The Most Surprising Player Starts to 2019-20 NBA Season

Zach Buckley@@ZachBuckleyNBANational NBA Featured ColumnistNovember 5, 2019

The Most Surprising Player Starts to 2019-20 NBA Season

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    Every NBA season brings new surprises. The 2019-20 iteration is no different.

    Who had the Miami Heat in their preseason top five? Or the Golden State Warriors plummeting to the bottom five?

    The surprises only grow in quantity when the focus shifts to individual players.

    Plenty of hoopers are doing unexpected things, but since we're savoring the taste of early-season optimism, we'll only focus on the positive developments.

    With the following five players, said developments are more positive than anyone could've imagined.


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Malcolm Brogdon, G, Indiana Pacers

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    Save for a few bouts with the injury bug, Malcolm Brogdon brought very few risks with him to the Indiana Pacers. He was one of the top plug-and-play options available, as he already established himself as a multipositional defender, knockdown sniper (he joined the 50-40-90 club last season) and complementary playmaker.

    But the trade-off was less of a potential reward than one would assume from a player inked to a four-year, $85 million pact. He had never averaged 16 points or five assists, and with his 27th birthday coming in December, there weren't many reasons to think he'd nudge his ceiling significantly higher.

    Or so we thought.

    Pressed into a prominent role by Victor Oladipo's absence, Brogdon rocketed out of the gate with a 22-point, 11-assist debut⁠—only the second 20-10 outing of his career⁠—and hasn't slowed down since.

    After tallying only 19 games with 20-plus points over his three seasons with the Milwaukee Bucks, Brogdon has already had five in Indy. He tallied double-digit assists three times with the Bucks, but he's done it four times in only six games with the Pacers.

    "He's been unreal," Pacers wing Doug McDermott said, per Sky Sports' Stuart Hodge. "... We're following his lead, he's putting up some crazy numbers quietly and he's reliable every night."

    Brogdon is one of three players averaging 22 points, nine assists and five rebounds, joining LeBron James and Luka Doncic. Catch-all metrics like player efficiency rating (27.7, 15th leaguewide) and win shares (1.1, 11th) value Brogdon as one of the Association's top 20 talents.

    His trajectory isn't simply trending up; it might send him to the moon.

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, G, Oklahoma City Thunder

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    The Oklahoma City Thunder had massive hopes for Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. That was evident the second they made him one of the centerpieces in this summer's Paul George trade.

    But even OKC should be impressed by the style and substance of Gilgeous-Alexander's instant impact.

    He wasn't supposed to be a big-time scorer. B/R's Jonathan Wasserman likened SGA to pass-first, defensive-minded players Elfrid Payton and Shaun Livingston heading into the 2018 NBA draft.

    No one bothered to tell Gilgeous-Alexander, who totaled 54 points over his first two games with the Thunder and hasn't let his foot off the gas yet.

    He earned a spot on the All-Rookie team last season, and he's more than doubled his scoring output this year (from 10.8 to 21.8). He's tied for 21st in the NBA in points per game, ahead of notable names like Russell Westbrook, Stephen Curry, DeMar DeRozan and D'Angelo Russell.

    Although Gilgeous-Alexander is taking almost twice as many shots as he did last season, his field-goal percentage hasn't dropped too precipitously (from 47.6 to 46.1). Meanwhile, his three-point conversion rate is slightly up (from 36.7 to 37.9) even though he has nearly tripled his nightly attempts. He has already matched last season's total with five games of seven-plus rebounds, too.

    "Shai has been unbelievable, aggressive," fellow Thunder point guard Chris Paul said, per Erik Horne of The Athletic.

    If there were any doubts about the face of this rebuild, they've already been erased. SGA is OKC, and vice versa.

Brandon Ingram, F, New Orleans Pelicans

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    The New Orleans Pelicans have mostly been a mess to start the season.

    Star rookie Zion Williamson is hurt. Jrue Holiday and JJ Redick are both shooting below 40 percent from the field. The defense is second-worst leaguewide. The loss column is predictably swelling at an alarming rate.

    But there is a saving grace for the Big Easy, and it's one that could pay major dividends down the line. Brandon Ingram, the No. 2 pick in 2016, is finally taking the leap.

    When the Pels landed Ingram in the Anthony Davis megadeal, it was unclear what they received. Injuries and inconsistency kept him from ever finding a rhythm with the Los Angeles Lakers, and struggles with his outside shot made it fair to question whether he'd ever realize his drool-worthy potential.

    Seven games won't silence that question, but he's checking the most necessary boxes in his development. Namely, he has skyrocketed his three-point shooting by volume (5.0 attempts per game compared to 2.0 over the last three seasons) and efficiency (48.6 percent compared to 32.9).

    Since Ingram already had a strong inside-the-arc game and a knack for table-setting, his newfound ability to space the floor makes him a matchup problem all over the court.

    "He is now playing the most decisive basketball of his career," CBS Sports' Sam Quinn wrote. "He is averaging career highs in points, rebounds and assists. At his current pace, he will garner serious consideration for an All-Star selection, if not an All-NBA nod."

    If Ingram maintains this pace, he'll be only the 16th player ever to average at least 25 points, seven rebounds, four assists and one block. Throw out his injury-shortened sixth game, and he'd have a 29/7/4/1 line that only five players have ever posted.

    This version of Ingram looks like the ideal costar for Williamson. The Pelicans should already be budgeting for the 2020 restricted free agent's next contract.

Kendrick Nunn, G, Miami Heat

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    Raise your hand if you had heard of Kendrick Nunn before this season. Now, lower your hand if you're a relative or close friend of his.

    No hands left up? Yeah, that's what we thought.

    The undrafted rookie began his college career at Illinois, but the Illini dismissed him after he pleaded guilty to misdemeanor battery. He finished second nationwide to Trae Young in points per game during his senior season at Oakland, although he didn’t get a ton of national credit for dominating Horizon League defenders.

    So, Nunn spent all but the final day of last season with the G League Santa Cruz Warriors before the Heat snatched him up. He then dazzled in summer league, impressed in training camp and somehow trumped both once the regular season began. To wit, he had more points during his first five games than any undrafted player in league history.

    "Just another day at the office," Nunn said after he erupted for 28 points against the Atlanta Hawks on Thursday, per Ira Winderman of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel. "I'm confident in doing it and being aggressive. So I'm going to give it to you every night."

    Nunn is the leading scorer on the 5-1 Heat at 19.5 points per game even though he laid a five-point dud against the Houston Rockets on Sunday. He's 34th leaguewide in scoring, ahead of notable names like Kevin Love, De'Aaron Fox, Jamal Murray and Khris Middleton. He's also sporting a tidy 48.4/44.4/100.0 shooting slash.

    There are other early-season surprises, but none as shocking as Nunn's rapid rise.

Pascal Siakam, F, Toronto Raptors

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    Last season was Pascal Siakam's formal introduction to casual NBA fans. He obliterated all of his career highs, secured Most Improved Player honors and costarred in the Toronto Raptors' first-ever run to a world title.

    Apparently, that wasn't enough. 

    If 2018-19 was Siakam's breakout, then 2019-20 will be his takeover.

    He wasn't supposed to be a scorer. In a 2016 breakdown at DraftExpress, Josh Riddell said Siakam wasn't "a highly skilled offensive player" or "much of a jump shooter" and noted that "his passes don't usually lead directly to scoring opportunities."

    None of those assessments seemed off-base at the time, or even over Siakam's first two seasons, when he averaged 6.0 points and 1.3 assists and made only 30 threes in 136 games. Even last year, he was more good than great on offense with per-game contributions of 16.9 points, 3.1 assists and 1.0 threes (on 36.9 percent shooting).

    But this year? Sheesh. He's resetting all previously held expectations and presenting a convincing case that he can pilot a formidable attack.

    His scoring average has ballooned to 26.0 points per night, 12th-highest in the league. He's suddenly splashing 2.3 triples per game at a 42.4 percent clip. His 3.3 assists are tied for the eighth-most among players 6'9" or taller. He's one of only five players averaging 25 points and three assists while shooting 48-plus percent from the field.

    "It used to be if you can keep him out of the corners and take away the spin, force him left, you could contain him," a longtime NBA scout told SI.com's Chris Mannix. "Now that [strategy] is totally out the window."

    The effective strategy now is...to be determined. Or maybe nonexistent. Siakam appears destined for superstardom, and even the most optimistic expectations for him surely fell short of that.

                       

    All stats, unless otherwise noted, used courtesy of NBA.com and Basketball Reference and current through games played on November 4.

    Zach Buckley covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @ZachBuckleyNBA.