Thursday, January 27 2022

Nearly one month into the season, a number of teams have already experienced life without their star players. Whether it be injury, health and safety protocols with COVID, or just disgruntled All-Stars trying to find their way out of town, there has been a void to fill in many cities across the country.

Depth is something that is often overlooked, especially this early in the season. As the grind of an 82-game season plays out, it becomes more important. With so many new faces in new places, coaches are trying to figure out who they can play, and who might be better served on the bench. Opportunities are there for the taking, but it is up to the player to take advantage.

With LeBron James (among several others) out of the lineup for the Lakers, Carmelo Anthony has filled in admirably. The veteran scoring machine has been a massive addition to their team. His situation is much different from these five players, who are still trying to find their place in the league. Be that as it may, Anthony’s professionalism and performance to start this season are worthy of an Honorable Mention here.

Most of these players entered this season at a crossroads in their careers. It was a make-or-break season, and the pressure to perform has never been higher. These five individuals have embraced the challenge and are reaping the rewards, along with their teams.

Daniel Gafford, Wizards

The Wizards own the top spot in the Eastern Conference standings, and while that might not hold true until the end of April, this team is for real. There are many reasons as to why they have been so good, from the backcourt pairing of Bradley Beal and Spencer Dinwiddie, to the Los Angeles additions of Kyle Kuzma, Montrezl Harrell, and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. Flying under the radar is Gafford, the former Arkansas Razorbacks rim-running center.

The second-round pick from 2019 is off to a terrific start, as Washington continues to wait on Thomas Bryant, Rui Hachimura, and Davis Bertans to return. Their absence has given an opportunity to Gafford, who is averaging around 17 points per 36 minutes, nine rebounds, and four blocks. He is nearly a plus 4 in plus/minus and he has a 22.72 Player Efficiency Rating, which is currently top 20 in the entire league.

Grayson Allen, Bucks

It has been a somewhat slow start for the defending champions, as the Bucks continue to deal with injuries. Khris Middleton has been out due to health and safety protocols, Brook Lopez has been out for the majority of the season with a back issue, Jrue Holiday has missed time, and Donte DiVincenzo is still without a timetable to return from his foot injury last season.

Allen was traded to Memphis in the deal for Mike Conley, but the Grizzlies traded him to Milwaukee this summer. It has been a blessing in disguise for the former Duke star, as he has flourished in the starting lineup this season. The Bucks need his scoring, and his ability to cut to the basket coupled with his shooting ability has been an excellent pairing when Giannis Antetokounmpo has the ball.

The 26-year old has raised his averages across the board, scoring 15.4 points, 3.9 rebounds, and nearly a steal per game. He is also shooting 42 percent from deep, 95 percent from the free-throw line, and has an effective field goal percentage of 61. He has started all 12 games for the Bucks and has been a major revelation for the organization as they try to get their roster put back together.

Georges Niang, 76ers

Philadelphia remains a complete mess. The Ben Simmons situation has no end in sight. Joel Embiid is out due to health and safety protocols, as were Tobias Harris and Isaiah Joe. Seth Curry, Matisse Thybulle, and Danny Green have all missed games as well. This is not the team that Doc Rivers envisioned coaching when he took the job but this is what they have become.

When Niang signed a two-year, $6.8M contract with the Sixers in August, not many people took notice. Now in his sixth season, the 28-year old has landed a unique opportunity to revive his career. The former Iowa State forward has had two games this month where he scored 21 points and has doubled his scoring average from last season, which had been a career-high.

Embiid is not alone in his opinion about Niang, who has been a valuable asset to this team. His aggressiveness on offense is something they have desperately needed and his understanding of the game has evolved quite nicely over the years. Even with all of the chaos surrounding this circus, the Sixers are still sitting 4th in the East.

Gary Payton II, Warriors

In case you haven’t noticed, the Warriors are back. Even though they are still waiting on Klay Thompson and James Wiseman to return, this team has some serious depth. That was their biggest issue last season, but now it is one of their great strengths, as their second unit is one of the best in the league. They have the top-ranked offense and the second-best defense in the league, which is a major reason why they have the best record in the league.

Jordan Poole has been in the conversation for the Most Improved Player this season, and it is well-deserved. Another under-the-radar signing this summer was Nemanja Bjelica, who has been a tremendous fit in Golden State. As good as that was, the real sneaky move this summer was signing Payton to a one-year minimum deal. The former Oregon State product has been electric so far this season.

In addition to the highlight dunks he has been producing, Payton has a 22.76 PER which ranks 19th in the entire league. The Warriors have been able to develop players like Poole, Kevon Looney, Damion Lee, etc. They have also demonstrated their ability to improve more experienced guys like Andrew Wiggins and Andre Iguodala. They have a way with second-generation players (Curry, Thompson, Payton) and much of that should be credited to Steve Kerr.

Jalen Brunson, Mavericks

Another surprising team early in the season has been the Mavericks, who are currently 4th in the West. The spotlight will always be on Luka Doncic but he can’t play 48 minutes every night. If anyone knows the value and importance of the point guard position, it is former Mav and current head coach Jason Kidd. He has been able to connect with Brunson in a way that we haven’t witnessed before.

With Kristaps Porzingis missing five straight games, Dallas needed an extra punch. They received that in an unlikely form when Brunson carried the second unit. The 25-year old is averaging career-high numbers through 11 games, especially in scoring, rebounding, and assisting. His two best games came earlier this month when he scored 25 points and grabbed 7 rebounds while shooting 10-13 from the floor against Miami. He followed that up with a 31 point, 10 rebound performance in a victory in San Antonio.

The second-round pick out of Villanova has shined whether starting or coming off the bench. With Porzingis returning to the lineup, he will likely reclaim his role of leading the second unit, a role in which he has excelled in. It is also a contract year for Brunson, so while there is extra motivation there, Kidd seems to be pushing all of the right buttons.

Source: Basketball Insider


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