Before the NBA season was suspended due to the coronavirus pandemic, there were a number of players who were trending upwards.
Four in particular? Boston Celtics forward Jayson Tatum, Houston Rockets guard Russell Westbrook, Washington Wizards guard Bradley Beal and Dallas Mavericks forward Kristaps Porzingis.
They were each doing so in their own ways. Whereas Tatum was making the leap to superstardom following a disappointing sophomore season, Westbrook was hitting his stride in Houston. Beal, meanwhile, had upped his scoring average to a historic rate while Porzingis was beginning to look like his All-Star self again.
Let's take a closer look at how they were doing it.
Jayson Tatum, Boston Celtics
Tatum has been two different players this season.
Prior to being named an All-Star for the first time in his career, Tatum was averaging 21.2 points on 42.0 percent shooting from the field and 35.9 percent from 3-point range. In the games since then, he's upped his scoring average to 26.0 points per game while shooting 47.6 percent from the field and 43.5 percent shooting from 3-point range. He went from being a somewhat controversial All-Star pick to being an All-NBA calibre of player.
Tatum even worked his way onto the shortlist of MVP candidates with his play in the month of February, capped off by a 39-point performance against the LA Clippers during which he outplayed Kawhi Leonard on the eve of All-Star Weekend.
Tatum dropped 39 PTS and lifted the Celtics past the Clippers in 2OT 😤 pic.twitter.com/Trrut9L7t9- Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) February 14, 2020
If Tatum can maintain that level of play moving forward, it would change the trajectory of the Celtics. He would give Boston a legitimate superstar, someone who could go toe-to-toe with Giannis Antetokounmpo, Joel Embiid, Jimmy Butler or Pascal Siakam in a playoff series. In which case, he could be the driving force in the Celtics making a Finals run.
So how likely is Tatum to maintain that level of play? It depends on a couple of factors, the most important being his 3-point shooting off the dribble. According to NBA.com, almost a quarter of Tatum's field goal attempts this season have been pull-up 3s. He's made 39.9 percent of those opportunities, a massive increase from 32.4 percent last season and 31.0 percent the season prior.
Tatum's improvement as a 3-point shooter off the dribble has helped him become one of the most efficient isolation and pick-and-roll scorers in the league. If defenders give him any sort of space, either by backing off of him or dropping underneath screens, he's proven he can create efficient shots for himself on the perimeter. If they press up on him to take away the pull-up 3s he's now making at the same rate as Damian Lillard and Stephen Curry, he'll put his much improved handle on display with silky smooth drives to the basket.
That jump from 32.4 percent to 39.9 percent is just so large that it raises some red flags. There's more to his game than pull-up 3s - his shot selection has been much improved this season and he's become one of the best perimeter defenders at his position - but with how reliant Tatum is on them, him regressing to the mean could be the difference between this stretch being a sign of what's to come or a flash in the pan.
But if it is a sign of what's to come ... man oh man.
Russell Westbrook, Houston Rockets
Westbrook was playing some of the best basketball of his career prior to the NBA season being suspended, which is saying something because he was playing some of the worst - if not the worst - basketball of his career at the start of the season.
Back in January, I checked in on how Westbrook's fit was James Harden was going. The TL;DR version is that it was complicated. Harden was scoring at a rate only a couple of players in NBA history could match at the time, to the point where teams were doubling him almost as soon as he crossed halfcourt to get the ball out of his hands.
It was a strategy made possible by two things:
- Westbrook settling for 3s. Westbrook has never been a particularly good 3-point shooter and he was bailing teams out by taking the open 3s they were willing to give him when they helped off to double Harden. It came to a head in Houston's Christmas Day loss to Golden State, in which Westbrook went 0-for-8 from 3-point range.
- The Rockets playing two non-shooters. It's not fair to call Westbrook a non-shooter - his midrange pull-up is a legitimate weapon - but with neither him nor Clint Capela being 3-point shooters, pairing them together took away precious spacing in the paint. It impacted Westbrook more than anyone else on Houston, as he's always been at his best when he's attacking the basket.
So what changed? Westbrook stopped settling for 3s and the Rockets stopped playing two non-shooters together by moving Capela at the trade deadline and committing to small ball, basically turning Westbrook into their centre on offence.
The stats speak for themselves. With Capela on the court this season, Westbrook averaged 24.3 points per 36 minutes on 42.6 percent shooting from the field. With Capela on the bench or ... in Atlanta, Westbrook is averaging 29.6 points per 36 minutes on 49.1 percent shooting from the field. With four shooters now surrounding him at all times, it isn't rare for Westbrook's defender to be the only thing standing between him and the basket. And even though he's in his early 30s, he still plays with a level of speed, strength and athleticism that few players in the league can match, especially at his position.
Brodie going to work pic.twitter.com/oYlXpEjbYM- Houston Rockets (@HoustonRockets) February 2, 2020
If Westbrook can continue to score at the same volume and efficiency in the playoffs, nobody is going to want to face the Rockets.
Bradley Beal, Washington Wizards
Can you guess who is leading the league in scoring since the turn of the New Year?
OK, you got it, it's Bradley Beal.
Since Jan. 1, Beal is leading the league with an average of 33.6 points per game on an efficient 47.4 percent shooting from the field, 39.1 percent shooting from 3-point range and 85.7 percent shooting from the free throw line. He's scored 40 or more points six times during that stretch. That includes a pair of 50-point games, which he did in back-to-back contests.
The last player to do that? Kobe Bryant in March of 2007.
Bradley Beal is the first player to score 50 points on consecutive days since Kobe Bryant also did it on both nights of a road back-to-back in March 2007. pic.twitter.com/eESGiST70c- ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) February 25, 2020
The Wizards lost both of the games in which Beal scored 50 points, but they've otherwise been hovering around .500 in 2020. That's been enough for them to move up the Eastern Conference standings, with them sitting 5.5 games outside of the No. 8 seed at stoppage of play.
The Wizards face an uphill climb to actually make the playoffs - even moreso now that Beal has been ruled out for the rest of the season - but the fact that they're even in the race to begin with is a testament to how dominant he has been. Now averaging 30.5 points per game, Beal is on pace to become only the 10th player this century to average at least 30 points in a single season, joining the likes of LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Kevin Durant and Allen Iverson.
That's some impressive company for the 26-year-old.
Kristaps Porzingis, Dallas Mavericks
Ahead of the All-Star break, Luka Doncic missed a couple of weeks with a sprained ankle.
Here's what Porzingis did in the games he played during that stretch:
- 35 points (12-20 FG) and 12 rebounds against the Houston Rockets
- 38 points (10-20 FG) and 12 rebounds against the Indiana Pacers
- 32 points (10-20 FG) and 12 rebounds against the Memphis Grizzlies
- 11 points (3-9 FG) and nine rebounds against the Washington Wizards
- 28 points (7-17 FG) and five rebounds against the Utah Jazz
Forget his dud against the Wizards for a second. Porzingis' three games leading up to that - the three straight 30-point double-doubles - represented his three most productive performances of the season at the time, an encouraging sign after he missed all of last season recovering from a torn ACL.
Porzingis didn't skip a beat when Doncic returned, posting averages of 23.4 points, 11.3 rebounds, 3.2 assists and 3.0 blocks per game on 45.4 percent shooting from the field and 34.8 percent from 3-point range. The two were starting to round into form, giving the Mavericks the one-two punch they were hoping for when they traded for Porzingis in the middle of last season.
Luka finds KP for the jam! 😤@kporzee | #MFFL- Dallas Mavericks (@dallasmavs) March 9, 2020
📺: https://t.co/JCkSkLzQFs pic.twitter.com/LcD76iaZsl
It's not a surprise that it has taken some time for Porzingis to find his footing in Dallas. Not only was he coming back from a serious knee injury, he had to adjust to a completely new system, one that doesn't revolve around him. In his final season with the New York Knicks, Porzingis generated 24.8 percent of his offence in the post and 13.1 percent on spot-ups. This season, those numbers have flipped to 13.4 percent and 26.8 percent, respectively.
You might think that Porzingis would return to being a dominant post scorer once he is at full strength, but Mavericks head coach Rick Carlise has made his thoughts on post-ups rather clear. With how dominant Doncic and Porzingis have been together despite Porzingis getting off to a slow start this season, it's hard to argue with his thought process.
Kawhi Leonard, LA Clippers - Leonard has been trending upwards this entire season. He's gone from averaging 23.2 points with a true shooting percentage of 49.6 percent in the month of November to averaging 26.0 points with a true shooting percentage of 63.5 percent to start the month of March. Leonard was gearing up for another historic run.
CJ McCollum, Portland Trail Blazers - McCollum has been the league's seventh-leading scorer since the All-Star break with an average of 28.8 points per game. The Blazers needed every single one of those points with Damian Lillard missing time with a groin strain.
Zion Williamson, New Orleans Pelicans - It seems weird to include Williamson here seeing as he's played in only 19 games in his NBA career, but he's taken his game to another level since the Pelicans loosened his minutes restriction. Over his last eight games, each of which he's played at least 30 minutes, Williamson was averaging 25.3 points on 60.3 percent shooting from the field. Absolutely ridiculous.
Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers - Embiid's 3-point shooting in particular. He's been more selective lately, going from attempting 3.9 3-point attempts per game prior to the All-Star break to 1.8 since. Granted, it's on a small sample size, but the early returns are encouraging - Embiid has made 55.6 percent of those opportunities. Sometimes less is more.
Caris LeVert, Brooklyn Nets - It's been another injury-riddled season for LeVert, but it appeared as though he had turned a corner before the season was suspended. In his last 16 games, he's averaging 24.1 points to go along with 5.3 assists, 4.8 rebounds and 1.7 steals. His best showing? A 51-point performance in a comeback win over the Celtics.
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