The NBA season is now a week old, and with Halloween approaching, there has already been no shortage of tricks and treats. Since the only thing better than a tiny candy bar is a good gimmick, today we’ll combine the two, comparing early surprises and story lines to the best (and worst) treats one can happen upon while wandering the darkened streets in search of Type 2 diabetes. Where else to begin but with the league’s most impressive player over the opening stretch…
Karl-Anthony Towns — Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup:
You thought I was going to say Kit Kat, didn’t you? Far too easy. No, to properly appreciate the league’s most dominant interior-exterior threat over the first week, we need only look to the king of all single-serving candies, the mighty Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup. Towns has been the driving force in Minnesota’s unexpected 3-0 start, and his balanced, unicorn-like play at both ends would make even the delectable combination of chocolate and peanut butter envious. The numbers are majestic: 32.0/ 13.3/ 5.0 plus 3 steals and 2 blocks per contest, 51.7% from three (on 9.7 attempts per game — for a center!), a +39 net rating per 100 possessions, a 40.5 PER, and .423 Win Shares per 48 minutes. Statisticians have been scrounging to find historical comps for KAT’s fast start, and the name which keeps coming up is Wilt Chamberlain. That’s usually a good sign you’re doing some impressive work.
No doubt he’ll regress to the mean to a degree, and the Wolves almost certainly won’t remain at the top of the West for too long. But in his age-24 season, the leap Towns is making appears very real. Most of us already knew what a lethal, multifaceted offensive threat he was, though his increasing comfort as a shooter and playmaker is encouraging. What could really propel him to the tippy-top tier of the league’s hierarchy (and perhaps the MVP discussion if the team keeps winning) are the strides he’s made on the defensive end.
His blocks and steals are up, of course, but the impressive part has been the improvement of his timing and instincts. He doesn’t wildly chase near-impossible blocks as much, and correspondingly isn’t committing silly fouls or leaving the weak side glass unmanned for offensive rebounds. [The play in the third quarter against Charlotte is a great example. Towns thinks about going after the floater by Marvin Williams, realizes Josh Okogie is in position, and retreats to the other side of the rim, where he’s waiting for the defensive rebound. No chance he makes that read in previous seasons.] KAT appears stronger in traffic, snaring contested rebounds and attacking double teams aggressively. His ability to bang on the interior means coach Ryan Saunders can mostly pair him with Robert Covington and/or Jake Layman in the front court, making the defense more versatile and switchable.
Offensively, KAT is on another planet. He’s reading the now-mandatory double teams quickly and hitting open cutters and shooters on-time and on-target. His jump hook remains unstoppable. He looks smooth attacking off the dribble, and he finishes well through contact at the rim. Just take those elements, and we’re talking about an elite offensive weapon. Then add his marksmanship from deep, where his unorthodox set shot allows him to release the ball quickly, and he becomes a nightmare to contain.
The caveat here is that Brooklyn and Charlotte don’t exactly look like world-beaters, and Towns was “held” to a 23/11/4 line on 38% shooting against a better defense at home vs. Miami on Sunday night. He will have to prove his monster production and elite defense can continue as the Wolves begin to face the gantlet of Western Conference foes. But for everyone who has been waiting for his performance to catch up to his prodigious talent, KAT’s start has got to be extra sweet.
Trae Young and Luka Doncic — Twix:
The running joke in Twix’s ad campaign is that even though both Twix bars in a package are fundamentally the same, everyone has to take a side and choose which one they prefer. Much the same is true of these two second-year phenoms who were swapped for one another on draft night, and whose careers will forever be viewed in parallel. Just as there is no right answer in the left Twix vs. right Twix “debate,” the answer to the question “Did Dallas or Atlanta win the Doncic/Young trade?” may end up being, “Yes.”
Both players have built off their historic rookie seasons and come out blazing in Year Two. At only 20 years old, Doncic looks the part of one of Earth’s greatest players, averaging a monstrous 29.3/ 10.3/ 7.3 on 50/31/79 shooting during the Mavs’ 2-1 start. Young has been even more lights-out for the upstart 2-1 Hawks, checking in at 34.0/ 6.0/ 9.0 on preposterous 52/52/81 shooting. Young’s stats will inevitably normalize (Luka’s, maybe not?), but in any case, both guys are light years ahead of schedule, even factoring in the considerable hype surrounding them. They’ll each probably crack their first (but certainly not last) All-Star roster this season, and All-NBA nods aren’t out of the question. [The latter would be a pretty big deal if it happened. Since the turn of the century, a number of players have made an All-NBA team during their third season, but only LeBron James and Dwyane Wade were chosen in their second season, when they both received second-team honors back in 2004-05. That was in a league with a much more diluted talent pool, however, so Trae and Luka are swimming upstream on this one.]
Accolades or no, Young and Doncic (and Towns!) represent the vanguard of a league-wide trend: the NBA is stacked with under-25 talent right now. For all the challenges the league faces in terms of changing media and political landscapes, in the end, star talent and quality of play are what drive success. With Trae and Luka putting up bonkers numbers and pushing the sport forward stylistically, the game is in good hands.
Phoenix Suns and Atlanta Hawks — 100 Grand:
Like the 100 Grand bar, these squads were no one’s first choice, but they both provide an unexpectedly fun and satisfying experience. The Suns are 2-2 after a narrow loss to Utah on Monday night, but their current .500 record qualifies as a win given how they’ve looked, the competition they’ve faced, and the depths from which they are emerging as a franchise. Even without starting center DeAndre Ayton (suspended 25 games for testing positive for a diuretic), Phoenix has been shockingly competent on both ends against legit Western contenders, with close losses to Denver and Utah sandwiching an impressive win over the Clippers.
Their offseason moves didn’t garner a lot of attention, but the net result is a roster which, for once, actually goes 10-11 deep with real NBA players. Kelly Oubre, Jr., now 24, is finally getting starter’s minutes and has become something like the player the Wizards thought they were drafting (20.5/ 6.3/ 1.8 on 47/33/91 shooting). Frank Kaminsky is playing the best ball of his career in place of Ayton. [Even Frank the Tank, who it feels like has been in our lives forever, is still only 26 years old, the very beginning of most players’ primes. I know I harp on this a lot, but we as fans have to stop judging these guys when they’re 22 or 23. They are not the players they will one day become, and most will also have a change of scenery at some point which will alter their professional destinies. OK, rant over.] Jevon Carter and Aron Baynes are both brick walls on defense who have also been hitting from outside, and Dario Saric, Tyler Johnson, Cam Johnson (no relation), and Mikal Bridges all offer positional versatility and at least theoretical floor spacing.
At the top of the roster, Devin Booker is still getting his as the focal point of the offense, and has been less disastrous on defense with better talent and a better scheme around him. He has also benefited from being off-ball a bit more with the addition of Ricky Rubio at point guard. Rubio really has been in our lives forever at this point, and we know what he is, namely a perfect fit for a young team in need of a competent, professional floor general to get guys in the right positions and feed them the ball accurately. He was miscast in Utah because he’s a “floor raiser,” not a “ceiling raiser.” He’s never going to be the missing piece of a championship puzzle (what the Jazz needed), because the one giant hole in his game (scoring) becomes a glaring weakness in that environment. However, for a team like Phoenix, with strong scorers already in place but still trying to get the trains to run on time, Rubio is a terrific adult to have in the room. His shooting has been predictably poor thus far, but his floor game is robust as ever, to the tune of near triple-double averages (10.0/ 8.0/ 9.3) and his usual underrated defense.
That defense has been the truly unexpected surprise which has vaulted this edition of the Suns to at least something like mediocrity. After finishing the last four seasons 25th, 28th, 30th, and 29th in Defensive Rating, they are currently sitting at 6th against a difficult slate of opponents, and nothing about their performance seems fluky or prone to regression. They have long-armed, active defenders at nearly every spot in the rotation, and new head coach Monty Williams looks like a massive upgrade on the Hornacek/Watson/Triano/Kokoskov turducken of incompetence they’ve offered up for the slaughter over the last few seasons. When Ayton returns, he could even be a net positive on defense as well. I’ve given him a lot of crap in this space for how egregiously he mailed in his lone season at Arizona, but to his credit, he has worked hard and shown improvement thus far as a pro. [Ayton is the basketball equivalent of Cam Newton. Both were no. 1 overall picks with all the physical talent in the world, whose transitions from college to pro removed the only obstacle to their success — the ability to get paid. Allegedly.]
Cracking the playoff field is probably still a bridge too far for this squad, with the West being the bloodbath it is. But merely escaping from the league’s sub-basement and allowing their fans to bask in some, ahem, sunshine still counts as an unqualified success. Now let’s hope cheesedick owner Robert Sarver stays out of the damn way.
We already talked about Trae and the Hawks above, but like Phoenix, this is another team which has risen from the ashes and put together an entertaining, competitive young team. They took a tough 105-103 loss at the hands of the gargantuan Sixers on Monday night to drop to 2-1, but through three games, they look like a team ready to stir up some shit in the wide-open Eastern Conference. Shot attempts are down a bit for third-year big John Collins, but they should bounce back as Young’s unsustainable Usage Rate normalizes, and Collins will still be an All-Star candidate this season. De’Andre Hunter looks like a ready-made, 3-and-D combo forward, and it wouldn’t surprise me if he develops into more as the season progresses. Alex Len is a solid traditional center who can play as much or as little as the matchup dictates. The bench options aren’t awe-inspiring, but there’s enough of a combination of stuff there that it shouldn’t cost them too many leads or games.
This team will go as far as Young and Collins take it, but with wins already in the bank against 2019 playoff teams Detroit and Orlando, the proof of concept is there.
Indiana Pacers and Sacramento Kings — Good & Plenty
The most disappointing possible candy goes to our two most disappointing teams to begin the year. [Apologies to those strange birds who enjoy licorice candies, but I am all the way out.] There were red flags going into the season for the Pacers. Besides the indefinite absence of Victor Oladipo, fit questions swirled around the front court pairing of Myles Turner and Domantas Sabonis. Malcolm Brogdon had never before acted as a primary creator. [So far, so good on that front — he’s averaging 22.3/ 4.3/ 10.7 on blistering 46/44/94 shooting.] The wing depth is suspect. They have three dudes in their rotation named T.J. [OK, maybe not a red flag per se, but definitely a curiosity.]
Even so, Indiana’s 0-3 start has been particularly disheartening. Two of the losses have come at the hands of the Blake Griffin-less Pistons, which book-ended a spanking by the rebuilding Cavs. The combined size of Turner and Sabonis is supposed to be the strength of this club, yet they’ve been manhandled by the likes of Andre Drummond, Tristan Thompson, Kevin Love, and even Christian Wood. Their early-season slate is rather forgiving (next 5 games: @Brooklyn, vs. Cleveland, vs. Chicago, @Charlotte, vs. Washington), so they can still right the ship. But if they can’t make hay while the sun shines on the schedule, the season could go south with a quickness. Calls to trade one of the bigs will intensify if the duo proves untenable. Oladipo will be brought back even more slowly if the season is in the tank. We should all give it a couple more weeks to see if they tighten things up, but one doesn’t have to squint too hard to see the worst-case scenario for the Pacers, and that’s a bitter pill to swallow. You know, like a Good & Plenty.
All due respect to Indiana (and Golden State, and New Orleans), but the most dispiriting start to the year has to go to the Sacramento Kings. Credit to them for hanging in there against the now-gritty Denver Nuggets on Monday night, but otherwise, Sacramento’s 0-4 start has been an utter travesty. The Kings are dead-last in the NBA in Offensive Rating and Net Rating, and they will still be without notable source of offense Marvin Bagley III for another 3-5 weeks with a broken thumb. Coming off an encouraging 39-win campaign last year, the frequently baffling front office fired known quantity Dave Joerger and brought in Luke Walton as head coach. Walton had just finished “leading” the Lakers who, as you may have heard, employ LeBron James, to only 37 wins and a 24th-ranked offense. [Luke’s successful stint as interim coach for the record-setting Warriors back in 2015-16 increasingly appears to be in spite of him and not because of him.] Here’s a live look-in at Kings’ fans:
Sacto’s three main perimeter threats, De’Aaron Fox, Buddy Hield, and Bogdan “Double Bogey” Bogdanovic, have all been cover-your-eyes awful from the field, combining to shoot 51-of-148 (“good” for 34.4%) thus far. The only guy who’s played remotely above his station is 24SS-favorite Richaun Holmes, who put up a 24-and-13 in 30 minutes against Denver when Walton belatedly realized he’s good and should get playing time.
It’s tough to imagine they’ll keep shooting this poorly over an extended stretch, but the first step in recapturing last season’s magic will be to return to pushing the pace (24th so far vs. 5th in ’18-’19) and getting easy buckets. Fox will need to be better, and he was against Denver, putting up a 20/3/9 line and a +2 in 36 minutes. But for a team many expected to cement their gains from last season, it’s beginning to look as though they may instead be falling victim to Bill James’ Plexiglass Principle.
This year’s rookie class — Starburst:
The loss of Zion right before the season began dampened the enthusiasm for the ’19-’20 rookie class much in the same way one feels when getting a chewy fruit candy which invariably sticks to your teeth in lieu of a delicious chocolate bar. Also like a package of Starburst, this class is a mixed bag, with some rooks already looking like tasty reds and pinks, while others show early signs of being the draft equivalent of the disappointing yellows and oranges. It’s far too early to label anyone a bust, of course, but we’ve seen enough to highlight those who have impressed.
It starts at the top of the draft with no. 2 overall pick Ja Morant of the Grizzlies. The Murray State product has shown typical rookie inconsistency, particularly by giving the ball away as if it actually were Halloween candy (16 turnovers in three games so far). At the same time, he has flashed game-breaking ability, especially in slapping up a 30/4/9 on 13-of-22 shooting in a one-point win over Brooklyn on Sunday. Since 2000-01, there have only been 29 instances of a rookie meeting those benchmarks for points/rebounds/assists in a game, and it’s a pretty impressive list. [Plus Tyler Ulis. Never underestimate the power of late season tank-ball to spit out some wild stat lines.] Morant’s lofty draft position was no fluke. His star potential is manifestly obvious, and with Ja, Brandon Clarke, and Jaren Jackson, Jr. in place for years to come, the Grizzlies’ future is brighter than a Starburst wrapper.
The Knicks have been a predictable train wreck, but the play of third overall pick RJ Barrett has been a beacon of hope shining through the deep, dark abyss of Knicks fandom. He’s averaging 20.5/ 7.5/ 3.3 and 2.0 steals on 50/47/44 shooting — yeah, the free throw shooting is unsightly, but it should come around — and has displayed more efficiency than his reputation from Duke would suggest. Barrett is already one of New York’s better defenders, which again, bad for the Knicks, but good for RJ’s prospects. He doesn’t look out of his depth as either an NBA scorer or playmaker, and his perfectly reasonable Usage Rate of 24.2% (given the “talent” surrounding him) indicates he may not be the unconscionable gunner some feared. Barrett was a somewhat divisive prospect, but so far, he’s making his proponents look wise.
Further down the board, a number of rookies are getting ample opportunities for struggling teams and making the most of them. PJ Washington (12th overall) has immediately stepped into the starting power forward role for a Charlotte squad with limited options and been pretty productive. He came out smoking in their opening win over the Bulls, hitting seven threes on the way to 27 points in his debut. He has a strong body and a high basketball IQ at a young age, and a clear path to as many minutes as he can handle. Speaking of Chicago, many thought no. 7 overall pick Coby White would have a limited role out of the gate behind veteran guards Tomas Satoransky and Kris Dunn, but he has commanded minutes with his aggressive play, and is currently third on the team in both shot attempts and scoring average (12.0 FGA/G and 13.8 PPG, respectively). There are still a lot of roles and responsibilities to sort out for this Bulls team which has scuffled on both ends, but White seems to have no such confusion. Receive ball, score ball. For now, that’s enough.
No. 9 pick Rui Hachimura has provided early offense for a Wizards outfit which has needed it, putting up 16.3 PPG on decent shooting. His size and athleticism are real, and his defensive awareness is further along than anticipated. [As bad as the team was, I suspect getting reps as “the man” for Japan in the World Cup over the summer was an invaluable experience for Hachimura. He knows he belongs on the court with the world’s best players.] The Grizzlies’ Brandon Clarke (no. 21 overall) dominated Summer League and the preseason, and now that the real games have begun, he certainly looks to be here to stay. He’s shooting well so far (56%, mostly in close to the hoop), but his athleticism and defensive instincts will be his calling cards early in his career. At 3.4 “stocks” (steals + blocks) per-36 minutes, he looks like the most impactful draftee on the defensive end this side of Matisse Thybulle. Speaking of Thybulle, he’s been a complete nothingburger offensively for Philadelphia so far, but his defensive impact is as-advertised. He’s averaging 6.6 stocks per-36, just a mind-boggling number. He seems to have a magical ability to know where the offensive player is going with the ball and to get his hands there first. It’s honestly spellbinding to watch. He’ll obviously need to become a much better offensive player to get real minutes for a loaded team like the Sixers, but they may have found themselves a gem late in the first round.
The last guy we need to talk about is someone with whom most fans are unfamiliar, Miami Heat shooting guard Kendrick Nunn. The undrafted rookie has been filling minutes in the absence of Jimmy Butler, but he’s been so effective that head coach Erik Spoelstra will have no choice but to slot him into a role even when Jimmy returns. Nunn is averaging 22.3/ 3.3/ 3.3 with 2.0 steals on 52/42/100 shooting in a non-trivial 31.7 minutes per game. [In ESPN fantasy leagues, Nunn went from 0.4% owned to 42.5% owned in just the first week, which gives you a good indication of the sort of come-up he’s on.] It’s always enjoyable to watch lesser-known players get an opportunity and make the most of it, so just wanted to give him a shout-out.
Everyone have a happy and SAFE Halloween. May you receive only your most favorite treats, and leave the Good & Plenty for those other poor saps.
All stats accurate through Monday night’s games.
Top Photo Credit: Getty Images