While we’re only a couple of weeks into the NBA season, there are many things to get excited about. Young players are blossoming all over the map, new roles have been assigned for established players, and most importantly, there is parity beyond anything we’ve recently experienced as fans.
There are dozens upon dozens of things that could be discussed, but here are a handful of early crushes that I’ve developed so far. Of course, it’s easy to overreact, so let’s embrace it and hope for consistency as the season develops.
Karl-Anthony Towns, the Chucking Guard
One of the more surprising things this season has been the red hot start from the Timberwolves. At the front of that brigade has been the inevitable improvement and domination from Karl-Anthony Towns.
It’s not surprising to see the improvement from Towns, but it is when you see how he’s utilizing his talents. There was an expected expansion to his game within the offense this season. We expected more shots, more creation, and really, the ball in his hands far more. With that said, he has improved basically across the board, despite his usage marginally increasing. Instead, KAT is utilizing the three point line at a blistering clip and finding open teammates at a much higher rate without his back to the basket. So simple, right?
The Wolves are looking for the long ball far more than they have in the past and that’s obvious as the team floods the three point line. This season, Saunders has the Wolves attempting threes at the 4th highest rate in the league in comparison to 26th last season.
KAT’s offensive awareness has adjusted to this spacing tremendously. He’s getting more touches away from the basket and minimizing poor, low percentage shots stuck in the middle of the action. While he has been pulled away from the basket, it has allowed more driving lanes for his teammates and has generated more wide open looks from deep. It has also helped his talented passing find frequent backdoor cuts and easy baskets for his teammates.
Basketball has never been about letting your seven footers drift to the three point line, but it can and should be when he’s your best shooter. So far, he has been the best shooter in the league because of the easy looks he’s seeing. It’s not rocket science, and last time I checked, three was still greater than (a heavily contested, crowded) two.
Town’s three point attempts have not only doubled (4.6 to 8.5), but exactly HALF of his field goal attempts have been from deep, per Basketball Reference. He’s also dropping over half of his threes at an insane 52.9%. Now, of course, that will regress back towards his career average around 40%, but his offensive versatility is proving to be historic.
Even when KAT doesn’t fade to the break for a pick-and-pop, the attention he commands is ridiculous. Fortunately, his play making has been phenomenal and the Wolves are no longer standing around staring at each other. His assist percentage, 23.7%, has jumped north of 20% for the first time in his career and a big part of it is not only having a higher number of opportunities, but his teammates have given more space to each other.
It’s clear that Saunders and Towns have both embraced the analytical approach that this offense needs. Towns is being used the same way you’d expect a high volume wing. The difference? His ridiculous efficiency. At his current career trajectory, Towns has an opportunity in front of him to become one of the best shooting big men, ever.
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is Must Watch TV
Each year, there are second and third year players who make an expected jump. Their field goal attempts double, they become a difference maker on the defensive end, their shooting improves immensely, something. The first couple weeks of the season are a tryout for the eye test, as we waited the entire summer anticipating who will make the leap. As a member of the 2018-19 All Rookie Team, it’s no secret who Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is, but that boy’s game is fuego!
Through seven games this season, Gilgeous-Alexander has totaled performances of 26, 28, 19, 22, 13, 23, and 24 points. For perspective, he had only 6 total games over 20 points all of last season. He had two more in last year’s postseason where he used the national stage to lay the foundation for this season.
Given the potential he showed as a rookie, mixed with his rapid improvement, Gilgeous-Alexander is clearly the most prized possession on the Oklahoma City roster.
Soon, a Brinks Truck filled with first round picks will back itself into the OKC locker room and kick start a youth movement after the recession of an era we once were able to identify contention with. Currently, Sam Presti awaits 10 first round picks over the next 6 drafts, with the potential of more being collected via a Chris Paul trade at the deadline.
While Presti and the rest of us wait to see how he addresses those assets, Shai can continue using this season to grow his game and confidence as he awaits for backup to come in the near future.
Without question, Gilgeous-Alexander has been one of my favorite players to watch so far. His positional size and unorthodox offensive style has allowed him to score from unlimited angles. Despite not being a tremendous athlete, Shai uses his change of speed and length to separate from a defender as well as I’ve seen from a player of his age.
In a way, the Thunder can win the Paul George trade, despite giving up the far superior player at the time. Gilgeous-Alexander could blossom into a star with the help of the picks they’ve obtained, while the project in Los Angeles could end in as soon as two seasons. Then again, we might be waiting until 2026 to see what those picks actually turn into — if Presti decides to sit on them, of course.
It’s not a perfect science to compare players this way, but at only 21-years-old, it’s safe to say Shai does many things better than George did at that age. In fact, there have been instances where I’ve watched SGA this year and saw a move, a defensive play, or his utilization in the OKC offense and thought it was very similar to George.
There’s certainly a window where Shai could become a strong player and one day lead this club back to the Conference Finals. Is it a guarantee? No, but it was worth the risk for OKC, as they had two max contact superstars and had hit their collective team ceiling a few years before. To reset, collect, and shoot for the next NBA timeline would be the smarter play. Fortunately, this talented two-way player came with the plan.
Trae Young’s Playground Vision
Young’s passing ability has been on display basically his entire life. Since he came into national spotlight, he was the best creator at the collegiate level. As a rookie, he was fourth in the league in assists per game (8.1) and is currently sitting at sixth this season (8.4). The combination of his scoring ability and the growing Atlanta roster have made them one of the league’s most exciting teams. In my opinion, it has been Young’s vision and playground style ball handling and passing that has made them a must see show. While he’s surrounded by shooters and rim punchers, he gets them the ball in effective, creative ways. Some of the passes he has attempted, I am hesitant to do so on 2K in fear of collecting a turnover.
While averaging 33 points per game, Young has been responsible for creating nearly 20 additional points for his teammates. He has an assist percentage of 54.8, which exemplifies not only how important he has been for this offense at the start, but truly how elite he has been on that end of the floor.
He has essentially been in the same creating tier as James Harden, Ben Simmons, and Giannis Antetokounmpo. In other words, he’s really, really freaking good.
I refuse to take a side in the Doncic/Young trade, but I’ll say this, Atlanta fans are just as lucky as Dallas fans are.
Jayson Tatum’s Improved Shot Selection
Since returning from a disappointing Sophomore campaign, Tatum has noticeably improved his shot selection from the previous two seasons. Tatum is currently taking about half the amount of mid-to-long two point shots per game as he previously. With that, he’s shooting more shots around the rim, along with a career high three point rate. In order for Tatum to continue growing as a scorer, he will have to stay comfortable with those shots.
According to NBA.com/Stats, of players who are in the top 20 in three point attempts per game, Tatum ranks 15th while attempting 7.0 per game. He’s third on the list in three point percentage at 42.9%. He is taking nearly 3 more attempts per game while regaining the percentage he shot his rookie season, despite shooting more off the dribble than ever before.
After only 6 games, the confidence that Tatum is playing with is obvious. The makeup of this year’s roster has helped Jayson identify a clear path to what they need him to be. A career high in field goal attempts and usage have pushed him towards a new level offensively, and it shows. His three point shooting has been remarkable, especially when considering the degree of difficulty some of these shots have had.
Unfortunately, Tatum is struggling to finish at the rim with the success he previously had, which was an issue to begin with. He’s not finishing through contact, or getting to the free throw line. He’s shooting an abysmal 2.7 free throws per game at an egregious .138 rate.
In reflection to his most common comparison, Paul Pierce, it isn’t even close. Before falling off a cliff, Pierce was shooting 7.2 free throws a night at a rate of .453. As a career 20 points per game scorer, that’s how he was able to do it efficiently on a night-to-night basis. In order for Tatum to reach an All NBA ceiling, he most definitely will need to unlock the free throw line to become an efficient go-to scorer.
Even with the negatives highlighted above, Tatum has been trying harder to get to the rim. According to NBA.com/stats, his drives have nearly doubled per night from 5.6 to 10.8 in comparison to last season. Part of that has been his effort to not settle for contested, long jumpers.
Tatum has also added a floater to his game, which has allowed him to gather in rhythm and move towards the basket — a nice finishing option when moving downhill.
It seems that he has just about every move in the toolbox to one day become an elite scorer, but for Tatum, the issue remains efficiency. If he can tidy up his percentage around the basket and add a couple trips to the free throw line, few players in the league are going to be able to consistently stop him. Nonetheless, these percentages could even out or improve as the season moves forward. The improvement to his shot selection are good signs of maturity as he moves forward.