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NBA Saturday: Six Early Season Surprises

Jesse Blancarte covers six early surprises to the start of the 2016-17 NBA season.

Jesse Blancarte

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Each offseason the NBA Draft comes and goes, free agency opens and each team’s respective roster starts to take shape. This is when we usually start to form our collective expectations and predictions for the upcoming season. Oftentimes, our expectations and predictions are spot on; other times, they are flat out wrong.

Now that each team has played a handful of games, we can take an early look at which teams, players and trends have surprised us or exceeded our expectations so far this season.

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The Chicago Bulls are Silencing Their Critics

When the Chicago Bulls signed Rajon Rondo and Dwyane Wade this past offseason, the consensus reaction was concern that the team would struggle to feature three primary ball-handlers on one team. Rondo has dominated the ball throughout his career, Wade is in many ways a quasi-point guard despite being a shooting guard and Jimmy Butler has increasingly preferred to play on the ball throughout his career. Adding to the concern is the fact that each of these three players are statistically very poor to average three-point shooters. Three-point shooting and spacing have become essential elements to any modern NBA offense, so the concern was well-founded.

In September, in this space, I wrote about the Bulls’ offense and stated this: “The Bulls are an imperfect team, but there is a lot of collective talent. Coach Hoiberg will have one of the toughest jobs in the NBA this season – managing a locker room with a lot of big names, strong personalities and overlapping talent. He will need to maximize the talent of his supporting cast in order to balance out a team that has plenty of ball handlers, but few well-rounded two-way players and knockdown shooters.”

So far this season, the Bulls are tied for 11th in three-pointers made per game (9.2) and are third in three-point percentage (39.7). So much for the lack of three-point shooting and spacing.

The Bulls have come back down to earth somewhat since their 3-0 start to the season, but they have been moving the ball better than expected, Wade has been particularly good from behind the three-point line and Rondo has facilitated the offense without zoning Butler or Wade out.

There are still symptoms of the issues that many predicted this team would have to deal with, but so far this unusual mix of talent has exceeded collective expectations.

Smooth Transition for the Atlanta Hawks

The Atlanta Hawks have found success over the last few seasons through continuity, discipline and strong coaching. That continuity was tinkered with this offseason when the Hawks decided to trade starting point guard Jeff Teague to the Indiana Pacers and lost Al Horford in free agency to the Boston Celtics. Now, Dennis Schroder is the starting point guard for the Hawks and Dwight Howard replaces Horford at center.

While there were questions as to whether Schroder was ready to be a full-time starter and whether Howard could effectively replace Horford, so far it seems that the Hawks haven’t lost a step. The Hawks are currently ranked second in defensive efficiency, holding their opponents to 94.1 points per 100 possessions. Furthermore, the Hawks are ranked fourth in overall net rating at +9.7.

One of the big reasons why the Hawks have been so effective is the play of Howard. Horford and Paul Millsap had formed one of best defensive frontcourt tandems in the league over the last few seasons, but Howard has stepped in and has made a strong impact so far. He is helping significantly on the boards, which is an area where the Hawks have struggled over the last few seasons. Additionally, he is adding nice rim protection and is intimidating opponents that try to get into the lane. Howard can’t bring the same sort of offensive skill set to the Hawks that Horford could, but he is bringing a good attitude and focused style of play that is helping the Hawks significantly in the early going this season.

DeMar DeRozan Playing at a Superstar Level

DeMar DeRozan has been playing out of his mind so far this season. Basketball Insiders’ Alex Kennedy wrote a great article covering DeRozan’s excellent play this season, which everyone should take some time to read.

Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson Hit and Miss from Distance

Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson are arguably the two best three-point shooters on the planet, but they have been off the mark so far this season.

Last season, Curry made 45.4 percent of his 886 three-point attempts. So far this season, Curry is 19-54 (35.2 percent) from distance and just went 0-10 against the Los Angeles Lakers, ending his 157-game streak with at least one made three-pointer.

As for Thompson, last season he made 42.5 percent of his 650 three-point attempts, but this season he is just 9-46 (19.6 percent) from distance. Even on open set shots, Thompson looks out of rhythm and uncomfortable. The Golden State Warriors are still putting up 107.2 points per 100 possessions, but they are missing the elite three-point efficiency they’ve come to expect from Thompson and Curry.

The Los Angeles Clippers’ Defense

The Los Angeles Clippers have been one of the best offensive teams in the league over the last few seasons. However, their defense has usually been just league average or slightly better, with peaks and valleys each season depending on injuries and chemistry.

So far this season, the Clippers are ranked 22nd in offensive efficiency and first in defensive efficiency.

The Clippers have kept the same core in place for several years now and it looks as though they are finally confident in their defensive system and chemistry. DeAndre Jordan anchors the defense and has been constantly communicating from the backline, acting as the team’s on-court defensive coordinator. Everyone seems to know their rotations, for the most part, and are putting in the extra effort to close out on shooters on the perimeter. The bench players have had some standout performances so far this season as well, and the additions of Marresse Speights and Raymond Felton in particular seem to be paying off so far.

The Clippers haven’t faced any offensive juggernauts yet, but the chemistry and collective attention to defense have been notable so far this season. If their offense can get back to its usual peak efficiency, the Clippers could be elite on both ends of the court this season.

T.J. Warren Takes a Massive Leap Forward

When discussing the Phoenix Suns, most people focus on the star potential of second-year player Devin Booker. However, T.J. Warren has been a standout performer so far this season for the Suns and seems to have taken a massive leap forward in his development.

Here are Warren’s per game statistics over his three-year NBA career, courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com.

t-j-warren-stats-2016-2017

As you can see, Warren has made a massive leap forward in several statistical categories, which coincides with his massive increase in minutes. However, Warren is exceeding his previous production on a per-minute basis as well, as is evident in his per-36 minute statistics.

The Suns haven’t gotten off to a great start this season, but they have a lot of promising young players to build around, including Warren, who is playing the best ball of his career.

Jesse Blancarte is a Deputy Editor for Basketball Insiders. He is also an Attorney and a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

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2018 NBA Draft Diary

#28 – Jacob Evans – Golden State Warriors

Jesse Blancarte

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With the 28th overall pick, the Golden State Warriors selected Cincinnati Junior Jacob Evans.

Evans represents a solid pick for nearly any NBA team. Evans fits in the mold of a potential 3-and-D role player. Evans improved in his time at Cincinnati, culminating in his junior year, where he scored 13 points and 4.7 rebounds per game. Evans spent three seasons at Cincinnati and rounded himself into a versatile two-way player who can bring a lot of value at the NBA level.

Evans is a very cognitive player, especially on the defensive end. He has a better grasp of his limitations than most players at this stage of their respective careers and is able to maximize his individual defensive ability within a team concept. Evans generally makes the right rotations, double-teams at the right times and funnels his opponents to where his teammates are when he cannot contain the ball-handler on his own. With the right coaching, he could become a valuable defensive wing in an NBA rotation sooner than some anticipate.

Additionally, Evans is more than just a shooter. He led his team in assists last season and has some skill as a playmaker. Evans will be more of a shooter and finisher in the NBA, but the ability to make the right pass, swing the ball when he isn’t open and take the ball off the dribble when necessary make him an intriguing prospect. This is especially true when you consider how valuable a player like Khris Middleton has become over the years, adding layers to his 3-and-D skill set each season.

The Warriors aren’t in need of an influx of talent but are happy to add Evans regardless.

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2018 NBA Draft Diary

#27 – Robert Williams III – Boston Celtics

With the 27th overall pick in the 2018 NBA Draft, the Boston Celtics have selected Robert Williams III.

Ben Nadeau

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With the 27th overall pick in the 2018 NBA Draft, the Boston Celtics have selected Robert Williams III.

Although there were early week rumors that the Celtics might try to trade up, they’ve ultimately elected to find a difference-maker at the end of the first round instead. For a team that nearly reached the NBA Finals despite debilitating injuries to Gordon Hayward and Kyrie Irving, Boston’s roster didn’t need a wholesale change on draft night. But at No. 27, they’ll be more than happy to leave with the mysterious-but-talented Williams.

Last year, Williams was viewed as a potential first-rounder before he returned to Texas A&M for his sophomore year. In 2017-18, Williams averaged 10.4 points and 9.2 rebounds on 63.2 percent from the field, fueling the Aggies to a 22-13 record. During this current pre-draft process, Williams looked poised to become a mid-first-round selection once again — but his stock faded as the big night got closer. In fact, Williams even decided to watch the draft with his family, even though he was a green room invitee.

His stock has undoubtedly dropped as of late, but this may end up being the steal of the draft — naturally, he dropped right into general manager Danny Ainge’s lap. Williams, 6-foot-10, is a freak athlete that’ll bring a new look to an already fearsome defensive unit in Boston. At A&M, Williams won back-to-back SEC Defensive Player of the Year honors and averaged 2.5 blocks per game. Of course, he’ll get the opportunity to learn from the hard-nosed Al Horford, a five-time All-Star and the defensive linchpin for Boston — a win-win situation for all.

Williams, 20, joins an extremely young core in Boston that also includes Jaylen Brown, Terry Rozier and Jayson Tatum, among others.

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2018 NBA Draft Diary

#26 – Landry Shamet – Philadelphia 76ers

The Philadelphia 76ers select Landry Shamet with the 26th overall pick.

Dennis Chambers

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With the 26th overall pick in the 2018 NBA Draft, the Philadelphia 76ers select guard Landry Shamet of Wichita State.

Shamet, if he is able to fulfill his potential, should provide the Sixers with some much-needed shooting, as their rotation was noticeably starved for another deadeye sniper.

A career 43.7 percent three-point shooter, Shamet sank 44.2 percent of his shots from downtown last season, and he did so while firing nearly six attempts from deep a game. Sliding Shamet at the guard position alongside franchise point guard Ben Simmons allows for another weapon at Simmons’ disposal.

Standing at 6-foot-5 and 21 years old, Shamet has the size to play either guard spot in the NBA (especially given Philadelphia’s lengthy and versatile lineup). Along with his shooting ability, Shamet also led the American Athletic Conference with 166 assists last season. With Markelle Fultz still a question mark for Philadelphia, Shamet provides a secondary ball-handler and playmaker, whether in the starting lineup or in the reserve unit.

The first round of the 2018 NBA Draft was a whirlwind for the Sixers, and they ultimately land two guards of very separate varieties: an upside-laden athlete in Zhaire Smith, and a skillful “veteran” rookie whose skillset is established.

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