Every NBA Team's Most Surprising Player This Season
Did you expect Allonzo Trier, an undrafted addition to the roster, to become a key piece for the New York Knicks, aiding the cause now while increasing the long-term upside of this ongoing rebuild? Did you think Jaylen Brown was going to struggle after exploding in the 2018 playoffs? Was Domantas Sabonis' blossoming into a Sixth Man of the Year front-runner part of your preseason projections?
If you answer all three of those questions positively, kudos to you. Please consider making the crystal ball in your possession available for purchase because you'd make quite the profit on an item able to forecast futures no one else could predict.
But if those developments caught you by surprise, read on.
After all, every one of the NBA's 30 squads has a player who's performing counter to preseason expectations in an eminently notable manner—whether positive or negative.
Atlanta Hawks: Taurean Prince
Following last year's second-half surge, during which Taurean Prince proved he could handle massive offensive responsibility while maintaining his defensive ability, this small forward was supposed to blossom into an obvious keeper for the Atlanta Hawks. But that hasn't happened during an early season filled with struggles that range from careless perimeter passes to bricks fired from all over the half-court set.
After the 2017-18 All-Star break, Prince closed out his sophomore go-round by averaging 19.0 points, 4.9 rebounds, 3.5 assists, 1.3 steals and 0.5 blocks while shooting 44.3 percent from the field, 41.2 percent from downtown and 89.2 percent at the stripe. This year, he's regressed substantially and is posting 15.1 points, 4.2 rebounds, 2.3 assists, 1.1 steals and 0.3 blocks on a 42.5/35.9/86.0 slash line.
Those numbers remain respectable for a third-year wing who's operating on one of the NBA's most futile outfits. But it remains troubling that every listed number has trended in the wrong direction during what was supposed to be a continuation of his rise to prominence.
Unless Prince regains his footing in the near future, he could be at risk of unexpectedly falling out of the team's long-term plans.
Boston Celtics: Jaylen Brown
During the 2018 playoffs, Jaylen Brown was a breakout star ready to push the Boston Celtics' ceiling even higher.
With Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward both lost for the year, Brown took it upon himself to handle a larger offensive burden, averaging 18.0 points, 4.8 rebounds and 1.4 assists while slashing 46.6/39.3/64.0 in postseason play. Maybe that free-throw percentage should've served as a stronger indicator that severe regression was inevitable, but his ability to knock down spot-up jumpers and create offense off the bounce seemed to indicate that he'd truly arrived as another key cog in the schemes deployed by head coach Brad Stevens.
Fast-forward to the present day, and things aren't quite as rosy. As Bleacher Report's Dan Favale recently highlighted (among other issues) while opining on the downturns:
"Brown is straight whiffing on uncontested looks altogether. Among 101 players who have attempted more than 45 shots with a defender at least six feet away, his effective field-goal percentage (34.0) ranks...101st.
"A bunch of Brown's jumpers have fallen short. Even when he's in rhythm and not facing strong contests, the makes just aren't there."
Until he's shooting better than 39.8/25.3/62.2, whether on wide-open or heavily contested looks, Brown will be one of the Association's bigger busts of 2018-19.
Brooklyn Nets: D'Angelo Russell
"Consistency" is not D'Angelo Russell's middle name. That would be Dante.
But even while enduring poor shooting performances like his 6-of-25 brickfest against the Utah Jazz on Nov. 28, the 22-year-old is finally becoming a player capable of justifying the No. 2 pick spent on his services in the 2015 NBA draft. After all, those downticks are canceled out by the stellar showings; his 38-point, eight-rebound, eight-assist outburst against the Philadelphia 76ers was a primary example one outing before the Jazz blues.
After entering the year as a career 34.4 percent shooter from beyond the rainbow, Russell is connecting on his long-range attempts at a 36.4 percent clip. He's made major strides as a distributor by continuing to involve his teammates while cutting back on the mistakes that plagued him in the past. He's more disciplined playing pick-and-roll defense.
All parts of his game are blossoming, albeit with the occasional hiccup, as he tracks toward the best season of his young career.
Sure, improvement should've been expected for a young guard who's entering his second season with a Brooklyn Nets squad on the rise. But improvement of this magnitude still comes as a surprise for a player who'd already been written off by so many.
Charlotte Hornets: Tony Parker
During his final season with the San Antonio Spurs, Tony Parker looked—dare I say it—washed up. He couldn't hold his own on defense, and offense was a major struggle for a veteran point guard without three-point range who no longer possessed the fleetness of foot necessary to get to the spots of his choosing.
According to FiveThirtyEight's CARMELO model, he earned minus-1.2 wins above (below?) replacement player in 2017-18, indicating that he was dragging down the Spurs' hopes. Moreover, the model projected that he'd be worth minus-0.8 WARP during his inaugural campaign as Kemba Walker's backup for the Charlotte Hornets, classifying him as "way past his prime."
Parker still doesn't look like the All-Star 1-guard of yesteryears, but he's been a serviceable second-stringer. More careful with his setup feeds and increasingly agile as he drives to the hoop for off-footed layups, he's helped ensure, for the first time in what seems like forever, that the Hornets remain competitive without Walker on the floor.
Last year, the Hornets were outscored by 6.8 points per 100 possessions when operating without their lone All-Star. This year, per PBPStats.com, they've posted a 2.5 net rating when Parker is on the floor without Walker—not anything to write home about, but respectable nonetheless.
Chicago Bulls: Ryan Arcidiacono
During a Nov. 26 battle with the San Antonio Spurs, Ryan Arcidiacono exploded for a career-high 22 points on 8-of-12 shooting from the field, and he was tantalizingly close to pushing that number even higher while almost willing his Chicago Bulls to victory. After stealing an inbounds pass out of LaMarcus Aldridge's hands in the closing seconds, he scrambled into the right corner and put a fadeaway jumper right on line but barely short.
Two nights later, he scored another 22 points, this time on 6-of-12 shooting, while adding five rebounds, four assists and five steals in a loss to the Milwaukee Bucks. As NBC Sports Chicago's Mark Strotman wrote after that outing, he's cemented his spot in this rotation:
"There wasn't a debate about the backup point guard position, but Ryan Arcidiacono silenced any final critics with another stellar performance. ... He was active on both ends, pushed pace and looked comfortable all night. He's far and away the second best point guard on the team behind Kris Dunn, and there's no question as to who will back him up once he returns from his sprained knee."
Coming into the year, Arcidiacono was a rising sophomore who'd gone undrafted out of Villanova and averaged just 12.7 minutes per game in 24 appearances as a rookie. That he's already nearly doubled last year's minutes tally is impressive, and he's only carving out a larger role as his career progresses in unexpectedly meteoric fashion.
Cleveland Cavaliers: Collin Sexton
Though Collin Sexton entered the year as a dark-horse possibility for Rookie of the Year, he might as well already be out of the running. That isn't just because he's lagged well behind Deandre Ayton, Luka Doncic, Jaren Jackson Jr. and the other first-year standouts, but also because he's been flat-out bad in many respects. Like, bad enough that the world heard reports that veteran members of the Cleveland Cavaliers wondered if he actually knew how to play NBA basketball.
Sexton has offered glimpses of his two-way potential, driving to the rim and capitalizing on his athletic advantages while functioning as a defensive bulldog, but those moments have been fleeting. All in all, he's struggled immensely, even if his perimeter jumper (42.4 percent on 1.7 three-point attempts per game) has been better than advertised.
His scoring chops aren't the issue, so much as his inability to make basic passes that NBA floor generals must be capable of delivering. Turnovers have reared their ugly heads, and he often looks lost on defense. ESPN.com's Real Plus-Minus places him dead last among the 91 players qualified as point guards (No. 436 of 438 overall players), and NBA Math's Total Points Added shows that only five players have had more negative value in 2018-19.
Don't give up on Sexton's long-term potential, but these aren't the initial results expected of a possible contender in the Rookie of the Year race.
Dallas Mavericks: Maxi Kleber
- Maxi Kleber: minus-5.6 off and 15.4 on (21.0)
- J.J. Barea: minus-5.2 off and 12.8 on (18.0)
- Dwight Powell: minus-2.4 off and 14.1 on (16.5)
- Jalen Brunson: 1.4 off and 4.4 on (3.0)
Raise your hand if you expected Maxi Kleber to build on his surprising success as an undrafted rookie with the Dallas Mavericks by becoming a two-way asset during his sophomore season.
No one? Yeah, that's what we thought.
While showing off a developing three-point stroke (33.9 percent on 2.9 attempts per game has him at least trending in the right direction) and holding his own as the last line of defense around the rim, Kleber has submitted positive scores in both the offensive and defensive components of box plus/minus. In fact, only 18 other qualified players have matched or exceeded his scores of 0.2 and 2.0, respectively.
Kleber probably won't develop into a game-changing superstar for the Mavericks. But just blossoming into a useful rotation piece and validating the rookie-year success has been a massive boon. Plus, he's had quite the impact on the success of the team, as you can see by peering at the biggest net-rating swings produced by players who've logged at least 200 minutes:
Kleber has the best on-court net rating of any rotation player, as well as the worst off-court net rating. That has to say something.
Denver Nuggets: Monte Morris
Technically, Monte Morris isn't a rookie. He might as well be one, but he's not classified as such because he played 25 minutes over the course of three games for the Denver Nuggets in 2017-18.
Still, the glaring lack of experience for the No. 51 pick of the 2017 NBA draft makes it all the more surprising that he's proved so important to the Denver cause as a—clears throat—sophomore. Showcasing steady ball-handling ability, historic levels of turnover-averseness and shooting touch from all over the floor, he's functioned as a key reserve for head coach Mike Malone, already trusted to remain on the court in crunch-time situations.
If Morris were just playing 23.9 minutes per game at a modest level, he'd still be a pleasant surprise in the Mile High City. But his importance to the team makes his success even more shocking, as the Nuggets are outscoring opponents by 3.4 points per 100 possessions when he logs run.
Also, calling his turnover-averse play "historic" isn't the least bit hyperbolic. No player has ever submitted a lower turnover percentage with an assist percentage north of 13. Morris' assist percentage is 24.2.
Detroit Pistons: Blake Griffin
Though Blake Griffin is a five-time All-Star and still only 29 years old, he entered the 2018-19 season seemingly on the decline. The burst wasn't quite there, and he'd started taking too many threes at the expense of his typical strengths.
But everything is now coming together.
Buoyed by a red-hot start to his first full campaign with the Detroit Pistons, Griffin is averaging 25.1 points, 9.6 rebounds, 5.1 assists, 0.7 steals and 0.5 blocks while shooting 46.5 percent from the field, 36.7 percent from downtown and 74.6 percent from the stripe. His long-range attempts are swishing through nylon more frequently than ever during the high-volume portion of his career, and that success is bleeding over into other facets of the game as defenders are forced to respect his shot.
During the 2016-17 season, his final complete year with the Los Angeles Clippers, Griffin sat at No. 26 in NBA Math's TPA with a score of 187.03. One go-round later, splitting time between the Pistons and Clippers, he checked in at No. 36 with 110.91 TPA. Now, his 52.97 TPA has him back nearer the top, trailing only 24 players at this early stage of the season.
Playing well should've been expected from Griffin. Turning back the clocks to this extent, however, is surprising.
Golden State Warriors: Alfonzo McKinnie
As Connor Letourneau detailed for the San Francisco Chronicle in mid-October, Alfonzo McKinnie took a unique path to his current role with the Golden State Warriors:
"Three years ago, McKinnie was playing in rec-league-size gymnasiums in Luxembourg with teammates who held down 9-to-5 jobs to pay their rent. Now, at age 26, he has a chance to carve out his NBA niche with the back-to-back champions.
"That there was even a 15-man roster spot for McKinnie to earn required a bit of good fortune. Last month, when he accepted a training-camp invite from Golden State, McKinnie was hoping simply to get the team's remaining two-way contract. The Warriors were planning to enter the season with only 14 players."
But McKinnie hasn't just earned a roster spot at this stage of the NBA season.
With a quarter of the year in the books, he's played 15.7 minutes per game in his 16 appearances while healthy. The Warriors legitimately need his floor-spacing ability since he's knocked down his 1.9 triples per contest at a 48.4 percent clip.
Sure, McKinnie has struggled on the defensive end. He doesn't create many of his own looks, and he rarely functions as a playmaker for his talented teammates when the ball finds its way into his mitts. But so long as he continues converting his spot-up opportunities (1.85 points per possession to sit in the 99.6 percentile), he'll have a home on one of the Association's true contenders.
That's a far cry from Luxembourg.
Houston Rockets: Eric Gordon
Plenty has gone wrong during the Houston Rockets' 9-11 start. The Carmelo Anthony experiment was an unabashed failure. The defense has failed to contest as many shots, convert as many rebounding opportunities or exhibit the principles that made it hum under the direction of assistant coach Jeff Bzdelik, who should be returning to the sidelines in the near future. Injuries have plagued the roster, most notably keeping Chris Paul from looking like his All-NBA self.
But let's not overlook the miserable performances of Eric Gordon.
The 2016-17 Sixth Man of the Year finished second to Lou Williams last year, falling short in his quest to repeat as the award winner. He's not going to earn any votes if he can't turn around this season of futility in a hurry.
Gordon is averaging 16.2 points per game, which seems respectable enough. Unfortunately, that number comes while he shoots 35.6 percent from the field, 28.9 percent from downtown and 80.4 percent from the stripe. His 48.1 true shooting percentage pales in comparison to last year's 57.8, and it would be one of the 10 worst marks earned by qualified scorers who logged at least 15 points per contest in the last decade.
Especially on the heels of the previous two seasons, the severity of this brickfest has to be dumbfounding.
Indiana Pacers: Domantas Sabonis
Maybe we could've reasonably expected further improvement from Domantas Sabonis after he made such major strides during his first season with the Indiana Pacers. But he's continued the astronomical ascent in 2018-19 by going from useful reserve to functioning as one of the best backup bigs in the entire Association.
Frankly, even that designation might be selling him short.
Sabonis is averaging 21.7 points, 14.9 rebounds and 4.7 assists per 36 minutes, which puts him in historic territory. He's the only qualified player in the NBA archives to hit those three marks, and he's doing so while shooting 65.2 percent from the field, keeping his turnovers in check and thriving on the defensive end.
Plus, he fares well in just about every advanced metric you can find.
The Pacers are 5.2 points per 100 possessions better with him on the floor, which is no easy feat when the starting lineup boasts so much talent. NBA Math's TPA gives him the No. 18 score in the league. ESPN.com's RPM is a bit more pessimistic and "only" places him at No. 20. Include playing time, and he sits at No. 38 in RPM Wins.
Even the biggest Sabonis believers couldn't have seen this large a leap coming in such expeditious fashion.
Los Angeles Clippers: Montrezl Harrell
If you don't think Domantas Sabonis is the NBA's best reserve big, you're either pulling for Mason Plumlee (a reasonable surprise candidate for the Denver Nuggets who lost out to Monte Morris in the battle for featured placement) or Montrezl Harrell. All three are justifiable selections at the quarter mark of 2018-19, though the Los Angeles Clippers center might have the best argument with his indefatigable motor that churns out production on both ends of the floor.
Harrell's all-around line is magnificent: 22.7 points, 10.1 rebounds, 2.1 assists, 1.5 steals and 2.5 blocks per 36 minutes while shooting 64.9 percent from the field. His pick-and-roll prowess might be even more impressive, as he's scoring 1.47 points per possession when bursting toward the hoop to register in the 81.3 percentile.
And yet, it's the hustle that stands out most.
If a 50-50 ball emerges, Harrell will be involved. If there's an offensive rebounding opportunity, he'll body up with adversaries to fight for that second chance. If he can jump into a passing lane, he'll chase that deflection or interception, though not at the expense of proper positioning.
Whether Harrell could handle more than 25.8 minutes per game without sacrificing the Energizer Bunny motor that powers him is debatable, but he might not need to. Not when he's found this perfect niche with the Clippers.
Los Angeles Lakers: JaVale McGee
JaVale McGee has never been this effective.
The mercurial center is averaging career highs in points (12.3), assists (1.0), steals (0.9) and blocks (2.9) while shooting 62.2 percent from the field. He's thrived as a rim-protector for the Los Angeles Lakers, swatting away anything that even dreams of testing him on the interior while looking quicker to react than ever before. He's making the right plays on offense, showcasing a newfound level of unselfishness rather than forcing the action in any situation.
He's also more than justified LeBron James' faith in him—faith that was recently relayed by Tim Reynolds of the Associated Press:
"I played against him in the last two NBA Finals, and I wanted him on this team because I know what he brings. It's his energy, his energy level, his ability at the rim and his ability to protect the rim. If you don't have that on your team, you're not going to have much, man. You need to have people with a high IQ, which he's got. That's why I wanted JaVale to be part of this."
Not only has McGee been "part of this," but he's also been rather valuable to the Lakers while filling his biggest role ever for a competitive organization. Their net rating remains positive when he plays, and that's not just a function of operating alongside talented teammates.
Memphis Grizzlies: Marc Gasol
It's time for a mea culpa.
Before the 2018-19 season began, Bleacher Report's Dan Favale and I embarked on a journey to rank the top 100 players in the NBA. We spotted Marc Gasol at No. 61 with the following justification, and that placement hasn't aged well:
"Marc Gasol will have the chance to make this look silly. Or he could make this seem a little too aggressive. Aging bigs are always difficult to place.
"Gasol should be fine on offense. Memphis needs to pare down his post-ups, but he can work over defenses as a standstill passer and shooter. His question marks lie at the other end. Many of Gasol's contemporaries are too explosive and rangy for him to get by on high IQ and positioning alone. The Grizzlies haven't been demonstratively better with him on defense since 2015-16, and it will only get harder for him to make plays from outside the foul line.
"Partnering with Kyle Anderson, a healthy Mike Conley and Jaren Jackson Jr. could keep Gasol afloat. But bigs who don't play like wings on offense are most valuable as defensive fulcrums. Gasol isn't that anymore."
Yep. It looks silly.
Gasol appears wholly reinvigorated this year for a surging Memphis Grizzlies squad. They're four points per 100 possessions better on defense when he plays, and he's simultaneously thrived on offense while earning the league's top mark in ESPN.com's RPM. We're suddenly staring at peak Gasol again, capably directing troops on offense and defense alike while moving into the fringe MVP conversation.
Not bad for the 61st-best player in the Association.
Miami Heat: Rodney McGruder
- Josh Richardson, 1.6 win shares
- Hassan Whiteside, 1.4 win shares
- Bam Adebayo, 1.3 win shares
- Rodney McGruder, 1.1 win shares
- Kelly Olynyk, 0.9 win shares
Rodney McGruder was a sneakily valuable rookie for the Miami Heat during the 2016-17 season, thriving on defense and basically fading into the background whenever his team had the ball. But he'd fallen well under the radar after injuries prevented him from suiting up in more than 18 contests during his follow-up campaign.
Now, that's changed drastically.
Not only has McGruder remained available for head coach Erik Spoelstra, but he's also carved out plenty more offensive responsibilities. His usage rate and assist percentage have both soared, perhaps out of sheer necessity on a team that's dealing with injuries to so many key ball-handlers, and he's handled those burdens admirably by averaging 12.2 points, 5.0 rebounds and 3.4 assists on a 44.1/37.1/73.5 slash line. Those are by no means celestial numbers, but they're enough for him to move into the top five for South Beach win shares:
Considering McGruder's first two campaigns resulted in 3.7 cumulative win shares and he's on pace for 4.5 in 2018-19 alone, he's definitely trending upward.
Milwaukee Bucks: Pat Connaughton
Take a gander at Pat Connaughton's offensive and defensive box plus/minuses throughout his NBA career:
- 2015-16: minus-5.8 OBPM and minus-2.4 DBPM for the Portland Trail Blazers
- 2016-17: minus-0.9 OBPM and minus-1.6 DBPM for the Portland Trail Blazers
- 2017-18: minus-0.9 OBPM and minus-0.4 DBPM for the Portland Trail Blazers
- 2018-19: 1.8 OBPM and 1.5 DBPM for the Milwaukee Bucks
Though the Notre Dame product had gradually improved during his first three professional seasons, he still didn't provide many hints that a breakout like this was in the works. Under the supervision of head coach Mike Budenholzer, he's playing like an above-average contributor on both ends of the floor.
To put that in further perspective, only 15 other qualified players have a score of at least 1.5 in each of the BPM components. That's sparkling territory, even if Connaughton is joining the club while logging just 18.3 minutes per game.
But for even more perspective on just how surprising this is, let's turn to the financial numbers.
Connaughton, originally the No. 41 pick of the 2015 NBA draft for the Brooklyn Nets before inclusion in an offseason deal, was previously operating on his rookie contract for the Blazers. He signed a two-year deal with Milwaukee worth just $3.36 million this summer, and the payouts for 2019-20 aren't even guaranteed.
That, in a nutshell, is how you provide value on an investment.
Minnesota Timberwolves: Derrick Rose
Derrick Rose's success in 2018-19 won't surprise those who stood by him throughout the on-court struggles, and there were plenty of them. His numbers since leaving the Chicago Bulls in 2016 were frequently terrible, and his travails included his disappearance from the New York Knicks, struggles to earn minutes on a shallow Cleveland Cavaliers roster, waiving by the point guard-hungry Utah Jazz and futility in his first season with the Minnesota Timberwolves.
But behind a revamped jumper—he's now shooting on the way up rather than waiting too long to hit his release point—the point guard is turning back the clock in 2018-19. He might not be an MVP candidate and has difficulty playing quality defense, but he's been an unmitigated offensive weapon for head coach Tom Thibodeau, who never hesitates to call the number of the man with whom he's spent so much time in multiple locations.
Rose is averaging 19.0 points, 3.3 rebounds and 4.4 assists while shooting 49.8 percent from the field, 48.6 percent from downtown and 85.5 percent from the stripe. Just as crucially, he's only turning the ball over 1.8 times per contest, demonstrating a mastery of the Thibodeau offense as used in Minnesota.
Last year, Tyus Jones objectively outplayed him. This year, Rose has been, rather easily, the best point guard on the Wolves roster.
New Orleans Pelicans: Julius Randle
Considering the New Orleans Pelicans only gave Julius Randle a two-year deal worth $17.7 million this summer (with a player option for $9.07 million in 2019-20), their expectations for him could only rise so high. Even while emerging from a strange market for players of his size and skill, that's not as large a chunk of change as you typically see allocated to legitimate stars in the Association.
He's exceeded whatever those expectations might have been.
His three-point stroke remains shaky. He still struggles when defenders manage to force him toward his right hand. His interior defense is inconsistent at best. And yet, he's managed to overcome all the notable flaws with relentless physicality and plenty of touch around the basket.
Defenders might know what Randle wants to do with the ball, but he's still averaging 18.1 points, 9.0 rebounds, 2.8 assists, 0.7 steals and 0.6 blocks while shooting 55.6 percent from the field. His accuracy remains universally impressive even when we home in on different areas of the half-court set:
- 0-3 feet: 69.9 percent
- 3-10 feet: 45.6 percent
- 10-16 feet: 46.2 percent
- 16+ two-pointers: 44.4 percent
If that mid-range game sticks, Randle will continue to look unstoppable as a scorer.
New York Knicks: Allonzo Trier
Don't be fooled by the New York Knicks' paltry 7-16 record. This team is still brimming over with surprising youngsters. Noah Vonleh and Emmanuel Mudiay have revived their careers, while Damyean Dotson and Mitchell Robinson have massively exceeded expectations during the early stages of their NBA tenures.
But no surprise has resonated more than Allonzo Trier, who has seamlessly transitioned from latching on as an undrafted rookie out of Arizona to becoming one of the brightest pieces on the New York roster. Seriously, the 22-year-old is averaging 11.8 points, 3.2 rebounds, 1.8 assists, 0.5 steals and 0.4 blocks while slashing 48.7/45.0/81.9, passing the eye test with aplomb and submitting respectable numbers (for a rookie) in the advanced-stat departments.
Trier isn't the most valuable player for the Knicks in 2018-19. He certainly has warts he needs to overcome, most notably on the defensive end and when he gets a bit careless with the ball. He's also benefitting from the lack of scouting reports possessed by other organizations with New York on the schedule.
But the fact that he's contributing so soon into his career is impressive enough. He wasn't one of the 60 prospects taken in the 2018 NBA draft, and he's already moved firmly into contention for one of the 10 coveted spots on All-Rookie outfits, so long as he can agree to a new deal that prevents him from running into two-way restrictions and forced action with the G League representatives.
Oklahoma City Thunder: Nerlens Noel
When the Oklahoma City Thunder inked Nerlens Noel to a two-year minimum contract with a player option for 2019-20, they couldn't have expected much. This was a prove-yourself deal after a year and a half spent floundering with the Dallas Mavericks, subjected to declining minutes and a role that featured less importance than he'd boasted with the Philadelphia 76ers.
He's proved himself.
Noel is still logging a career-low 13.6 minutes per game, but he's excelled during his time on the court, displaying contagious energy levels and a willingness to play to his strengths. That hasn't translated to much offensive production, as defenses can sag back and clog up the paint, daring the big man to attempt mid-range jumpers. It has, however, made the Thunder more potent on the preventing end, where they're allowing 3.1 fewer points per 100 possessions when he's on the floor.
This Kentucky product has always thrived in the steal and block departments, and that hasn't changed in 2018-19. He's logging 2.2 of the former and 3.3 of the latter per 36 minutes, which would allow him to join an exclusive club of qualified players to match both marks:
- 1988-89 Hakeem Olajuwon
- 1991-92 David Robinson
- 2018-19 Nerlens Noel
Maybe Noel hasn't developed into a big-minute stalwart. He certainly has enduring limitations on the scoring side. But his ability to thrive on defense allows him to be used situationally, which could well revitalize his career as an off-the-bench specialist.
Orlando Magic: Nikola Vucevic
What if we told you that a big man was averaging 20.8 points, 11.1 rebounds, 3.9 assists, 1.0 steals and 1.1 blocks while shooting 55.3 percent from the field, 41.0 percent from downtown (on 2.8 attempts per game) and 85.3 percent from the stripe?
What if we told you that he was also turning the ball over only 2.1 times per contest despite shouldering such immense offensive responsibilities? That he was also playing the best defense of his career—stellar enough to earn a 3.0 defensive box plus/minus that ranks No. 24 among all qualified players?
What if we told you that his squad was a team-best 14.0 points per 100 possessions better when he was on the floor? That he stood at No. 11 in ESPN.com's RPM, No. 12 in RPM Wins, No. 11 in win shares and No. 5 in NBA Math's TPA at the quarter mark of the 2018-19 season?
All of this, as you might have guessed, applies to Nikola Vucevic. It's not just rhetorical.
The Orlando Magic center has been an underrated presence in years past, but he's taken his game to that proverbial next level, thrusting himself into consideration not only for an All-Star berth in the Eastern Conference, but also for an All-NBA spot if he maintains this pace throughout the campaign. He's moving more fluidly on defense, showcasing impeccable touch from all over the half-court set and looking more confident than ever as the unquestioned focal point of the Orlando offense.
He's arrived as an unabashed star during his age-28 season.
Philadelphia 76ers: Landry Shamet
A few months ago, Landry Shamet was joining the Philadelphia 76ers as the No. 26 pick of the 2018 NBA draft, working to carve out a role in the rotation of a competitive squad in the Eastern Conference. Now, he's a vital piece playing 21.2 minutes per game and bolstering the offense with his sharpshooting proclivities. Hell, he's even started two games (admittedly, out of injury-mandated necessity).
Shamet's minutes aren't empty either.
The first-year guard is averaging 13.6 points, 2.2 rebounds and 1.8 assists per 36 minutes while slashing 43.4/39.3/86.4, and it's the penultimate number that's most important for head coach Brett Brown's troops. With Joel Embiid most comfortable operating from the blocks and elbows while Ben Simmons continues to showcase range deficiencies, the Sixers have to find floor-spacers capable of keeping defenders honest.
Shamet has been exactly that.
JJ Redick is the lone member of the Philadelphia roster who's drained more triples in 2018-19, and the rookie is outshooting the veteran by 3 percent. The only players more efficient with their long-range attempts have been Jimmy Butler (12-of-22), Amir Johnson (5-of-10) and Wilson Chandler (10-of-25), none of whom have suited up in enough games to demonstrate their actual skill levels from downtown.
Phoenix Suns: Josh Jackson
At what point do we start to worry about Josh Jackson?
At the end of his rookie season with the Phoenix Suns, it seemed like the Kansas standout was turning the corner and developing into an all-around contributor capable of meeting the expectations associated with a top-four pick. But take a gander at the glaring discrepancy between his early numbers in 2018-19 and the ones produced in those final dozen appearances of 2017-18:
- 2017-18 stretch run: 21.8 points, 5.8 rebounds, 2.8 assists, 2.0 steals, 0.6 blocks while slashing 44.2/27.0/67.6
- 2018-19 first quarter: 7.6 points, 2.7 rebounds, 1.6 assists, 0.8 steals, 0.6 blocks while slashing 42.3/28.6/62.9
The shooting figures are still concerning, but Jackson has proved incapable of impacting the proceedings in any positive way while becoming one of the Least Valuable Player candidates of the Association. He's turning the ball over more frequently, failing to get to the basket, settling for floaters and/or mid-range attempts and continuing to struggle a bit on the defensive end. That last area has seen slight improvement, but not enough to justify the offensive slippages.
Potential be damned, minutes might be increasingly tough to come by without serious strides as the season wears on, given the impressive early showings of T.J. Warren and Mikal Bridges.
Portland Trail Blazers: Nik Stauskas
Nik Stauskas has been trending toward becoming a dangerous shooter from the perimeter. He entered 2018-19, his first season with the Portland Trail Blazers, with a career 34.9 percent clip from beyond the arc, but he'd knocked down 36.8 percent of his treys for the Philadelphia 76ers in 2016-17 and an even 40 percent one year later while playing for both the Sixers and the Brooklyn Nets.
Now, he's hitting 40.8 percent of his long-range attempts in Rip City while taking 3.4 attempts per game. Even more importantly, he's learned how to maximize the rest of his offensive game under the supervision of head coach Terry Stotts. By taking fewer long twos and more shots right around the hoop, he's knocking down 46.3 percent of his two-point attempts and becoming more effective with his mid-range attempts.
Sure, the artist known as Sauce Castillo has cooled a bit in November. But if an 18-point outing against the Orlando Magic on Nov. 28 is any indication, he's just biding his time, waiting to be called upon to again fill a bigger offensive role.
At the very least, he's gone from fringe NBA talent signing on with Portland for one year and $1.6 million to looking the part of a viable bench scorer with the potential to catch fire on any given night.
Sacramento Kings: Nemanja Bjelica
Though Nemanja Bjelica was a stealthily effective player in moderate minutes for the Minnesota Timberwolves over the course of his three-year stint, this massive breakout couldn't have been predicted. Even if you thought he was bound to improve for the Sacramento Kings (a tough sell, considering he was entering a situation that featured an overload of players at the frontcourt positions), you surely couldn't have forecast a jump to prominence quite like this.
Just to drive that home, here are Bjelica's season-long scores in NBA Math's TPA throughout his NBA career. Keep in mind that we're only dealing with a quarter of the 2018-19 campaign, which means his current mark will quadruple if he maintains the current pace:
- 2015-16: 6.4 (No. 139)
- 2016-17: minus-25.8 (No. 296)
- 2017-18: 13.71 (No. 122)
- 2018-19: 41.12 (No. 36)
The Kings are allowing the 30-year-old to make the most of his 6'10" frame as a floor-stretching playmaker, and it's working. As head coach Dave Joerger explained, per Alex Kramers of Kings.com, the team wants Bjelica to shoot over the top of undersized defenders:
"I need him to shoot the ball over the top of the defense to give us more space, which is a big priority for us, with trying to give De'Aaron Fox as much space as possible.
"I used to always laugh at Mike Miller, who's a good friend of mine. I'd rebound and throw it out to him, and pretend I was going to contest his shot. He used to always laugh. 'What are you going to do, Joegs? Grow?' When you have that size, you can get the ball up and you're just looking over the top of people, it makes the game a lot easier for everybody."
Well, the game sure seems easier for Bjelica, who's knocking down 54.3 percent of his field-goal attempts and a staggering 51.5 percent of his triples.
San Antonio Spurs: LaMarcus Aldridge
This isn't the expected encore following a resurgent season that may well have been a career year.
Everything clicked for LaMarcus Aldridge during his third go-round with the San Antonio Spurs. He was able to thrive in Kawhi Leonard's extended absence, expanding his scoring arsenal, taking over games from the elbows, knocking down the occasional triple, making frequent trips to the charity stripe and managing to hold his own defensively. The team was 7.3 points per 100 possessions better with him on the floor, and those gains were justified by his score of 3.14 in ESPN.com's RPM—No. 31 overall.
This season...not so much.
Aldridge has been an unmitigated offensive liability still trying to fill a high-volume role. His woeful shooting (43.2 percent from the field and no makes in nine deep attempts) has actively harmed the Spurs' efforts, as they're 4.4 points per 100 possessions worse when he plays—both because his scoring struggles fail to elevate the offensive ceiling and because of his inability to remain active on defense. Again, RPM validates the swing, this time with a score of minus-3.04 that leaves him at No. 404 among 438 listed players.
As Bleacher Report's Dan Favale wrote while listing Aldridge among those with "superstar-money troubles" in his look at the NBA's most overpaid underperformers, spacing could be a central issue here:
"Cramped spacing is no doubt a culprit. The Spurs are third in three-point success rate but rank 28th in attempts per 100 possessions. DeMar DeRozan has helped alleviate Aldridge's workload without making his job any easier. He's shooting better with DeRozan on the court, but defenses can more freely double-team him so long as San Antonio is averse to jacking up the three-point volume."
It's the mention of DeRozan that's most key, because that issue might not get better anytime soon.
Toronto Raptors: Pascal Siakam
Allow us to turn the microphone over to HoopsHype's Frank Urbina:
"[Pascal] Siakam's got a really unique game, with a tight ball-handle, quick spin moves and newly developed pull-up shooting touch to go with his freakish length and athleticism. And it's thanks to all of those distinctive traits that Siakam is able to do a bit of everything on the floor. As proof, we can point to the fact that Synergy rates him as 'excellent' in four completely distinct play types: transition scoring, isolation scoring, posting up and as the pick-and-roll ball-handler. In addition, his swing rating (a ridiculous +16.6) is one of the top marks in the NBA among rotational players."
At this point, what can't Pascal Siakam do?
After excelling as a defensive role player who occasionally chipped in with spot-up jumpers and rim-running dives during the 2017-18 campaign, he's become an even more integral part of the Toronto Raptors machine, showcasing an expanding game driven by his newfound ability to create for himself. He required setup feeds on 66.7 and 68.8 percent of his made twos as a rookie and sophomore, respectively, but that number is down to 46.2 percent in 2018-19. Moreover, he's made the first unassisted triples of his career.
Siakam is producing an All-Star-level impact even without the requisite touches. And that's perhaps the best news of all north of the border: He seems content with his meager 9.1 field-goal attempts per game, instead thriving in all other situations and making the most of the touches he does receive while properly deferring to Kyle Lowry and Kawhi Leonard.
Utah Jazz: Donovan Mitchell
Donovan Michell was supposed to build on his excellent rookie campaign by solidifying himself as a reliable go-to scorer for the Utah Jazz. Instead, he's struggled to find his footing while greeted with extra defensive attention and surrounded by a supporting cast that's incapable of drawing away some of that omnipresent surveillance.
His field-goal percentage has fallen from 43.7 to 42.4 percent. His three-point percentage has plummeted from 34.0 to 28.9 percent. Even his free-throw percentage has trended in the wrong direction, dropping from 80.5 to 80.0 percent. Correspondingly, a Jazz outfit that scored an additional 6.7 points per 100 possessions when he was on the floor in 2017-18 has seen its offensive rating rise by about half as much when he plays this year—elevating to a much lower mark as well.
Mitchell has plenty of time to turn this around. He's only 22 years old, after all. Plus, we've already seen him submit a few standout performances—most notably, his 38-spot in an early-season win over the Houston Rockets.
But thus far, he's been massively disappointing and a legitimate reason the Jazz haven't been able to ascend the Western Conference hierarchy. He's by no means the only reason, but the offense would surely prefer for him to catch fire and start making the shots that dropped during his rookie calendar.
Washington Wizards: Jeff Green
Though the Washington Wizards' season has largely been a disappointing mess of chemistry disasters and on-court malfeasance, Jeff Green has functioned as an unexpected bright spot. His per-game line of 10.5 points, 5.0 rebounds, 1.3 assists, 0.7 steals and 0.5 blocks might not stand out, but it's come with a semblance of efficiency and defensive effort, allowing him to perform more like the two-way asset he's hinted at becoming for years.
Green's 59.9 true shooting percentage is the high-water mark for his NBA career, breaking the personal record established last year with the Cleveland Cavaliers (58.7). He's never rebounded the ball this effectively, and it's actually a good thing that he's posting an all-time low in usage rate. Freed from ball-handling and scoring responsibilities, he's been able to focus his efforts on making plays in other facets of the game.
He might not be a star, but he's doing the little things that make his team better.
The Wizards see their net rating improve by 7.9 points per 100 possessions when he's on the floor, which gives him the best swing of any rotation member in the nation's capital; only Okaro White and Troy Brown Jr. are ahead on the roster, but they've combined for just 48 minutes.
Adam Fromal covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @fromal09.