The 10 Most Surprising Individual NBA Seasons so Far

Dan Favale@@danfavaleFeatured ColumnistFebruary 20, 2020

The 10 Most Surprising Individual NBA Seasons so Far

0 of 10

    Brian Babineau/Getty Images

    Not all of the NBA's standout seasons are created equal.

    Most are predictable because they belong to entrenched stars who forever capture our attention. Others represent ahead-of-schedule but still-inevitable rises from younger studs. (Shout-out to Luka Doncic and Trae Young.)

    This space is not for them. We want the less obvious ascents—the larger-than-expected leaps from those already on the radar and the almost-out-of-nowhere arrivals that we weren't initially tracking.

    The following players are ranked to contextualize the degree to which they've obliterated expectations. This is not—repeat: This is not—a look at where these feel-good stories stand relative to the rest of the league or each other. This is solely about measuring their level of improvement and overall contributions against the most optimistic projections.

    To keep things fresh—and encourage the search for loopholes—we chose players from 10 different teams. Call it the "We can only dedicate so many keyboard strokes to writing love stories about the Miami Heat and Toronto Raptors" rule. Or something.

    Don't bother practicing your surprised face. It will come organically.

10 (Tie). Bam Adebayo, Miami Heat and Jayson Tatum, Boston Celtics

1 of 10

    Charles Krupa/Associated Press

    Splitting the No. 10 spot between Bam Adebayo and Jayson Tatum is a twofold decision. It nods to the seasons they're having, which are better than expected. But by putting them this low, though, it also acknowledges: "Hey, these guys were supposed to be pretty damn good in the first place."

    Fitting Adebayo within the self-imposed "10 teams must be represented" rule is the other driving force behind this co-opt. Another Miami Heat standout appears later, but leaving off this first-time All-Star feels wrong. 

    Hassan Whiteside's departure paved the way for Adebayo to take over as the Heat's primary big. He had already established himself as a quick-footed, crafty-passing, hard-working weapon by the end of last season. Giving him a more prominent role rendered his breakout inevitable.

    But...this?

    Adebayo is filling the box score from every imaginable angle, with per-36-minute averages of 16.5 points, 10.8 rebounds, 5.1 assists, 1.3 steals and 1.2 blocks. What he lacks in traditional offensive range, he makes up for with expert finishing. He can face up, spin through tight spaces, navigate traffic as the roll man, stutter-step his way past set defenders and pump-fake opponents off their feet.

    Watching him isn't the typical big-man experience. He has the bag of a lead ball-handler. He doesn't just spearhead fast breaks; he walks the ball up the floor into half-court sets. Miami's offense hasn't fared well when he plays without Jimmy Butler, but he boasts the tool belt of a solo pilot.

    Bigger frontcourts can give Adebayo some trouble. At 6'9", he doesn't offer much conventional size. But he isn't someone who can be mismatched off the floor. He can bruise with burlier bigs and has reactive hands and feet when guarding in space. His skill set is anomalous. Giannis Antetokounmpo (twice), DeMarcus Cousins, Kevin Garnett, Draymond Green, Joakim Noah and David West are the only players who have matched his current assist, steal and block rates in the same season.

    Tatum's own leap might be slightly more predictable. Hoops heads are a sucker for combo wings, and replacing Kyrie Irving with Kemba Walker afforded him a clearer path to more volume.

    Don't get caught up with his iffy finishing. He is shooting 59.2 percent inside five feet since Dec. 15, up from 49.3 percent beforehand, and has turned into a viable hub even with his coin-toss ventures toward the basket.

    Tatum has finished more than 23.2 percent of his offensive possessions as a pick-and-roll ball-handler, and the 1.02 points per possession he's averaging on those plays rates inside the 88th percentile. His handle can be a little loose when he's operating at full tilt, but he's more methodical in the half court. He's getting better at putting defenders behind his hip and making decisions at a controlled pace.

    Harping on his overall efficiency undermines the difficulty level of his shots. He is ninth in pull-up three-pointers made, which he's hitting at a 38.7 percent clip, and Nikola Jokic is the only player who has converted more looks inside four seconds of the shot clock. Tatum's from-scratch scoring is officially a thing.

    Ditto for his defense. He's almost never overmatched against rival wings, and he has, somewhat quietly, developed into one of the league's premier off-ball defenders. His 2.0 steal rate is a career high, and Marcus Smart is the only Boston Celtics player averaging more deflections.

    What's transpired in Tatum's third year is less a step forward and more an entry into All-NBA territory.

9. Brandon Ingram, New Orleans Pelicans

2 of 10

    Gerald Herbert/Associated Press

    Perhaps Brandon Ingram was a semi-obvious Most Improved Player candidate entering this season. The New Orleans Pelicans liberated him from the confines of the Los Angeles Lakers' unending search for established stars and afforded him the type of functional license for which his previous team never quite had the stomach or timeline.

    Then again, the Lakers set the stage for a similar potential outcome last year. LeBron James was the kind of focal point who could amplify Ingram's performance by simplifying his role.

    For various reasons, including injuries to both players, the partnership never had its intended effect. Ingram missed the closing kick to last season with a blood clot in his right arm, which further obscured his future and put more distance between him and the stardom track he was ticketed for upon entering the NBA.

    Concerns were never so severe that he flirted with the bust label, but even the most stubborn optimists had to concede his breakout was no longer a given. I hedged against my own bullishness when doing Bleacher Report's annual top 100 rankings ahead of the season. A mixture of red flags on his health bill and partial-year detonations that never seemed to last long enough contributed to his 78th-place finish—a position that was still considered ambitious by those who yours truly consulted throughout the process.

    This is all a roundabout way of saying that yes, Ingram's 2019-20 campaign is a legitimate surprise. His improvement does not come completely out of nowhere, but his ascent into All-Star territory is more meteoric than not when measured against his first three years.

    Ingram has expanded and polished his arsenal in nearly every respect. He has always reached his spots and capped off plays at the rim, but his finishing lagged elsewhere. His game is more well-rounded this year. He has a stronger mid-range touch and upped his three-point volume. His free-throw percentage has jumped by 20 percentage points relative to his previous career average, and his outside clip has followed suit despite the exponential increase in shot-attempt frequency.

    Trusting him with the ball has never been easier. His turnover rate out of pick-and-rolls and on drives has spiked since the beginning of the season, but he's generally making quicker decisions, and his improvement from beyond the arc has made him a cleaner fit within lineups that don't allow for as many on-ball looks.

    Zion Williamson's return from a torn meniscus in his right knee provided the ultimate test of Ingram's growth. His usage noticeably drops alongside the rookie prodigy, yet his true shooting percentage basically goes unchanged.

    With the caveat that the sample is small (297 possessions), the Pelicans have a plus-8.6 net rating when Ingram and Williamson share the floor at the 3 and 4, respectively. The offense has sputtered during these stretches, but the fit is not untenable. Ingram hasn't needed to relearn how to play because New Orleans installed another marquee name into the rotation. He's averaging 24.9 points and 4.2 assists on career-best efficiency in a way that is not only surprising, but universally translatable.

8. Christian Wood, Detroit Pistons

3 of 10

    Fernando Medina/Getty Images

    And now we begin to reach deeper into the bag of surprises.

    Christian Wood showed plenty of moxie during his time with the New Orleans Pelicans last year, but those flashes came across an eight-game sample and were hardly telltale of anything definitive. He needed to sustain his offensive dynamism over the longer haul.

    Mission accomplished.

    It took Detroit Pistons head coach Dwane Casey a little while to prioritize Wood's court time over Thon Maker. Even now, he can be quick with the hook for his 24-year-old big man. But Wood has parlayed a consistent—consistent-ish?—role into real staying power.

    He's averaging 21.1 points, 10.8 rebounds and 1.6 blocks per 36 minutes while putting down 63.6 percent of his twos and 38.5 percent of his threes. The depth of his scoring makes him a tough case to solve for defenses. He is comfortable squaring up for standstill triples, fanning out behind the rainbow, running into quick catch-and-fire opportunities, slipping to the baskets off screens, beating closeouts off the dribble and even driving baseline, through traffic, and creating his own looks at the rim.

    Joining the starting lineup after Andre Drummond's departure has only accelerated Wood's hype train. Four appearances is four appearances, but his per-game numbers have closely reflected his per-minute output, and he's canning 42.1 percent of his three-point attempts.

    Wood has even shown some slightly more advanced decision-making as a passer. He can throw dimes from set perimeter positions to teammates cutting toward the basket, and in recent outings, he's exhibited more of a knack for finding shooters while on the move.

    Defense remains his Achilles heel. He can cover a lot of ground and hold his own as a rim protector, but he's easily led astray off the ball, and opponents are unafraid to attack the hoop when he's in the middle.

    Still, Detroit's defense has a more versatile look to it with him soaking up Drummond's minutes. The team is not only performing better statistically at both ends with Wood in the game, but he has the highest net rating swing on the Pistons by a mile. Even entering a summer in which cap space is scant, Wood's free agency (Early Bird) figures to be fascinating—and, for Detroit, potentially expensive.

7. Dennis Schroder, Oklahoma City Thunder

4 of 10

    Zach Beeker/Getty Images

    Dennis Schroder is having himself a season, the kind of career year that's believable, but also not so much considering the circumstances of which it comes.

    Trading Paul George and Russell Westbrook was never going to jump-start a traditional rebuild for the Oklahoma City Thunder. They acquired too many impact players—Danilo Gallinari, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Chris Paul—as part of those transactions and still employed Schroder and Steven Adams.

    At the very least, though, the Thunder's focus shifted to the bigger picture on the heels of their offseason turnover. If Schroder wasn't going to become trade fodder, then he would at least surrender touches and status to Gilgeous-Alexander and Paul (for however long he remained).

    Oklahoma City is instead traveling a different direction—for now, anyway. General manager Sam Presti kept the core intact past the trade deadline, and Schroder's role has increased while head coach Billy Donovan indulges the strength of his roster: guard play.

    Gilgeous-Alexander, Paul and Schroder have shared the floor for nearly 800 possessions, during which time the Thunder have a 136.2 offensive rating and a plus-32.8 net rating. The five-man combination featuring those three, Adams and Gallinari has been absolutely terrifying.

    Schroder's own offensive efficiency is a huge part of that collective success. He has never been more threatening off the ball. He's draining 42 percent of his spot-up threes and slashing 55.4/49.2/93.2 whenever he's on the court with Gilgeous-Alexander and Paul.

    Looking at Schroder's shooting splits is to witness across-the-board improvement. He's scoring with above-average efficiency from every possible zone:

    • At the rim: 63 percent (83rd percentile)
    • Short mid-range: 39 percent (59th percentile)
    • Long mid-range: 47 percent (83rd percentile)
    • All mid-range: 44 percent (76th percentile)
    • Corner threes: 58 percent (100th percentile)
    • Non-corner threes: 37 percent (72nd percentile)
    • All threes: 40 percent (84th percentile)

    Most of those marks represent career highs, and Schroder's 19.3 points per game just about match his personal best. His effective field-goal percentage is higher than those from Luka Doncic and James Harden, among many others.

    This Sixth Man of the Year case improbably writes itself. The Thunder are losing the minutes Schroder plays without Paul, even when he's beside Gilgeous-Alexander, but his multilevel scoring and watermark efficiency are critical to their sustained relevance in the Western Conference. (Semi-related: Schroder leads the league in raw crunch-time plus-minus, the top five of which is populated entirely by Oklahoma City's five best players.)

6. Donte DiVincenzo, Milwaukee Bucks

5 of 10

    Morry Gash/Associated Press

    Anyone who takes issue with the Milwaukee Bucks standing pat at the trade deadline likely believes they can use another X-factor—a swing piece who can tip the postseason scales further in their favor, particularly if Eric Bledsoe's strong performance thus far doesn't inoculate him against a playoff vanishing act.

    That is, above all, a wild way to view a team on pace for more than 70 wins. The Bucks are simultaneously towering over the league and preserving their best players. No one on the roster is averaging even 31 minutes per game. Giannis Antetokounmpo is the only one over 30.

    Milwaukee also has a counterpoint to its skeptics: Donte DiVincenzo.

    He can be the Bucks' playoff swing piece, mostly because he's been just that during the regular season. His defense has been huge for a wing rotation that drops off after the starting five. He has the same positional range as Malcolm Brogdon, now of the Indiana Pacers, and maybe even a little bit more. He can cover either guard spot and has seen some reps against primary wings (Tobias Harris, Brandon Ingram, Paul George, etc.).

    DiVincenzo's hands are omnipresent. He contests seemingly every pass and is a whiz a breaking up plays from behind—including as a shot-blocker. He's averaging as many deflections per 36 minutes as Marcus Smart and is forcing turnovers on 15 percent of the possessions in which he guards pick-and-roll ball-handlers, the second-highest mark on the Bucks. He ranks sixth in defensive real adjusted plus-minus and moves into fourth when adjusting for luck, according NBA Shot Charts.

    Navigating the DiVincenzo experience on offense can be tough. He has far more confidence in his off-the-dribble three than he should. At the same time, he scoots by defenders when attacking the basket and is opportunistic darting in for cuts from the corner.

    The Bucks are also still willing to give DiVincenzo run as the point guard—and not just when Antetokounmpo is on the floor. He throws quick second passes, runs pick-and-rolls and can toss dimes after leaving his feet. Milwaukee's offensive rating sits in the 74th percentile when he plays point guard with Antetokounmpo on the bench.

    Postseason basketball is different, but this isn't so much about the team continuing to thrive when the MVP favorite is off the floor. Those stretches will—well, Mike Budenholzer is in charge, so let's say should—shrink in the playoffs. The Bucks' title chances are more contingent upon their optionality if and when defenses limit Antetokounmpo in the half court.

    Khris Middleton has long since proved himself capable of checking that box. DiVincenzo might now be ready to join him in the event Bledsoe does not.

5. Mo Wagner, Washington Wizards

6 of 10

    John Raoux/Associated Press

    Davis Bertans is getting most of the "Seriously?!?" type love for the Washington Wizards. He deserves it. But he's mutilating defenses by doing what he's always done—shoot the hell out of the ball—in higher volume.

    Mo Wagner is the bigger surprise.

    Like Bertans, the Wizards picked him up for essentially nothing. Unlike Bertans, he arrived in Washington without discernible value. And while left ankle issues have limited his availability to 26 games prior to the All-Star break, that has officially changed.

    Stretching the floor is part of Wagner's offensive charm. He's shooting 36.5 percent from downtown, including 37.7 percent on spot-up threebies. He's also converting 70 percent—yes, 70 percent—of his two-pointers, which is the fifth-best mark in the league among 284 players who have attempted at least 100 field goals inside the arc.

    Granted, Wagner's offensive role isn't particularly complex. More than 81 percent of his made buckets are coming off assists. He's tasked predominantly with ducking in toward the basket, hitting catch-and-launch threes and running the floor.

    There is immense value in all of those things. Wagner isn't someone his own team must plan around, but he's someone defenses must prepare for. His 1.56 points per possession off cuts ranks in the 94th percentile, and he's shown he can leverage his range into straight-line attacks against aggressive closeouts. He is shooting 14-of-20 for the season on drives (70 percent).

    No one's about to argue that Wagner is a defensive anchor, but he's more than capable in certain situations. He has pesky hands defending one-on-one sets and is sneaky good at staying in front of bigs who work from the outside-in off the dribble, as well as smaller ball-handlers who try exploiting him off switches.

    Washington's defense is terrible with him in the middle, but "terrible" is Washington's defense in a nutshell. Opponents are getting to the rim slightly less and shooting 7.2 percentage points worse once they are there with Wagner on the court. This lines up with his own performance. Rival scorers are shooting 5.9 percentage points below their season average inside six feet of the basket with him on their case.

    It's time to start talking more about Wagner's season. He's earned it.

4. Matisse Thybulle, Philadelphia 76ers

7 of 10

    John Bazemore/Associated Press

    The post-Process Philadelphia 76ers have gotten a lot of things wrong. Their decision to surround Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons with a cast of middling shooters and minimal reserve ball-handlers remains impressively out of touch.

    Matisse Thybulle is among the few swings on which Philly has connected. He is proving well worth the opportunity cost of Carsen Edwards and Ty Jerome, the two players the Sixers flipped to get him.

    Everything starts with his defense. Watching him make plays on and away from the ball is a game unto itself. His hands are everywhere, and he party-crashes jumpers from all angles. His length gets into shooters' airspace, and he's forever a threat to block attempts from the back.

    "His anticipation instincts are real," SB Nation's Ricky O'Donnell wrote. "His reaction time is real. Seemingly every time he takes the court, Thybulle is making two or three defensive plays at minimum that make you rewind and watch again."

    Only four players are averaging more deflections per 36 minutes (minimum 25 appearances). And never mind this season or the rookie-year qualifier. Nobody, bar none, has ever matched Thybulle's steal (3.5) and block (3.6) rates in the same season.

    Transitioning from college to the NBA without skipping a beat on defense is somewhat surprising. As for his competence from beyond the arc? That's a categorical shock.

    Thybulle is shooting 37.3 percent from distance, including a brain-bending 51.3 percent from the corners. His volume isn't extensive, but it isn't insignificant, either. His 126 attempts for the season amount to 4.8 per 36 minutes.

    Time will tell whether Thybulle's outside efficiency can hold in the postseason and over the long term. The Sixers have no choice other than to buy it at face value.

    They need all the talent they can get outside of their top five guys, and with the exception of a few games leading into the All-Star break, they started leaning more on their rookie following his return from a sprained right knee. Thybulle is nothing if not worthy of the extra opportunity.

3. Terence Davis, Toronto Raptors

8 of 10

    Nell Redmond/Associated Press

    Undrafted rookies seldom have immediate impacts, if they ever crack rotations at all. When they do, they typically aren't sponging up minutes for championship contenders or even postseason hopefuls.

    Terence Davis has become one hell of an exception for the Toronto Raptors. And though his shooting, coupled with a summertime exodus of wings and surplus of regular-season injuries, opened the door for him, everything else he does is what ensures he will stick.

    Not that his outside touch alone isn't enough to keep him in Toronto's immediate fold. He has knocked down 41.9 percent of three-point attempts for the season and ranks in the 92nd percentile of spot-up efficiency. His shot distribution is an analytics dream. Nearly 90 percent of his looks are coming at the rim or from beyond the arc.

    Davis' shot profile reeks of someone who understands his role and doesn't try to operate outside of it. That's part of the equation. But he is more than a mere specialist. He can take the ball inside off the catch, has a nifty second jump around the rim when following his own misses and knows how to capitalize on scrambling defenses.

    Among the 158 players who have finished at least 150 drives, Davis has a top-12 assist percentage. That puts him just behind Lonzo Ball (11th) and ahead of off-the-dribble maestros Trae Young (15th) and Luka Doncic (16th).

    Toronto has asked plenty of Davis at the defensive end. He stands at 6'4", but he's spent time guarding 3s without seeming horribly overmatched. He is probably the Raptors' third-best off-ball defender, and they've allowed a stingy 101.6 points per 100 possessions whenever he mans the 3 (97th percentile), although the sample size isn't especially large.

    Guaranteed playing time is all that keeps Davis from climbing another spot or challenging for a first-place finish. He is averaging only 17.3 minutes per game on the season and has received marginally more burn over his past 25 outings.

2. Duncan Robinson, Miami Heat

9 of 10

    Phelan M. Ebenhack/Associated Press

    Duncan Robinson is yet another hidden gem the Miami Heat have unearthed. It is patently unfair how many they've found over the years. Many of them are still on the roster. Kendrick Nunn didn't totally come out of left field, but Robinson, Derrick Jones Jr. and Chris Silva are all major Ws for their developmental program.

    Nobody's emergence is more of a surprise than that from Robinson. He played for a Division III school before taking his deadeye shooting to Michigan.

    And on that note: Holy deadeye shooting.

    Robinson is canning 43.8 percent of his three-point attempts, including 44.4 percent of his catch-and-fire missiles. Not all of his opportunities are effortless. A majority of his long-range scores are open looks, but one-quarter of his looks come with a defender between two and four feet. The NBA dubs this a "tight" shot, and Robinson is converting 38.7 percent of his treys in these situations. He's also 10th in field-goal attempts off screens, many of which are jumpers.

    Expecting Robinson to journey much further outside his wheelhouse is unrealistic. The Heat don't need him to thoroughly deepen his offensive armory. But he has baked in a few more tricks. He's getting better at making sharp cuts to the basket and pump-faking into straight-line drives, and he's even flashed the occasional stop-and-fade when scampering inside the arc.

    Niche scorers aren't sexy, but the progression of Robinson's career arc is astounding. He's gone from being undrafted to sticking with the Heat to averaging almost 30 minutes per game as a pivotal part of the rotation for the Eastern Conference's No. 4 seed.

    If his season isn't the definition of a demonstrative surprise, what is?

1. Devonte' Graham, Charlotte Hornets

10 of 10

    Nell Redmond/Associated Press

    Devonte' Graham is admittedly riding an extensive cold streak. He's shooting only 38.5 percent on twos and 33.2 percent from deep over his last 27 games. The outside chance he had at earning All-Star Game consideration—he did participate in the Three-Point Contest, at least—faded long ago.

    Whatever. Graham's entire season has still unfolded like one massive surprise.

    He is fourth in pull-up three-pointers, behind only James Harden, Damian Lillard and Trae Young, and 15th in possessions finished as a pick-and-roll ball-handler per game. His three-point clip may be cratering, but he's still at 37.4 percent from downtown for the year. No one else is averaging at least 15 points and eight assists per 36 minutes while matching his outside clip.

    The lifeline-like role he has assumed for the Charlotte Hornets is not one he's supposed to be filling. They never actually replaced Kemba Walker, but if anything, Terry Rozier's three-year, $56.7 million contract implied that he would be charged with the team's offensive livelihood.

    So much for that.

    It is Graham, not Rozier or anyone else, who has kept the Hornets offense afloat. They're scoring 13.6 points per 100 possessions more when he's on the court, the fifth-largest swing in the entire league, trailing only Young, Danilo Gallinari, Chris Paul and Karl-Anthony Towns. Charlotte's effective field-goal percentage is also dropping by 5.8 points when Graham catches a breather, the fourth-fattest differential among all players.

    Nearly everyone on Charlotte's roster feels the squeeze when he sits. The Hornets don't have someone who can put the same type of pressure on defenses with an amalgam of off-the-dribble threes and probes into the lane.

    Rozier himself has needed the safety net Graham provides as much as anyone. He isn't cut out for running an offense and leaves much to be desired as a from-scratch scorer. His own effective field-goal percentage plunges by 9.2 points when he's riding solo.

    This roster-wide dependence on Graham cannot come as a long-term comfort to the Hornets. They're forever away from .500 and are posting a bottom-four point differential while saddling him with a cornerstone's workload.

    That by itself makes Graham this year's biggest surprise. He is, for better or worse, the league's most unlikely building block.

    Unless otherwise noted, stats courtesy of NBA.com, Basketball Reference or Cleaning the Glass. Salary and cap-hold information via Basketball Insiders, Early Bird Rights and Spotrac.

    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.