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NBA AM: Unlikely Heroes To Start The 2017-18 Season

Lang Greene pays respect to the unlikely heroes on all 30 teams to start the 2017-18 season

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The stars get paid the big bucks and dominate the headlines, but the production of role players is critical to the success of any team. Today, we’ll take a look at the unlikely heroes for every NBA team to start the 2017-18 season.

Aaron Gordon, Power Forward, Orlando Magic

The Magic (5-2) are currently in a three-way tie for best record in the league. Read that sentence again and let it sink in. Whether the franchise can sustain the early pace is up for debate, but Gordon’s play isn’t. The forward is averaging 21 points, nine rebounds and 2.4 assists on 55 percent shooting from the floor. All are career-highs for the former fourth overall pick in the 2014 draft.

Dwight Howard, Center, Charlotte Hornets

Ever since leaving the Orlando Magic, Howard hasn’t come close to his once dominant peak. A change of scenery to the Queen City may have sparked the former All-Star to another level. Howard is averaging 14.9 rebounds to start the campaign – which would be a career-high if he can sustain the pace.

Eric Gordon, Shooting Guard, Houston Rockets

Gordon was once considered one of the most promising shooting guard prospects in the league. However, injuries seemingly derailed his ascent. To start the season, the veteran is averaging 24.9 points per game while taking on a heavier offensive load with All-Star guard Chris Paul on the shelf.

Kyle Korver, Shooting Guard, Cleveland Cavaliers

Raise your hand if you projected that the best Cleveland Cavaliers shooting guard this season would be Kyle Korver. Those of you with your hands raised are few and far between, but Korver has thoroughly outplayed future Hall of Famer Dwyane Wade and former Sixth Man of the Year J.R. Smith to start the season.

Domantas Sabonis, Power Forward, Indiana Pacers

Sabonis played 81 games as a rookie last season, but was stuck on the depth chart behind veterans such as Enes Kanter, Steven Adams and Taj Gibson. An offseason trade to Indiana has allowed Sabonis to showcase his game and to start the season he’s averaging 12.9 points and 11 rebounds in 26 minutes per game.

David West, Power Forward, Golden State Warriors

In 68 appearances last season, West scored in double figures just eight times. In eight games to start the 2017-18 campaign, the former All-Star has reached double figures twice and is shooting 68 percent from the floor. We know the Warriors are dominated at the top by Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green but what makes Golden State even more special is the contribution from its role players.

Ben Simmons, Guard-Forward, Philadelphia 76ers

Out of sight, out of mind. After missing all of his rookie season, Simmons has performed at elite levels right of out the cereal box averaging 18.4 points, 9.1 rebounds and 7.7 assists on 53 percent shooting from the floor.

Kyle Kuzma, Small Forward, Los Angeles Lakers

If you pegged Kuzma as a summer league only sensation, you might be wrong. The rookie has earned a big role in the Lakers’ nightly rotation and through seven contests is averaging 14 points and five rebounds on 53 percent shooting from the field. Kuzma’s development is one of the main reasons veteran forward Luol Deng is buried on Los Angeles’ bench.

Tobias Harris, Small Forward, Detroit Pistons

Harris has been the Pistons’ best player to start the season and it isn’t close. The forward is currently averaging 20.5 points per game, which leads the team and is a career-high.

DeMarre Carroll, Small Forward, Brooklyn Nets

Carroll earned respect as a gritty and tough wing in two seasons with the Atlanta Hawks. In the summer of 2015, Carroll signed a $60 million deal with Toronto and underwhelmed for two seasons before being traded to Brooklyn this past summer. So far, so good in New York with averages of 14 points per game and 42 percent accuracy from three-point range.

Marco Belinelli, Shooting Guard, Atlanta Hawks

The Hawks lost starting guard Tim Hardaway Jr. to the New York Knicks in free agency this past summer, but the void has been replaced by Belinelli. The veteran is knocking down three three-pointers per game on 55 percent from distance and a career-high 14.6 points through seven contests.

Rodney Hood, Small Forward, Utah Jazz

Losing All-Star Gordon Hayward hurt Utah’s program, but the potential emergence of Hood has been a bright spot. The former Duke university product has emerged as the team’s go to scorer while shooting a career-high 49 percent from the floor.

Kyle Anderson, Small Forward, San Antonio Spurs

Anderson has been an all-around contributor for the Spurs since entering the league, but he never averaged more than 16 minutes in any of his first three seasons. To begin this season, Anderson is averaging 26 minutes per night and pulling 7.1 rebounds while chipping in 7.9 points. The numbers aren’t mind boggling, but he’s been consistent and will make it tough for head coach Gregg Popovich to keep him out of the rotation once All-Star Kawhi Leonard returns from injury.

Emmanuel Mudiay, Point Guard, Denver Nuggets

Mudiay had a rocky sophomore campaign and lost his starting job to veteran Jameer Nelson. But he’s rebounded in year three and despite a five minute decline in minutes is putting up roughly the same numbers (11 points, 3.4 rebounds and 2.6 assists) from his days as a starter.  Mudiay has had trouble consistently knocking down shots, but you have to give credit for producing with a continual decline in minutes.

De’Aaron Fox, Point Guard, Sacramento Kings

The fifth pick of the 2017 draft is turning out to be a player, averaging 13.4 points, 4.3 rebounds and five assists per contest. Fox has been fearless and rather composed for a rookie as evident by his current 2.6 to 1 assist to turnover ratio.

Yogi Farrell, Combo Guard, Dallas Mavericks

Farrell was a feel good story for the Mavericks last season in the backcourt, but the drafting of Dennis Smith Jr. seemingly relegated Farrell to bench duties. However, that hasn’t been the case as Farrell is averaging 30 minutes per contest and scoring 11.9 points each outing.

Dillon Brooks, Small Forward, Memphis Grizzlies

Second round picks rarely pan out, let alone become first year contributors from day one. But Brooks has carved out a nightly role (28 minutes per game) and has performed very well across the board for a Memphis team with playoff aspirations.

Steven Adams, Center, Oklahoma City Thunder

All eyes are on Russell Westbrook, Carmelo Anthony and Paul George in Oklahoma City and rightfully so. But Adams is on pace for a career-year with averages of 14.4 points and 8.7 rebounds on 68 percent shooting.

Kyle O’Quinn, Center, New York Knicks

O’Quinn grabbed double-digit rebounds in 10 out of 79 games last season. So far, he’s accomplished this three times in six games. O’Quinn isn’t going to win any popularity contests, but he’s a role player willing to do the dirty work.

Kelly Olynyk, Power Forward, Miami HEAT

New contract. New uniform. More production. Such is the case for Olynyk in Miami. The forward is averaging a career-high 12.5 points and 6.8 rebounds. But also shooting a career-best 55 percent from the floor.

Ian Clark, Combo Guard, New Orleans Pelicans

Clark spent the past two seasons with a minor role on a title contender. The Pelicans aren’t on that level just yet, but that may be best for a young player looking to carve their niche in the league. To date, Clark is averaging a career-high in minutes (22.6) three-pointers made per game (1.4) and points (7.9).

Terry Rozier, Point Guard, Boston Celtics

It isn’t easy to be recognized while sharing a backcourt with guys such as Isaiah Thomas, Kyrie Irving, Avery Bradley and Marcus Smart over the past few seasons, but Rozier continues to earn minutes in the rotation. Rozier’s current averages in points (9.4), rebounds (5.4), assists (2.3) and three-point percentage (35 percent) are all career-highs in year three.

Jamal Crawford, Shooting Guard, Minnesota Timberwolves

Second on the Timberwolves in three-pointers made. Third on the team in assists. Fifth on the squad in scoring. Crawford, 37, still isn’t showing his age in a standout career.

 Lauri Markkanen, Power Forward, Chicago Bulls

Sometimes an opportunity arises from an unexpected turn of events. For Markkanen, currently averaging 32 minutes per game as a rookie, the opportunity arose from a scuffle among teammates Nikola Mirotic and Bobby Portis in practice. Mirotic is on the shelf with a fractured jaw and Portis is serving a suspension for his role in the fracas. Markkanen is putting up 15.6 points and 9.6 rebounds per game.

Patrick Beverley, Point Guard, Los Angeles Clippers

Beverley is not a top 10 point guard. He isn’t flashy. But Beverly is an elite defender and a tough competitor that doesn’t take nights off. Despite losing All-Star Chris Paul this summer, the Clippers are still in good shape and part of the reason is Beverley’s presence.

Al-Farouq Aminu, Small Forward, Portland Trail Blazers

Aminu had a career year in 2016 during his first season in Portland, but battled injuries in 2017 which led to a disappointing campaign. However, Aminu appears to have rebounded early on and is connecting on 42 percent of his three pointers (career-high) and is a nightly double-double threat.

As we move toward Thanksgiving, Christmas and the New Year, it’ll be interesting to see which players are able to keep up with the pace they’ve set for themselves in the early going.

Lang Greene is a senior NBA writer for Basketball Insiders and has covered the NBA for the last 10 seasons

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