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Show Me an Improving NBA Player, I’ll Write You a Blog

Five players who are making the most of new opportunities this season

Cleveland Cavaliers v Milwaukee Bucks Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images

Point Guard: LeBron James

Here’s the thing about the new, positionless NBA: one old head never cared about the traditional definitions anyway. Of course LeBron would excel at point guard when he took over for an injured Derrick Rose on Tuesday against the Bulls, his first time officially manning the position in the starting lineup since 2005. The longtime forward has been bringing the ball up and regularly alternating that responsibility with whichever ball handler he’s playing alongside for years. With the exception of his rookie season, James has led every team he’s ever been on—so, for 14 seasons—in assists per game. (He totaled the second most in his first season, behind Jeff McInnis.)

On Tuesday, James finished with 34 points, 13 assists, and three steals to push the Cavaliers past the Bulls 119-112. “Ever since I was a kid,” James said after the game, “I’ve always learned every position on the floor. When I started playing ball, for some reason, I could learn every single position on the floor, all at one time.”

It sounds like a humblebrag, but as is often the case with LeBron James, it is simply the truth.

Shooting Guard (Sort of): D’Angelo Russell

Revenge will undoubtedly be the season-long theme for young Russell, but something tells me he thrives off of it. His stint with Brooklyn has already seen some fluctuation in his surrounding cast, with Jeremy Lin likely done for the season after just one game. D-Lo has been the primary ball handler since, but that move hasn’t affected the sterling report card that is the third-year guard’s stat line: Four games in with the Nets, Russell is averaging 23 points, 5.5 assists, 4.5 rebounds, and 1.8 steals in under 30 minutes (albeit with 4.3 turnovers).

But his much-improved stats don’t capture the full New Russell experience. For instance, this nutmeg pass against Nikola Vucevic:

Or maybe this other nutmeg pass, also against Vucevic:

The Nets are quickly becoming a League Pass team, and have already [watches out for the masses, including many Ringer staffers] stepped up as the most fun team in New York. They’re now 2-2 after losing to the Magic 125-121 on Tuesday. (Only 19 more wins to beat last season’s record! With Revenge Russell, that should happen.)

Small Forward: Andrew Wiggins

Proof that a lone highlight can change public perception came on Sunday, in a matchup between “superteam” Oklahoma City and Minnesota:

Wiggins hit a deep, buzzer-beating 3-pointer to edge out the Thunder 115-113. The bank, as they say, was open that night.

Minnesota is still stumbling to find its chemistry, rotation fit on offense, and, much to Tom Thibodeau’s displeasure, effectiveness on defense. But, four games in, Wiggins is proving worthy of that five-year, $148 million maximum extension he signed just before the season began. He’s averaging 20.3 points—which is about three points fewer than last season, but with improved efficiency from the field as he shares looks with new additions Jimmy Butler and Jeff Teague. He’s also shooting the deep ball with confidence (36.4 percent) and more often (two more attempts per game) thanks to the open looks the threat of Butler provides.

Wiggins’s trips to the line are horrendous—he’s shooting just 51.7 percent on 29 total attempts—but here’s hoping that, along with Minny’s defense, that smoothes out as the season goes on. In the meantime, enjoy the many positives:

Power Forward: Blake Griffin

There are really important, super-technical observations to make about Griffin’s resuscitation of a season, but first, this dunk:

Roll that back, please? To around the 14-second ma—yes. There.

The arrant confidence that allows one to hang, one-handed, smugly, atop another grown man (a defensive mastermind, at that), never left during Griffin’s time with Chris Paul. But the space to exercise that swagger may have been missing. Griffin is thriving next to Patrick Beverley, who is a more complementary player to this superstar than the Point God (I’m sure it’ll work out, James Harden). It gives the forward space to operate, and not just to drive and hammer one over a dude. Griffin averaged less than one 3 per game in his first six seasons, but he’s now taking six 3s a game. He is also making 3s at a 44.4 percent clip, whereas last season, when his attempts jumped to 1.9 per game, he shot just 33.6 percent.

Small sample size caveats apply. Griffin could cool off as the season continues, and his current career-high 26.7 points per game mark might slightly dip as his hot hand cools to normal temperatures. But Griffin’s revival is about more than scoring—although, with Beverley currently sporting the team’s next-highest scoring average, at 14.7, the Clips hope it’s also very much about scoring—this is finally his team. A little space to stretch his legs—his very healthy, very non-injured legs [laughs nervously, knocks on wood, sacrifices a Chuck the Condor]—has, so far, made Griffin look like the dynamic game-changer he was when Lob City first launched.

Center: Nerlens Noel

Apologies, dear reader, for ending on a negative note. But in the very few minutes that Noel has played this season, there is a discernible difference between the 23-year-old’s abilities and the time Rick Carlisle is giving him to help the team.

Noel is currently averaging 18.5 minutes. He’s started just one game (last Friday’s 93-88 loss against the Kings) as Carlisle opted for a larger lineup with Dennis Smith Jr. out. He was a team-low minus-16 as the Mavs eked out just 88 points, but there were positive signs, especially on the defensive end. Noel has shown signs of steady production when he’s not starting, too: Against the Hawks in the opener, Noel had 16 points and 11 rebounds in 20 minutes; in the most recent game against Golden State, he chipped in eight points and seven boards in just 11 minutes. Noel’s early per-36 numbers also hint that he has the ability to contribute more: 17 points, 14.1 rebounds, and 2.4 blocks.

So why not play Noel, a young talent who needs time to smooth out his edges, more on a(n 0-4) team that appears to be going nowhere? Carlisle’s reasoning for not starting Noel is semi-plausible, saying both that “Dirk at the 5 position is probably the best scenario for Dirk and for our team,” and “I just don’t think that Dirk’s a guy that’s going to come off the bench as long as I’m here.” Team legends wanting to start is nothing new—Kevin Garnett started every game he played for the Nets and Wolves, even as his age crept toward 40 and his minutes dipped below 20. Dirk, at 39 years old, has not only earned the right to start based on past production but also because of the large sums of money he’s forked over in recent years to give the Mavs more space to fill out the supporting cast.

But that doesn’t fully explain why Noel is at the end of the rotation. The alternative is Dwight Powell, whose per-36 numbers pale in comparison to Noel’s. After the Golden State loss on Monday, Carlisle said Noel is playing so little because the defensive matchups have been primarily shooting threats—in that case, Draymond Green—though his 6-foot-11 big man has proved capable of defending the interior and switching onto smaller guards.

Noel and the Mavericks had a messy summer, going back and forth on contract negotiations until the former (after changing agents) signed a one-year, $4.1 million qualifying offer. If the Mavericks have any interest in keeping him, why alienate him now? A cheap contract does no good on the bench.