We're just about a month in the NBA season, and while it still feels too early to take any serious stock of anything, there are some notable trends developing.
Breaking news: Nikola Jokic awesome. But might he have a in the early going? The Knicks are kind of treading water, but they have two guys off to fantastic starts that are not getting talked about enough.
Which leads me to: 10 early season under-the-radar stars. Yes, I'm saying stars. Not All-Stars, necessarily, though most of these guys are playing at or even above that level, but stars in a relative term. Stars in their role, if you prefer that descriptor.
We'll start with the Knicks guys. Here we go.
1. RJ Barrett, Knicks
Barrett has been spectacular to start the season for the Knicks, who are outscoring opponents by an eye-popping 20 points per 100 possessions when he's on the floor, per Cleaning the Glass. As such, New York is 5-2 when Barrett plays and 1-3 when he doesn't.
Barrett, whose swing skill for All-Star-level production has always been his 3-point shooting, is making 50% of his 3s so far this season on a career-high 5.7 attempts per game.
Jalen Brunson and Tom Thibodeau have both spoken on how much better Barrett is reading the game this year; you can see the better feel in some of the passes he makes -- not necessarily of the highlight variety but just quick decisions that illustrate his recognition of the way the defense is shifting and where the ball needs to go.
You're not going to see Barrett doing much from 3 off the dribble; he's a spot-up guy, and he's absolutely lacing his catch-and-shoots this season as defenses are instinctively leaving him to collapse down on the likes of Brunson and Julius Randle. That strategy won't work for long if Barrett keeps knocking them down at anything close to this rate.
2. Jaden McDaniels, Timberwolves
Rudy Gobert is back at the top of the Defensive Player of the Year conversation, as he should be. But truth be told, the Minnesota Timberwolves' top-ranked defense actually begins with a menacing perimeter posse led by McDaniels, who has first-team All-Defense written all over him and he does a lot more offensively than you probably think.
McDaniels, a 40% 3-point shooter last season, is again hitting 3s at an above-average 37% clip, and he's in the 84th and 89th percentile, respectively, in both mid-range percentage and frequency among all wings, per Cleaning the Glass.
Watching McDaniels, who gets the toughest defensive assignments the league has to offer, pressure the ball with an almost effortless intensity is a delight. He's so efficient with his lateral movement; he cuts off ball-handlers damn near before they even get started making a move.
Starting with McDaniels, the Wolves fight and chase over ball screens as hard as any team in the league. Gobert still plays mostly drop, but he's coming up a bit higher, into the floater range, only having to snuff that shot out for a split second because McDaniels and company are trailing so aggressively from behind. At that point, Gobert keeps retreating to the rim, and the whole action has been stymied. It's beautiful to watch.
For my money, McDaniels is the best perimeter defender on the best defense in the league right now, and as such, he should absolutely be in the DPOY conversation right alongside Gobert.
3. Mitchell Robinson, Knicks
Robinson's offensive rebounding is a system unto itself: Somebody just put some shot, any shot, up on the rim, and Mitchell is going to go get it. He leads the league with 5.8 offensive rebounds per game, which, if sustained, would be the highest mark this century.
That fact can be interpreted, perhaps, as either a good or bad thing in that Mitchell has a lot more misses to track down as the Knicks have the third-worst field-goal percentage in the league.
Tom Thibodeau would surely prefer that Mitchell's offensive rebounding not be such a necessity (much like Steven Adams has propped up a lackluster half-court offense in Memphis in the past), but for now it is, and MItchell's league-leading 3.8 put-back points per game serves as a lifeboat.
Robinson's 17.6 offensive-rebounding percentage, per CTG, leads the league among all players who have played at least 10 games and at least 15 minute per game; that tells you even more than the total offensive boards on a team that misses a lot of shots.
And this is all to say nothing of Robinson's defense, which is elite. It's not just his size and rim protection; his motor just never stops, and since he's fouling way less this season, that motor gets to run for longer stretches.
So far Mitchell leads all centers with 17 steals; he's one of the centers who can come out high on pick-and-rolls, meeting the ball-handler at the level of the screen and tracking him all the way to the rim if need be. If Mitchell is on the court, the Knicks perform like a top-five defense. If he isn't, they give up almost six more points per 100 possessions, per CTG.
4. Jalen Johnson, Hawks
Johnson can credibly guard all over the court and he's a pogo-stick leaper. Johnson can, and does, dunk anything near the rim, and he provides the 3-point shooter Hawks fans were dying for with John Collins. Check out the leaps Johnson has made across the board.
The Hawks still feel like a water-treading team unless Trae Young can really pick up his shooting on a more consistent basis, but Johnson has made a serious difference. Atlanta is noticeably more committed to the defensive end this season, and with Johnson on the court their 108 defensive rating would register as a top-five mark league-wide, per CTG.
5. Scottie Barnes, Raptors
The Raptors are kind of a mess but Barnes is balling. The guy couldn't make a 3-pointer to save his life last season, and yet this season he has significantly upped his volume to over five per game and is connecting at a 37.5% clip.
Barnes is the only non-center in the league averaging at least 20 points, nine rebounds and five assists. The only other two guys doing that are Nikola Jokic and Joel Embiid, who are arguably two of the top three MVP candidates at the moment. He's also one of just two guys with at least 15 blocks and 15 steals (you will see the other guy later in this list).
Barnes represents something of an archetype experiment; bigger, traditional wing-sized guys running more point guard stuff. The Spurs want to do it with Jermey Sochan. Barnes isn't lightning quick and he doesn't have a dependable pull-up jumper, but he gets where he wants to go with the ball and is a physical, fairly creative finisher who can see a lot of passing angles with his size once he works his way into the paint.
Barnes' teammate OG Anunoby has been terrific to start the season as well, but he gets talked about a lot more because he lives in trade rumors. Barnes still flies relatively under the radar, but he's Toronto's main piece moving forward. So far, he looks increasingly up for that kind of responsibility.
Shout outs to ...
- 6. Tyrese Haliburton, Pacers: who is getting almost zero national buzz. Leads the league in assists, assist points and total points created (58.7 per game to Nikola Jokic's 50.9). Averaging just under 25 PPG on 53/44/93 shooting splits for the 7-4 Pacers.
- 7. Dillon Brooks, Rockets: A lot of you might not like it, but we have to give Brooks his props. Dude is averaging almost 14 PPG with a positively sensible shot selection, which has led to 55/53 shooting splits. His defense is as top-shelf as ever, and the edge he has brought to the Rockets, who are by far the most shocking team of the early going at 6-3 with the league's fourth-ranked defense, is obvious.
- 8. Devin Vassell, Spurs: In the skyscraper shadow of Victor Wembanyama, Vassell is one of the smoothest pull-up shooters in the game. He's making 43% of his 3s and his 125.8 points per 100 possessions, per CTG, registers in the 87th percentile among all combo guards.
- 9. Derrick White, Celtics: Jayson Tatum is a top-flight MVP candidate, Jaylen Brown got a $300 million contract, and Kristaps Porzingis and Jrue Holiday were the big trade acquisitions in Boston. Meanwhile, here's White shooting 43% from 3 while playing stifling defense with the second-best net rating in the league (plus-19.5) behind only Tatum.
- 10. Ausar Thompson, Pistons: Wembanyama and Chet Holmgren are deservedly dominating the ROY talk, but Thompson, who's averaging 12 points and 10 rebounds while leading the league with 39 "Stocks" (Steals + Blocks) despite being just 6-foot-7, looks pretty legit. He can't shoot a lick, but he can do everything else.