Best Opening Weeks from NBA's Top Stars

Dan Favale@@danfavaleFeatured ColumnistOctober 30, 2019

Best Opening Weeks from NBA's Top Stars

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    Kathy Willens/Associated Press

    The NBA is back. Like, back back. The games have started to matter. Preseason predictions are already being turned to ash. Surprises and disappointments and confusion abound.

    Basically, small samples have resumed their annual tug-of-war with our brains.

    What's real? What's a facade? Is Stephen Curry's legacy really about to be relitigated? Are the San Antonio Spurs an awakened giant or a sleeping smokescreen? Are the Charlotte Hornets actually watchable? Is Malcolm Brogdon leading the league in assists per game on purpose?

    Our advice: Take a break from the bit-sample bedlam and what it means in the grander scheme and just appreciate the moment.

    On that note, we cannonball into the league's best 2019-20 debuts from its highest-profile names.

    Anyone who appeared in the top 50 of our final NBA 100 ranking is eligible for inclusion. Maybe this is an arbitrary cutoff. Whatever. We're already over it. Star designations can be handed out only so haphazardly, and if anything, this scope is guilty of journeying too far into the weeds.

    Standout debuts are, as always, subjectively identified. But we're not here to hero-worship the traditional superstars and call it a day. We want the big names who are turning in even-bigger-than-expected performances or lines well outside their own ordinary. These opening-week detonations have been ranked in order of increasing dominance and not necessarily by their sustainability.

Honorable Mentions

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    Brian Sevald/Getty Images

    Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks

    Sadly, no, Giannis Antetokounmpo is not an early candidate to participate in the NBA's three-point contest. But he is shooting 4-of-7 on mid-range jumpers and, above all, tossing out nine assists per game.

    If anyone not named Russell Westbrook is going to average a triple-double, it's him. (Related: It probably won't be him.)

           

    Jimmy Butler, Miami Heat

    Jimmy Butler's numbers entering Monday night: 0 points, 0 rebounds, 0 assists, 0 steals, 0 blocks, 1 baby daughter named Rylee

    Fred VanVleet went kaboom after the birth of his son during the postseason. Butler seems like the type of NBA dad who will do the same.

           

    Andre Drummond, Detroit Pistons

    Andre Drummond is taking guys off the dribble and finishing reverse layups, and I'm not sure how to feel about it.

    Then again, he's shooting 62.3 percent on twos and averaging a career-high 21 points per game in Blake Griffin's absence. That's pretty wild, even if his output comes for an unspectacular Pistons offense that somehow ranks secondsecond—in true shooting percentage.

          

    Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers

    Joel Embiid isn't exactly journeying off the beaten path. He's committed too many turnovers, butchered interior defenses and even missed a game. You know, the usual.

    Still, he's shooting 60.9 percent on twos, including a 5-of-7 clip on post-ups. And the Sixers, despite remaining undefeated, continue to lose the minutes in which he's not on the court. This song will never get old.

           

    LeBron James, Los Angeles Lakers

    Is this the year LeBron James averages 10 assists per game?

    The answer is a rollicking maybe.

          

    Donovan Mitchell, Utah Jazz

    Utah may be waiting on Mike Conley to hit, but Donovan Mitchell is on no such time delay. He's opened the season averaging 24 points while canning 43.8 percent of his three-pointers, taking more of his shots at the rim and getting to the charity stripe at a higher clip.

    Think of what Mitchell will do once someone other than Bojan Bogdanovic starts finding the bottom of the net.

           

    Kristaps Porzingis, Dallas Mavericks

    So much for Kristaps Porzingis needing to work off the rust that supposedly comes with not playing meaningful basketball for about 21 months. He's averaging 26.3 points and 2.7 blocks while downing 40.9 percent of his triples.

    Oh, he's also dishing out—dramatic pause—3.3 assists per game. Dumping the ball off to Luka Doncic is a luxury, but Porzingis has made a couple of niftier reads finding non-superstar cutters and shooters.

5. Pascal Siakam, Toronto Raptors

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    Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images

    Does anyone still think Pascal Siakam isn't worth his four-year max extension?

    Toronto is using him as an offensive crutch following Kawhi Leonard's departure. This transition into the spotlight has been equally stark and encouraging. His usage rate has jumped by more than 11 points, but the increase is neither in vain nor to his own detriment. Siakam is averaging 27.5 points per game while posting a true shooting percentage above 60.

    Almost everything about his game is being amplified and stretched.

    The Raptors have him running pick-and-rolls more frequently, and he's needed to diversify his shot selection. After spending previous seasons living in the corners, Siakam is now taking most of his triples above the break, from where he's shooting 53.3 percent. While his drives were once a tool to capitalize on space and off-balance defenses, they are now a means of creating both.

    Stepping into the No. 1 spot has not come without collateral damage. Nor has Siakam been perfect. As Raptors HQ's Jacob M. Mack wrote, he's still adjusting to the extra volume and attention:

    "Siakam has had some issues with his new offensive responsibilities that have manifested in predictable ways. He's become much more turnover prone, running a negative assist-to-turnover ratio, clearly unused to some of his new playmaking responsibilities. Those additional playmaking responsibilities have also made Siakam much more prone to offensive fouls than he's been in the past. That doesn't just mean turnovers, it means foul-trouble, and in the case of opening night it meant he fouled of the game.

    "Siakam's scoring efficiency has also slipped inside the arc, as his number is being called more often in the post. Siakam post-ups used to be opportunistic, taking advantage of mismatches; now they're one of the Raptors' first options for halfcourt offense."

    If this is what Siakam's growing pains look like in a role that's fit for a top-15 player, the Raptors will take it. There might be a lower-key normal to which he inevitably regresses, but his floor is quickly becoming that of a star.

    His ceiling? That's probably somewhere between what we're seeing now and, based on how well he's handled his rapid role expansion, a level not yet reached.

4. Kawhi Leonard, Los Angeles Clippers

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    Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

    It turns out saddling Kawhi Leonard with more pick-and-roll responsibility is a good idea.

    Four games is four games is four games. We know. But in the absence of a more conventional floor general, the Los Angeles Clippers have Leonard initiating more pick-and-rolls than ever. He's averaging 10.5 possessions per game as the ball-handler, a mark that easily eclipses his volume from years past:

    • 2018-19: 6.3
    • 2017-18 (nine games): 4.4 
    • 2016-17: 5.6
    • 2015-16: 2.5

    Leonard has responded to extra burn as the primary setup man by averaging 7.5 dimes per game, in addition to scoring about as much as he did with the Toronto Raptors. People have long waited for him to make the Kevin Durant assist leap. This is something else.

    So many of Leonard's dimes aren't even coming off traditional pick-and-rolls. The Clippers have non-bigs setting and slipping screens to coax defenses into double-teaming the ball-handler. Leonard has punished those decisions regularly.

    Paul George's eventual return from offseason shoulder surgery should eat into the assist party. Or maybe not. Leonard will still be the primary ball-handler, and George is yet another shooting option for him to find on the court.

    Either way, don't think that far ahead. For now, just enjoy Point Kawhi, who at this moment has roughly zero weaknesses in his game.

3. Kyrie Irving, Brooklyn Nets

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    Joe Murphy/Getty Images

    Here are Kyrie Irving's lines from his first three games as a member of the Brooklyn Nets:

    • Oct. 23 vs. Minnesota: 50 points, eight rebounds, seven assists, 17-of-33 shooting, 7-of-14 on threes
    • Oct. 25 vs. New York: 26 points, two rebounds, five assists, 8-of-19 shooting, 2-of-8 on threes
    • Oct. 27 at Memphis: 37 points, seven rebounds, seven assists, 11-of-27 shooting, 5-of-12 on threes

    Two of those performances are patently unfair. The one that's a little more human, from the Nets' win over the New York Knicks, saw Irving hit a Finals-style game-winner.

    He is having the kind of start to the season that makes you go, "What the what?"

    Anyone waiting for Irving to regress must figure out from where that fall is coming. His usage should dip, but the Nets need the nuclear-aggressive version of their star point guard until at least next year, when Kevin Durant will enter the fold. His 45.6/41.2/93.1 shooting slash seems unreal, but it isn't that far off from his career pace (46.5/39.0/87.6).

    Maybe he starts getting to the foul line less. His free-throw-attempt rate has almost doubled from last season without a significant increase in volume at the rim. But head coach Kenny Atkinson likes his guards to attack downhill and crash the glass. Irving's charity-stripe cameos and rebounding totals could both be here to stay.

    Pecking-order pileups complicated his time with the Boston Celtics. The Nets' hierarchy is simpler. Everything goes through Irving, almost without an alternative. This year may be the most unleashed—and therefore unburdened—he's ever been.

2. Trae Young, Atlanta Hawks

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    Scott Cunningham/Getty Images

    Trae Young is ferrying yet another ridiculous workload, only this time his offensive burden is colossal by proven-star standards. (Note: He suffered a right ankle injury in Monday's game against the Miami Heat and will get an MRI after X-rays came back negative, per ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski.)

    No one who has logged at least 50 total minutes thus far has a higher usage rate. More than 61 percent of Young's three-pointers have gone unassisted, an increase over last year's 57.7 percent share. For context's sake, Kyrie Irving, Stephen Curry and Kemba Walker are all putting in more assisted treys.

    Not surprisingly, Young is likewise taking more than half his shots with a defender between two and four feet from his person. Devin Booker isn't dealing with that type of strain this season. Nor is Kawhi Leonard.

    That Young entered Monday's injury-shortened outing averaging 34 points and nine assists on 65.9 percent true shooting is remarkable even this early. His turnovers are still an issue, but short-circuited possessions are the price of ungoverned playmaking in its infancy. He has shown he can control the pace of games, squeeze passes through tight pockets, sneak lobs above trees and throw full-court bombs.

    Defenses have to guard Young's vision for a full 94 feet. They have to guard against his shot the moment he crosses the timeline. Even his lack of size barely holds him back. Finishing around the rim can be a chore, but he's perfected the release on his floater.

    Little is clear this early into the season, but this we know for sure: The answer to Young's offense doesn't exist.

1. Karl-Anthony Towns, Minnesota Timberwolves

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    Kathy Willens/Associated Press

    Karl-Anthony Towns can't be real. He just, like, can't be. 

    And yet, he is. And somehow, the Minnesota Timberwolves are only just now realizing—or choosing to acknowledge—the extent to which he can carry their offense.

    Through his first three games, all victories, Towns is averaging a preposterous 32.0 points, 13.3 rebounds and 5.0 assists on 65.9 percent true shooting. Though the Timberwolves once shied away from letting him wander outside the paint, head coach Ryan Saunders has given him the greenest light possible.

    Towns has parlayed that license for volume into 9.7 three-point attempts per game, which he's drilling at a probably unsustainable 51.7 percent clip. (Then again, are we really sure it's unsustainable?)

    These aren't strictly heavily assisted deep balls he's hitting, either. Over 20 percent of Towns' threes are coming off the dribble. He's employed more off-the-bounce work in general. He wasn't kidding when he said he'd been working on his step-back jumper. Ask the Nets.

    All this and Towns is still burning through more post-ups than anyone except LaMarcus Aldridge and Joel Embiid while averaging as many assists as Draymond Green.

    And in case you're wondering, he's not racking up gimmie dimes, a la Kristaps Porzingis. He's throwing passes out of double-teams that are more than one defensive rotation away, letting plays develop around him and tossing some gems on the move. He uncorked an outlet pass against the Charlotte Hornets on Oct. 25 that would've made Kevin Love proud.

    Keep this up and Towns just might turn the Timberwolves into this season's darling team while stealing some MVP consideration in the process.

    Unless otherwise noted, stats courtesy of NBA.com, Basketball Reference or Cleaning the Glass and accurate entering games on Monday.

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

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