setter. He's shooting better than 40 percent on a not-insignificant number of pull-up threes and hitting almost 67 percent of his shots around the rim. With more confidence in his handle, upping his volume and facilitating a larger offensive breakout doesn't seem out of the question.

    Other player to watch: Monte Morris, Denver Nuggets 

Unhyped Most Improved Player Candidates

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    Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

    Brandon Ingram. Jaylen Brown. Jamal Murray. Tobias Harris. Zach LaVine. Josh Richardson. Many others earned more Most Improved Player buzz than these under-hyped risers. It turns out too many others.

                  

    Buddy Hield, Sacramento Kings

    Buddy Hield is not just a shooter. He made that much clear last season, provided you were paying attention. He's making it impossible to ignore now.

    Oh, make no mistake, the 24-year-old traffics in long-range swishes. He's flirting with a 45 percent success rate from distance overall and knocking down a near-incomprehensible 61.3 percent of his standstill triples. And yet, his outside volume has actually dipped from last season relative to his playing time.

    Part of that drop-off comes with the territory. Hield is getting more run beside offensive fulcrum De'Aaron Fox, and Sacramento once again has him initiating more half-court actions. He's responded by attacking inside the arc and upping his free-throw frequency.

    Some of Hield's shots don't align with the modern-day mantra. More of his looks are coming between 10 feet and just inside the arc—arguably too many. But he's attempting them within the flow of the offense, off screens and quick-fire pull-ups, and hitting them at astronomical clips.

    Besides, the speed with which he's making decisions helps keep defenses on tilt regardless of his shot profile. Over 40 percent of his attempts are coming with 15 or more seconds left on the shot clock, of which he's burying more than 59 percent. 

                  

    Caris LeVert, Brooklyn Nets

    Fully unleashed Caris LeVert is one helluva sight. He's the first Nets player to average more than 30 minutes per game under head coach Kenny Atkinson, an unofficial honor that speaks to the responsibility being entrusted to him.

    LeVert leads Brooklyn in scoring, he routinely chases around the toughest defensive assignments, and only D'Angelo Russell is handing out more assists and is the only one on the team who has a higher usage rate—a workload LeVert hasn't happened upon by accident. 

    The Nets are treating him like a featured scorer. He's jump-starting more pick-and-rolls than anyone else, and while his turnovers remain an issue in those situations, he's still averaging 1.15 points per possession (93rd percentile) and drawing a crap ton of fouls. Among the 58 players running at least four pick-and-rolls per game, only 11 are getting to the line more.

    Dragging his three-point accuracy above the league mean would go a long way, but LeVert isn't as erratic as his sub-30-percent clip suggests. He's downing a good chunk of his pull-up opportunities. His standalone efficiency will catch up.

                   

    Nikola Mirotic, New Orleans Pelicans

    Here's every player hovering around or clearing 25 points and three made triples per 36 minutes this season:

    Mirotic's performance has to be unsustainable. 

    Counterpoint: Does it really? He's not notching a career-best true shooting percentage by doing anything out of the ordinary. The Pelicans don't have him generating square-one looks off the bounce. They're combusting defenses with breakneck pace, and Mirotic is their functional beneficiary.

    Almost 60 percent of his shots are going uncontested. More than 75 percent of his looks are coming after one dribble or less. Over 75 percent of his made buckets have been assisted on. Mirotic's numbers should come down, but unless they plummet, he's on track to command some Most Improved Player buzz.

Surging Subs

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    Gary Bassing/Getty Images

    Preseason predictions for the NBA's Sixth Man of the Year Award consisted of mostly, well, predictable names: Terry Rozier, Fred VanVleet, Lou Williams, Kyle Kuzma, JJ Redick, Kelly Olynyk, Dennis Schroder, Tyreke Evans—you know, the usual suspects or "well, duh" picks.

    These super subs generated no such adulation. None of them fit the typical volume-scoring mold, and at the time, some didn't deserve it. They're all demanding it now.

               

    Zach Collins, Portland Trail Blazers

    Zach Collins' bandwagon began boarding last season without ever filling up. Portland's offseason didn't help his stock. Ed Davis' departure meant a different role. How would he fare without his defensive safety net while playing more center?

    As it turns out, Collins is doing pretty friggin' well.

    Spending more time at the 5 hasn't fazed him. His offense was never a question. His spattering of post moves is a nice surprise, but someone who trails plays behind the three-point line, pops off screens and backs out of the paint while defenses collapse on Damian Lillard and Evan Turner drives is a natural frontline asset.

    The Blazers defense with Collins in the middle is more of a surprise. They're allowing under 100 points per 105 possessions when he's at center (78th percentile), according to Cleaning the Glass. Opponents are shooting 42.3 percent against him at the rim—a top-five mark among 101 players contesting at least three point-blank looks per game—and he's notching one of the league's 15 highest block rates.

    Keep this up, and Collins will wedge his way into Sixth Man of the Year debates.

                 

    Montrezl Harrell, Los Angeles Clippers

    Montrezl Harrell has gone from a small-burst revelation to a modest-volume star. He's still not playing a ton, but he's eclipsing 20 minutes per game for the first time.

    Don't worry, though. Extra run hasn't dampened his per-minute output. His per-36 splits remain absurd: 21.1 points, 10.4 boards, 2.2 assists, 1.4 steals and 3.3 blocks.

    Those numbers will fall. They should not implode. Most are par for his career, and it makes sense that he'd rack up more blocks and (finally) pad his rebounding numbers while playing center. And the Clippers aren't about cut down his minutes. His 6'8" frame doesn't hold up for long stretches at the 5, but his wire-to-wire thrust helps the offense play at warp speed.

                  

    Ersan Ilyasova, Milwaukee Bucks

    Ersan Ilyasova is irreplaceable to the Bucks in subtle ways. They don't need him to score in droves, although he certainly can. They need to him to fill the gaps, which he does to quasi-perfection.

    Having Ilyasova orbit the arc allows Milwaukee to play both him and Giannis Antetokounmpo with another big. He also has the size and fight to anchor lineups that feature Antetokounmpo and himself at the 4 and 5. He's switchier than credited at the defensive end and opportunistic on the offensive glass. The Bucks can have him spot up, trail in transition, bang in the post and run downhill off screens. He's shooting better than 60 percent on two-pointers and damn around 72 percent inside three feet. 

    Really, Ilyasova is Milwaukee's key to unrestricted lineup access. He promotes pristine spacing and defensive portability without costing size. His counting stats will never reflect his importance. 

    To that end, Ilyasova's Sixth Man of the Year candidacy figures to parallel Andre Iguodala's case from previous seasons. He won't have the statistical cachet to bring home the honor, but everyone knows the Bucks wouldn't be the same without him.

              

    Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Charlotte Hornets

    Hornets head coach James Borrego is revitalizing Michael Kidd-Gilchrist's career by moving him to the bench and having him—gulp—moonlight as a small-ball center.  

    Try not to laugh. Again: This is working. Charlotte is outscoring opponents by 40 points per 100 possessions in the short spurts Kidd-Gilchrist has manned the 5, according to Cleaning the Glass. That net rating is not forever, but this experiment might be. As The Ringer's Jonathan Tjarks wrote:

    "Kidd-Gilchrist is an excellent screener, cutter, rebounder and interior defender, and he has the tools to be a small-ball 5. He's about the same size (6'7" and 232 pounds with a seven-foot wingspan) as Draymond [Green] (6'7" and 230 pounds with a 7'1" wingspan). Both are built like NFL linebackers, with a thick chest, strong hands and quick feet. MKG has the same combination of athleticism, tenacity and basketball IQ that allows Green to bang with bigger players inside and rotate quickly as a help-side defender."

    Tussling with traditional bigs and huge wings has never been Kidd-Gilchrist's defensive forte, but he's getting better. The new NBA has helped. He doesn't give up anywhere near as much size at the 4 or 5 as he did a couple of years ago.

    Charlotte is doing its darnedest to guarantee MKG's offense stays the course. Borrego has simplified his role without trying to hide him. Close to 40 percent of his possessions are coming in transition and off cuts, and he's finding success as an occasional diver and put-back machine. His Sixth Man of the Year stock will go through the roof if the Hornets hold firm in the East's playoff picture. 

    Other player to watch: Cory Joseph, Indiana Pacers

The Most Unlikely Leaps

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    Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

    If you saw any of these bust-out campaigns coming, please email me the winning numbers to the next billion-dollar Mega Millions or Powerball jackpot. Thanks.

                 

    Bryn Forbes, San Antonio Spurs

    DeMar DeRozan and Pau Gasol have assumed a bulk of the Spurs' playmaking duties following a rash of injuries in the backcourt. Bryn Forbes is leaving his mark despite limited control over the offense. (Fun fact: Three of San Antonio's top-five players in assists per 36 minutes are bigs.)

    The 25-year-old has become a spacing lifeline for a team that isn't built to shoot threes and uses them like a last resort. He's canning nearly 38 percent of his deep balls and averaging almost as many points per possession out of the pick-and-roll as DeRozan.

    Injuries to Dejounte Murray, Lonnie Walker and Derrick White robbed the Spurs of a from-scratch shot-creator beyond DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge. Forbes has given them another one. 

    Around 49 percent of his looks are coming off the dribble, and he's putting them down with disarming accuracy. Out of the 72 players attempting at least four pull-up jumpers per games, his 54.3 effective field-goal percentage places 10th.

                 

    JaVale McGee, Los Angeles Lakers

    JaVale McGee is in Willie Cauley-Stein's boat. His performance would call for Most Improved Player deliberations if he were more of an offensive hub.

    What a weird thing to write in the year 2018.

    The extent to which the Lakers need McGee is unsettling. Their barebones center rotation rendered him essential before the season ever tipped off. What he's doing in the face of extended minutes supersedes the wildest expectations.

    McGee is averaging more than 14 points per game, obliterating his previous career high. He is the Lakers' sole presence on the offensive glass and their only player, aside from Johnathan Williams, who looks comfortable setting screens. McGee's 9.8 block rate leads the NBA, and prior to Sunday's loss versus Toronto, Los Angeles' defensive rating plunged by a rotation-player-high 12.3 points per 100 possessions when he caught a breather.

    Put together a ranking of the Lakers' most important players so far, and McGee should finish no lower than third. That's equal parts amazing and terrifying, and something no one off the McGee family tree could have imagined arguing just a month ago. Anyone who says otherwise deserves a round of applause—and maybe a lie detector test. Good for JaVale.

               

    Rodney McGruder, Miami Heat

    Rodney McGruder is the human embodiment of effort. He is pure hustle. He tracks down loose balls. He wants to intercept and deflect every pass within 10 feet of his person. He moves like "Thou shall not ever remain idle" is one of the 10 commandments.

    "We've had a lot of guys come into training camp in fantastic shape," Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said when informed that McGruder was among the league leaders in distance traveled per game, per the Miami Herald's Anthony Chiang. "His was historic. He puts in the time that he's able to make countless more plays than the average NBA player simply because he's in better shape and he's willing to make those extra efforts. That to me is a talent."

    Animated defense and hustle paved the way for McGruder to join the Heat rotation and starting lineup. His offense is now making it almost impossible to take him off the floor. He is a genuine threat to score off the dribble and has built elite chemistry with Hassan Whiteside out of the pick-and-roll. 

    For someone who hates to sit still, McGruder has no qualms about lurking behind and to the side of plays, setting his feet and stroking threes. He's averaging 1.50 points per spot-up possession—fifth among 76 players sniffing or exceeding his volume.

    Now would be a good time to note McGruder is set for restricted free agency next summer. The Heat are lucky they own matching rights. They're going to need them.

                    

    Nik Stauskas, Portland Trail Blazers

    Klay Thompson better enjoy holding the record for three-pointers made in a game while he can. 

    Because let's face it, Nik Stauskas will break it before the New Year.

    See? Hyperbole is fun. And Stauskas' season is unfurling like one giant, should-be embellishment. He's doing a bit of everything for the Blazers offense. Splashing in threes, nailing some jumpers off the dribble, getting to the cup more than ever before, feeding spotters in the corners, dropping off passes for bigs—all that good stuff.

    Portland's bench mob wouldn't be deconstructing its enemies without Sauce Castillo's thermonuclear shooting. The offense is a fairytale whenever he lines up with Seth Curry and Zach Collins. The Blazers are outscoring opponents by more than 11 points per 100 possessions with that trio on the court, according to Cleaning the Glass

    Spare yourself the need to be right or seem all-knowing. You didn't predict this way-more-than-a-shooter version of Nik Stauskas. No one did.

    Other player(s) to watch: Nemanja Bjelica, Sacramento Kings (definitely covering my butt here); Justin Holiday, Chicago Bulls

                 

    Unless otherwise noted, stats courtesy of NBA.com or Basketball Reference and accurate leading into games on Oct. 31. Salary and cap-hold information via Basketball Insiders and RealGM.

    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.