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#pounditSunday, September 24, 2023

5 early-season surprises in the NBA


The 2016-2017 NBA regular season is nearing the quarter mark and a larger overall picture of what we can expect this year is rounding into shape. And while much of the successes and failures have been easy to anticipate, there also have been quite a few surprises.

With that in mind, let’s take a look at five biggest early-season surprises to come out of the NBA.

5. Kemba Walker off to a scorching hot start

Kemba Walker has never been a bad player, but he’s been relatively marginal throughout his six-year career. His best season came in 2015-2016 when he averaged over 20 points per game for the Charlotte Hornets, shooting a career-high .427 from the field and .371 from beyond the arc.

18 games into the 2016-2017 season, Walker is not only proving that was no statistical anomaly, but just the start of his ascension in the NBA.

A career 40% shooter from the field and 34% shooter from three-point range — numbers that were boosted with a solid performance last year — Walker has opened this season firing on all cylinders, connecting at a .476 clip from the field and a dazzling .434 from three-point range.

Although he’s playing only 33.3 minutes per game — his lowest total since his rookie campaign — Walker is averaging 24.2 points, 4.1 rebounds and 4.9 assists per game.

Walker may not be leading the MVP race early on, but he’s thrust himself into the top 10 discussion.

4. Russell Westbrook becoming triple-double machine

The fact that Russell Westbrook is lighting the sky on fire early isn’t necessarily a surprise, but the historically elite company he’s keeping certainly is.

With Kevin Durant now out of the picture, the Oklahoma City Thunder are, by all intents and purposes, Westbrook’s team. And along with that comes a mountain of expectations, many of which seem nearly impossible to exceed. But after 19 games, Westbrook is doing just that.

Westbrook’s been everything the Thunder were hoping for and more — much, much more in fact. And following a 27-point, 18-rebound and 14-assist performance against the New York Knicks, Westbrook is now averaging a triple-double on the season.

To put that into perspective, this is the latest into a season any NBA player has averaged a triple-double since Oscar Robertson did it over the course of an entire season in 1961-1962.

Still not amazing enough? Well, consider this: only four other times in NBA history has a player averaged a triple-double more than five games in a season. The aforementioned Robertson did it three times, while Magic Johnson eclipsed that number once. However, the legendary Johnson managed to keep that pace up for only eight games.

It may seem like an obvious statement, but Westbrook is treating NBA fans to something very special and very rare.

3. Young Los Angeles Lakers are competitive in the West

The post-Kobe Bryant era will be an interesting one for the Los Angeles Lakers, but early returns are yielding some positive results.

The young Lakers, now led by head coach Luke Walton, weren’t expected to compete for a playoff spot in the Western Conference. In fact, many had them buried in the basement in their preseason ranking and predictions. And while the Lakers may ultimately end up on the outside of the playoffs looking in, they’re certainly a more talented and competitive team than many anticipated.

Nearing the quarter mark of the season, the Lakers are 9-10 and tied with the Portland Trailblazers for the No. 8 seed in the West. They’re putting up over 107 points per game, but it’s on the defensive side they are losing games. Currently, the Lakers are allowing 110.6 points per game, which is the third-worst total in the conference.

Still, there’s a lot of positives swirling around and plenty of reason for hope. The Lakers need to improve their assist totals, shoot at a higher clip and play much better defense, but their rebuild appears to be coming along at an expedited rate. And their three-point shooting makes things exciting.

If they can somehow stay healthy, it will be interesting to see how far along the Lakers are at the season’s end.

2. The Greek Freak blossoming into a superstar

Giannis Antetokounmpo has been on a slow, but steady incline over the first three years of his professional career. Now he appears to be hitting his stride.

No longer is “The Greek Freak” looked at as someone with a mound of potential, but rather, he’s established himself as an NBA superstar 16 games into the 2016-2017 season. And never was that more evident than on Tuesday night against the Cleveland Cavaliers when he dropped a career-high 34 points in a 118-101 rout of the defending NBA champions.

“He’s getting better with hard work,” Milwakuee Bucks head coach Jason Kidd told USA Today after the game. “He was going against the best player in the world.”

His huge game against LeBron James and the Cavaliers aside, Antetokounmpo has been consistently dominant this season, averaging 22.8 points, 8.6 rebounds and 5.9 assists per game while shooting at a .527 clip. You can add in 2.1 blocks per game and 2.1 steals per game for good measure, too.

All of his numbers not only dwarf his career averages, but put Antetokounmpo in with some of the NBA’s most elite company. He’s top 25 in every single one of those statistical categories. Who saw that coming?

1. Chicago Bulls are clicking faster than many expected

The Bulls were supposed to be a team in transition. Gone were Derrick Rose, Joakim Noah and several others. In were Dwyane Wade, Rajon Rondo and more.

The addition of Wade, a 34-year-old former superstar, was intended to put butts in seats. It was a tremendous marketing opportunity that would provide leadership and insight into what it took to win an NBA title — lessons that were designed to inspire Chicago’s upcoming crop of talent.

Instead, with the combination of Wade, Rondo and Jimmy Butler, the Bulls have found themselves with a team that gelled faster than even they anticipated. Offensively in-sync from the onset, Chicago is in the thick of the Eastern Conference race, trailing the Cavaliers by only three games as the quarter mark of the season approaches.

No, they aren’t world beaters, but these Chicago Bulls certainly aren’t pushovers, either.

Perhaps it’s the perfect mix of new and old, young and experienced, and a group of personalities that for whatever reason, just seem to click. On the court and off of it, the Bulls are generating some legitimate excitement in the Windy City.

Currently, the Bulls are second in the Eastern Conference in point differential (+6.3), third in points per game (105.3) and third in opponents’ points per game (99). If they can keep that up, they’ve very much be a serious contender down the stretch.


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