Players I Was Wrong About
Three players who are overperforming or underperforming my expectations this year
Today, I want to highlight a few NBA players doing things I didn’t expect this year.
But first, a highlight! I just wanted to point this out because, in all my thousands and thousands of hours watching NBA games, I have never seen this before. Man went up to dunk; man was rejected by backboard.
This is one of the most unique plays in NBA history and should be appreciated as such.
Jarrett Allen, Cleveland Cavaliers:
I said last year that Jarrett Allen had become overrated in a Steven Adams kind of way. He was a solid rim protector and a good roll man, with no real weaknesses but no outstanding strengths, either, and yet people were acting as if he was one of the best centers in the league.
The Cavs pulled off a slick trade for Allen by inserting themselves into the James Harden fiasco, trading a first-round pick that ended up being in the 20s to Houston for the then-22-year-old center. It seemed like good value but a weird fit since Cleveland had some mild success with bigs Kevin Love and Andre Drummond down low last year. They quickly rid themselves of Drummond, added another near-seven-footer in Lauri Markannen in the offseason, drafted another center, Evan Mobley, third overall, and then surprised the league this season by starting Mobley, Markannen, and Allen together - three players who all project to be centers or power forwards at best.
Against all expectations, the lineup has worked, and Cleveland looks like one of the best teams in the East despite the loss of leading scorer Collin Sexton. Allen’s emergence has been a big reason why.
I had no idea that Jarrett Allen was capable of the things he’s shown offensively this year. On the Nets, his only shots had been off alley-oops in the pick-and-roll or on offensive putbacks. This year, he’s had a chance to show off some post moves, and surprise! He’s got a bag of tricks!
Allen fluidly shoots short hooks with either hand. He aggressively fights for position and demands the ball when smaller guys switch on him. He’s even - gasp - dribbled the ball, and he’s looked pretty good doing so:
That is not a move that Brooklyn Net Jarrett Allen was pulling off.
Somehow, he’s shooting more often and also more efficiently (usually, higher volume means a lower field goal percentage since players shooting more are likely to be taking higher-difficulty shots). He’s setting career highs in FG% (second in the league at a mind-boggling 71%, behind only Rudy Gobert, who I can assure you is not attempting the same sort of plays), points, assists, rebounds, and steals, and making a respectable 72% of his free throws.
Jarrett’s defense has been solid as ever. The Cavs give up the fifth-most shot attempts at the rim in the league, usually a bad thing, but they allow the lowest conversion rate there. Their shaky perimeter defenders are covered by Allen and Mobley, who together swat dang near everything a team puts up at the rim. Please watch this absurd sequence in which a series of blocks by the two translate to easy points on the other end as the Cavaliers snatch the soul out of a depressed Kings team:
I’ve already written more about Allen and the Cavs than I meant to, but suffice it to say that after years of being basically the same competent but unremarkable player, a change of scenery has unlocked levels to Allen’s game that nobody knew existed. He looks primed to be an All-Star (hosted in Cleveland!) for the first time in his career, and the Cavs are one of the happiest stories in the league this year.
Trae Young, Atlanta Hawks
I love watching Trae. I’ve always admired his passing and deep shooting, and I enjoyed the chutzpah he showed in the playoffs last season. But I worried about rumors that his teammates didn’t love playing with him, and I was concerned that the changed rules allowing more physical defense might end up affecting the Lilliputian point guard more than most.
Well, I was right about the last part. Young’s free throw attempts are down from 8.7 per game last year, a huge number, to a solid but more modest 6.2 this year. He’s drawing almost two fouls fewer per game. And yet, he’s having the best all-around season of his career.
Trae is the only player in the league who is in the top five for assists AND points per game. The team is +8.1 points per 100 possession better when he’s on the floor, per Cleaning the Glass. And while defensively he’s still a mess, he’s shooting the best percentages of his career by far (shot chart per StatMuse):
Look at how far back some of those dots are! Only Steph and Damian Lillard have shot charts that remotely look like that. His ability to shoot from wayyyyyy deep opens up the floor for the Hawks’ bevy of wings to slash towards the basket, and his pinpoint-accurate lobs make for easy buckets for rolling rim-runners Clint Capela and John Collins.
Young has already proven he can guide a team to the conference finals, as he did last year. The Hawks may have beaten the Bucks if Young didn’t get hurt. They’ve gotten off to a slow start this year, thanks partially to a tough schedule, but nobody wants to face Young in a playoff series.
Luka Doncic, Dallas Mavericks
On the flip side is the player Young was traded for on draft day, Luka Doncic. Years of sustained excellence have led to sky-high expectations for Luka, but this year he’s fallen flat. Still-impressive counting stats (25.6 points, 8.0 rebounds, 8.5 assists) belie someone who’s not making the winning impact you’d expect.
I had hoped that Luka would take last season’s first-round playoff disappointment and channel it into a chiseled frame, elite conditioning, and a renewed commitment to the defensive end. Instead, he showed up to training camp at 260 pounds, thirty more than his listed playing weight. He looks more disinterested in defense than ever, and he clearly loses steam as the game goes on.
You can see it in Doncic’s scoring splits. His scoring drops from 29.5 points per 36 minutes in first quarters, to 26.9 in second quarters, to 25.5 in third quarters, to 23.8 in fourth quarters, a direct result of his poor conditioning. It’s also the worst fourth-quarter performance of his four-year career so far, including his rookie year.
Part of this is changing shot accuracy and selection. Luka’s shooting just 32.6% from three. He doesn’t have the burst he had last year, so he’s shooting less at the rim, posting up more, and shooting more pull-up mid-ranges (some of this may be by new coach Jason Kidd’s design, too).
Doncic is still a very good player, one of the best in the league, and he’s carrying a medicore-to-bad Mavs roster almost singlehandedly. But I was expecting him to solidify himself as a perennial MVP candidate, and so far this season, he’s actually gotten worse.
Reminder: Steph Curry only needs two three-pointers to set the all-time record. He and the rest of the Warriors play against the Knicks tonight at 7:30 EST on TNT.
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