Top 5 Most Surprising Players This NBA Season

Image Credit: Chicago Bulls Twitter Screen Shot

We are inching ever so close to the halfway point in the NBA season. By the second week of January almost every team will have played 41 games.

Despite the challenges of COVID and injuries due to condensed scheduling the last 21 months, we have seen some outstanding play. Let’s look at some of the surprising players so far this 2021-22 season.

No. 5: Evan Mobley — Cleveland Cavaliers

Rookies almost always are negative net values to their teams. They may score a lot, grab a lot of rebounds or block a lot of shots. But their overall contribution is a minus. They just don’t impact winning. That’s due largely to the fact that this is the NBA. The best and most competitive basketball league in the world.

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Evan Mobley is a linchpin for the league’s second-ranked defense as a rookie. He is third in the league in defensive estimated plus-minus at +4.2. Behind Golden State Warriors’ bench player Gary Payton II (more on him later) and defensive player of the year front-runner —and Payton’s teammate — Draymond Green.

We cannot stress enough how rare that is for a rookie. Yes, he was the No. 3 overall pick. But nobody, including the Cavaliers, thought he would be this impactful so soon.

No. 4: Gary Payton II — Golden State Warriors

The aforementioned Payton leads the league in defensive estimated plus-minus. Of course it helps that he plays many minutes with Draymond Green, but don’t sell the son of NBA legend Gary Payton short.

The younger Payton is a menace and plays with extreme physicality and quick hands. Teammate Steph Curry says Payton II is tallest 6-foot-3 guy in the world.

Not only is Payton II living up to the family’s defensive legacy, on offense he is sharp moving without the ball in the Warriors’ read and react system, and he’s shooting 41 percent on threes. Albeit on a limited number of attempts, but in the playoffs teams will leave him open and clog the paint, so gaining confidence now will only help down the line.

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No. 3: DeMar DeRozan — Chicago Bulls

It seems strange putting a four-time All-Star and two-time All-NBA selection on a list of surprising players. But DeRozan has been incredible for the Bulls this season.

When he signed in the offseason most people panned the move and didn’t think the Bulls would show any kind of improvement. Wrong on all fronts.

The Bulls have the second-best record in the East and DeRozan is a big reason why. He’s having one of the best seasons of his career. He is a career-high +4.4 in estimated plus minus. His TS% of 60 and eFG% of 53 are also career bests.

He will be an All-Star again this season and along with Zach LaVine and company have the Bulls poised for a playoff run.

No. 2: Desmond Bane — Memphis Grizzlies

The 30th pick in the 2020 draft showed a lot of promise as a rookie last season but was an overall net negative. -1.2 in estimated plus minus. So far this season Bane is +2.6.

He’s averaging 17 points per game on 47/42/93 shooting splits. Bane is only the sixth player in NBA history to make 200+ 3P and shoot 40%+ from 3P range in his first 100 career games.

That’s elite level.

“Light Years” podcast co-host Sam Esfandiari recently shared a screenshot on Twitter of Bane’s second-year stats compared with the Warriors’ Klay Thompson.

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To echo Esfandiari, nobody is saying Bane is the next Klay. But the sample size is large enough to show Bane as an elite shooter and someone better than where he was drafted.

No. 1: Jarrett Allen — Cleveland Cavaliers

It’s only right that the surprise team of the season have two players on this list.

Allen is having the best season of his career and looks like he will be an All-Star selection for the first time. He is averaging a career-high 16.8 points and 10.8 rebounds per game. His efficiency is also at career high levels with TS% and eFG% numbers at 73 and 70, respectively.

He is also the anchor of the aforementioned No. 2-rated defense in the league.

The Cavaliers inked Allen to a five-year, $100M extension in the offseason, and it was well worth it. The Cavaliers look like they have their building blocks for sustained success.


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