The first week of the NBA's regular season provides plenty of reasons for overreactions, and we here at Yahoo Sports are here to tell you which early outliers are sustainable and which cannot possibly persist. Our experts weighed in on the most surprising trends from the start of the season in this edition of Four Corners.
Paolo Banchero’s free-throw rate
Many scouts left last spring’s ACC Tournament at Barclays Center unsure of how to evaluate Paolo Banchero’s performance. His jumper looked erratic, the ball leaving his hands at different heights and with different spins. He came off as passive on some possessions, content to exist as merely a perimeter ball-mover, rather than anything that resembled a bulldozer toward the rim.
Even Banchero’s strong Las Vegas Summer League numbers may have been gaudier than his real impact. At least anecdotally, Banchero’s mid-range artillery appeared a nice cover for the fact that the No. 1 overall pick often faced insurmountable resistance getting to the rim.
No more. Not in the regular season. With Markelle Fultz and Jalen Suggs sidelined, Banchero and sophomore Franz Wagner have shouldered a bulk of Orlando’s ball-handling duties. Entering Thursday night, Banchero's 45 free-throw attempts through five games led the league. That’s on pace for 738 freebies on the season, as only Joel Embiid and Giannis Antetokounmpo earned more than 600 freebies a year ago.
"It’s like every time he’s driving it, he’s getting bumped and they’re calling it," one general manager told Yahoo Sports. "I don’t know how he’s getting all these calls so early. It’s impressive."
It’s rare to see a newcomer live so luxuriously at the line, a deft skill player development coaches typically are required to teach. There are few superstars, Trae Young among them, who mastered those Jedi tricks as a mere neophyte. If Banchero can sustain that element of his production, his scoring numbers will stay among the league’s leaders, and there may not be much competition for Rookie of the Year after all. And we may be seeing the birth of a bona fide franchise force.
The fun — and victorious — New Orleans Pelicans
We know Zion Williamson won't play every game, and Brandon Ingram is in concussion protocol, but it feels like the New Orleans Pelicans are doing something that will translate over 82 games.
Zion still feels inevitable in all the right ways. He doesn't have his timing yet, but he plants himself along the baseline and stays in the paint. That one loss to the Utah Jazz — a fool's gold team considering its transparent objectives — seems like an anomaly.
C.J. McCollum hasn't found the range from three yet (28%), but as a team, they're nearly at 40%. Even if water comes to level, McCollum is historically a better shooter.
They're not monsters defensively, but with Herb Jones and Jose Alvarado, you feel like they can crank it up to change the complexion of a game. They're a fun team, but it feels like the Pelicans can actually play winning basketball simultaneously.
Tyrese Haliburton will lead the NBA in assists (or come damn close to it)
After coming over from the Sacramento Kings and getting the keys to Rick Carlisle’s offense, Tyrese Haliburton blossomed into one of the highest-volume and most efficient playmakers in the NBA, averaging 9.6 assists per game for the Indiana Pacers. The Iowa State product has taken another step toward the ranks of the game’s best facilitators in the early going this season, with a league-best 50 dimes in his first five games — just a tick behind Chris Paul and Trae Young in assists per game.
With Malcolm Brogdon now on the Boston Celtics, Haliburton stands alone as the unquestioned engine of the Pacers’ offense, shouldering one of the NBA’s largest shot-creation burdens. He ranks 11th in average time of possession, with the ball in his hands for more than seven minutes per game. Only Young, Ja Morant and Donovan Mitchell are finishing more possessions per game in the pick-and-roll; only Nikola Jokic averages more touches per contest. Despite a significant uptick in usage and that mammoth workload, though, the third-year pro is playing the most efficient ball of his career, notching the helper on 47.4% of his teammates’ baskets, second in the league behind only Luka Doncic, while actually posting a lower turnover rate than he did after the trade last season.
Even with Myles Turner back from his opening-night ankle injury, the Pacers will probably continue to rank among the NBA’s worst defenses; most nights, they’re going to need to score a ton of points to be competitive. Combine that with the commitment to playing at one of the NBA’s fastest paces, a rotation featuring more finishers (sharpshooter Buddy Hield, good-looking rookie Bennedict Mathurin) than playmakers, and the kind of preternatural vision and poise possessed by only a rare few facilitators, and you’ve got the conditions for a lead guard to rack up some awfully big numbers.
Christian Wood, paradigm-shifting pick-and-roll partner
Dallas Mavericks general manager Nico Harrison has quietly made improvements to his roster in the absence of a blockbuster trade for a co-star to Luka Doncic's lead. As well as Spencer Dinwiddie has played as a secondary playmaker to start this season, the acquisition of Christian Wood is Harrison's biggest steal. He dealt spare parts to form (arguably) the best pick-and-roll combination in the league.
In the small sample size of four games, Doncic (36.9) and Wood (28.4) both rank in the top six for player efficiency rating, joined by MVP favorites Antetokounmpo, Morant, Jayson Tatum and Jokic. For the record, Jerry West and Wilt Chamberlain are the only teammates ever to finish 1-2 in PER for a single season.
The driving force behind Wood's astronomical PER, his 66.7% clip from 3-point range on nearly four attempts per game, is unsustainable, but it is realistic to believe he can be the NBA's most lethal roll man.
It helps that Doncic will be the ball-handler in most of those situations. He ran more pick and rolls than anyone but Trae Young last season, averaging 0.93 points per possession, far from maximizing his passing ability. That number is up to 1.31 this season, best among anyone running five-plus pick and rolls a night.
Wood is Doncic's favorite target, accounting for 25% of Doncic's 9.2 assists per game — and converting his nightly handful of assisted scoring chances from Doncic at a 59% rate. The Mavericks own the league's best offensive rating by almost four points per 100 possessions, and there is room to improve. Wood only finished a few pick and rolls per game last season, when Kevin Porter Jr. was assisting most of his shots, and still his 1.2 points per possession kept him apace with Karl-Anthony Towns in volume and efficiency.
Wood will shoot over bigs who refuse to extend to his range, and he punishes smaller defenders at the rim. He has only finished 11 pick-and-roll plays through four games, but they have yielded 17 points — good for 1.55 points per possession, which would have easily led the NBA among high-volume roll men last season.
Wood can handle even more opportunities, but the Mavericks are already leveraging him as a threat to roll or pop on exponentially more possessions. Even a cursory view of Doncic's assists and Wood's buckets reveals a litany of ways they are creating efficient offense. Defenses are so concerned with Doncic that they anticipate the pick before it happens, and Wood floats into space anywhere from the perimeter to the paint. If he gets open, Doncic will find him, and as rotations try to account for Wood, too, shooters are left open.
The Mavericks submitted what was at the time the most efficient offense in NBA history during the 2019-20 season, when Kristaps Porzingis was filling Wood's role, shooting league average from distance and failing to take advantage of mismatches in the post. Wood, or even the threat of him, makes Dallas even deadlier.
The Washington Wizards probably won’t stay a top-five defense
After opening the 2022-23 campaign with strong defensive showings in wins over the Pacers, Chicago Bulls and Detroit Pistons, the Washington Wizards enter Friday’s action ranked fifth in points allowed per possession, according to Cleaning the Glass, and second in half-court defense, behind only Antetokounmpo, Brook Lopez, Jrue Holiday and their Milwaukee Bucks. That’s pretty rarefied air for a Wizards team that has finished in the bottom third of the league in defensive efficiency in three of the last four seasons, including 25th in 2021-22.
The Wizards have limited high-value shots, sitting top-five in the NBA in preventing at-rim attempts and corner 3-point tries. They’ve held up well at the point of attack; only the Bucks and Celtics have allowed fewer blow-bys on drives, according to Second Spectrum tracking. When the perimeter D has sprung a leak, their bigs have provided a firm last line of defense, with Porzingis holding opponents to just 44% shooting at the basket and backup Daniel Gafford blocking five shots in only 68 minutes. Factor in good size, strength and defensive versatility at the forward spots — Kyle Kuzma, Deni Avdija and Rui Hachimura can all put in shifts — and Bradley Beal looking at least a bit more interested on that side of the ball than he has in quite a while, and you’ve got the recipe for something solid.
Top five, though, might be a bit rich. Washington might not allow many corner 3s, but opponents probably won’t keep missing three-quarters of the ones they take — or, for that matter, shooting way below league-average on everything but long twos — all season. Once the shooting warms up, the Wizards’ penchant for fouling (23rd in opponent free-throw rate) and struggling to force miscues (21st in opponent turnover rate) could come back to bite them … especially with wing-stopper Delon Wright, who logged 11 steals and 16 deflections through the first four games while taking on some tough defensive assignments, on the shelf for what could be a couple of months. His absence will put more pressure on the rest of Washington’s guard corps — Beal, point guard Monte Morris, the reedy Will Barton, rookie Johnny Davis — to prevent dribble penetration and keep the defense out of rotation. If they can’t, a slide from top-five to middle-of-the-pack might be on the way.
A champion's malaise
Nobody here should be worried about a season-long hangover for the Golden State Warriors.
They played longer than anyone else last year and had a pretty deep self-inflicted wound in training camp. But the champions will be fine in the long run. Their second unit hasn't been good defensively, blowing leads and watching close games go the other way. That emotionally charged loss to the Phoenix Suns isn't some harbinger of things to come, no changing of the guard. Steve Kerr will find the right rotations for that second unit, and they'll storm back to the penthouse of the Western Conference before long enough.
The super-team model cannot sustain three super egos
The sun may have set on the NBA's super-team era, at least until the salary cap skyrockets in 2025.
At the behest of superstars LeBron James and Anthony Davis, the Los Angeles Lakers traded the depth that helped deliver their 2020 championship for one-time MVP Russell Westbrook, whose ill-fitting game has been disastrous for the franchise. Likewise, Kevin Durant pushed the Brooklyn Nets to trade for James Harden, who subsequently forced his way out of town, replaced by Ben Simmons. The triumvirate of Simmons, Durant and Kyrie Irving is off to a 1-4 start after getting swept in the first round of the playoffs.
Even with owners willing to spend into the luxury tax, the presence of three max-salaried players on the salary cap sheet — and the number of outgoing assets necessary to attain them — limits the ability of a front office to surround them with qualified role players. In free agency, the Lakers were left to chase minimum-salaried players who cannot shoot, and the Nets boast a supporting cast that cannot defend. Neither team has first-round picks to develop into players who can do both, and they are not easy to find on the cheap.
It is worse when a third star either cannot or will not complement the other two. The inability of Westbrook and Simmons to shoot only squeezes the room their superior stars have to operate. It makes you wonder about the Minnesota Timberwolves' acquisition of Rudy Gobert. They spent years worth of draft capital and three playoff rotational players to get him, and Anthony Edwards is due a maximum contract in 2024, when Gobert and Karl-Anthony Towns are owed a combined $94 million. The talent around them will continue to dwindle without deft maneuvering in the front office, and is their star trio enough to contend on its own?
The same could be said about Deandre Ayton on the Suns. He wants more responsibility, but the Suns ask him to be a glorified role player, and that had implications both on his contract negotiations and team chemistry. Phoenix paid him, because it could not afford to lose him for nothing, and now we are left to wonder if ownership will cut costs elsewhere. Jae Crowder already asked out over a contract dispute.
A similar situation is playing out on the Miami Heat, who committed nearly $30 million annually to an aging Kyle Lowry. He has been a disappointment, and Bam Adebayo has fallen short of the demands required of a max-salaried star. Nobody has identified cost-effective role players better than the Heat, but they lost PJ Tucker to a raise this past summer, and Tyler Herro's new deal will complicate the payroll further next year.
It is hard to field depth around three highly paid stars and harder still to keep them happy. Ray Allen had to accept a tertiary role and less money to win with the Celtics, and that lasted only for a time. Same goes for Chris Bosh on the Heat. The Warriors work because Draymond Green wants to be a role player, but once they decide to pay him like one, we will find out if his ego can still handle it.