We’re getting into late November now, and every team in the league has played between 12 and 15 games. That means we are roughly one-sixth of the way through the 2017-18 season. It’s still maybe too early too declare any early-season trends as things that will definitely stick around, but it’s also been enough time to take notice of things that are different.
Improvements players have made on their performance in seasons past may or may not be 100 percent sustainable, but at this point we have probably seen just about enough to not immediately dismiss them as being solely the product of small sample sizes. With that in mind, let’s check in on seven players stretching themselves to reveal new or better-developed facets of their skill-set, in ways both expected and surprising.
Danny Green: Dribbling
During this era of Spurs basketball, most of the team’s fans have reacted with a mixture of shock and dread whenever Green put the ball on the ground. Heaven forbid, if he attempted a floater, they were apoplectic. Green has operated largely as a catch-and-shoot artist on the offensive end of the floor for a long time, and any attempts to venture outside of that limited role have been generally unsuccessful.
During the first four seasons of the player tracking era on NBA.com, Green shot 40.6 percent on catch-and-shoot 3s, and only 41.7 percent on all other shot attempts. (i.e. layups, dunks, runners, floaters, pull-ups, etc.) Green was especially ineffective shooting off the drive during that time, connecting on only 38.8 percent of attempts when he dribbled from the perimeter to the rim. He also drove very infrequently, averaging just 1.56 drives per game.
With Kawhi Leonard and Tony Parker out during the early part of the season, Green has had to stretch himself beyond his usual role. He’s averaging 4.8 drives per game this season, and shooting 44.8 percent when he drives to the rim. And it’s not just taking the ball all the way from the perimeter to the rim — he’s also putting it on the ground to get himself into the defense and make passes more often, and he’s handling the ball in more side pick-and-rolls. His dribbles per game average has shot up from 39.6 to 63.4, as he’s averaged almost a half-dribble more per time he’s touched the ball.
John Henson: Passing
Giannis Antetokounmpo obviously does most of the playmaking for the Bucks, with Malcolm Brogdon and now Eric Bledsoe picking up much of the slack behind him. But Henson has been surprisingly involved in the shot-creation as well, working as a dribble hand-off fulcrum and entry passer from the high post area near the elbows.
He’s up to 2.9 assists per 36 minutes, a career-high figure, and has been the assisting passer on 11.5 percent of his teammates’ baskets while on the floor. He had a couple really nice dishes in the Bucks’ win over the Spurs last week.
Kristaps Porzingis: Shot creation
During his first two NBA seasons, Kristaps Porzingis not only did not create his own shot very often, he was not good at finishing those shots when he did. Porzingis averaged only 3.6 possessions per game out of isolation and the post, per Synergy Sports data on NBA.com, and he shot just 37.8 percent on those plays. In other words, creating his own offense was a major struggle.
This year, he’s not only taken it upon himself to do much more of his own shot-creation, he’s gotten himself better looks at the basket on those plays, and has thus been much better at finishing them. Porzingis is averaging 9.8 isolation and post-up possessions per game, and shooting 48.1 percent on those plays. That makes him one of the best high-usage shot-creators in the league so far this season, and represents a major leap forward from where he was this time last year.
Porzingis’ ability to put the ball on the floor and get to the rim has improved — he’s averaging 3.0 drives per game compared to 1.7 last season. But much of his improved post and isolation scoring has also come from the realization that he is simple too tall to be blocked. Sometimes he gets the ball in the post, turns around to face the basket, sees a 6-foot-9 guy guarding him, and just fires away. It’s impossible for those guys to even contest the look, even if they’re playing perfect defense.
Al Horford: Rebounding
Everybody knows Al Horford teams have had trouble rebounding for years. It was a problem in Atlanta and last year, it was a problem in Boston. This season’s Celtics are up near the top of the defensive rebound rate rankings, and that fact, along with their opponents’ cold shooting, has helped push them to the best defensive efficiency in the NBA.
Horford has actually played a sizable role in that rebounding resurgence. His 24.8 percent defensive rebound rate is the best mark he’s posted since his second season in the league, and for the first time since the 2013-14 season, his team has better overall rebounding numbers with him on the floor than off.
Some of this improvement surely stems from the Celtics playing SO MANY tiny guys at once, putting Horford in positions where he’s often the only big guy near the rim and making him only beat one man to the ball, but he’s also just doing a better job of positioning himself between his man and the rim when shots go up.
Everyone on the Magic: Shooting
Prior to this season, Nikola Vucevic had attempted 101 3-pointers during real, live NBA games — 75 of them came last season. He made only 30 of those shots. Already this season, Vooch has launched 66 triples, connecting on 26 of them. That’s 39.4 percent on 4.4 attempts per game!
Aaron Gordon has shot more and more 3s with each passing season, raising his attempts per game average from 1.0 to 1.8 to 3.3 and now, to 4.6. He never cracked 30 percent before this season, but suddenly he’s making exactly half of his deep attempts.
Every Fournier is shooting 43 percent from deep. Marreese Speights is cashing in on 43 percent of four attempts per game. D.J Augustin is shooting 39 percent and so is Jonathon Simmons. Just about the only guy on the Magic not shooting well from outside is the only guy that came into the season with a reputation as a shooter: Terrence Ross has made only 31 percent of his tries from outside the arc.
3-point shooting takes a bit longer to stabilize and can be subject to wilder swings in effectiveness than other skills, but there’s a lot here that’s encouraging for Orlando.
Ryan Anderson: Defense
Mike D’Antoni has been talking about this before and after basically every Rockets game, and it’s showing up both in the numbers and on film. Opposing teams for some reason keep trying to isolate Anderson or post him up, and it’s just not working. They’re 9 of 38 working against him in isolation, per Synergy, and 5 of 16 on post-ups.
The way to take advantage of his limitations on defense is typically by putting him in a ton of pick-and-rolls, but thanks to his offseason commitment to getting quicker on his feet, Anderson is 12 pounds lighter this season and doing a better job keeping up with players in open space. He’s not a high-level defender just yet, but he’s a far less glaring negative than he was a year ago, when the Spurs practically played him off the floor during the playoffs.
Bradley Beal: Interior offense
Beal is obviously known as an outside sniper, but his game around the rim has really impressed this season. Beal has long been an above-average finisher around the rim (he made 62 to 67 percent of his shots inside three feet during each of the last four seasons prior to this one), but he’s taken it to another level by connecting on 78.4 percent of those attempts this season. He’s clearly gotten stronger and is better able to finish through and/or around contact near the basket — he’s averaging a career-high 10.1 drives per game this season and shooting 57.7 percent on those plays. That’s the sixth-best mark among 94 players averaging at least five drives per game.
Beal has also done a far better job of getting himself to the line. He’s a strong free-throw shooter, but prior to this season his career high in attempts per game was 4.4 last year. He’s smashing that figure right now, taking 6.6 trips to the line a night, getting himself 5-6 free points per game and offsetting the fact that his deep shot has yet to fall at the rate it typically does. (34.2 percent from 3 compared to a 39.9 percent career mark prior to this season.) Once that shot comes around, he’s going to be damn near impossible to stop.