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Nine Pleasant Surprises From the NBA’s First Month

From new faces in new places to lottery picks making the Leap, we show some love to the most surprising starts from around the league

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

It’s easy to get caught up in the disappointments of a new NBA season—to focus on the injuries that wreak havoc on teams’ best-laid plans, on wobbly starts for would-be contenders, and on the woes of the bottom-feeders who just can’t ever seem to stop stepping on rakes. But amid the bummers and signs of dysfunction, the first few weeks of the 2019-20 NBA campaign have also featured a slew of players shining brighter than we expected, showing off refined skills, expanded games, and an unanticipated capacity to impact the game.

Rather than simply staring at the gray clouds, let’s spare a moment to celebrate some of those silver linings, starting with players who have taken full advantage of a chance to step into a larger role:

Shining With New Opportunities

Malcolm Brogdon, Pacers

I had some reservations about Indiana heading into the season, largely about how a team without Victor Oladipo, Bojan Bogdanovic, Thaddeus Young, and Darren Collison—four of the Pacers’ top six scorers last season—would consistently generate points. I loved the idea of importing Brogdon to pair with a healthy Oladipo, but wasn’t sure he had the juice to serve as the every-possession focal point of a quality offense. Through 11 games, though, Indiana sits at 7-4 and eighth in offensive efficiency, with the former Rookie of the Year making such concerns look downright silly.

We knew that Brogdon, one of just 10 members of the 50-40-90 club, could be an efficient contributor on a good team. But he’d slotted in as a complementary option alongside Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton, and Eric Bledsoe in Milwaukee, averaging just 57.2, 55.7, and 52.3 touches per game; among 50-40-90 types, only Steve Kerr and José Calderón scored less. How would he handle life as a no. 1 option in Oladipo’s absence? Just fine, thanks: Brogdon’s up to 86.4 touches per game, eighth most in the league, with only Luka Doncic, Trae Young, James Harden, LeBron James, and Damian Lillard logging a higher average time of possession. He’s operating like a ball-dominant superstar, and he’s producing like one, too.

Brogdon is averaging 20.7 points, 8.5 assists, 5.2 rebounds, and 1.1 steals in 33 minutes per game—all career highs. His 3-point shooting has dipped, due in part to a significant shift in his shot diet from catch-and-shoot 3s (which he drilled at a 47.5 percent clip last season) to pull-up attempts he’s creating himself (on which he shot 26.7 percent in 2018-19). He has mitigated that decline, though, by using his 6-foot-5, 229-pound frame to bulldoze his way into the teeth of the defense. Brogdon ranks sixth in the league in drives to the basket per game, penetrating to generate good looks for himself (55.1 percent at the rim on 6.3 attempts a night) or teammates (2.4 assists out of drives per game, fifth best in the league), or to get himself to the free throw line, where he’s missed just one of his first 49 freebies.

In his first run as the top option on a team, Brogdon has managed to pull off the elusive trick of maintaining his efficiency despite a huge uptick in usage. He’s using more than 27 percent of Indiana’s offensive possessions, assisting on nearly 39 percent of his teammates’ baskets, and posting a true shooting percentage of 58. Before this season, the only players to match that combination over a full campaign were Hall of Famers, future Hall of Famers, and peak Kevin Johnson. That’s not necessarily how you might think of Brogdon. But it’s looking like he’s capable of quite a bit more than we expected, which is great news for the Pacers; with Oladipo reportedly unlikely to return from right knee surgery “until December or January,” Indiana will need all the scoring and playmaking that Brogdon can offer.

OG Anunoby, Raptors

Kawhi Leonard left a pretty massive hole at small forward in Toronto’s starting lineup; it’s not easy to replace arguably the best player in the world. Anunoby’s been doing his damnedest, though, putting up career-best numbers across the board before suffering a scary injury when Leonard, of all people, inadvertently gouged his right eye in Monday’s loss to the Clippers.

Though he played 74 games as a rookie, many expected Anunoby’s second season—one he entered off a summer of skill work, rather than the rehab he had to do following the ACL tear he suffered in college—to be his breakout campaign. But a move to the bench behind the arriving Leonard and the ascendant Pascal Siakam, combined with a litany of setbacks, led to a season that fell far short of expectations. Leonard’s exit opened the door for a fresh shot at a major role, though, and the 22-year-old has responded with signs of growth in his off-the-bounce game, and as a passer capable of acting as a complementary facilitator:

He’s looked increasingly comfortable when working on either end of the pick-and-roll, too:

Anunoby’s assist rate is up and his turnover rate is down. He’s posting a career-best 66.9 true shooting percentage on a shot distribution that would give a Moreyball enthusiast the vapors. His defensive work has remained elite, too: Opponents are shooting just 37.1 percent against him this season, according to NBA.com’s tracking data, and he’s logged 25 combined blocks and steals, including some strong-arm robberies that really make you think Siakam might not be Toronto’s purest Kawhi-in-the-making candidate:

“He can do a little bit of everything,” teammate Fred VanVleet recently told reporters. “He’s growing each game and he’s blossoming.” The prospect of Anunoby—who still has two seasons left on his dirt-cheap rookie deal, and is eligible for an extension next summer—reaching full bloom alongside Siakam on a team with the financial flexibility to go big-game hunting gives Raptors fans plenty to be excited about for both the short and long term.

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Thunder

It’s not necessarily surprising that Gilgeous-Alexander is off to a strong start in Oklahoma City; he established himself as a stud early in his rookie season in L.A., shined during the Clippers’ run to the postseason, and was viewed by many as the jewel of the Thunder’s monster haul in the Paul George blockbuster. It’s been more than a bit eye-opening, though, to see just how big of a jump he’s taken from Year 1 to Year 2. Gilgeous-Alexander isn’t just a “future” star; he’s already knocking on the door.

SGA’s averaging 20.1 points, 5.8 rebounds, and 3.1 assists per game this season. The list of players 21 and younger to go for 20-5-3 for a full season: four Hall of Famers (Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Adrian Dantley, Tracy McGrady); two surefire future Hall of Famers (Kobe Bryant, LeBron James); two of the best young power forwards of the previous generation (Chris Webber, Elton Brand); three Rookie of the Year winners (Blake Griffin, Luka Doncic, Tyreke Evans); and Antoine Walker (Antoine Walker).

That’s impressive, even before you get to the part about Gilgeous-Alexander improving his shooting efficiency—40.4 percent from 3-point range on 4.3 attempts per game—despite a significant increase in usage while shifting from life as a possession-initiating point guard to a new role as a high-volume shooting guard. It’s not easy to make such significant transitions so smoothly. But then, “smooth” is kind of the key word for everything about SGA’s game.

He sort of slinks and slithers around the court, hypnotizing you with his unique rhythm before inducing wingspan whiplash by corralling the ball a half-second before or after you expected, then rising up for a good look before you can do much about it:

Gilgeous-Alexander seems to have adjusted fine to working alongside a ball-dominant point guard in fellow new arrival Chris Paul; the Thunder have been competitive in their minutes, getting outscored by two points in 243 minutes when they share the floor. In a perfect world, maybe Sam Presti and Billy Donovan just toss the keys to the kid and let him get a head start on life as OKC’s next signature star. In this world, though, teams don’t exactly seem to be falling all over themselves to take on CP3’s massive contract, and the Thunder owe Dennis Schröder $31 million for the next two seasons, so SGA’s going to spend some time getting accustomed to life off the ball. How the timeshare in the Oklahoma City backcourt will shake out remains to be seen, but if the early returns are any indication, Gilgeous-Alexander’s got the goods to thrive in whatever situation he finds himself in.

Top Picks Making the Leap

Luka Doncic, Mavericks

My Ringer teammate Jonathan Tjarks recently went in-depth on the next stage of Doncic’s development in Dallas, with the reigning Rookie of the Year entering his second season firmly in control of a roster purpose-built to both fully unleash his individual gifts and extract the maximum value he can add to complementary players as a transcendent playmaker. That a player with Doncic’s pedigree and talent is on the road to a no-doubt-about-it All-Star berth is no shock, even in a crowded West.

You’re within your rights, though, to find yourself slack-jawed when you look at just how much he’s already producing as he duels with living legends and turns every Mavs game into an opportunity to see something truly special.

Doncic is averaging 28.3 points, 10.3 rebounds, and 9.1 assists per game, serving up that pure uncut Oscar-and-Russ shit while also maintaining a true shooting percentage north of 60. The only other players marrying usage and efficiency at that level are stylistic forebear Harden, rampaging Steph-alike Lillard, and Giannis, who’s following up his MVP season with an even more scorching start. Luka hasn’t even played his 100th NBA game yet, and that’s the company he’s keeping right now. On a similar note: If Doncic does make the All-Star team this season, seemingly a lock barring injury, he’ll be just the ninth player to earn the honor before his 21st birthday. (He turns 21 on February 28.) The other eight: Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Magic Johnson, Kevin Garnett, Isiah Thomas, Kyrie Irving, Anthony Davis, and Shaquille O’Neal.

That’s the sort of rarefied air Doncic is flirting with entering, a stratosphere he seems to grow closer to with every no-look laser and stepback bomb. At this point, I’m not sure I even have an idea what his ceiling might look like; I’m not really sure anybody does. It’s awfully fun to watch him search for it, though.

Brandon Ingram, Pelicans

The fourth-year forward’s working through a sore right knee, but he’s taking full advantage of the opportunity presented by the absence of no. 1 overall pick Zion Williamson and the struggles of veteran stalwart Jrue Holiday to establish himself as New Orleans’s new no. 1 offensive option.

After coming over from the Lakers in the offseason blockbuster that landed Anthony Davis in L.A., Ingram has been given a new lease on life and an imprimatur to create with the ball in his hands. In a related story, he’s playing the best ball of his NBA career, becoming a nightly matchup nightmare for opposing frontcourts—too quick for lumbering 4s, too tall and long for small forwards to be able to bother his shot.

He’s locked into one hell of a rhythm as an initiator and finisher, and the result is performances like his 40-point, five-rebound, five-assist outing against the Nets, when he nearly single-handedly brought the undermanned Pelicans back on the road and at times looked like the most irrepressible force on a floor that also featured Kyrie flippin’ Irving:

After an up-and-down start to his career marked by concerns over injuries, inconsistency, and fit, Ingram’s free to just play right now, and you can see how much he’s relishing that. His confidence radiates through the screen; as he recently told Vincent Goodwill of Yahoo Sports, “I love the process of who I’m becoming.”

As cool as that’s been to watch, though, it has yet to translate into meaningful on-court success for the Pelicans. New Orleans has stumbled out of the gate, losing eight of its first 10 games to fall into the basement in the Western Conference. The primary culprit: a horrendously leaky defense that ranks 26th in the league or worse in points allowed per possession, percentage of shots conceded both at the rim and from the short corners, and in points allowed per transition chance, according to Cleaning the Glass.

If the Pelicans can’t get stops, they’re going to need to put up buckets in bunches, which could mean plenty more big outings for Ingram in the weeks to come. (It’s worth noting that New Orleans has scored 1.0 more points per 100 possessions with Ingram off the floor than when he’s been on it thus far this season, per CtG, though you wonder if that might start to normalize once Holiday—Ingram’s partner in the Pelicans’ most frequently-used pairing this season—shakes off the brutal season-opening funk that’s seen him shoot just 36.4 percent from the floor and 23.3 percent from 3-point range.) The more often Ingram makes good on his chances to put up crooked numbers, the higher his price tag in 2020 restricted free agency will become.

From the sound of it, though, that’s a problem that a Pelicans front office led by David Griffin would love to have: “We hope he costs us a shitload of money,” a team official told Goodwill. If Ingram keeps this up, the team will get its wish—and he’ll secure what should be one of the biggest bags handed out this coming summer.

Jonathan Isaac, Magic

It’s been a rough start for Orlando, a team expected by many (present company included) to contend for a middle-of-the-pack playoff spot in a shaky East, but that has instead opened up 4-7 thanks to a punchless offense that ranks second-worst in the NBA in points scored per non-garbage-time possession, according to Cleaning the Glass. Isaac, the no. 6 pick in the 2017 draft, has been a rare and noteworthy bright spot, showcasing an advancing offensive game to go with further growth for the defensive gifts that appear to have him on track to become one of the league’s most dynamic stoppers.

Isaac has been unbelievable defensively in the early going. Opponents are shooting just 42 percent against him at the rim, according to Second Spectrum’s player tracking, the seventh-best mark of any player to defend at least 20 up-close shots. He has racked up a league-leading 31 blocks—without a single goaltending violation, according to pbpstats.com—to go with 14 steals, using his 7-foot wingspan, feline quickness, and the bulk he added over the summer to wreck possessions in all manner of ways. (A couple of key points: Isaac keeps his blocks inbounds, with the Magic recovering 77 percent of them to provide the option of pushing the ball against a retreating defense rather than handing it back to the opponent on a side-out; and he’s also doing all this without fouling, committing just 2.6 personal fouls per 36 minutes of floor time.)

He’ll rotate over from the weak side to swat a driver’s layup. He’ll mirror a ball handler step for step and juke for juke, completely swallowing up an isolation from the wing. He’ll slide with smaller guards in space on switches, feint toward ball handlers with one hand to make think he bit on their move before recovering to snuff out their shot with his other hand, and even straight up rip the ball out of the grasp of All-Stars on post-ups and drives:

He’s pairing that All-Defense-caliber work with sharper shooting—35.9 percent from 3 on 3.5 attempts per game, 91.3 percent from the free throw line—and a slight uptick in assist rate, helping keep the ball moving in an Orlando lineup that needs all the playmaking it can get.

“I tell you what: Top to bottom, I haven’t seen a player who has improved more than him in the last year,” Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle told reporters after a 107-106 win over the Magic in which Isaac essentially stuffed Kristaps Porzingis into a locker. “He’s a major factor at both ends. I just love the way he plays.”

The numbers don’t explode off the page—12.1 points, 6.5 rebounds, 1.6 assists per game—but tack on the steal and block numbers, and factor in that he’s doing all this having just turned 22 years old, and Isaac’s list of statistical comparables gets awfully interesting. Even if he never grows into a superstar like Charles Barkley, Kevin Garnett, Tracy McGrady, Anthony Davis, Chris Webber, or Giannis, a streamlined version of even the “lesser” players on that list—an even more athletic Andrei Kirilenko, a Josh Smith or Nerlens Noel who can shoot—still sounds pretty friggin’ awesome, and tailor-made for the way the NBA’s heading.

Players Putting Themselves on the Map

Devonte’ Graham, Hornets

The bad news: After paying him $56.7 million to ensure they didn’t walk away from the Kemba Walker era with nothing, Terry Rozier has begun his tenure as Charlotte’s starting point guard looking remarkably similar to how he looked as Boston’s backup point guard last season—which is to say, he’s missed almost 60 percent of his shots. (Compounding the issue: His turnover percentage is more than double his percentage as a Celtic.) There is good news, though: Even in spite of Rozier’s struggles, the Hornets might’ve found a new point guard.

Despite a stellar four-year stay at Kansas during which he won Big 12 Player of the Year honors and was named a consensus first-team All-American, the 6-foot-1 Graham had to wait until the second round of the 2018 draft to hear his name called. He spent his rookie season shuttling back and forth between Charlotte and Greensboro, where he toiled away for the Swarm, the Hornets’ G League affiliate, without much fanfare. But Kemba’s exit and the resulting shuffle of the Hornets’ backcourt rotation gave Graham a chance to earn a significant role, and he’s seized it with both hands, averaging 18.0 points and 7.3 assists—both team highs—in 31.3 minutes per game off the bench.

The Hornets have been a staggering 19.3 points-per-100 better with Graham on the floor than off it this season, which lays bare both the ineffectiveness of Charlotte’s starters and just how fantastic he’s been since he first checked in off James Borrego’s bench. Graham marries high-efficiency perimeter shooting with high-quality playmaking. Five players rank in the top 10 in the NBA in both total assists and total 3-point makes: Harden, Lillard, Trae Young, Kyrie Irving ... and Graham. And he’s putting that valuable pair together efficiently, drilling his triples at a 42.2 percent clip while posting a 2.58-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio that ranks 11th best among players who use at least 20 percent of their team’s offensive possessions.

Graham has been great in the screen game, producing 0.99 points per pick-and-roll possession used, according to Synergy Sports—just a few ticks below what Kemba put up in Charlotte last season during an All-Star campaign. That seems like an exceedingly all-right place for a second-year point guard to be.

It’s reasonable to wonder, after a rookie season in which he didn’t really distinguish himself for the flailing Hornets, whether Graham’s torrid start is more the exception than the rule. Then again, he shot 40.9 percent from the college 3-point line over more than 700 attempts during his four years at Kansas and 38.3 percent on nearly 10 triple tries a night in the G League last season, with an assist-to-turnover ratio of just under 2.3-to-1 over those five combined seasons. Maybe, with the benefit of a little seasoning and plenty of confidence, this is what he can be: a shrewd, clever, and slick lead guard with a dangerous jumper and an equally dangerous handle.

No, it ain’t Kemba. If you squint, though, it doesn’t look all that far off—which, considering how little most of us knew about Graham a month ago, is equal parts delightful and nuts. Finding a player like him is precisely the sort of good fortune a rebuilding team like the Hornets needs to expedite the process of getting competitive again.

Aron Baynes, Suns

I highlighted Baynes’s contributions to Phoenix’s hot start in Five Most Interesting Teams last week. He’s just kept on rolling since, continuing to knock down shots, spring his teammates with bone-jarring screens, and captain the back line of the defense for a Suns team that blew the doors off the Nets and lost a heavyweight fight against the Lakers in its last two games.

Baynes’s 3-point shooting success—22 makes (already a career season high) of 44, a smooth 50 percent—has reached the point that the Suns are now running inbounds plays with Devin Booker screening to try to get him free for looks from beyond the arc:

Before heading to Phoenix, Baynes had posted four 20-point games in seven NBA seasons. He’s already got four in 10 games this season, all while contributing to an additional 9.5 points per game with his screening, aiding his teammates’ rebounding by ranking third in the league in box-outs, and providing tough, physical defense that’s raising some interesting questions about how exactly Monty Williams might handle his rotation once former no. 1 pick Deandre Ayton returns from his 25-game suspension.

“It’s remarkable the anchor that he’s been defensively, rebounding the ball, communication on defense, knocking down shots,” Williams recently told reporters. “I think the guys feel a level of confidence with him on the floor. I do —I feel confident when he’s on the floor.”

Baynes isn’t going to keep hitting half of his 3-pointers. (Probably. Right?) But even a cooled-off Baynes can still have a major impact on what has been a legitimately fun Suns team—and can still stay on track to have a breakout, career-defining season at the tender age of 32.

Furkan Korkmaz, 76ers

After adding defensive aces Al Horford and Josh Richardson to partner with incumbent stoppers Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, we all expected Philadelphia to rank among the NBA’s best defenses. (Right now, they’re sixth in points allowed per non-garbage-time possession.) The biggest questions facing Brett Brown’s club all came on the other end of the court: With JJ Redick off to New Orleans in free agency, where would a gigantic Sixers team built to bully opponents on the interior find enough perimeter firepower to prevent defenses from packing the paint to stop them? Would you believe “the little-used Turkish dude at the end of the bench”?

Through his first two seasons in Philly, Korkmaz struggled to crack and remain in Brown’s rotation. But the Sixers need space and shooting, so Brown gave the 22-year-old swingman a longer look in the lineup and showed enough confidence in Korkmaz to call his number on the most critical play of a nip-and-tuck battle with the Trail Blazers. Four-tenths of a second left, on the road, Brown dialed up a quick-hitter for the young shooter, and ...

Korkmaz is coming off a run where he hit multiple 3s in seven straight games, and is shooting 40.7 percent from beyond the arc on 4.9 attempts in just 22.8 minutes a night. He remains a weak link on the Sixers defense, but at 6-foot-7 and 202 pounds, he’s got enough size to compete on that end, and Brown seems to like what he’s seen from the third-year man in that regard. (“He’s actually sitting in a stance,” Brown told reporters last week. Progress!)

As a bonus, the more minutes Korkmaz gets and the more confidence he builds, the more fun stuff he seems willing to try with the ball in his hands:

It’s very much an open question how effective Korkmaz will be against elite competition, which will work to batter him away from the ball to keep him from getting clean catch-and-shoot looks and try to hunt him on every defensive trip. Specialists tend to get played off the floor in the postseason; in a few months’ time, his early-season surge might be little more than a distant memory. For now, though, the Sixers need shooting on the wing, and, two years after they imported Korkmaz for just that purpose, he’s giving it to them. It’s a pretty cool story—one of a bunch of them worth celebrating for as long as it lasts.

Statistics are current through Wednesday’s games.

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