Paul Mitchell: Okay, St. Jean, in last week’s The Hustle we played the small sample size game in relation to teams off to unsustainable starts this early into the season.
This week, can we talk about players who are particularly balling out, even if it is just a few weeks into ‘16-17?
Which player(s) are you impressed by already, and which are able to make The Leap into continued success over the next few months? How about any players who are possibly playing above their means and which you think will regress a bit with more time? And finally, have you seen any struggling players yet who you might be worried about over the long-term?
(Thanks, I’ll take my answers off-air.)
Chris St. Jean: Believe it or not, Mitchell, but I’m actually struggling to come up with Hot Takez for this question. I can’t help but come up a few observations that aren’t all that new, but in certain circles could be uncommon.
First off, Demar DeRozan is balling. DeRozan is a lightning rod player because he doesn’t conform to the modern NBA. And while Dwyane Wade was able to convert believers while he was leading the NBA in blocks and steals from the guard position for multiple seasons as he ignored the 3-point line, DeRozan’s lack of definitive defensive skill only confounds NBA fans even more. Is he really good?
For the first six games of this season though, DeRozan has been good. Sunday’s loss to Sacramento was the first time this season that DeRozan scored less than 30 and made less than 12 baskets. DeRozan is averaging 33.7 points per game on 52% shooting from the field and his PER is an astounding 30.7, according to Basketball Reference.
Say what you want about DeRozan, but he does not overextend himself on offense by taking lots of outside shots when he knows he’s more effective in other ways. He’s 2nd in the NBA in points originating from drives per game, according to NBA.com with 11.2 and destroying the rest of the NBA in pull-up points per game with 14.5.
He’s leading the league in FGA per game from both 10-14 feet and 15-19 feet. Again that flies in the face of conventional basketball wisdom at this point, but DeRozan is the type of player that is now getting to his spot consistently and whenever he wants. Much like Kawhi Leonard now, he finds his mid-range spot, gets to it, and while under complete control rises up and shoots over the defender.
Although his percentages may not hold out and I expect DeRozan to have many more ‘DeRozanish’ nights like his 7-20 from the field but 8-10 from the free throw line night in the loss to Sacramento on Sunday, his ability to get to the line consistently will always keep him relevant. Currently, DeRozan is getting to the line 9.2 times per game and knocking them down at an almost 85 percent clip.
On the West coast, another guard has caught my attention. I shudder now at the ‘George Hill as the summer’s most underrated acquisition’ label that is getting tossed all over the place now. How is it underrated if we all knew how great a fit this was going to be?
The Jazz point guard rotation was likely the worst non-76er single position on any NBA roster last season. Getting any competent point guard was going to help. And we all knew, because of how Utah’s roster was constructed, that Hill’s ability to play both with and without the ball from that position was going to be extremely valuable.
George Hill is averaging over 20 points per game and shooting 54 percent from the field and 42 percent from deep over Utah’s first seven games. Hill scored more than 20 points only seven times in his 73 games last season, and never twice in a row.
Hill has also been a lead ball-handler with Gordon Hayward out to start the season, averaging well over his career norm with five assists per game. Hill has been great as the ball handler in pick-and-roll situations (51 through 7 games) with an eFG% of 57 percent and generating 1.08 points per possessions, according to NBA.com.
With Hayward returning, we may see Utah rely less on Hill’s ball handling and more on spot-up situations, where he’s also a scorching 9-17 from the field. While DeRozan’s numbers may come to earth a bit, I think Hill has a legitimate shot at maintaining similar production from an efficiency standpoint throughout the season.
Who has caught your eye, Mitchell?
Paul Mitchell: /crosses DeRozan’s name off my list of breakout players
Those are some fine choices. You already mentioned the league’s leading scorer, so I’ll continue my belated podcast praise of Portland Trail Blazers point guard Damian Lillard, as my candidate for player making The Leap this season.
Lillard’s already potent offensive game continues to diversify as he’s increased his drives and free throws by over three attempts per game in his seven games, which has put him above the 30-PPG plateau and into third place in the league’s high-scoring hierarchy. He’s currently above 60 percent shooting on his drives to the basket and over 70 percent converting at the rim by Basketball Reference’s numbers (albeit in five games for some reason), so that bears watching going forward, but if Lillard can consistently get that first step on defenders it’ll only open up space for his jumper.
So far it’s paid off, with his three-point stroke falling at a career-best 40 percent rate to round out his early entry into the 50/40/90-club (on field goal, three-point field goal, and free-throw percentages). And with C.J. McCollum always capable of dropping 37 points on a random Sunday evening, Dame should find even more room to operate on the court and with defenses incapable of overloading a side. Even if basically every other Trail Blazer teammate (outside of Alan Crabbe) continues to struggle in shooting the ball, the natural spacing and cohesion of Lillard and McCollum’s games should allow the offense to run optimally and open up the inside of the arc.
The next step for Lillard is to commit on the defensive end and play with consistent effort, and manage that superstar balancing act between conserving energy on either end. For a Portland team that has again struggled in stopping their opponents, that side of the court might present the ultimate upside for both the team and its star player.
After Lillard, though, I have to bring up another dynamic point guard, in Charlotte’s Kemba Walker. His true leap probably began last season when he finally embraced the three-point shot and took that step back from the land of the long-two, but he’s continued his All-Star play for a surprising 5-1 Hornets squad. Kemba’s also increased his time at the free-throw line by getting into the lane on a more frequent basis, which has had an even greater effect than Lillard on his three-point success rate (from 37 percent in 2015-16 to 42.4 percent this season).
Walker is likewise able to play for stretches as a decoy or spot-up threat on the weak side of the court while another capable ball-handler runs the offense, and can confidently fire at will or get overly aggressive on the fast break, given the high-caliber defense behind him. He’s perennially a pesky threat in playing the passing lanes and racking up steal totals, and has formed a nice on-court chemistry alongside Nic Batum in sharing the basketball.
Walker still needs to address his scoring around the basket and in converting on his drives to the rim, which may be a product of his slight size at under six-foot. He’s always had the ball-handling skills to shake his initial defender and draw help on his penetration into the lane, but relied on a lot of floaters and running layups at the professional level to compensate for his lack of height. As he grows into the veteran phase of his career and into his comfort within Steve Clifford’s adapting offense, it should allow him to continue to phase out the long-two’s and pick his spots at the rim, and Kemba could see another huge efficiency spike this season.
As far as players I could see slipping a bit as the games accumulate, I’d have to target younger players who might be playing a bit above their means. It’s been really fun and I hope it lasts over the remaining 75 games, but I somehow doubt the Phoenix Suns’ duo of T.J. Warren and Devin Booker averages a combined 45 points over a full season. Similarly with Detroit’s wing combo of Marcus Morris and Tobias Harris, who are responsible for about 36 points a night for the Pistons. And I’m still undecided on players like Rodney Hood and Myles Turner, who are sitting right around the 17-PPG tier and certainly have the talent and potential to maintain that level of production, but play on rosters stocked with veterans who could steal their shot attempts.
Finally, can we pour out some of our finest for the careers of Derrick Rose, Paul Pierce, and Dirk Nowitzki? Y’know what, I’m sorry I brought it up. This is awkward, and probably blasphemous.