The most surprising player from each NBA team this season
We are now a little over halfway into the NBA season. As more and more time has passed, we have a better idea of which trends are real and which have been mirages.
NBA teams and their fans have expectations for certain players coming into a season. Stars are expected to be stars, veterans fill roles capably, and young players show signs of progression. We are at the point in the season where enough time has passed for teams to confidently step back and analyze their rosters over the coming All-Star break.
Who has played as well as expected? Who has been a pleasant surprise?
Atlanta Hawks: Malcolm Delaney
Despite a solid college career where he was All-ACC three times at Virginia Tech, the NBA passed on Malcolm Delaney. Thought to be a tweener as a 6-foot-3 scorer, Delaney was never terribly efficient in college and lacked point guard skills. He went undrafted in the 2011 NBA Draft.
Left with few other options, Delaney chose to go overseas and began playing professionally in France during the 2011-2012 season. From there, he bounced around Europe and played in Ukraine, Munich, and Krasnodar. Along the way, Delaney collected a Ukranian League MVP, German League MVP, French, German, and Ukranian League titles, and 2016 All-Euroleague honors.
After five seasons in Europe, Malcolm Delaney was finally given another shot in the NBA. He was given a tryout with the Atlanta Hawks and earned the Hawks backup point guard spot in camp. And though at the time it was seen as a risk, Delaney has provided steady veteran play in his rookie season. He has shared reserve ball-handling duties with Tim Hardaway Jr. and played solidly. Though he has tailed off since a hot start to his season, Atlanta appears to have unearthed an NBA player many had forgotten about.
Boston Celtics: Isaiah Thomas
The Boston Celtics are in a good position. Currently second in the Eastern Conference at 33-18, they have been making up ground on the Cleveland Cavaliers during their seven-game winning streak. Point guard Isaiah Thomas has averaged 35.3 points per game during that run and made not earning a starting All-Star spot look like a mistake. With Avery Bradley due back from injury soon, they could take over the No. 1 in the East.
Thomas’ recent run is one of the best stretches of play posted in the NBA this season. His scoring average now sits at 29.9 per game, second in the NBA. He proved himself capable of leading a playoff team in scoring and playing at an All-Star level last season and has played even better this year. Despite an all-time high usage rate, Thomas is on track to shoot career-bests of 47 percent from the floor and 38.8 percent on 3-pointers. Not bad for a player that two teams gave up on at one point.
There were some people who didn’t respect Isaiah Thomas, and he likely silenced most of those people last season. The remaining doubters are gone by now. Thomas has established himself as one of the best scoring options in the NBA, period. He has drawn comparisons to Allen Iverson as a result of his play this year. Isaiah Thomas is becoming a franchise player this season; he has defied odds again.
Brooklyn Nets: Caris LeVert
A 6-foot-6 wing, Caris LeVert arrived at Michigan as a three-star recruit who only weighed 152 pounds. Despite his slight frame, he immediately showed his talents off in Ann Arbor and contributed towards their National Championship runner-up squad as a freshman. He returned his sophomore season and broke out in a bigger role, culminating in an Elite Eight appearance for the Wolverines. A rising star, LeVert first faced real adversity following that season.
Caris LeVert underwent his first foot surgery during spring of 2014. He was having a strong junior season before again injuring his foot in January of 2015. Though LeVert played most of his senior year, and played well, he had a third foot surgery last March. It was the same injury that Kevin Durant has successfully come back from, but it was a risk for the Nets to grab him in the late first round nonetheless.
Brooklyn’s team doctor performed LeVert’s most recent foot surgery, and that influenced them into taking him. They’ve been rewarded so far — LeVert looks like a steal if he stays healthy. He’s has shot 44.9 percent from the field as a rookie and had impressive games. LeVert could potentially be a leading scorer for the Nets down the line, which is big for a team that owes their first round pick to the Celtics.
Charlotte Hornets: Cody Zeller
Cody Zeller made his NBA potential clear during his time at Indiana. Zeller, a fluid, mobile, nearly 7-footer, was one of the best bigs in the Big Ten during his two seasons. He got to the line at will and showed a versatile offensive game. Zeller was praised as a draft prospect and was thought to be one of the best in his class. He was taken fourth overall by the Charlotte Hornets during the 2013 Draft.
Through his first three seasons, Zeller didn’t look much like the fourth overall selection. He became the Hornets starting center midway through his second season and has started a majority of games since. However, it was hard to say that Zeller was even an average player before this year. He did whatever he could to help his team win, but struggled against more athletic defenders and frequently didn’t stand out.
Though Roy Hibbert started a number of games this year, Cody Zeller has quietly become one of the Hornets better players. His new career-high averages of 10.9 points and 6.6 rebounds don’t jump off the page, but Zeller’s advanced stats do. He ranks amongst league leaders in true shooting percentage. A high IQ player, Zeller does the small things that help his team win. When he has been forced to miss time this year, Charlotte has struggled. As a result of his progression in year four, he’s become an answer at center for the Hornets.
Chicago Bulls: Paul Zipser
Paul Zipser was a complete unknown to most Bulls fans when they selected him in the second round of the 2016 NBA Draft. He averaged just five points per game in a German professional league the year prior. When Zipser came over right away, there was no guarantee that he would make the Bulls roster. And with young wings Doug McDermott and Denzel Valentine expected to back up Dwyane Wade and Jimmy Butler, few fans thought about Zipser even when he made the squad.
The Bulls season has been tumultuous, but Zipser’s emergence could potentially be a silver lining in Chicago. He has done a lot of what fans hoped fellow rookie Denzel Valentine would. The 6-foot-8 rookie has established himself as the Bulls sixth man during the month of January and closed a number of games as well. He fills a needed role alongside Butler and Wade, hitting open shots and making smart plays.
The Bulls have been known for their expertise with international scouting ever since they brought Toni Kukoc over and may have found another hidden gem in Paul Zipser. He could potentially fit the “3-and-D” mold of role player, and then some. Zipser has a nice shot and is capable of attacking the rim at times as well. Defensively, he’s already miles ahead of Doug McDermott and could become strong on that end. At just 22, Paul Zipser may be a Bull for a while.
Cleveland Cavaliers: DeAndre Liggins
An NBA future was once assumed for DeAndre Liggins. A top-25 player in the class of 2008, he paired with Darius Miller as the headline players of that Kentucky squad. Liggins contributed as a freshman, but looked lost as a sophomore as new coach John Calipari brought in John Wall and Eric Bledsoe to dominate the guard minutes. Liggins responded by earning a starting role as a junior and then declared himself eligible for the 2011 NBA Draft.
Liggins had to wait on draft night, but was eventually selected 53rd overall by the Orlando Magic. He played very little in his first three NBA seasons, with three different teams. Though he played well in the D-League and was known as a hard worker, NBA teams lost interest and he didn’t play in the NBA after 2013. He didn’t quit though; Liggins earned numerous accolades for his defensive play in the D-League and finally earned a training camp invite from the Cavaliers prior to this season.
DeAndre Liggins is a guard on the fringes of the Cavaliers rotation. Lebron James would like another playmaker in the Cavaliers second unit; a problem Liggins is not an answer to. The 28-year-old shooting guard is shooting a higher percentage on 3-pointers (37.5 percent) than he is from the field in general (36.8 percent). But with the absence of J.R. Smith this season, Liggins has stepped in and helped fill his role. He has started 17 games for the Cavaliers and played more than ever in his NBA career. Most didn’t expect to see Liggins in the NBA again, and the fact that he is contributing to the defending champions is a testament to his efforts.
Dallas Mavericks: Yogi Ferrell
Yogi Ferrell just submitted possibly one of the finest performances on a ten-day contract in NBA history. He started his first game for the Mavericks and played 36 minutes in a win over the Spurs. Then came a win over the Cavaliers in which Ferrell arguably outplayed Kyrie Irving. And then a win over the 76ers. On day eight of his ten-day contract, Ferrell went 9-11 on 3-pointers on his way to 32 points in a win over the Trail Blazers. He was rewarded for his efforts with a two-year contract extension at the minimum.
Fans of Big Ten basketball may not be shocked with Yogi Ferrell’s success. A four-year starter at Indiana, he gave Big Ten opponents fits. With career averages of 14.5 points, 4.6 assists, and 3.2 rebounds, Ferrell had one of the best college careers of any Hoosier in the 21st century. But even though he also shot over 40 percent on 3-pointers in each of his last three seasons, he was overlooked as an NBA prospect. The diminutive Ferrell went undrafted in the 2016 Draft.
Left on the fringes of the NBA after being undrafted, Ferrell signed a Summer League deal with the Brooklyn Nets and played well enough to parlay that into a training camp offer. He was waived by the Nets and acquired by their D-League affiliate. The Nets later called Ferrell up for ten games before waiving him again. This is what enabled him to end up in Dallas and potentially find his NBA home. Minutes may be harder to come by once Deron Williams and J.J. Barea return, but the Dallas Mavericks found a player worth developing.
Denver Nuggets: Nikola Jokic
Like a majority of international players, Nikola Jokic was an unknown to most fans when the Nuggets selected him in the second round of the 2014 NBA Draft. Jokic was stashed overseas for a season and then brought over with low expectations prior to last year. He surprised most Nuggets fans with his rookie season in which he was able to start 55 games. Jokic averaged 10 points and 7 rebounds per game en route to finishing third in Rookie of the Year voting.
Despite an impressive rookie season and impressive highlights, most casual NBA fans didn’t take notice of Nikola Jokic. He began this season starting alongside fellow center Jusuf Nurkic — a twin-towers experiment that failed. However, once Jokic began playing the center position, his season took off. In only 26 minutes per game, he has averaged 15.5 points, 8.5 rebounds, and 4.0 assists.
Coach Mike Malone hasn’t hesitated to run his offense through Jokic, and it has paid benefits. He has established himself as one of the game’s best passing bigs. Jokic played like a legitimate All-Star during the month of January and brought the Nuggets to the verge of a playoff spot. He has played better than even his biggest fans expected him to. It looks as if the Nuggets may have unearthed a franchise player in the 21-year-old Serbian.
Detroit Pistons: Reggie Jackson
The Detroit Pistons and Reggie Jackson were supposed to work out well together. The Pistons, led by President and coach Stan Van Gundy, took a risk on a talented young player in Jackson when they acquired him from Oklahoma City in early 2015. The move paid dividends immediately, as Jackson established himself as a starter and averaged 17.6 points per game as well as 9.2 assists for Detroit after being acquired.
Reggie Jackson seemed to be fulfilling the potential he had flashed as a reserve with the Thunder. Van Gundy extended him to a five-year, $80 million dollar contract before last season and Jackson responded with a career year. He averaged a career high 18.8 points per game and also established a new high for 3-point shooting, a perceived weakness. Jackson and Andre Drummond teamed up to form one of the deadliest pick-and-roll combinations in the league and the Pistons were able to make the playoffs.
Prior to this season, Jackson received plasma injections to treat knee tendinitis and sprained his thumb. As a result, he didn’t begin playing until early December. The Pistons were struggling at the time and the hope was that Jackson’s return would help. It hasn’t thus far, and he hasn’t been the same player. Save for an improved percentage on 3-pointers, all of his major stats are down and the Pistons are 22-27. Though injuries may be hampering his play, Jackson has been playing poorly enough to lose minutes to Ish Smith. Trade rumors have emerged and his long term future in Detroit is now in question.
Golden State Warriors: Javale McGee
Javale McGee is a 7-footer who had the longest arms in league history until Rudy Gobert arrived. He’s athletic enough to have finished second in a slam dunk contest, and that shows up on the floor. The Washington Wizards made him their center of the future when they took him in the first round in 2008. McGee became the full-time starter in his third season and averaged over two blocks per game in each of the next two years. He also contributed double-digit averages in points and averaged over eight boards per game. With his athletic traits and skill set, he could have emerged as a Deandre Jordan like player.
In March of 2012, the Wizards flipped McGee to the Nuggets for Nene Hilario. This began the downfall of his career. McGee started ten games for the Nuggets across his three seasons there. He was traded to the 76ers in early 2015, who promptly cut him. He signed with the Mavericks before last season and appeared in less than half of their games. It appeared that though he had all the physical tools to succeed, the notoriously enigmatic McGee wasn’t going to put it together.
The Golden State Warriors extended McGee a camp offer before this season. They were in need of a rim protector, many didn’t believe him to be an answer. Even though McGee hasn’t been a regular contributor in nearly five seasons, he has been one so for for Golden State. He’s shot 68.4 percent from the field and averaged three blocks per 36 minutes so far. He could potentially play a role in their run for a championship, which would make him one of the most unlikely championship contributors in recent memory.
Houston Rockets: Montrezl Harrell
Montrezl Harrell is another former college star who has begun to prove his worth in the pros. The former Louisville Cardinal big man was a consistent double-double machine for coach Rick Pitino; a man amongst boys at 6-foot-8 and 240 pounds. He entered the draft after his junior year and was selected by the Rockets in the second round.
It wasn’t clear exactly whether or not Harrell would fit in the NBA. He possesses the skills and body of an NBA power forward from the eighties — he can rebound, finish, and maul with the best of them. His height is disputed: at one point in time he measured at 6-foot-6 without shoes. With a center’s skill set and a small forward’s body, it wasn’t surprising when he was sparingly used as a rookie last season.
There was no guarantee that Montrezl Harrell would even make the Rockets this season. But not only has he made the team, he has started 14 games while Clint Capela has been injured. The things that Harrell can do stand out when he takes the court. He runs the court relentlessly and rebounds hard. Harrell has shown the ability to be a reliable shooter and uses his 7-foot-3 wingspan to guard taller players. An explosive athlete, he’s been able to average 9.5 points per game this year mostly finishing assists from James Harden. Montrezl Harrell is a limited player, but it looks like he will be a good role player for years to come.
Indiana Pacers: Monta Ellis
When athletic guards age out, it can be ugly. That burst that got them shots their entire lives suddenly doesn’t cut it anymore. They become a defensive liability. The smart ones develop a strong jump shot or at least a dependable post game to extend their careers. It appears that Monta Ellis has lost it this season and doesn’t really have a back-up plan.
For years, Ellis used his athleticism to be one of the games most explosive guards. He’s been one of the league’s best pick-and-roll players for nearly a decade and averaged over 1.5 steals nine times. Now 31, he is a step slower and just isn’t effective anymore. His scoring is the lowest it’s been since he was 19; Ellis only chips in 10.5 points per 36 minutes now. His steal numbers are down and he is shooting below 30 percent on 3-pointers.
Pacers fans knew that Monta Ellis was a flawed player. They knew that they were signing an aging guard to a four-year, nearly $44 million dollar contract that would last into his thirties and it could end badly. But few expected his play to tail off so quickly. Ellis isn’t starting and is no longer even a good sixth man scorer against bench units. A smaller guard, he isn’t developing a post game and it is unclear how he will contribute towards winning basketball. Indiana likely has him under contract for two more years after this one.
Los Angeles Clippers: Austin Rivers
Austin Rivers hasn’t always been taken seriously in NBA circles. A one-time bust, he was acquired via trade by his father. It was easy to assume that there was nepotism at play when Clippers President of Basketball Operations Doc Rivers flipped a future second round pick for his son back in early 2015. Doc proceeded to give his son nearly 20 minutes per game as Chris Paul’s backup the rest of the season, with mixed results.
Claims of nepotism were largely silenced last year as Austin Rivers emerged as an asset off of the Clippers’ bench. He progressed as a shooter and looked more comfortable running the team in Chris Paul’s absence. Though some questioned whether he was worthy of a three-year, $35.4 million dollar extension, it seemed like a worthwhile bet to place on a 24-year old to most.
Rivers has improved during each season he has been in the league. This year is no exception; he is on pace to establish career highs in nearly every category. Rivers is tied with Jamal Crawford as the Clippers fifth leading scorer, with 12 points per game. His improved play has helped alleviate the extended absence of Chris Paul and he could very well end up starting in the playoffs this season. Austin Rivers has his best basketball ahead of him.
Los Angeles Lakers: Ivica Zubac
The Los Angeles Lakers have approached the post-Kobe era with a rebuild. First year coach Luke Walton has got results out of his squad; Nick Young and Lou Williams are having their best seasons in years. Despite this, the Lakers have the third-worst record in the league. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing — they owe their first round pick to Philadelphia if it falls outside the top three. The progression of young players, not results, is the goal for this Lakers squad.
Los Angeles has young building pieces. D’Angelo Russell is well on his way to becoming a good scoring guard. Brandon Ingram has all of the tools in the world, Julius Randle has flirted with numerous triple-doubles at power forward, and Jordan Clarkson and Larry Nance Jr. will also be around a while. But the thing they couldn’t have counted on was their 19-year-old second round pick, Ivica Zubac, showing why he will be their center of the future.
Zubac is 7-foot-1 in shoes, with a 7-foot-4 wingspan and an NBA ready body already. He runs the floor well and excels at finishing around the rim in the pick-and-roll. Zubac is shooting 86.7 percent from the line, which suggests that his jump shot should become an asset. With averages of 15.8 points, 10.8 rebounds, and 1.8 blocks per 36 minutes, it’s easy to see Zubac developing into a starting center. The Lakers needed a break in their rebuilding process and likely grabbed the steal of the 2016 Draft.
Memphis Grizzlies: Vince Carter
Vince Carter celebrated his 40th birthday last week. The next day he went out and did what most men do after their 40th birthday and dropped 13 points in 24 minutes on the Trail Blazers. Even in he enters his fifth decade on earth, Carter is still punking defenders. His transition from star to role player as he has aged has been admirable. Vince Carter may just be immortal.
Once one of the league’s most popular players, Carter hasn’t averaged over 20 points per game since he was 32. During these last eight seasons, he has relied on the things he can still do well. He’s still an above-average shooter, can post young guys when needed, and is smart enough to play defense as his athleticism has dwindled. For a veteran team like the Grizzlies, Carter is an ideal fit to come off the bench.
The Grizzlies have had a hole on the wing for large stretches of this season. Max-contract signee Chandler Parsons has only played roughly 50 minutes per week this season during his cautious recovery schedule. He is still recovering from a “minor hybrid” microfracture operation from last April. As a result, Carter has been forced to play significantly more than he has had to in his three seasons in Memphis. And he has played well enough to keep them afloat-extremely impressive for a middle aged man.
Miami Heat: James Johnson
The Heat have now won ten straight games. Though the rise of Dion Waiters is a larger factor than James Johnson’s play, Johnson’s play has been even more unexpected. He is a 29-year-old who can be considered a journeyman at this point in his career, and really, most previous points too. A one-time first round pick by the Chicago Bulls, Johnson hasn’t stuck with one team for more than two seasons in his career. When the Heat signed Johnson to a one-year, $4 million dollar deal this summer, he joined his sixth team in eight years.
He has greatly exceeded low expectations, however. Johnson has went from borderline NBA player to the poor man’s Lamar Odom in Miami this season and is a big reason behind their success. Though Luke Babbitt usually starts at power forward for the Heat, Johnson plays nearly starter minutes there. He’s averaging career highs of 11.6 points, 4.9 rebounds, and 3.3 assists per game for the suddenly resurgent Heat. It is a deep year for the Sixth Man of the Year Award, but Johnson deserves some consideration.
Johnson and the Heat may continue this recent hot streak and get back to the playoffs. The Heat had a Chris Bosh sized hole to fill at power forward, and few expected Johnson to fill the spot capably. This season should validate Johnson’s unique talents. He’s outplayed expectations and will play himself into a better contract this summer.
Milwaukee Bucks: Malcolm Brogdon
College seniors can be undervalued in the NBA Draft. While younger players often have more upside to be molded, upperclassmen are closer to realizing their potential as basketball players. As a result, teams looking for stars at the top of the draft often aim high with potential. Malcolm Brogdon was an undervalued senior. With a solid 6-foot-5 frame and versatile offensive skills, he was overlooked because of the fact that he was already 23. Despite winning ACC Player of the Year honors, he slid to the second round of the draft before the Bucks selected him.
Brogdon has exceeded expectations in Milwaukee. Coach Jason Kidd opted to have Brogdon play point guard, and he’s provided steady play as a rookie. He averages 9.1 points, 4.1 assists, and 2.7 rebounds nightly with an impressive 41.7 3-point percentage. Defensively, Milwaukee emulates similar concepts to Virginia’s pack line defense and it has helped him play at a high level immediately. He has even earned 12 starts over Matthew Dellavedova. Not bad for a rookie second round pick.
The way Brogdon has played this season could potentially alter Milwaukee’s long term building plans. He is under contract for the next three seasons, Dellavedova the next four. With Giannis Antetokounmpo operating as the functional point guard in Milwaukee, the true point mostly has to play defense, run a limited amount of pick-and-roll, and make open looks. The two should be able to provide steady, if unspectacular play from the point guard position for the foreseeable future. The Bucks are in a good spot moving forward, and Malcolm Brogdon is a reason why.
Minnesota Timberwolves: Shabazz Muhammad
The Timberwolves have been a disappointing team to some so far this season. Though they were a trendy breakout team, they have reminded NBA fans that rebuilding takes time. The young Wolves are 13th in the Western Conference at 19-32 in the first year of the Tom Thibodeau era. The combination of Karl-Anthony Towns, Andrew Wiggins, and Zach Lavine will ensure a good future in Minnesota, but this season is likely going to be another season out of the playoffs after Lavine’s injury.
Shabazz Muhammad will get the chance to prove himself with the absence of Lavine. The former Rivals.com top player in the class of 2012, Muhammad was a lottery selection for the Timberwolves. He sat most of his rookie season but found himself playing heavy minutes alongside rookie Andrew Wiggins and averaged 13.5 points per game in an abbreviated second season. Muhammad returned for his third season and played with mixed results-he averaged 10.5 points per game off the bench, but shot 28.9 percent from on 3-pointers.
A 6-foor-6, 220 pound wing, Shabazz Muhammad possesses the size to at least be an average defender on the wing. His best NBA skill is his scoring, which he has been doing more efficiently in year four of his career. Muhammad is still a ball stopper on offense and creates very little for others, but has been more selective with his shots this season. He’s shooting field goal attempts at the lowest rate of his career and he is shooting better than ever. His current 3-point field goal percentage of 45.3% would be good for second in the league if he had more attempts. Now given more of an opportunity with Lavine out, Shabazz will have to show the league what he can do.
New Orleans Pelicans: Terrence Jones
Terrence Jones is a somewhat polarizing player. The 6-foot-9, 250 pound former Kentucky Wildcat possesses good athleticism and skills for a big man. These tools allowed him to become a highly ranked player in the class of 2010 and then a first round draft pick by the Houston Rockets. However, his jump shot and effort can be erratic at times. Additionally, Jones missed large chunks of three of his first four seasons and has the injury prone tag at this point in his career.
NBA fans know all about the record setting contracts offered last summer. Amid a cap spike, free agents all around the league cashed in. Terrence Jones was not one of these players. After injury plagued seasons in Houston, he accepted a one-year minimum offer from the Pelicans for this season and teamed up with former college teammate Anthony Davis. At a crossroads in his young career, Terrence Jones needed to step up this season.
Though the Pelicans have had an up and down season, Terrence Jones has been a positive contributor. He has been used to spell Anthony Davis in the second unit as well as starting alongside him at times. In times where Davis has missed games, he has really shined. Jones has averaged 26 points and 9.25 rebounds when he starts for the Pelicans. It’s in moments like that where his potential shows, and Jones will earn a larger contract next off-season.
New York Knicks: Guillermo ‘Willy’ Hernangomez
Willy Hernangomez is one of a handful of young big men from Europe exceeding expectations this season. The 22-year-old Spaniard was considered a rising prospect on Real Madrid’s basketball club when he was drafted with the 35th pick by the 76ers in 2015. His rights were acquired by the Knicks on draft night. They signed him to a contract this summer and brought him over to New York.
Knicks fans didn’t know what to expect out of Hernangomez this season; few expected him to become a quality rotation player. That is exactly what he has managed to do. Hernangomez moves pretty well for his size, which allows him to rebound well and be an asset in the pick-and-roll game. He has scored efficiently — currently shooting 53.4 percent from the floor. His 14 rebounds per 36 minutes is an impressive rate.
With his abilities, Willy Hernangomez may stick around in the NBA for a long time. His role has been growing of late, giving the Knicks a fourth big with Kristaps Porzingis, Joakim Noah, and Kyle O’Quinn. He has taken some of Noah and O’Quinn’s minutes and could continue to do so if his level of play doesn’t fall off. Under contract with New York for the next four years, he could potentially become a long term running mate to Porzingis. The future may be bright for Hernangomez in New York.
Oklahoma City Thunder: Jerami Grant
It’s easy to buy into Jerami Grant’s potential. Son of former NBA player Harvey Grant, nephew of former All-Star Horace, and brother of Bulls guard Jerian, he hails from an athletic family. Standing 6-foot-9 with a 7-foot-2 wingspan, Grant makes the type of athletic plays that stand out in NBA games. He has the potential to develop into a starter in the league at just 22 years old.
Jerami Grant declared for the 2014 NBA Draft after two seasons at Syracuse. He earned over 20 minutes per game for the lowly 76ers as a rookie and flashed promise. Grant saw his minutes rise and even started 52 games for Philadelphia in his second season. He averaged 9.7 points, 4.7 rebounds and 1.6 blocks per game and got better as the season progressed. The 76ers, with a logjam on the wing position, dealt Grant to the Thunder early this season in exchange for Ersan Ilyasova and a future first round pick.
The idea behind bringing Jerami Grant to Oklahoma City was to have him challenge Andre Roberson for minutes, possibly even replace him in the starting lineup. Though his skills may be more suited for the power forward position, Grant is a better shooter than Roberson and can emulate his role on the team. Grant has shot fairly efficiently, but is really yet to hit his stride with the Thunder as Ilyasova is submitting a good season in Philadelphia. Add in that future draft pick and trading for Grant could be a costly decision for the Thunder if his play doesn’t improve.
Orlando Magic: Mario Hezonja
The Orlando Magic organization knew they would have to be patient with Mario Hezonja. The 6-foot-8 wing was only 20 when they brought him over from Barcelona last season. He had enough upside to be taken fifth overall in the draft, but still has parts of his game to figure out on the NBA level. When Scott Skiles determined Hezonja wasn’t ready last season and played him sparingly, it wasn’t a shock.
Year two should have represented a step forward in Mario Hezonja’s development. Skiles left Orlando in the offseason and was replaced by former Pacers coach Frank Vogel. Vogel had been instrumental in the development of Paul George and Lance Stephenson, but the jury is out on his results with Hezonja. Now midway through his second season, Hezonja is averaging only 9.9 minutes per night and is shooting below 30 percent on 3-pointers. He’s already received 17 DNP-coach’s decision.
There hasn’t necessarily been a complete lack of opportunity for Hezonja this season. The likely lottery-bound Magic have endured injuries to shooting guard Evan Fournier for 13 games so far this season. During his absence, they elected to replace him with the likes of Jeff Green, DJ Augustin, and C.J. Watson for extended runs instead of Hezonja. It’s likely because he has played so poorly when he has seen the floor. He could still yet come along, but Magic fans would like to see results sooner rather than later.
Philadelphia 76ers: T.J. McConnell
T.J. McConnell wasn’t supposed to become an NBA starter. He went to Duquesne out of high school and played there for two seasons before getting the chance to transfer to Arizona. He became the starter for the Wildcats once he became eligible and helped lead them to back-to-back Elite Eight appearances. A good defensive point guard, passer, and leader, McConnell is a decent athlete at 6-foot-2 and 200 pounds. He can run with most point guards on defense, but most thought he wouldn’t be explosive enough to play at the NBA level.
McConnell indeed went undrafted in 2015. He accepted a camp offer from the lowly 76ers and managed to make the squad with his gritty play. He surprised most when he started 17 games and was in the 76ers rotation for most of his rookie season. McConnell didn’t blow anybody away, but provided steady play for the young 76ers. Despite the lack of a good shooting stroke, he proved himself worthy of NBA minutes last season.
Over this summer, Philadelphia signed veteran point guards Sergio Rodriguez and Jerryd Bayless and drafted point-forward Ben Simmons. If they knew that they had a potential starting point guard in McConnell, they didn’t show it. Due to injuries, he got his chance to play this year and helped ignite a new trend in Philadelphia: winning. The 76ers are 11-7 in his starts; his unselfish brand of play has led to success. Though he’ll likely be out of the starting lineup once Simmons is back, McConnell has proven himself this season.
Phoenix Suns: Jared Dudley
The Phoenix Suns finally appeared ready to embrace a rebuild this summer. Caught in the middle of contending and rebuilding around young players after a surprise 48 win season in 2013-2014, Phoenix finally embraced a youth movement. They emphasized the draft and came away with Dragan Bender, Marquese Chriss, and Tyler Ulis. They took their cap room and signed a couple of veterans to serve as role models: Leandro Barbosa and Jared Dudley.
Jared Dudley was the assumed starter for the Suns. His job is generally to space the floor, do the small things well, and play good defense. Dudley has been able to do this well enough to be a starter for the better part of the last five seasons. Only 31, he should have another year or two of quality play left. Despite opening the season starting at the power forward position, Dudley only lasted there for seven games.
The Suns organization ultimately brought Jared Dudley in to split the power forward position with their two first round picks. The fact that Marquese Chriss has earned a starting spot isn’t the biggest deal. The fact that they gave Dudley three-years and $30 million and aren’t getting much of a return is problematic, however. He is a good locker room presence, sure, but $10 million isn’t a good return for an aging player on the fringes of the rotation. It could potentially be worse the next couple of years as well.
Portland Trail Blazers: Meyers Leonard
There comes a point in time when a young player simply needs to put it together. He needs to stop being a collection of tools that should make a quality player and actually become one. This should, theoretically, come when a player signs a four-year, $41 million dollar contract extension. Meyers Leonard has failed to put it together. Not only has he failed, he has actually regressed in his fifth season.
A one-time guard, Leonard had shot up to 7-feet in high school while keeping his skills. He averaged 13.6 points and 8.2 rebounds during his sophomore year at Illinois and became a coveted draft prospect. He has a great frame and good athleticism for a 7-footer, with an intriguing blend of skills to match. Leonard was selected 11th overall by Portland in the 2012 NBA Draft.
Meyers Leonard played sparingly for the veteran Trail Blazers during his first two seasons. He replaced Robin Lopez in the starting lineup successfully during his third season and showed progress. Portland underwent roster turnover prior to last season and Leonard took the opportunity to seize a larger role. He was a key reserve for the Trail Blazers and they bet on him with an extension over this summer. Despite that, Leonard has played less, shot worse, and been less productive when seeing court time this season. The 24-year-old still isn’t helping Portland win, and it’s looking like he may never do that.
Sacramento Kings: Arron Afflalo
The Sacramento Kings, despite a questionable draft night to some, sought stability this off-season. Armed with cap room, they brought in steady veterans to play roles. Anthony Tolliver, Garrett Temple, and even Matt Barnes and Ty Lawson fit this description with their play. They brought in one free agent who was assumed to be a starter — Arron Afflalo.
Signing Afflalo to a two-year, $25 million dollar deal was supposed to be a move that helped the Kings win. The 31-year-old wing has provided steady play as a starter for most carer; with averages of 11.4 points across his ten seasons. Despite that, Afflalo is turning in the worst season since he was in his early twenties. He has only averaged 8.0 points per game and lost his starting role for a period this season. Defensively, he hasn’t played at the level he once did.
Losing Rudy Gay for the season was a sting to a team with playoff aspirations. Criticism of DeMarcus Cousins and the Kings organization become more frequent and the odds of Cousins leaving rises with each season that they fail to make it. Despite another All-Star season from Cousins, Sacramento is 19-31 and 11th in the West. Their wing scoring has suffered since they lost Gay, and Afflalo hasn’t proven to be an answer there. To date, his tenure with the Kings has been disappointing.
San Antonio Spurs: Dejounte Murray
The San Antonio Spurs continue to be a world class organization. They have been picking at the bottom of the draft consistently for over 20 years, yet continually find undervalued players and retool with them. Manu Ginobili was a late second round pick in 1999. Tony Parker was a late first rounder in 2001. Over the years, the Spurs also unearthed Luis Scola, Beno Udrih, Ian Mahinmi, Tiago Splitter, George Hill, Dejuan Blair, Cory Joseph, and Kawhi Leonard outside of the lottery. And with Dejounte Murray, it appears that they have continued this trend.
The Spurs considered themselves to be set at point guard for this season. Though Tony Parker has shown signs of age, Patty Mills has been improving by the year and was coming off of a strong Olympic run. Few fans expected to see much of rookie twenty-year-old first round pick Dejounte Murray. But despite playing on a veteran Spurs team, Murray has contributed as a rookie. He even made six starts during a recent extended absence by Tony Parker.
Dejounte Murray has made the most of his time on the floor thus far. He scored 24 points during a start over the Nuggets and played well in an overtime win over the Cavaliers a couple of nights later. Murray possesses a dangerously quick first step that should allow him to succeed in the league for years to come. He has also handled the point guard position well for a young player. With returns like this in his rookie season, the Spurs may have found their point guard of the future.
Toronto Raptors: Lucas ‘Bebe’ Nogueira
The Toronto Raptors had the best season in franchise history last season and are seeking to build on that this season. They retained nearly the same roster from last year into this year, save for the departure of reserve center Bismack Biyombo. Biyombo had broken out in the previous year’s playoffs and complemented starter Jonas Valanciunas well throughout the year. Toronto drafted center Jakob Poeltl high in the draft; a possible sign that they didn’t expect much from their other reserve bigs.
Bebe Nogueira, also nicknamed “Long Weeknd”, was the 16th overall pick in the 2013 NBA Draft by the Atlanta Hawks. The Brazilian’s rights were traded by the Hawks over a year later as an afterthought in a move to drop Lou Williams’ salary. Toronto chose to bring Nogueira over for the 2014 season to develop the 7-footer on their own. He played in just 35 games for the Raptors over his first two seasons.
Little was expected of Nogueira this season. He had tools to become a good defensive center but was a relative unknown. He earned the backup center role in camp and has impressed thus far this season. His defensive game has been as good as advertised and he’s exceeded expectations on the offensive end. Nogueira has made 68.5 percent of his field goals and showed a good finishing ability in the pick-and-roll game. Nogueira has answered one of the Raptors team question marks emphatically this season.
Utah Jazz: Joe Ingles
Australian native Joe Ingles began his professional basketball career back in 2006. He played in Australia before getting a couple of chances to play with the Warriors Summer League teams in 2009 and 2010. When no NBA offer materialized, it looked as if he was destined to not cut it in the United States. Ingles went and played the next four seasons in Spain and Israel. After winning a Euroleague Championship and playing well for the Australian national team in 2014, he was given another NBA look.
The Los Angeles Clippers brought Joe Ingles in and cut him fairly early into camp. When the Utah Jazz claimed Ingles off waivers, some thought it to be a move to help make fellow Australian Dante Exum adjust. He ended up starting 32 games for the Jazz that first season. A smart decision-maker, decent shooter, and acceptable defender, Ingles didn’t leave much of an impression with his playing time. Ingles played even less last season and didn’t look the part of an NBA rotation player.
Utah added Joe Johnson this offseason into a wing rotation that already included Gordon Hayward, Rodney Hood, and Alec Burks. As a result, it was assumed that Joe Ingles would no longer have to play rotation minutes and his roster spot could even be in jeopardy. Ingles has responded with the best basketball of his career. The 29-year-old is turning in high level role player minutes for the Jazz this season and has helped them through a number of injuries. He ranks second in the league in 3-point shooting percentage (44.4 percent) and has held his own on defense. Ingles has responded when his team has needed him to.
Washington Wizards: Otto Porter
The Washington Wizards went local with the third pick of the 2013 NBA Draft and selected Otto Porter from Georgetown. Porter was considered to be one of the most pro ready players in the draft; an answer on the wing for years to come. The 6-foot-8 Porter teamed up with John Wall and Brad Beal to help form a promising trio in Washington. Many thought that he could contend for rookie of the year, but those people were in for a surprise.
Otto Porter averaged 8.6 minutes per game during his first NBA season. He wasn’t needed behind veteran Trevor Ariza, and took the year to learn. The Wizards acquired Paul Pierce prior to his second season and Porter became his main backup and learned from the veteran. However, his shooting numbers were poor and he was failing to live up to his top three hype. Porter responded to his critics by becoming a starter in year three of his career and played solid, but unspectacular basketball.
There is a case for Otto Porter to win Most Improved Player this season. The young swingman has elevated his nightly averages to 14.2 points and 6.5 rebounds, which continues a trend of improvement that is good. What is notable is Porter’s shooting. An average shooter last year, he is leading all shooters, making 46.3 percent of his 3-pointers this season — a jump of 10 percentage points. His newfound deadly shot has opened up the floor for other Wizards to shine. It’s his improved play, as well as others, that has helped propel Washington up to third in the NBA’s Eastern Conference.