Trae Young’s undeniable promise, Kyle Lowry and Kemba Walker better than ever and other NBA early-season thoughts

The sample sizes are small and the overreactions are overwhelming. You probably haven’t had a chance to watch every team you’re interested in yet, let alone every team in the league. Welcome to the early days of the 2018-19 season, where we can’t be totally sure that we’ve learned anything yet but have definitely noticed some compelling stuff happening. Let’s start with Trae Young and another rookie point guard who demands your attention.

Let’s all fall in love with what Trae Young could be

Young roasted the Cleveland Cavaliers on Sunday. His array of deep 3s, nifty passes and aggressive drives to the basket made them look hopelessly inept on defense, and he was the main reason the Atlanta Hawks were able to erase a double-digit, first-quarter deficit and come away with a 133-111 victory. If you somehow still haven’t seen highlights of Young’s 35-point, 11-assist performance, here you go:

If you were looking for signs that Young could be a star, though, they were there before that breakout game. Here he is in Atlanta’s season opener at Madison Square Garden, showing three different ways he can score out of a pick-and-roll: 

Young didn’t make headlines that night, finishing with 14 points on 14 shots with six rebounds, five assists and four turnovers in a 126-107 loss against the New York Knicks. If you looked past his misses and mistakes, though, you saw a 20-year-old who changes speeds and finds open teammates as if he were much older. Watching some of the passes he made in transition, my mind jumped to Kent Bazemore telling me that Young makes you want to run the floor.

At shootaround before that game at the Garden, Hawks coach Lloyd Pierce raved about Young’s court vision and knack for getting the ball where it needs to go. “No area on the floor is out of his reach,” Pierce said, and that’s a hell of a thing to say about a 6-foot-2 player. Young is too short to simply see over his defender the way someone like LeBron James can. He has to use the same tricks mastered by the likes of Chris Paul and Young’s idol, Steve Nash. Already, he is fooling opponents and throwing jump passes that most guards can’t pull off. He can do this because of his body control and the fact that the other team is aware that he can make off-balance floaters.  

It was neat to see Young playing opposite Mike Conley, another slight, skilled point guard. Last Friday against the Memphis Grizzlies, the rookie scored 13 of his 20 points in first quarter, including two floaters — one of which was taken off the wrong foot, Nash-style — and a bold 3-pointer that he launched from a few feet behind the line. On the 3, he started his gather with 22 seconds left on the shot clock; the Hawks’ television broadcast wasn’t even ready for it. My two other favorite plays from that game were his passes to Alex Poythress and Miles Plumlee:

For months, Pierce and general manager Travis Schlenk have been saying that Young’s greatest skill is passing, not shooting. This is true, but there’s no need to pit them against each other. If you have seen him catch fire, be it the Knicks game or the first quarter in Memphis or any of his dominant showings at Oklahoma, then you know how his pull-up 3s magnify every other part of his offensive game. Thanks to the swarming defenses he had to deal with in college, he entered the league with a deep understanding of how to attract attention and use the threat of his jumper to make his teammates better. Often, point guards take years to figure out the flow of the NBA game — just ask Conley or the two All-Stars mentioned later in this column. In this regard, Young appears to be way ahead of the curve. 

At his best, Young makes you think his upside is limitless. In Atlanta’s ideal world he will become one of the league’s cream-of-the-crop creators, an offense unto himself, dangerous from absolutely anywhere, with or without the ball. Early on, Pierce is encouraging his wings — usually Bazemore and Taurean Prince, but sometimes DeAndre’ Bembry, too — to be active playmakers, which makes for a more unpredictable attack and takes some pressure off of Young. If he has a few more monster games, though, maybe the Hawks will tilt their whole system in his direction. 

SGA: Shifty and good, already

Clippers rookie Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is built for the modern NBA. Three games in, few first-year players could competently defend James Harden. Fewer still would elect to pressure Harden full-court, as Gilgeous-Alexander did, without getting embarrassed. By virtue of being a 6-foot-6 point guard with 7-foot wingspan, any lineup he’s in automatically becomes super switchy. And the Rockets found out that there’s danger in switching a slow or less-than-capable defender onto him — here is the 20-year-old schooling Carmelo Anthony, Isaiah Hartenstein, Harden and even Clint Capela:

None of those buckets, however, is my favorite Gilgeous-Alexander play from that game. That would be this gorgeous pass to Tobias Harris:

Harris compared him to Shaun Livingston before the season started, and that makes a ton of sense, from the shifty midrange jumpers to the fact he never looks like he’s in a hurry. His athleticism and frame are reminiscent of a young Livingston, too. As much as I love that the Clippers can start ballhawks Patrick Beverley and Avery Bradley together, I wouldn’t be surprised if Gilgeous-Alexander earned a starting spot at some point this season. He has the poise for it. 

The Jokic Show

This time last year, the book on Nikola Jokic was simple: He is one of the league’s best players, but he could stand to be more assertive with the ball in his hands. As skilled as he is, hesitating on open looks and thinking pass-first all the time lets the defense off the hook. No one wanted him to lose his unselfishness or creativity, but the Denver Nuggets wanted him to dominate — down the stretch last season, and Paul Millsap privately told him he had to take control of the offense, according to ESPN’s Zach Lowe. 

Memorably, Jokic finished 2017-18 playing the best basketball of his life. Denver won six of its last seven games with him averaging 25.3 points, 12.9 rebounds and 7.4 assists with a 59.8 percent true shooting percentage. I have never, however, seen him play with more force than when he put on a show against the Phoenix Suns on Saturday. As soon as the game started, Jokic took it to No. 1 pick Deandre Ayton, attacking him on the right block, draining a straightaway 3 in his face and then dropping a righty hook over him on the left block. He had the confidence of an MVP candidate, and it never seemed like he was forcing anything. You probably know he had a 35-11-11 triple-double and shot a perfect 11-for-11, but this is a case where even an otherworldly stat line like that doesn’t quite do him justice. 

More good news: Jokic’s anticipation and savvy on the offensive end are starting to translate more on defense. I never thought he was that bad of a defender — he rarely fouls, rebounds well and is almost always alert — but he now is acquitting himself well defending pick-and-rolls in the Nuggets’ new, more aggressive scheme. Denver’s collective improvement on that end will be a major story if it can keep it up.

Also, just for fun, here’s a rare 5-1 pick-and-roll run by Jokic and Jamal Murray:

Jokic earned Western Conference player of the week mainly because of the Suns game, but I would have given it to him for that play alone.

Kyle and Kemba, better than ever

The Toronto Raptors wrecked the Charlotte Hornets on Monday, improving to 4-0 on the season with a 127-106 victory. Despite the lopsided score, it was entertaining if only because it was a chance to see Kyle Lowry and Kemba Walker do battle. Walker, the East’s player of the week, is averaging a ridiculous 33 points, 5.3 assists and 3.5 rebounds in his first four games, and he has made 21 of his 45 3-point attempts. Lowry has been even more efficient, averaging 21.5 points, 10 assists and three rebounds while shooting 60 percent and making 57.7 percent of his 3s. 

Walker never let up regardless of the score in Toronto, but his most impressive performances came in a one-point loss on opening night against Milwaukee (41 points on 15-for-29 shooting) and a one-point win on Saturday in Miami (39 points on 14-for-31 shooting). Forget the 2-2 record; if Walker has yet another career year and the Hornets continue to survive when he sits, there is a realistic path back to the playoffs in Charlotte. 

The Raptors have a much higher bar for success, but the way they’re playing, I wouldn’t bet against them clearing it. Lowry spends every moment of every possession looking for an advantage, and, as sad as it was to see him do his and DeMar DeRozan’s handshake routine solo, on the court it looks like he’s having the time of his life. Toronto is trying to make the most of its depth by playing with balls-to-the-wall energy for 48 minutes, and Lowry has set the tone by flying around all over the place and taking charges the same way he did when he was trying to make his name and earn minutes a decade ago.

Sacramento’s other promising center

Willie Cauley-Stein never saw himself as a Tyson Chandler type. He may have been drafted for his unusual agility at his size and his ability to guard all five positions, but when I profiled him three years ago, before his first NBA game, he said he missed playing point guard in junior high and wanted to develop guard-like moves and footwork as a pro. The 25-year-old has quietly spent the past few summers working on that.

Before the season, much of the buzz surrounding the Sacramento Kings was about Harry Giles, the 20-year-old who was ranked first in his high school class, missed all of last season to rehabilitate his knees and was the talk of the town at summer league in Las Vegas. Cauley-Stein, however, is not ready to relinquish his starting spot anytime soon. He started the season by scoring 23 points on 10-for-15 shooting against the Utah Jazz, repeatedly going at last year’s Defensive Player of the Year with no fear:

Two days later against the New Orleans Pelicans, Cauley-Stein made two plays that illustrate the kind of player he wants to be. One was a funky turnaround jumper off the dribble against Anthony Davis; another was an easy assist to Nemanja Bjelica after grabbing a rebound and going coast to coast, beating almost every Pelican down the floor:

To be clear, not all of Cauley-Stein’s ambitious shot attempts and forays to the rim have worked out well. There have been a number of ugly, errant hooks. The successful stuff, though, shows that the individual work that he’s put in is paying off. His best attributes remain his defensive versatility and rim running, but Sacramento coach Dave Joerger deserves some credit for allowing him to stretch his game. 

Something new in Indiana

Tyreke Evans was by far the Pacers’ biggest offseason addition, but he is basically being asked to play Lance Stephenson’s role more effectively than Stephenson did. Doug McDermott, on the other hand, gives coach Nate McMillan something new. Not only does McDermott help his teammates by being a threat to quickly knock down a 3 every time they’re in transition, he never gets tired running around in the halfcourt. 

This isn’t exactly highlight-reel stuff, but in the second quarter against the Milwaukee Bucks, McDermott hit a deep 3 and, on the Indiana’s next possession, the attention he attracted allowed him to set up Myles Turner:

I want to see much more of that, rather than just watching McDermott standing and spacing the floor. His off-ball movement is what separates him from other shooters. 

10 more stray thoughts: The JaMychal Green injury is rough news for Memphis, but Jaren Jackson Jr. is ready for ALL OF THE MINUTES … Frank Ntilikina is by far the most interesting Knick … LeBron must be so sick of being on terrible defensive teams … What if Blake Griffin is a reliable 3-point shooter now? … The Spurs’ injury woes have made DeRozan’s adjustment easier … Give the Celtics some time … I am here for Nik Stauskas becoming a Portland icon … Boban Marjanovic jumped on that dunk, stay woke … What the hell is this, Luka Doncic?! … Garrett Temple was an awesome signing, and nobody noticed his 30-points-on-11-shots masterpiece.

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