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Zeros To Heroes
Four players unexpectedly popping
We are roughly seven games into the season, and already we’ve had some happy stories. Today I wanted to shine a light on four guys who have played well in expanded roles, players who (with one exception) have lurked in the background in the past, but have seized their opportunity to be leading actors so far this season.
Bol Bol, Orlando Magic
Who needs Victor Wembanyama when you have Bol Bol blocking everything in sight (fourth in the league in blocks), shooting 65% from the field, handling the rock in transition, and generally looking like a real NBA player?
Years of being treated like a circus attraction made Bol Bol a bit of an unknown curiosity in NBA circles. At 7’2” and approximately six pounds, he’d show up for two minutes at the end of long-since-decided games looking like a car dealership blow-up man, hit a three or swat a shot into the second row, and get NBA Twitter all a-buzzing before retreating to his dark cave at the end of the bench for two more weeks.
But Bol’s completely transformed himself on the Magic. As one of Orlando’s infinite skilled big men, Bol’s empowered to bring the ball up the court off rebounds and initiate the offense (well, his own offense; he has two assists total on the season). The results have been intriguing:
Bol has pretty much cut the three-ball from his shot diet and feasts in transition (where his length makes him unguardable) and on dunks. The change has dramatically improved his offensive profile. His deep shot was always a siren’s call, luring him into bad decisions at inopportune times. His ability to resist his chucker’s instincts and play within himself has been eye-opening.
He’s vacuuming up rebounds, something he’s struggled with in the past, and the shotblocking chops ameliorate his often porous one-on-one defense. Of course, a lot of his struggles could be inexperience: this is his fourth season, and he’s already played 142 minutes in seven games (including starting the most recent two). His season high was two years ago, when he played 160 minutes across 32 games.
It’s possible Bol will get even better as he gets more comfortable actually, you know, playing basketball. It’s like finding a four-year-old Toyota with ten miles on it, and the Magic paid pre-pandemic used-car value for it: Bol is barely making above the minimum this year, a contract that looks like a steal.
Naji Marshall, New Orleans Pelicans
Marshall has been a delight as a fill-in starter while the Pelicans battle injuries to Brandon Ingram and Herb Jones.
A third-year bulldog defender, Marshall struggled to carve out a role for himself through his first season and a half due to inconsistent offense, but he firmly entered the rotation by the end of last year thanks to his propensity for making things happen.
As a starter with no fear of a quick yank, Marshall’s showcased more eagerness to fire away (6-of-12 on threes in his last two games), an important component for any role player playing around Zion Williamson. More surprisingly, he’s also shown a deft passing touch. Watch as he hoodwinks Reggie Jackson for the easy steal, then delivers an on-point pass to rising stud Trey Murphy (another player I considered for this list) for an easy dunk:
(Side note: The league’s long-overdue elimination of the take foul has been a rousing success. Isn’t it so, so nice not to see someone wrap up Marshall right there to ruin the play before it begins? The rise in honest-to-god fast breaks has been breathtakingly, achingly beautiful.)
Although Naji has led the team in minutes over the last two games, the Pelicans have a crowded rotation when at full strength, and Marshall’s playing time is likely to yo-yo throughout the season. His versatile, strong defense will always be what gets him on the court, but continuing to provide shooting and ancillary playmaking is what will keep him out there for longer.
Dean Wade, Cleveland Cavaliers
Despite an eye injury to Darius Garland that has kept him out of five of the Cavs’ six games, Cleveland has rolled to an awfully impressive 5-1 start, and Wade’s been a big part.
Much of the conversation in the preseason was around who the fifth starter on Cleveland would be behind Garland, incandescent guard Donovan Mitchell, and the two stalwart young bigs, Jarrett Allen and Evan Mobley. LeVert earned the role with solid preseason play, but I always thought Wade made more sense in the lineup.
Well, Garland’s injury has opened up an opportunity for Wade to get as many minutes as he can handle, and he’s answered the call. Over these six games, Wade has shot an astounding 63% from behind the line (thanks in particular to a 6-of-8 performance against the Knicks most recently) while playing excellent team defense and spacing the floor beautifully (although he sometimes gets trigger-shy from deep — let it fly, Dean!). As a result, he’s second on the team behind Donovan Mitchell in plus/minus, and the team’s defense gives up nearly 15 fewer points per 100 possessions when he’s on the floor, per Cleaning The Glass.
He’s held his own while guarding some of the league’s most dangerous wings, including being the primary defender on Jayson Tatum in the Cavs’ impressive win over Boston. He’s not super quick laterally, and he’ll never be a steals/blocks kind of guy, but his hands are always high — a coach’s dream — and he’s rarely out of position. Plus, he’s giant, a legit 6’10” on the wing, which helps him make up for speed deficits.
LeVert is a better passer than Wade but a significantly worse defender. Isaac Okoro puts people in lockdown but can’t shoot the breeze in a friendly conversation. Wade is the best of both worlds, and he should remain in the starting lineup even after Garland returns.
Keldon Johnson, San Antonio Spurs
Longtime subscribers may remember I wrote about KJ last year when it was apparent he was taking a leap, so Keldon was hardly a zero last year, and his explosion this season was easy to see coming, given the vacuum in San Antonio’s offense. But his improvement has been so noteworthy, again, that I needed to talk about him some more.
After the trades last season of Derrick White and Dejounte Murray, it was clear that more offensive burden would fall on Keldon (and teammate Devin Vassell, also playing superbly). Johnson has carried the load with aplomb.
Johnson’s up to 24 points per game on 46% shooting (44% from three), but he’s also improved his FTA (shooting five freebies per game now, the same number as Anthony Davis and Karl-Anthony Towns) and assists (4.1 per game, double his career-high from last season).
He’s attacking the rim with even more force than last season. He tends to go left and finish with his right hand, drawing a lot of contact from defenders who aren’t expecting a guy to shoot it right in front of their face:
Johnson’s also doubled how many pick and rolls he runs per game; he averaged just over two last season but is the ballhandler for five P&Rs this year, per Synergy Sports, showing the increased confidence coach Popovich has in KJ to orchestrate an offense.
But it all comes back to the shooting. Last year, I wrote:
If Johnson ends up a 38% shooter from distance while increasing his volume to five or six attempts per game, he will be an extremely valuable player. If he settles back down to 35% or lower, or can’t increase his volume, his fit on the court for the Spurs becomes much more difficult.
Well, he’s shooting an outrageous 43.5% on 8.9 attempts from deep per game! That’s both a higher percentage AND more shot attempts than guys like Luka Doncic, Jayson Tatum, Trae Young, and Klay Thompson. So let’s just say that he’s checked that box with an emphatic flaming-basketball-shaped stamp.
KJ’s game gets better every year, and at this point, I refuse to place a ceiling on where he can go. His next step: creating threes off the dribble. So far, he’s only made one unassisted three this season. The unassisted three is the holy grail of scorers, what separates superstars from very good players. We’ll see if that’s something he can develop in the next year.