5 NBA surprises: Lowry the assist king, Canada’s next great point guard

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Toronto Raptors guard Kyle Lowry (7) drives on Boston Celtics guard Terry Rozier (12) during first half NBA basketball action in Toronto on Wednesday, April 4, 2018. (Frank Gunn/CP)

A little over a month into the 2018-19 NBA season, some things have gone as expected: the Toronto Raptors are better than ever, LeBron James is dominant regardless of his jersey colour, Giannis Antetokounmpo continues to improve — to the chagrin of the rest of the East — and the Cleveland Cavaliers, Atlanta Hawks, and Phoenix Suns are firmly entrenched in the NBA’s basement as they get a head start jockeying for draft lottery positioning.

But there have also been plenty of trends and performances that few would have seen coming. Here are five of the biggest surprises of the NBA season thus far.

Memphis Grizzlies

From (nearly) worst to first. At 22-60 last season, Memphis boasted the 2nd-worst record in the NBA in 2017-18, brought upon in part by injuries to veteran stars Mike Conley and Marc Gasol. Despite both players returning healthy this season, and the addition of prized rookie big man Jaren Jackson Jr., expectations remained low for Memphis heading into the season. In the pre-season ESPN ranked Memphis 21st in their power rankings, USA Today ranked them 22nd. Here at Sportsnet we were higher on them, but I still had them in the bottom half of the league at 17th.

Fast forward to today and Memphis is currently in first place in the West. The Grizzlies are 12-5 on the season, fuelled by a 7-1 home record, and are currently riding a five-game win streak that was kicked off with a 116-113 win against the 13-4 Milwaukee Bucks.

Memphis’s schedule has helped a bit, featuring a pair of games against the Suns, but for the most part they’ve been winning thanks to their active defence, which ranks third in defensive rating and second in steals per game thus far. They’re taking advantage of those opportunities. According to NBA.com, 20 per cent of their points have come off of turnovers, tops in the league.

The Grizzlies have been led by Conley, enjoying a bounce-back year averaging over 20 points and six assists per game, and have five players averaging double-digits in scoring. Gasol has returned to form, too, and looks like an All-Defensive player, while fourth-overall pick Jackson has made his mark averaging a team-high 1.8 blocks per game.

Will Memphis keep this up? Yeah, sure. It’s not like they’re playing out of their minds, and the team has the pieces and sneaky-depth to sustain this level of play. They’re unlikely to hold their grasp on first place in the West, but don’t be surprised if, barring injuries, the Grizzlies keep surprising and play their way into the playoff picture when it’s all said and done.

Kyle Lowry: Assist King

The Raptors point guard has always been a capable and effective passer, but what we’ve seen from Lowry so far this season is unlike anything throughout his 13 seasons.

Fresh off a season-best 17-assist performance against the Atlanta Hawks on Wednesday, he’s currently averaging 10.5 assists per game, the only NBAer in double-digits. He’s averaged six assists per game over his career, and prior to this season, Lowry’s highest assist-per-game total was 7.4 back in 2013-14.

His 200 total assists this season are 23 more than any other player, and the impact it’s had on his teammates is noticeable, particularly when it comes to the Raptors’ big men. Serge Ibaka has been the biggest beneficiary of Lowry’s distribution, accounting for 3.2 of his assists per game this season — double the amount of any other Raptor — with Pascal Siakam and Jonas Valanciunas second with 1.6

Lowry’s playmaking has been an essential factor in the Raptors’ league-best 15-4 record this season and has helped raise the team’s ceiling higher than it’s ever been.

The Los Angeles Clippers and their Canadian rookie point guard

Despite not boasting elite-level talent, the Clippers are currently one game back of the first-place Grizzlies — the two teams play on Friday afternoon at 3:30 PM ET — thanks to their sum of talent. Led by Tobias Harris, in the midst of a breakout campaign (21.4 points and 8.7 rebounds per game), the Clippers have a deep, talented veteran roster that also includes Lou Williams, Danilo Gallinari, and Most Improved Player candidate Montrezl Harrell.

But one of the brightest lights in L.A. so far has been Hamilton, Ontario’s Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. The 11th overall pick has been one of the NBA’s standout rookies and seems to get better each and every game. While he has a way’s to go developing as a long-distance shooter, SGA’s arsenal of herky-jerky moves has helped him maneuver his way to the rim like a seasoned pro, while he’s already proven to be a disruptive factor on defence.

The rookie has been a favourite of head coach Doc Rivers — he’s averaging over 31 minutes and 14 points per game over his last seven games, as his team went 5-2 in that span — and figures to be an integral part of the Clippers present and future.

The Struggling Celtics

We probably should have seen this coming, but most everyone penciled Boston in for a dominant season. After all, the team reached the East Finals last season without Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward in the lineup.

But at a pedestrian 9-9, the team has been wildly inconsistent and their presumptive best lineup hasn’t gelled together. Their starting five — Irving, Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, Hayward, and Al Horford — has the worst offensive rating of any five-man lineup that has played 100 minutes or more this season. Dead last.

It’s led head coach Brad Stevens to play his reserves at the end of close games, and with rumours of players like Terry Rozier unhappy with inconsistent playing time, there’s no clear solution as currently constructed.

Part of the issue has been Brad Stevens’ insistence on playing Hayward significant minutes despite him still being a shell of his former self as he continues to recover. But the bigger issue, considered a great strength heading into the season, is the coach’s inability thus far to properly utilize his deep lineup and find defined roles and combinations for his players. Frankly, it makes the job Nick Nurse has done balancing his roster in Toronto that much more impressive.

Brook Lopez and the Bucks

Toronto may have the best record in the East, but you can make the argument that right now Milwaukee is the team to beat.

The Bucks have been playing out of their minds, particularly offensively, averaging an NBA-best 121.4 points per game — they’ve twice topped 140 points, including their last game, a 143-100 drubbing of the 12-6 Portland Trail Blazers.

Giannis Antetokounmpo is playing like an MVP, but the biggest reason behind Milwaukee’s newfound firepower has been their three-point shooting under new head coach Mike Budenholzer.

Milwaukee is second in the league in three-point attempts per game (40.3) and first in makes (14.8). Last season, they were 25th in attempts (24.7) and 27th in makes (8.8). A stunning turnaround, to be sure.

Nowhere has the embrace of the three-point line been more dramatic than in the case of Milwaukee’s starting centre, Brook Lopez. “He’s where the big man is headed,” Amir Johnson told me recently, sounding stunned by the way Lopez has transformed his game to fit into today’s NBA and the Bucks’ new-look offence.

Over his first eight seasons, Lopez took a total of 31 threes and shot just 9.7 per cent from deep (3-31). In 2016-17, with the writing on the wall that a modern-day centre holds more value if they can stretch the floor, Lopez attempted a whopping 387 triples.

This season, he’s attempting a stunning 6.8 three-pointers per game — the vast majority of his nine total field goal attempts — and shooting a career-best 41 per cent from deep. At this rate, he’ll take 557 threes this season, which would put him in the top-50 all-time for three-point attempts in a single season. It was safe to expect Lopez to up his three-point attempts after being signed by Milwaukee this summer in the hopes that he’d help spread the floor and create more space for Antetokounmpo. Still, Lopez’s total evolution remains one of the biggest surprises of the early NBA season.

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