The pleasant and unpleasant surprises from early NBA action

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    Giannis Antetokounmpo has had a phenomenal start to the season. (Keith Allison / Flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0)

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    The start of the NBA season is a treasure trove for fans who love the obscure and outlandish.

    With a small sample size, anything is possible. Great players can look terrible, average players can look unbelievable, and teams that were planning on tanking can find themselves stuck at the top of the standings.

    Of course, most of these trends don’t last, and the remaining 80-odd games in the season uncover the truth. By the time the playoffs come around, these first few games will be long forgotten.

    But until then, let’s look at some of the surprises from the NBA’s opening, both pleasant or decidedly not so.

    Pleasant: Giannis Antetokounmpo
    On Tuesday (AEDT) Giannis Antetokounmpo had his worst scoring night of the season. He finished with 32 points, along with 14 rebounds, six assists, two blocks and a steal.

    That’s how good his start to the season has been.

    Antetokounmpo was a hot tip to challenge for Most Valuable Player this season, but his first four games have been otherworldly.

    Tuesday’s effort took him to 147 points through his first four appearances – the most ever by a Milwaukee player, and one point ahead of the great Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s record.

    He’s been able to bully his way past every player that’s guarded him and finish at the rim through contact. He’s playing like he spent the whole offseason in the weight room, and it’s working perfectly. See it in action here.

    Some 67 per cent of his shots have come from within five feet of the basket, and it seems like no one can stop him from getting there.

    He’s averaging 36.8 points, 10.8 rebounds and 5.2 assists so far. Only Wilt Chamberlain, Elgin Baylor and Michael Jordan have averaged that many points per game for a season, and no one has ever had Antetokounmpo’s stat line.

    It’s unlikely, almost impossible, that he will maintain this level of production. But it does look like he’s even better than people thought, with a very early MVP campaign underway.

    Giannis Antetokounmpo for the Bucks in the NBA

    (Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press via AP)

    Unpleasant: Phoenix Suns
    Just as Antetokounmpo has outshone his lofty expectations, the Phoenix Suns have out-stunk theirs.

    Everyone knew they would be bad, and most suspected they might be the worst team in the league, but their opening game was still a rude awakening.

    A franchise-record 48-point loss to the Trail Blazers announced to the world that the Suns are the best damn tankers in the NBA. Over their first three games they have given up 386 points, with the Blazers game and a 42-point drubbing to the Clippers split by a two-point loss to the Lakers where neither team played a lick of defence.

    Now, things have blown up off the court too, with head coach Earl Watson fired after those three games.

    Watson was always a risky hire, as he was promoted to the top job with less than a year of assistant coaching on his CV. Now, he’ll likely have to return to the understudy role he should’ve still been in.

    Meanwhile, Eric Bledsoe has made it very clear that he wants to follow his former coach out as soon as possible, a position he laid out bluntly on Twitter.

    (That tweet also led to one of the all-time great excuses, where Bledsoe said he was at a hair salon with his girlfriend. I hope all NBA players are that creative when they tweet carelessly from now on.)

    A day after Watson’s firing, Bledsoe was sent home from the team’s shootaround after a lengthy discussion with team staff, and it was announced he wouldn’t play in their next game.

    General manager Ryan McDonough said that Bledsoe “won’t be with us going forward,” which is surprisingly candid talk from an executive about a player still on the roster. It’s been reported that the Suns are engaged in trade talks with multiple teams.

    So basically, everything that could go wrong to start the season did go wrong. But hey, they beat the Kings today! And Bledsoe seemed to enjoy it!

    There’s no chance of the Suns being good, so let’s just hope they’re less embarrassing as the season continues.

    Pleasant: Dejounte Murray
    The Spurs are a basketball machine, and the production line keeps churning out talented youngsters.

    Dejounte Murray was the 29th pick in the 2016 draft. He had a quiet first season behind Tony Parker and Patty Mills, playing only 38 games.

    But with Parker out for the start of the new season, the Spurs opted to throw Murray into the fire as the fill-in starter at the one.

    He’s responded in a big way, with a couple of career games in San Antonio’s 3-0 start.

    He scored 16 points in their opening night win against Minnesota, before flirting with a triple-double in the next two games, with six assists and a new career-high in rebounding in each.

    A stat line of 13.3 points, 9.7 rebounds, 4.7 assists and 1.3 steals is impressive, and even more so coming from a point guard who’s barely 21-years-old.

    Murray’s biggest advantage is his length, and he’s been using it at both ends of the floor. At six foot five, and with a six foot, nine-and-a-half inch wingspan, Murray is able to finish over the top of other point guards at the offensive end and disrupt passing lanes on defence.

    Most importantly, he’s running the offence perfectly within San Antonio’s group-think system. Things will be different once Parker and Kawhi Leonard return to the line-up, but Murray’s role may well stay the same.

    San Antonio have a reputation for drafting well with late picks and developing superstars. Murray has a long way to go, but his start to the season suggests he could become the latest Spurs steal.

    Unpleasant: Injuries
    What’s that old saying? “Injuries are a part of the game.”

    Yeah, but did they have to come so quickly? And did they have to be so serious?

    It took all of six minutes for Gordon Hayward’s season to end, as an awkward landing became a dislocated and fractured ankle. I wrote about the injury and the deadening effect it had on opening night.

    The second night of the season was no better. Jeremy Lin, who by all appearances is one of the NBA’s ultimate nice guys, blew out his knee in an injury just as jarring for fans to watch.

    Lin tore his patella tendon and will miss the remainder of the season. It’s the latest setback in what has been a tough run for the point guard since the ‘Linsanity’ of 2012.

    Two season-ending injuries in two days made it harder to enjoy the season’s opening. And since then, less serious but still significant injuries to DeAndre Bembry, Milos Teodosic and Rodney Hood only added to the pain.

    In the age of science and sports medicine, it’s easy to forget how vulnerable players are when they’re on the court. The new NBA season has been a sobering reminder, and for some players, it’ll be a lasting one.

    Pleasant: Memphis Grizzlies
    Before the season started, the Memphis Grizzlies had their over-under line for wins set at 37.5 by the Westgate Las Vegas Superbook. The Golden State Warriors were atop the standings, set at 67.5 wins, with the Houston Rockets second at 55.5.

    Memphis have beaten them both already, and they’ve done it pretty easily.

    The Grizzlies managed to keep last season’s two best offensive teams to a combined 191 points, and won both games with a starting line-up featuring Jarell Martin, James Ennis and Andrew Harrison.

    If you don’t recognise those names, I’m sure you’re not the only one. Before this season Martin and Harrison had a combined 21 career NBA starts, while Ennis started 28 of his 64 games for last season’s injury-plagued Grizzlies.

    The grit-and-grind crew of previous years may be gone, but the method is still the same. The Grizzlies lead the league in free throw attempts (34 per game), and have held their three opponents to just 39.6 per cent shooting from the field and 27.7 per cent from three.

    Marc Gasol is still the driving force behind the team. The Spanish big man doesn’t seem to age, as he scored over 20 points against both Houston and Golden State.

    Mike Conley is still one of the most efficient point guards in the league. Despite not putting up the gaudy numbers of some of his competitors, his efficiency and high basketball IQ make he and Gasol one of the more dangerous combinations in the league.

    There may not be much top-tier talent beyond those two, but the supporting cast are working hard on defence and hitting their shots when needed. With such a potent pairing leading the way, maybe that’s all they need to do.

    Unpleasant: De’Aaron Fox’s denial
    I’m not a Dragon Ball Z fan, but even I thought this was great.

    De’Aaron Fox is a known DBZ tragic, but unfortunately, he’s denied having any part in the audible (and slightly incorrect) catchphrase from the animated show.

    It’s a shame really. The NBA needs more wacky stuff like this happening, and I’d love to see Fox shouting random phrases from the show every time he touches the ball.

    Who knows, maybe this will be the push he needs. Make it happen, De’Aaron!

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