The 2020-21 NBA season is in full swing. Who has been the most surprising player on each team in the NBA Eastern Conference so far this season?
Most Surprising NBA Eastern Conference Players
De’Andre Hunter turned in a solid rookie campaign and started 62-of-63 games the Hawks played. However, he has clearly made a jump in his second year and has increased his points per game (PPG) from 12.3 to 16.3 in slightly fewer minutes per game. Hunter is also clearly seeing the floor better than his rookie campaign, because his assist numbers are up while his turnovers per game are down. He is shooting an impressive 51.8% from three-point range. If Hunter can keep his production up, the Hawks have a strong chance to make the playoffs for the first time since 2016-17.
The Boston Celtics selected Oregon’s Payton Pritchard with the 26th overall pick in the 2020 NBA Draft. Pritchard, so far, has proven to be an excellent pick by Celtics GM Danny Ainge. He is a player who has clearly benefited from playing all four years of college basketball and, despite being a rookie, is actually older than Jayson Tatum. Pritchard’s defensive instincts (1.3 steals per game) coupled with his efficient shooting (51%FG, 42.3%3-pt.) make him a solid player off of Boston’s bench. He has also come up big in the clutch already this season:
Kyrie Irving seems to surprise NBA fans with no matter what he is doing. One night, he turns in an All-Star-caliber performance, filled with ankle-breaking crossovers and fantastic finishes at the rim. The next, he is nowhere to be found, but allegedly shows up in a video breaking COVID-19 protocols and is facing possible discipline from the league. The Nets continue to be a strong team in the NBA Eastern Conference now that Irving and Kevin Durant are back and healthy.
The Charlotte Hornets in general are a pleasant surprise and are looking like a team with the potential to compete for a low playoff seed. LaMelo Ball has been a major catalyst in the strong start the Hornets have had in 2020-21. On January 9, Ball became the youngest player to ever record a triple-double, with 22 points, 11 assists and 12 rebounds. Ball needs to improve on his 35.3% three-point shooting, but his explosive playmaking ability more than makes up for his lack of shooting.
Zach LaVine continues to impress and is up for career numbers once again. LaVine’s PPG, assists per game (APG) and rebounds per game (RPG) are all up. The icing on the cake of an already impressive bump from 25.5 PPG in 2019-20 to 27.7 this season is that LaVine is taking slightly fewer shots per game and his overall field goal percentage has climbed from 45% to 49.1%. The Bulls are one of the bottom teams in the entire NBA, but LaVine makes them worth watching any given night.
Collin Sexton has made basketball look easy in the 2020-21 season. Sexton is putting put an insane 25.1ppg on an even more insane 53.1% from the field and 51.3% from three point range. Unfortunately for Sexton, he is dealing with an ankle injury and will miss Tuesdays matchup with the Utah Jazz. If Sexton can come back and continue his impressive start to the season he will be up for an All-Star Game appearance.
The Detroit Pistons’ big splash in free agency was signing former Denver Nugget Jerami Grant to a three-year, $60 million contract. Grant has rewarded the Pistons by averaging what would be a career high 25.1 PPG (last season he averaged 12.1). Grant is seeing 10 minutes more per game and is not only making the most of them by scoring, but he is also averaging more assists, rebounds, steals and blocks per game while maintaining roughly the same shooting percentages from the field and three-point range as last season. If he can continue his early season momentum, Grant could be looking at a Most Improved Player Award.
Many expected the Pacers to continue to remain competitive in the East. Few expected Malcolm Brogdon to lead the charge for the Pacers. Brogdon was known in Milwaukee for his consistent and intelligent style of play, but he never put up big numbers. This season, Brogdon is enjoying the best of both worlds, as he is averaging more than 20 points for the first time in his career (23.5) while shooting 47.7% from the field and 46.4% from three. The Pacers will need more than just Brogdon to advance past the first round of the playoffs, but for now they remain afloat thanks to his efforts.
Jimmy Butler is the first player on this list to be named for his struggle rather than his triumphs. At the end of the playoffs, Butler looked like the bonafide leader of the team statistically, and he provided the team its mental edge. However, while Butler is still a leader of the Heat, it would appear that his statistical impact for the team has taken a back seat to emerging star Bam Adebayo. Butler is down in minutes, points, assists, rebounds and FG%. Butler is missing time due to the NBA’s health and safety protocols. Hopefully, some time off will allow Butler to re-orient himself.
Milwaukee Bucks fans rejoiced when the Bucks traded for defensive specialist Jrue Holiday. He has allowed for the Bucks defense to become even more suffocating for opponents because, unlike former Bucks point guard Eric Bledsoe, Holiday has the size and skill to switch on screens more effectively. Without having to be a two-way player as he did with the New Orleans Pelicans, Holiday has taken a step back in offensive productivity, but is more than making up for it by focusing on the defensive side of the ball and is averaging what would be a career-high in steals (2.1). If the Bucks want to finally reach/win the NBA Finals, they will need Holiday to continue to thrive in his new home.
New York Knicks
Julius Randle has emerged into a star for the New York Knicks. Averaging 22.1 PPG, 11.2 RPG and 6.9 APG, Randle is putting the league on notice that he is ready for his first-ever All-Star appearance. Don’t look now, but the Knicks are certainly setting themselves up to be in the race for the 8-seed in the East, if Randle continues to play the way he has so far.
Without Markelle Fultz for the rest of the season, the Orlando Magic will have to work overtime if they want to make the playoffs in an ever more competitive Eastern Conference. With an increased role, one would think Michael Carter-Williams would be a veteran player who could step up to be serviceable. However, MCW has found a new basement in his career. Shooting a disgusting 8.3% from three-point range and averaging less points in more minutes per game than he saw last year, MCW is raising eyebrows in all of the wrong ways.
With a new head coach and Ben Simmons healthy, the 76ers looked to add depth and players to complement Simmons and Joel Embiid. Danny Green was brought it to be a three-point specialist, and to say the beginning of the season has been a roller coaster for Green would be an understatement. Against the Atlanta Hawks, Green went 0-9 from the field and 0-7 from three-point range. However, Green heard the slander and against the Heat he dropped a career-high nine 3-pointers.
Many expected Pascal Siakam to take the next step and continue his trend toward becoming a solidified star in the league and take the reigns as the leader of the Toronto Raptors. Instead, Siakam is averaging less points per game than last season, due to a large decline in three-point shooting percentage. With fewer weapons on the Raptors than last year, opposing defenses have keyed in on Siakam and he is having difficulty adjusting.
Russell Westbrook may be 32 years old, but that is not stopping him from being 0.3 RPG from averaging a triple-double so far this season. If he is able to increase his rebounding even slightly, he would be in line to average a triple-double for an unbelievable fourth season. Is Westbrook stat-padding? Probably. Is he still making history on his third team in as many years? Yes.