The marathon that is the NBA regular season will be wrapping up here in a few days. While some stuff has yet to be decided, where at a good point when it comes to looking at the season that was.
Among the biggest stories was the performance of two youngsters making their NBA debuts. Luka Doncic and Trae Young may have been traded for one another on draft night, but they have been boons for their respective teams.
Meanwhile, the Brooklyn Nets and Denver Nuggets have followed up irrelevance in previous seasons to find themselves as up-and-coming teams. These are among the 10 biggest surprises of the 2018-19 NBA regular season.
Trae Young, guard, Atlanta Hawks
Despite his Hawks being out of the playoff race for a majority of the season, Young has made this team a must watch over the past couple months. Here’s a kid that’s averaged 24.6 points, 4.5 rebounds and 9.1 assists since the All-Star Break. Those are top-end numbers right there.
Atlanta got flack for trading the rights to Luka Doncic during the 2018 NBA Draft. That’s fine. But the team added Trae Young and what promises to be a top-eight selection in the 2019 NBA Draft. This could work out swell for the rebuilding team moving forward.
Los Angeles Clippers
No one really expected Doc Rivers’ squad to compete for a playoff spot in a stacked Western Conference. After moving on from franchise centerpieces Blake Griffin and Chris Paul, it seemed this team would start anew with a rebuild. In no way has that been the case.
Los Angeles just recently clinched a surprise playoff spot and has seen some previously unwanted veterans up their games. Following the trade of Tobias Harris, the likes of Landry Shamet and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander have stepped up. Montrezl Harrell is having a banner season. Not a single objective mind saw this coming.
Joel Embiid, center, Philadelphia 76ers
We already knew Embiid was among the best centers in the game prior to this season. That was a given. However, what he’s done this year is historical. It rivals some of the best individual performances from a center in NBA history. We’re talking about the likes of Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Shaquille O’Neal.
In less than 34 minutes per outing, Embiid has averaged 27.5 points, 13.7 rebounds, 3.5 assists and 1.9 blocks per game. He’s posted a .518 true shooting percentage and is actually hitting north of 30 percent from distance. Embiid now has to be considered the single-most dominant big man in the NBA. It’s not even that close.
These young Kings might have fallen short of earning a playoff spot for the first time since 2005-06, but there’s certainly a lot to like about this squad. De’Aaron Fox has turned into a stud point guard. His back-court partner in crime, Buddy Hield, is finally living up to draft expectations having hit on 43 percent of his threes. Meanwhile, Marvin Bagley III has turned in one heck of a rookie season.
These are the three players that Sacramento will build around moving forward. None of them have hit their prime. It’s all about growing and maturing from here. A winning record against teams not in the top four of the Western Conference this season magnifies that to a T.
Even contending for a playoff spot back east this season seemed to be a pipe dream for the long downtrodden Nets. Sure general manager Sean Marks has worked wonders after pretty much taking over an expansion roster. But the Nets seemed to be years away from contention.
Led by All-Star D’Angelo Russell, this team is now on the verge of playing meaningful April basketball. Russell is averaging 21.1 points and 6.9 assists while shooting 36% from distance. All three are career highs. A bit lower on the pecking order, Spencer Dinwiddie and Caris LeVert are having great seasons. We’re highly intrigued to see how the summer plays out in Brooklyn. One star could be prepared to join the team.
Luka Doncic, guard, Dallas Mavericks
Some might conclude that the above-mentioned Trae Young should challenge Doncic for Rookie of the Year. We’re not at that point. Entering the season as a teenager, Doncic has been stellar throughout the entire campaign. Much more consistent than his rookie counterpart.
The Slovenian has put up 20-plus points in 52 of 70 games. He’s also tallied a double-double about a third of the time he’s taken to the court. These are great numbers for any player. Add in Doncic’s age, and it’s apparent he’s one of the future faces of the Association.
We’re not incredibly surprised by the otherworldly performance from Giannis Antetokounmpo. Given his excellence prior to the 2018-19 season, most had to see that coming. Instead, it’s all about how these Bucks gelled into arguably the NBA’s best regular season team.
Milwaukee will head into the playoffs with the Association’s best record. In addition to the Greek Freak, Khris Middleton and Eric Bledsoe have enjoyed career seasons. After leading his previous Hawks team to the East’s best record a few years back, Mike Budenholzer is once again a Coach of the Year candidate. It’s just been a brilliant season for this team.
Nikola Jokic, center, Denver Nuggets
The Joker has taken over as the toolsiest big man in the game. His passing has just been top notch throughout the season, as evidenced by the youngster averaging 7.4 assists per game from the center position. He’s added north of 20 points and about 11 boards per game.
If it weren’t what we saw from James Harden and the above-mentioned Antetokounmpo this season, Jokic would be legit MVP candidate. His performance has Denver thinking title (more on that later).
Pascal Siakam, forward, Toronto Raptors
We knew about Kyle Lowry and Kawhi Leonard in Toronto. Both All-Stars have put in tremendous 2018-19 campaigns for a title-contending Raptors squad. However, this team would be nowhere near the top of the Eastern Conference without the performance we’ve seen from Siakam.
The 25-year-old Cameroon native is averaging 17 points to go with nearly seven rebounds and north of three assists per game. The kid is also shooting a remarkable 55% from the field. We’re looking at a real rising star here.
Nikola Jokic is the primary reason Denver has a real shot at unseating Golden State out west. But the ability of all the moving parts to come together under head coach Mike Malone is the biggest surprise in Mile High. Denver might miss out on the top seed out west. But it has a chance to go deep into the playoffs.
Young guard Jamal Murray has turned into an All-Star caliber performer — averaging north of 18 points per game. Gary Harris and Will Barton continued to act like tremendous two-way players. All this has Denver on the verge of its greatest season ever. It’s all about the playoffs from here on out.