Print and Go Back ESPN.com: NBA [Print without images]

Thursday, November 20, 2008
The season's early surprises, from 1-15

By John Hollinger
ESPN.com

Andrei Kirilenko
Andrei Kirilenko's strong all-around game has returned, and his ability to get to the line is better.

It all goes back to expectations. We have a certain idea of how a certain team or player will perform, based on their past performance as well as our own perceptions and biases. Once the games start, those expectations form the headwaters from which surprises (the good kind) and disappointments flow.

Now that most teams have about a dozen games in the books, it's time to start taking a look at which developments have been most at odds with our expectations entering the year -- both for good and bad.

TrueHoop

Who, in your mind, is starting to make a name for himself right now? I'll throw out a name: Golden State's Andris Biedrins. TrueHoop

What's nice about this examination is that in the early part of the season, many of these players and teams remain more or less under the radar, especially the 20 or so teams that aren't on national TV every week.

So here are the top surprises and disappointments in the early going, as seen from my vantage point. Perhaps more importantly, we'll look at exactly why these folks are doing what they're doing and whether they can keep it up.

We'll start today with the good news -- my list of the league's top surprises from the first three weeks -- and get to the bad news on Friday.

Our leadoff hitter is a no-brainer, but after that we'll work into some names that haven't received as much attention:

Lakers' D Locks Down

After being an offensive powerhouse last season, L.A. has added a great defense to its arsenal.

Upgraded D
2007-08 2008-09
Opp. PPG 101.3 91.3
Opp. FG Pct 44.5 41.5
Steals A Game 8.0 10.7

1. The Lakers' defense
I touched upon this when I saw the Lakers hold New Orleans to 30 points in the first half, but their upgraded commitment to the defensive end has been something to behold. L.A., which made the NBA Finals last season primarily as an offensive juggernaut, is leading the league in defensive efficiency by a sizable margin.

The return of Andrew Bynum has played a big part, obviously. It's not just his size, it's also that he's in shape and moving well. As a result, he has become a real presence roaming the lane and blocking shots, and he has allowed Pau Gasol to slide over to his more natural power forward role. Bynum is spiking three shots a game, the Lakers' now-huge front line is controlling the defensive glass and L.A. in general has found a more physical edge in the wake of last season's embarrassing conclusion to the Finals.

If the Lakers keep it up, they'll be virtually impossible to beat.


2. Anthony Morrow, Warriors
The undrafted rookie from Georgia Tech had one of the most utterly unexpected performances in league history when he tallied 37 points and 11 boards in his first NBA start. He followed it up with 25 points on just 12 shots in Golden State's win over Portland on Tuesday, and scouts I talked to say he's a legit NBA player who is able to shoot off the dribble and rebounds well for his size.

OK, now for the downside: He won't shoot 64 percent all year. He has racked up his numbers against two of the league's worst defensive teams. And he doesn't create offense for anyone else.

Still, he's quite a summer league find for Golden State. From what we've seen so far, he shapes up as a poor man's Michael Redd. It's hard to believe every team in the league passed on him twice in June.


3. Andrei Kirilenko, Jazz
He was miffed about his declining role the past two seasons, but a move to the bench appears to have restocked AK-47's ammo clip. The lanky Russian is a leading contender for the NBA Sixth Man of the Year award, with his 51.1 percent shooting and 23.19 PER harking back to his All-Star days.

Especially noteworthy is his newfound ability to get to the charity stripe (5.9 attempts per game); his free-throw tries had waned the past two years. There's a good reason for that. Because Kirilenko is playing more often when Carlos Boozer and Mehmet Okur aren't, he already has seen more post-up chances than I can remember seeing him get the past two seasons.


4. Devin Harris, Nets
Harris put together three straight 30-point games to help the Nets stay relevant in the East. In fact, the team has posted a 4-3 record and beat the Hawks and Pistons in games Harris has played.

He always has been able to get into the paint thanks to his lightning-quick first step, but he's also using his speed to get to the free-throw line. Harris is averaging 11.0 free-throw attempts a game, an average that puts him in Dwight Howard territory. Unlike Howard, though, he's converting 88.3 percent of those attempts.

As a result, he's seventh in the NBA in player efficiency rating, and if he keeps it up, he'll end up gate-crashing the Eastern Conference All-Star team.


5. Tayshaun Prince, Pistons
That Prince can play isn't exactly a state secret. But he's never been as aggressive a scorer or as productive a rebounder as he's been this season.

He pulled down a career-high 16 snares Thursday and is averaging 8.1 boards per 40 minutes; last season he averaged 5.9, and that average was a career high. Some of this success undoubtedly is because he's playing as a small-ball 4 more often, but by any standard, it's impressive.

He has been even better at putting the ball in the hole. Prince is averaging a career-best 17.5 points per 40 minutes to go with a career-best 56.4 true shooting percentage. And he seems unaffected by Allen Iverson's arrival -- in fact, he's averaging more points since Iverson joined the team (16.4 ppg) than he did before (15.8).

On the one hand, that causes us to take his early-season numbers with a grain of salt -- one has to suspect he'll revert to his long-term averages. His 56.5 percent 3-point mark, in particular, is unlikely to last. On the other hand, his sharp increase in free-throw attempts this year may prove more durable.

For now, his early-season offensive explosion qualifies as one of the year's top surprises thus far, and if he keeps up the pace, he could land his first All-Star appearance.


6. Andris Biedrins, Warriors
You know a center is good when not even Don Nelson can find a way to keep him on the bench. Biedrins is shooting "only" 53.7 percent from the floor thus far -- a big drop from his 60.7 percent career mark -- but is putting together a career year nonetheless by being a beast on the boards and a more active participant in the offense.

The Latvian lefty leads the NBA in rebounding at 14.4 per game, but his expanded offensive game has been as big a revelation. The athletic 6-11 center has been encouraged to take opposing bigs off the dribble, and occasionally he's been given the ball in unusual positions for a big man -- such as a dribble handoff play against Minnesota that he took to the rack for a score.

The only cautionary flag is his stubbornly high foul rate. Biedrins has managed to average 35.6 minutes per game despite fouling once every 8.5 minutes, primarily because he's avoiding the first-half fouls that can send him to the bench quickly. It remains to be seen whether he can keep fouling at that rate and still play so many minutes. Rarely do players average more than a foul per nine minutes and play more than 30 minutes per game.


7. Shaquille O'Neal, Suns
The 36-year-old Diesel has reversed a steady, multiyear pattern of decline during the early going. He has converted his usual 59.4 percent from the field while avoiding the rashes of turnovers that plagued him a season ago. He has become a focal point of the Suns' retooled seven-seconds-or-more attack, averaging 22.6 points per 40 minutes and dishing out assists at his highest rate since 2005.

Although the Suns are limiting Shaq's minutes and holding him out of back-to-backs, and a high foul rate also has kept him sidelined a fair amount, he has been productive offensively and reasonably competent defensively in the early going. Should he provide 55 more games at this level, the seemingly one-sided Shawn Marion trade will look far fairer to Phoenix.

Nene, Now And Then

With his health concerns behind him, Nene has thrived this season, helping make up for the loss of Marcus Camby. Here's how the 26-year-old's numbers stack up.

Denver's Middleman
This year Best full year
PPG 14.7 12.2 ('06-07)
RPG 7.6 7.0 ('06-07)
FG Pct 65.4 57.0 ('06-07)

8. Nene, Nuggets
It's hard to know which is the biggest surprise about Nene: that he is shooting 65.4 percent from the floor and ranked ninth among centers in PER at 19.74, that he has kept his foul rate low enough to average 33.3 minutes per game, or that he has played all 11 of the Nuggets' games thus far.

Individually, any of the three would qualify as a pleasant surprise; taken together, they make his season to date one of the league's biggest eye-openers.

And on a Denver team that essentially is using only two frontcourt players, his contribution could hardly be more valuable. The Nuggets have sneaked quietly into the West's likely playoff contingent and should stay there as long as the Brazilian big man stays in the lineup.

Wilson Chandler Starting Stats

After riding the bench all of last season, Chandler has become an explosive force in the starting lineup for the Knicks.

Resurgent Starter
Starting Off Bench
PPG 15.4 13.3
FG Pct 52.2 40.7
3-Pt FG Pct 36.4 15.4

9. Wilson Chandler, Knicks
If Isiah Thomas was smart enough to draft this guy, why'd he keep him glued to the bench all year while Quentin Richardson was having such a stink bomb of a season?

We may never know the answer to that question, but one thing we do know is that Thomas' final first-round pick was an inspired one. Chandler has taken over a starting forward spot in New York in just his second pro season, and at the tender age of 21 is averaging a point every two minutes with solid rebounding numbers for the semiresurgent Knicks.


10. Spencer Hawes, Kings
In his second pro season, Sacramento's 20-year-old 7-footer is turning into a force at both ends. Although Hawes tends to favor his high-arcing jump shot instead of operating in the paint, he has hit enough of those shots to make it work. He has converted 54.0 percent from the field thus far, including a 7-for-7 night in Memphis on Tuesday. He even has splashed down 10 3-pointers in 23 tries.

Meanwhile, Hawes has blocked 25 shots in just 366 minutes, one of the best rejection rates in basketball, and he has vastly improved as a rebounder. His 17.57 PER is a major improvement on his mark from his unimpressive rookie season. Should the rebuilding Kings opt to jettison Brad Miller, Hawes would appear to be more than ready to take over the starting gig.

Cleveland's Offense Surges

LeBron finally has help in the scoring department this season, with Mo Williams and D. West.

Offensive explosion
2007-08 2008-09
PPG 96.4 100.5
FG Pct. 43.9 47.2
FT Pct. 71.7 77.7

11. Cleveland's offense
Although it features the global icon, the Cavs' offense has been a mediocre unit the past few years. Even when Cleveland made the Finals in 2007, it was primarily as a defensive outfit.

All that has changed this season, as the Cavs lead the NBA in offensive efficiency. Obviously, LeBron James has been a huge part of it -- he leads the league in scoring and is second by a whisker in PER.

But he has better help than he used to. Starting guards Mo Williams and Delonte West are shooting 39.3 percent and 51.0 percent, respectively, on 3-pointers. Between them they're making more than four 3s a game and loosening up defenses for James. Zydrunas Ilgauskas has forestalled the aging process for another year and is at 50 percent from the floor, while Anderson Varejao is at 59.6 percent.

With as brilliant as James has been, the supporting cast needn't be awesome. That it's merely competent is good enough, and it has surpassed that standard easily.


12. Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, Bucks
The tradition of undersized 4s becoming second-round steals continues. In recent years, we've seen Brandon Bass, Paul Millsap, Craig Smith, Leon Powe and Carl Landry establish themselves as quality frontcourt players even though they were drafted after the first round.

Mbah a Moute is more of a lanky, athletic guy than the others, but it's the same idea -- he didn't fit the prototype of an NBA 4 man, so he went later than he should have.

Mbah a Moute is middling at best as a shooter and won't score in the post, but he is athletic enough to be a very effective garbage man and can defend three positions. He has been starting while Charlie Villanueva is out injured and has played well enough that he seems likely to keep the gig even when Charlie V. returns.


13. Rudy Fernandez, Blazers
OK, most folks aren't surprised by the idea that Fernandez can play, not after he lit up the U.S. squad in the second half of that epic gold-medal match in Beijing. But few expected this much this soon. Fernandez is fifth among rookies in PER at 19.74 and has played far more minutes than the four men ahead of him on the list.

Additionally, he has taken to the longer NBA 3-point distance much more readily than most European imports have. Fernandez is hitting 44.3 percent from downtown, and he's not just a long-range specialist, either. He has shown the athleticism to score in the paint and draw fouls, and he's at 94.4 percent from the line.

Although it remains to be seen whether his percentages can stay this freakishly high in the long term, Fernandez is likely to make other improvements as he acclimates, and if he does, he'll be one of the top dogs in the rookie of the year hunt.


14. Mickael Pietrus, Magic
I was suspicious about whether Pietrus could stay on the court enough to make an impact for Orlando, but he has cut his foul rate to about one every nine minutes, which has been enough to let him play 26.8 minutes per game.

And when he's played, he's been exceptional. Pietrus is hitting 45.2 percent of his 3s, and although that success rate might not last, his ability to drive to the basket with conviction is something he showed little of in Golden State. Pietrus is averaging 21.6 points per 40 minutes with a gaudy 65.4 true shooting percentage -- not bad for a guy brought in primarily to be a defensive stopper.


15. JaVale McGee, Wizards
Several players from this year's draft class have turned out better than expected, but McGee has received much less attention than the others.

Although the Wizards are mired at 1-8, McGee has been a revelation with his length, coordination and shooting ability for his size. Seen as a project on draft day, he's shooting 52.0 percent from the floor while averaging 15.9 points and 11.0 boards per 40 minutes, and he has taken over Washington's starting center spot. Best of all, he's only 20 years old, so he should be able to improve plenty from this point forward.

John Hollinger writes for ESPN Insider. To e-mail him, click here.