The Whiteboard: LaMelo Ball and the NBA season’s biggest surprises

Charlotte Hornets, The Whiteboard

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Two paint-bound bigs dominating the MVP race? Tyrese Haliburton outscoring James Wiseman? Someone other than the Lakers settling into the position of championship favorite? We’ve seen norms busted and expectations shattered in the first half of the NBA season. As we head into the All-Star Break, here are a few of the biggest surprises.

LaMelo Ball’s 3-point shooting

Going into the NBA Draft, LaMelo Ball was consistently rated as one of the top prospects, with his playing-making and potential as a defensive disruptor tabbed as the most reliable parts of his game. The biggest question mark was whether his outside shooting would be reliable enough to unlock his potential as a three-level scorer. It was hard to get a handle on his shooting upside in high school competitions, considering how willing he was to pull up from 30 feet. But in 12 games in Australia’s NBL, Ball shot just 20-of-80 from beyond the arc, looking shaky on both pull-up and catch-and-shoot attempts.

Whether those data points were misleading or Ball has rapidly progressed, he’s pretty much answered the shooting questions during the first half of this season. So far LaMelo Ball has hit 40.6 percent of his catch-and-shoot 3s — about the same as Fred VanVleet, and ranking 46th among the 128 players who have attempted at least three catch-and-shoot 3s per game. He’s also hit 36.8 percent of his pull-up 3s — about the same as Malcolm Brogdon and Kyrie Irving, and ranking 27th among the 57 players who have attempted at least two pull-up 3s per game.

LaMelo Ball not elite at either area but he’s well-above-average as a 19-year-old rookie. Shooting at this level makes every other tool in his offensive arsenal more effective and will likely make the fact that he fell to No. 3 in last year’s draft look more and more silly as time goes by.

Everything about the New York Knicks

Everything about the Knicks, from soup to nuts, feels shocking at this point. It seemed likely that Tom Thibodeau would raise this team’s floor, especially at the defensive end, but I don’t think anyone saw them chasing homecourt advantage in the first round of the playoffs.

Among the seven players who have been on the court for them most often this season, you’ll find a 21-year-old rookie guard (Quickley), a 20-year-old second-year wing (Barrett), a one-dimensional shooting specialist (Reggie Bullock) and Julius Randle. Their two best defensive players are Mitchell Robinson and Nerlens Noel, who play the same position and haven’t been on the court at the same time at any point this year. And somehow, they still have the second-best defensive mark in the league.

Randle has obviously been driving things on offense, posting career-highs in 3-point attempts, 3-point percentage, minutes per game, free-throw percentage, points, rebounds and assists per game. R.J. Barrett’s development has gotten less attention but he’s also improved in pretty much every statistical category.

Maybe you saw the Knicks improving on defense. Maybe you saw Randle having a bounce-back year or Barrett taking a step forward. But it’s been shocking to see almost every major variable break the Knicks’ way at the same time. Not everything is rosy, of course. Kevin Knox is looking more and more like an absurd overdraft and Obi Toppin has barely been able to get on the floor. But things are definitely looking up for the Knicks.

The wide-open Western Conference

I mentioned this in our NBA Power Rankings this week but the Western Conference is looking surprisingly open. The Utah Jazz are an unexpected juggernaut, the Phoenix Suns have taken a leap and then some and Nikola Jokic looks like the MVP favorite for the Denver Nuggets. Coming into the season, all of the buzz was about how the defending champion Lakers had gotten stronger in the offseason.

Obviously, the absence of Anthony Davis has obscured their true ceiling but as of today, 538’s NBA Predictions gives them just the fourth-best odds (10 percent) in the West of winning it all — trailing the Jazz, Clippers and Nuggets, with the Suns lurking just behind them at 5 percent.

To start the season, 538’s model gave the Lakers a 21 percent chance of winning it all with the Clippers, Nuggets, Jazz and Suns holding combined odds of 23 percent. Now it’s 10 percent for the Lakers and 50 percent combined for those four other contenders in the West. The muddle at the top of the East is affecting those odds as well but the Lakers are no longer the runaway favorites and intrigue around the West playoffs is ramping up.

The Portland Trail Blazers are hanging around

That the Trail Blazers are making the most of what they have shouldn’t be a surprise. But it’s still kind of hard to believe they’re making this much from this little. Jusuf Nurkic was lost for the season after 12 games and Zach Collins has yet to play as he recovers from ankle surgery. Enes Kanter has taken over as the starting center and when he’s on the bench they’re either using Robert Covington or Harry Giles in that spot. CJ McCollum has been healthy enough to play just 13 games. Two of their starting wings — Covington and Derrick Jones Jr. — are shooting exactly 33.3 percent from beyond the arc and both Rodney Hood and Anfernee Simons have regressed in different ways. Add it all up and the Blazers have been outscored by an average of 0.4 points per 100 possessions on the season.

And somehow … they’re 21-14, seven games over 0.500 and sitting at No. 5 in the Western Conference. They’ve won four more games than we’d expect, given their point differential, which is tied for the biggest positive gap between actual and expected wins. The Blazers have outscored opponents by an average of 19.0 points per 100 possessions in clutch minutes, thanks in large part to Damian Lillard who has racked up 104 points and 16 assists in 71 clutch minutes, on an 84.8 true shooting percentage.

At some point, it seems like the bubble should pop. But with Lillard working his magic, who the heck knows?

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