Five NBA players who have surprised us this season, but not in a good way

Whether it is a young player who we thought would take another leap in their games, or an established player switching teams for the first time, not everyone will play up to their standards to start the season. We have seen it this year with a handful of players starting the season at a pace that they would like to improve on. Some players have been fortunate enough to have their play not cost their teams wins to start the season, but if they cannot turn it around it could prove to be detrimental as the season progresses. Let’s take a look at five players around the league in different situations, who have been surprisingly not too great to start the season.

Kristaps Porzingis

There is no doubt in my mind that Porzingis is going to turn it around and be the star that signed a max extension before he even played a game in Dallas. He’s coming off an ACL injury and is over 7 feet tall, which historically speaking poses some concerns. It could be something like the Gordon Hayward situation where Porzingis needs a full season under his belt before he plays up to his potential.

That being said, Porzingis has been inconsistent for the Mavs early on in his tenure. After starting the season with performances of 23 points, 24 points, and 32 points, Porzingis would start to decline almost at the same time that Luka Doncic took off. Luka has been at his best when he has the ball in his hands, driving to the basket, and because of this, we have been seeing Porzingis play the majority of his game on the perimeter in order to keep the paint open.

Porzingis has established himself as a competent shooter in the league, even at 7, 3’, shooting a career percentage of 36% on 4.4 attempts a game from three. So it would make sense for him to be able to be successful, but why has that not been the case so far this season? Porzingis is currently averaging 16.4 points a night on 34% shooting from three on about 6 attempts a night. These numbers don’t jump off the page suggesting that Porzingis is shooting bad, so what is the exact issue.

The main difference from Porzingis’s final season in New York to his first season in Dallas is that this year Porzingis isn’t nearly as effective in the other aspects of his offensive game, and at times is being limited to a role as a spot-up shooter. Porzingis’s post presence has not been felt in the slightest, as this year he is only posting up 14.8% of the time and converting on just 27.1% of his post ups. In his final season in New York, Porzingis had a much stronger post presence, posting up on 24.8% of his team’s offensive possessions, and converting at a much higher rate of 43.4%. The theory of the Mavs limiting Porzingis can also be shown where his points are coming from. 40.1% of his points are coming from three-pointers, compared to 25.6% from when he was in New York. 74.4% of Porzingis’s attempted shots in New York came from two-point range, oppose to this season where only 59% of his shots are coming from two, a drastic decline. His free throws attempted per game are also down to 3.8 from 5.7, which suggests that KP could be a lot more aggressive in the paint.

Until Porzingis can solidify his inside-outside offensive game, it’ll be hard for him to reach his full offensive potential. Luckily for the Mavs, they’re still 16-7 and third in the West, as they continue to perform way ahead of schedule. They could be doing much better, as in the games the Mavericks have lost, Porzingis could have played much better.

In the Mavs seven losses, Porzingis has had a positive plus-minus in only two of those games, and in those two losses where he did post a positive plus-minus, Porzingis shot poorly, going 2/9 from three and 13/29 from the field. When Porzingis isn’t shooting well, he can tend to go MIA within the Mavs offense. If the Mavs want to see an impact from Porzingis on a consistent basis, they are going to have to get him more possessions in the post. They may have to sacrifice some of Luka’s touches for this to happen, which can be tough to accept going forward as Luka is putting up MVP type numbers. If the Mavs want to keep using KP as a spot-up shooter within the offense, they may continue to hover around the 4-5 seed range this season, but they won’t unlock their team’s full potential until Porzingis is worked into the offense more effectively.

Lauri Markkanen

Markkanen was a player that most people expected to take another step in his game this season for a Bulls team that looked as if they may be exciting to watch. The Bulls look they are destined for another lottery pick, as they have some issue going on within their organization, and Lauri Markkanen’s play has not been helping the Bulls get where they want.

Markkanen is averaging career lows across the board. His points per game are down from 18.7 to 14.2, his rebounds are down from 9.0 to 6.8, and he’s shooting significantly worse from the field. Last season Lauri shot splits of 43%/36%/87% and has dropped this season to 37%/32%/81%. Markkanen’s situation is similar to Porzingis in Dallas. Markkanen isn’t on a new team, but the Bulls are running a new offense with Jim Boylen, where three-pointers and layups are emphasized.

Zach LaVine noted that the offense could be a part of the reason for Lauri’s early struggles in an interview with NBC Sports Chicago.

“It’s just different. We’re not getting as many post-ups. Like we’ve been showing, we’re trying to shoot 3s and get to the basket more,” LaVine said. “For somebody who I think is 7 foot, we just gotta get him some easy ones. Maybe him sometimes standing on the wing waiting for it isn’t the best for him.”

This situation sounds glaring to that of Porzingis. Teams are so distracted by analytics and which shots are the highest percentages, that sometimes they end up utilizing their big men in inefficient ways. Just because they are good shooters, doesn’t mean that they should only be shooting threes. This season Markkanen is averaging more three-point shots a game than two-pointers (5.7 to 6.1), and although Markkanen hasn’t made a living down low in his young career, he is only posting up 5.1% of his team’s possessions this year, averaging just half a point a night from post-ups.

Now I’m not suggesting that Markkanen and Porzingis need the same exact changes within their offenses to play better. Dallas has a better system, coach, and players, which allows for Porzingis to still see some success. For Chicago, they look like their direction is starting to get lost. Porzingis has shown the league what he is able to do, while Markkanen has just given us flashes. This was the season for Lauri to make the same leap Porzingis did from year two to year three, but we have not seen that yet. Maybe the offense is to blame, as we see two players with similar play styles struggling with increased threes and decreased post-ups. Chicago needs to stop making Lauri Markkanen one dimensional on offense because he isn’t a specialist. He has a versatile offensive game, and if you limit that you are going to get limited results.

Russell Westbrook

There was plenty of speculation towards the Westbrook/Harden backcourt that Daryl Morey put together this past offseason. Two ball-dominant scorers playing alongside one another could prove to be problematic, but Morey had a vision and put it into action this season.

Everyone was trying to be optimistic that Russell Westbrook could develop a more efficient catch and shoot game, so Harden and he would be able to play off one another, handling the ball interchangeably on offense. The experiment is off to a rough start, as Russ is shooting just 42% from the field and 23% from three-point range. Westbrook hasn’t been able to be efficient in catch and shoot situations either, as he is only shooting 25.4% from the field and 22.8% from three in these situations, numbers that suggest that he isn’t the greatest fit next to Harden.

When Westbrook was playing next to Paul George, they were both able to succeed because George didn’t need to have the ball in his hands to get his points. Westbrook actually improved last year in the sense that he was able to recognize when PG was hot, and then defer the possessions to him taking a step back in a playmaking role. I thought this could be similar to what we saw in Houston, but we have learned quickly that even if James Harden may be able to still score off the ball, he doesn’t want to. He wants to have the ball in his hands at all times, and even though he’s dropping over 40 points a night, this may not be the best course of action for the team as a whole.

There is no telling if the Rockets are going to change how they operate and press their internal panic button, and if they don’t, I still feel there is an area of Westbrook’s game that if he focused on more going forward, he’d be a much more effective player for the Rockets. Westbrook ranks just 33rd for active guards defensive rating at 106.4. Westbrook may not be the athlete he was in OKC, and now as he gets older he is going to have to rely on his instincts more than his athleticism on the defensive end. Instead of jumping the lane for a steal on 50/50 plays, sitting back, and closing out on defenders with a more fundamental approach could pay dividends to the team as a whole. For this to work out Westbrook will undoubtedly have to raise his shooting numbers, but focusing just a little bit more of his efforts defensively while Harden continues to dominate on offense could work out for the Rockets while Russ figures out his shot.

Mike Conley

The addition of Mike Conley this past offseason for Utah was a move than many thought would put the Jazz in a position to compete for a title. Conley has not been able to adjust to his new role on his new team, setting Utah’s championship hopes closer to dreams. Conley has had his moments, shining sometimes in his team’s wins, but also folding and sometimes disappearing in his team’s losses. Conley is averaging just 13.9 PPG this season, but in losses that average drops to 12 points night, while in wins it is almost at 16 a game.

Conley hasn’t necessarily been the issue for the team however, as the Jazz have gone 2-2 while the veteran has been nursing a hamstring injury. The put a finger on just exactly what might be the issue with Conley is hard, as nothing jumps off the page or tape that suggests why he might be playing so poorly. His usage rate is down about 4 points from the past couple of seasons, but that would be expected to play next to Donovan Mitchell. And even though Conley has spent the majority of his career with the ball in his hands on offense, he has the skill set to be just fine playing off the ball when Mitchell runs the offense.

For Conley, it could be as simple as poor shooting and adjusting to a new role for the first time in his career. He went from being the guy in Memphis for 11 seasons to now stepping into a lesser role in Utah where the team wants to win now. Conley isn’t a stranger to winning either, so the environment change shouldn’t be much of a shock to him. Thought the Grizzlies have been bad as of late, Conley was a part of the grit and grind era in Memphis when there were consistently making the playoffs.

For Conley, I believe that if he is able to increase his current shooting numbers of 36.9% from the field and 37% from three, he is going to be just fine. That isn’t saying that the Jazz are going to be title contenders like some thought, but I think for Conley’s impact to finally be felt all he is going to have to do is become more efficient. This is the first time in his 12-year career that he has switched teams and systems, and having a little bit of a learning curve is okay. Conley is a professional and will fit in eventually, but hopefully, for the Jazz it’ll be sooner than later.

Kyle Kuzma

Kyle Kuzma has been trying to adjust to his new role coming off the bench for the Laker’s, and for the third-year player, it’s proving to be a little difficult. The Lakers made it clear in the offseason that they didn’t want Kuzma to be included in any Anthony Davis deal, as they envisioned him to be the knockdown shooter off the ball they’d need next to LeBron and AD. This spot-up shooter role so far this season has not been complementing Kuzma’s offensive skill set.

Last season Kuzma opened up his outside game by posting up on the block, getting in a rhythm from attacking the hoop and taking his defenders one on one. With Anthony Davis in the purple and gold this season, Kuzma hasn’t had nearly as many one on one looks in the paint, as most of the time that space is being occupied by AD. This can be shown in Kuzma’s drop in two-point field goals attempted per game (9.5 a game last season to 4.9 this season) and his free throws per game (3.6 last to 2.0 this year). Cutting your two-point looks in about half from one season to the next not only gives someone fewer opportunities in general but also can cause a younger player like Kuzma to lose some confidence.

This season, about half of Kuzma’s points are coming via the three-ball. Last season, only about 38% of his points came from long range. This not only shows how Kuzma’s role has been diminished, something that was expected, but also shows that sometimes Kuzma is forcing shots in an attempt to adapt to this new role. Kuzma is not hesitating to fire up the first shot he gets when sometimes the better option would be for him to attack the rim and score or dish to the open teammate. Last season Kuzma was able to get his teammates some easy buckets by driving the rim and dumping the ball off low, but this season his assists are down from 2.5 to 0.9, which is a further indication that Kuzma has been less aggressive.

Like Conley, Kuzma is just going to have to continue to adjust to his new role within the offense. For him, he hasn’t switched teams, but the Lakers added another superstar next to LeBron and hired Frank Vogel, so Kuzma is experiencing a coaching turnover for the first time in his career. Kuzma needs to become comfortable and confident again and needs to stay aggressive offensively in the half-court to open his shots for him as the game progresses. Kuzma will continue to flourish in transition, but if he wants to be the third option on a championship team, he’s going to have to show everyone that he is capable of doing what he did last year, this season next to AD.

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