With the season finally moving out of that small sample size Bizarro zone where bad teams can catch wanna-be contenders slipping up and little known fringe guys inexplicably sit atop various leaderboards, we can begin to see the true complexion of the season taking form. After 10 or so games, the summer rust is by and large shaken off, rotations are set, and those statistical anomalies from the 1st week (like Klay Thompson looking like some sort of Ray Allen-Kobe hybrid for the 1st 5 games, pumping in 27 ppg on almost 54%) are now have settled out, looking more like what we’ll see by season’s end (Thompson’s down to a still-fantastic-but-less-superhuman 23.6 ppg).
Some things are playing out just like we figured they would; LeBron James is *gasp* still a statistically dominant monster (he’s almost at 26-7-7), Dwight Howard and DeAndre Jordan will inhale rebounds, Chris Paul will run offense masterfully without turning it over: these truths are self-evident.
However, quite a few players still sit in uncharted territory, putting up numbers and shouldering responsibility that they’ve never sniffed before in their careers. One game would be a fluke, 3 a hot streak, but for my All-Surprise Big 4, the numbers aren’t lying: they’re looking more and more like they’re the real deal.
C- Nikola Vucevic, 7’0″, 260 lbs
18.8 ppg, 11.9 rpg, 2.6 apg, 53.8 fg%
From Switzerland, to Southern California to unheralded NBA rookie in 2011 to throw-in to the Magic in the blockbuster 3 way Dwight Howard to Los Angeles trade to top flight center. What a wild ride it’s been for the young behemoth. Vucevic is scoring more than Marc Gasol, rebounding better than Dwight Howard (Nikola is leading the league in boards a game to DeAndre Jordan and leading the lNBA in total rebounds), has a higher true shooting percentage than Al Jefferson, shootes it better from midrange than almost anyone (Vucci-Mane is scorching along at over 50% from 10 feet out to the 3 point line) and at only 24, is still getting better. Vucevic has show he has plenty of tools in his arsenal, making himself a huge target in the lane, showing nifty footwork either facing up and driving or back to the basket, and a deft touch around the rim, all while improving as a space eater and as a team defender. Orlando is off to a respectable (for them) 5-8 start, and a huge part of that is the dominance of young Nikola.
PF- Tobias Harris, 6’9″, 235 lbs
18.9 ppg, 7.8 rpg, 48.2% fg, 43.8% 3pt
Another key piece for Orlando is turning heads with an impressive blend of speed and power. Tobias Harris move seamlessly from power forward to playing the wing, the rare combo guy who can actually do damage from both spots. Check the gem Harris dropped on November 11th in Toronto; the full package was on display. The J. Cole look-alike guarded DeMar DeRozan capably, he crashed the offensive boards, he triggered the break, he hit floaters, he hit 3s, he tallied up 23 points, 13 rebounds, 5 assists, and a steal and a block thrown in for good measure. He’s brawny, gets out on the break, and has been a real problem for opposing wings. With Harris primed to enter restricted free agency next summer, you can bet the dynamic 22 year old won’t have a shortage of suitors.
SF- Jimmy Butler, 6’7″, 220 lbs
21.5 ppg, 6.4 rpg, 3.6 apg, 52% fg, 35.7% 3pt
I must admit, I was very skeptical of what Jimmy Butler would become after his uneven offensive performances last season. The defense was interstellar, as covered by yours truly here, but watching him shoot sub-.400 and put up a paltry 13 a night for the points-starved Bulls, I doubted he’d be the answer as a legit scoring option that Chicago sorely needed. If his 1st 10 games of this year are an indication, I was disgustingly wrong. The fact that Butler isn’t being talked about in the same breath as Klay Thompson and James Harden as a truly elite shooting guard, not “just” a defender. The 25 year old joins a decent list of guys who have put up a season’s worth of stat lines equal to or better than his current 21.5-6.4-3.6- 52% fg averages: it’s littered with names like Michael Jordan, Hakeem Olajuwon, LeBron James, and Larry Bird. Will the career 42.3% shooter keep that gaudy field goal percentage up? Most likely not, but he’s been dynamite so far, killing from midrange and finishing through contact. With Rose’s health a delicate issue, Jimmy Butler’s breakout year isn’t a year late, it’s right on time.
G- Brandon Knight, 6’3″, 189 lbs
17.9 ppg, 5.6 rpg, 6.8 apg, 35.6% 3pt
After 2 lackluster years of “leading” a Detroit team that went 58-103 in his tenure, many assumed that being shipped out to the soul-sucking hole that’s been the Milwaukee Bucks for the better part of the 2000s was the death knell for the former Kentucky Wildcats’ career. Well, know one thought to tell Knight that. He was pretty decent last year, bumping his numbers up across the board, but the Bucks were a steaming pile of jaguar poop, so the 15-67 stinkiness shielded any improvement from Knight. This year? Add a Jabari Parker, mix in an O.J. Mayo who gives a damn, sprinkle it with Giannis Antetakounmpo, and stir in a healthy Larry Sanders: what you end up with is a Brandon Knight who looks primed to thrust his name into that 2nd echelon lead guards. Only James Harden, LeBron James, and Steph Curry are in the “at least 17.5 ppg, 5.5 rpg, and 6.5 apg” Club with Knight this year. Even though Brandon Jennings, the man he was traded for, is playing pretty well in Detroit, it’s looking more and more like the Bucks got the better end of that deal.
There are plenty of other under-the-radar players making an impact around the league. Brandan Wright’s tenacity and energy off the bench is invaluable to what the Mavericks do in the west. Iman Shumpert is starting to step up offensively, shooting an incendiary 52.8% from 3 through the Knicks’ early season woes. The big names up in lights are what draws the crowds, but fans getting to watch young players’ potential bloom into production is part of what the NBA is all about.