We all know about the breakout seasons Kristaps Porzingis and Giannis Antetokounmpo are enjoying. Victor Oladipo and Aaron Gordon have also gotten some publicity for taking the leap to stardom.
But there are dozens of others players across the NBA who have improved by similar amounts. Most of them haven’t garnered nearly as much love as the likes of Porzingis and Antetokounmpo.
Let’s focus specifically on seven young guys who are playing like the lightbulb has finally turned on for them.
KYLE ANDERSON, SAN ANTONIO SPURS
2017-18 per-game stats: 8.3 points, 6.5 rebounds, 2.5 assists, 0.8 steals, 0.9 blocks, 16.3 PER, 0.155 Win Shares per 48 minutes
Anderson is always going to be an unconventional, borderline awkward NBA player. He’s a combo forward who’s one of the slowest players in the league, doesn’t shoot 3s and doesn’t have much strength.
However, what he does possess is excellent length (6’9″ with a wingspan of nearly 7’3″), strong ballhandling and passing abilities and a fantastic basketball IQ that serves him well on both ends. His rebounding is better than ever this season.
Slow Mo also looks much more comfortable driving to the basket in his fourth NBA season. A career-high 76.4 percent of his field goal attempts have come within 10 feet, up from 54 percent a year ago. He’s become a master at using his opponents’ superior speed against them on his journeys to the rim:
PASCAL SIAKAM, TORONTO RAPTORS
2017-18 per-game stats: 7.9 points, 4.4 rebounds, 1.1 assists, 0.8 steals, 0.1 blocks, 18.6 PER, 0.163 Win Shares per 48 minutes
Siakam is definitely one of the most underrated young role players in the NBA. He showed some flashes in his rookie season last year as a defender. He’s developed a more well-rounded game in 2017-18, though.
The 23-year-old is actually pretty similar to a younger version of teammate Serge Ibaka, minus the elite rim protection. Both came into the league as raw, high-energy, athletic big men who were better on defense than offense. However, just as Ibaka developed a 3-point shot, Siakam is extending his range and has knocked down seven long balls this season on 35 percent shooting. He made just one shot from downtown last season.
The 23-year-old power forward has also become much more reliable finishing around the rim. He’s definitely been a key piece in the Raptors’ exciting young bench unit.
CLINT CAPELA, HOUSTON ROCKETS
2017-18 per-game stats: 13.3 points, 11.5 rebounds, 1.3 assists, 0.9 steals, 1.9 blocks, 27.6 PER, 0.291 Win Shares per 48 minutes
James Harden is probably the MVP frontrunner right now. However, he and the 11-3 Rockets wouldn’t be where they are without Capela. The 23-year-old center has been a menace around the rim this year, leading the NBA in dunks (35). He also paces the NBA in effective field goal percentage, rebounds like a madman and anchors the Rockets’ eighth-ranked defense with aplomb.
The biggest development in his early-season performance is his continued improvement from the free-throw line. His percentage on foul shots has improved from 17.4 to 37.9 to 53.1 to 70.3 in his four seasons. Speaking of fouls, Capela is also averaging a career-low 3.8 hacks per 36 minutes.
Capela is still working on his stamina, which explains the mere 25.9 minutes per game he’s earning. However, the dominance he’s achieving in that time shouldn’t be overlooked.
And he’s only going to be more dominant when he has Harden and a healthy Chris Paul throwing him lobs.
DOMANTAS SABONIS, INDIANA PACERS
2017-18 per-game stats: 13.3 points, 9.8 rebounds, 2.8 assists, 0.3 steals, 0.3 blocks, 21.2 PER, 0.183 Win Shares per 48 minutes
Victor Oladipo was the main asset for the Pacers in the Paul George trade, and he’s proving it this year. But Sabonis is also playing miles better than anyone could have expected from him.
It’s obvious now that the Thunder didn’t use Sabonis correctly last year. The 21-year-old is more of a playmaking 4 than a stretch 4, which is the role he had with the Thunder. He’s rolling much more than popping after screens this year. That’s helping him get much easier shots at the rim.
He’s also proving that he inherited the passing gene from his legendary father, Arvydas:
RONDAE HOLLIS-JEFFERSON, BROOKLYN NETS
2017-18 per-game stats: 14.6 points, 5.3 rebounds, 1.6 assists, 1.2 steals, 1 block, 19.1 PER, 0.151 Win Shares per 48 minutes
Hollis-Jefferson was, by far, defense-first prospect when the Nets drafted him in 2015. He still does deserve that reputation, too:
Rondae Hollis-Jefferson has kinda secretly become one of those all-around, versatile forwards that every team in the league is looking for. Great defense down the stretch last night against both Turner and Lillard on back-to-back possessions. pic.twitter.com/JnTiLDn4hu
— Jeff Siegel (@jgsiegel) November 12, 2017
It’s offensive growth that has him looking like a Most Improved Player candidate, though. RHJ has lived at the free-throw line this season, using his boundless energy, athleticism and aggressiveness to make life difficult for defenses.
JEREMY LAMB, CHARLOTTE HORNETS
2017-18 per-game stats: 16.7 points, 5.1 rebounds, 3.2 assists, 0.7 steals, 0.3 blocks, 17.7 PER, 0.135 Win Shares per 48 minutes
The numbers above look good. But Lamb has been especially good in his last nine games. In that span, his 3-point stroke has been automatic (20-of-33, or 60.6 percent) and his assist-to-turnover ratio is a point guard-esque 2.4-to-1.
It’s doubtful Lamb keeps this level of play up the entire season, especially when Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Nicolas Batum are both back and taking away some of the lanky wing’s minutes.
However, according to the Charlotte Observer’s Rick Bonnell, the former UConn standout realizes that his ticket to maintaining a large role all season is plus defense.
“I think I’ve played good defense at times, and at times I haven’t. That’s a huge thing for me; putting a full game together. Coach has put me in a position to score the ball, and my teammates set me up to score the ball, but defense helps us win games.”
JONATHON SIMMONS, ORLANDO MAGIC
2017-18 per-game stats: 15.3 points, 3.2 rebounds, 2 assists, 0.8 steals, 0.1 blocks, 17 PER, 0.113 Win Shares per 48 minutes
The more I watch Simmons, the more baffling it becomes that he didn’t play an actual NBA game until he was 26 years old.
An unearthed gem by the Spurs several years ago, he has found his niche as Orlando’s sixth man in his first year with the team. He’s handling the ball more than he ever did in San Antonio, using his explosiveness and tricky footwork to get to the rim at will. His defense also remains strong.
Simmons is a rare reserve wing who contributes positively on both ends of the floor (at least for now). If he keeps up his current production on the offensive end, he’ll be tough to deny for the Sixth Man of the Year award.
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