By Rahul Lal
This NBA season has already brought us many surprises, and only a couple of them stem from Matt Barnes and DeMarcus Cousins playing on the same team. Did I mention that team is in Sacramento? Okay, okay, I digress.
Some players have been playing so overwhelmingly above expectations that it’s worth highlighting their production thus far. It’s still early, and the NBA tides are known to shift. Still, these players have been pleasant surprises and deserve the recognition.
1. Russell Westbrook – Oklahoma City Thunder
Everybody expected an MVP-worthy season out of the Oklahoma City star, but nobody expected these numbers. Westbrook has displayed his all-world talent by achieving triple-double after triple-double. The Thunder have won their last six games and Westbrook has put up — you guessed it — six triple-doubles in that span. He’s firmly put OKC in the early playoff race, despite a lot of skepticism to start the season. He truly is #Russdiculous… no?
2. DeMar DeRozan – Toronto Raptors
DeRozan has steadily grown into an NBA star over the course of his career. And he’s been undervalued every step of the way, even when his Raptors go deep into the playoffs. On the season, DeRozan is averaging just under 30 points per game. But the big shocker is that the guy who’s been criticized for his shot selection has transformed into one of the game’s most efficient scorers. At 48.2% shooting from the field, he’s second only to Anthony Davis when looking at scoring percentage and average, and Davis takes most of his shots around the rim. Look for DeRozan to stay atop the NBA’s statistics rankings and keep the Raptors atop the standings.
3. Kemba Walker – Charlotte Hornets
Player A: 23.6 PPG, 5 APG, 4 RPG, 1.6 SPG, 46.6% FG, 41.4% 3P, 23.98 Player Efficiency Rating
Player B: 24.6 PPG, 4.8 APG, 3.1 RPG, 0.6 SPG, 48.3% FG, 42.1% 3P, 21.52 Player Efficiency Rating
Player A and Player B look like they’re both surefire all-stars and probably dominating the league, right? Player A is Kemba Walker, and Player B is Kyrie Irving who also benefits from an incredibly efficient system. Walker is willing the Hornets to wins night after night. Look for them to stay in the playoff race and actually do some damage once they get there. As he hits a new level, Cardiac Kemba is showing he belongs with the league’s elite.
4. Avery Bradley – Boston Celtics
Avery Bradley (along with many other Celtics) has been ready to contribute for a long time now; we’re just now seeing the returns. In 22 games this season, he has eight point-rebound double-doubles — more than many of the NBA’s big men. Bradley has shown up big in the scoring column, building on last year’s shooting improvements. He’s averaging nearly 18 points a game on 47% shooting and hitting 41% of his shots from deep. At only 6’2”, Bradley also leads the Celtics in rebounds per game, averaging 8 boards a night.
5. Otto Porter – Washington Wizards
With all the talk of Porter’s max-deal consideration, I’ve spent plenty of time debating his NBA future this week. While his future contract is a whole different topic, the former third overall pick’s improvements this season have been tremendous. Porter has turned himself into one of the best rebounding small forwards in the league (no easy task) and a reliable scorer. He’s also a menace on defense, ranking in the top 10 for steals per game. At only 23, Porter is really coming into his own and will likely turn some of those two-point losses to teams like the Spurs into wins.
6. Hassan Whiteside – Miami Heat
When Pat Riley chose to prioritize Hassan Whiteside over Dwyane Wade this offseason, lots of Heat fans were outraged. Basketball fans, on the other hand, understood the move from the legendary businessman, and it is already paying dividends in the form of 16 double-doubles in only 22 games this season. Whiteside leads the NBA in rebounds per game (14.7), almost 2 whole rebounds ahead of Andre Drummond and DeAndre Jordan, who eat rebounds for breakfast. Digging in a little more, Whiteside is averaging 10.4 defensive rebounds to compliment his 4.3 offensive boards per game.
The biggest improvement from Whiteside isn’t his rebounding or his 2.5 blocks per game; it’s that he’s turned into a consistent scorer, with multiple 25+ point games this season on 55% shooting from the field. He almost looks like the Orlando version of Dwight Howard out there.
7. Lou Williams – Los Angeles Lakers
Lou Williams is the perfect example of a player who was overrated for a long time and is somehow underrated now. Williams has taken over Kobe’s role as the Lakers’ main scoring option and the veteran in a system that moves quickly and results in a lot of shots.
As a former winner of the NBA Sixth Man of the Year award, Williams accepts his role and has really matured into one of the league’s best fourth-quarter players. He only ranks behind Westbrook and Harden in fourth-quarter scoring and, like DeRozan, has figured out how to be efficient. His game was on full display recently when he picked up 40 points on only 19 shots, along with 7 assists and 6 rebounds. Look for Williams to be in the running for another Sixth Man award.
Rahul Lal is an LA native stuck in a lifelong, love-hate relationship with the Lakers, Dodgers and Raiders. You can follow him on Twitter here.