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Early season 2022-23 NBA breakout candidates

Early season 2022-23 NBA breakout candidates

The NBA is back, baby!

We’re just about a week into the season now and whilst we’re seeing some trends emerging it’s still a little too soon to make definitive judgements on how the season will unfold. Well, OK: we can say with some certainty that the Los Angeles Lakers remain a disaster. And that Danny Ainge has accidentally assembled a juggernaut on Salt Lake City.

Yes, it’s early. This writers Jazz are (probably) not going to win the NBA title. The Lakers will (Maybe? Perhaps? improve. But what of some of the players who have taken big steps forward in the opening few games of this season? Can they keep it up?

Let’s take a look at some of those who have taken a step forward in the early stages of season 2023.

Tyrese Haliburton – Indiana Pacers

After sharing point guard responsibilities with De’Aaron Fox and, to an extent, Davion Mitchell in his first season and a half in the NBA, a surprise trade from Sacramento to Indiana placed Haliburton squarely in the ‘franchise saviour’ role.

After his move East, Haliburton didn’t improve markedly with the increased responsibility but he did show enough flashes to make Pacers general manager Kevin Pritchard feel that he had backed the right horse. Haliburton’s preternatural playmaking came to the fore as the primary ball handler, putting up 9.6 assists as a Pacer last season. Interestingly, his shooting percentages also increased reasonably significantly. He flashed star-level production in the dying days of the Pacers season with five double-doubles in their final nine contests.

The question, though: could he maintain that improvement with defences focused upon him? At this stage, Haliburton has answered with a firm yes.

It’s only three games, so feel free to sound the ‘small sample size’ claxon, but Haliburton is posting 25 points (on 50/41/95 shooting) and 9.7 assists and two steals a game. These, folks, are All Star numbers.

On a young, rebuilding team (that may not be done shedding veterans with Myles Turner and Buddy Hield still very much at the forefront of trade rumours) Haliburton has established himself as the face of the franchise.

As an aside, it’s worth noting that once Haliburton was traded that Fox, the man he left behind, went on a tear, averaging just a tick under 30 points per game after the trade deadline, alongside improved shooting and assist numbers. He’s maintaining those numbers through the opening week of the new season, as well.

A rare example of a genuine win/win trade.

Nic Claxton – Brooklyn Nets

Nic Claxton is a limited player.

He’s not much of a ball handler, can’t finish any shot beyond five feet from the basket, is a liability from the free throw line and can get pushed around by meatier centres. But after fighting for court time with fading veterans like Blake Griffin, Andre Drummond and LaMarcus Aldridge, Claxton is now the only genuine rotation level centre on the Nets roster.

Brooklyn need him to perform in the worst way.

The rail thin 23 year old played admirably in Brooklyn’s 1st round playoff blowout, putting up 10.5 points, 6.3 boards and 2.3 blocks in just 24 minutes a game, indicating a proof of concept that he can play extended minutes against good teams.

So far in season 2023, he’s flourished. Playing 29 minutes a night, Claxton is averaging 16 points, 10.5 rebounds an three blocks. There are still concerns around his fit alongside Ben Simmons, who will surely (hopefully?) start to assert himself on offense, and also around the ability of Claxton’s rail thin frame to take the nightly pounding that playing as a starting NBA centre requires.

Whilst Markeiff Morris can play some centre in small ball lineups and Simmons can, in theory at least, lineup at the five, Claxton’s ability to hold up his end will be huge for the Nets, no matter what happens with their combustible superstar trio.

James Wiseman – Golden State Warriors

This poor kid has had no luck in his NBA journey. Outside of that whole ‘NBA Champion’ thing, I suppose.

From playing just a handful of collegiate games, to entering his rookie year without a preseason or proper training camp, to injuries that forced him to miss the back half of his rookie campaign and all of last season, Wiseman has simply never gotten a chance to show exactly what he can do.

Now, with the limited but diligent and disciplined Kevon Looney firmly entrenched as the starting centre, Wiseman will have to earn his minutes whilst hoping that the injury bug doesn’t once again bite. Fortunately, Wiseman is still only 21 – younger than many of this year’s rookie class. He’s got time to prove himself.

When he himself was a rookie, Wiseman did show some promise. His athletic gifts were there for all to see as he averaged about 11 points and six boards (incidentally, pretty much identical to his numbers through the early stages of this season) though he struggled to react defensively and was utterly lost in the Warriors whirring offensive machine.

So far this season, Wiseman has looked like a man who at least knows where he needs to be in a given situation. He’s still got a ways to go in learning all of the intricacies of NBA offences – both his own and how to stop the oppositions – but he at least looks like something more than a major draft bust; a term that has been bandied about in hushed tones by some in NBA circles.

Lonnie Walker IV – Los Angeles Lakers

Lonnie Walker came into the NBA in a seemingly perfect position. An uber athletic scorer with an iffy jump shot, he landed on a Sours franchise that is legendary for it’s player development, with revered shooting coach Chip Engellend on staff to fix his one major flaw.

Unfortunately, despite numerous flashes and false dawns, it never really worked out for Walker in San Antonio, as the Spurs muddled about in mediocrity before finally embracing the tank this off-season. A part of that tanking effort included letting Walker…uh…walk for nothing to the Lakers.

In LA, Walker would (in theory, at least) have his best opportunity to succeed. As the only starting calibre wing on the roster, he’d certainly be given an opportunity to shine. With LeBron James sucking up so much attention and firing laser-like passes all over the court, Walker – a smart cutter – just had to move off the ball and keep his hands ready: he was going to get the easiest buckets of his career.

So far, Walker’s move is paying dividends. He’s averaging a career high 15.3 points in a career high 32 minutes a contest. He’s also shooting a career high 43.9% from the floor, despite the fact that his outside jumper has, much like Anthony Davis’ and Russell Westbrook’s, seemingly fallen into one of those faults that runs through Los Angeles. That’s a testament to Walker’s quickly developed chemistry with King James, the two connecting multiple times a game thus far.

Walker – and the winless Lakers – need his jumpshot to return sooner rather than later, if for no other reason than to open up increased space for the Lakers stars and Russell Westbrook. It should, also open up room for Walker’s explosive drives to the basket.

Defensively Walker has been a find for the Lakers, playing very good positional defense and picking up 1.3 steals a game so far.

Obi Toppin – New York Knicks

Obi Toppin is a very good NBA basketballer, something that, Tom Thibodeau aside, the whole world seems to recognise.

Thibs’ stubborn insistence in playing Toppin alongside a traditional big man stymies Toppin’s greatest asset: his extraordinary athleticism as a roll man.

Yes, Toppin can shoot the ball some, but he’s not exactly Karl Towns out there. He’s a reasonable stretch five with the potential to get better in that area. Where he excels, though, is using his pace and explosive leaping ability, both with and without the ball, to beat his opponent to the basket.

The issue, however, is that Toppin isn’t a great defender either on the ball, at the cup or on the boards (rebounding aside, though, is he really that much worse than Mitchell Robinson, who fouled thrice whilst you read that sentence?). Whilst pairing him with Julius Randle would open up so many offensive opportunities – especially with a real live point guard in Jalen Brunson on board – it would likely sink the Knicks defense. And we all know how much Thibs cares about his defense.

Whilst the easy answer for how Toppin can earn more burn is to shoot better and defend better (I’ll bet he’s never thought of that!) Thibs can make some coaching changes to better utilise Toppin’s skill set. He can run a lot more off ball screening action (Spain sets, weakside cross screens etc) to allow Toppin the opportunity to catch the ball on the move. He could run a lot more flare action than he currently does.

If pairing Toppin with either Robinson or Randle is too much of a headache then perhaps Thibs could look to give him extended minutes with the impressive Isaiah Hartenstein? Offensively they should certainly gel. Hartenstein’s passing from the elbows would give an on-the-move Toppin all sorts of good looks and defensively Hartenstein’s rebounding and heft should allow Toppin to steer clear of the defensive grunt work that he clearly struggles with.

So far this season Toppin is putting out pretty much the same production as he did last campaign. With some little tweaks and a bit of faith from his coach, that could easily change.

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