It’s the first week of the season and after months of anticipation it’s natural to want to watch everything and make grand statements about things you already believed but now have a smidgen of highlights to show. It’s a fun time, but one where it’s easy to lose track of reality through the high of seeing your favorite players and teams again.
During this time of the year, I tend to limit my analysis to simply “Bookmarking.” Essentially, a list of things to keep an eye on that may or may not be real. Here are a few from the first week of the season:
1. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander
Trae Young (38.5ppg, 7rpg, 9apg) and Luka Doncic (29.5ppg, 9.5rpg, 6.5apg) are continuing to build on their impressive rookie campaigns, but another potential leap candidate to keep an eye on is Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. Through the first two games he’s averaging 27ppg, 4.5rpg, and 2.5apg. Oklahoma City has allowed SGA to really go for his offense and playing alongside Chris Paul has taken a huge chunk of the playmaking burden from him.
The biggest swing skill for SGA is the jumpshot. In college and his first year with the Clippers he shot a solid three-point percentage on very low attempts. This year, he has taken 5.5 3PA and is shooting it at 45.5 3P%. His free throw attempts have also boosted to 7 FTA from 2.4 FTA last season. Can he keep up this level of production? Probably not. But how far will it drop? Also, will it drop low enough that his lack of early playmaking starts to become concerning? We’ll see.
2. Houston Rockets and the problem of predictability
The Houston Rockets have played some very interesting couple of games. They blew a big lead to Milwaukee Bucks in their home opener, then barely hung on against the Zion-less Pelicans in another back and forth affair. Early on, the team is still tops in three-point attempts, free-throw attempts, and amongst the bottom in mid-range attempts. However, they have been a below-average team in paint attempts and the “your turn, my turn” between Russell Westbrook and James Harden seems to wear down as the games go on. In the first two games, the team has the lowest field goal percentage in the 4th quarter (28.9%). This includes a league worst three-point percentage (15.4%) while taking the most attempts in the frame (13 3PA).
Maybe this is as simple as Harden finding his groove again. The former MVP is shooting 23.8% from the field and 11.5% from three. With that being said, virtually all of his shots are contested (6ft or less of space) and teams have learned that sitting on his left hand and erasing the step back three really throws a wrench in his offensive game.
After years of the Rockets terrorizing the league with their forward thinking offense, teams have started to catch on more and are coming into their matchups with a playoff-like gameplan. They’ll be better, but decreased shooting ability with the same focus on shooting attempts could lead to some unanticipated problems in the very competitive Western Conference.
3. Jaylen Brown
While most people didn’t even bother watching FIBA because of the diminished talent pool and what ultimately ended up being the worst USA team of the decade, an interesting thing started to happen. In a FIBA game that prioritizes schemes and basketball IQ, Jaylen Brown was quietly flourishing. He held his own against bigs, played within the offense, and then showed off some newfound playmaking that caught the few of us that were watching off-guard. There comes a time in a players career where the game finally slows down for them. They begin to see all the chess pieces when they’re on the court and understand this high-speed dance has specific reactions for all of their actions. For Jaylen this has come in a magnitude of ways.
In a situation like the picture below, a younger Jaylen would have put his head down and ran straight at the rim, leading to either a wild miss or a block.
This year? He looks like a running back who learned how to run behind his lead blockers. Watch as he smartly takes a step back, observes the situation, and then sets up a perfect PnR with Grant that leads to an and-1 finish.
Since his foul-ridden dud against the Sixers, Brown has averaged 22ppg, 6rpg, 3apg, and 1.5bpg on 50% shooting from the field. Even with his attacks at the rim, he’s starting to show creativity in his finishes that control for the exceptional athletes that patrol the paint.
Boston needed at least one of its wings to take some sort of leap for them to be truly competitive. The odds were not stacked in Jaylen’s favor, but it’s possible the fourth year is where he takes his leap as Kawhi Leonard, Jimmy Butler, Gordon Hayward, Paul George, and others have.