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The first few weeks of the NBA season are always dotted with breakout performers, players showing significant skill growth, or just taking advantage of new roles or opportunities. Over the next three months, we’ll see who can maintain their hot starts but it’s never too early to marvel at these shiny new stars.
With all due respect to other noteworthy performers like Desmond Bane of the Memphis Grizzlies, Cam Reddish of the Atlanta Hawks, Mo Bamba and Cole Anthony of the Orlando Magic, Anthony Edwards of the Minnesota Timberwolves, these are the five players whose growth has been the most impressive to me.
5. Robert Williams, Boston Celtics
Celtics fans have been waiting for years for Robert Williams to get a real opportunity to show what he can do but all the patience that was lavished on him is paying off. He’s started all five games he’s appeared in for the Celtics, averaging 33.4 minutes per game, nearly double his previous career-high. In those minutes, he’s averaging 10.4 points, 9.2 rebounds, 1.8 assists, 1.2 steals and 3.2 blocks per game. He’s not just swatting shots either, he’s really using his mobility and length as a controlled deterrent in a way he never has before. Perhaps the best representation of this is the fact that’s accumulated 22 stocks (steals plus blocks) to just 9 personal fouls, a ratio of 2.4. Last season, he finished with 134 stocks to 105 personal fouls, a ratio of 1.3.
4. Dejounte Murray, San Antonio Spurs
The Spurs have gotten off to a rough start and expectations are low this season but Dejounte Murray has emerged from the muddle with the beginnings of a breakout season. This is the sixth season of his career but between injuries and pandemic-warped schedules he’s still only played 258 career games, slightly more than three full, normal 82-game campaigns. That is all to say there’s reason to think that this may be a meaningful development for a young player who still has a lot more in front of him. Murray is averaging 17.8 points, 8.8 assists, 8.5 rebounds and 2.2 steals per game. He’s still not much of an outside shooter but the departure of DeMar DeRozan has given him more freedom to create offense for himself off the dribble. Murray is driving 17.0 times per game this season, up from 11.9 last year. He hasn’t been finishing particularly well but he’s made 42.6 percent of his pull-up 2s which has helped open the floor for him. Murray is 25 but he’s showing how much upside he still has right now.
3. Tyler Herro, Miami Heat
The version of Tyler Herro the Miami Heat have seen this season is his skill set fully realized, all the tantalizing potential he showed in his first two seasons with most of the rough edges sanded off. Through six games, he’s averaging 22.0 points, 6.7 rebounds and 4.5 assists per game, on a 57.0 true shooting percentage. His creating more for others but his efficiency has taken a huge leap, making him a legitimately dangerous three-level scorer. He’s made 37.0 percent of his pull-up 3s this season, after making 32.9 percent across his first two seasons. He’s also hit 55.0 percent of his pull-up jumpers inside the arc and the threat of his shooting has made him more dangerous than ever as a driver. He may not be the best offensive player on the Heat but there is an argument to be made that he’s the most important, as the swing player between a dynamic multi-faceted attack and one that relies primarily on Jimmy Butler and Kyle Lowry to bludgeon their way to the rim.
2. Miles Bridges, Charlotte Hornets
We already devoted an edition of The Whiteboard to the growth of Miles Bridges and in the two games since that ran, he put up 22 points and 8 rebounds against the Miami Heat and 19 points, 9 assists and 6 rebounds against the Portland Trail Blazers. He’s absolutely taken the leap and his development into a viable secondary creator has been as important to the Hornets’ explosive start as anything LaMelo Ball has done. Bridges is averaging 24.6 points, 7.7 rebounds, 2.7 assists and 1.6 steals per game, on a 62.7 true shooting percentage. He’s not number one in these rankings but he’s absolutely the favorite to win the Most Improved Player Award at this point in the season.
1. Ja Morant, Memphis Grizzlies
Ja Morant is at the top of these rankings but he almost certainly won’t win Most Improved Player this year because he was already considered to be on a star trajectory. But even with those lofty priors and expectations the steep climb of his growth curve this season has been remarkable. His scoring average has jumped from 19.1 points per game to 28.7 this season, all while he’s hitting career-highs in 2-point, 3-point and free-throw percentage (and rebounds, assists and steals per game). The Ja Morant we saw the last two seasons was an exciting net positive player, a fringe All-Star. This year, we’re looking at a guy who could challenge for the scoring title and will likely be in the MVP conversation if the Grizzlies stay firmly in the playoff hunt.
If you’re looking for more on Ja Morant and his breakout season, check out this breakdown from Zach Lowe that highlights exactly some of the things that make him such an outlier.
Reggie Jackson found a home with the Los Angeles Clippers but he’s struggling mightily in the Clippers’ rocky start. Maybe Ty Lue is asking a bit too much of him?
Goran Dragic has already fallen out of the Raptors’ rotation. Several contenders would love to see him work out a buyout but the Raptors are determined to look for a trade.