Ten days in, here are our first 10 things of the season:
1. Holy KAT
I've written many times that Karl-Anthony Towns has a chance to be the most versatile scoring big man ever and only the second (after the Tall Baller from the G) to put up a 50-40-90 shooting season -- he has come close twice, falling short only on the 90 part -- but even I did not expect Towns to go full-on Drogon from all over the floor.
Towns is taking his usual portion of shots from the restricted area and has exchanged essentially all his midrangers for 3s. That is a good trade when you can do this:
I mean ... what? That is a 7-footer flicking up a step-back with the dexterity and quick release of a guard. Towns is 5-of-8 on pull-up 3s, after canning just 10 all last season.
Most of his treys are catch-and-shoots that come in the flow, and Towns -- with a big assist from Ryan Saunders' spread system -- is discovering more ways to hunt them. One favorite:
Towns didn't invent that tactic, but he can weaponize it to an unprecedented level. It's a classic screen-the-screener set that would typically proceed into Towns dipping down for a pick-and-roll with Josh Okogie. But when Towns sees that first screen wallop his guy, he aborts and moonwalks into an easy 3.
Towns hasn't abandoned posting up, and he shouldn't; he inflicts heavy damage as an inside-out hub. Towns and Anthony Davis are tied for the league lead in post touches, per Second Spectrum data, and the Wolves have scored about 1.25 points per possession whenever Towns shoots from the post or kicks to a teammate who fires right away -- a mark that would have ranked third among all players last season.
But he isn't hijacking the offense and meandering to the block. Towns is arriving in the post organically by sprinting the floor or sealing guys under the rim after setting screens.
He also is passing from the block more often, and the reads are easier -- and the rotations longer for defenses -- with Saunders playing four perimeter players around Towns. That setup also has exploded Towns' pump-and-go game; if he beats his man on the perimeter, Towns can outrace help defenders scrambling from the arc to the rim.
He has tightened up some on defense too, even if Joel Embiid would never concede it. Opponents are getting to the basket less often with Towns on the floor and shooting only 37.5% on attempts from the restricted area when Towns is nearby. That number will come up. Towns still can be slow rotating into help position. His agility and speed have never translated the same way on defense.
But Towns is trying harder, and Saunders has simplified the scheme so Towns mostly sits back in the paint. He should grow into an average defender. Combine that with all-world offense and you get a no-brainer top-10 player -- and potentially a top-five-level superstar.
2. Trae Young, reject
Young is mastering crueler methods of exploiting all the attention he draws beyond the arc:
In dissecting pick-and-roll defense against long-range gunners, we tend to focus on the big guy guarding the screener. He has to scurry out of his comfort zone! Is he agile enough to trap and recover? We perhaps overlook the mental and physical strain on Young's defender. That guy feels the oncoming pick. He hears the footsteps. He knows if he runs into that screen, if he is even a beat late slithering over it, Young is going to unleash something bad. So he naturally girds himself before that pick arrives. He leans. Maybe he opens his hips.
Young senses that anxiety and preys on it by faking toward screens and then bolting the other way. He is rejecting about nine picks per 100 possessions, double his rate from last season, per Second Spectrum, and defenders are falling for the gambit over and over. Only Lou Williams, master of the right-to-left crossover fade, veered away from more screens before Young injured his ankle on Tuesday.
Atlanta has scored about 1.7 points per possession anytime Young rejects a pick, per Second Spectrum. Young zipping away from a screen has basically been the most profitable recurring play in the league so far. Atlanta has scored 110 points per 100 possessions with Young on the floor, and a Washington Generals-esque 92 when he sits, per NBA.com data. Yowza.
Young already had one anti-trap device: crouching low, splitting defenders and beelining into a 5-on-3. Mix in this reject trickery and Young is going to have defenses paralyzed with uncertainty.
From there, Young can start manipulating instead of reacting. He can scan the floor, then digest which four or five passing options might emerge depending on his plan of attack and choose one. He is a world-class passer with either hand.
It won't look pretty every night. That is the nature of a high-variance 3-point game. Philly's size smothered Young on Monday. He is averaging five turnovers per game, and he needs to make himself more of a moving threat when others have the ball.
But if Young maintains this -- and returns soon -- he will probably be an All-Star and keep Atlanta in the playoff race.
3. Kendrick Nunn's hesitation dribble
Yeah, he missed, but oh, baby. John Collins -- improved on defense so far this season -- is still looking for Nunn.
You want it righty -- that is, Nunn's "weak" hand? Sure.
What a monster run on the margins for the Heat: Josh Richardson in the second round -- a very good player who netted Miami a great one in Jimmy Butler; Tyler Herro and Bam Adebayo at the back of the lottery; Duncan Robinson, Derrick Jones Jr. and Chris Silva on two-way deals; and now Nunn, plucked from the G-League at the end of last season -- and leading the Heat in scoring.
This is what it takes to craft a sunny future, despite coughing up three future first-round picks in get-rich-now trades; striking out in post-Heatles free agency until the Butler deal; and lavishing fifth-starter types with eight-figure deals. All of that describes a franchise in peril. The Heat are no longer in peril. They are good now, lurking anew as a free-agent destination.
They have not missed James Johnson or Dion Waiters. (Most of the buildings on Waiters Island are boarded up. Bill Simmons is hoarding canned food in his bomb shelter.) With Nunn and Herro as rotation mainstays -- plus more minutes than expected for Meyers Leonard -- the Heat have more shooting and versatility than even they anticipated. Goran Dragic looks reinvigorated in a reserve role. Even if Waiters never steps on the floor again for Miami, the Heat have enough perimeter talent to play heavy minutes with Justise Winslow as a point-power forward -- a look they haven't had to explore much yet.
If they stay healthy, the Heat should stick in the race for the No. 3 or No. 4 spot in the East.
Several teams are kicking themselves about Nunn -- not only the Warriors, who waived him out of camp a year ago and had him in the G-League. Others brought Nunn in for group workouts and chose other (worse) players, or tried to entice him with promises of a training camp deal this season. Miami went another route -- a multiyear, nonguaranteed minimum -- and snagged him.
4. Hello, Otto Porter Jr.?
Porter was never the most, umm, forceful player, but he has been almost ethereal over Chicago's disappointing 1-4 start against an angel food cake schedule. The Bulls appear to be monitoring Porter's minutes for reasons that are a little unclear, and Porter has been an afterthought on the floor -- sluggish and unassertive with the ball, unremarkable on defense. He is averaging nine points per game on 14-of-44 shooting and has barely grabbed any rebounds -- one of the prime offenders for a team that has been pathetic on the glass.
Porter averaged almost 18 points per game after the Bulls acquired him from Washington last season, and he burst out of his 3-and-D box. He doubled his pick-and-roll volume and thrived under a heavier scoring burden.
That version of Porter was probably unsustainable, especially with Zach LaVine, Lauri Markkanen and Wendell Carter Jr. hungering for expanded roles. Porter jacked a ton of midrangers -- he was in the 100th percentile in long 2-point attempts after the trade, per Cleaning The Glass data -- and there is a low production ceiling on those shots.
But the Bulls urgently need Porter to be a functional 3-and-D guy who attacks scrambled defenses off the bounce. He is the only true small forward in Chicago's rotation; Jim Boylen's go-to bench unit features three point guards. The problems in Chicago go well beyond Porter, but the Bulls' postseason dreams will die fast unless he finds his game.
5. RJ Barrett, conducting like a vet
Barrett has been New York's best all-around player. This sort of ballhandling craft from a rookie non-point guard is super rare:
Barrett pinning Semi Ojeleye on his back and freezing the Boston defense, waiting for them to move first so he can counterpunch, is on its own an advanced NBA tactic. The look-away toward Julius Randle on the right wing to free Bobby Portis is veteran puppet master stuff.
Barrett's advanced pick-and-roll numbers are average, but average is a home run considering the spacing limitations of New York's starting five. Against Barrett-Mitchell Robinson pick-and-rolls, defenses ignore Randle and Elfrid Payton to clog every driving and passing lane:
Barrett has squeezed out points anyway by whipping smart passes and bulldozing smaller defenders. It took four games, but the Knicks found a way to make Barrett's life easier: use Portis as a spot-up threat and have the other big -- Randle or Robinson -- screen and dive.
Barrett is a solid rebounder, and he has held his own on defense. Skeptics worry Barrett's early shooting -- 42% from deep on decent volume -- isn't real, and if they're right, Barrett's projected peak gets a little murky. If Barrett develops into a good 3-point shooter, the Knicks might have a star.
The Knicks so needed something close to a sure thing in their young core. Dennis Smith Jr. and Frank Ntilikina have struggled. Kevin Knox II is a question mark, which is fine at this stage. Robinson is good already, and he has a chance to be a very impactful player -- but not an on-ball fulcrum on offense.
It's very early, but Barrett looks like he has a chance to be that.
6. Kawhi Leonard, running this
It was a major debate within the league -- a franchise-defining one for some teams -- when Leonard was on the trade block, coming off a mysterious leg injury: What if he's only 90% of his old self?
Leonard's two-way devastation of the 2017 playoffs, pre-Zaza, should have had teams contemplating the flip side: If he gets healthy, could he be even better?
Leonard isn't the same soul-snatching force on defense anymore, at least not until go time, but he has become a full-blown superstar in the most traditional sense on offense. He has run 44 pick-and-rolls per 100 possessions with the Clippers, up from about 22 last season. The Clippers have scored about 1.16 points per possession when Leonard shoots out of the pick-and-roll or passes to a teammate who launches within two dribbles, per Second Spectrum. That number would have led all high-volume ballhandlers last season.
He already has developed chemistry with two very different dance partners in Ivica Zubac and Montrezl Harrell. Zubac is more laborious, and so Leonard navigates with zigzaggy, start-and-stop patience until Zubac rumbles free:
Harrell can zip to the rim or mirror Leonard's pitter-pat. Harrell also is a master at re-screening at different angles, and Leonard is learning to bob and weave behind him -- and use the threat of a handoff to slice backdoor:
Leonard is dishing 6.2 dimes per game, almost double his single-season career high, and that comes after a one-assist performance against his old buddies in San Antonio Thursday. He has assisted on 42% of the Clippers' buckets while on the floor -- a Point God-level number. Leonard is demolishing concerns about the Clips' overall ballhandling.
This all signals extreme danger for the rest of the league when Paul George returns. George is overtaxed as a primary option, about right as a co-alpha dog, and unfair as a clear-cut No. 2.
7. The on-court shot clock graphic
To my well-intentioned colleagues and friends at TNT: Can we not?
Did anyone ask for a ticking shot clock graphic above the foul line? We can already see the shot clock in two places: above the backboard and in its tidy little corner below the score line. That second spot is perfect: It's unintrusive, but you know it's there if you want it.
The new TNT graphic is rendered in a faded white until the clock ticks to five, at which point it flips into a blaring red. The white version is just noticeable enough to be annoying. The red version is so loud, you no longer notice anything else.
A compromise: Do something more dramatic with the little shot clock in the corner within the last five seconds. Right now, the red background behind the digits starts blinking from light to dark, but the contrast isn't enough to catch your eye.
8. Rui and Bertans!
The League Pass Rankings reverse jinx lives! The Wiz -- dead last in that annual column -- are kinda ... fun? They are especially so with Rui Hachimura and Davis Bertans manning the forward spots. (Side note: This kind of look, pairing two tweeners who lean more toward the nominal power forward designation, seems to be en vogue this season.)
Hachimura is a whirling dervish who is somehow both chaotic and balanced at once. He can overpower wings in the post, and he looks comfy stepping into old-school long 2s. Those are unsexy shots, but they bode well for Hachimura stretching to 3-point range.
Bertans is one of the best shooters alive, and Scott Brooks is running nifty tandem set pieces for Bertans and Moritz Wagner. (I can't believe that sentence is a true thing.) This double pick has been killing teams, since both Bertans and Wagner are threats to chuck:
Overplay the Bertans curl and he'll bust it to the rim:
The Wizards have scored 126 points per 100 possessions (not a typo!) with Hachimura and Bertans on the floor, though their 159-158 game of NBA Jam against Houston on Wednesday inflated those numbers. (Warning: Don't look up the defensive figure; your mobile device might combust.)
Washington isn't good, but they're feisty and entertaining.
9. OG Anunoby, driving
Most of the praise for Anunoby's early-season work has focused on his stellar defense, but this is the stuff that excites me:
Anunoby is attacking off the catch with new decisiveness and ferocity -- a must for any secondary perimeter option. He has blown by defenders on more than 53% of his drives, almost double his rate from last season. And Toronto is getting buckets out of it: 1.17 points per possession anytime Anunoby shoots out of a drive or passes to a teammate who fires right away -- a mark that would have nearly topped the league last season, per Second Spectrum.
The defending champion Raptors are as advertised: savvy, ultra-confident, totally comfortable in their own skin, and a damned pain to play against. Anunoby as a competent scorer, shooter and drive-and-kick fiend changes their future. Even if all three of Toronto's over-30 veterans -- Kyle Lowry, Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka -- are gone by next season, the younger core of Anunoby, Pascal Siakam, and Fred VanVleet is a plug-and-play roster for any free agent superstar. (Siakam is blossoming into a superstar now, a good bet to hit the trifecta of All-Star, All-NBA, and All-Defensive.)
10. Trey Lyles, vanishing
So, this is going to be a problem if it persists:
When Lyles first cracked Utah's rotation as a rookie, he showed flashes of potential as a stretchy, playmaking power forward who could switch across almost every position on defense.
Lyles has since whiplashed between hunting shots too greedily and (right now in San Antonio) turning down wide-open looks. He has used only 8% of San Antonio's possessions, a rate usually associated with shot-phobic bruisers -- Dennis Rodman, Michael Cage, Joel Anthony types. Lyles never grew into that canny multi-positional defender.
The 3-1 Spurs have been fine with Lyles on the floor, but they can't start this passive version of him against elite competition in April and May. He is a placeholder. The Spurs don't want to start big, with Jakob Poeltl next to LaMarcus Aldridge. They appear to prefer Rudy Gay as a bench scorer. DeMarre Carroll is out of the rotation. They sloughed away Bertans to fit Marcus Morris Sr., but Morris is in New York.
The Spurs are a good team with two major lineup questions: Who starts next to Aldridge? And how often can/should they play all three of Derrick White, DeMar DeRozan, and Dejounte Murray? (The answer might be "more than they are now" despite some potential shooting issues. The more interesting big-picture question is how often they might play Murray, White, and Bryn Forbes -- or another young guy -- with two frontcourt guys who aren't DeRozan. Small-ball groups with all of them -- and DeRozan at power forward -- may not survive heavy minutes on defense.) Murray is absolutely wrecking stuff on defense.
11. Matisse Thybulle, what?
Sorry, I couldn't resist an 11th thing.
Holy hell. I wish we could have seen Kevin Huerter's face the moment he realized Thybulle had apparated back into his airspace. I imagine he resembled a character in a slasher movie who turns a corner and comes face-to-face with the killer.
Thybulle did not get credit for a block on that play, but something happened to Huerter's shot.
I have no idea if Thybulle will be ready to play in crunch time as a rookie in the playoffs, or develop an average 3-point shot. But he is already special on defense. I can't remember the last rookie wing to move with such liquid grace and speed. Maybe Kawhi? Thybulle is barely logging 20 minutes per game, and he leads the league in both steals and deflections.
Philly's size and defense -- No. 2 in the league behind Utah -- are absurd. What are you even supposed to do against a lineup of Thybulle, Josh Richardson, Ben Simmons, Tobias Harris and Al Horford -- one of the Sixers' go-to lineups when Joel Embiid rests?