Every year, we expect to see certain things play out in the NBA. Before the year, all the hype surrounded the Lakers and Nets. We expected to see both teams at the top of the standings. The season is early and both teams are dealing with injuries and other outside causes, but both are hanging near the top of the standings. That was expected. Others that are hovering near the top spots are making us turn our heads sideways.
That goes the same with personal performance. We have some individuals that are playing hot, while others are shooting ice cold. Every season features its ups and downs. These 10 instances are the biggest surprises from the start of the 2021-2022 season.
10. New Orleans Pelicans Looking Like A Lottery Team
Many believed that the acquisition of Devonte’ Graham was going to be a better fit. Graham is balling out with 17 points and 5.4 assists per game. With that said, it’s evident that Lonzo Ball remains the supreme point guard as evidenced by his stellar start with the Chicago Bulls. Even with Ball gone, the addition of Graham, Jonas Valanciunas, and Tomas Satoransky was seen as supplemental pieces to help a young team.
Instead, we are continuously waiting on the development of Nickeil Alexander-Walker and Jaxon Hayes. Brandon Ingram has proven that he can’t be the team’s best player on a good team. We thought each of these players would take a step forward, but we should know what the cards say by now.
You can blame the one-win Pelicans team for having no Zion Williamson on the court. However, a good team would find a way to win without their superstar or at least make a bid at .500. The Pelicans own the worst record in the league right now. Even if Williamson comes back soon, the Pelicans are looking like a potential team in the lottery. If that happens, reports about Williamson’s future will flood the media landscape.
9. Washington Wizards With A Fast Start
The Wizards have dropped two of their last games after starting the season 5-1. When the team traded Russell Westbrook for a slew of role players, we expected them to hover around .500. While that is still a possible ending, the Wizards are fun to watch. Kyle Kuzma is averaging 14.1 points and 9.9 rebounds. Montrezl Harrell is averaging 18.0 points and 9.9 rebounds. These two big figures have lived up to their name since coming over via trade.
Harrell’s rise back to stardom is well noticed because of his inability to fit with the Lakers last year. It appears that Harrell has never regressed, but was misused in Los Angeles. The former Sixth Man of the Year, as well as Kuzma, are great pieces surrounding Bradley Beal.
Beal is averaging seven fewer points than last year, but has more rebounds and assists. On better teams, your stats might take a dip and Beal is a player that would rather win as a team. Beal has yet to show that he can lead a team deep into the playoffs on his own. Now that he has a true supporting cast, could this be the first time he accomplishes this?
8. Chris Paul’s Refusal To Slow Down
Despite being 36 years old, Chris Paul has yet to show any signs of slowing down. Paul is the only guard in the league that owns a double-digit assists average. Paul is leading the league in assists with 12.0 per game. As recently as November 2, Paul had a 14-point, 18-assist performance against the Raptors.
Last year, Paul proved to be the missing link for the Suns when the team marched to the NBA Finals. While the Suns do not have a “star-powered” squad, the concept of team basketball was on full display when the team made their run in the playoffs. With that said, some teams were missing key players, who regained those players to the start of the year.
There was a feeling that the Suns would come back down to Earth. However, for Paul, that is not the case. Paul hasn’t averaged double-digit assists since 2015-2016 when the Clippers had one of their best seasons. The Suns are just 4-3, but we could see the team take off at any minute if Paul continues to orchestrate the offense like the golden years with MVP Steve Nash.
7. Chicago Bulls Looking Elite
The Bulls were one of the most exciting teams entering the year because of the moves the team made in 2021. For starters, the team acquired Nikola Vucevic at the trade deadline. Then, they upped the ante by acquiring Lonzo Ball and DeMar DeRozan in free agency. With the bench looking thin on paper, the combination of Tony Bradley, Derrick Jones Jr., Ayo Dosunmu, Alex Caruso, and Alize Johnson looks like the Bench Mob from 2011.
The Bench Mob 2.0 doesn’t even have Coby White back, so that could be an offensive uplift as well. The play of Dosunmu has to be a pleasant surprise even though Illinois fans saw this last year when the All-American won the Bob Cousy Award in college. The biggest surprise has to be the rise of DeRozan.
DeRozan is averaging 27.0 points and 6.1 rebounds. He is fourth in the league in scoring. Fans in San Antonio thought his career was winding down, but we forget that he had to play a different role. DeRozan was used as a point forward last year. Now, with Ball running the offense, DeRozan is in his natural position. The duo of DeRozan and Zach LaVine is a fourth-quarter nightmare. Once Vucevic starts heating up, the thoughts of the Bulls competing for the No. 1 seed could be real.
6. Paul George Leading The League In Scoring
For now, George is second in scoring, behind Kevin Durant. George owns an average of 27.9 in comparison to Durant’s 28.3. Until Friday night, PG13 led the league in this item. This comes as a surprise because George has never won a scoring title. He is typically not in the conversation for this stat, either. However, with the absence of Kawhi Leonard, the team is looking to George to carry them until he gets back.
If George continues to play like this, he will win the MVP. Granted, this is a seven-game sample size, but there are a couple of marks to analyze here. For starters, George is shooting 50.7% from the field, which is a career-high. He is also shooting 42.2% from three-point range, which is also a career-high. His 7.7 rebounds are just above his career-best, while his free throw percentage is just over 85%.
We will need more games before we start talking about George contending for the 50-40-90 club, but if he makes the club he should be a contender for MVP. The Clippers are 4-4 on the year, so the team would also need to make the playoffs, which is considered a stretch, given the loss of Leonard. With that said, George is making the Clippers competitive, which is not something we thought we would be saying right now.
5. Toronto Raptors Contending For The Playoffs
Speaking of a surprisingly competitive team, the Raptors are 6-4 and looking like a playoff team. They are doing all of this without Pascal Siakam suiting up for a game due to injury. That will likely spark rumors of Siakam being moved due to his heavy salary and the team winning, but that is a conversation for another day. If Siakam comes back and meshes well with this unit, we could be talking about a team that was similar to last year’s Knicks.
Nick Nurse is one of the best coaches in the league. This should be proof as long as the team can sustain this. Fred VanVleet is having a bounceback year. He looks like a potential Most Improved Player of the Year candidate. OG Anunoby is averaging 20.3 points per game. While we all thought he had the potential, it’s a surprise that he is finally able to do it.
The Raptors have fallen off the last two years since winning the championships in 2019. When Kyle Lowry left, it felt like a rebuilding era, which is what swirled trade rumors around Siakam. Instead, the team is off to a hot start. If this continues, we will see Nurse win Coach of the Year.
4. Rudy Gobert Playing Like An MVP
Only three players are considered finalists for major awards such as this. If the MVP voting started today, Gobert would be one of those finalists. Not only does it look like Gobert is going to chase down history and win his fourth Defensive Player of the Year Award, but he is contributing on both ends at a highly efficient rate.
Gobert owns the fifth-best player efficiency ranking, trailing Nikola Jokic, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Jimmy Butler, and Kevin Durant. Gobert leads the league in rebounding with an impressive 17.3 rebounds per game. He also leads the league in field goal percentage at 73.6%. Altogether, he is looking like one of the best centers in the league on both sides of the floor.
The Jazz is leading the Western Conference for now, but we can expect this from this team. The Jazz led the league in wins last year and are on the hunt to run it back this term. Could this be the year that the Jazz goes on a deep playoff run and lead the league once again? If they do, it will be because of their MVP candidate.
3. Damian Lillard Shooting Ice Cold
Is Damian Lillard overworked? Before the season began, some rumors speculated that he could be out of Portland. Once Terry Stotts was removed as head coach, Lillard was rumored to be wanting out. Those rumors weren’t true, but clearly, something is bothering Dame Time. The man that led the league in clutch points last season has looked nowhere close to the All-NBA First Team selection from last year.
To put it into perspective, Lillard has never shot this bad in his entire career. All his shooting percentages are career low. That includes a 35.3% field-goal percentage, which is nearly 10% worse than what he did last year. That also includes a 23.4% shooting percentage from the three-point range, which is a career-low by a vast amount. That is a near 17% dropoff from last year. His career-low was 34.3%, which he shot in 2014-2015.
Lillard had a good run in Portland, but it’s time for a change. He can’t carry the team himself. He is pressing and appears to be stressed out. Again, that is all arbitrary, but something is affecting his game. This isn’t the same Lillard we have seen. You can blame the coach if you want, but Lillard has never been mentally soft. Something has affected his game and he will have to find a way to remediate it as the season progresses if the Trail Blazers have any hope of playing in the postseason this year.
2. Al Horford’s Defensive Rise
Who would have thought that the return value on 35-year old Al Horford would be this great? To start the season, Horford is the defensive anchor that the team hoped he would be. To be fair, the team had a defensive anchor in Robert Williams, but Horford’s production is a surprising addition.
Horford currently leads the NBA in blocks at 3.0 per game. To prove how surprising this is, Horford’s previous career-high was 1.5 when he was a member of the Atlanta Hawks in 2015-2016. Horford wasn’t this much of a defensive magician when he was an All-Star with the Celtics from 2016-2019.
If Horford can maintain this, he will make a run for Defensive Player of the Year. Horford is also averaging 10.1 rebounds. With a smaller lineup, Horford has been asked to play more of a defensive role but has been a highlight on the offense as well, ranking near the top of the league with five double-doubles already. Given his age and tenure in the league, this is a surprising success story.
1. Miles Bridges Playing Like An All-Star
There is no better surprise success story than the Charlotte Hornets’ Miles Bridges. We are seeing one of the greatest jumps between seasons in recent years. This is very comparable to when Pascal Siakam won the MIP award in 2019. While title aspirations are unlikely in Charlotte this year, having the 23-year-old make this great jump shows that the Hornets might be forming something worth watching in a few years.
Bridges averaged 12.7 points, 6.0 rebounds, 2.2 assists, 0.7 steals, and 0.8 blocks per game in 66 contests last year. What gave Bridges promise was his 50.3% field goal percentage and 40.0% mark from three-point range. This year, Bridges has averaged 24.1 points, 8.0 rebounds, 3.2 assists, 1.8 steals, and 1.0 blocks in nine games. That goes with a shooting percentage of 48.2% from the field and 37.1% from the three-point range.
When Bridges played at Michigan State, he was one of the best players in the country. It’s taken a few years for the former No. 12 overall pick in 2018 to develop, but he appears to be finally here. With LaMelo Ball, Terry Rozier, and Gordon Hayward, the Hornets believed they could be a fringe playoff team. If Bridges keeps this up, and the Hornets are in the playoff conversation, we could see him make the All-Star team, which would be a huge surprise to everyone in the country.
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