Yuta, Chaos, And More: Four NBA Things I'm Thankful For
Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!
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With the awkward but obligatory solicitation out of the way, let’s talk hoops! Here are some things I’m thankful for this holiday season.
Yuta Watanabe has long been a fascination of mine, a whirling dervish of flailing energy. His limbs move at 1.5x speed, like a podcast on speed-listen. Watch as he denies a shot, then blocks his own block back out of bounds:
I cannot take my eyes off him when he’s on the court.
Watanabe tries really, really hard, he’s big enough and quick enough to play credible defense against a variety of positions, and he knows when to pick and choose his spots on offense. But the shooting has never been strong enough to justify playing him over other wings…until this season.
After a summer spent reworking his shot mechanics, Yuta has turned into a legitimate artilleryman. He leads the entire NBA in three-point percentage, canning 57% of his triples on six attempts per 36 minutes, but his consistency is what’s been most astonishing: He’s shot 50% from deep or better in 10 of his last 12 games!
With Kyrie’s return, interim coach Jacque Vaughn now full-time coach Jacque Vaughn, and a 6-3 record in their last nine games, it’s possible the Nets are turning things around. I don’t buy it; this team hasn’t shown they can defend consistently enough to be a real threat. But if Watanabe earns a regular role and hits 40-45% of his threes going forward, the Nets have found another unexpected weapon to throw at opponents.
2) AJ Griffin, playing well
I’m due for a longer Hawks piece in the near future, but I still have many questions without satisfactory answers. However, one unquestionable success story has been AJ Griffin's entry into the rotation.
The rookie Griffin spent one tantalizing-but-frustrating season at Duke before declaring for the draft. On paper, the 6’6” wing with the seven-foot wingspan profiles as an elite shooter with strong defensive upside, but consistency was a concern.
Despite playing for rookie-averse coach Nate McMillan, however, Griffin cracked the rotation in Atlanta just a few games into the season and has acquitted himself with aplomb. He’s averaging more than eight points per game while shooting 38% from deep and has shown terrific defensive playmaking skills — he’s averaging two steals per 36 minutes without fouling much, a great sign.
He’s shown some serious on-ball defensive chops against big names, like this sequence against Donovan Mitchell from last night:
Sure, the Cavs score here, but Griffin sticks with Mitchell through an array of moves and only gets slightly turned at the last second. It’s not perfect, but it’s pretty darn good for a 19-year-old playing against a fringe MVP candidate!
If you want more Griffin highlights, how about the game-winning alley-oop in overtime against Toronto (where his dad is a coach):
That was a beautifully conceived full-court play by the Hawks to get Trae Young the ball on the move, and Griffin made sure to finish it. It’s noteworthy that McMillan trusted Griffin in OT of an important game against a potential playoff rival, too.
Griffin has looked more lively off the bounce than I expected, and he’s very comfortable creating and taking his own shot from anywhere on the floor. He has a loooong way to go as a playmaker, but he’s never been asked to set the stage for teammates before, and that’s a regular development opportunity for a rookie.
The Hawks have had poor play from their bench this season, so Griffin’s emergence as a reliable scoring and defending option would be a huge boost to their second unit.
One more small note: Griffin always seems happy, almost like he enjoys playing basketball. It’s a nice change from a Hawks team with serious grump issues over the years.
3) Scorers, scoring
One of my wild predictions before the season was that we’d see four thirty-point scorers (it’s only happened once before, in 1962).
Well, right now, we have an astonishing seven players hitting that benchmark.
Steph Curry deserves his own column soon, as he’s putting up arguably the greatest season he’s ever had while setting career highs in points, three-point percentage, and field-goal percentage. It seems impossible that the best shooter in NBA history keeps getting better, but here we are.
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is finishing like a center in the paint and hitting his jumpers with more confidence and success than ever before. Joel Embiid has traded a couple of threes for deep twos but is otherwise replicating last year’s scoring outburst. Luka Doncic has procured a mortgage for his new home on the free throw line: he’s averaging 11.4 FTA attempts per game, four more than last season.
Durant is Durant; a slight downturn from deep is made up for by career-best marks at the rim. Giannis has made up for a decrease in shooting percentages with an uptick in volume. Finally, Jayson Tatum is making a case as a top-five player in the league with a remarkable combination of volume and efficiency from everywhere on the court.
I’m feeling pretty good about at least four of these guys maintaining a 30-PPG average throughout the season, and that’s before we look at some of the guys just below that cutoff now, like Donovan Mitchell and Ja Morant.
The top of the scoring leaderboard is a delightful mix of ages, positions, and player archetypes. There is no cookie-cutter solution to becoming a top scorer, and it can be accomplished in a remarkably diverse ways. You love to see it.
4) Chaos in the West
As of today, 11/22/2022, exactly zero losses separate the first seed (Utah!!!!) and the ninth seed (Dallas).
A wise man once said, “Chaos is a ladder.” And there are a lot of rungs to examine on this particular ladder.
The Warriors aren’t even pictured, and neither are the surging Lakers (if a three-game win streak counts as surging). The Wolves have won four straight but are the ten-seed. The Clippers somehow would have homecourt advantage despite owning the 28th-best offense and having just snippets of a visibly-limited Kawhi. The Kings have won six straight!
Nothing makes sense, and it is glorious. Parity is always fun, and while I haven’t looked this up, I can’t imagine we’ve seen a conference this compressed this far into the season.
The possibilities are endless. Could we see the Jazz have homecourt advantage while the Wolves, who traded their entire future to Utah for Rudy Gobert, miss the playoffs entirely? Will the Pelicans add Victor Wembanyama to a playoff-caliber team after stealing the Lakers’ draft pick in the Anthony Davis trade? Could the Kings end their historic playoff drought at last? Will the Warriors shop everyone at the trade deadline to make one more push for a championship in Curry’s elongated prime?
If the standings look like this in another month, things will get crazy. I, for one, am praying that happens.
Happy Thanksgiving, and remember to enjoy basketball!