All-Star Analysts

Week 1 top surprise performers

Published October 27, 2023, 4:00 PMIsaac Go

All-Star Analyst Isaac Go highlights a few players who have impressed so far after three game days.

And just like that, the NBA season is back. Fans were treated on opening day to superstar rookies such as Victor Wembanyama and Chet Holmgren making their debuts. We also saw new players don new jerseys, such as Chris Paul. International superstars who showed out in the FIBA World Cup or Europe like Dennis Schroder, Sasha Vezenkov, and Bogdan Bogdanovic are also revving to go for this new NBA season. 

I want to give a special shoutout to Chicago Bulls big men Andre Drummond and Nikola Vucevic. Chicago may have lost the game, and both bigs didn’t put up good stats but they provided a baptism of fire for Chet Holmgren. 

Both Drummond and Vucevic put Chet on a poster. Drummond also stole the ball from Chet, went coast to coast, and broke last year’s second-overall pick’s ankles. I do believe that Chet will eventually start tearing up the league, but his opening day performance wasn’t his best.

After three game days, here are the top three players that surprised me and left me wanting more. Just a disclaimer, this is my personal list and the players I chose here were not just based on their stat lines. My choices are a mix of the expectations of the player and how surprising his performance was.

Max Strus

In the offseason, the Cavs offered Strus a whopping 4-year, $63 million contract. I was one of those people who was surprised by the amount that he got. For context, players such as Austin Reaves, Grant Williams, Gabe Vincent, and Dennis Schroder signed for less money per year in the same free-agency class. 

I truly believed that he was overpaid, but his first game softened my take. He dropped 27 points, including 7-for-13 from deep, tallied 12 rebounds, a steal, and a block, plus had no turnovers in a win against the Nets. The seven 3-pointers were not a surprise because we know he’s capable of having these hot shooting games, but having a breakout game this early is quite astonishing. 

The 12 rebounds are a bonus to the shooting performance. A sidelined Jarrett Allen, who is expected to miss at least two weeks with an ankle injury, increased Strus’ rebounding opportunities, but he actually outrebounded big man Evan Mobley. This may only be the first game of the season, but if these are signs of things to come, maybe paying him almost $16 million a year may not be so bad after all.

Dereck Lively II

Dallas fans have been calling for a big man who can flourish alongside Luka Doncic and Kyrie Irving. Porzingis in his time in Dallas was good but got hurt a lot of times. Christian Wood contributed on the offensive side of the floor. The Maves have been trying to upgrade at that position. The pairing of Maxi Klebar and Dwight Powell may be solid but aren’t good enough to contend with the other Western Conference teams. 

In the 2023 NBA Draft, the Mavericks made their move. Despite trading down from the 10th pick to the 12th pick, they still managed to snag their guy: 7-foot-1 center Dereck Lively II out of Duke. 

Lively only averaged a casual 5.2 points and 5.4 rebounds per game at Duke but also had 2.2 blocks in only 20.6 minutes of play. He had at least five blocks in five different games. Was he going to be the big man for the Mavs? He started the entire preseason and there was some optimism about him, but in the first game of the season, he came off the bench behind Klebar. 

He, however, finished with 16 and 10, while adding a steal and a block in 31 minutes off the bench. He provided an excellent lob threat and pick-and-roll partner for Kyrie and Luka. He outplayed every big man on the Mavericks roster. There will be a lot of growing pains this season but he had a stellar debut, and the future looks lively for Dallas.

Kristaps Porzingis

It was a complete surprise that the Celtics traded for Porzigins in the 2023 offseason. He had a stellar year in Washington where he played 65 games (the most since his sophomore year) and averaged 23 and 8 with a steal, 1.5 blocks, and two 3-pointers per game, but the consensus around Porzingis was that you weren’t sure how many games you would get out of him. 

Before his last season in Washington, he failed to hit the 60-game mark in the five seasons prior. Boston was gambling on his health because they knew the road to the finals would have to go through Milwaukee or Philadelphia who both have superstar bigs who cause problems. The Celtics felt having only Al Horford and Robert Williams III at the time wasn’t enough. 

In his first game as a Celtic, Porzingis proved all the doubters wrong by scattering 30 points, eight boards, four blocks, five 3s, and 9-of-10 free throws in 38 minutes of play. He was the second-best Celtic on the floor and was a monster on both ends. I argue that this game sends a statement that the Celtics made the right move in acquiring Jrue Holiday. Even if they had to give up Time Lord as part of the Jrue package and their frontcourt rotation became thinner, the team can win with Kristaps as their big. Holiday, along with Porzingis, made the team better. 

Honorable Mentions:

Jalen Johnson (21-7-2-2-2 in 29 minutes)

CJ McCollum (24-4-6-2-1 with 6 3pts in 37 minutes)

Rudy Gobert (15-13-1-2-4 in 32 minutes)

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