The NBA season has seen surprise teams like the Raptors, Heat, and Mavericks outperform expectations to this point while Trail Blazers and Warriors have withered under them. But fans fill stadiums to see stars in today’s NBA. and teams often need one or two to make any noise when the spotlight focuses in during the playoffs. There are few sweeter developments for organizations than when a promising player delivers above and beyond his draft slot, or a veteran many had tabbed as a role player emerges to become something more than that. Below, I’ll highlight a quintet that has shone so far in 2019-20 and matches those specifications.
Luka Doncic, Mavericks
There’s no other place to start. The Mavs were in a dark, dark place a season ago as they struggled to 33 wins with Kristaps Porzingis in eternal injury limbo and a roster full of question marks. Doncic, acquired in draft-night trade with the Atlanta Hawks, was a lone beacon of hope, as the Slovenian point guard won the Rookie of the Year almost unanimously after being endlessly scrutinized in the buildup to the draft. Where many saw a potential bust, GM Don Nelson pulled what turned out to be a savvy move to inject some life into the franchise.
This season, however, Doncic has been a revelation. Luka is averaging a near triple-double (30 points, 9.8 rebounds, 9.2 assists), doing everything he can on a nightly basis to push Dallas to third place in the Western Conference so far. The Mavericks have only three players averaging in double figures, but it hasn’t mattered because of Doncic’s dominance. If he can continue this play, we could be talking about not just a franchise centerpiece, but an All-NBA superstar for years to come.
Pascal Siakam, Raptors
Predicting the Raptors to experience a regression in 2019-20 without the services of Kawhi Leonard was about as plain a prediction as any coming into the season. Readjusting after losing a top-five player could’ve been the death knell for Toronto, but the play of Pascal Siakam has made sure it has been anything but that. The 2018-19 Most Improved Player has emerged as the go-to guy and perhaps even a Leonard Lite this year, averaging 24.6/8.5/3.7 as the Raps are 16-7, bunched at the top of the Eastern Conference with the Bucks, Celtics, and 76ers.
Few could have predicted this ascent for Spicy P, who was seen more as a lengthy role player in Toronto’s title run last year. Instead, the 2016 27th overall pick has displayed a vastly improved skill set in his fourth season, averaging a whopping 3.5 more three-point attempts per night while connecting from deep at a solid 36.5% clip. What an asset for Nick Nurse and the Raptors.
Andre Drummond, Pistons
Just when you thought the book was out on Drummond, he has stepped up his game to another level in the Motor City. It’s easy to forget the UConn product is still just 26, but he has made serious strides that have finally come together in season number eight. Andre is going for 17.7 points and a league-leading 17.0 rebounds per night for Detroit, while averaging a career-high 3.1 assists and 62.7% from the line so far, a far cry from when he was shooting in the 30-40% range from the stripe early in his career. The Pistons are nothing to write home about, but it hasn’t been because of the play of Drummond, who remains one of the few elite old-school low-post bangers remaining in the NBA.
Domantas Sabonis, Pacers
Sabonis is in the midst of a fourth-year breakout in Indianapolis and is delivering on the potential that made him the 11th overall pick back in 2016. Playing almost ten minutes per night more than his previous career high, Sabonis is sporting a very healthy 18.4, 13.1, and 3.7 stat line for the Pacers and ranks 35th in the league in Player Efficiency Rating. His play has been a welcome sign for Indiana fans, who picked up Sabonis as one of the many pieces in the Paul George trade before 2017-18. The Pacers are rocking an excellent 15-9 record and should provide a stiff challenge to whatever middle seed they might draw in the Eastern Conference playoffs. Meanwhile, Sabonis might only be scratching the surface of his potential, as he’s shown a willingness to step out and shoot three pointers, but is not connecting at a high rate from deep just yet. If he can bring that part of his game to the next level, the Lithuanian big man should be a terror for defenses for quite some time.
Bam Adebayo, Heat
Miami is the surprise team of the season with their 17-6 start and third-place standing in the Eastern Conference, and the improvement showcased by Adebayo to this point is a major reason why. Many questioned the former Kentucky Wildcat’s fit in the modern NBA ahead of the 2017 draft, when he went fourteenth overall despite tweener measurements at 6’9”, 255 without any real perimeter game. However, Adebayo has proven he can handle starter’s minutes and a prominent offensive role in his third season, going for 14.6 points, 10.5 rebounds, and even 4.1 assists, well ahead of his previous career marks. A somewhat similar player to Sabonis, Adebayo hasn’t displayed scoring touch outside of the paint, but has proven a solid two-way player that can marshal tough defensive assignments while ranking 40th in the league in PER. The Heat desperately needed an interior presence to complement the likes of Jimmy Butler and Goran Dragic, and it appears they’ve found one in Adebayo.