Here are five players who have caught fire so far, and whose
environments make sustaining these heat waves a plausible
LAURI MARKKANEN, UTAH JAZZ
We start with everyone's favorite "What the heck is happening
right now?" team in the Jazz, who are 4-1 despite being a projected
basement-dweller/Victor Wembanyama suitor/whatever you'd like to
tactfully call a bad basketball team.
Markkanen is leading the charge in the box score with his
22.0-point, 8.8-rebound, 3.0-assist per-game averages. Two of those
would be career highs (he averaged 9.0 rebounds per game in
2018-19), and his 64.2% two-point clip would be a career best by
far. That's also despite him canning just 24.2% of his threes.
Markkanen turned heads at the end of the summer with his
EuroBasket onslaught for
Finland. We saw the 25-year-old in a primary scoring role
during the tournament, and that's sort of translated to Utah.
Markkanen's usage rate (22.6%) and drives per game (6.0) are his
highest figures since 2018-19. He's making a stunning 68.4% of his
shots when he drives to the basket — bound to recede, but
definitely a positive sign when you look at the above footage.
And yet! He's also been used creatively without having to be
individually creative, as highlighted by Mat Issa:
Regardless of how the Jazz progress as a team, Markkanen is
going to be a featured player barring any sort of trade. He's also
an easy bet to return to form as a perimeter shooter. Markkanen
currently sports a 29.2% clip on catch-and-shoot threes; he
typically hovers around 35%.
There's no one standing in the way of Markkanen leading the Jazz
in shot attempts, and he's shown signs that he can take on such a
TREY MURPHY III, NEW ORLEANS PELICANS
A literally perfect, 22-point, 8-for-8 shooting effort from
Murphy helped the Pelicans win a game against the Dallas Mavericks
without Zion Williamson, Brandon Ingram and Herb Jones. The
second-year forward is shooting a lights-out 68.4% from long range
and re-establishing himself as a premier young shooting talent in
However, it's been his aggression attacking closeouts that has
really helped Murphy propel his offensive game forward.
Murphy explained to me this
summer that he's really worked on anticipating and absorbing
contact. That showed up in NBA Summer League, and it's manifesting
so far as you can see in the above clips. Murphy is only 3-for-8 on
driving attempts so far, but that's already better than his abysmal
21.4% rate as a rookie. He's also been one of the most frequent
transition finishers in the NBA, and is even averaging a
league-best 1.92 points per possession in transition.
New Orleans hasn't gotten out and running too much, but they
project as a team that can capitalize on fast breaks. Murphy is an
improved at-rim finisher and can always leak out for threes. It
makes him yet another unique weapon for the Pelicans' offense.
JAYLEN NOWELL, MINNESOTA TIMBERWOLVES
Want to talk about a dark-horse candidate for Sixth Man of the
Year? Nowell is putting up 16.2 points in just 21.8 minutes per
game for the Timberwolves and has effectively filled Malik
Beasley's spot in the rotation. The 23-year-old is knocking down
just 32.1% of his threes, but he's a proven threat from distance
who I expect to improve.
Mark Schindler has been all over the Jaylen Nowell breakout for
practically the entire calendar year, so both deserve their
The third-year guard is prolific in the short-mid-range areas
like above; this year, he's made a ridiculous (and unsustainable)
62% of his total mid-range looks. But he's been trading some of
those shots in and getting even closer to the basket. Per Cleaning
the Glass, Nowell's short-mid-range shot frequency has dropped by
12%, while his at-rim rate has climbed by 13%. That's a great sign
since he's a capable scorer in both zones.
Nowell's per-game scoring average is fourth among NBA players
with multiple games off the bench. The three in front? Christian
Wood (a probably eventual starter), Bennedict Mathurin (a rookie
and probable eventual starter) and Keegan Murray (same boat as
Mathurin). It's entirely plausible that by the end of the year,
this three-level bucket-getter emerges as a leading contender for
the Sixth Man of the Year award.
NICK RICHARDS, CHARLOTTE HORNETS
A third-year center and former second-round pick, Richards has
grinded away as a reserve for a Hornets team desperately in need of
stopgaps in the frontcourt. Through four contests, he's averaging
13.0 points and 7.8 rebounds per game on a crisp 71.4% field goal
clip (all twos).
According to Second Spectrum, Richards has either grabbed an
offensive board or tipped one to a teammate on two-thirds of his
offensive rebound chances — tied for fourth-best in the NBA among
Within that pristine field goal percentage, Richards is 8-for-9
in scoring chances as a roll man. Now, we're really digging into
some small samples here. But he's shooting 78% at the rim in total,
which lines up with 75% from last year, and some of the plays look
promising. Nothing too crazy, but Richards has finished with soft
touch and some power over two of the better interior defenders in
the league in Clint Capela and Jakob Poeltl:
Richards' success is the most extreme small-sample-size bet in
this notebook. He just has barely seen an NBA floor, so even
looking at past seasons gets sketchy. I'm optimistic for two
reasons: Charlotte has an obvious hole he is filling at center, and
the team has some elite guard playmakers in LaMelo Ball and Terry
Rozier who he can work off of.
DEVIN VASSELL, SAN ANTONIO SPURS
Like Markkanen and the Jazz, Vassell and the Spurs are
unburdened by expectations, which hopefully gives them the freedom
to experiement throughout the season. Fans of the 2020 No. 11 pick
have waited for Vassell's glimpses of pull-up prowess and overall
scoring to coalesce, and 2022-23 might be the year.
Vassell is putting up 19.8 points, 5.0 rebounds and 4.5 assists
per game while firing threes at a career-high volume (8.3 per game)
and efficiency (39.4%). The long-range marksmanship has come and
gone in waves, and yes, it's probably too early to assume Vassell
has fully arrived as a pull-up powerhouse.
However, there's still a lot to love about his start —
especially that assist number.
Vassell's 19.6% assist rate more than doubles either of his
prior two seasons, while his 5.2% turnover rate is actually a
career-low. There are 72 NBA players averaging more than 8 drives
per game this season; Vassell's 15.9% assist rate on drives ranks
He's not some highlight-reel passer, but Vassell displays some
really impressive floor vision. He can enter a drive in attack mode
and still have the wherewithal to monitor how the defense shifts
and how his own teammates get open.
Vassell is off to a shaky start as a driving scorer — he's made
just 28.6% of said shots — but he has a past history with better
efficiency. I bank on that returning, and, coupled with his
improving vision and enticing perimeter scoring, Vassell could
really terrify opposing defenses as a young playmaking engine.