15 most impressive players in the NBA thus far

By Vincent Frank
John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

The trends taking place around the Association.

John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

The 2018-19 NBA season might be only three weeks old. That doesn’t mean we don’t have a great idea about trends taking place around the Association.

The Golden State Warriors remain the envy of the league, with Stephen Curry playing at an all-time great level. Back east, Kawhi Leonard has his Toronto Raptors as one of the top contenders in the conference. Meanwhile in Los Angeles, there’s a free agent signing showing out for the Lakers. Though, it’s not who you think.

These are among the 15 most impressive players in the NBA thus far this season.

 

Draymond Green, Golden State Warriors

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We didn’t think it was possible for Green to up his game any more than we’ve seen in the past. But that’s exactly what he’s done thus far on the young season. Green is already flirting with averaging a triple-double, putting up 8.4 points, 7.5 rebounds and 8.5 assists to go with 2.0 steals per game. He’s also shooting at a ridiculous 60 percent from two-point range through 10 games.

Defensively, Green ranks 11th in plus-minus and 12th in win shares. He’s been the glue to hold this whole thing together for a two-time defending champion Warriors team that’s 9-1 on the season and could be historically good when all is said and done.

 

Blake Griffin, Detroit Pistons

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Give a healthy Griffin the keys to the kingdom and watch him take off. While the All-Star couldn’t have been happy about exchanging the allure of Hollywood for Motor City halfway through last season, he’s now playing the best basketball of his career. Griffin enters this week’s action averaging 28.6 points, 10.9 rebounds and 4.5 assists. He’s also shooting at a ridiculous 46 percent clip from distance.

It appears that Dwane Casey has been the best addition to Griffin’s career. It has him playing stellar basketball on both ends of the court. Sure he’s not the marketable star was saw in Southern California. But Griffin is quietly putting together an MVP-caliber season.

 

De’Aaron Fox, Sacramento Kings

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As one of the most surprising teams thus far this season, the Kings have seen some major progression from this second-year guard. Fox already looks to be one of the best natural point guards in the Association. The 20-year-old is averaging 18.6 points and 7.6 assists per game. He also boasts a two-to-one assist-to-turnover ratio. That’s tremendous for such a young guard running an offense in the high-octane Western Conference.

What makes Fox’s early-season performance so stellar is that he’s also shooting 50 percent from the field. That’s better than the 48 percent mark he put up during his only season at Kentucky. Whenever you can improve on your college stats less than two seasons into the NBA, you’re certainly doing something right.

 

Kemba Walker, Charlotte Hornets

Will the Hornets trade Kemba Walker?

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A subject of trade speculation last season and this past summer, Walker has decided to take his frustration out on the court thus far during the 2018-19 campaign. He’s averaging a career-best 28.0 points while shooting at a 40 percent mark from three-point range. It has Charlotte in playoff contention back east after a dreadful 2017-18 season.

More than that, Walker is teaming up well with young guard Malik Monk. The two had issues on the court with one another during Monk’s rookie season. Moving forward, this could be a dynamic backcourt combo for new head coach James Borrego.

 

DeMar DeRozan, San Antonio Spurs

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DeRozan has fit into Gregg Popovich’s scheme like a glove in his first season with the Spurs. In taking over for Kawhi Leonard as the team’s go-to-guy, he’s averaging 27.3 points, 5.6 rebounds and what would be a career-high 6.7 assists per outing.

It’s simply stunning how much DeRozan’s overall game has improved over the years. Pop is now getting the most out of it for what should be considered a surprising Spurs squad. And in an interesting turn, DeRozan has upped his defensive game to potential All-NBA levels.

 

Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers

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As the likes of Markelle Fultz and Ben Simmons continue to struggle during their sophomore campaigns, Embiid is doing everything possible to keep Philadelphia afloat early in the season. He’s been dynamite on the offensive end of the court, averaging 28.4 points and shooting 49 percent from the field. The young center is also hauling in nearly 13 rebounds per outing.

The better news? Embiid has upped his minutes per game to 34.2. This is a clear indication that early-career injuries are a thing of the past. We’re now going to want to see the big man improve defensively. He has the frame and willingness to do just that. But offensively, he’s now the most dynamic center in the Association.

 

Nikola Mirotic, New Orleans Pelicans

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It’s pretty astonishing to realize that Chicago gave Mirotic away for pretty much a cash dump last season. Having failed to take his game to the next level with the Bulls, a change of scenery was certainly needed here. And with Anthony Davis’ injury-plagued early season, Mirotic’s performance has loomed large for a talented Pelicans squad.

Through the first nine games of the season, he’s averaging 22.4 points per game and shooting 37 percent from distance. Mirotic has also upped his game in the paint, shooting at a 61 percent mark from two-point range. Once Davis returns to full health, this will be one of the best front-court tandems in the entire Association.

 

Kawhi Leonard, Toronto Raptors

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It’s almost like Leonard is still an MVP-caliber player after missing almost all of last season with the Spurs to injury. Not only has he helped Toronto to a 9-1 start to the season, the team ranks in the top seven in both points scored and points allowed. That’s something we didn’t see from the DeRozan-led Raptors prior to the blockbuster trade last summer.

Statistically, Leonard is averaging what would be career-highs in points (26.1) and rebounds (7.6). He’s also shooting 50 percent from the field and 45 percent from distance. If that weren’t enough, Leonard ranks among the top-five small forwards in defensive rating. Whew.

 

Damian Lillard, Portland Blazers

Apr 22, 2017; Portland, OR, USA; Portland Trail Blazers guard Damian Lillard (0) looks down in the second half of game three of the first round of the 2017 NBA Playoffs against the Golden State Warriors at Moda Center. Mandatory Credit: Jaime Valdez-USA TODAY Sports

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We have to give the Blazers’ team as a whole a ton of credit for its improvement on defense. In an NBA that has seen scoring take off this season, Portland ranks sixth in that category at under 107 points per game. Lillard’s improvement on that end of the court has certainly played a role.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves here. His bread and butter remains offense and shooting. That’s where the underrated guard continues to excel. He ranks second behind Stephen Curry in player efficiency and is tied with the two-time NBA MVP in offensive win shares. Oh, and Lillard is averaging a cool 28.1 points per game.

 

Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks

Giannis Antetokounmpo

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There’s little doubt in our mind that Antetokounmpo is one of the clear front runners for the NBA MVP award through the first nine games of the season. He has Milwaukee at 8-1 on the season. The team ranks second in the Association in scoring and has allowed the fifth-fewest points.

For his part, the Greek Freak ranks first in the NBA in defensive rating and defensive win shares. He’s also averaging 26.1 points, 13.9 rebounds and 5.9 assists while shooting 54 percent from the field. Antetokounmpo’s overall game is something we have not seen since LeBron James was in his prime. It really is something to behold.

 

JaVale McGee, Los Angeles Lakers

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No one is Shaqtin’ this fool these days. Fresh off a solid run with the defending champion Warriors, McGee has taken his game to a new level with LeBron James in Los Angeles. It’s quite astonishing to see just how well this dude has played after being a laughingstock earlier in his career.

The most interesting aspect of McGee’s early-season performance is that Los Angeles ranks second in defensive efficiency when he’s on the court and dead last when he’s riding the pine. He also ranks seventh in the NBA in defensive plus-minus and is averaging 14.4 points, 7.5 rebounds and 3.4 blocks per game. That’s just crazy.

 

Luka Doncic, Dallas Mavericks

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It’s going to be something to behold when the Mavericks actually take that next step from wide-eyed youngsters to contenders out west. Why? Because, Doncic already seems to be one of the best young players in the game. After having won the EuroLeague MVP as a teenager, he’s taken to the best basketball league the world has to offer and has not looked back.

The Slovenian has started his NBA career by averaging nearly 20 points per game on 47 percent shooting from the field, including a 39 percent mark from distance. He’s also averaging a hefty 6.6 rebounds and 4.6 assists per game. Yeah, this rookie is the real deal in more ways than one.

 

Josh Richardson, Miami Heat

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Bandied about as the centerpiece of a potential Jimmy Butler trade to South Beach, Richardson is certainly making it difficult for the Heat to even consider moving him. Having improved each and every season he’s been in the NBA, the fourth-year pro is averaging 20.8 points per game and shooting 40 percent from three-point range.

Sure Richardson won’t ever be the best player on a contending team. That’s fine. But he’s more than proven himself to be a top-end two-way player. What we’ve seen thus far this season magnifies that even further. It’s been a pleasure to see him grow into this role over the past couple years.

 

Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets

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Could a big man actually average a triple-double? That’s the question we’re going to see surround this 23-year-old prodigy moving forward, because, Jokic’s all-around game has been taken to a whole new level. He’s averaging 18.0 points, 10.0 rebounds and 7.7 assists per game. Yes, the NBA boasts a center that ranks seventh among all players in assists.

It’s been Jokic’s ability to dish and spread the court on offense that has Denver at 8-1 on the season and the only team to defeat Golden State. Oh, and his presence on the other end of the court has the Nuggets ranked third in points allowed.

 

Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors

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Curry could very well be in the midst of the best individual season in NBA history. That’s not hyperbole. What he’s done thus far is just otherworldly. The three-time champ enters this week’s action leading the NBA in scoring at 32.5 points per game. He’s shooting 50-plus from both the field and three-point range.

Curry also boasts an absurd .682 effective field goal percentage and is on pace to nail 482 three-pointers. That would shatter his previous NBA record by 80. More to the point, he ranks No. 1 in the Association in efficiency, offensive win shares, offensive plus-minus and value over replacement. Yeah, this dude is just ridiculous right now.