The 25 Best Starts from NBA's Best Young Stars and Prospects
It is never a bad time to celebrate the NBA's youngsters.
Diving into the fountain of youth and inexperience is an especially instructive exercise this early. It is a barometer for so many different things: familiar faces, new names, surprise standouts, the future of the league, which up-and-comers are officially stars or on the cusp of stardom and much, much more.
Ranking these starts to the year can feel a bit icky. Players are on different tracks. They cannot be judged on the same curve. Jamal Murray does not deserve more credit for maintaining his status quo than Devonte' Graham does for his sophomore-year explosion.
In order to navigate that absence of uniformity, every player will be judged according to the following question: How impressed should we be by their onset performance relative to expectations? This is by no means an infallible method, but it allows us to put, say, OG Anunoby ahead of Jayson Tatum without people interpreting that decision as Anunoby being better than Tatum.
Players also cannot be beyond their age-22 seasons (i.e. they won't turn 23 before Feb. 1) or must be in their rookie or sophomore campaigns to receive consideration. This might seem arbitrary, and perhaps it is. But it lets us focus on the youngest and least experienced players while avoiding those on their second contracts (like Devin Booker, who would absolutely belong here, near the top, if he weren't 23).
Staying power is still part of the calculus. Neither Murray nor De'Aaron Fox (now injured) has been at their very best to start the season, but they're still fringe stars in general. That matters.
Sample sizes are similarly important. Robert Williams III has enjoyed plenty of nice moments, but he's averaging comfortably under 20 minutes per game. Deandre Ayton (suspended) has not played in enough games, and John Collins (also suspended) won't be returning to the Atlanta Hawks anytime soon. They're bounced from this discussion, too.
Dallas Mavericks Defensive and Player Development coach, God Shammgod, joins “The Full 48 with Howard Beck” to discuss New York basketball and culture, today’s NBA style of play, his childhood love of the New York Knicks, the art of dribbling versus ball handling, coaching, and his friendship with Kobe Bryant.
25. Anfernee Simons, Portland Trail Blazers
Doling out this final spot was neither an easy nor a quick process. Many (many) candidates were considered.
Rookie Matisse Thybulle seemed like a lock while he was ruining lives on defense. But then the Philadelphia 76ers jettisoned him from the rotation. Including him after consecutive DNPs felt weird.
RJ Barrett appeared to be a similarly deserving possibility until he came down with a case of Plays for the New York Knicks. Hamidou Diallo and Darius Bazley each snagged a few seconds of contemplation. Valiant efforts were made to force-include Jaren Jackson Jr., Lauri Markkanen and Landry Shamet, but they fell short.
Mitchell Robinson and Ivica Zubac, like Robert Williams III, haven't played high-volume minutes consistently enough. Zach Collins' shoulder injury wedged him into the "Not a large enough sample size" category.
Kevin Huerter needs to string together more outings like he had against the Portland Trail Blazers and Sacramento Kings. Duncan Robinson is a plus-minus superhero but has gone cold from the floor. Frank Ntilikina forever. Josh Okogie has cooled off on offense but is free to get big mad.
In the end, leaving off Anfernee Simons became impossible.
He has a long way to go defensively before Portland's three-guard unit can become a staple, and the Blazers need him to improve his playmaking if he's ever going to successfully float lineups without Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum. But his shot-making is the real deal.
Simons is averaging 11.9 points in just over 20 minutes per game. He's drilling 58.7 percent of his twos and dropping in a nice mix of unassisted and assisted three-pointers. His 40.5 percent clip from deep holds true on both pull-up and catch-and-shoot opportunities, and he's shooting 6-of-14 (42.9 percent) on triples when burning through three or more dribbles.
Consider this a conservative placement for Simons. Get mad about it, even. He'll warrant much more fanfare if his role expands in the near term.
24. Kevin Knox, New York Knicks
Kevin Knox was the billboard for inefficiency last year. Among the 78 players who finished with a usage rate higher than 22, his effective field-goal percentage ranked...78th.
This season counts as a turnaround. So far.
Knox is still shooting under 40 percent on twos but has increased his three-point-attempt rate and cleaned up his plays to nowhere. His 43.9 percent deep clip is a functional windfall, and though the Knicks aren't plumbing his playmaking as often as they did in the preseason, he's making quicker decisions and getting better within the offensive flow. His average time of possession is roughly half of what it was last year.
Attempting a smaller percentage of his shots at the rim could be a red flag, but the Knicks' floor balance is so often out of whack, and he's actually getting to the line more. He ranks in the 82nd percentile of shooting fouls drawn. Now if only he were hitting more than 67.9 percent of his freebies.
Most defensive-impact metrics don't support this, but Knox is playing like more of an asset at the less-glamorous end. He's forcing turnovers as the helper and short-circuiting scoring opportunities around the basket. That New York has lowered his minutes from last season verges on criminal.
23. Jarrett Allen, Brooklyn Nets
Jarrett Allen's third season is unfolding in predictable terms: somewhat under the radar, but mostly in a way that confirms the Brooklyn Nets had little business signing DeAndre Jordan over the summer.
Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving paid out of pocket to help land him. I get it. Maybe a more accurate—and definitely a kinder—way of putting this would be: Allen is playing well enough to render Jordan less than necessary.
The Nets are getting outscored by 15.2 points per 100 possessions with Jordan on the court. Their net rating with Allen is a plus-6.5. That 21.7-point swing would mean something no matter what. But for a team that's a minus-0.8 per 100 possessions overall, it is actually everything.
Opponents are shooting 59.4 percent against Allen inside six feet of the basket, a top-15 mark among all players challenging at least five shots per game within that area. Jordan rates better in that department, but on about half the volume.
Allen and Jordan both rank among the league leaders in screen assists per 36 minutes, but the former affords the Nets more scoring options. He is the smarter offensive rebounder and has more range. Jordan is the better rim roller.
Greater separation really starts to form on the defensive end.
Jordan makes sense for the Nets insofar as he can tussle with the burlier centers who have historically overpowered Allen. He has helped on occasions and no-showed on others. Opponents get a lower percentage of their looks at the rim with him on the floor, but he's struggled against Domantas Sabonis, Karl-Anthony Towns (duh), Jonas Valanciunas and even Taj Gibson.
This isn't meant to imply Jordan stinks. Allen is just better—and a much more sensible defensive fit for a Nets squad that also needs its big to contest shots and make plays on the perimeter.
22. Thomas Bryant, Washington Wizards
At the risk of oversimplifying his performance this season, Thomas Bryant is just, like, better.
The crux of his value is still the same. He works on the defensive glass, will generate the occasional second-chance opportunity, can make plays in transition and is a quality pick-and-roll diver. He is averaging 13.9 screen-assist points per 36 minutes, up from 10.0 last season, and 1.36 points per possession as the roll man (87th percentile).
Absent loftier expectations and a roster that warrants them, the Washington Wizards are pushing Bryant's offensive bill even further. Questionable spacing has necessitated he attempt fewer of his shots at the rim. More threes and mid-range jumpers have replaced those looks, and the results are mixed.
Bryant is draining just 26.1 percent of his treys, but his elevated volume has value, and he's banging in 33.3 percent of his corner triples. He's shooting a stellar 45 percent on all mid-rangers.
Washington will never fool itself into believing Bryant can anchor a top-tier defense, but he's getting better. His foul rate has dropped since last season, and opponents are hitting 57.1 percent of their shots at the rim against him, down from 62.3 percent in 2018-19.
21. Jayston Tatum, Boston Celtics
Jayson Tatum is no longer the lightning rod he became last season.
It helps that he's not being pitted against other eventual Anthony Davis trade package members. Last year's drop-off was also overblown. Mostly, though, the Boston Celtics are having an easier time equalizing their offense without Kyrie Irving.
No one has benefited more from that clarity than Tatum. His 19.4 points and 2.3 assists per game still come on a below-average true shooting percentage, but he's hitting some of the most important notes. He's converting 38.5 percent of his pull-up threes and averaging 1.5 points per possession in transition (93rd percentile).
All the usual questions remain. Can he get to the rim more? Draw more fouls? Make better decisions on drives? Do a better job changing directions off the bounce? Headline an offense on his own?
That last one is immediately the most pressing. Gordon Hayward is set to miss six weeks after undergoing surgery on a fractured left hand, per ESPN's Tim Bontemps, and Boston has mustered just 88.4 points per 100 possessions in the limited time Tatum has played without both him and Kemba Walker.
Those samples will expand in the interim. The Celtics need more from their all-Tatum stretches. At the same time, he's splashing in threes on career-high volume and leveraging a more efficient jumper off the dribble. The dud he turned in against the Dallas Mavericks on Monday notwithstanding, Tatum's start to the season is hardly problematic.
20. Jamal Murray, Denver Nuggets
Jamal Murray makes the cut by default. He has not played above his mean, but his baseline is so high to begin with that anything close to it bears mentioning.
Put another way: This good young player is still good.
Murray's numbers are basically a carbon copy from last season. He's averaging 18.8 points and 4.2 assists with a 44.7/36.6/84.8 shooting slash. Fewer of his looks are coming at the rim and from beyond the arc, but his free-throw-attempt rate is up, and he's nailing 38.1 percent of his pull-up triples.
Inconsistency continues to be one of Murray's trademarks. Is tonight one of his 6-of-19 downers, 6-of-14 whatevers or 10-of-18 masterpieces? The Denver Nuggets can never be too sure.
The variance in his performances will only amplify if keeps taking so many long twos. He's hitting them at a 44.1 percent clip, which is actually down from last year's 46.5 percent mark, but they account for nearly one-quarter of his shots. That's entirely too much for a half-court offense that ranks 26th in efficiency.
19. Collin Sexton, Cleveland Cavaliers
Collin Sexton's future with the Cleveland Cavaliers is not without issue. He is more of an off-guard than a principal playmaker, but he hasn't flashed the stopping power to match. He's more energetic defending the ball than credited for, but he doesn't have the size to prevent bigger assignments from rising up and firing over him or the length to recover when players get by him.
Darius Garland and Kevin Porter Jr. only complicate Sexton's place. How do the Cavaliers juggle them long-term? Can they play them together? Can they assemble an average defense around even two of them?
Cleveland can figure out the macro matters later. Amassing talent is the priority now, and Sexton gives this team a potent, yet still underrated, offensive weapon.
It is officially time to declare him a good three-point shooter. He has followed up his 40.2 percent success rate from deep last season with a 42.2 percent clip on greater volume this year. His off-the-bounce jumper is a project, but he has the off-guard element down. He's averaging 1.58 points per spot-up opportunity—the highest mark in the league among 156 players who have churned through 20 or more such possessions.
Doubting the variance in his offense is fair. He doesn't get to the line a ton, isn't a dependable finisher on drives and has an iffy in-between game. He'll need to polish a floater or step-back to be more than an ancillary option.
Bankable secondary scorers are valuable, though. That Sexton can play off the rest of the offense is arguably more useful to the Cavs as they navigate the next stages of their rebuild with Garland and Porter.
18. Brandon Clarke, Memphis Grizzlies
Is this too low? It feels like it might be too low.
(It's probably too low.)
Even Brandon Clarke devotees could not have predicted such a well-rounded start to his career. He has dabbled in almost everything at the offensive end, from running the floor and making quick passes to splashing in set threes and busting out on-a-dime touch inside the arc.
Nothing about Clarke's NBA debut has impressed more than the latter. He has a better-than-advertised feel for the game with the ball in his hands. He's converting 55.6 percent of his pull-up two-pointers and 60 percent of his floaters.
Suboptimal length suggested Clarke might struggle up front on defense. That is far from fait accompli. He's not a decided plus, but he's made some awesome reads around the rim—and not just as an idle paint protector, but also as a roving helper.
17. De'Aaron Fox, Sacramento Kings
De'Aaron Fox will miss at least the next three-to-four weeks with a left ankle sprain, and like the Kings in general, he has seen better days.
His shooting percentages are down across the board, and while he's notching a career-high free-throw-attempt rate, he's not getting to the line with enough consistency. His overall average is inflated by the charity-stripe parades he threw against Portland, Utah and New York.
But it still says a lot about how much Fox improved last season that we can view his 18.0 points and 7.2 assists per game on 52.8 percent true shooting as a letdown. He remains a terror when he commits to attacking the rim, and despite his dip in accuracy from long range, he's still finding nylon on 38.1 percent of his pull-up threes.
Few players on this list are as singularly important to their teams as Fox. The Kings bench has disappointed overall, and it doesn't have the secondary playmakers to effectively tread water during his absence. The team's offensive rating drops by 8.3 points per 100 possessions when he's on the bench, while its effective field-goal percentage goes from the 77th percentile all the way down to the 5th.
16. Lonzo Ball, New Orleans Pelicans
Lonzo Ball, currently dealing with an adductor injury, has not kicked his third season off with dramatic improvement. He's averaging 11.5 points, 4.5 rebounds, 6.1 assists and 1.6 steals, all of which are right in line with his career marks. He doesn't get to the foul line frequently, and only 19.5 percent of his looks are coming at the rim, a would-be personal low.
Still, Ball is better in a big way: He has what is now a reliable jumper. He's shooting 36.7 percent from the outside on watermark volume, a career-best turn that feels sustainable because his form has changed. As SB Nation's Matt Ellentuck wrote:
"In practice, Ball’s loading place has moved more central than in year’s past. That’s a good adjustment that should quicken his release time, and makes his shot a simpler motion. Because of that adjustment, Lonzo’s right arm doesn’t have to work as hard, and his guide hand can thumb the ball towards the hoop, too.
"His shot could look better. He could bend his knees before the catch and turn his shot into a two-motion machine rather than a slower three. But this shot looks replicable. That’s the most important thing."
The New Orleans Pelicans can look past Ball's volume at the rim when he's taking so many threes off the catch. They still need more from him. That might be on them.
Ball could stand to see even more time in bench-heavy units—or at least more lineups without Brandon Ingram. The Pelicans themselves could stand to be faster. They're third in average possession time, according to Inpredictable, but fall to eighth and 16th, respectively, after a defensive rebound or turnover. That's when Ball, in theory, should be at his most dangerous.
Regardless, his uptick in efficiency—including at the foul line, where he's shooting 60 percent—is a potentially huge boon for New Orleans' future.
15. Jonathan Isaac, Orlando Magic
Jonathan Isaac's offense is among the Orlando Magic's many swing developments. They need at least one face-up weapon on the wings, and their best bets are him or Aaron Gordon.
Isaac may be the more important long-term cornerstone anyway. He is a defense unto himself. He leads the league in block rate so far, and his length is ubiquitous in passing lanes. Opponents are shooting a ridiculously low 39.5 percent against him at the rim—the third-best mark among defenders challenging at least four point-blank looks per game.
The one-man system schtick is not an exaggeration. Isaac effectively blurs the line between wing and big. Orlando's defense has continued to thrive in the (scant) time he's spent without Gordon or Al-Farouq Aminu on the court.
Extending Isaac's offensive utility might be a lost cause. The Magic have time to find out. He's only 22 and showing some encouraging signs. He's 7-of-13 on pull-up twos this season and 14-of-35 on catch-and-fire threes.
That doesn't mean he'll become less dependent on the threats around him. He may never be ready for serious on-ball responsibility. He doesn't need to be. The Magic are an extreme model of offensive shallowness, and a multi-level defender who can hit threes is an absurdly good player.
14. Kendrick Nunn, Miami Heat
Kendrick Nunn has a case to be higher. He's averaging 16.6 points and 2.6 assists while slashing 45.7/36.5/85.7. The Miami Heat have him orchestrating a bunch of pick-and-rolls, and he's capable of fitting into the larger offensive picture. He's downing 38.5 percent of his catch-and-shoot bombs and has flashed table-setting chops off the bounce.
But his performance is not quite out of nowhere. This is to say, he's not the typical undrafted-to-prominence story.
Nunn stood out during his third season at Illinois but was dismissed from the program once he pled guilty to one count of misdemeanor battery, down from the initial charge of two counts of domestic battery.
He transferred and lit up the scoreboard at Oakland in 2017-18, averaging 25.9 points while shooting 39.4 percent from three, before then doing much of the same in the G League last season (19.3 points per game) and lighting up this year's summer league.
This is not a tangential detour. Nunn was on the NBA radar in 2018, but teams were concerned about his character, per NBC Sports' Kurt Helin. That has to be part of his story.
And yet, while Nunn's past and path to the NBA should in no way be downplayed or ignored, they only change so much about his rookie year. He has scored 149 points through his first nine games while shooting better than 50 percent on twos.
13. Wendell Carter Jr., Chicago Bulls
At this rate, Wendell Carter Jr. will finish this season as the Chicago Bulls' most valuable player. That's either good or bad depending on how you look at it.
Carter is averaging 12.8 points, 9.5 rebounds and 1.2 blocks on 61.5 percent true shooting. His offensive role is still limited by those born to volume around him, but he's leaving his mark anyway. He is content to set screens, roll to the basket, work the offensive glass and run the floor. His assist numbers don't reflect his playmaking peak, but the Bulls must saddle him with more responsibility for him to broach it.
Whether Carter will ever be empowered to jack more threes is up in the air. For now, he's at least looking at the rim when he catches the ball on the perimeter and has ditched longer twos in favor of more shots around the hoop.
The Bulls' ultra-aggressive defensive scheme is a strain on Carter, but they've been closer to above-average when he shares the frontcourt with Lauri Markkanen—and even better with Thaddeus Young at the 4.
Opponents are shooting just 53.7 percent at the rim with Carter as the primary defender, and he'd have a more profound impact on the team's rebounding if other players were positioned to grab boards when he boxes out.
12. Tyler Herro, Miami Heat
Tyler Herro has retreated into more of a believable medium over the past few games, but the start to his career hasn't yet lost its sheen. The Heat still appear to have unearthed a gem with this year's No. 13 overall pick and are treating him accordingly.
They have tested Herro's offensive mettle beyond its shooting. He has thrown some nifty passes off the dribble when given the freedom to initiate the offense. He has also fired missiles to spotters and cutters after getting defenders to leave their feet.
It will take some time to refine the other levels of Herro's scoring, but he has the profile of someone who can do more. He is relatively confident in his step-back jumper, and his lower volume at the rim, while not ideal, is offset by what seems to be a budding floater.
Complementing the offense at large will always be a huge part of Herro's game. He's doing that well out of the gate. Herro is posting a 75.8 effective field-goal percentage on catch-and-shoot jumpers and is already a viable threat to knock down quick, off-balance jumpers when coming around or off screens.
11. Eric Paschall, Golden State Warriors
Everyone reluctant to perpetuate the Eric Paschall hype can be forgiven. The overreaction to Jordan Bell's rookie season with the Golden State Warriors is a cautionary tale.
But Paschall's out-of-the-gate rise feels more legitimate. His offensive bag is both deeper and being tapped into without a future Hall of Famer surplus around him.
Comparisons to Draymond Green, while not entirely baseless, ring a little hollow. They both play with force and finesse, but Paschall projects as the craftier scorer. He is already the better set shooter, averaging 1.2 points per spot-up possession, and he's more of a self-sufficient finisher as well.
Paschall is hitting 50 percent of his pull-up two-pointers and converting 51.9 percent of his looks on drives. His blend of poise and power is better suited to traditional big duties. He's averaging 1.43 points per roll-man possession (90th percentile) and 1.2 points per possession on a limited number of post-ups, an area in which Green has always struggled.
Golden State will never get away with Paschall in the same small-ball capacity. Green is an all-generation defender and a more polished playmaker. These two are only intertwined because of their physical aesthetics, and because they were drafted in the second round by the same team.
Paschall is still trying to prove he'll be a longstanding rotation player, let alone someone worth pitting against one of the Warriors dynasty's most valuable players.
As far as rookie seasons go, though, this isn't a debate. Paschall is averaging 15.6 points on 62.1 percent true shooting and has the look of someone who will one day pair his face-ups and bulldozing drives with more consistent three-point touch. The Warriors did extremely well to scoop him up at No. 41.
10. Miles Bridges, Charlotte Hornets
For those who haven't yet figured it out, the Charlotte Hornets are eminently watchable. They aren't going to hover so close to .500 all season, but they sprint after defensive rebounds, take a good amount of threes, force turnovers and run out creative lineups.
Miles Bridges is a big part of that watchability. He has quietly, steadily improved and expanded his portfolio. He's shooting 36.2 percent from deep, is taking on more responsibility off the dribble and has even seemed comfortable working with his non-dominant hand.
Spending more time at the 3 has hurt Bridges' rebounding, but he's getting better at gravitating toward the glass from a wing position. His off-ball defense is still a problem. He'll stray too far from his assignments and take too many unnecessary gambles. But he's disruptive on the ball and, most importantly, capable of sticking with quicker guards and wings in space.
Devonte' Graham and PJ Washington have sponged up most of Charlotte's feel-good vibes. They deserve them, as their rises are more pronounced and sudden. But Bridges' incremental steps, while not as obvious, are no less important.
9. OG Anunoby, Toronto Raptors
OG Anunoby is building off the groundwork he laid during his rookie year. It's almost like his injury-ravaged 2018-19 campaign never happened.
Never mind that Anunoby is shooting 52.8 percent from distance and covering the toughest wing assignments (holy 3.6 percent block rate, Batman!). He always projected as a three-and-D asset. But the newfangled variance in his offensive game might force a reassessment of his trajectory, as ESPN's Zach Lowe wrote:
"Anunoby is attacking off the catch with new decisiveness and ferocity—a must for any secondary perimeter option. He has blown by defenders on more than 53 percent of his drives, almost double his rate from last season. And Toronto is getting buckets out of it: 1.17 points per possession anytime Anunoby shoots out of a drive or passes to a teammate who fires right away—a mark that would have nearly topped the league last season, per Second Spectrum."
Anunoby's performance shouldn't come as a total shocker. He missed time last year with various health issues, and the Toronto Raptors didn't have the bandwidth to augment his role or the timeline to float his gradual return to form.
Losing Danny Green and Kawhi Leonard in free agency opened the door for Anunoby to recapture the goodwill he racked up 2017-18. He has latched on to the opportunity, emerging as the most reliable wing in a rotation begging for exactly that.
8. PJ Washington, Charlotte Hornets
PJ Washington looked like a plug-and-play rookie for the Hornets during the preseason. He has been that and so much more since the games started to matter.
Knocking down standstill threes at an unimaginably high rate still stands out the most. He's shooting 48.6 percent from behind the rainbow on 3.5 attempts per game. Among the 140-plus players who have attempted at least 30 total triples, only four are putting them down at a better clip.
Washington's intrigue doesn't end with his outside shooting. He isn't a conventional one-on-one scorer, but he can finagle buckets from the the block and screens like someone much bigger. He's shooting 60 percent on a not-insignificant number of post-ups and averaging 1.28 points per possession as the pick-and-roll diver, good enough to put him in the 79th percentile of efficiency.
Charlotte has experimented with Washington at center. The defense hasn't looked great during those stretches, but the team as a whole has held its own on the glass in certain matchups.
Though he doesn't forecast as a big-time rim deterrent, Washington navigates defensive possessions fairly well. He is portable in the half court and has good help instincts for a rookie. Squint hard enough, and you can see Washington-at-center arrangements working down the line.
7. Ja Morant, Memphis Grizzlies
Ja Morant's off-the-dribble escapism is religion. The routes he takes and the passes he attempts are beyond comprehension—and he has the turnover rate to prove it.
Mistakes are the cost of growth, and while the Memphis Grizzlies are managing his workload, he has the license to play unburdened. His 5.2 assists per game tell only part of the story. He's averaging over almost 13 potential dimes per 36 minutes.
Morant's insta-scoring has been a pleasant surprise. He isn't having trouble getting to or finishing around the rim—43.2 percent of his looks are coming at the hoop (!)—and he has shot 43.8 percent on a limited number of three-point attempts (7-of-16). Exchanging some of his longer twos for more treys will be critical going forward, but he has exhibited a high level of confidence in his floaters.
For what it's worth so early in the year, only one rookie has finished the season matching Morant's current per-36-minutes point (23.6) and assist (6.9) averages: Oscar Robertson.
6. Devonte' Graham, Charlotte Hornets
Who needs Kemba Walker when you have Devonte' Graham?
That joke is decidedly sarcastic. A more fitting question would be: Who needs Terry Rozier at an average of $19 million per year when you have Devonte' Graham?
Both versions get to the same point: Graham is balling.
Graham is averaging 17.9 points and 7.6 assists on 59.0 percent true shooting. No part of that is a typo. He's shooting under 40 percent from inside the arc, but not to the Hornets' detriment. He can finish around the rim when he gets there, and most of his looks are coming from downtown, where he's shooting 42.5 percent—including 46.8 percent on pull-up threebies.
Offense isn't even supposed to be Graham's specialty. His diminutive 6'1", 195-pound frame has always limited him on defense, but he invades personal space and has shown he can survive on bigger guards who won't look to overpower him.
Insert your favorite "Well, it's still early" caveat here, but Graham has the ninth-best net-rating differential in the entire league. That is bonkers, even if it doesn't stand to last.
5. Bam Adebayo, Miami Heat
Someone around these parts entered the season entirely too low on Bam Adebayo. (It was me.)
Across his first nine games, the 6'9" center averaged 12.8 points, 9.3 rebounds, 4.9 assists, 1.8 steals and 1.6 blocks to go along with solid 59.0 percent true shooting. These numbers are not the byproduct of a watered-down role. In fact, just the opposite. This line doesn't exist if Adebayo's game-to-game operations lack complexity.
Oh, he can do the typical big-man stuff: run the floor, finish lobs, block shots, leap out of his shoes, etc. But he has long since separated himself from centers who inhabit a limited wheelhouse.
Adebayo's passing is more than a throwaway skill. He isn't dumping it to an elite shot-maker who earns him a dime after one or two dribbles and a contested attempt. He's identifying actions off the ball, threading needles and hitting teammates so they're in position to finish plays without much extra work required.
Hopes of Adebayo frequently journeying outside the three-point line have quickly faded. He's mostly living inside 16 feet. That's fine. He's shooting 43.3 percent on his non-restricted-area twos and is at least a threat to put up mid-range jumpers.
Attacking him in space is hardly a distinct advantage for opposing offenses. His feet move at light speed, and it is difficult to outmaneuver his length. Although some of the Miami Heat's defensive success feels fluky, Adebayo's versatility is among the given constants.
4. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Oklahoma City Thunder
Audiences outside Staples Center began to catch on to Shai Gilgeous-Alexander last season. He became more of a recognizable name during the playoffs.
His stock has since exploded into inevitable-star territory with the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Gilgeous-Alexander is averaging 21.0 points and 3.4 assists on around league-average true shooting—star production. Upticks in usage that don't coincide with plummets in efficiency are always encouraging, and his includes a demonstrative jump in three-point frequency and a 40.9 percent clip from beyond the arc.
Hitting more off-the-bounce jumpers is essential for Gilgeous-Alexander to sniff the offensive-hub level. He's getting there. Pull-up threes account for 14.9 percent of his total attempts this year, compared to only 3.1 percent in 2018-19.
Until those looks become even more frequent and drop at a higher rate, Gilgeous-Alexander can lean on his improved spot-up touch, a nasty change-of-direction game inside the arc and his capacity to defend up to the small forward slot.
Please be advised that the Gilgeous-Alexander bandwagon is no longer accepting new boarders. It is already filled beyond capacity.
3. Brandon Ingram, New Orleans Pelicans
Brandon Ingram is averaging 25.9 points and 3.9 assists on 63.3 percent true shooting. Harping on whether that's sustainable misses the mark.
He won't continue to shoot 46.9 percent from deep with a three-point-attempt rate nearly double his career average until the end of time. Who cares? He looks more at home attempting treys within the flow of the offense. It'd be nice if he could pepper in some comfort firing from downtown off the dribble, but whatever.
Yes, Ingram is getting to the foul line less often. That's also a whatever concern. He's exchanged both looks at the rim and junky long twos for more threes. The New Orleans Pelicans can live with that trade-off.
Pointing to Ingram's on-off splits doesn't do him much of a disservice, either. The Pelicans are scoring more per 100 possessions without him than with him, but sample size is a thing. Their most-used lineup when he isn't on the floor has logged only 23 possessions and features Frank Jackson, Nickeil Alexander-Walker, Josh Hart, Kenrich Williams (playing well!) and Nicolo Melli.
Waiting for Ingram's hot start to devolve into a mirage is fast becoming pointless. Maybe he falls off. Hell, he'll probably drop off. But he's given himself the leeway to decline without compromising his overall improvement.
2. Trae Young, Atlanta Hawks
Trae Young is kind of, sort of not from this planet. His brand of shot-making is shared by two or three other active players.
That Young is hitting only 31.5 percent of his pull-up threes doesn't invite much concern. His attempts continue to tilt toward the ridiculously hard end of the spectrum. He's 7-of-11 from distance (63.6 percent) when a defender is within four feet, and 60 percent of his made triples have been unassisted. Damian Lillard is the only player who has launched more looks beyond 27 feet away from the basket, and Young is shooting 36.4 percent from that range.
Defenses are rarely settled when Young gets inside the arc. His vision is sorcery, and he isn't making as many mistakes coming around ball screens.
Ankles will break when bigs switch onto him, but Young doesn't need readily exploitable matchups to incite havoc. He is so comfortable with his floater—the timing, the arc of it, everything—that he's almost unreadable in traffic.
Detonations have become the standard, but his game doesn't give way to complacent reaction. Every possession is a potential open-jawed reel, and the Atlanta Hawks offense doesn't have the depth to function without his 26.3 points and 8.4 assists per game on the floor.
1. Luka Doncic, Dallas Mavericks
A Luka Doncic leap has looked as you might expect: heavy on his doing more of everything from last season, with better efficiency and extra-absurd passes sprinkled in. Any changes to his game have been more subtle, like his rosier shot profile.
This has not taken away from the Luka Doncic experience. He disarms even as someone who is exactly what he's expected to be. He's averaging 28.3 points, 10.3 rebounds and 9.1 assists—triple-double territory—on 61.6 percent true shooting. His three-point clip could be higher (31.8 percent), but that's mostly mitigated by his volume and the degree of difficulty on his shots.
Three-quarters of Doncic's made triples have gone unassisted, up from 57.7 percent last season, and he's still draining nearly 35 percent of his step-back treys. His threat level inside the arc is more advanced. Defenses are forever scrambling against the idea of his passes and fakes, and he's drilling 62 percent of his two-point attempts, including 55.6 percent of his floaters.
It is no coincidence that the Dallas Mavericks are entrenched in the early-season playoff picture. Their schedule has been far from brutal, but Doncic is also that good. He'll have room to carry them even further as his chemistry with Kristaps Porzingis continues to develop.
Unless otherwise noted, stats courtesy of NBA.com, Basketball Reference or Cleaning the Glass and are accurate entering games on Tuesday. Salary and cap-hold information via Basketball Insiders, RealGM and Spotrac.