By Alex Barutha, RotoWire
Special to Yahoo Sports
We’ve made it about a third of the way through the NBA season, giving us a big enough sample size to make some conclusions about who has exceeded — or failed to live up to — expectations. The following players, both for positive and negative reasons, have been especially surprising this season.
There are, however, a number of players I have chosen not to include in my “overachievers” section, due to circumstance. For example, Kawhi Leonard’s injury gave way to increased usage for LaMarcus Aldridge, which has made his impressive production up to this point not exactly shocking.
On the other side of the spectrum, Kyle Kuzma’s emergence has caused Julius Randle’s minutes to fall by the wayside. Had we known Kuzma would be this good coming into the season, we probably wouldn’t have drafted Randle so high. Some other players in similar situations: Lou Williams (point guard injuries), Spencer Dinwiddie (D’Angelo Russell’s injury), Kyle Anderson (Kawhi Leonard’s injury), Jayson Tatum (Gordon Hayward’s injury) and Alec Burks (Rodney Hood’s injury).
Victor Oladipo, Pacers
When Oladipo was traded from Oklahoma City to Indiana over the summer, there was reason to believe that his fantasy value would rise. Namely, being away from Russell Westbrook would afford Oladipo more opportunities as a ball handler. The actual results have been much more dramatic than anticipated. Oladipo’s usage rate has leaped from 21.4% to 30.9% and he’s putting up career-high, All-Star-level numbers. As of Tuesday, he ranks sixth in the NBA in steals per game (1.8), ninth in made threes (71) and 10th in points per game (24.5).
Ben Simmons, 76ers
Simmons has exceeded expectations during his rookie campaign, hovering around a triple-double almost every night and cracking the top five in both assists (7.7) and steals (2.1) per game. Simmons’ 9.2 rebounds per game might not be shocking considering his 6-foot-10 frame, but he’s managed to post 18.0 points per game despite shooting just 26-of-97 (26.8%) from 10 feet and out. His 57.3% mark from the free-throw line is concerning but feels like a minor issue compared to what else he’s accomplishing.
Tyreke Evans, Grizzlies
Even before Mike Conley’s (Achilles) injury, which has kept him out since Nov. 15, Evans had established himself as one of the team’s main sources of offense. His 18.2 points per game is his best mark since his rookie year, when he averaged 20.1 per game. Evans is also having the most efficient season of his career, posting a 54.1 effective field-goal percentage. That’s due in large part to his improved range, as he’s draining a career-high 2.0 threes per contest.
Donovan Mitchell, Jazz
Prior to the season, whether or not Mitchell would be fantasy-relevant as a rookie was a very legitimate question, as the Jazz seemed to have a relatively established backcourt consisting of Ricky Rubio and Rodney Hood. However, with Rubio struggling and Hood dealing with injuries, Mitchell has taken over as the main ball handler in Utah’s offense, leading the team in usage (28.%). Over the past 20 games, Mitchell is averaging 20.1 points (on 42.9% shooting), 3.5 rebounds, 3.5 assists, 2.9 threes and 1.6 steals per game.
Kyle Kuzma, Lakers
Kuzma was drafted with the 27th overall pick and was largely overshadowed by Lonzo Ball as he arrived in Los Angeles, but he got hot during Summer League — averaging 21.9 points, 6.4 rebounds, 2.7 assists, 1.4 blocks and 1.1 steals — and hasn’t slowed down since. In the regular season, Kuzma has garnered 30.5 minutes per game and posted 16.0 points (49.2% from the field), 6.7 rebounds and 1.6 threes. For someone who was likely drafted in the final rounds of most drafts — if at all — it’s been a fantastic debut campaign.
Honorable mention: Nikola Vucevic (1.5 threes per game), Andre Drummond (3.8 assists, 60.7% FT), Aaron Gordon (18.5 points, 2.2 threes), T.J. Warren (18.8 points), Lauri Markkanen (14.7 points, 8.1 rebounds), Domantas Sabonis (12.1 points, 8.5 rebounds), Jonathon Simmons (15.0 points)
Russell Westbrook, Thunder
The Thunder are a bit of a mess at the moment, sitting at 12-14, despite sky-high expectations. Westbrook seems to be struggling to mesh with his new teammates and vice versa. Most noticeably, and probably least surprisingly, the reigning MVP has seen his points per game drop from 31.6 to 23.0 per game. Fantasy owners were likely expecting a dip in scoring, however, given the arrival of both Paul George and Carmelo Anthony. What’s more puzzling is his lack of efficiency, as his field-goal percentage has dipped from 42.5% to 39.6%. It seemed fair to assume Westbrook would ditch volume in favor of efficiency. There’s still plenty of time for Westbrook to correct things, but it hasn’t been an encouraging start.
Ricky Rubio, Jazz
Rubio has not transitioned smoothly into the Jazz’s slow-paced offense, averaging a career-low 4.9 assists while giving away nearly a career-high 3.1 turnovers per game. That’s a problem considering he continues to be a dud offensively, averaging 11.8 points per game on 38.4% shooting. He’s also on pace to tie a career-low with 1.7 steals per contest. Prior to the season, the expectation was that Rubio may have a bigger role in the team’s offense than he did in Minnesota. While that’s actually the case from a usage rate perspective, it hasn’t translated to better fantasy production.
Myles Turner, Pacers
Count me among those who thought Turner would easily have a career year and compete for his first All-Star bid. It took him just 10.7 shots per game last year to average 14.5 points, while also hauling in 7.3 rebounds and swatting 2.1 blocks in 31.4 minutes. With Paul George out of the picture, predicting Turner to be more involved was a given, but he’s raised his field goal attempts by fewer than one per game, leading to stat line that closely resembles last season’s. While Turner has remained stagnant, Victor Oladipo (18.2) and Thaddeus Young (12.0) currently lead the Pacers in field goal attempts per game.
Honorable Mention: Lonzo Ball (24.6% 3PT), Brook Lopez (13.2 points, 4.5 rebounds, 22.8 minutes), Jae Crowder (8.5 points, 3.2 rebounds, 1.2 threes)