A little over a week into the season, it might be too early to make any huge conclusions.
This is especially true of teams that are still gelling and finding their footing. With only a few results so far, the standings are a house of cards that tip over if you try to extract anything from it.
The one area we can begin to assess, however, is in the individual play of some of the league’s players. In noticing what has been added to their games, where they have improved, and how they are used by their teams, we can find the league’s hottest and coldest starters.
Of course, this could all change given a million different factors. But, in the past player performances crystalize quicker than team ones. Next week we will do a deep dive into some of the teams making waves, but today we look at what players have caught our eye so far.
Here’s who’s hot and who’s not after one week of action:
HOT – Players who have been on fire to start the year
A lot of people saw a KAT breakout coming, and in fact many declared this KATSZN (Karl-Anthony Towns Season for the uninitiated) well before opening night. Right now, he is living up to the hype as the clear cut Week 1 MVP.
But to be transparent, this segment is going to be less analysis and more of a love letter. Can you blame me, though?
In his fourth season, KAT is averaging 32.0 points, 13.3 rebounds, 5 assists, 2.7 steals, and 2.0 blocks per game. He is third in the league in scoring, tied for third in rebounds, leading the league in steals, and tied for 12th in blocks. His PER is and ABSURD 40.7.
He leads the league in Win Shares (.9), Value over Replacement (.5) and the aforementioned PER (when taking out all non-rotation players).
And even though these numbers are exceeding most people’s wildest dreams for the superstar big man, they aren’t even the most impressive thing about the start to his season.
Through three games, Towns is transforming into a verified Curry brother from deep.
Despite standing at 7 feet and being listed as a center, Towns has shot 51.7% on 9.7 three-point attempts per game. That’s more than double his attempts from last year and approaching triple his makes.
As of the writing of this, he is the league leader in made three-pointers per game this season.
Karl-Anthony Towns makes the most threes a game. That is absurd.
Beyond the numbers, this affects the geometry of the defense, and it has made the Minnesota offense a force to be reckoned with. Four other T-Wolves are scoring double-digit points per game and seven others are averaging over seven.
The result of KAT’s transformation and the subsequent benefits his teammates are feeling is that Minnesota is fourth in the league in scoring at 121.6 points per game and currently boasts a 3-0 record. The scariest part of that is that Minnesota is shooting only 30% from three as a team, in spite of Anthony’s big numbers. If the rest of the team heats up, then this could be a league best offense.
But Minnesota’s rise is not all about offense. The Towns led D is leading the league in steals and is the only team in the league winning its games by a double-digit scoring margin.
However you slice it, though, Towns is playing at an unseen level for a big man and is changing the way his entire team plays. He may cool down, but given what we’ve seen from him, he will continue to make the game easier for his teammates while piling up the victories.
If that’s not an MVP, I don’t know what is.
Player A - 34 points, 9 assists, 6 rebounds per game.
Player B - 32.5 points, 8 assists, 8 rebounds per game.
The stats above are a comparison of Trae Young season so far and Michael Jordan’s best season (in my opinion) his 1988-1989 season. Can you tell which is which?
Now before we get too deep in the weeds here, I am not saying that Young is Jordan. His defense is certainly lacking and he has not orchestrated two dynasties while taking a break in the middle. Also, the league is tailored to offense more than ever and Young is certainly a product of that.
What I am saying, though, is that Young is playing at a level comparable to some of the best seasons we can pull up for a guard. We may not anticipate that he keeps it up, but I certainly never anticipated that we would even get here.
And perhaps the most impressive part of all of this for Young is that he is doing it on uber-efficient numbers. Currently, he is shooting 52% from the field 51% from three. The importance of that is that it makes those counting stats more valuable. By scoring in such volumes without taking shots away from his teammates, he is positioning himself as a player who can perform on a winning team.
His advanced stats back this up. He is currently 16th in the NBA in plus/minus, and fifth if you limit the players to only those who have played multiple games over 30 minutes. His usage percentage is first in the league for players with over 10 minutes a game at 37.5% (tied with Kyrie). He is tenth in Win Shares and fourth in Value over Replacement (VoRP).
But if you’re not one for over analytical numbers and stats well, you should get on board. But if you want more, watch the dude play. He is in control of the game and forces defenses to reconfigure to account for his shot making, speed, and creativity.
And the cherry on top of all this production is that it has translated into a 2-1 record for the Hawks, and it would be 3-0 if they hadn’t gotten too cute at the end of their game against the Sixers, a two-point loss.
If there was one area of his game he could clean up, it would be the turnover department. He is currently averaging six a game, which sounds bad until you consider everything he is asked to do for this team.
Moving forward the rest of the way, Young may not end up with a Michael Jordan level season, but he will be in and out of the MVP conversation, and that is saying something.
And in case you were wondering: Young was Player A, Jordan Player B. But if you couldn't tell, isn't that enough?
Nipping on the heels of Young in our Hotness rankings is the player with whom he will forever be linked.
After being dealt with each other on Draft night 2018, there was always a fear that Doncic would demolish the league and force Trae Young negativity. With Young crushing the league himself, however, we can just sit back and enjoy the experience that is Luca Doncic.
A testament to Doncic’s season to date is that I have no idea where to start with him.
Do I start with his almost 30 (29.3) ppg? Do I start with his 10.3 rebounds per game?! Do I start with his 7.3 assists per game?!?! How about his 2.3 steals per game?!?!?!?
Woah there, I need to slow down otherwise I might pop a blood vessel.
I think the best place to start is that Doncic is one assist away from having two triple-doubles in three games. This is the place to start because it truly highlights what is making him special and that is the fact that he doesn’t have a weakness. So far this season, there have only been five triple doubles, and Doncic almost had two himself.
But we’re not just about the numbers, let’s dive into the wins and losses. The Mavs are 2-1, but should really be 3-0 were it not for a correct but honestly tedious review call that cost them a chance to ice the Blazers. As someone who not only had money on the Mavs moneyline, but who also understands complaints that NBA games lack rhythm and passion, a review like that feels as though it is against the spirit of the game. Nonetheless, the Mavs currently sit in a glut of one-loss teams in the Western Conference and have shown the ability to hang with anyone.
If Doncic keeps playing like this, then the rest of the Western Conference is going to have to be on notice. A player this complete and this young could be in their lives for many years to come.
The Zion Williamson injury is an unmitigated travesty. Losing a player like that for two months is torture for a league that has been waiting for him for the better part of two years.
But out of darkness comes light, and light thy name is Brandon Ingram.
Forced out of LA by LeBron, Ingram spent part of the 2018-2019 season sitting on the New Orleans’ bench dealing with injuries. Then, with the surprise lottery win for the Pelicans, Ingram seemed destined to play second or third or fourth fiddle on a team that was not fully committed to him as a building block.
With the Zion injury, however, and the subsequent Jrue Holiday injury, Ingram has been forced to shoulder the load. Boy has he delivered.
After averaging 18/5/3 for the Lakers in 34 minutes over 53 games last season, Ingram has taken a LEAP this year in New Orleans. He is averaging 27/9.5/5 in 34 minutes over four games this season, and he is the main reason the Pelicans are close to relevant.
The team may be 0-4, but it has played a murder’s row of good teams and has managed to stay in each game. They lost by three to Houston, took Toronto to OT, and hung with the Mavs before Golden State came to town and got them for an easy win.
The lack of success in their record shouldn’t overshadow how well Ingram has played, however. He is eighth in the league in points per game and is one of only six players to be averaging 10 made field goals a game (Hint: three of the others on that list are on this list). He is shooting 50% from the field and from three. Currently, he ranks 13th in the league in Offensive Win Shares, which shows that without him this team would be hurting much more than it currently is.
I guess what all the means is that he is playing well offensively, finally living up to the hype he had coming out of Duke. Equally as impressive, though is that he also seems to have taken a jump on the defensive end.
It is nothing spectacular, but the fourth-year pro is averaging over a block a game and almost a steal a game. That’s not going to knock anyone’s socks off, but it is double the number of blocks he’s had in any other season and the steal would represent a career high pace.
But beyond the numbers, Brandon Ingram’s play is as inspiring as it is good. It can be easy to forget that the players are people too, and in the case of Ingram he has had to hear people put him down for years now. After being unceremoniously dumped by the Lakers, he is showing why he could end up being the most valuable piece the Pelicans got for Anthony Davis.
We don’t know what the roster or team will look like when Zion returns, but what we do know is that he’ll be returning to play alongside one of the most improved players in the NBA.
NOT HOT – Players who have been ice cold to start the year
Harden is not the type of player you want to judge based off of a few games. He is a volatile shooter who will continue to shoot in spite of the results (which is his job) and that can lead to some ugly stretches.
With that being said, considering that this season is the beginning of a new experiment pairing him and Russell Westbrook, the results are off to a particularly ugly start.
Despite averaging almost 30 points per game, Harden is shooting a dismal 28.6% from the field and an atrocious 15% from three. He’s leading the league in turnovers per game and he has a plus/minus of just +.3.
In spite of that, the Rockets are still 2-1 and Harden’s counting stats look fine. He is being saved by hit ungodly 15.3 free throw makes per game (no one else has double digits). With that being said, though, this team cannot survive with Harden posting these numbers.
Especially when you look at some of the more obscure stats.
Harden has never been a particularly good defender, but this year he is fouling at the ninth highest rate in the league. Combined with his turnovers and missed shots, Harden is coasting his team roughly 20 possessions per game.
To put that into a concrete number, Harden’s PER is currently 18.6. to put that in perspective, Danilo Gallinari is at 22.6, Ryan Arcidiacano is at 18.8, and Harden’s teammate PJ Tucker is at 18.4.
With all that said, it’s not panic time quite yet for Harden and the Rockets.
His usage is still the best in the league, and he is shooting 63% of his shots from deep, so if he does find his range he will explode quickly. The concern for any Rockets fans, however, is that his cold streak comes as the Rockets trot out their new backcourt.
In a week this write-up could be irrelevant. Harden could explode at any moment and is still one of the favorites to win the NBA MVP this season. We wouldn’t be doing our job, though, if we didn’t note that so far this year, Harden is holding the Rockets back.
From one player carrying the load for his team to another, Beal is mired in a weird basketball purgatory playing for the Wizards in D.C. Despite playing the Spurs close in their last game, this team is bereft of talent and has been hurt by Beal’s poor play to start the year.
On the season, the eighth-year Florida product is averaging 20.3 points his lowest since the 2015-2016 season. He has a 30.6% field goal percentage, every other season he has sot at least 40%. He is shooting 23% from three after never shooting below 35% in a season.
What that all says is that Bradley Beal is not playing like Bradley Beal.
The concern comes from the fact that with his recently signed extension, there could be a malaise settling in over a Washington team with little to play for. Burdened by the onerous John Wall contract, this team does not have much flexibility moving forward and seems destined to fall in the lottery for the foreseeable future.
There is reason to be optimistic with Beal, as his rebounding and assist numbers are up this season, but so are his turnover numbers as well as his fouling.
Looking at the numbers that attempt to catch the total picture, Beal is mired in a bad start to a season for a bad team. He has a net rating of -1.4 and his PER is a dismal 11.7. There really isn’t any number that indicates he has had any success this season.
The issue, then, is that unlike Harden, Beal won’t have the inevitable late season fire lit under him that pushes him to maximize his talents. Washington is not going anywhere and may actually be trying to lose given that the draft is their easiest path to talent acquisition.
Beal may be talented, but the team around him is not. If he bounces back it will have to be something he does on his own. Definitely possible but definitely not definite.
As a fan of length, Rudy Gobert is a player I naturally gravitate towards. After the start he has had to the season, however, even his eight foot wing span might not be enough to keep me on board.
Thanks to an 18-15 effort last night, Gobert is putting up a somewhat respectable 9 points and 11 rebounds per game. He also is playing 30+ minutes a night for a Jazz squad that is 3-1 with their one loss being to the Lakers.
The scary part for any fans of 7’1” Frenchmen, though, is the defense.
Coming off of back to back Defensive Player of the Year awards, Gobert is all of a sudden a relative non-factor on that end of the floor. After averaging at least two blocks a game for the past six seasons, he is averaging less than one a game in this season.
Coinciding with that has been a regression on the offensive end. Looking clunky and unsure of himself, Gobert is taking just five shots a game and turning the ball over four times a game. This comes on the heels of a season in which he averaged 15.9 points per game on 9 shots a game with just 1.6 turnovers.
The step back for Rudy is clear, and it is concerning that it is happening on both ends of the floor. There is some chatter that Gobert misses a player like Derrick Favors more than originally anticipated, and the lack of other big men on the roster is certainly alarming for Utah.
Given their success, however, it is possible that Gobert is just being asked to do less on the offensive end. What will be a tru marker of whether this is just a bad start or whether it is truly a bad season will be whether he picks it up on the defensive end.
For the sake of all of us length fans, I sure hope he does.
Just to show you this isn’t all about the superstars of the league, I am including a lesser known player as our final Not Hot.
And believe me, KCP is not playing like a superstar.
The Klutch Sports client has been a staple of the Lakers roster ever since LeBron arrived. Based on what we’re seeing this season, that is only because of James’ connection with Klutch front man Rich Paul. It’s certainly not for his play.
In 22.7 minutes a game this season, Caldwell-Pope is averaging 3.7 points. For reference, in a not great year last year, KCP averaged 11.7 points in 24 minutes a game.
The only other players in Caldwell-Pope’s orbit with that many minutes and that few points are two offensively-challenged rookies: Cameron Reddish and Matisse Thybulle. The obvious problem being that KCP is 26 and playing important minutes for a title contender.
Things get worse the deeper you dive.
KCP is shooting 23% from the field, 25% from three, and 50% from the line. He is only averaging 2 rebounds and 2 assists. The sum total of this is that his PER currently sits at 2.2.
No one was expecting Caldwell-Pope to light the world on fire, but this is another level. If this continues, no matter who represents him, KCP will need to be spending more minutes on the bench than he does on the court.