There is something endearing and hopeful about the NBA preseason. Sure, if you’re not a degenerate like the rest of us, you’re probably ignoring it completely; even if you are watching, it’s probably just to tide you over until the real thing starts. I get it—you’re not exactly out searching for any league-altering developments. But preseason basketball takeaways have a unique charm: Where else can you get excited about small sample sizes with no stakes?
So before the season starts on Wednesday, let’s explore five of the most exciting trending topics of the preseason and what they could mean going forward.
Zion Williamson Is Destroying Worlds
In his first four preseason games, Zion averaged 23 points, six rebounds, and two assists in just 27 minutes. He’s shooting 71 percent from the field and has been the preseason’s most efficient scorer. Fun fact: I tried typing out “small sample size” in the last sentence but it kept autocorrecting to 71 percent. Sure, his shot chart is visually hilarious and brings up a somewhat valid question of whether he can shoot from outside the paint, but also: Why go outside when no one can stop him inside?
Zion's shot chart so far tonight LOL.— Will Guillory (@WillGuillory) October 10, 2019
He's got 29 points in 27 minutes on 12-13 shooting. pic.twitter.com/dlhojKns68
The force of Zion’s historic preseason is strong enough to get us to recalibrate our thoughts about where the Pelicans might finish this season. The roster around him doesn’t seem to have an obviously bad player on it, and even Lonzo Ball’s shot is looking better! Well, sort of. It’s remarkable that New Orleans has emerged from the Anthony Davis trade upheaval with a potentially transcendent player plus a roster that has the makings of a playoff team even in a loaded West. Give me all of that Pelicans stock.
The Non-Zion Rookies You Can’t Ignore
Tyler Herro, Miami Heat
Tyler Herro has the perfect basketball name (think of the nicknames and calls: “Herro Ball,” “Herro Time,” “Herro for Three-o”—you get the point), so it makes sense that he has the perfect shot, too. Herro has lit the preseason on fire and, I kid you not, has already become reportedly “untouchable” in any future Heat trade talks. Who says preseason isn’t important?? Herro went 5-for-5 (four of them 3s) for 14 points in the first five minutes of Monday’s game against the Hawks. That’s exactly the kind of absurd line preseason hype was designed for. Look: Herro is not going to become the next Klay Thompson or JJ Redick in his rookie year, but on a smaller scale, he does provide the Heat with some much needed sharpshooting. And the spacing that kind of threat creates should make things easier for players like Justise Winslow and Jimmy Butler. The Heat are a one-man band with Butler, but if Herro can become an immediate role player, watch out.
Matisse Thybulle, Philadelphia 76ers
You’re an immediate legend in my book if you can get Brett Brown to drop a bar like this: “The gym will speak. And so far, he has spoken. Loudly.” In a handful of preseason games, Thybulle has already done enough to secure himself a spot in the Sixers’ regular-season rotation and generate a whole lot of hype. He is a live wire—a defensive menace who had four steals in the first half of Tuesday’s game against the Pistons. He’s averaging three steals a game and is more of a disruptor than any 20-something currently in Silicon Valley. (His shot, which was a concern coming out of Washington, also looks much improved.)
Some Matisse Thybulle highlights from last night, focusing on his defense.— Tom West (@TomWestNBA) October 16, 2019
He's now averaging 5.6 steals and 2.8 blocks per 36 minutes in preseason pic.twitter.com/tuutNf89P4
Thybulle is ready to contribute right away, and, for a team that already has elite defensive potential and is a title contender this season, finding a rookie like Thybulle is like a millionaire finding an extra $20 in the pocket of an old pair of jeans. I already want to know the stories of why teams let him slip to the 20s in the draft.
Carsen Edwards, Boston Celtics
Say hello to the next … Lou Williams? Isaiah Thomas? Take your pick. In all seriousness, Edwards is already making people regret their concern about his size ahead of the draft. Simply put, Edwards can score at an NBA level already. Preseason game or not, you don’t just start a third quarter by shooting—and making!—eight 3s. Making them might be largely considered the tough part of that equation, but having the temerity to take eight of them in five minutes is equally as impressive. Edwards is probably going to be on the fringes of the Celtics’ rotation once the season starts, and he’s not as consequential to Boston’s chances as Thybulle is to Philly’s, but I bet you Brad Stevens will know just the right times to bring him off the bench.
Ben Simmons’s 3-Point Shot
Can Simmons take and make 3s? Yes. We finally saw him pull up from well beyond the arc at the end of the second quarter of the Sixers’ preseason game against the Guangzhou Long-Lions and swish it. But will he take more once the regular season starts? That’s the more pertinent question. Simmons hasn’t shot another 3 since that make, and though he has seemed to be more willing to take shots outside the paint, I wouldn’t bet my savings—or even the spare change in my car—on him posting up consistently from beyond the arc. I’m not reading into this “trend” until I see more from him, but hey, good for Simmons and the Sixers. That special moment should kick off the championship DVD if Philly wins this season.
I’m selling on seeing this again:
But I’m buying Simmons and the Sixers as a whole. They’re going to be so big and weird and yet so good.
James Harden’s One-Legged 3-Pointer
I love it when this sport reminds us that at the end of the day, this is all just a silly game in which humans put on colorful uniforms with no sleeves, play for teams called “the Pelicans” and “the Jazz,” and shoot a round thing into a hoop. This is why I couldn’t be more in favor of Harden’s newest move: the one-legged 3. It looks like something out of a circus, and while “getting in the lab” is an extremely overworked cliché used to describe offseason work, I like to imagine that Harden put on a white coat and actually spent his summer in a lab trying to concoct new moves for the season. The one-legged 3 may be his most absurd creation yet, and it works (sort of).
Harden is warming up his one-leg move for the regular season pic.twitter.com/tJQCgGQPEn— Steven Candelaria (@StevoCandelaria) October 5, 2019
Who knows whether this move will effectively translate into the regular season (he put up 40 easy points in a game Wednesday). I just hope he keeps shooting it regardless.
Anthony Davis, Best Player in the NBA
If the preseason is any indication, the Lakers’ best player will be the fulcrum of their offense and the anchor of their defense. And no, I’m not talking about LeBron—I’m referring to Anthony Davis. Let’s take a second, for the first of many times this season, to appreciate the endless possibilities this duo will bring. You saw very promising glimpses of it in their game Wednesday against the Warriors, in which they shredded defenses with their playmaking as well as their size. Davis is already unguardable on his own, and putting him next to another instinctive player like LeBron is going to make opposing defenses feel helpless. It’s difficult—impossible even—to label Davis, and even “unicorn” doesn’t really do him justice. On one play, he can look like Giannis barreling down the paint, and on another he can do this:
The Lakers may not have an elite point guard, but they have two elite passers, and Davis is one of them. He also has no issues facing up one-on-one. The baton hasn’t been passed quite yet (LeBron had 18 points, 11 assists, and four rebounds on Wednesday too), but based on what players say about Davis—especially LeBron, who credited AD for setting up this absurd pass to Danny Green on Wednesday—this seems primed to be his coming-of-age season.