Celtics' Biggest Early-Season Surprises
The Boston Celtics had a fairly decent idea of what to expect entering the 2020-21 NBA season.
Jayson Tatum started his all-universe ascension last season. Jaylen Brown had established himself as one of the more steady sidekicks in the business. A healthy Kemba Walker has long been a headache for opposing defenses. The offseason addition of Tristan Thompson addressed a need for more length and strength on the interior.
Even if it wasn't entirely clear how they would replace Gordon Hayward, the Shamrocks seemingly had a good feel for where they stood in the NBA pecking order.
But the campaign hasn't been short on surprises, and that's no different in Boston. We've spotlighted three of the biggest eyebrow-raisers through the quarter mark.
Jaylen Brown's Superstar Ascension
As mentioned before, word had long ago leaked that Jaylen Brown was good. But even his most optimistic believers might not have seen this coming.
In a single offseason, Brown went from being Robin to Tatum's Batman to now standing on apparently equal ground like the double Spiderman meme. Brown's usage percentage spiked from 24.7 percent last season (then a career high) to 31.2, a hair above Tatum's 31.0 for the team lead. Brown's other statistical categories have surged right along with it.
His scoring is up to 26.4 points per game. His increased playmaking role has led to big rises in assists (2.1 to 3.5) and assist percentage (9.7 to 19.1). This volume hasn't hurt his efficiency, either. Rather, it's ascending right along with it. His 24.9 player efficiency rating and 61.4 true shooting percentage both tower over his previous bests.
"His biggest improvement and where they really developed, off the dribble. He's really tough," Philadelphia 76ers coach Doc Rivers told reporters. "... Great in-between game, great all the way to the basket, great threes. When you have all of those things, you're one of the better offensive players in this league. And he is."
Marcus Smart's Distributing
Replacing Hayward's 17.5 points per game was never going to be easy, especially when the production was paired with the ruthlessly efficient shooting slash line of 50.0/38.3/85.5. That remains a work in progress for the Celtics.
But when Boston had to replace Hayward on the fly in last year's playoffs, his playmaking ability loomed as the bigger loss for this offense. Beyond banking on further strides from Tatum and Brown in that department, it wasn't clear where the Celtics could turn to grease their offensive gears.
Enter Marcus Smart—the longest-tenured player on the team.
Celtics fans probably felt they knew Smart's game inside and out by this point, but the seventh-year guard has surprised with his ability to attack the playmaking void. After never averaging five assists through his first six seasons, he's now dropping 6.1 dimes a night. Equally impressive, he's posting his best assist percentage ever (25.4) while keeping his turnover percentage (12.2) well beneath his career rate (14.7).
Payton Pritchard's Early Impact
Payton Pritchard was the 26th pick of the 2020 draft. At that point of the talent grab, teams are simply throwing darts in hopes that one might connect on an eventual rotation player.
Well, Pritchard has already scratched that itch.
Before being sidelined by a sprained knee, the first-year guard had provided a badly needed backcourt spark for an offense playing without Kemba Walker to start the season and seeing little return on the offseason investment in Jeff Teague. Pritchard didn't wow with volume—who would in only 20.9 minutes a night?—but his efficiency was off the charts: 48.8 percent shooting overall, 42.5 percent from deep and 90.0 percent at the line.
It's early, so feel free to question the sustainability of this small-sample success. But for a late first-round pick, he's probably already done enough to exceed expectations.