What We Learned: Eastern Conference Week 2

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The NBA season is an ever-evolving beast. Even on a week-to-week basis, so much can go right or wrong for any one team.

That’s why Basketball Insiders started our “What We Learned” series. Every week, we’ll break down a few things we’ve learned in either conference. Today, in the season’s second week, we’ll check out what’s going on in the East.

Orlando’s Been Good — What’s Next?

The Orlando Magic have been one of the surprise teams of the new season, returning a core that netted them the Eastern Conference’s eighth seed a season ago. And, with a shortened offseason, that continuity has allowed them to get off to a fast start.

The Magic are 6-2, led by the outstanding early-season play of Nikola Vucevic. The All-Star center has averaged 21 points, 10.5 rebounds and 3.5 assists per game and shot 50.8 percent from the field and 44.2 percent from three. He’s joined by Evan Fournier and Aaron Gordon, who both return from last season, in Orlando’s starting lineup while Dwayne Bacon, an offseason addition from Charlotte, is a new starter that has given the team great minutes while playing within his role.

Terrence Ross has played like a Sixth Man of the Year candidate early on. The veteran wing is averaging 20.7 points off the bench while shooting 49.5 percent from the field, 46.7 percent from three, and 89.7 percent from the free throw line. It’s early, but Ross’ scoring averaging is more than five points per game higher than his career-best. Meanwhile, rookie point guard Cole Anthony has been another spark off the bench. The 15th overall pick in the 2020 draft, Anthony’s been inefficient but has added some much needed shot making to the bench early on in the season.

Unfortunately, starting point guard Markelle Fultz tore his ACL this week and is done for the season. The former number one overall pick had revived his career last season in Orlando and, this offseason, signed a three-year, $50 million extension. Orlando won’t replace Fultz with any one player — expect Anthony and two-way player Jordan Bone to see more minutes, as well as Michael Carter-Williams once he’s back from a foot injury.

The next few should determine if the Magic can sink or swim without Fultz — if they can’t replace his production, expect Orlando’s strong start to come crashing down.

Payton Pritchard Outplaying His Draft Spot

It’s been a tough year for rookies to make an early impact, given the lack of Summer League, condensed training camp and lack of preseason games. That said, one player that seemingly hasn’t been affected by any of that is the Boston Celtics’ Payton Pritchard.

A lot of people thought the 26th pick out of Oregon was an odd pick for the Celtics. The four-year guard doesn’t possess elite NBA size or athleticism. But, what he does have is confidence, a high basketball IQ and a toughness that has immediately translated to the NBA court. Meanwhile, entering the season, bench guard minutes were a major question for Boston — they have a bevy of young guards in Pritchard, Carson Edwards, Romeo Langford, Aaron Nesmith and Tremont Waters, all of which are unproven thus far in their short careers.

That said, with veteran offseason addition Jeff Teague injuring his ankle against the Detroit Pistons on January 3rd, the Celtics needed someone to step into the backup guard spot and Pritchard has done so admirably.

Since Teague’s injury, Pritchard has averaged 11.3 points in 26.7 minutes per game. While Boston has experimented with both him and Carson Edwards, the offense has operated much better with Pritchard on the court. He can lead whatever unit is on the court, take good shots within the flow of the offense and he’s played strong defense with a chip on his shoulder. And, despite his youth and physical limitations, Pritchard has been able to impact the game on both ends of the floor with his toughness; the best example being his put-back layup with less than one second left to beat the Miami HEAT.

At 6-foot-2, the smallest player on the court in both size and stature, Pritchard crashed the offensive glass and made the putback to give the Celtics the win.

Drafting players isn’t an exact science — a lot goes into a rookie’s early career success, particularly their opportunities on the court. And Pritchard lucked out; drafted into a great situation, an injury opened the door for some early chances to see the floor, while head coach Brad Stevens has allowed him to play through his mistakes. While he won’t post the gaudiest statistics for a rookie, Pritchard may end the season having made a bigger impact than many players that were drafted ahead of him.

What’s With the Knicks?

What’s going on with the New York Knicks?

This is the first time in what seems like forever that we can ask that question and expect a positive answer. The Tom Thibodeau-led Knicks won three games this week, two on the road, all against teams with at least a five hundred record. While they’re still fine-tuning, the team also seems to have solidified their top eight rotation and, in true Thibodeau fashion, he’s not afraid to give them all the minutes.

Julius Randle showed up this season in great shape. He’s averaging six more minutes a game from last season and is on track to improve on his points, rebounds and assists per game while shooting better percentages from the field and from three. But what’s stood out the most is his passing; Randle has always had a grab-and-go ability but, this season, he’s creating more for his teammates in transition and in the half court.

R.J. Barrett, meanwhile, has taken a big step from his rookie season into his sophomore year. In his last three games, Barrett has averaged 20 points and shot 45.8 percent from the field. He’s looked more comfortable and has played with much better pace, which has improved his decision-making and led to a 3:1 assist to turnover ratio in those games.

Reggie Bullock, Mitchell Robinson and Elfrid Payton round out the starting lineup while Austin Rivers has returned from injury and provided a scoring punch off the bench and stability as a backup point guard. Kevin Knox and rookie Immanuel Quickly have rounded out the eight man rotation.

It’s early in the season, but fun to see the Knicks playing so well and with so much energy. It will be interesting to see how they integrate Alec Burks and Obi Toppin back into the rotation once they return from injury. You don’t want to overreact to an early start, but the Thibodeau hire is paying early dividends and clearly changing the culture around the Knicks organization.

Later this week, we’ll take a peek at what’s gone on in the Western Conference in the NBA’s second week. Beyond that, make sure to lookout for our “What We Learned” series as it continues throughout the season.