NBA PM: Two Early-Season Over-Achievers

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The NBA is a game of change and every year players emerge. Sometimes rookies prove to be more developed than anticipated and sometimes veterans display some previously-undiscovered aspect of their game. This season is no different as a pair of players primarily noted for their defense have become unexpected offensive contributors. Semi Ojeleye, a defensive-minded rookie for the Celtics, hit a pair of fourth-quarter threes on Monday to help Boston get a close win in Atlanta. And Luc Mbah a Moute, pigeonholed his entire career as a defensive specialist, has shown unexpected utility on the offensive end for the Houston Rockets this season.

“Semi’s threes were huge tonight,” said Celtics coach Brad Stevens after the win over the Hawks. “We’re going to need everybody to be ready to take advantage of their opportunities.”

Ojeleye fell all the way to the seventh pick of the second round where Boston snatched him up just before the Golden State Warriors selected Jordan Bell. He built a strong defensive reputation in college, but it took playing against NBA competition for Stevens to realize what a special player Boston had found.

“Right now he’s still young in the league but he can do two things really well,” Stevens continued. “He can catch and shoot and he can guard five positions. That’s pretty unique, the five position part. So I think that he’s going to find himself in the game a lot when we need stops or things aren’t going our way defensively.”

Celtics center Al Horford agreed that Ojeleye — who is averaging 6.4 points over his last five games and shooting an impressive 43 percent from three for the season — has been better than expected.

“He’s a rookie but he doesn’t play like a rookie,” said Horford after the win in his return to Atlanta, where he was drafted by the Hawks before joining the Celtics as a free agent. “He’s really comfortable shooting the ball, can really move his feet [and] defend well. He’s the kind of guy that he’s going to keep getting better, he’s going to keep developing. I’m excited to see where he’s at at the end of the year. He’s always staying ready and tonight he hit some big threes for us there in the fourth.”

Meanwhile Mbah a Moute, whose 8.7 points per game and .507 field goal percentage are the second-highest averages of his career, has provided an unexpected offensive lift for the Houston Rockets, who signed him as a free agent this summer.

“Don’t tell anybody … We’ll just keep it a secret,” said Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni after Mbah a Moute scored a season-high 20 points in Houston’s win on Friday in Atlanta. “I hate it for him because he’s the best-kept secret in the NBA.”

Mbah a Moute arrived in Philadelphia in 2014 as part of the trade that sent Kevin Love to the Cavaliers and Thaddeus Young from the 76ers to the Timberwolves. He suddenly found himself as the veteran leader of the youngest team in the NBA. As a result of this new opportunity, Mbah a Moute began to expand his offensive game, attempting 202 three-pointers that season after trying only 103 total in his first six NBA seasons. writer Doug Ammon noted that Mbah a Moute’s average shot distance ballooned from 8.3 feet to 13.3 feet that season.

“We game-planned that his offense was kind of streaky,” said D’Antoni. “But he’s as good as anybody defensively. He’s smart, can play big minutes, can shoot threes. Whatever you want him to do, he does it. He’s got playmaking skills. He sees the floor.

“I don’t know how we all missed it, but we all did.”

Mbah a Moute is averaging only 0.8 assists against a career-worst 1.5 turnovers, so he hasn’t been a huge factor as a playmaker. And this season he’s shooting just .313 from three — below his career .323 average — after shooting a scorching 39 percent on 110 attempts last season for the Clippers. Nonetheless, D’Antoni was effusive in his appreciation for the unexpected offensive capabilities he brought to the Rockets.

Mbah a Moute and Ojeleye remain roleplayers despite the utility they have provided this season. But teams that passed on Ojeleye will question that decision for years to come while Mbah a Moute’s past teams may wonder if they gave him an offensive role that was commensurate with his abilities. It’s still early, but these are two emergent players who have provided unexpected utility to their teams.