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NBA Daily: Biggest Surprises – Southwest Division

Jordan Hicks continues the Biggest Surprises series with a look at the Southwest Division, two former MVPs and a rising star in New Orleans.

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We are now about two weeks into the NBA regular season and things have been far from boring. Both teams in Los Angeles are rolling and, among other things, the Phoenix Suns might be good at basketball again. If you thought this would another boring season in which a transcendent franchise floated to the Finals and collected an easy-as-you-like ring — well, rest knowing that the odds of that happening are about as good as someone from Basketball Insiders making an NBA roster. Parity amongst teams hasn’t been this abundant in years, so buckle up – this topsy-turvy campaign is just getting started.

We’ve already discussed some of the biggest surprises out of the Northwest Divisions, so in continuing the series, we’re now going to turn our attention towards the Southwest. Home to the European duo, Gregg Popovich, Ja Morant, The Beard and Zion Williamson himself, there’s plenty to discuss. Let’s take a look at four of the biggest surprises out of the Southwest thus far and how each one will impact their respective team’s season outlook.

Brandon Ingram’s Hot Start

No one expected Ingram to outright bomb. Let’s face it, he was one of the bigger names in the Anthony Davis trade that headed to New Orleans — his addition to the Pelican’s roster was supposed to be a meaningful one.

But, already, Ingram’s play has been stellar. In the absence of Zion Williamson, who is expected to miss the first six-to-eight weeks of the season more on this later, Ingram has been the absolute high-point to the Pelicans’ less-than-stellar start. New Orleans has opened up the season with four straight losses, albeit on a rather difficult schedule. But Ingram is most certainly not to blame.

In four starts, Ingram has averaged 27.3 points, 9.5 rebounds, 4.8 assists and 1.3 blocks. He’s doing this with shooting splits of 50 percent from the field and 50 percent from three-point range over seven attempts per game. Are these numbers realistic as far as the whole season goes? In Ingram’s case, probably not. But it is supremely promising given that he is playing this well in an entirely different city, for an entirely new team, in an entirely different system.

He may not average a near double-double for the season, but there’s little reason to believe these numbers will dip too much. Once Williamson returns, Ingram may even have more space to work with as teams will likely key in on the No. 1 overall pick. Bright skies remain ahead in New Orleans — for now, it’s thanks to Ingram.

James Harden’s Slow Start

The former MVP winner is currently averaging 29.3 points and 8.7 assists, which is crazy considering the fact that he is now sharing the court with Russell Westbrook — who is at least twice as ball-dominant as Harden’s former teammate, Chris Paul. Those numbers seem great — and by no means poor — but as far as efficiency goes, they’re a major step down.

Harden made his name thanks in part to the efficient way in which he scores. But, so far this season, baskets have not come easy. His efficient field goal percentage is a dismal 33.3 percent. That number is dragged down considerably due to a torrid 15 percent clip from three-point range on over 13 attempts per night.

Will this number improve? You’d think it has to. But the fact that Harden is playing with a new teammate whose style of play has the ability to hinder other’s production will cast doubt on any significant improvement, at least in the short run.

The Rockets are still off to a solid start and remain a favorable pick to make the Western Conference Finals. If Harden can’t find his shot, however, their season could look worrisome fairly quickly.

Zion Williamson Missing Significant Time

Not that his injury was an incredible shock — any player can fall victim to the injury bug, particularly Williamson — but the hype surrounding the top selection made it that much worse. The surprise, when news broke that he’d be missing six-to-eight weeks following minor knee surgery, postponed one of the biggest debuts since LeBron James in 2003.

The generational prospect tore through the preseason. Yes, you’re probably thinking: It’s just preseason. And you’d be right, but Williamson scored 23.3 points on 71.4 percent from the field in his four appearances. It’s not just the insane efficiency that stood out, it’s how incredibly dominant and composed he appeared in the thick of dominance.

The NBA took a major PR blow with the China-related activities before the start of the season, so losing the new wonderboy mere days before the regular season tip-off may have compounded the damage. Either way, Adam Silver – just like every fan in the world – is hoping for a swift recovery for Zion. The sooner he gets back, the happier everyone — but mostly Alvin Gentry and David Griffin — will be.

Russell Westbrook Is Efficient

Now, in complete contrast with his new teammate, Westbrook has hardly missed a beat. As of now, he’s 0.3 assists shy of averaging a triple-double through three contests on 24.3 points and a would-be career-high of 12.7 rebounds.

What is most surprising is how efficient he’s been — and if the season were to stop now, he’d have shot career-best in overall field goal percentage, three-point percentage, two-point percentage and efficient field goal percentage. Furthermore, Westbrook has only been relatively close to 36.4 percent from three-point range once in his career and that was 34.3 percent back in 2016-17. He’s only finished above 50 percent from two-land once, as well, in 2015-16.

There is a high chance that Westbrook reverts back to the mean. But, then again, just as was discussed with Harden, perhaps the new scenery is bringing a version of the other former MVP that once seemed inconceivable. If this is the case, the NBA fanbase – specifically those who are located in and around Houston, Texas – are in for a massive treat. Efficiency has quite literally been the one single thing holding Westbrook back in his career.

It’ll be November before long — but we’re still very early in the 2019-20 campaign. For the players mentioned above, narratives have already begun to write themselves and certain guys will either live up to the challenge or wallow in defeat.

So far in the Southwest Division, the Rockets and Pelicans have stolen most of, if not all, of the headlines. The Dallas Mavericks, San Antonio Spurs and Memphis Grizzlies still have plenty of time to surprise the rest of the league — whether it’s making the playoffs, falling just short or a million other possibilities along the way.

As the season goes on, pay attention to the teams and players that stick out. You never know who the next under-the-radar All-Star will be or the surprise No. 6 or 7 seed that knocks off a top dog. So, as you wait for more entries in our series, sit back and relax! We have a long season ahead of us with plenty of popcorn-worthy moments to come.

Jordan Hicks is an NBA writer based out of Salt Lake City. He is a former college athlete and varsity sports official. Find him on Twitter @JordanHicksNBA.

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