Creator: Christian Petersen | Credit: AFP Copyright: 2020 Getty Images NBA

NBA’s Early Headlines

The NBA season is just a week old, but there are already some major headlines worth watching. Most people may think that some of what I’m about to say is an overreaction and that it is way too early in the year to make assumptions. Isn’t that what the internet is for, though? Here are a few takeaway from the first week of action. 

Markelle is Legit

I pegged Markelle Fultz to be one of the breakout stars of the 2020-21 NBA season a few weeks back and it seems I was right. Markelle has had control of the Magic due to D.J. Augustin’s departure and Johnathon Isaac’s injury. Everyone has been asked to step up and, so far, Fultz has done that. Through five games, Markelle is averaging 16.4 points, 3.4 rebounds, and 5.4 assists per contest. Those numbers may not sound too impressive, but there is a lot to like about his performances. 

Creator: Lynne Sladky | Credit: AP Copyright: Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. NBA
Orlando Magic guard Markelle Fultz (20) in action during the first half of an NBA basketball game against the Miami Heat, Monday, Jan. 27, 2020, in Miami. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

The thing that stands out to me is that he isn’t trying to do too much. Fultz is an incredible finisher around the rim given his strength and creativity with the ball and that is what he has relied on to this point. He’s getting to the rim a ton and having success when he gets there. Fultz is shooting 70% right at the rim this season; that number is absurd regardless of the sample size. On top of that, he’s a real threat from the free throw line now. Markelle hasn’t been the best shooter from the charity stripe and teams have been willing to foul him when he goes inside. This season, that strategy hasn’t worked. He’s shooting a career high in free throws per game and has been hitting them at a 94% clip. This makes him an even bigger threat going to the rim because defenders can’t just hack him and send him to the line.

Markelle still has some work to do, but he has been impressive for an Orlando Magic team that sits near the top of the Eastern Conference standings early on. It’ll be interesting to see how the rest of the season unfolds for Fultz. Teams will begin to make adjustments on him and force him to play outside the lane all the time. I think he’s up for the challenge, though. 

Phoenix is For Real

As of writing this, the Phoenix Suns set at the top of the Western Conference with a record of 4-1 after beating the Utah Jazz on New Years Eve. The Suns had one of the better offseasons and look to make the push into the playoffs. It looks like they will be able to do that and much more this season, as they’ve been one of the more impressive teams. 

Creator: Christian Petersen | Credit: AFP Copyright: 2020 Getty Images NBA
PHOENIX, ARIZONA – DECEMBER 29: Devin Booker #1 of the Phoenix Suns reacts to a three-point shot alongside Mikal Bridges #25 during the second half of the NBA game against the New Orleans Pelicans at Phoenix Suns Arena on December 29, 2020 in Phoenix, Arizona. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2020 NBAE Christian Petersen/Getty Images/AFP

To this point in the season, Phoenix has done some outstanding things on both sides of the ball. It’s a small sample size, so these numbers have to be taken with a grain of salt. So far this season, the Suns rank fifth in free throw %, fourth in total turnovers, and are eighth in three point %. The defense has been more impressive as they rank second in three point % allowed, seventh in field goal % allowed, and first in both points and assists allowed. The team has the third best defensive rating per Basketball Reference to this point, showing where all the team’s success has come from. 

The big reason for the team’s success is due to the play of Mikal Bridges and Cameron Johnson. Both have been incredibly impressive in the early going. Most people would assume the trio of Booker, Paul, and Ayton were the ones leading the charge, but that hasn’t been the case. Booker has shot well and  is averaging 20 points while Ayton has been in foul trouble and Paul hasn’t shot the ball all that well. It’s been the role players stepping up, making this team look so tough. 

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Bridges has a 56/50/100 shooting spilt right now while averaging 1 steal and 1.4 blocks per game. He hasn’t been afraid to let it fly from deep, averaging 5.6 threes a game and he’s made good on his attempts. Mikal is a legitimate All-Defensive Team candidate and his elevated offensive play should make anyone who has him on their fantasy team very excited. Cam Johnson has been just as impressive. He doesn’t have the defensive numbers Bridges does, but one look at the film shows he’s a better defender than he’s given credit for. Cam’s offense has been stellar as well; he is third on the team in points per game while only being sixth in minutes per game thanks in large part to his 56/44/100 shooting split. 

Phoenix is a dangerous team and they’re showing it early. People thought it would be the stars that would carry them but that hasn’t been the case so far. The Suns will be feared whenever Ayton starts to get it going and Paul heats up. 

Sexland is as Cool as it Sounds

The Cleveland Cavaliers put all their chips in the middle of the table with Collin Sexton and Darius Garland. Many worried that the combination wouldn’t work, but it has looked great here early this season. Many had this team pegged to be at the bottom of the conference once again. That may end up being the case, but it won’t be without a fight. Garland and Sexton have both been incredible to start the year and the tandem needed a nickname. Larry Nance Jr. gave the media one that shall never be topped: Sexland. 

Creator: Tony Dejak, Tony Dejak | Credit: AP Copyright: Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. NBA
Cleveland Cavaliers head coach John Beilein, center, talks with Cleveland Cavaliers’ Collin Sexton (2) and Darius Garland (10) in the first half of an NBA basketball game against the Atlanta Hawks, Wednesday, Feb. 12, 2020, in Cleveland. (AP Photo/Tony Dejak)

Sexton has been an impressive offensive player since he stepped in the league and he’s only gotten better. He’s averaging 26 points with 3.8 rebounds and 1.2 steals per game while shooting 56% from the field and 60% from deep. Him being only 22 with not too many other weapons around him makes what he’s doing that more astounding. For Garland, he had a rough rookie campaign. He didn’t shoot the ball all that well and seemed to be out of sorts coming back from the injury he suffered in college. The long offseason seemed to be just what he needed as Darius has looked phenomenal from the start. His shooting percentages (50/52/100) to this point have looked great and his assist rate has nearly doubled while his turnovers have decreased. The offense Sexland has produced is outrageous given their age; this could be a Dame-C.J type of pairing for the next decade. 

Sabonis is a Star

Indiana surprises people every year with how well they do. Despite hiring a coach literally no one has ever heard of and having their best player comes off a terrible season, the Pacers have impressed. Indiana is 4-1 to this point and it is in large part due to Domantas Sabonis’s breakout campaign. 

Creator: Michael Conroy | Credit: AP Copyright: Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. NBA
Indiana Pacers forward Domantas Sabonis (11) and Cleveland Cavaliers center Thon Maker (14) go to the floor for a loose ball during the second half of an NBA basketball game in Indianapolis, Thursday, Dec. 31, 2020. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)

Sabonis made the All-Star team last season and many saw it as an afterthought. It was in the Eastern Conference, after all. Even though there isn’t going to be an All-Star Game this year, no one can dispute Domantas’ inclusion. He isn’t the only reason for the Pacers’ solid start. Victor Oladipo is healthy and is playing very well while Malcolm Brogdon has been his usual solid self. Sabonis has been on another level, though. Through five games, Domantas is averaging 22.4 points, 11 rebounds, and 7.2 assists while shooting 58% from the floor and 54% from beyond the arc. This strong start may dissipate, but there’s no denying how good he’s truly been. Given the fact he’s only 24 years old makes his numbers that more enticing. He has a chance to continue to grow; that’s a scary thing to think about if you’re in the Eastern Conference. 

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The most impressive part of Sabonis’ season to this point is his passing. He averaged 5 assists last season which was great, but he’s gotten even better. His assist rate has climbed 5 points from last year to this year while his turnover rate remains the same. The way Indiana is using him as a facilitator in the half court has been fun to watch; I expect him to continue to be the team’s assist leader as the year goes on. The one thing to watch is how inflated his assist numbers stay. His Pacer teammates have been hitting their shots at a pace I don’t think they can sustain for a full year. Even so, what Domantas has done is very impressive. He could be the Nikola Jokic of the East if this keeps up. 

Blowouts Galore

Teams were having to enter uncharted territory going into this season due to how shortened the offseason was for some teams. There wasn’t any real time before the year for teams to get themselves prepared; that has lead to several lop-sided games. The Warriors lost to Brooklyn on opening night by 26. Then Golden State lost to Milwaukee on Christmas by 39. The Warriors were without Draymond Green, but he wouldn’t have made that big of a difference. These two loses by the Warriors made for the largest margin of defeat by the franchise in back-to-back games ever. Dallas trounced the Clippers a few days later by 51. The score at the half was 77-27. Kawhi didn’t play in this one due to the injury he suffered from colliding with Serge Ibaka, but it wouldn’t have mattered. 

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Milwaukee lost to the Knicks by 20 on December 27th when Julius Randle and Alfred Payton scored a combined 56. The Bucks then turned around and blew the doors off of Miami in their own arena. Milwaukee was able to win that matchup by 47 in large part due to Kris Middleton’s play. There have been a couple of other bludgeonings, but you get the idea. It’s been a wild season early on as teams have not been able to find any consistency or rhythm. Some players are still out of shape. Others are fatigued from their extended playoff runs. Whatever you want to chalk it up to I don’t think we’ve seen the last of the blowout games this year. 

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