The first month of the 2019-20 NBA season has been full of surprises, from a rash of injuries that transformed the three-time champion Golden State Warriors into bottom dwellers to the suspension of Dion Waiters for allegedly taking a THC-infused gummy that caused his panic attack on the team plane.
The playoff picture looks nothing like we imagined, and the surprising performances of several handfuls of players has infused more competition into a wide-open championship field. The following teams are filled with this season’s biggest surprises so far, sorted into three categories — guys who have come out of nowhere, guys who have soared to unlikely heights and guys who were written off for good long ago.
All-NBA “Wait, These Guys Are Good?” Team
C: Aron Baynes, Phoenix Suns
If you paid close attention to the Boston Celtics the past two years, you knew Baynes as an unheralded defensive anchor who was better than the human poster he was made out to be. Nobody saw elite offensive skills. Yet, over the NBA’s first month, Baynes has been one of the league’s deadliest scorers both from distance and around the rim. The 32-year-old ranks among the five most efficient scorers in the pick and roll (1.56 points per possession) and the post (1.46 points per possession), all while converting an astounding 70.6 percent of his catch-and-shoot opportunities and 48.8 percent of his four above-the-break three-point attempts per game.
F: Eric Paschall, Golden State Warriors
Warriors fans at least have something to be thankful for amid the remarkable collapse of a dynasty. Paschall’s rise in the absences of their injured All-Stars gives Golden State one more building block for the inevitable 2020 comeback bid. In the handful of games Draymond Green missed, Paschall averaged 22.5 points (on 48/38/89 shooting splits) as the starting power forward. Even if the second-round pick falls back to earth, the Warriors found another versatile two-way weapon to plug with a likely lottery pick around Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson.
F: Andrew Wiggins, Minnesota Timberwolves
The rest of the basketball world may have ignored Wolves coach Ryan Saunders’ promise of a breakout season from Wiggins, but the former No. 1 pick did not. He is finally turning mid-range jumpers into three-point attempts, unlocking driving lanes, and he is finding teammates where once he forced shots. Saunders is rewarding him with more touches in advantageous sets, and Wiggins has met his increased usage as a pick-and-roll playmaker with increased efficiency. His 48/36/74 shooting splits would all be career highs, as are his counting stats across the board, and any more improvement would translate into realized potential for a once heralded prospect.
G: Kendrick Nunn, Miami Heat
Nunn was sitting there, toiling away in the G League, available to any team in need of scoring depth in the backcourt, and maybe for good reason. He was dismissed from his college team after pleading guilty to domestic battery as a 20-year-old. The Heat took a chance on him three years later, signing him to a three-year non-guaranteed minimum contract, and Nunn proceeded to score more points in his first five NBA games than anyone since Kevin Durant. Through 11 games, he is averaging 17.5 points on 47/39/84 shooting splits as the starting two guard for an 8-3 Heat team that looks poised to capture a home playoff seed in the Eastern Conference.
G: Devonte’ Graham, Charlotte Hornets
Graham may well be the best player you have not yet seen. He has been the best player on a surprisingly competitive Charlotte Hornets team, joining a list of eight players averaging at least 18 points and seven assists this season that also includes LeBron James and James Harden. A second-round pick who bounced between Charlotte and Greensboro last season, Graham is outperforming $57 million addition Terry Rozier and earned a starting backcourt spot alongside him. Charlotte is already considering ways to keep him before his 2021 restricted free agency.
All-NBA “Wait, These Guys Are This Good?” Team
C: Bam Adebayo, Miami Heat
Adebayo was dubbed underrated so often that he was probably closer to properly rated, except now he is better and maybe underrated again, if that makes sense. The third-year big is thriving as Miami’s unquestioned starting center with Hassan Whiteside out of the picture. In addition to averaging a nightly double-double and playing stout defense across multiple positions, Adebayo has improved as a playmaker in the Al Horford mold. From the high post, he generates a ton of open looks as teammates curl around his broad shoulders for a handoff or a slash to the basket.
F: Pascal Siakam, Toronto Raptors
It seemed impossible to replace what Kawhi Leonard provided as a steady superstar force in Toronto last season, even for a player who emerged as a bona fide star in his own right on the championship run, and yet Siakam has made a leap equal to, if not more impressive than, the one he made as the league’s Most Improved Player last season. Already a defensive stud, Siakam looks more comfortable than ever scoring at all three levels, averaging a 27-9-4 on 49/37/84 splits — essentially identical per-minute production to Leonard last regular season.
F: Brandon Ingram, New Orleans Pelicans
Kevin Durant comparisons followed Ingram into the NBA, and he fell well short of them in his first three seasons for a Los Angeles Lakers team that was either tanking or trying to figure out what it was around LeBron James. He had his moments but lacked the consistency to suggest he was figuring it out. Forget about all that now. Out of the spotlight, Ingram entered this season firing on all cylinders for New Orleans, averaging career highs across the board, but more importantly scoring with the prowess we hoped for from a silky smooth slender stretch forward.
G: Malcolm Brogdon, Indiana Pacers
We knew the Milwaukee Bucks would feel Brogdon’s free-agency departure, but we did not know the extent that the Indiana Pacers would benefit. He was a perfect complementary player for Giannis Antetokounmpo, shooting 50-40-90 as a tertiary option and defending both guard positions with a remarkable understanding of the game. Brogdon has been thrust into a primary playmaking role for a Pacers team starting the season without Victor Oladipo and proven more than capable, averaging 20.7 points, 8.5 assists and 5.2 rebounds during Indiana’s 7-4 start.
G: Trae Young, Atlanta Hawks
Count me among those who scoffed at Atlanta for passing on Luka Doncic to draft Young, who I figured for a bust well into his rookie campaign. Doncic could be on this list, too, because I figured he could be this good but maybe not so soon, and the Hawks were still wrong to pass on a guy who should win an MVP or two before his career is through. But I never thought Young would soften that blow to this degree, not even after he turned in a stellar second half of last season. His efficiency has caught up to his audacity, and the result is an offensive output (27.3 points and 9.1 assists in 33.7 minutes per game) that more than masks his defensive limitations.
All-NBA “Wait, These Guys Are Good Again?” Team
C: Dwight Howard, Los Angeles Lakers
Howard was written off by the Hawks, Hornets, Washington Wizards and everyone but the Lakers, who trusted him to fall in line behind LeBron and Anthony Davis despite a career’s worth of evidence that the relationship will turn sour. It has not … yet. Howard is finally fulfilling the role that has been asked him throughout the second half of his career, mopping up around the basket (to the tune of a 75.5 field-goal percentage) and protecting the rim for a second unit that has helped solidify the league’s best defense. He is playing fewer minutes than ever and maximizing them more than any season since his run of eight straight All-Star appearances.
F: Tristan Thompson, Cleveland Cavaliers
Thompson mans the center position, but let us shoehorn him at forward in appreciation of an expanding skill set. His counting statistics are all at career-high levels in line with an increased minutes load, and he has even converted half of his six three-point attempts this season after missing all nine of his attempts over eight previous campaigns. Thompson also looks more comfortable defending the perimeter. Most impressively, though, Kevin Love has stunningly unlocked Thompson in the pick and roll after he was seemingly left for dead without LeBron.
F: Jabari Parker, Atlanta Hawks
I maintain that Parker harbored All-Star talent before tearing his ACL as a rookie, and he was on his way to realizing it when he tore that ACL again in his third season. He struggled to score consistently enough to excuse what he lost athletically on defense, and three teams gave up on him in the 12 months between Milwaukee rescinding his qualifying offer and the massive pay cut he took in Atlanta. Looking like he has regained some of that athleticism in Atlanta, Parker is averaging 22.2 points, eight rebounds, two assists and 2.5 combined blocks and steals while starting for the suspended John Collins, and his three-point shot has yet to fall the way it should.
G: Gordon Hayward, Boston Celtics
Any number of people figured Hayward may never return to the All-Star form he flashed before shattering his ankle in his Celtics debut, and that assessment was reinforced by his startling lack of confidence during last season’s comeback campaign. He erased all those doubts weeks into this season, playing with a renewed force and performing better than ever. Then, he broke his hand, another freak injury that will cost him another six weeks but should not impact his confidence so much. If the Celtics are to contend in the East, he will be the deciding factor.
G: Isaiah Thomas, Washington Wizards
It has been a long road for Thomas since his hip cost him his All-NBA talent and a $100 million contract. He was dumped by Boston. Stops in Cleveland, L.A. and Denver left him searching for an NBA job as he grinded his way back from hip surgery. He made his Wizards debut three games into this season, worked his way into the starting lineup and looks to at least be back to the player he was before cementing himself as the greatest under six-foot player in NBA history. As unlikely as his initial ascent was, this might be more impressive, and few deserve this more.