The NBA’s first week has concluded. Everyone, aside from the 2-0 Milwaukee Bucks, has logged at least three games. The 4-0 Portland Trail Blazers are on pace to host the NBA Finals. The 0-4 Orlando Magic are rivaling the 0-3 Sacramento Kings and Los Angeles Lakers in the race for Victor Wembanyama (congrats to the New Orleans Pelicans, who own the right to swap 2023 first-round picks with Los Angeles and also have a 3-1 record). Ja Morant is the league’s leading scorer, trapezing, propelling, and contorting himself to 35.3 points a night on 68.5 percent true shooting.
These are only a slew of the developments from the last eight days of action, though. There’s been plenty of intrigue from players off to encouraging starts, veterans and rookies alike. Let’s dive into some of the fun wrinkles to open 2022-23.
Jaden Ivey’s dynamic driving and finishing
Although the 1-3 Detroit Pistons have floundered out of the gates — the team has been bogged down by a three-game losing streak, including a pair of blowout defeats — their No. 5 overall pick, Jaden Ivey, is fashioning an early case for an First Team All-Rookie nod. Through four games, the 6’4 jet engine in sneakers is averaging 16 points (56.5 percent true shooting), 5.5 assists, 4.3 rebounds, and 1.5 steals.
He’s dazzled with some impressive off-the-bounce shot-making, but most notably, his zippy first step and creative finishing are the leading exploits. His flexibility and ingenuity around the rim are mystifying, which amplifies the fact he’s incredibly arduous to stay in front of, especially once the defense is already tilted. According to Cleaning the Glass, his 51 percent rim frequency ranks in the 100th percentile among combo guards, while his 62 percent conversion rate (15-for-24) is in the 70th percentile.
Continuing a trend from preseason, he’s also been a perceptive cutter, particularly alongside Cade Cunningham. Nightly, it seems he conjures up a bewilderingly joyful drive and finish. There are some eerie similarities between he and Morant’s slashing ethos at times. Ivey’s rarified speed has immediately translated to scoring proficiency and it’s been a delight to witness.
Julius Randle’s rekindled offensive approach
The 2-1 New York Knicks are playing good ball. Julius Randle, after a disappointing encore to his 2020-21 All-NBA breakout, is playing good ball. The veteran forward is averaging 21.3 points (60.2 percent true shooting), 9.7 rebounds, and 3.3 assists a night. His defensive engagement resembles 2020-21 rather than the frustrations of 2021-22. Some of Randle’s efforts against rookie sensation Paolo Banchero in ball-screens and denial opportunities on Monday were tremendous.
The heightened execution defensively is accompanied by a renewed offensive approach, one he operated with throughout 2020-21 and briefly built upon last season before regressing into detrimental habits. He’s applying his smooth ball-handling to fold defenses and often opting out of challenging pull-ups in favor of quality looks for his fellow Knickerbockers. His four assists against the Orlando Magic understate his playmaking impact that day.
He routinely primed open shots and avoided many of the midrange fadeaways complicit in his 2021-22 pitfalls. When he did take those shots, they felt natural and comfortable instead of the resigned decision following a failed creation attempt. Although his 15.9 percent assist rate is his lowest in three seasons, his 9.2 percent turnover rate is the best of his career.
His play-style is that of someone who spearheaded a surprising Knicks run to the playoffs two years ago and not the one whose struggles were a suitable reflection of their underwhelming 2021-22. It’s been tremendous to watch this resurgence, regardless of the small sample. The process is sound and improved, and that’s most salient early in the year.
Josh Hart, the transition dynamo
Damian Lillard affirming his superstar status after an injury-riddled 2021-22 is the headline behind the Blazers’ undefeated start (he’s averaging 33-5-5 on 67 percent true shooting). Versatile wing play from the fellas such as Josh Hart, Jerami Grant, Justise Winslow, and Nassir Little are worthy of recognition, too.
Following his trade from New Orleans to Portland last February, Hart assumed a grand offensive role, where he succeeded admirably: 19.9 points, 62.2 percent true shooting, 24.5 percent usage rate. Yet the slew of absences from the Blazers’ typical rotation (namely, Lillard) prohibited folks from seeing how he’d fit when the club reclaimed the luxury of health.
He’s quickly illuminated that value, dominating on both sides of the glass (10.3 rebounds per game), rotating to muck up drives, and providing Portland with magnitudes of strength and screen navigation on the wing it’s missed for years. For instance, Devin Booker dropped 33 on 11-for-23 shooting Friday, but Hart hounded him around picks and tested the extent of Booker’s star shot-making.
Most notably, the Villanova product has been a freight train in the open court. He finds any possible seam in the defense and slices through it. If there isn’t one to be located, that’s fine, he’ll just rumble his way through contact for buckets or fouls. Fast-break chances do not stumble into his lap. He demands that they occur, independent of whether the circumstances are ripe.
According to Synergy, his 35.7 percent transition frequency is third-highest among 78 eligible players and his 1.333 points per possession ranks in the 73rd percentile. He’s drawing a shooting foul on 33.3 percent of his reps, fourth among the 78-player group. The manner in which he seeks contact is akin to a slalom skier whose intention is to truck through the gates rather than veer around them. Once he dips that shoulder, the opposition’s fate is written.
Jayson Tatum, expanding his shot portfolio
It’s far too early to discuss MVP. I won’t do it. I refuse. I will not succumb to that siren song. Nobody’s even played five games. Hypothetically, though, if I was going to discuss early MVP candidates, Jayson Tatum would factor in prominently at worst and dominate the conversation at best. Fresh off his first NBA Finals appearance, the 24-year-old is 32.5 points (68.7 percent true shooting), 8.3 rebounds, 3.5 assists, and 1.3 blocks, shepherding wins over presumptive fellow Eastern Conference contenders in the Philadelphia 76ers and Miami Heat.
His rim frequency (38 percent) is the second-best of his career. His finishing (76 percent) is at a career-best. He’s netting self-created midrange attempts to unforeseen lengths. He’s built upon last year’s comfort playing through contact to post a career-best .383 free-throw rate. The offensive maximization of his 6’10 frame is finally coming into focus. The defense is multifaceted and exquisite.
Early on in his NBA tenure, Tatum’s finishing and driving existed as glaring weaknesses, which contributed to his inability to crack 50 percent on 2s until 2020-21 (midrange struggles were at play as well). To avoid the sprawling limbs of rim protectors, the counter long appeared to incorporate a floater into his bag of tricks. That, of course, is easier said than done effectively, but it always stood as an avenue for further diversification and development of his scoring.
Over the past couple years, he’s refined his driving and finishing styles, but the floater escaped him last season after experimenting with it to greater degrees following his rookie campaign. In 2022-23, it appears to have resurfaced, a move he’ll discreetly bust out when a layup or dunk isn’t available.
According to Synergy, his frequency on runners has spiked from 4.6 percent last year to 8.8 percent this year, and he’s 5 of 7 to begin the season. With such a small sample, the efficiency itself is trivial, but Tatum bringing this shot back to complement his finishing progression can embed another layer into his potent scoring repertoire.