They Got Next: Three young stars poised to make The Leap

After more than week of NBA basketball, the league remains as chaotic as ever. The usual suspects are at it again: The Clippers and Sixers look pretty good, the Knicks and Grizzlies remain garbage, and it only took a record six days for the Nets to find Kyrie Irving weird as hell. But who would have predicted that the Suns, mostly without DeAndre Ayton, would be competitive with some of the best of the West? How about Warriors, who went from possibly the greatest team of all time to (maybe) the worst in the league?

Suffice to say, some of these things aren’t sustainable. Young players putting up big numbers is usually another early-season anomaly, but sometimes it’s clear when a player with a substantial track record is making a meaningful leap to superstardom — as is the case of some of these guys. Here are the breakout candidates from the early glimpses of the 2019-2020 NBA season:

(All stats as of November 1, 2019)

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Karl-Anthony Towns

27.3 PPG, 11.5 RPG, 4.0 APG, 54.4 FG%, 52.9 3PT% (on 8.5 3PA/G)

Karl-Anthony Towns has always been a transcendent offensive big man, but his early showings have been absurd — even for his lofty standards. Here’s a stat to illustrate his ludicrous early-season scoring prowess: Towns currently sports a TS%, which is a variation of FG% that takes into account threes and free throws, of 68.2% while also attempting eight-and-a-half threes per game. 

You don’t need to be Billy Beane to understand how ridiculous that is. Literally no player, much less a big, in NBA history has come close to that level of efficiency with that volume from deep for a full season. (Kyle Korver came the closest with a TS% of 69.9% on 6.0 3PA/G in his 2014-2015 All-Star year with the Hawks.) Of course, it’s equally ridiculous to expect Towns to maintain this efficiency for the entire season, but it’s a sign that KAT has managed to elevate his already-historic scoring ability at just 23 years old.

And it’s not just scoring. Teams have been doubling KAT aggressively so far, and he has responded with an improved assist rate mirroring that of a high-usage guard. Towns’ reads from the post have been tremendous: he’s spotting cutters with ease, patiently leveraging ball fakes to throw off the help, and hitting a cross-court rockets to open shooters.

KAT’s passing isn’t exactly a revelation. He has always been an underrated passer, partly because Towns is usually stacked up against Nikola Jokic as the best unicorn big. But it’s the kind of incremental improvement that can elevate a superstar like Towns to the top-ten, or even top-five player conversation. If he keeps this up, then maybe the 3-1 record of the Wolves isn’t a fluke.

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Pascal Siakam

28.0 PPG, 9.2 RPG, 3.8 APG, 51.0 FG%, 44.4% 3PT% (on 5.4 3PA/G)

Raptors fans, understandably, have been hyped with Pascal Siakam going fuego against the rest of the league, but let me play bad cop and deliver some bad news: Siakam’s hot start has been a bit fluky. He’s shooting a preposterous 85.7% on long twos and a Steph-like 44.4% on pull-up threes after barley even attempting any last season. Siakam has also had many late-in-the-shot clock heaves sink through the net. These numbers will definitely regress to the mean as the year progresses, which should temper some of his gaudy early-season shooting numbers.

What isn’t fluky is the touches he has been getting. It’s clear that Siakam, who leads Toronto with a 32.2% usage rate, has become the focal point of their attack with Kawhi Leonard gone. And much like Kawhi, Nick Nurse has given him the green light to do whatever he wants on offense — and Siakam has responded by showing that he’s more than capable of filling this role.

The Siakam we witnessed in the 2019 Playoffs is back, with more verve on the attack. He’s as dangerous as ever going down hill in transition and on the pick-and-roll. His cagey post game, currently the ninth-best in the league at 0.97 points per possession, is a key aspect of Toronto’s half-court offense, and should be important when the game bogs down. Siakam has even flashed a one-legged fadeaway J in his 30-point performance against the Pistons, for good measure: 

Even is his shooting won’t be this good for the entire season, the fact that he’s taking — and making — these types of high-difficulty shots portends well for the kind of diverse, offensive star he will be as he approaches his prime. Long gone is the spot-up, corner three-taking Pascal Siakam of the past; say hello to the premier two-way menace ready to lay waste on the NBA.

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Devin Booker

24.4 PPG, 4.0 RPG, 6.0 APG, 47.4 FG%, 41.9 3PT% (on 6.2 3PA/G)

Devin Booker’s raw numbers so far don’t look much different from what he put up last season. But his newfound efficiency is what has stood out so far — both stylistically and in the wins column.

Booker’s shot profile has undergone a drastic change, namely in where he shoots from. It’s misleading to call the midrange game inefficient, especially when guys like Kevin Durant and Kawhi Leonard win titles relying heavily on the lost art. But the main difference is those two shoot a high percentage on those looks. Booker, who also shoots lots of long twos, does not. 

Last season, almost a quarter of Booker’s shooting diet came from mid range, where he shot a dreadful 44.9% from the area. This season, Booker took a page from the James Harden Keto diet and started increasing his looks in the paint and from deep. Only 18.9% of his looks so far have come from mid range, and about half of his shots now have come from the restricted area and in the paint — showing that he’s settling less for long twos and taking matters inside.

The fact the Suns now employ living, breathing NBA players has bolstered Booker’s efficiency. Who knew that having competent dudes would help his cause? His career-best best 41.9% 3PT% can be attributed to playing alongside real point guards like Ricky Rubio and Jevon Carter, and bigs who can actually pass and screen like Aaron Baynes and Dario Saric. The numbers tell the story: Booker’s catch-and-shoot attempts from three are up and he’s pulling-up less, and more of his threes have been assisted than unassisted for the first time since his rookie season.

It remains to be seen if Booker can keep up his more efficient playing style, especially if things go awry in Phoenix. But it’s clear that he isn’t some inefficient gunner that puts up empty-calorie numbers on a bad team. Booker has a clear path to superstardom — if he can to discipline himself on both ends.