Basketball has been very good so far this season. It’s a nice problem to have when you can’t choose between games to watch on League Pass, or what players and stories to talk about with your friends. It honestly isn’t too surprising, seeing as the league has more parity than it has had in many years, and the league is more talented than ever. Just look around. The sport is overflowing with kids performing beyond their years, aging stars remaining extraordinary, and impactful international players, all of whom make up the teams we watch on a nightly basis. There are about 500 things we could talk about and it’s been only one week. Hopefully, we’ll have time to hit all of them this season. Here are eight of my thoughts after the first week of the season.
Karl-Anthony Towns Is the Big Man Harden
When Timberwolves head coach Ryan Saunders said before the season that he planned to run more offense through Towns, I don’t think anyone thought the 33-year-old coach would use Towns as a big-man version of James Harden. But here we are. KAT regularly brings the ball up the floor and acts as a playmaking hub from the post when the Wolves are in their half-court offense. That is, if he’s not screening and popping out for 3s, he’s rolling for dunks, or isolating and creating his own buckets.
My goodness. That right there is a filthy stepback jumper by a very large man (his tippy-toe was on the line, so it was ruled a 2-pointer). It’s silly to watch, really. Towns has been one of the league’s premier offensive threats for some time, but this is the most he’s ever been featured; he’s averaging 32 points, 13.3 rebounds, and five assists, while attempting an astounding 9.7 shots from 3 per game. Three years ago, Towns told me he grew up inspired by guys like Chris Paul and Dwyane Wade, not just traditional low-post players, which is a common response you hear from bigs today. What’s it going to look like when we get a generation of players who grew up watching Towns?
Bigs are now often empowered to operate outside, too. Towns is shooting a lot of 3s, which is reflective of a fundamental change in Minnesota’s system. With Saunders at head coach under a new front office, led by Gersson Rosas, formerly of the Rockets, the Wolves are attempting analytics-happy shots. They ranked 26th in 3-point attempt frequency last season, compared to sixth through the first week—the second-highest rise in the league behind the Pelicans. Instead of having Towns pick-and-pop in midrange, he’s popping for 3s. And instead of having him post up as another big man suffocates floor spacing, the Wolves are giving Towns room to operate by playing five shooters. When he’s not scoring, he’s picking apart defenses with the pass:
The Wolves aren’t a finished product: Andrew Wiggins is still scoring inefficiently, rookie Jarrett Culver has been a zero so far, and their veteran role players remain inconsistent. But finally it feels like Minnesota is on track; Towns is finally being allowed to be special.
Kawhi Leonard Has Fixed His One Flaw
Leonard has the Jordanesque scoring, the Pippenesque defense, the Duncanesque demeanor, and two rings to show for his legendary blend of traits. Passing has long been his lone weakness. Until this season. Leonard is averaging a career-high 7.5 assists per game as the Clippers have empowered him to run their offense. He was never exactly a black hole; his first years in the league were spent in San Antonio’s “beautiful game” offense, which required all players to have some semblance of playmaking skill. And then last year in Toronto, Leonard displayed more feel for making complex passes. But they lacked velocity. Leonard typically made soft lob passes, like an underhanded baseball toss, which gave defenses time to rotate to his intended target. Now with the Clippers, Leonard is going full Justin Verlander: He’s throwing passes with precision and velocity, in addition to making even more advanced reads. He’s become Point Kawhi.
Watch how Leonard angles his body to keep the defender on his back as he hop-steps into the paint. By doing this, he creates two targets: Patrick Beverley for a corner 3 or Montrezl Harrell for a layup. Leonard looks off Draymond Green, who cheats toward Beverley, so Leonard wraps the pass around a defender to Harrell for the open slam.
Leonard makes it look easy, which is the difference between then and now; the best playmakers complete the simple stuff with little error, and make the hard stuff look simple. Like this:
Leonard has the strength to walk the tightrope as he gets triple-teamed, then throws a one-handed dart to his teammate for a 3. These LeBronian passes don’t always result in an assist, but by enhancing his playmaking he’s even more of a threat. Even if his passes don’t result in an assist, a drive-and-kick leads to an open 3 or another drive against a woozy defense shaken by Leonard’s initial devastating drives. The Clippers need Leonard for his scoring and defense, but entering the season they also needed another playmaker; the team asked, and from Kawhi they have received.
Bam Adebayo Is a DPOY in the Making
I’m becoming an Adebayo fanboy. He can do no wrong on defense, equally capable of stonewalling a bruising post presence like Karl-Anthony Towns or sliding on the perimeter against a penetrating attacker like Giannis Antetokounmpo.
I am a sucker for Adebayo’s high-effort plays—the chase-down block against Eric Bledsoe made my heart skip—which is why I liked him in the 2017 draft. The big question then was whether Adebayo could improve his lateral defending technique on the perimeter and rotate properly off the ball. It has happened. He is sound at making defensive reads and reliable switching across positions, making him one of the league’s elite defensive players. Few bigs are as versatile as Adebayo, and none try as hard as he does. I love Bam. Join the club.
Trae Young Might Actually Be the New Steph
Trae Young sprained his ankle against the Heat on Tuesday, but thankfully it doesn’t seem like the injury is serious. We’ll get to see him try to continue his blazing start to the season soon enough. The best comparison for Young has always been Steve Nash. Young idolized Nash growing up, and this summer they worked out together. Nash’s influence on Young can be seen in the Hawks playmaker’s ability to manipulate defenders with his movements and then laser passes across the court. He makes some truly absurd dishes:
Another big influence on Young is Steph Curry. Blame that on Young’s explosive freshman season at Oklahoma, when Trae was a small point guard making defenses look foolish by launching 3s from outer space. He led the nation in scoring while the Warriors were making a run at their third title in four seasons. But the truth is that Young was never a shooter like Curry; as I wrote this preseason, Curry never shot worse than 38.7 percent from 3 in college or the pros, while Young has never shot better than 36 percent. Young was a theoretical knockdown shooter, but not the real deal. Maybe not until now.
Young looks like he’s stolen Curry’s powers this season. He’s breaking ankles with filthy right-to-left crossovers, like in the clip above, and sinking logo 3s while averaging 34 points on 50 percent shooting on dribble-jumper 3s and 57.1 percent on catch-and-shoot 3s. (He’s also averaging nine assists.) The Hawks are 2-2 largely thanks to Young. These shooting percentages are obviously unsustainable, but the question will be how far they’ll fall.
As a rookie, Young shot only 32.4 percent from 3. But there were always indicators he could thrive from deep: He’s a knockdown free throw shooter at over 80 percent since college, and he has pillowy-soft touch on layups and floaters. Maybe Young just needed to get stronger to launch consistently from deep, and that’s exactly what we’ll find out this season. But even if he’s not quite Steph as a scorer, and not quite Nash as a passer, a hybrid of the two could be enough to have kids wanting to be like Trae.
Russell Westbrook Looks Like a Mini Giannis
Westbrook is finally changing his game, and all it took was a trade to the Rockets, whose fans have ironically blasted him for years as the inferior player to their beloved bearded leader, James Harden. Now that Westbrook is alongside Harden in a brand-new system in a brand-new city, he’s playing the most efficient basketball of his life. It’s been only a few games, but Westbrook, fueled by better shot selection and his proficient scoring around the rim, is posting career highs in true shooting and effective field goal percentage.
Houston’s system and personnel provide Westbrook with more spacing than he’s had before, and he’s taking advantage by speeding past defenders or bullying players underneath the rim, where he can score or find an open teammate. Westbrook suddenly looks like a mini Giannis. And he’s taking smarter shots: Last season, his midrange jumpers came with an average of 13.8 seconds left on the shot clock, but this season, he’s down to 10.8 seconds. Instead of jacking early 2s, Westbrook is probing for shots around the rim or finding teammates. We’ll see how he continues to develop, but right now it’s working.
CP3 Is Good for SGA
Chris Paul is taking touches from Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, and for some, that’s a problem. I get it: CP3 is out and SGA is in. And maybe it’d be nice if Shai was handling the ball more often so he could rack up more pretty assists. But what’s so bad about him getting reps in a system with multiple ball handlers, alongside one of the GOAT playmakers?
After all, most modern offenses utilize more than one ball handler. We already know SGA, 21, can run a pick-and-roll with surgical precision. When he’s playing with Paul, Gilgeous-Alexander also gets chances to spot up and shoot 3s (a weakness he’s turning into a strength), attack closeouts, and create off those secondary chances. And because he’s not expending so much energy handling the ball, he can grind on defense. It’s not ideal for Oklahoma City to have Chris Paul on its roster given his age and cost, but it might be the best thing that’s ever happened to SGA.
Steve Kerr Is Under a New Kind of Pressure
Before the Warriors got their first win of the season Monday, Kerr was pressed about his unwillingness to run Steph Curry through more pick-and-rolls. Kerr said Steph can’t be like James Harden, because the Warriors don’t have the shooting personnel to surround him. Sure, but then what is the purpose of Golden State’s personnel? Are defenses quivering at the thought of Curry screening for Glenn Robinson III or Jordan Poole swinging the ball to Eric Paschall? It’s on Kerr to figure out what works best for his new roster, instead of sticking to what he’s done in the past by running on-ball screens at a near league-low rate.
To Kerr’s credit, the Warriors are in experimentation mode. They are finishing more possessions using the pick-and-roll—27.9 percent, which ranks 24th in frequency per Synergy compared to 18.6 percent and a 30th rank last season. And Kerr is using different rotations. On Monday, Draymond Green started at center, which aided offensive flow by creating space and opening cutting lanes. Through three games, Golden State’s most frequently played lineup has been in the game for only 15 minutes, which ranks 50th in the league. Every team has played at least one lineup more often; by comparison, Toronto’s top lineup has appeared in 70 minutes in only four games. Kerr doesn’t have the luxury to play a lineup like that yet.
It’s on Kerr to figure it out. It’s fun to joke about Curry, Green, and D’Angelo Russell being surrounded by G League players, but these role players aren’t all slouches. We’re about to find out who Kerr really is as a coach, and whether he can adapt and shape his system to best maximize the personnel. The Warriors want to be the new Spurs and win forever, now let’s see if Kerr is the man for the job.
Pascal Siakam Can Win Most Improved Player ... Again
Through four games, Siakam is averaging 27.5 points, up from 16.9 last season. And he’s doing it by playing a drastically different style than he did in the past. Siakam mostly fed off of others—he’d spot up from the corner, cut, set screens, and roll. He was a clean-up guy in the half court who largely created offense for himself when in transition. Now, his open-floor shot-creation skills are translating to the half court in impressive fashion.
Pascal Siakam Play Type Frequency Changes
|Synergy Play Type||2018-19 Frequency||2019-20 Frequency||Difference|
|Synergy Play Type||2018-19 Frequency||2019-20 Frequency||Difference|
|P&R Ball Handler||8%||15%||7%|
|P&R Roll Man||11%||8%||-3%|
The chart above details just how frequently Siakam is creating for others: 48 percent of his possessions are as the pick-and-roll ball handler or from the post, up from 27 percent last season. And his spot-up possessions have been cut from 32 percent to 21 percent. Now, when Siakam does spot up, he isn’t even doing so from the corner, which is the area of the floor he’s historically most comfortable.
Pascal Siakam’s 3-Point Shot Distribution
|Season||Corner 3s||Above the Break 3s|
|Season||Corner 3s||Above the Break 3s|
|Before This Season||65%||35%|
The Raptors are asking Siakam to handle the ball more often to create for himself and others. Even when he’s not running the show, he’s put in a position where he’s struggled. Yet, he’s still excelling: His scoring efficiency has dipped, but he still ranks in the 69th percentile in the half court, per Synergy, despite the sudden shift in responsibility. And he’s carrying the Raptors to a fast start. Stiffer tests await, but just the fact that he’s made leaps in consecutive seasons is reason for optimism.
Player statistics current through Tuesday morning.