The NBA is already through the first month of the season. Multiple teams will have played their tenth game by the end of this weekend, Christmas decorations are out at Walmart, it’s all gone by pretty quickly.
Every Friday throughout the 2022-23 season, we’ll dive into three players who have impressed or caught my eye for one reason or another each week. Without further adieu, here are this week’s Most Intriguing Players.
Thursday night provided one of the best games of the season, as the Magic snuck in a close win over the reigning champ Golden State Warriors. No, the Warriors are not at their best and have been off to start the year. Perhaps they could hit the trade market in an attempt to balance out their bench depth. Orlando’s players did not care, nor should they!
This is one of those games that I’m going to come back to in a few seasons when the Magic have matured into a playoff-caliber team. They wanted this win. They competed like heck for it, and as they won, the depth of its importance was felt by the team. Yes, they’re now just 2-7 on the year, but it was evident in Jalen Suggs’ postgame interview and as the buzzer sounded that this meant so much more than that to a young group looking to put their stamp on the league.
JALEN SUGGS FINAL MINUTE
— Beyond the RK (@beyondtheRK) November 4, 2022
Suggs’ final two minutes were nothing short of tremendous, arguably the highlight of his pro career so far. His threes late in the game, the only two he hit throughout, were emblematic of the dynamism he can bring at his best to the Magic as he set a new career high with 26 points.
Orlando has played inarguably the funkiest lineups in the league this season, leaning into their size and length, but it’s been partially out of necessity due to a plethora of injuries to backcourt rotation players. Suggs’ return in the past two games highlights his importance to the rebuild.
It’s difficult to define being clutch and having a gamer mentality, but Suggs fits the bill. His shot is cleaner and smoother in its mechanics than it was last season. He’s more comfortable driving and finishing. He still has looseness in his handle and can struggle through traffic — something to track growth of as the season goes on — but his ball-handling and initiation are game changing.
Nearly every player on the court for Orlando is capable of some semblance of ball-handling and secondary creation. Suggs smooths that over by kicking sets off with his downhill potential and budding pacing and craft out of ball-screens.
He’s not a traditional primary or point guard, but the vision is there for just the right blend of creation and potential ability to shift on and off the ball to make Orlando’s lineups functional offensively.
The defense is already bordering on elite. His hands are fantastic, averaging two steals per game on the season and snagging four against the Warriors. Suggs is adept at using his chest and feet simultaneously to ward off drivers and drag them into the deeper waters of the shot clock.
Suggs is making an impact and finding ways to make strides. As a result, the Magic are on their way.
Trey Murphy III
Say it with me, or maybe even yell it from Bourbon Street: Trey Murphy has creation potential.
That is not something I believed in the slightest coming out of the 2021 Draft, as I way undersold that he was still growing into his body due to a late growth spurt. Murphy was a fairly stiff athlete coming out of Virginia and for much of last season, but there’s a more defined flexibility in his game and his vertical pop continues to stand out, which is impressive considering he plays alongside the best vertical athlete in the game.
Why does this added pliability matter? Simply put, Murphy is already fairly entrenched as one of the best shooters in basketball. Eighty-two players in the league are taking five or more threes per game thus far in the season, and Murphy is stanchioned in the upper echelon, nailing 47.5 percent of his triples, tied for fifth when filtered for volume.
You can’t lose him in transition. He’s made it his mission to seek out open lanes, gaps, and corners in early offense, sprinting to make himself a 6’10 lightning rod that can let fly in a split second once the ball finds its way to his shooting pocket.
The Pelicans run a ton of ball-screen continuity offense, cycling through ball-handlers. I love this considering how it adds flow to the offense inherently and is beneficial to a roster chock full of players who can make decisions with the ball and get into the paint before rinsing and repeating.
By virtue of how he has to be guarded as the shooter he is, Murphy has garnered some secondary on-ball reps out of pick and rolls, something we saw during Summer League as well.
It doesn’t always look sexy. In fact, it rarely does. It’s funky, it’s limby (I’m claiming that as an adjective because it works perfectly here). Regardless, it’s encouraging. He’s toying with some pacing, snaking screens, and getting into floaters, which makes sense considering how adept his touch is. It’s very raw, but the beauty is in that underdone nature, seeing how he’s processing things, making decent reads, trying wacky wrap passes, and exploring the two-man game. I still want to see him sniff out and exploit advantages a little quicker, but that should come with more time and reps.
Figuring out more as an interior finisher will be crucial in the coming months, but where he’s at right now compared to when he was a rookie is staggering. With the shooting chops he already possesses, the real estate market inside the arc is wide open for Murphy.
The Sacramento Kings are 2-5, and have been absolutely pummeled by a difficult schedule out of the gates. And yet, only one loss has been by double-digits and they’ve had a chance to win every game, which is either encouraging or devastating depending on how you look upon it. I choose optimism!
I still have questions about this team. They’re almost competing too much on defense, as they throw themselves into rotation at will with their scramble. Their wing depth — or lack thereof — creates awkward lineup situations. I still am not sure how to feel about the Davion Mitchell dynamic. I don’t love how their offense runs, even if it has good elements. I could (and will, at some point) fill a whole column with questions about the Kings.
For once, however, De’Aaron Fox is not a question for me, and I consider that the most important aspect of this season. It’s been just six games from him, as he’s out with a bone bruise right now, but this is without question the best he’s played in the NBA from an all around standpoint.
Fox is playing defense consistently, working to be a deterrent, and thriving. He can still overplay at times, overshooting because he’s just that much faster than you, but the effort has been unquestionable and he’s come up huge down the stretch multiple times this season. He’s not a negative, and that’s all I’ve been hoping for the past two seasons.
He also, by far, is the most efficient he’s been throughout his career. His true shooting of 63.9 percent is about seven percentage points above league average, which is gigantic for someone who is usually a league-average or so player in this regard.
His patience has improved. He’s finding more ability to seamlessly change gears on drives and blend his East/West guile with lightning quick speed on his first step of acceleration. You might look at the career-high turnover rate and be disappointed, but I watch Fox and see him making better decisions, cutting down on some of the rashness and unplanned drives and grenade passes. I would argue the turnovers are largely a product of playing good teams and small sample size. He still telegraphs some reads and the decisions aren’t always quick.
But the process is improved, and that matters greatly to me when looking at this early season stretch. I’ve really appreciated the way he’s started to gel with his rollers — can we get this man a lob threat, though?
Fox’s efficiency will likely not hold, because shooting 90 percent at the rim is a bit unsustainable! His touch on floaters and the shorter pull-ups that he likes to get to have been so good that you’re willing to let him get into that bag of tricks in the gray area. As a result, he’s shooting 59.5 percent in the paint outside the restricted area.
More importantly for the proliferation of his positive efficiency, he’s taking more catch-and-shoot threes than pull-ups for the first time since his rookie year. It can’t be put into words how big of a development this is if he keeps it up. Fox has been a fine-to-solid off-ball three-point shooter for much of his career, but has teetered on the precipice of damaging at times with how often he typically is shooting pull-up threes. That’s part of the game as a lead guard operating out of screens, but cutting down on the self-created shots and getting up what is currently a career-high rate on catch-and-shoots is immense. He’s not going to shoot over 50 percent on them for the rest of the season, but again, it’s great process.
The Fox and Damontas Sabonis pairing has intrigued, but also shows room for growth. The screening aspect has been essential for Fox, as the two work in tandem to screen and then quickly re-screen to catch defenders going under and open space for a drive. Their pick-and-roll game has been pretty good, but they’re still ironing out how to compliment one another.
Fox is arguably one of the bets rim threats and interior finishers in basketball, but is currently only taking 23 percent of his shots at the rim per Cleaning the Glass, which is a career low. He’s been fantastic within the confines of the system, which is why I’d like to see a tweak there from Mike Brown as the season goes on. I want to see the Kings lean more into Sabonis as a playmaking hub and elbow operator, getting the most out of Fox as a driver and movement threat while opening up the floor by utilizing Sabonis as a decision-maker.
They were aggressive in utilizing Sabonis as a DHO savant and Fox as an elite cutter and mover without having to worry about how he gets guarded in screens for a short time immediately after the trade last season. We haven’t really seen them go back to that since, and it feels like low-hanging fruit to get the most out of their two man game, and the entirety of the offense.
I still need to see a lot more from the Kings overall. But early on, it’s hard to be anything other than encouraged with what we’ve seen out of their star guard.