Thursday November 10th, 2016

Alright, we can start talking about breakouts now. It’s still November, but we do know have some games to help us generate early opinions, and there’s plenty to get excited about. Let’s turn our attention to a handful of former first-rounders who are finally starting to deliver on their hype.

These are touted guys who’ve taken a little time to deliver on expectations and lofty selections for various reasons—injuries, adjusting to the speed of the NBA, adjusting emotionally and just simply improving. More often than not it’s a combination of those elements. I mean, the Cubs just won the World Series and A Tribe Called Quest just put out their last album. Lately, better late than never has never looked better.

T.J. Warren, Suns

One clear early candidate for Most Improved Player is T.J. Warren, who has evolved into a consistent offensive role and emerged as a legitimate second scorer next to Devin Booker. The 14th pick in the 2014 draft has posted 20.2 points per game while nearly doubling last season’s shot attempts and getting to the line more. Warren’s never been known as a jump shooter, but has spotted up effectively and added a welcome dimension to a slightly wonky mixed bag of offensive tricks—floaters, dribble fadeaways and shots off the glass. Warren’s also chipped in 1.8 steals and shown added effort on that side of the ball. 

So, the Suns are bad. Well, at least they’re far more interesting to think about long-term. They’re one of the league’s youngest teams, and they just slid rookie Marquese Chriss (who, by the way, looks extremely lost) into the starting lineup. There are certainly long-term possibilities in a Warren/Chriss frontcourt and/or Warren/Dragan Bender combo as the Suns grow over the next few years… just not defensive-minded ones. After last season was cut short by foot surgery, it’s just nice to see Warren back out there getting buckets.

Gene Sweeney Jr/Getty Images

Julius Randle, Lakers

Speaking of foot problems, Julius Randle seems to be doing just fine. He had injury issues in high school and missed a huge chunk of development as a rookie in 2014–15 after breaking his tibia in the first game of the season. It dimmed his star a bit, as did the Lakers’ lost a year wandering through the desert with Kobe Bryant and Byron Scott. But here we are, and Randle looks like the sort of dangerous, multi-dimensional energy big worth a bucketload in the modern NBA.

Randle’s averaging 14.6 points, 8.1 rebounds and 2.7 assists on nearly 57% shooting through nine games, in which the Lakers are a surprisingly steady 5–4. People have rushed to compare him to Draymond Green, and playing under Luke Walton hasn’t helped. But the truth is actually that Randle is a far more polished scorer at this stage. He’s never boasted incredible length or size for the four spot, but the effort component and evolution of the league are going to ease that issue, at least for now. Randle still loves to go left a little too much, but his decision-making has been better, and he’s one of the Lakers benefiting from the simple presence of fun in that locker room. And honestly, we all are.

 

Otto Porter, Wizards

Porter turned heads on Wednesday opening the game on a 5–5 shooting streak, including three threes, for 13 points as the Wizards opened up a 34–8 first quarter lead on the Celtics. It wound up being the best game of his career, with a career-high 34 points, 14 rebounds (seven offensive), four assists, three steals, three blocks and no turnovers. That’s one of the best stat lines we’ve seen this season, period. So, probably time to take notice.

Amid Washington’s major struggles, Porter has emerged as a legitimate contributor on the wing and is playing what’s indisputably his best basketball to date. That step forward for the 23-year-old, who is averaging 16.9 points and 8.3 rebounds, offers some hope for a Wizards turnaround. The No. 3 overall pick out of Georgetown in 2013 will be a restricted free agent next summer and could cash in big after failing to agree to an extension with the Wiz by Monday’s deadline. 

His statistical improvement is currently predicated on a shooting uptick, and while Porter’s field goal percentage is up, his three-point stroke has lagged behind his career averages. If he can keep rebounding at this level, his versatility as a swing forward makes him an extremely valuable asset to the Wizards. Washington has to pick up a porous defense with Ian Mahinmi still sidelined, and there isn’t a lot of depth there regardless. But this type of season from Porter would be an unexpected boon, even if the team careens downhill.

Garrett Ellwood/NBAE/Getty Images

Jusuf Nurkic, Nuggets

Big Nurk is back, and the 22-year-old has been productive for the youthful Nuggets, returning to the starting lineup and erasing the bad taste of an injury-shortened season. He played just 32 games last year and didn’t deliver on the fun potential we saw from him as a rookie. Well, he’s back, he’s set career-highs in points and rebounds already, he’s in shape enough for bigger minutes and apparently has not tried to punk anyone yet. That’s player evolution right there.

Anyhow, 13 points and 9.4 rebounds in 25 minutes are nothing to sneeze at. He’s capable on the block, has earned more playing time, and we can all finally have some Nurkic with our Nikola Jokic. It’s not a perfect fit, but the latter’s savvy as a passer enables them to play together. The Nuggets were a secretly great watch at times last season, and now they’ve got seven guys averaging double figures, they’re bringing Kenneth Faried off the bench, and there’s a clamor for minutes among a lot of nice young pieces. Maybe Nurkic is the 7 foot, Balkan-bred answer to Zach Randolph we never knew we needed.

Rocky Widner/Getty Images

Zach LaVine, Timberwolves

There was probably too much T-Wolves enthusiasm going into the season, but most of that weight fell on the shoulders of Karl Towns and Andrew Wiggins, understandably. But LaVine’s begun to flip his world-class athleticism into on-court consistency, and that’s a potentially high-impact wrinkle for the league’s highest-ceiling young core. He’s making the most of starter’s minutes (34 mpg) while shooting a terrific, if streak-based 48.9% from three. He tied a career-high with 37 points and set one with seven threes. There’s visible progress here, and it’s pretty exciting.

NBA
The Long Game With Thibs And The Wolves

After some dabbling the last couple seasons, the Wolves have finally figured out that LaVine is a two-guard, and that’s great. His step forward as a shooter coupled with length and hops give him some real possibilities as an off-ball scorer, and with Wiggins, Towns and the potential of Kris Dunn, he’ll rarely ever have to be the first scoring option on this roster. It’s never been easier to come around to LaVine (outside of the dunk contest) as it has when you picture him as a super-role-player next to the other guys. This LaVine is way more vital to Minnesota’s bigger picture than we thought.

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