Gordon Hayward’s return to the Celtics line-up in Game 3 was much needed and well overdue, but not for the reason you might think.
Over a month of the NBA season has gone by, and you can look at the data we have in a few different ways.
On one hand, you might feel like with each team having only played 18-20 games, it’s still just way too early to make any real judgements.
Maybe we don’t need to be concerned about the Cavaliers’ or Thunder’s subpar starts.
On the other hand, you could have the mindset that a month is a long enough time to believe what we’re seeing.
Lonzo Ball is a bust. There’s no hope for him with that godawful shooting form.
I fall in the middle. Yes, it is early enough that we are still learning new things every couple of nights, but there has also been enough time for patterns to emerge. In a lot of cases, we can feel fairly confident about believing what we see on the court, especially when we supplement it with statistics.
With that in mind, I want to check in on candidates for some of the end of season awards. It’s less about me making predictions as to who will win and more about me noting the players who have stood out in each area so far.
If you haven’t kept up with the NBA this season, this can be a good way for you to check in on which players are worth keeping an eye on.
I’ll give my top three candidates for the categories I’m covering here, along with some honourable mentions. Part two will follow.
There’s already an article about early MVP candidates up on the site (and I agree with most of it), so I’ll just briefly touch on mine here.
1. James Harden, Houston Rockets PG
After another runner-up finish, Harden is back with a vengeance this season, averaging 31 points, 9 assists and 4 rebounds with 45 (percentage from the field)/40 (from three)/86 (free throws) shooting splits.
A combination of this high level of play and an excellent record (13-4, first in the West) has put Harden in the driver’s seat early in the MVP race.
2. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks PF
Last year’s most improved player has picked up where he left off and is averaging 30 points, 10 rebounds and 4 assists while he’s leading his team in all five major stat categories – points, rebounds, assists, steals, and blocks.
The Bucks will likely need to finish with the fifth seed or higher in the Eastern Conference for the Greek Freak to have his best shot at winning.
3. LeBron James, Cleveland Cavaliers SF
The 13-time All-Star continues to easily put up numbers that would have fans and media alike in a complete frenzy if they came from any other player in the league. He’s putting up 28 points, 7 rebounds, and 8 assists with an unfathomable 58 per cent from the field.
An offseason change to a higher release in his jump shot has resulted in him shooting a career-high 42 per cent from three, adding a whole new dimension to his game. He’s having a career year, and there is a strong argument to made that he is the front-runner for MVP.
As the Cavaliers continue their win streak, this line of thinking only grows stronger.
The main concern for me is that he may just rest too many games later in the season once Cleveland feels secure about their playoff seeding. Resting more than ten games will hurt his candidacy.
Stephen Curry always deserves a shout here. Golden State continues to be the best team in basketball, and it is largely due to the gravity Curry has when on the court. He can still score more easily and quickly than anyone else in the game.
In the age of increasingly skilled bigs, Demarcus Cousins is currently the best among them. He provides a rich blend of scoring, rebounding, and passing while handling the ball like a point guard. The Pelicans need to prove they are more than an eighth seed, though.
1. Ben Simmons, Philadelphia 76ers PF
Simmons has been running away with the rookie award from the moment he stepped on the court this season. He’s adapted easily to the NBA game and is currently putting up 18/9/7 as a nightly triple-double threat.
He is a unique player, playing the game with a sense of control that belies his age. As a big point forward, the comparisons to LeBron James are inevitable, but Simmons is something different.
He’s so smooth with the ball and almost has the type of handle that you would expect from a guard while standing almost seven feet tall.
His dribbling skills and strong finishing around the rim have helped mask what continues to be a big issue – his shooting, or lack thereof. He’s not accurate and knows it. He’s barely attempted three-pointers this year but is also shooting a worrisome 58 per cent from the free throw line.
I’ve also seen a few too many ugly airballs when he tries to put up shots from further than ten feet from the basket. It’s too much to ask to see him develop this part of his game this season, but it needs to happen at some point.
His engagement on defence has also been a pleasant surprise and his ability to contribute on both ends of the floor (he’s third in the league at 2.1 steals per game) has set him apart from the rest of the rookies.
2. Jayson Tatum, Boston Celtics SF
In an earlier article, I noted that Jayson Tatum probably wouldn’t get enough minutes this season to really be considered among the top rookies.
That all changed with Gordon Hayward’s nasty injury a few minutes into opening night. He’s been starting and playing 30 minutes a game, putting up 13/5/1 on 49/46/83 splits.
He’s the fourth option at best on the Celtics so he won’t have Simmons’ raw numbers, but it’s more about the eye test with Tatum.
He has a mature, NBA ready game at just 19 years old. He’s displayed a range of offensive tools, scored efficiently and has been promising on defence.
Best of all, he’s transitioned perfectly to the NBA three, as indicated by his 46 per cent clip from downtown.
Advanced stats love him – for example, he has a 62 per cent True Shooting Percentage, which is good for 19th in the entire league and ahead of MVP candidates like Harden and Antetokounmpo. For comparison, Simmons is down at 89th.
He won’t have a real chance win the award unless Simmons gets hurt, but he’s still firmly in the conversation.
3. Kyle Kuzma, Los Angeles Lakers PF
The Lakers have really been nailing the draft lately. Last year, they drafted Brandon Ingram, who has made a big leap in year two. This year, they’ve added a player that has looked like he belongs in the NBA since day one, and his name is… Kyle Kuzma?
You’d be excused for not knowing who Kuzma was before the season, as he came out of the University of Utah and wasn’t highly touted in the draft. However, he made a splash in Summer League and has continued his strong play during the season.
Kuzma, quite simply, just gets buckets. He’s averaging 16 points per game and has been playing more and more as the season has gone on. He is an excellent finisher around the rim but also has range that extends to the three-point line.
He has the makings of an elite scorer as nightly 20/10 threat and looks like a core player for the Lakers going forward.
I’ve been a huge fan of Donovan Mitchell since Summer League, and now that he is finally getting time in Utah the explosive athlete is looking like one of the steals of the draft. He’s getting run at the point and has the green light to shoot on a depleted Jazz squad, so we should learn a lot about him by the end of the season.
Lauri Markkanen has transitioned seamlessly to the NBA when it comes to shooting and rebounding. Concerns over his release and lack of strength on the boards have been proven wrong.
I’m no Lakers fan but I feel like I need to touch on Lonzo Ball here. His atrocious shooting has led to legions of people gleefully declaring him a bust. If you just look at box scores and scoring numbers, you might be falling into that trap too.
I’d be careful, though. Ball is offering glimpses of an extremely well-rounded game at point guard. His biggest knock coming into the league, aside from his shooting form, was his defence, and somehow he’s already turned that into a strength. His unique size and reach at the position is a huge asset, and that applies to rebounding, too.
And of course, his passing ability is still there. Ball is a fixed jumper away from becoming one of the most consistent triple-double threats in the NBA.
You know who else shot historically poor percentages as rookies? Russell Westbrook and Bradley Beal, and look at them now. Don’t be so quick to write Ball off – he’s going to be around for a long time.
1. Kristaps Porzingis, New York Knicks PF
Porzingis is making the type of leap that won Antetokounpo the award last year. He was already a good player but is looking like he has elevated himself to elite status early in the season.
He’s a 221-centimetre player with three-point range – he was always going to be unstoppable once he put it all together. He’s been improving on every aspect of his game this year, increasing his points per game to 27 from 18 and improving his shooting percentages in each category.
Porzingis’ arsenal of offensive moves have made him a terror on that end of the floor, and he’s supplemented that with 40 per cent shooting from three. He’ll be a top ten player in the NBA for the next decade.
2. Jaylen Brown, Boston Celtics SG
Brown was very raw last year as a rookie. He only played 17 minutes per game and averaged a measly six points. This year, he’s been put into a starting role and has really impressed.
While Brown does not exactly have a deep bag of offensive moves or a good handle, he’s up to 16 points per game with 40 per cent shooting from three. As the third option behind Kyrie Irving and Al Horford, those are excellent numbers.
However, he truly shines on the defensive end. He’s athletic, strong, and lengthy, and supplements it with excellent technique. He’s been tasked with chasing the opposition’s best players night after night and has consistently held players to poor shooting percentages.
Brown has the rare and valuable ability to switch across three or four positions on defence, making him a key cog in the Celtics incredible defensive machine.
He’s developing into a great 3-and-D player and is both a most improved candidate and a defensive player of the year contender this year. Brown is looking like a future two-way star and should have his name in Defensive Player of the Year running for the next few years.
3. Robert Covington, Philadelphia 76ers SF
Speaking of 3-and-D players, Robert Covington has taken a jump and is looking like an elite wing this season. A career 36 per cent three-point shooter, he’s currently splashing 47 per cent of his threes this season while playing his customary strong defence.
Yes, this accuracy is unsustainable, but any improvement from three-point range is huge in today’s NBA.
Covington might just represent “The Process” better than even Joel Embiid or Ben Simmons. Now in his fifth season, he spent his first three or so years being maligned as a poor player.
A couple seasons back, someone even said that he was only on the 76ers to help them lose games and get better draft picks. Since then, he’s gone nowhere but up, getting better each year and asserting himself as a key part of the Sixers’ bright future.
He’s the perfect piece to fit alongside Ben Simmons, who can’t shoot threes but can certainly find his teammates for open shots. Covington’s presence on the floor also provides crucial spacing, making it that much easier for Simmons to penetrate and get to his spots.
Several other players seem to have taken leaps this year. Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis, both of whom were moved from Oklahoma City to make space for Paul George, have been shining for Indiana so far. After reportedly improving his diet in the offseason, Oladipo is looking like an All-Star calibre shooting guard.
Jeremy Lamb could be both a sixth man and a most improved candidate. He took advantage of Nic Batum’s injury to showcase that he can be a productive offensive threat and really improved his efficiency this year.
Aaron Gordon has shown flashes of star potential in a crucial season for his development. An improved three-point shot is a big part of that.