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Head-to-Head: Biggest Surprises in the East

Basketball Insiders’ Jessica Camerato, Moke Hamilton and John Zitzler debate over the East’s biggest surprises, including the Pacers.

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The Eastern Conference, while not as competitive or tough as the Western Conference from top to bottom, is always full of surprises. In this week’s edition of head-to-head, we asked Jessica Camerato, John Zitzler and Moke Hamilton to tell us what the biggest surprise in the East has been.

K.J. McDaneils is a second-round pick on the worst team in the NBA. In a winless season, he has been a bright spot on the Philadelphia 76ers.

The 6’6 swingman from Clemson University is ranked fourth in scoring among rookies. He is averaging 9.1 points, 2.1 rebounds and 1.3 assists through eight games.

It’s his 1.63 blocks, though, that are grabbing the most attention. McDaniels ranks second among rookies in that category, behind only fellow teammate, Nerlens Noel (1.67). McDaniels is five inches shorter than Noel.

When analyzing blocks per 48 minutes, McDaniels averages the most of all rookies with 3.27. He has demonstrated this level of defensive potential while coming off the bench in all but one game.

The 76ers are struggling this season, but McDaniels has provided highlights in spite of their losses.

– Jessica Camerato

If the NBA season ended today, the Brooklyn Nets, New York Knicks and Charlotte Hornets would all be on the outside looking in. Any one of those teams can fairly be called a surprise after four weeks of NBA play.

The biggest surprise, however, is that four of the five teams in the NBA’s Central Division would be in the playoffs. In some ways, one could make sense for the Milwaukee Bucks managing to remain a few games over .500 at this juncture of this season.

But I would challenge you to tell me that you predicted that the Indiana Pacers would have somehow remained relevant after losing both Paul George and Lance Stephenson and being forced to begin the season without starting power forward David West.

West suffered an ankle injury that caused him to miss the first 15 games of the regular season for the Pacers, only recently making his debut. Rodney Stuckey, George Hill and C.J. Watson have all dealt with injuries, as well.

Still, somehow, Frank Vogel has kept his team playing.

Somehow, behind Roy Hibbert, Chris Copeland, Donald Sloan, Solomon Hill and A.J. Price, the Pacers have put together spirited efforts thus far in the early season and have scored some eye-opening victories over some of the league’s more talented teams.

The Miami HEAT, Chicago Bulls and Dallas Mavericks have all fallen victim to what was thought to be an under-talented team. After beginning the season at just 1-6, the Pacers have put together a 6-3 stretch and are playing the brand of hard-nosed, hard-working basketball that has been the earmark of their success in the Eastern Conference over the past few years.

As it stands, Solomon Hill, Lavoy Allen and Donald Sloan lead the team in minutes, rebounds and assists per game – and they’re winning.

Thanksgiving has come and gone and with the Eastern Conference seemingly improved across the board, most believed that the Pacers would be on the outside looking in. Before the season began, West shared similar sentiments.

Yet still, here they are. The Pacers rank fifth in the league in points allowed (94.4) and still seem to have an identity and a belief in themselves.

That’s good coaching, but it also happens to be something else: The biggest surprise in the early goings of the Eastern Conference.

– Moke Hamilton

After finishing last season with the worst record in the NBA not much was expected out of the Bucks. Sure, they added Jabari Parker and made a coaching change with Jason Kidd, but expectations remained relatively low. Well don’t look now, but the Bucks are 10-7, and as of today have the fourth best record in the East.

While there may not have been dramatic changes to the roster, having a healthy Larry Sanders back has made a huge difference. His presence around the rim alone makes the Bucks a different team on the defensive end. Under the guidance of Kidd and with Sanders back at full strength the Bucks have been holding opponents to a stingy 97.8 points per game, a significant improvement from a season ago when they gave up 103.7 points a night. Their defense has played a major factor in the Bucks early season success but it hasn’t been the only reason. Jabari Parker has been productive, 11.7 points and 5.9 rebounds per game, despite being only 19 years. O.J. Mayo is in noticeably better condition and seems to be much more motivated after struggling in his first season with the Bucks. Mayo has cooled off a bit as of late, as he is shooting is only 40 percent from the field and 33.3 percent from three, but many nights has provided the Bucks with a much needed lift on the offensive end. The team’s other 19 year old, Giannis Antetokounmpo, has made tremendous strides since his rookie season and continues to impress. Brandon Knight is off to a strong start leading the Bucks in scoring at 18 points per game and is shooting a career best 38.9 percent from three, while dishing out 6.2 assists per game.

It must be said that the Bucks haven’t exactly played the toughest schedule in league thus far, so expectations going forward still need be tempered. However, Jason Kidd has done a terrific job early on and has the Bucks looking like a surprise playoff team in the East, something that even the most optimistic fan couldn’t have imagined just a season ago.

– John Zitzler

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