NBA Small Sample Size All-Stars: Gordon Hayward, Andrew Wiggins among players with surprising early production
These players have been brilliant early on, but can they keep it up all season?
At this point most NBA teams are around the 15-game mark in the 2019-20 season, so every ounce of praise or criticism that leaves our lips has to be couched with the ubiquitous caveat, "It's a small sample size, but ..." In a game increasingly dominated by analytics, it's important to remember that what you see over the course of 15 games may not be remotely close to the final result at the end of an 82-game season. But we can only go off of what we see, and so far there have been several players who have surprised us with their early-season production.
With that, we decided to come up with this season's Small Sample Size All-Stars -- players who have been terrific thus far, but trigger at least slight concern that they might not be able to keep it up all season. So, despite their splashy statistics, you won't see players like James Harden or Luka Doncic on the list because we could reasonably expect it from them. Same with a player like Pascal Siakam, who gives us no reason to believe he won't be able to keep up his improved production all year long.
Instead, these are the guys we're not quite sure about -- the ones we really hope can keep it up, but leave us repeating "small sample size" whenever we talk about them because of our lingering doubts.
We knew Brogdon might have to take on a larger offensive role with the Pacers with Victor Oladipo sidelined, but his production has been pretty eye-opening early on. Sure he's increased his scoring output from 15.6 points per game last season, which is impressive enough, but his assist numbers truly jump off the page. Prior to this season, he averaged 3.6 assists per game for his career -- he's now up to over eight per game, good for a top-five slot in the NBA. Brogdon has continued to show an ability to thrive when given more responsibility, but we have to at least wonder whether season averages of nearly 20 points and eight assists per game are sustainable.
It's one thing for a rookie to put up big stats on a talent-devoid team with no real chance of winning this season (Ja Morant, Eric Paschall, RJ Barrett, etc.), but Nunn has managed to do it for one of the best teams in the Eastern Conference to open up the year. With point-forwards/playmakers Justise Winslow and Jimmy Butler on the roster, Nunn has played well off-the-ball and scored efficiently both at the rim and from distance. The undrafted 24-year-old is probably closer to his ceiling than most rookies, but if he can stay at this level for the foreseeable future, Miami will be more than happy.
The Andrew Wiggins coming out party has officially swept the NBA, with every talking head spouting a fresh take on whether Wiggins has truly made the leap or whether this is another tantalizing snapshot of his potential that will ultimately leave us stirringly disappointed and bitter once he reverts to hoisting 20-foot fadeaways. For what it's worth, it appears Ryan Saunders has impressed upon Wiggins the understanding of which kinds of shots he should be taking. Last season Wiggins took 4.4 mid-range shots per game (making 34.7 percent of them) and 4.9 shots per game in the restricted area (making 58 percent), according to NBA.com. This season he's lowered his mid-range attempts to 3.5 per game (40 percent) and increased his shots at the rim to 7.0 per game (67.5 percent). He's also shooting nearly two more 3-pointers per game than he did last season. All signs point to Wiggins "getting it" but it makes sense to be cautiously optimistic until he proves he can keep it up for an extended period of time. For now, though, he looks phenomenal.
It's a shame to have to write this while Hayward recovers from a broken hand, but he certainly looked close to the player we saw for many years in Utah in his eight games this season. His numbers have been great with tremendous efficiency (scoring average is up over seven points from last season), but with Hayward it's really been about the eye test. He looks much more comfortable, not only with his confidence but also with his place in the Celtics' system as a playmaker and scorer. Hayward is expected to return around Christmas, and hopefully he can pick up where he left off.
NBA experts are legitimately concerned about the eventual return of last year's No. 1 overall pick, Deandre Ayton, because it will mean less playing time for Baynes -- that tells you everything you need to know about the 6-foot-10 Aussie's positive impact on the resurgent Suns so far. The 33-year-old has chiseled up his hefty frame and anchors a dramatically improved defense, but his most surprising contributions have come at the offensive end. After never averaging more than 6.6 points per game in any of his NBA seasons, Baynes has skyrocketed to 14.5 this season while shooting a jaw-dropping 44 percent on over four 3-point attempts per game. His ability to stretch the floor has opened up all sorts of lanes for the Suns offense, making Devin Booker and Ricky Rubio much more efficient playmakers. When Baynes is on the court, the Suns offense scores a team-best 115.1 points per 100 possessions. When he's off, it drops to 102.3. Who knows if Baynes can keep up this type of play in extended minutes (24 per game is by far a career-high), but if he does, he'll be in the conversation to become the oldest to ever win the Most Improved Player award.
In a surprisingly competent start for the Hornets, Graham and rookie PJ Washington have been the unquestioned bright spots. Graham, a second-round pick out of Kansas in 2018, is leading the team in scoring and assists while shooting 42 percent on a huge volume of 3-pointers (8.4 per game). He also leads Charlotte with 32 minutes per game, despite coming off the bench for most of the season, and the Hornets' net rating jumps 18.3 points per 100 possessions when he's on the court. He figures to be an important part of the Charlotte rebuild moving forward.
Bolstered by some games as the team's main big man while Myles Turner dealt with an ankle injury, Sabonis has put up some gaudy numbers to begin the season. He's in the top five in the NBA in rebounding, and his scoring has jumped nearly five points per game in the extra minutes he's gotten from being a mainstay in the starting lineup. The only NBA players to average at least 18 points and 13 rebounds per game in a season this decade are Dwight Howard, Kevin Love and Joel Embiid (Giannis Antetokounmpo is currently doing it for the Bucks), so Sabonis would join some pretty elite company if he can keep it up.
Leonard became a legit stretch-five over the last few seasons in Portland, but what he's doing in Miami is on another level. He's leading the NBA by making 62(!) percent of his 3-pointers this season (13-for-21). He's clearly picking and choosing his spots, but so far he's been absolutely deadly from deep. This probably won't continue, but he's certainly worth a mention here.
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