On Saturday morning, Magic guard Markelle Fultz received a phone call from head coach Steve Clifford.
The message Clifford told his 21-year-old, former No. 1 pick was promising: Fultz was getting his first start in a Magic uniform in the team’s game later that night.
Fultz finished the contest with nine points, two assists and three steals in 25 minutes of action as the Magic fell to the Denver Nuggets by four. But the fact that the Washington Huskies product was starting his first game since Nov. 12, 2018 was significant.
Heading into Orlando’s game with the Mavericks on Wednesday night, Fultz was only averaging 10.1 points per game and his per game assists totals were in line with his production throughout his 33-game stint with the Sixers. Still, Clifford has made it clear he’s relying on Fultz to help jumpstart the worst offense in the league.
After all that has transpired throughout his first two years, Fultz recognizes what the opportunity could mean.
“I got to start small, but my goal is high,” he told reporters after Saturday night’s loss. “I got to start with the basics. You can’t just go to the top of the wall. You have to lay bricks down and build your way up.”
He still has a long way to go to live up to pre-draft expectations, but a possible Markelle Fultz rejuvenation is one of the early surprises from two weeks of regular season basketball. Here are a few more things that might catch your eye.
1. Aron Baynes and Phoenix’s Red Hot Start
It’s safe to say that when Aron Baynes was traded on draft night to help the Celtics free up cap space, few could have predicted that two weeks into the regular season he would be averaging more than twice as many points as he’d ever averaged throughout his NBA career. But with Deandre Ayton suspended for 25 games following a positive test for a diuretic, Baynes has become a key cog in one of the NBA’s best lineups.
The Suns’s five-man group featuring fellow newcomers Ricky Rubio and Dario Saric plus Kelly Oubre Jr., Devin Booker and the aforementioned Baynes has been among the most prolific offensive lineups in the league. The Australian forward shooting 48% from three throughout the entire year is almost certainly unsustainable and Devin Booker likely won’t shoot 50% from deep for 82 games either. But, one of the best things you can say about the five-win Suns is that despite losing Ayton, they have been incredibly competent.
Phoenix has a number of proven NBA veterans, and on both sides of the court the results are starting to show.
2. Golden State’s Lack of Talent
Many expected Golden State to experience a drop-off after losing Kevin Durant in free agency and Klay Thompson due to injury. And it would have been impossible to predict that Stephen Curry would break his left hand and be out the next three months. But it’s still a bit jarring that a team that just three years ago won its first 24 games of the season started Ky Bowman, Glen Robinson III, Eric Paschall, Jordan Poole and Willie Cauley-Stein in only its sixth game of the year.
All 15 of the Warriors who played in the postseason were unavailable during Golden State’s Saturday night loss to the Hornets for one reason or another.
Things have gotten so bad for the Dubs that this week, head coach Steve Kerr jokingly asked reporters if they could suit up and play backup point guard. Kerr posed the same question to Hall of Famer Chris Mullin. The only difference is maybe Mullin could still help Golden State.
3. Isaiah Thomas’s Slow Returning to Form
It’s more than likely that Isaiah Thomas won’t ever produce like the player who captivated the basketball world during the 2016-17 season, his last in Boston. But after two years of being an NBA nomad, appearing in just 34 games, Thomas has shown flashes of his old self.
It’s admittedly a small-sample size, but heading into the Wizards’s Wednesday night game vs. the Pacers, Thomas was averaging 14.5 points on 43% shooting from the field, both comparable numbers to his final season with the C’s.
His game, however, looks a bit different as Thomas is attacking the rim far less often. He averaged just over one free throw attempt per game through his first four games of 2019-20, a far cry from the 8.5 he averaged during his last year with the Celtics. Plus, while in 2016-17 almost 40% of Thomas’s shots came from within 10 feet, just over 20% of his shots this season have come from that distance.
Nevertheless, on a Wizards team that won’t be worth watching a lot this season, Thomas has been a bright spot.
4. Dwight Howard’s Reinvention
With a new number and a transformed body, Dwight Howard has made Lakers fans forget—or at least overlook—his first go-around in Los Angeles. As SI’s Rohan Nardkarni wrote in his story on Howard’s second act in the Purple and Gold: “When Howard left the floor during L.A.’s 120–101 win over the Hornets on Sunday, he left to a thunderous applause. The scene was a far cry from how Howard left the court in the last game of his first stint with the Lakers: Walking off after an ejection during the fourth game of a first-round sweep. Dwight left Los Angeles in 2013 and returned to constant booing and heckling in the years following—sometimes from Kobe Bryant himself!—until his stature in the game diminished so greatly that only the angriest of fans bothered to still go through the motions. During the Lakers’ two home games over the final weekend of October, though, Howard has slowly but surely started to change the narrative.”
The future Hall of Famer appears eager to contribute anyway he can. Playing on with a roster short on depth, Howard’s impact, no matter how brief, could be significant.
5. Sacramento’s Stumble
Few teams have gotten off to more a disappointing start than the 2-6 Sacramento Kings. Last year’s Kings, coached by Dave Joerger, finished 39-43 and missed the Western Conference playoffs by nine games. Still that was the most wins from a Kings team since 2005-06 when Rick Adelman was the coach, Mike Bibby was the team’s high scorer and Brad Miller was the team’s leading rebounder.
Recent wins over Utah and the floundering Knicks helped alleviate the pain from Sacramento’s putrid start, but the Kings’s 29, 10 and 32-point losses to open the season shouldn’t be overlooked. Heading into their Wednesday night matchup with the Raptors, Sac-Town’s offense was the fourth worst in the entire league, just better than the aforementioned Knickerbockers. Thus far, Luke Walton’s offense hasn’t helped Buddy Hield progress the way many expected as the recently extended guard has struggled to start the year. “He has to figure out (how) to go on (to) the next level,” GM Vlade Divac told The Athletic’s David Aldridge this week.
We’re not even 10 games in, but the Kings will need Hield and the rest of the team to figure it out fast if they hope to be in the mix for a postseason berth.
A Few Other Surprises:
Heading into Wednesday night, the Miami Heat (6) were the second-best three-point shooting team in the league and had the second-best best three-point defense in the league. Of course, on the topic of the Heat, we’d be remise if we didn’t mention the torrid start to the year by rookie Kendrick Nunn (7), who is averaging a shade under 20 points per game.
Fresh off a 39-point game in Boston’s win over the Cavaliers, Gordon Hayward (8) upped his scoring average to 20.3 points per game—just below his average from his final season in Utah. Maybe more importantly, however, is that Hayward is back to playing just over 34 minutes per game, up nearly ten minutes from his average last season. He’s slowly rounding into form and looks like he could re-gain the elite level Boston signed him to play at.
On the topic of minutes, through the first seven games of his NBA career, R.J. Barrett (9) averaged 37 minutes per game, the most from a rookie since Andrew Wiggins’s first season in 2014-15. Barrett’s played well to be sure and head coach David Fizdale has brushed aside questions about load management, but still.
And finally, is Luka Doncic (10) already one of the NBA’s ten best players? In virtually every significant category Doncic’s numbers have improved from last season. The reigning NBA Rookie of the Year is quarterbacking the league’s best offense and with Kristaps Porzingis by his side, the Mavs’s star guard might be taking home an MVP award sooner than later.