The calendar year of 2019 may be coming to a close, but the NBA regular season is still young. Just days old as the month flips over to November
That said, there has been plenty of time for players and teams to surprise us.
Every season has its share of early surprises. But, while some expectations temper, others continue to impress throughout the season. Basketball Insiders recently began a new series on these early surprises; we’ve already covered the Pacific, Central, Northwest and Southwest Divisions. Today, we pivot to the Atlantic, where both teams and fans have had their fair share of surprises.
Nets’ Synergy Struggle
We might as well address the elephant in the divisional room. While it’s not exactly the biggest surprise, especially after a recent Jackie MacMullen report, the Brooklyn Nets have a chemistry problem with Kyrie Irving at the center of it.
Between the Cleveland Cavaliers and Boston Celtics, Irving has built up quite a reputation as a player that can be difficult to work with. While that factoid alone should be enough to trouble the team, the complete lack of chemistry, after last season’s team thrived together, has to be a bit worrisome.
Even worse, that lack of connection has started to plague them in other areas. As a team, the Nets have struggled to move the ball and defend, as they rank just 19th in assists per game and 21st in defensive rating. Given their talent, they have also lost a number of winnable games en route to their 1-3 start with losses to the Indiana Pacers and lowly Memphis Grizzlies.
There is certainly hope; as the Nets continue to play and as they become more familiar with one another, their play should improve, at least in part. But, the fact that that cohesion hasn’t taken some hold after a summer of together doesn’t inspire much confidence.
And, as apt as it may be to place blame with Irving, he has done more than his fair share on offense as he has averaged 35.4 points through Brooklyn’s four games.
That said, the Eastern Conference is rife with parity and opportunistic teams that could almost certainly take advantage of the Nets’ slow start. So, it would be great for Irving to take a step as a leader, the entire team needs to take a look in the mirror.
With Coach Kenny Atkinson at the helm, bet on them figuring it out sooner rather than later.
RJ Barrett Impressing Early
The early returns on RJ Barrett have looked promising.
And, while this may not be as much of a surprise as Barrett’s positive play, the fact that he has impressed has been a huge relief for New York Knicks fans. He, alongside Mitchell Robinson, is one of the few rays of hope for a fanbase and franchise that has long been stuck in the NBA basement.
But, unlike the talented but raw Robinson, Barrett has looked like a foundational talent, one with the polish and pose that a team can build an entire offense around.
Barrett is only the second Knick in franchise history to post at least 50 points, 15 rebounds and 5 steals in their first three career games, per Basketball-Reference. The other? Patrick Ewing. And, through four games, Barrett has placed second amongst rookies in points per game (18.2), rebounds (6.4) and fifth in assists (3.0).
Long story short, Barrett has looked like the real deal. And, while it shouldn’t be a total shocker, it’s always nice to see the fresh faces of the NBA live up to their potential. It’s almost certainly even better for Barrett, who, after an inefficient and underwhelming summer league, heard the bust and flop chatter from more than a few media personalities.
His story is far from written, but Barrett is off to a thrilling start.
Kevin Knox Improving
It may be because the weight of the franchise has shifted to Barrett. It may be because of a move to the bench.
But, for whatever reason, Kevin Knox has looked much better in 2019.
Knox has shot the ball with far more precision in his second season, and his improved eye has been put on full display from all over the court. In four games, Knox has shot an impressive 52.4% from three-point range – up from 34.3% last season – and has helped the team look competent rather than another team to just pass over in the schedule.
In fact, Knox’s effort from deep was crucial in securing the Knicks’ first win of the season.
And, while the percentages are promising, perhaps even more important is the fact that Knox has improved his shot selection immensely. He has fought the urge to bail the defense out by shooting off-balanced floaters as he did so often last season, and it has allowed him to take a step forward in his game.
So, while the local and national media were quick to write Knox off as a bust, he is only 20-years-old and should continue to improve. His numbers may not hold throughout the season — Knox has an eFG% of 57% (up from 43.8%) and has also shot an impressive 60% at the rim (up from 50%) — but he possesses a tremendous amount of untapped potential.
If he can find his game and continue to build on that potential, he could be yet another positive for a New York team that has been desperate for some.
Toronto Still A Force Sans Kawhi Leonard
Objectively, a team winning four of five games doesn’t qualify for a headline outside of their local market.
But when you’re the defending champs and you lost one of the three best players on the planet, it’s a big deal.
Even this writer predicted the Toronto Raptors would topple from the heights of the Eastern Conference hierarchy — and out of the playoffs, entirely — this season. But, through five games, Toronto has looked like anything but a team that is going to lie down or just mosey on into the sunset.
Quite the contrary, in fact. The Raptors have looked strong as they opened the season with four wins in five games. They’ve allowed the 9th fewest opponent points per game, posted the 3rd best margin of victory and possess the 6th best defensive rating in the NBA. Their strength of schedule (22nd) has played a part, and they’ll probably come back to Earth at some point, but the team has already proven doubters wrong.
The reigning champions already look like one of the season’s biggest surprises, while media personalities have started to look at Pascal Siakam as a possible back-to-back MIP winner, or maybe even an MVP candidate; he’s been that good, with averages of 28 points, 9.2 rebounds and 3.8 assists per game while shooting 44% from three-point range.
Of course, without Kawhi Leonard, the fate of Siakam and the Raptors are tied together. If both parties can build upon a strong start, the team may be for real.
Matisse Thybulle: Defensive Stopper + Early Contributor
For a late first-round rookie, Matisse Thybulle has played incredibly well. So well, in fact, that’s he’s carved out 21.8 minutes per game on a team expected to reach the NBA Finals.
Now, for a dose of reality, that may not very likely to continue for the entire season. It’s been just four games and, while Thybulle has impressed, there is still plenty of time for him to show that he is, in fact, a rookie.
But, and not to get ahead of ourselves, there is certainly cause to believe the Philadelphia 76ers may have a draft heist on their hands.
Thybulle is the first rookie in 25 years to have multiple steals in each of his first four games. He’s also the league leader in steals (12) and deflections (21) through the first two weeks of the season.
His success has gone beyond the stats as well – and should continue to do so. Thybulle has everything teams require of the typical lockdown defender: he’s a solid 6-foot-5, 200-pound body with an impressive 7’ wingspan. For his age, his instincts and timing are also impeccable.
Even Thybulle’s All-Star teammate, Ben Simmons, has raved about him: “I love watching [Thybulle] play defense,” Simmons said recently. “In training camp, I was very surprised with the way that he was able to read plays ahead of time.”
With his defense, the former Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year and 2018-19 Naismith Defensive Player of the Year clearly has a place in this league. And, as he’s been doing it for years, expect him to continue doing so for years to come.
It can be hard to draw conclusions such a short time into the season. Some players and teams have badly underachieved, whereas others have far and away surpassed expectations. In most instances, and with more time, these tend to even out over the course of the season. For the Nets, hopefully, they can right the ship.
But, thinking back to other recent fast starts, there are few things that are more exciting than watching specific players or entire teams prove the doubters wrong. Likewise, let’s hope these players and or teams can continue to build on their early-season returns.