We’re just over a month into the 2019-20 NBA season, and so far the league has delivered on an entertaining product. James Harden got better? So did Giannis Antetokounmpo and now Luka Doncic has fully entrenched himself into the MVP conversation, which has Hawks fans online vehemently protecting the Trae Young for Doncic trade. To be fair, Young has been amazing in his own right, but what Doncic is doing is transcendent. Oh, and you can’t forget about the long-awaited return of Carmelo Anthony. His profanity-laced screams after a rebound and his patented “3-to -the-dome” celebration after a 3-pointer are a necessity for the league.
But, while the MVP race and for a moment there the Melo news dominated the basketball news, what really deserves your attention are five players that have improved dramatically from one year to the next. There are obviously more than five players who have increased their production, and it was difficult to narrow it down. These five players are guys I can see maintaining their level of play as the season wears on, either due to an expanded role, incremental progress year after year that’s been tracked, or visible improvements to a weakness a player once had.
Without further ado, here is my All-Pleasant Surprise Team.
Pascal Siakam, Raptors
Ok, who here expected this? If you raised your hand you’re a liar or a Raptors fan, who before the season started would’ve been dismissed as a delusional homer. Pascal Siakam’s ascension from borderline all-star to an MVP darkhorse could not have been foreseen by anyone who wasn’t wishing for it. With Kawhi Leonard leaving over the summer for the sunny West Coast I expected the Raptors to be competitive and contend for a top-five seed in the Eastern Conference. But with Siakam taking another leap, the ceiling for this team has been raised tenfold.
Siakam went from a high energy player who scored a lot of points in transition, cuts to the basket and corner 3s to a guy who can play in isolation, post up, and hit pull-up 3s from above the break. His handle looks tighter and he plays with a sense of confidence that wasn’t there before.
He’s increased his scoring average in each of his four seasons and this season’s stats–as the de facto no. 1 option–have a lot of us asking whether or not Siakam can win the Most Improved Player award again? He’s averaging 25.1 points, 8.6 rebounds and 3.9 assists per game. That’s up from his averages of 16.9 points, 6.9 rebounds, and 3.1 assists last season. His efficiency has dipped a tad; he’s gone from shooting a mind-numbing 54.9 percent from the field last season to 46 percent this season. But while the field goal percentage has dropped due to an increase in defensive attention, his 3-point percentage has actually improved. Siakam is taking 6.3 3s per game and knocking them down at a rate of 37.7 percent. Last season, he took 2.7 per game and hit them at a rate of 36.9 percent; an increase in efficiency and volume.
Siakam’s improvements go beyond his scoring volume. His pick-and-roll duties have gone up this season. Last season he ran a screen-and-roll play as the ball handler only 5.3 percent of the time and averaged 0.9 points in those scenarios, this season he’s up to a frequency of 12.7 percent and scoring 2.8 points out of the pick-and-roll.
I’m still not ready to crown the Raptors true contenders, but they’re a tough matchup and should be taken seriously with Siakam leading the way.
Brandon Ingram, Pelicans
Call it purely circumstantial. You can call it expected. I choose to call Brandon Ingram’s early-season onslaught a pleasant surprise. Ingram is now free from the circus that is the Lakers franchise and he’s playing with a sense of freedom I haven’t seen from him during his young career.
Ingram is leading the Pelicans in points (25.9), field goal attempts (19.0) and free throw attempts (5.9). He’s also averaging 7.4 rebounds and four assists while posting shooting splits of 49-41-81. He looks very comfortable as the lead guy on the offensive end: working in the pick-and-roll, getting to his sweet spots, and rising up for pull-up jumpers. His shooting form has improved which has led to an uptick in efficiency on his 3s. The Pelicans have had to lean on Ingram due to their prized rookie, Zion Williamson, missing time due to knee surgery. I’m sure when Zion makes his return Ingram’s usage rate will dip. Regardless, Ingram has made me a believer.
Ingram’s defense has regressed a bit this season. But I believe the slippage on that end has more to do with the scheme the Pelicans use and Ingram trying to balance the energy it takes to score 20-plus points while playing lockdown defense.
For years now–since they were both drafted–Ben Simmons and Ingram have been linked. Simmons went no. 1 in the 2016 draft while Ingram went no. 2. Simmons has long been seen as a possible generational talent, with the ability to raise the ceiling of whichever team he plays on with his playmaking and defensive versatility. Since that draft, Simmons has stagnated on the offensive end of the court (hey at least he just hit a 3-pointer!) while Ingram has worked on his weaknesses and is now a bonafide alpha scorer. Ingram has closed the gap between him and Simmons, and that’s not just a hot take.
Bam Adebayo, Heat
Crazy to think that Hassan Whiteside was once keeping Bam Adebayo from breaking out. I give credit to the Heat for realizing what they had in Adebayo and prioritizing him last season, moving Whiteside to the bench and allowing Adebayo to shine. Adebayo has always had the tools to be an impact player: quick feet, defensive IQ, length, and one of the best “second jumps” in the league.
His breakout started last season. In the 56 games before the All-Star break, Adebayo averaged 7.8 points, 6.7 rebounds, 2.0 assists, 0.8 steals, 0.8 blocks, and shot 56.2 percent from the field in 22.1 minutes of game action. Solid numbers but let’s take a look at what happened after the midseason break. In 26 games to end the season Adebayo’s minutes moved up to 26.0 per game, and his counting stats went up across the board: he averaged 11.2 points, 8.6 rebounds, 2.8 assists, 1.1 steals and 0.9 blocks per game while shooting 59.8 percent from the field.
The increased efficiency with more opportunities was a strong indicator of what was to come for Adebayo. Through the first 19 games of the season for the Heat, he’s been arguably the most important player on the team. In 32.0 minutes per game, he is averaging 13.9 points, 10.6 rebounds, 4.2 assists, 1.5 steals and 1.2 blocks per game. I mean these are peak Draymond Green numbers. Adebayo deserves more love from the general NBA public. He’s a defensive menace, he catches any pass thrown in his vicinity, and he even initiates offensive sets for Miami. It’s not hyperbolic to think this is only the beginning for Adebayo. I’m all in on the Bam Bandwagon.
Malcolm Brogdon, Pacers
Malcolm Brogdon got his money. The 6-foot-5 guard who played his college ball at Virginia signed a four-year $85 million contract with Milwaukee as a part of a sign-and-trade deal with the Pacers over the summer. I thought it was a mistake by the Bucks then and I still hold the same opinion. The Bucks prioritized Khris Middleton (understandable) and Eric Bledsoe (not as understandable) and they didn’t want to go over the cap by bringing Brogdon back for the max amount of money. Well, Brogdon is proving that he is perfectly suited for a more featured role, and the Bucks are hoping they won’t miss Brogdon come playoff time. I’m betting they will.
To be fair, Brogdon has dealt with foot injuries since his days at Virginia and the belief is that he will deal with these injuries for however long his career lasts. I still would’ve taken the chance on bringing Brogdon back.
Brogdon has been the Pacer’s best player so far this season. He has displayed the ability to run the pick-and-roll as a lead guard with great efficiency. He plays at his own pace, keeping the defense guessing with his ability to score on hard drives to the basket and the vision to hit open shooters. The latter of which he is excelling at. Brogdon is averaging 7.9 assists per game, good for fifth in the league, per NBA.com. He’s averaging 19.4 points per game, up from 15.6 last season. The jump in scoring could be predicted; Brogdon scored at a rate of 19.7 points per 36 minutes last season. The passing numbers are where the pleasant surprise comes in. His best per 36 mark in assists came during his rookie season when he averaged 5.8 assists per 36 minutes.
The biggest reason for the improvement? Well, besides an increase in opportunity and touches it’s the fact that Brogdon has become one of the best pick-and-roll players in the league. Last season he operated in the pick-and-roll as the ball handler on 19 percent of his possessions. He scored just 0.83 points per possession out of the pick-and-roll and shot 40.9 percent. Those numbers put him in the 51st percentile in the league. This season the improvements are clear as day. He’s using the pick-and-roll at a frequency of 42.9 percent, scores at a rate of 1.00 points per possessions, and is shooting 50 percent out of these plays. That puts him in the 79th percentile. Consider me impressed.
Brogdon’s improvements out of the pick-and-roll have opened up passing lanes for him to find big men rolling to the rim or shooters spotting up on the perimeter. Just wait until he and Victor Oladipo are sharing a backcourt.
Devonte’ Graham, Hornets
Who would’ve thought? The Hornets decided they would rather pay Terry Rozier than give Kemba Walker a max contract. Funny thing is Rozier hasn’t even been the best point guard on the team. Devonte’ Graham has taken an unprecedented leap, and he’s a big part of why the Hornets are in playoff contention.
The Hornet’s second-round pick in 2018 spent the year struggling. Graham failed to make an impact when he was backing up Walker or playing alongside him. In 14.7 minutes per game, Graham averaged 4.7 points on 28 percent shooting from the 3-point line and an effective field goal percentage of 42.1 percent (yikes). But nobody could say they were that disappointed except maybe Graham himself. I mean he was a second-round pick.
Now let’s fast forward to this season. Graham has improved in just about every statistical category. He leads the team in points (18.0), assists (7.7) and minutes per game (33.5). He’s shooting 39.6 percent on his 3s on 8.3 attempts, and his effective field goal percentage is up to 52 percent. He’s carrying himself with the confidence of a 10-year veteran, and he’s drilling pull-up 3s with regularity.
The positive impact Graham is having can be better explained when looking at his on/off splits. With Graham on the court, the Hornets have an offensive rating of 108.6. When Graham checks out that number plummets to 93.4. That’s a difference of 15.2. The Hornet’s net rating with him on the court is minus-3.2–not great, obviously, but it gets downright disgusting when he’s off the court (minus-20.1). That’s a net rating of plus-16.9. For reference, the big money guard on the roster, Rozier, has a net rating of minus-12.3. The team is so much better with Graham running the show. The Hornets would be best served to find a way to pivot from Rozier and see just how good Graham can be.