“Is this real?” I’ve been asking myself that question a lot during the first month of the season. We’ve got Luka Doncic posting MVP numbers, Cam Reddish playing like he forgot how to score, and Mike Conley looking like a shell of his former self. But will any of it continue over the full 82-game slate?
I went looking for answers to the biggest question on each NBA team using my super-scientific grading system. I’ll award zero to 10 points in each of the following four categories:
1. Check Their History
CJ McCollum’s ascent to stardom seemed sudden, but there were signs it was coming. He averaged a measly 6.8 points as a sophomore, but he flourished when Portland featured him to close the 2014-15 season. He dropped 37 in the Blazers’ first game the following season and never looked back. Questioning his ascent was natural, but he’d flashed enough to believe it, so he would’ve scored highly in this category. Who’d score low? Jeff Green, who has had such a roller-coaster career that you now know not to get high off his highs.
2. Trust Your Gut
I thought Adam Morrison would be a bust when the Bobcats took him third overall in 2006, but there was a segment of the basketball population that compared him to Larry Bird. It was outlandish. But then Morrison scorched defenses to start his career, and I started to question myself. Maybe he’d actually be pretty good! But Morrison flamed out before he was 26. The lesson? Don’t overreact to a small sample that doesn’t jive with what your gut has long been telling you.
3. Assess the Shot Chart
Teams are shooting more 3s than ever and view floor spacing as the backbone of their offenses. Across positions, 3-point shooting has virtually become a requisite skill. If you don’t shoot, it’s hard to find minutes. And if you’re not playing, you’re not for real. That’s why shooting gets its own category. Players will go through hot steaks that fool fans into thinking they actually improved, but it’s the quality that must be studied: Did the player make changes to his form? Is he being used differently? Sometimes there are legitimate reasons for optimism. Often, it’s just a small sample.
4. Consider the Context
How a player improved or regressed, and the context surrounding their shift in production, is crucial to determining their realness. A high-scoring player in this group would put in the hours to keep developing new skills, like tighter handles or better off-hand passing. These are the types of skills that can’t be turned on or off since they’ve been learned, unlike effort. It’s always nice when a player starts trying harder, but it can fade. Remember when Hassan Whiteside, a notoriously apathetic player, began hustling during a contract season? Nobody was surprised when he began underwhelming again once the checks started to clear. Whiteside would have scored low in this category because, in both life and basketball, you learn that personalities rarely change. What does change is skill.
The scores will then be averaged on a scale of zero to 10. High scores mean you should believe what you see. Low scores mean you shouldn’t. Now you know the rules. For the next three days, we’ll take one player from each team, at 10 per day, and ask, “Is this for real?” This is the NBA Reality Check.
Is Luka Doncic an MVP Contender?
Doncic has arrived. It doesn’t matter how you slice it. You like traditional box score numbers? Cool. Doncic is nearly averaging a triple-double, with 29.5 points, 10.7 rebounds, and 9.3 assists. Are advanced stats more your thing? Great. Doncic is posting a 61.2 true shooting percentage and 2.0 assist-to-turnover ratio. He’s played only 13 games, but his 12.1 box plus-minus ranks sixth this century. Who are the players to rank higher before this season? Three players during MVP seasons: Russell Westbrook in 2016-17, Steph Curry in his historic 2015-16 MVP season, and LeBron James twice—in 2008-09 and 2009-10. We’re witnessing a historically great start to the season, and the start of a historically great career.
Doncic, 20, has had many great games in his young career, but Monday’s performance in a win against the Spurs—42 points, 12 assists, 11 rebounds—may best capture his emerging greatness.
Doncic showed off literally every trick in his book, from his stepback 3s to his manipulative drives to the rim that result in touch layups or laser passes to his teammates. And he was clutch, hitting a game-clinching 3-point shot in the final 30 seconds. What’s so mind-blowing about Doncic is that as impressive as the stats are, they pale in comparison with watching the games. Doncic is even better than his numbers. His next challenge will be how he handles teams that game-plan to stop him in the way they do other superstars. If history is any indication, he’ll also pass that test. It’s not too soon to recognize that we’re witnessing the birth of Luka Legend.
Doncic’s reality check score: 10/10
Is Andrew Wiggins an Emerging Star?
Busts can’t win Rookie of the Year, average more than 20 points in a season, and receive $150 million contract extensions. But disappointments can. Until this season, Wiggins posted empty scoring stats, defended like Nate Robinson, and passed like Hassan Whiteside. This season seems different, though. Wiggins is averaging 25.9 points, 5.1 rebounds, 3.6 assists, and 1.1 blocks—all career highs. Counting stats can be misleading, but these are a reflection of his play. Timberwolves head coach Ryan Saunders overhauled the system to emphasize 3-pointers, and is having Wiggins run more pick-and-roll as a ball handler instead of post up. Now Wiggins takes smarter shots (only 16.5 percent have come from midrange, compared with 33.4 percent in his first five seasons) and he’s looking to pass the ball.
I am totally buying Wiggins’s playmaking, because Minnesota’s five-out system creates easier passing lanes. But I would expect his scoring efficiency to dip (he’s shooting 36.1 percent from 3 this season, after shooting 33.2 percent before this season), and when it does, hopefully he won’t fall into old habits. On defense, Wiggins is actually trying. But he’s had his moments before and couldn’t sustain them. Wiggins is having the longest stretch of his career resembling a complete player. I’m cautiously optimistic, but not all in.
Wiggins’s reality check score: 4.3/10
Is Jaylen Brown Making a Scoring Leap?
When Brown dribbled as a freshman at Cal, it was an adventure. Herky-jerky handles work only when it’s intentional or your name is Corey Brewer. Brown would try to change speeds, but looked robotic because he dribbled with such an upright stance, which limited his shiftiness. Now, in his fourth season, Brown seems to know what he’s doing. He’s changing pace and tempo with his dribble to manipulate defenders, and typically getting where he wants. Plays like the one below are becoming a regular occurrence:
Scoring off the dribble was the next step for Brown after improving his shooting mechanics and adding touch finishes around the rim in recent years. Whether or not Brown maintains his current scoring average of 19.5 points will largely be due to factors out of his control—such as the eventual return of Gordon Hayward following rehab after hand surgery—but there’s no doubt his progress is real. Brown signed a four-year, $115 million extension before the season, and that contract could turn out to be a bargain if his ascent continues.
Brown’s reality check score: 8.3/10
Is Mike Conley Rapidly Declining?
New city? New team? New system? All are fair reasons for Conley’s struggles in Utah. He’s averaging 14.8 points and ranked third worst through Monday’s game in true shooting percentage of the 66 players to attempt at least 150 shots. Change isn’t easy. Neither is getting old. Conley is 32, and his age could be just as much of a reason for his severe struggles with the Jazz as anything.
Conley is less than two years removed from season-ending surgery that smoothed out a heel bone aggravating his Achilles tendon. That’s serious. Would it be that shocking for him, at his age, to suddenly decline? Something seems like it’s wrong physically. He’s not moving with the same fluidity he has in the past or getting as much elevation around the rim. Conley is shooting only 52.9 percent within 3 feet of the rim, down from 55.4 percent last season, and from 57.9 percent for the rest of his career. He isn’t even getting to the basket as much; he’s attempting more midrange jumpers than ever, per Cleaning the Glass. Conley has had a great career, and on paper he makes a ton of sense for Utah, but his previous injury, diminishing athleticism, and downward trends are all reasons for concern.
Conley’s reality check score: 7.5/10
Is Brandon Clarke the Grizzlies’ Third Star?
When you tune in to a Grizzlies game, it’s probably to see Jaren Jackson Jr. blocking shots or Ja Morant breaking ankles or Chris Vernon cohosting the halftime show, but the person you might come away most impressed by is Clarke. It doesn’t take long to notice him with plays like this:
Everything Clarke did well at Gonzaga has translated to Memphis, from the athletic finishes (14-for-17 in the pick-and-roll) to his pillowy soft floater (15-for-19 on floaters) to his improved jumper (46.4 percent outside the paint). Here’s a wild stat: Clarke scored 1.25 points per possession as a junior for Gonzaga, and as a rookie with the Grizzlies, he’s scoring 1.23 points per possession. His blend of spot-up shooting and rim-running makes him a perfect target for Morant’s downhill attacking, and a complementary piece next to Jackson. On defense, he’s displaying the same instincts and ability to defend multiple positions that he did in college. Clarke is already good.
I’ve still yet to hear a legitimate reason from any NBA executive I’ve chatted with about why Clarke slipped to the 21st pick. Age is the most cited reason, but it’s not a real reason to take mystery box young guys like Romeo Langford and Goga Bitadze ahead of him. Clarke isn’t a geezer; he’s 23, and his success was a gimme. He and the Grizzlies should only get better from here.
Clarke’s reality check score: 7/10
Is Devonte’ Graham the New Kemba Walker?
Graham stank as a rookie. Now he’s looking like Kemba Walker:
Graham is averaging 18.3 points and hitting stepback 3s like this. The 24-year-old averaged an inefficient 4.7 points over 46 games as a deep bench option in his only season before this one, so it’s fair to doubt him. But what we’re seeing is ultimately a continuation of the upward trajectory that began during four seasons at Kansas. Graham kept getting better in college, first as a microwave scorer, then as a playmaker. Now he also has a tighter handle, especially when going to his right.
Terry Rozier was supposed to be Charlotte’s primary ball handler this season, but Graham (6.9 assists per game) took the keys. Graham won’t be as good as Walker at scoring around the rim, but I’m all in on him as a starting-caliber point guard.
Graham’s reality check score: 6.8/10
Is Eric Paschall a Second-Round Steal?
Paschall was one of my favorite collegiate players to watch in recent years. At 6-foot-6 and 255 pounds, Paschall is a big, burly scorer who plays with youthful energy. Villanova head coach Jay Wright used him all over the floor as a screener, a ball handler, and even as an isolation scorer. Not much has changed in the NBA under Steve Kerr. Paschall is averaging 16.7 points and has already scored at least 30 twice.
Paschall is a hard worker who extended his range and became a good team defender at Villanova, so there’s good reason to believe his 3-point shooting and defense will also improve in the NBA. It hurts that Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson are out, but the benefit is the Warriors can invest in player development that can help in the long run. Paschall could make it all worth it.
Paschall’s reality check score: 7.8/10
Is Lonzo Ball Finally a Good 3-Point Shooter?
Ball changed his trademark (and ugly) slingshot shooting release by bringing the ball to the right side of his body, and it’s working so far. He’s shooting 36.7 percent from 3 this season; factor in his preseason to fatten the sample, and it’s 34.6 percent. Not too shabby! Plus, he’s shooting 69.6 percent from the free throw line, including preseason, up from 43.7 percent in two seasons with the Lakers. So Lonzo has improved with the Pelicans, but he’s still a subpar shooter compared with the rest of the league. It’s a step forward, but consistency for the full season will be necessary for me to fully believe.
Ball’s reality check score: 5.8/10
Is Cam Reddish a Bust?
Reddish is shooting 18.8 percent from 3, 24.4 percent from midrange, 50 percent at the rim, and I’m feeling sick to my stomach just typing this. How can you watch the video below and not feel like there’s nothing good in this world?
Reddish can’t even get by Jerome Robinson on a one-on-one fast break. The fact that his handle hasn’t improved, and that he’s no better scoring around the rim, scares the hell out of me. Virtually every single weakness he had in college has been magnified:
At least his defense has been pretty good for a rookie. Everyone knew Reddish, 20, would take a while to develop offensively, but the red flags are alarming. It’s all made worse by the fact that he’s the second and final piece of the Doncic-for–Trae Young trade. Luka and Trae are both shining. Eventually, Reddish will need to start pulling his weight.
Reddish’s reality check score: 5.8/10
Is Dwight Howard Having a Renaissance?
Here’s my favorite Howard stat: Through Monday’s games, Dwight has logged only seven post-ups this season with the Lakers, or just one every two games. This is a guy who, as recently as two years ago with Charlotte, was third in the league in total post-ups. Howard has always wanted to be Shaq, insisting on post-ups instead of screening and rolling, or standing in the dunker’s spot ready for drop-off passes or to clean up misses. He’s doing it all now: screening, rolling hard, and resisting the urge to call for post-ups.
It’s the same story on defense. Howard isn’t the same as he once was athletically, which shows in his high foul rate. But in limited minutes, he’s displaying his intelligence by communicating and rotating to be in the right position. Howard is hustling too. You’ll find him running up the floor to stop transition attacks, or moving out of his area to alter a shot. Many times Howard has claimed to have a new perspective on the game, but this is the first time he’s actually walked the talk. Staying healthy and maintaining his conditioning for the full season will be the key to his sustaining this level of play, but I have no doubts he’s changed for the better.
Howard’s reality check score: 7.3/10
On Thursday, we’ll look at Giannis Antetokounmpo, Carmelo Anthony, and others. Then on Friday, we’ll finish off the Reality Check with analysis of Russell Westbrook, Ben Simmons, and more.