Every NBA Team's Most Surprising Breakthrough Player This Season

mandela namaste@@mandiba13Contributor IDecember 17, 2019

Every NBA Team's Most Surprising Breakthrough Player This Season

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    Kathy Willens/Associated Press

    Most NBA players follow a relatively linear development curve, so it's especially thrilling when a role player becomes a star out of nowhere, a recent second-round draft pick suddenly becomes All-Star-caliber, or a so-called draft bust begins to realize his potential. Every year, stories like these happen throughout the league, even on teams who lack a degree of immediate hope.

    Let's take a look at each team's most pleasant surprise.

Atlanta Hawks: Jabari Parker, F

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    Jabari Parker appeared to die his final NBA death last season. 

    After his homecoming in Chicago went quickly awry, Parker was dealt to Washington, where he played the last 25 games of the 2018-19 season in relative obscurity. 

    After years of being a known and desired quantity, Parker was suddenly a non-entity. Eight days into free agency season (an eon in NBA free-agency time), the Hawks gave him to a two-year, $13 million contract.

    It's worked out for both sides.

    With Atlanta's offense struggling mightily outside of Trae Young, any offensive production has been welcomed, and Parker has filled that void. The 6'8" former Duke Blue Devil has played all of his minutes this season at power forward or center, and as such, his shot profile has altered somewhat radically. Where Parker was a former master of the mid-range jumper, he has cut back significantly on long-range twos this season. As a result, he is second on the Hawks in scoring—with a career-high effective field-goal percentageand leading Atlanta rotation players in offensive rating

    Parker is still a subpar shooter and maintains an adversarial relationship with playing defense, but let's put those issues aside for the time being. As long as his improved efficiency persists, he'll have a spot in the NBA. 

Boston Celtics: Brad Wanamaker, G

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    The Celtics drafted Purdue guard Carsen Edwards to be Kemba Walker's backup this season, but the rookie has been mightily outplayed so far. Yes, by Walker, of course, but also by Boston's incumbent bench point guard that it seemingly forgot about: Brad Wanamaker. 

    After years in Europe, Wanamaker was signed by the Celtics and promptly buried on the bench last season behind Kyrie Irving, Terry Rozier and Marcus Smart. However, the Pittsburgh alum made an impact whenever he was given the chance, shooting 47.6 percent from the field, averaging nearly six assists per 36 minutes and recording the highest net rating out of all Boston rotation players. 

    With Edwards' growing pains limiting his playing time, Wanamaker has emerged as a steadying hand for an overachieving Celtics team. He has nearly doubled his minutes per game from last season while nearly maintaining his scoring efficiency, and he is one of the best defenders on the team. Last month, head coach Brad Stevens even called Wanamaker's play "one of the most important things for [his] team," praise that was echoed by none other than Jayson Tatum.  

    It's depth that gets teams far in the postseason, and Wanamaker can help give the Celtics a real chance at May and June basketball.

Brooklyn Nets: Spencer Dinwiddie, G

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    Is it surprising that Spencer Dinwiddie is good? No. Is it surprising that he is this good? Now, that's another story.

    Since entering the Brooklyn Nets development program and establishing himself in the NBA, Dinwiddie has more or less been one kind of player: a three-level scorer who can provide an offensive jolt off the bench without needing a lot of responsibility. However, since Kyrie Irving came down with a shoulder injury that's sidelined him for over a month now, Dinwiddie has leveled up.

    Both Brooklyn and Dinwiddie have excelled since he took over for Irving. The Nets are 10-5 without the six-time All-Star, and Dinwiddie is putting up Irving-lite numbers, averaging 23.9 points, 7.4 assists, 3.3 rebounds and 1.1 steals per game while shooting 44.0 percent from the field in those 15 games. He has the 14th-highest usage rate in the NBA this year, ahead of Donovan Mitchell, Anthony Davis and Damian Lillard, yet is also recording the best Player Efficiency Rating of his career.

    Dinwiddie has been doing elite stuff this year, and he's put himself in prime position for a first All-Star appearance.

    When Irving went out in mid-November, the Nets were in the middle of a rough start to the season, and their leader's absence spelled doom. However, Dinwiddie has more than kept Brooklyn afloat, so when Irving returns, the team could be ready to go on a nice, long winning streak, solidifying a spot in the playoff picture.

Charlotte Hornets: Devonte' Graham, G

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    Devonte' Graham was not merely bad as a rookie. He was abysmal.

    As the third-string Charlotte point guard, 2018's No. 34 overall pick ranked 69th out of 74 point guards in ESPN's real plus-minus last year and ranked second-worst among rotation Hornets in net rating. Analytics aside, Graham shot just 34.3 percent from the field and couldn't even make more than 42.1 percent of his two-pointers.

    What a difference a summer makes. 

    After Kemba Walker's departure for Boston, Graham knew he had to step up in his sophomore season. So, he spent the summer strengthening his legs in order to get more momentum behind pull-up threes, a shot he spent countless hours honing until it felt automatic. 

    It looks like all that hard work paid off. Graham's breakout this year is arguably the most surprising one throughout the entire league.

    He's more than quadrupled his points per game on significantly improved efficiency while usurping free-agent prize Terry Rozier as the team's lead ball-handler. Graham has a dark-horse candidacy for the All-Star Game and should be a shoo-in for the Three-Point Shootout as he trails just James Harden for the most games this season with at least six threes.

    And beyond all that, the Hornets are better than expected. Caesars set their win total at 24 before the season, and at 12-17, they're already halfway there. Several people are to thank for Charlotte's sheer competence, but Graham must be near the top of the list. 

Chicago Bulls: Denzel Valentine, G

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    After a lost 2018-19 season due to reconstructive ankle surgery, Denzel Valentine admitted to getting emotional before the Bulls' first preseason game this year. Since returning, he's played like a born-again basketball lover.

    This version of Valentine appeared to have been left at Michigan State, but he's back and better than ever now.

    The swingman is making 46.9 percent of his twos and 43.4 percent of his threes, distributing effectively and playing the best defense of his career, whether in college or the pros. The Bulls have a 96.3 defensive rating when Valentine is on the court, which places him near the top of the NBA among rotation players, and he ranks 13th overall in real plus-minus.

    Is it a bit ridiculous to make this big a deal out of a player who gets 13.3 minutes per night? Perhaps. But considering the Bulls' disappointing start, it's surprising they haven't tried starting Valentine or even playing him more than 26 minutes in a game (though he has admittedly gotten more playing time lately).

    If Valentine fails with too much responsibility, then that's OK. But he's passing every test with flying colors so far this year and would be a better option than many of the players Chicago is giving minutes to right now.

Cleveland Cavaliers: Tristan Thompson, C

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    After eight years in the league and a lot of time spent on the sport's biggest stages, Tristan Thompson started to feel familiar.

    His relentless motor and rebounding prowess were integral to Cleveland's four consecutive NBA Finals trips. But after LeBron James skipped town, those same skills weren't so essential on a 19-63 team.

    Here's to reinvention.

    No, Thompson has not suddenly become an off-the-dribble three-point gunner or anything so vastly different from his traditional skills. But for a nine-year veteran who's made nearly $100 million over the course of his career, his transformation this year is somewhat shocking.

    Thompson is averaging a career high in shot attempts, points per game and assist percentage, and he's in the 64th percentile in isolation scoring at 0.94 points per possession, ahead of luminaries like Jayson Tatum, Kyrie Irving and Giannis Antetokounmpo. He's even made the first three triples of his career this season.

    Who is this player, and what has he done with the real Tristan Thompson?

    Now, is this Thompson's new normal? Probably not. His scoring has increased for a young team without an ace shot creator, and rumors abound that he's on his way out of Cleveland. But it's nice to see that his skills have developed to this point. Perhaps he'll continue on this trajectory for the next few years. 

Dallas Mavericks: Tim Hardaway Jr., G

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    From the moment he stepped onto an NBA court, Tim Hardaway Jr. could get buckets. He's just rarely done so efficiently and almost never does anything else to contribute to winning, which has made him an overall negative thus far in his career. 

    Eventually, it got so bad that the New York Knicks, a franchise that often seems incapable of making more than one good decision per season, decided to ship Hardaway to Dallas alongside Kristaps Porzingis. That trade looks even worse in hindsight, and not just because the Unicorn is a potentially transcendent player. 

    Finally, it appears Hardaway has figured it out.

    On the surface, his stats aren't that great: 13.3 points per game on 43.2 percent shooting doesn't shout "improvement."

    But over the last month, he's erupted with seven games of two or more made threes, five showings with at least three assists and even four outings with at least two steals. In addition, the guard ranks in the 95th percentile for spot-up shooting this year and is recording a career-best true shooting percentage

    Of all the players on the Mavericks, Hardaway may have benefited most from playing with Luka Doncic. After years of being given too much responsibility on bad teams, he's finally excelling with clearly defined directives.

    If his great start continues, then Dallas will have a serious shot to play postseason spoiler this year.

Denver Nuggets: Will Barton, G/F

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    Last year was a lost one for Will Barton.

    After a hard fall in the second game of the season, he missed several months recovering and was uneven after returning, eventually disappearing completely once the Nuggets got to the playoffs.

    Well, after a summer of rest and recovery, Will the Thrill is back.

    With Nikola Jokic looking lackadaisical and Jamal Murray playing with a worrisome amount of passivity, you could credibly argue Barton has been Denver's best player this season. He got off to a rocky start but has been on fire since the beginning of November, averaging 15.2 points, 6.9 rebounds and 3.8 assists while shooting 47.1 percent from the field and 41.1 percent from three. 

    And for once, Barton hasn't just been an offensive spark. It's early, but he leads the entire NBA in defensive real plus-minus by a large margin. And so you know that's not a fluke, the Nuggets have the league's third-best defensive rating

    Is Barton a potential All-Star? No. But if he keeps this level of play up, the Nuggets will be a serious threat in the West, assuming Jokic and Murray regress positively to their means.

    After he endured such a down year in 2018-19, Barton's teammates indicate he's been constantly and contagiously joyous. If a team with this much talent starts playing with consistent energy, look out. 

Detroit Pistons: Christian Wood, F/C

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    If you've been to summer league in the past few years, you know Christian Wood is a hallowed name in Las Vegas, and not just because he attended UNLV. For years, Wood has starred in the NBA's July showcase but has been unable to earn himself a full-time roster spot. Until now.

    After playing no more than 21 games in any of his three previous NBA seasons, Wood was picked up by the Pistons, starred during preseason action and earned the team's final roster spot over Joe Johnson. With all due respect to the seven-time All-Star, that's been for the best.

    While there's no opportunity to become a frontcourt starter in Detroit with Blake Griffin and Andre Drummond entrenched, Wood has been an indispensable reserve. The lanky 24-year old has the highest player efficiency rating on the team and seemingly never stops moving, recording an All-Star-caliber 21.4 points, 11.7 rebounds and 2.0 blocks per 36 minutes while shooting 62.8 percent from the field and 44.1 percent from three.

    After years of biding his time, Wood is finally making the most of his shot.

Golden State Warriors: Eric Paschall, F

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    Just six months after the Golden State Warriors competed in their fifth straight NBA Finals, their leading scorer is a second-round rookie. However, that's not entirely due to circumstance. Eric Paschall has been far better than expected.

    Despite his surroundings, Paschall has excelled. He's not uber-efficient on offense yet but has been more than effective for a rookie. In a testament to the Warriors offense, Paschall somehow ranks in the top 20 in the NBA in isolation possessions per game with 2.8. Even more inexplicably, he's above-average in the play type, ranking in the 63rd percentile. Of eligible rookies, only P.J. Washington, Ja Morant and Kevin Porter Jr. are also above-average isolation scorers this season, and Paschall operates out of iso more frequently than each of them.

    The strangest part about Paschall's early career is that scoring and shot-creation was never his strongest quality at Villanova; his two-way versatility was the attraction, and that hasn't carried over. He is still struggling on defense, though to be fair, that is surely not just his fault. Golden State can be uncomfortably bad on that end these days. Knowing Paschall's work ethic and IQ, the improvement will likely come on defense over time, and combining that with a burgeoning offensive skill set could make for a star-level role player.

    When Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson return and the Warriors resume playoff contention, Paschall could be integral to Golden State's next title push.

Houston Rockets: Ben McLemore, G

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    Speaking of draft busts who just needed good circumstances to succeed, we give you Ben McLemore.

    In hindsight, it makes a lot of sense that McLemore seemed like a bust. He was drafted by the Kings, one of the NBA's longtime laughingstocks, and given far too much responsibility for his skill set. After four years in Sacramento, he spent one season buried on the Memphis Grizzlies' depth chart and returned to the Kings, though was used sparingly in his second go-round.

    Six years in, McLemore's career seemed over, but then GM Daryl Morey and the Rockets took a chance on him.

    Turns out, all the former Kansas Jayhawk needed was stability and simplicity. He never has to worry about ball-handling or decision-making now, as all that is handled by James Harden and Russell Westbrook. This frees McLemore to stroke threes and be athletic, which have always been his strongest attributes, and he's playing the best basketball of his career.

    Since Nov. 30, McLemore is averaging 17.4 points per game, shooting 52.7 percent from the field and making 46.1 percent of his threes. At long last, he's producing the kinds of numbers that were expected of him coming out of college. It just took him seven years to find a good situation.

Indiana Pacers: Malcolm Brogdon, G

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    Malcolm Brogdon's game is not flashy. He is not super athletic, has strange shot mechanics and doesn't use many fancy dribble combinations. That was all fine when he was the fourth starter in Milwaukee, but after he signed an $85 million contract with the Pacers, his perceived deficiencies became more of a cause for concern. They shouldn't have been.

    Brogdon has stepped into the shoes of a still-sidelined Victor Oladipo and nearly replicated his production. With Brogdon as the primary ball-handler and lead scorer, the Pacers have a better net rating this season than they did in either of Oladipo's years in Indiana and are on pace for 54 wins, which would eclipse the team's last two win totals by six.

    Whether Brogdon is better than Oladipo doesn't matter. What does matter, however, is that the incumbent shooting guard was practicing with the Pacers' G League team in November and is nearing a year since he went down with a ruptured quad tendon.

    There's no timetable for Oladipo's return, but it would be shocking if he was not back after the All-Star break. If he can use the regular season to shake off rust and return to form by the playoffs, the Pacers will have arguably the best backcourt in the Eastern Conference.

    Helmed by those two, Indiana could have its best shot to make the Finals since Reggie Miller's heyday.

Los Angeles Clippers: Ivica Zubac, C

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    Ringo H.W. Chiu/Associated Press

    After switching Staples Center locker rooms last season at the trade deadline, Ivica Zubac was a mini-sensation for the Clippers, averaging 9.4 points and 7.7 rebounds per game in just over 20 minutes a night and playing solid defense. And yet, after Los Angeles' remarkable offseason in which it acquired the two best two-way players in the NBA and acquired forward Maurice Harkless, it seemed like Zubac was either not long for the Clippers or would have a much reduced role going forward.

    However, he's done something not considered by many: kept playing serious minutes and contributing to winning.

    Despite playing just 16.6 minutes a game, Zubac is tied for the most starts of any Clipper this year, leads the team in field-goal percentage and is fifth among Clippers in defensive rating. He's been a machine on the boards as well, ranking eighth in the NBA in offensive rebounding rate and 15th in the league in total rebounding rate, just ahead of notable glass masters Dwight Howard, Enes Kanter and Kevin Love.

    Of course, Zubac only plays so little because Los Angeles defers to Montrezl Harrell down low in most big moments, and that is understandable. The 6'7” Harrell is one of the best bench players in the entire league. But it's good for the Clippers that their non-Harrell minutes are covered by a player as efficient as Zubac. That could prove especially useful come playoff time.

Los Angeles Lakers: Dwight Howard, C

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    It's hard to think of a 2019 free-agent signing more pilloried than the Lakers' agreement with Dwight Howard. You can't imagine this reunion was either party's No. 1 priority heading into the summer, yet because of DeMarcus Cousins' torn ACL and a general lack of interest in Howard, the divorcees decided to remarry.

    Now, you can't think of many better bargains.

    Talent has never been a question for Howard. Even after declining from his Orlando-era peak, he remained an elite defender. It's just the chemistry issues and consistent requests for post-ups that have led to him being on five teams in the last five years. However, it appears Howard, after years of merely saying the right things, is finally walking the walk.

    Though he remains marvelously efficient at post-ups (in the 92nd percentile this season), Howard is staying out of the way on offense, letting LeBron James and Anthony Davis handle creation duties. He's no longer an all-world defender like he used to be, ranking ninth among rotation Lakers with a 103.0 defensive rating, but that number by itself is very good, and Los Angeles has a top-two team defense, so it's not too concerning.

    Despite causing issues in numerous locker rooms, Howard has remained employed in the NBA because front offices have been enamored with his potential. Finally, after years of waiting, the talent has reemerged minus the baggage, and in the process, Howard may have saved his NBA career.

Memphis Grizzlies: Brandon Clarke, F/C

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    Despite dropping to the 21st pick in the 2019 draft, Brandon Clarke was widely considered a lottery talent, so it's not surprising that he's been productive. What is surprising is just how quickly he's caught on to the NBA game.

    With Ja Morant already having injury trouble and Jaren Jackson Jr. going through an early sophomore slump, Clarke has arguably been Memphis' best player this season. The springy big man is fifth in the NBA in field-goal percentage at 65.1 percent and ranks 10th among small forwards in offensive real plus-minus, two spots ahead of Kawhi Leonard.

    He's been just as good on defense. The Grizzlies are 9-17 this season with the league's 20th-best defensive rating, but they play average defense whenever Clarke's on the floor. Through 20 games, the rookie is already having a veteran-like impact on a talent-deficient team.

    Though the Grizzlies' core is thought to be just Morant and Jackson, Clarke has played so well so early that he should make it a trio. Whereas the two top-five picks will provide much of the flash and substance for future Memphis contenders, Clarke does much of the dirty work, and he does it extremely well.

    Teams don't win titles without a Draymond Green, Dennis Rodman or Bruce Bowen type, and Clarke could be that for the Grizzlies.

Miami Heat: Kendrick Nunn, G

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    Lynne Sladky/Associated Press

    Kendrick Nunn has always been able to score, but after he was dismissed from the Illinois basketball team following his guilty plea to misdemeanor domestic battery, he transferred to Oakland and subsequently fell off the NBA map.

    Well, it took him a few years, but we all acknowledge Nunn's on-court ability now.

    After a monstrous 40-point preseason game against the Rockets, Nunn not only made the roster but also solidified a spot in the starting lineup, and he's held on to it ever since. The lefty is second on the Miami Heat in scoring and fourth on the team in minutes and has clearly earned the trust of veteran coach Erik Spoelstra and Miami leader Jimmy Butler, who said earlier this season that he sees a lot of himself in the rookie.

    Nunn's efficiency has already tailed off a bit, and it was likely always unsustainable given that he shot just 33.5 percent from three last season in the G League. But he's shown more than enough to stick in the NBA from here on out. Nunn's combination of an always-hot motor with smart team defense with special microwave scoring abilities makes him a valuable player in 2019, and Miami is lucky to have him.

Milwaukee Bucks: Donte DiVincenzo, G

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    With Eric Bledsoe out for the next several weeks with a fractured fibula, Donte DiVincenzo is expected to step into the starting lineup. Don't be surprised if there's not a big downgrade between those two, however. DiVincenzo's been one of the most underrated bench players in the league this season.

    After an injury-riddled rookie year, DiVincenzo has improved in a big way. Per 36 minutes, The Big Ragu is averaging 14.9 points, 6.9 rebounds, 3.0 assists and 2.5 steals, a stat line matched only by Dejounte Murray. And while DiVincenzo is not a dominant man-to-man defender like Murray, that well-rounded collection of numbers supports the fact that he's been perhaps the Bucks' most versatile guard.

    He is an efficient scorer (making 52.7 percent of his two-pointers), can run the offense and is a smart defender. In fact, among all rotation bench players, he ranks fifth in net rating and sixth in defensive rating.

    Are those stats inflated because he's played 324 minutes with Giannis Antetokounmpo and the two of them have a 22.0 net rating in that time? Undoubtedly. But two of DiVincenzo's most-utilized five-man lineups have net ratings at or above 9.0 without Giannis, so it's not just the influence of the Greek Freak.

    This offseason, the Bucks signed Wesley Matthews and Kyle Korver for veteran leadership and shooting. As it turns out, they're already obsolete. DiVincenzo's better than both of them.

Minnesota Timberwolves: Andrew Wiggins, G/F

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    Andrew Wiggins appeared to be a lost cause. After five years in the NBA, his horrible habits seemed beyond fixing, and the hiring of a young new coach had summoned questions about the future of the Minnesota Timberwolves.

    Somehow, amid such turmoil, Wiggins has arrived.

    The lanky forward has erased most questions about his game. Where long two-pointers were long his preferred shot, Wiggins has cut those attempts by more than half and is shooting nearly two more threes per game than he did last season. Where he was rather indifferent to passing in the past, he's now averaging 4.4 assists per 100 possessions, the best figure of his career.

    The only one of Wiggins' vices that he continues to indulge is isolation, but he's actually improved at that particular play type, ranking in the 65th percentile this season compared to just the 42nd percentile in 2018-19 and 18th percentile in 2017-18.

    If he can keep this up, the Timberwolves will become far more interesting for this season and beyond. Obviously, Karl-Anthony Towns is an all-world center, but the reason Minnesota hasn't had much success with him is because outside of Jimmy Butler, Towns' supporting casts have been lacking. However, with a full-throttle version of Wiggins by his side and role players Robert Covington, Jarrett Culver and Josh Okogie, that would be far less of a concern.

    With that quintet and a collection of other solid supporting pieces, the Wolves will be ready to compete.

New Orleans Pelicans: Jaxson Hayes, C

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    When the New Orleans Pelicans traded for Jaxson Hayes, he was assumed to be a long-term project. Bleacher Report draft expert Jonathan Wasserman said the former Texas Longhorn will "struggle with physicality and foul trouble," and to an extent, he's been right. Hayes is averaging 5.2 fouls per 36 minutes and an 11.8 percent rebounding rate, which is bad for a center. But a bevy of early-season injuries have thrust the rookie into New Orleans' starting lineup, and he's contributed right away.

    Hayes is shooting 62.9 percent from the field, a mark that leads the Pelicans and would be seventh in the NBA if he qualified. He is third on the team in offensive rating and second in defensive rating. He's already a pro in the pick-and-roll game and makes it his business to be around the basket, ranking third on the Pelicans in second-chance points and grading as an above-average putback scorer.

    So, what do all those numbers mean? Well, they suggest Hayes is ahead of schedule in his development. Some rookies shrink from early-season pressure, while others fail at first but then learn from their mistakes and quickly adapt.

    For the time being, Hayes appears to be in that second group and has earned himself a spot in the rotation, even when Zion Williamson returns from injury.

New York Knicks: Elfrid Payton, G

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    It says everything about the Knicks' season that their most pleasantly surprising player hasn't even played in half their games. But so far, there's a clear correlation between Elfrid Payton's health and New York's success. The Knicks are 3-7 with him and 3-14 without him.

    That says a lot about both Payton and the Knicks. In Payton's previous five years in the NBA, he was widely considered a below-average point guard and never once made the playoffs. However, in his limited sample size this season, Payton has been far more competent than any other player on the Knicks. He's not just the only player on the team with a positive net rating, but he also outflanks the next regular rotation member by nearly seven full points per 100 possessions.

    And it's not like Payton has improved much, either. He's actually recording the worst assist percentage of his career, has a middling effective field goal percentage and an average player efficiency rating. It's just that this Knicks roster has been so horrific that a fairly pedestrian season from Payton registers as praise-worthy.

    Knicks fans may argue RJ Barrett or Taj Gibson has been better than expected. But almost every Knick has disappointed this season. These are dark days in the Big Apple.

Oklahoma City Thunder: Hamidou Diallo, G

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    For years, the Oklahoma City Thunder have lacked a competent, two-way shooting guard. After James Harden, they cycled through Kevin Martin, Dion Waiters and Andre Roberson and have drafted two more potential off-guards over the past three years: Terrance Ferguson and Hamidou Diallo. Thus far, Ferguson has gotten more opportunities, but he's been jumped on the depth chart by his younger counterpart.

    Diallo hasn't yet become Oklahoma City's entrenched shooting guard, but he's been solid on both ends of the floor. He's one of just seven guards this season who have played at least 10 games and shot 50 percent from the field (though Diallo has taken the second-fewest threes in that group) and owns an elite 98.6 defensive rating, which ranks third among Thunder rotation players.

    As such, he now plays the second-most minutes of any OKC bench player.

    Given the fact that the Thunder boast three great guards in Chris Paul, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Dennis Schroder, there may not seem like much opportunity for upward mobility in Oklahoma City for Diallo. But Paul is likely to leave at the first sign of another team's interest in him, and Schroder's contract is up in two years.

    Yes, Diallo's contract also technically runs out in 2021, but the Thunder own a team option on him next summer. If they pick it up, then Diallo could rejoin his former Kentucky teammate Gilgeous-Alexander in the starting lineup, and the two could help lead OKC into the future.

Orlando Magic: Markelle Fultz, G

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    Markelle Fultz isn't the James Harden-esque figure that many projected heading into the 2017 draft, as he still can't really shoot. But after years of anticipation, he's finally playing consistent minutes and has quickly become indispensable for the striving Orlando Magic.

    Fultz replaced D.J. Augustin in the Magic's starting lineup just six games into the season and has held on to the job ever since. After his shot mechanics fell apart, Fultz's career was assumed dead on arrival, but his skill set has always been incredibly dynamic, and we're finally seeing all the ancillary parts of his game.

    You want some crafty passing? Fultz can do that. How about some fancy dribbling leading to a transition slam? He's got that in his bag as well.

    And though Fultz's jumper isn't what it was in college, he's definitely improved it since that ugly low point last year. Most importantly, he appears more willing to shoot from beyond the arc. Fultz has attempted a three-pointer in all but four games this season and averages 1.6 attempts per game from range, a marked improvement from the 15 total threes he shot during his first two years in Philadelphia.

    If he can get even more comfortable and competent from beyond the arc over the next few years, watch out.

Philadelphia 76ers: Furkan Korkmaz, G

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    Nick Wass/Associated Press

    Furkan Korkmaz has often been the injury-replacement starter this season for the Philadelphia 76ers. On paper, the downgrade from Josh Richardson or Ben Simmons to Korkmaz could be costly, but the third-year player has been a revelation.

    Korkmaz is averaging a number of career highs, though that makes sense considering his increased role. What stats can't account for, however, is confidence.

    Starting with the game in which he sank a buzzer-beater to beat the Blazers in Portland, the shooting guard played the best basketball of his career, averaging 10.9 points per game while making 41.4 percent of his threes from Nov. 2 until Nov. 22. That stretch caught the attention of head coach Brett Brown, who said Korkmaz is playing with supreme confidence, and Tobias Harris, who called Korkmaz "a new man."

    It's a wonderful coincidence for the Sixers that he is just now starting to play so well, as the team's most glaring weakness is a lack of shooting. If Philly is to achieve its potential, it will need Korkmaz to continue playing career-best basketball.

Phoenix Suns: Aron Baynes, C

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    Matt York/Associated Press

    When Aron Baynes was traded from the Celtics to the Phoenix Suns, he attracted a lot of sympathy, as Boston has been a consistent playoff team of late and Phoenix was tied for the NBA's worst record over the previous five years. Little did we know he'd be the anchor of the league's most surprising club.

    After the first game of the season, Suns center Deandre Ayton was suspended for 25 games because of a positive performance-enhancing drugs test. Instead of crumbling without its first overall pick, however, Phoenix got off to its best start in years, winning seven of its first eleven games against opponents including the Clippers and 76ers. Why, out of nowhere, did the Suns become competent? In large part, you can credit Baynes.

    The New Zealander stepped into Ayton's starting spot and was a stalwart, averaging 15.4 points, 5.9 rebounds and 3.3 assists while shooting 55.9 percent from the field and 43.1 percent from three over 11 games. In a related story, Baynes got injured, and the Suns fell apart, losing seven of their next 10 games.

    Is Baynes a more talented player than Ayton? Certainly not. But the Bahamian is on track to return Tuesday night against the Clippers, and it's worth watching how the team's performance differs with an old-school big man starting as opposed to the role player Baynes is.

Portland Trail Blazers: Carmelo Anthony, F

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    No, calling Carmelo Anthony's play surprising is not supposed to be patronizing. But if he's playing this well after a year of slanderous comments made against him, then by all means Melo fans, call us haters if it means he'll continue producing at this level.

    Not many people have been rooting for Carmelo to fail—it just seemed like he had overstayed his NBA welcome. However, that time in the wilderness may have given Melo more awareness of his new reality, and he's been playing with renewed energy since returning to the league.

    Most of Carmelo's typical weaknesses remain—he's still a poor defender and doesn't pass much—but the scoring flashes have been electric. Melo has had games of 10-of-20, 9-of-11 and 8-of-16 shooting (three times), and though the lowlights have come nearly as frequently as the highlights, the fact that he can still score efficiently on occasion makes the Portland Trail Blazers' signing worth it.

    Most impressive about Melo's start with the Blazers is that he's playing within a team concept. Despite visibly bad defense, he has the highest net rating on the team and has charmed most of his teammates and coach Terry Stotts, who said Carmelo is "here to stay."

    At 10-16 and 1.5 games out of the playoffs, the Blazers will need all the help they can get to make it to late April. Improbably, it seems like Anthony will assist their run.

Sacramento Kings: Richaun Holmes, C

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    Rich Pedroncelli/Associated Press

    If this is the first time you're hearing about Richaun Holmes, you're certainly not alone.

    Holmes was drafted by the Sixers in 2015 and was buried on the depth chart behind Joel Embiid and Jahlil Okafor. After three years of mediocre backup play, Philly traded him to the Suns for cash. After one season in Phoenix, Holmes signed with the Sacramento Kings, though it seemed like he would be lost once again behind Marvin Bagley III, Dewayne Dedmon and Harry Giles III.

    However, along with Buddy Hield and Bogdan Bogdanovic, Holmes has arguably been Sacramento's best player this season.

    After Bagley went down with a thumb injury and Dedmon slumped hard, Holmes stepped into the starting lineup and has been one of the best centers in the league. He's recording a 66.8 effective field goal percentage, which ranks fourth in the NBA, and runs a mean pick-and-roll game with Sacramento's ball-handlers that often ends in ferocious dunks. Holmes has also been a relatively good anchor for a mediocre defense, as the Kings are the 16th-ranked defense in the league but play like the 12th-ranked D when he is on the floor.

    It seemed inevitable that Holmes would move back to the bench when Bagley returned. But the sophomore big man is healthy again, and Holmes has remained in the starting lineup. Perhaps that will change as Bagley shakes off the rust, but for now, one of the NBA's hidden gems is getting some well-deserved time in the spotlight.

San Antonio Spurs: Lonnie Walker IV, G

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    Eric Gay/Associated Press

    It's been a weird two years with the San Antonio Spurs for Lonnie Walker IV.

    When he was drafted in 2018, Derrick White was merely a 2017 late first-round pick and DeMar DeRozan was a Raptor, so the pathway to playing time was clear. However, Walker tore his meniscus and spent most of his rookie year rehabbing, losing his opportunity to break through.

    He made a big impression at Las Vegas Summer League, averaging 30 points per game while shooting 58 percent from the floor in two games, but found himself behind DeRozan, White, Dejounte Murray, Bryn Forbes, Patty Mills and Marco Belinelli on the depth chart. To boot, coach Gregg Popovich called him out after a bad early-season game.

    It was not looking good for the Miami product.

    But Dec. 3 against the Rockets, he broke out, scoring 28 points on 10-of-18 shooting in a two-point victory. Walker has been a rotation member in each of San Antonio's succeeding three games, shooting 55.6 percent from the field in 19.1 minutes per night, and may well force the Spurs' hand in trading some of their many productive guards and wings before the February trade deadline.

    Even if San Antonio's historic streak of playoff appearances ends this season, it may have been worth it. In Walker, the Spurs have unearthed a contributor to their next era of contenders.

Toronto Raptors: Terence Davis, G

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    Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press

    After winning their first championship, the Toronto Raptors came into this season with an ostensibly much weaker bench. If the Raptors were to continue competing post-Kawhi Leonard, then they would need contributions from heretofore anonymous and unproven talent. Lo and behold, that has come to pass.

    Toronto is fifth in the Eastern Conference at 17-8, and though that is in large part because of the usual suspects, the bench deserves significant credit as well, especially Terence Davis. After going undrafted, Davis signed with the Denver Nuggets for summer league, dropped 22 points in his first game and was picked up by the Raptors, who then signed him to a guaranteed contract. He's earned it.

    Davis has been one of the best rookies of this young season. He's making nearly 40 percent of his threes as well as continuing to play high-energy defense. SB Nation's Ricky O'Donnell wrote: "Davis first earned the trust of Toronto head coach Nick Nurse with his defensive ball pressure and rebounding. Davis hasn't racked up a ton of blocks or steals, but he's a disciplined defender who knows when to help teammates while still being able to recover for a closeout."

    That about says it all. Of course the Raptors picked out a smart two-way grinder. With their support, he might be a great role player for a long time.

Utah Jazz: Tony Bradley, C

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    John Hefti/Associated Press

    The Utah Jazz have four players with above-average player efficiency ratings, and three of them are Donovan Mitchell, Bojan Bogdanovic and Rudy Gobert. The fourth is third-year center Tony Bradley.

    It's telling that Utah's most surprising player is playing only 9.1 minutes per game, but Bradley should be getting more time than that.

    After two efficient seasons in the G League and a dominant 2019 summer league, Bradley was called up to the Jazz for good before the season and has impressed in his limited run. He's averaging 22.5 points, 18.4 rebounds, and 2.3 blocks per 100 possessions, a split matched only by Hassan Whiteside, Andre Drummond and Ivica Zubac, and only Whiteside has scored more efficiently than Bradley. The UNC product is also an expert rim-runner, ranking in the 92nd percentile in that play type, and is becoming a classic glue guy, one the Jazz are in desperate need of this season.

    One of the best bargain acquisitions of the summer was Utah's signing of analytics darling and beloved teammate Ed Davis, but the lanky big man was injured for much of the season and wasn't playing well when healthy. It looks like Bradley may have become the Jazz's backup center.

Washington Wizards: Davis Bertans, F

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    Nell Redmond/Associated Press

    Despite John Wall's absence and a largely anonymous roster, the Washington Wizards own the NBA's fourth-ranked offense.

    A test to separate casual NBA fans from serious watchers: Can you name a single healthy player on the Wizards besides Bradley Beal? If you can, kudos to you. If you can't, here's a name to remember: Davis Bertans.

    Besides Beal, Bertans has been the most important Wizard this season, especially with regard to the team's stunning offensive output. ESPN's Zach Lowe wrote that Bertans' marriage of three-point shooting volume and efficiency has been matched by only one player in NBA history: Stephen Curry.

    Obviously, Bertans' shot profile and role on the Wizards is vastly different from a healthy Curry's significance to the Warriors, but the fact remains the same: He has been tremendous.

    Of course, the Latvian Laser's trade value is now at an all-time high, and so many teams are presumably going to call Washington GM Tommy Sheppard in pursuit of his 6'10" sniper. However, Sheppard apparently has no plans to move on from Bertans and would like to extend him this summer.

    Though the Wizards are not competitive this season, they intend to be once Wall returns and a presumably high lottery pick joins the roster. If Wall resumes All-Star-caliber play and Washington returns to contention, then Bertans would be the perfect kind of role player.

       

    Stats courtesy of NBA.com, Basketball Reference and ESPN.com.

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