NBA Breakouts We Didn't See Coming: Celtics Streaking, Simmons' Stardom and More
Some people like to pretend they know everything about the NBA. Don't be one of them.
Whiffing on predictions isn't always fun, and no one's denying spot-on sentience wouldn't be the coolest thing since Twitter trade demands. But being caught off guard and bluntly disarmed by what we didn't, or wouldn't, or couldn't, expect is part of the Association's full-service experience.
And so, in celebration of the unknown-turned-reality, we will explore this season's out-of-left-field All-Stars—teams and players who are enjoying breakouts few, if any, were perceptive enough to forecast.
Certain inclusions aren't coming completely out of nowhere. We knew these teams or players could be good, but they were never projected to be smack-you-in-the-face great.
Every candidate's placement is determined relative to their situation. Younger players may be on the map after flying under the radar. Teams might be succeeding or thriving in the face of what would normally be difficult or crippling circumstances. A veteran could be reviving his career in a big way. A rookie could be faring like an All-Star...or a Hall of Famer.
Breakouts will be presented in order of increasing shock and awe, ultimately favoring those players and teams who have been most paralyzing as they take sticks of dynamite to conventional wisdom.
Honorable Mentions: Nos. 15 to 11
15. Darius Miller, New Orleans Pelicans
Who has been the New Orleans Pelicans' most valuable player outside the DeMarcus Cousins-Anthony Davis tandem?
That we're free to answer with "Darius Miller and his 47.5 percent three-point clip" and be totally serious says it all.
14. Portland Trail Blazers
When said squad is fielding a top-five defense while starting Lillard and McCollum, it sure can.
Lillard, in particular, is trying harder than ever on the less glamorous end, and the Portland Trail Blazers are one of the NBA's foremost experts at coaxing opponents into low-quality jumpers. They rank seventh in shot frequency allowed at the rim and from beyond the three-point arc, according to Cleaning The Glass.
13. Kyle Kuzma, Los Angeles Lakers
Kyle Kuzma's 16.8 points per game on 49.8 percent shooting overall and a 37.8 percent clip from three-point range would feel a whole lot more surprising if people weren't so quick to bill him during summer league as the player Brandon Ingram would never be.
12. Detroit Pistons
So this is what the Detroit Pistons can do with Reggie Jackson healthy, Tobias Harris balling, and Andre Drummond ditching trashy post-ups, making free throws and playing for paychecks on defense.
Contending for home-court advantage in the East is a pretty big deal when the Pistons missed the playoffs altogether last season. If they still hovered around the top 10 in both offensive and defensive efficiency, as they did by the end of November, they'd be top-10 locks.
11. Kyle Anderson, San Antonio Spurs
Yes, Kyle Anderson is sidelined for the next couple weeks with a sprained left knee. And sure, the San Antonio Spurs exist to facilitate breakouts of their choosing.
But, like, Anderson has nearly doubled his playing time from last year while establishing himself as a competent three-point marksman and one of San Antonio's most valuable defenders and passers. His foray into restricted free agency will be fascinating.
10. Spencer Dinwiddie, Brooklyn Nets
This doesn't prompt complete immobility if you watched the Brooklyn Nets through the second half of last season. Dinwiddie turned in an economical performance across 44 appearances, hitting 37.6 percent of his treys and displaying superior ball control.
To see him amplify all that across a larger role, though, still gets the "oh me, oh my" juices flowing.
Dinwiddie could be more efficient inside the arc. He's shooting 52.5 percent within five of the hoop, a bottom-12 clip among 134 players with at least 60 looks from that range.
But his topsy-turvy accuracy from close range is borne more from his search for the best possible play. He is patient when he gets in the lane, often to a fault. He has a DeMar DeRozan-esque pause to his drives, and his first inclination is to cycle through two or three surrounding options before firing away.
Calculated hesitance should not be misconstrued as passivity. Dinwiddie knows what he's doing, and Brooklyn's offense reaps regular benefits. He turns the ball over on just 8.6 percent of the pick-and-rolls he initiates, the absolute best mark among 50-plus players to jump-start 90 or more such sets. And the Nets score like a top-seven offense when he's on the court.
Head coach Kenny Atkinson also has zero qualms tossing Dinwiddie on the opposing team's best wing scorer. He's big for a point guard, at 6'6", and long enough to defend some small forwards.
Perhaps most surprisingly, Dinwiddie is only 24. His trips to the D-League and revolving door of NBA teams (shout-out, Chicago Bulls) make it seem like he's been around forever, when really he's still learning the ropes—just like any other under-25 talent with potential building-block value.
9. Jeremy Lamb, Charlotte Hornets
The Charlotte Hornets experimented a bit with Jeremy Lamb in a playmaking role last season, but dang.
Sixth-year players seldom make this sort of leap. Lamb lulled us into a false sense of whateverness. He could put the ball on the floor, finish at the rim, covert the occasional W-T-F shot and float a valuable-defender-in-theory designation. But he would never be a high-volume difference-maker.
Pre-Existing Bias, meet Reality Check.
Lamb is one of five wings averaging more than 19 points, six rebounds and four assists per 36 minutes with a true shooting percentage better than 55.
He joins Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kevin Durant, Tyreke Evans and LeBron James. His accuracy around the rim has cratered, but he's getting to the foul line with career-best frequency, shooting close to league-average from deep (36.1 percent) and draining a scorching-hot 46.2 percent of his long twos between 16 feet and the three-point line.
Charlotte has trusted him more than anyone as an alternative solo act to Kemba Walker. The offense has plummeted rock-bottom during those stints, but that says more about the team's personnel. He deserves credit for his career-high assist rate and gaining head coach Steve Clifford's faith, even if it came by necessity.
Likewise, Lamb warrants major ups for helping the Hornets sing when playing beside Walker. They're outscoring opponents by 10.6 points per 100 possessions with the duo on the floor—the 15th-best differential out of 160 two-man combinations to exceed 410 minutes. Lamb's constant probing and length are perfect complements to Walker. He has assisted on more of the point guard's buckets than anyone else and can slide onto defensive assignments Charlotte would rather Walker not undertake.
Aside from the All-Star floor general, we'd be hard-pressed to find a better trade asset on the roster than Lamb. It doesn't exist—something approximately no one should have envisioned saying leading into this year.
8. Indiana Pacers
The Indiana Pacers won't initially curry favor among those who are uncomfortable with offensive outbursts anchoring an entire case. But if you're one of the skeptics, ask yourself this: Did you see the Pacers placing sixth in points scored per 100 possessions for roughly one-third of the season after dealing away Paul George?
Pinocchio is the only person (or inanimate puppet) answering "yes" to that the question. No one saw this from the Pacers. Even now, as the splurges continue, their spot in the offensive hierarchy remains difficult to fathom.
Indiana doesn't have the shot distribution of a high-octane rocket ship. Just five teams generate a smaller share of their shots at the rim and from three-point land, according to Cleaning The Glass: the Minnesota Timberwolves, New York Knicks, Sacramento Kings, San Antonio Spurs and Washington Wizards—only one of which ranks better than 10th in offensive efficiency.
Still, the Pacers aren't just getting by. They're thriving, mostly on the backs of career-shooting displays and earnest fast breaks.
The Golden State Warriors and Los Angeles Lakers are the only teams finishing possessions in transition with more frequency. Bojan Bogdanovic, Cory Joseph, TJ Leaf, Domantas Sabonis and Victor Oladipo are canning at least 40 percent of their three-pointers. Darren Collison, Myles Turner and Thaddeus Young are all above 35 percent. Only the Warriors and Utah Jazz nail a higher percentage of their catch-and-shoot triplets.
And speaking of Oladipo and Sabonis: The Pacers didn't win the George trade. They lost a top-25 player. You don't "win" those deals. But, as it turns out, they didn't get hosed either.
Sabonis misses only when he feels like it, while Oladipo has transformed into one of the NBA's best tough-shot makers. He's shooting 46.3 percent on pull-up threes—third-best mark among 56 players with 30 or more such attempts. And he's joining Tyreke Evans, James Harden and LeBron James as the only souls to average at least 1.10 points per iso possession after burning through 45 of those touches.
All this, and the Pacers still profile as a bottom-two playoff seed. At the same time, according to Basketball-Reference's simple rating system—which measures team performance based on strength of schedule and point differential—they actually grade out as one of the league's 10 best teams. Color yourself rightfully shocked.
7. Aaron Gordon, Orlando Magic
Aaron Gordon is difficult to place. He belongs on this list, without question, but where?
On the one hand, few people, if any, would have penciled him in for around 18 points, eight rebounds and two assists per game while flirting with a 50/40/80 shooting slash. On the other hand, his sudden surge has an at-long-last twinge to it.
Top-five prospects are usually ticketed for stardom. The No. 4 overall draft pick in 2014 has never once been any different. The dips and dives that Gordon's stock suffered over the past couple years were attributed to the Orlando Magic miscasting him as a wing who moonlighted up front, rather than the other way around.
Escaping that tweener role has done wonders for his night-to-night function. He's more of a mismatch at the 4, and his jump to full-time power forward work coincides with a heightened sense of comfort. He isn't scoring at a particularly high clip off the dribble and occasionally falls in love with junky, no-man's land twos. But he's a smarter passer and making quicker decisions overall.
That willingness to force fewer actions, buoyed by Orlando's 2017 lineup, helps him exploit bigger and slower players. His improving three-point stroke does as well, but almost three-quarters of his looks come off two dribbles or fewer, on which he's shooting 55.8 percent. Defenders don't have as much time to settle, nor can they count on him misfiring from three or being seduced into trickier attempts.
Absorbing more time at he 4 isn't doing much for Gordon's stock at the other end. His defensive rebounding rate has spiked, he doesn't foul as often when trucked into space, and he's holding his own in the post. But he's not a lockdown rim protector and slow to react on closeouts. The Magic's already shaky defensive rating falls off a cliff when he's on the court.
Gordon's climb through the NBA ranks still qualifies as more shocking than not—mostly, if entirely, because of how high he's on track to rise.
"Last year, Gordon finished No. 300 in NBA Math's total points added (TPA) metric with a score of minus-27.81, indicating he was a below-average player," Bleacher Report's Adam Fromal wrote while naming Gordon the early favorite for Most Improved Player. "This year, he's on pace for 188.71 TPA—a score that would've trailed only 25 players during the 2016-17 campaign.
Seventh feels right for someone resetting his original peak. Even though Gordon's pristine shooting percentages have taken a hit during the Magic's 2-11 free fall, he's never looked, or forecasted as, a more complete player.
6. Tyreke Evans, Memphis Grizzlies
Turn the clock back a half-decade or so, and Tyreke Evans' current eruption isn't so inveigling. But his career took a turn for the injury-prone immediately after earning Rookie of the Year honors in 2010, relegating him to that awkward space between "disappointment" and "what-if legend."
Flashing a little bit of everything—most notably a 43.8 percent clip from downtown—during a 14-game stint in Sacramento didn't do enough to restore his intrigue. The Memphis Grizzlies don't land him for biannual exception money ($3.3 million) if he's painted as a revival-in-waiting.
So when you realize he's averaging 17.8 points, 5.0 rebounds and 4.1 assists while shooting 48.0 percent overall and 43.2 percent from distance, there can be only one reaction: Oh. Em. Gee.
Indeed, the Grizzlies are an implosive mess. Evans hasn't incited much hope for the bigger picture during their recent 1-11 downturn. But he also hasn't been impacted by their nosedive. He's averaging 18.1 points and 5.3 assists on 47.3 percent shooting (42.3 percent on threes) through this hard-knocks stretch.
Consider what Neil Pane wrote for FiveThirtyEight on Nov. 13:
"These days, though, Evans is looking like the biggest bargain of the summer—and he may have pulled his career back on track in the process. On a roster with stars such as Mike Conley and Marc Gasol, Evans is leading the Grizz in Box Plus/Minus, Player Efficiency Rating and NBA.com's Player Impact Estimate (basically an accounting of the percentage of "good things" a player does while on the floor)."
Now consider all this holds true roughly one month later, with almost one-third of the season in the books.
Evans has, quite suddenly, become—or perhaps reverted to—an ideal wing. He is excelling out of the pick-and-roll, maintaining engagement at the defensive end and showing he can headline net-plus lineups, even if they're bench-heavy units. His shot profile is picture-perfect: Just under 79 percent of his looks are coming inside the three-point line or from behind the rainbow.
Only four other players, meanwhile, are eclipsing 17 points and four assists per game with a three-point success rate north of 40 percent: Goran Dragic, Kevin Durant, James Harden and LeBron James. If making the postseason remains the Grizzlies' goal, they should thank their lucky stars for Evans' breakout. If they're hoping to re-sign him this summer, when they won't own his Bird rights—well, that's a different story.
5. Willie Cauley-Stein, Sacramento Kings
Skal Labissiere entered 2017-18 as the Kings' most touted big man after providing glimpses of switchy defense and ahead-of-schedule ball-handling to close 2016-17. If any young big was going to bust out amid the team's frontcourt pileup this year, it would be him.
It wasn't him.
Willie Cauley-Stein, who is sidelined with a lower-back strain, has usurped everyone not named Zach Randolph in the Kings' tall-person pecking order. Where Labissiere is shuffling off to the G League, Cauley-Stein has logged more total minutes than any skyscraper.
That a 36-year-old Randolph continues to edge out or match his per-game run is frustrating. But head coach Dave Joerger barely plays anyone more than 25 minutes a night these days, and Cauley-Stein's uprising is owed at least in part to Sacramento dragging him from his comfort zone.
Around 76 percent of his playing time has come beside Randolph or Kosta Koufos, thrusting the 24-year-old into nominal power forward duty. These partnerships are cosmetic eyesores—and, in the case of Randolph/Cauley-Stein pairings, statistical disasters. But the Kings have found ways to generate stops with Cauley-Stein and Koufos playing together, and more importantly, a hybrid role has forced the former to dig deep for survival methods on the perimeter.
Offenses target Cauley-Stein in space. He has defended more isolation possessions than any of his teammates, and he's holding his own. He can be foul-happy on these plays, but he does a nice job ensuring opponents don't get clean looks at the bucket when he starts hacking and whacking.
The 0.84 points he allows per one-on-one possession puts him in the 62nd percentile of isolation defense. He turned in similarly encouraging results last year, but not on nearly as much volume. He's guarded 25 isos through 23 outings this season, compared to 37 in 75 appearances during 2016-17.
Sacramento's clunky frontcourt is having an identical impact on Cauley-Stein's offensive repertoire. He still projects as a rim-runner under normal circumstances, but paths to the basket aren't as open when Koufos or Randolph clogging the middle.
Over 18 percent of his field-goal attempts come between 16 feet and the three-point line as a result, and he's shooting a blistering 44.4 percent on these looks. He's even dabbled in some face-ups. He'll turn the ball over and doesn't have the composure to fling passes on the move, but he's shooting an adequate 43.8 percent on drives.
Intertwine this expansion with his usual dirty-work rebounding and shot-blocking, and the Kings get someone bearing resemblance to an idealish non-unicorn. Among the 32 bigs who've scored at least 200 points this season, only DeMarcus Cousins, Anthony Davis, Andre Drummond and Nikola Vucevic have matched Cauley-Stein's rebound (135), assist (50), steal (18) and block (24) totals.
4. OG Anunoby, Toronto Raptors
OG Anunoby didn't seem like he'd be ready to begin the season, let alone crack the Toronto Raptors' starting five—as a rookie—by mid-November. He underwent surgery to repair a torn ACL last January, ruining most of his sophomore year at Indiana, and wasn't ready to rock at the onset of training camp.
And yet, here we are: Norman Powell's hip injury earned Anunoby an emergency promotion he has refused to relinquish.
The new starting five of him, DeMar DeRozan, Serge Ibaka, Kyle Lowry and Jonas Valanciunas hasn't yielded flattering defensive returns but is incandescent on the offensive end. And the results on the less glamorous end are hardly concerning when you consider Anunoby is the lone member who can offset the restrictive Ibaka-Valanciunas pairing. As The Ringer's Jonathan Tjarks wrote:
"Anunoby is not playing like a rookie. He gets the toughest defensive assignment on the wings every night. In his first two weeks as a starter, he has guarded James Harden, Jrue Holiday, Bradley Beal, and Victor Oladipo. At 6-foot-8 and 235 pounds with a 7-foot-2.5 wingspan, he is a physical marvel who can match up with players at all five positions. He frustrated Harden and helped hold him to 8-of-25 shooting, picking him up full court and staying with him step for step. Anunoby has quick feet, long arms, and strong hands, and he knows how to use them."
Toronto's starting unit is gradually seeing its defensive numbers reverse course, almost solely because of Anunoby. And most of the other combinations that include him are straight stout. The Raptors defend with top-seven stinginess when he's on the court.
Though his cross-position peskiness assured him of a first look, Anunoby's offense has kept him on the floor. He avoids pull-ups and is opportunistic, bordering on reserved, when working off the dribble. His usage is tailored to the Raptors' revamped shot profile. More than 90 percent of his looks are coming within three feet or from beyond the arc. Close to 54 percent of his total attempts have come on catch-and-shoot treys—of which he's burying more than 44 percent.
Even those who thought the Raptors snagged a steal at No. 23 in this June's draft understood Anunoby was supposed to be a project. Instead, according to NBA Math, he's added more total value than all but four rookies.
3. Utah Jazz
Don't be turned off by the Western Conference's seventh-place team checking in as a top-three surprise. The Utah Jazz deserve every ounce of praise under the sun.
Gordon Hayward is gone. George Hill, too. Rudy Gobert, their best player, missed 11 games with a bone bruise in his right knee. Dante Exum is out for the season. Rodney Hood and Joe Johnson have both spent extensive time on the shelf. Ricky Rubio has been guzzle-down-a-gallon-of-artificial-nacho-cheese-sauce-then-ride-a-roller-coaster touch-and-go.
Somehow, someway, through all this, Utah has emerged above .500, with a burgeoning playoff stock.
Depth, redemption and Donovan Mitchell sum up the Jazz's performance to date. The second-stringers own top-seven offensive and defensive marks. Thabo Sefolosha has turned out to be one of the summer's best free-agency signings. Alec Burks looks like an NBA player again; he's averaging 18.3 points, 2.3 assists and 1.6 steals on 54.3 percent shooting (43.6 percent from three) over his past seven appearances.
Derrick Favors has been equally impressive since Gobert's injury, tallying 15.3 points, 8.9 rebounds and 2.3 assists on 59.0 percent shooting through the last 13 contests. And head coach Quin Snyder is doing the rotation a great service on the heels of Gobert's return, Thon Maker-ing Favors from the starting unit early to stagger his two best big man.
Every Joe Ingles shot attempt feels like it'll find the bottom of the net. He's downing 46.5 percent of his deep balls, putting him on track for the sixth-best high-volume three-point season in NBA history. Hood was riding an eight-game tear before his latest ankle injury. Royce O'Neal deserves some sort of small-sample award. Gobert remains a one-man deterrent. Rival offenses see their share of shots inside nine feet plunge by nearly 7 percent with him jumping center.
And then, finally, we have Mitchell, the first-year player with an unconscious shot selection and improving vision. He's clearing 17 points and three assists per game while playing generally feisty defense. The Jazz will live with his seesaw passing and reckless pull-ups when they're averaging more points per 100 possessions (107.4) than the Denver Nuggets (107.0) with him in the lineup.
Injury infestations in Los Angeles and Memphis have helped the cause. But the Jazz are not a byproduct of convenience. Their fourth-most used lineup is an all-bench amalgam of Burks, Hood, Sefolosha, Raul Neto (also injured) and Ekpe Udoh...that has outscored opponents by an average of 41.4 points per 100 possessions.
2. Ben Simmons, Philadelphia 76ers
After watching Joel Embiid steamroll the rest of the league for 31 games last season as a third-year rookie, some might have expected Ben Simmons to dominate from the jump. Missing 2016-17 with a fractured right foot, while far from ideal, gave him extra time to work on his body and perfect his strengths relative to the NBA game.
But this...no one could have foreseen this.
Simmons is averaging 18.0 points, 9.3 rebounds, 7.1 assists and 2.3 steals per game. Screw the typical rookie-player qualifier. Up until now, a 22-year-old Magic Johnson (third season) and 28-year-old Fat Lever (seventh season) were the only players to notch those benchmarks.
This display by Simmons isn't just terrific by new-kid-on-the-block standards. He's having a historic year, experience be damned—even with well-documented warts.
Defenses know he doesn't trust his jump shot. He's attempted eight three-pointers all year—seven of which were backcourt heaves—and only 45 of his shots have come outside the paint. He hasn't even been a reliable option from the free-throw line. He's hitting fewer than 57 percent of his freebies, which has invited intermittent Sock-a-Simmons strategies.
More than half of his Simmons' total looks have come inside five feet anyway, on which he's shooting 65.5 percent. He has a little bit of Giannis Antetokounmpo to his game in this regard: His offensive limitations don't matter. He manufactures space by leveraging his vision, handles and height.
"You can't leave a big man on an island against him," one NBA scout told the Sporting News' Sean Deveney. "Not a slow guy like [Ian] Mahinmi. He is way too quick and agile with the ball in his hands. You need a picket-fence type of defense so that you are giving him size every time he penetrates."
Capitalizing on Simmons' defensive lapses is even a chore. He frequently gets caught out of position, like other rookies, but has the length and gait to recover. He's averaging more deflections per 36 minutes than Antetokounmpo.
Measure this yearlong detonation against initial projections, and Simmons blows the typical trajectory out of the water. He is a likely All-Star and, in the minds of a few media members, a low-key MVP candidate—perception that belies his beginner label.
1. Boston Celtics
Giving the Boston Celtics a healthy Gordon Hayward wouldn't render them a non-surprise. No one saw them carrying the league's best record through the quarter mark.
Remove Hayward from the picture, and the Celtics' success becomes absolutely mind-boggling.
They're deploying the NBA's top defense while starting two players under the age of 22. They're grabbing 80 percent of an opponent's misses, good for the fifth-best mark overall, without having noticeably beefed up a bottom-five rebounding brigade from last season. (Quick aside: Marcus Morris is a quintessential case study of quality glass-crashers who need only escape Andre Drummond's massive shadow to make stat-sheet headway.)
Kyrie Irving has kiboshed the belief that he cannot steer an adequate offense without LeBron James while delivering the defensive performance of his life. The Celtics score like a top-six attack with him on the floor, and he leads the team in deflections per 36 minutes.
Jayson Tatum is making Celtics president Danny Ainge look like a genius for trading out of Markelle Fultz territory prior to June's draft. He would be the odds-on front-runner for Rookie of the Year if Ben Simmons didn't exist. Al Horford is a top-five candidate for Defensive Player of the Year honors.
Jaylen Brown is shooting better than 40 percent from three-point range on nearly triple the volume from last season. Rookie Daniel Theis has saved more points at the defensive end than Dwight Howard, according to NBA Math. Semi Ojeleye is a general nuisance. Marcus Smart owns the best net rating among every Boston player to appear in more than two games—despite laying enough bricks to recreate the Burj Khalifa.
And, most impressively, the Celtics are unstoppable with the game on the line.
They're a league-leading 13-4 in tilts during which neither side is ahead or behind by more than five points entering the final five minutes. Brown owns the NBA's second-highest crunch-time plus-minus, while Tatum, as a rookie, is hitting 63.2 percent of his looks down the stretch—tops among the 60-something players to attempt at least 12 shots.
Whatever you forecasted for the Celtics, both before and after Hayward's injury, it wasn't this. It couldn't have been. Because this exceeds even the wildest, uncalled-for expectations.