As the young NBA season rolls into November, storylines have swirled in every which way. The Phoenix Suns and Golden State Warriors have flip-flopped, the Boston Celtics look to be real and Joel Embiid and Karl-Anthony Towns are clearly not friends. There is a buzz, some good, some bad, around almost every team, with plenty more to come over the horizon.
Basketball Insiders has looked across the divisions for the biggest surprises of the season. Today, having already covered the Atlantic, Pacific, Central, Northwest and Southwest Divisions, we turn to the Southeast. This group has proved a mixed bag of a rising young team, a struggling young team, a team bound for the postseason and whatever you want to call the Washington Wizards.
So, let’s dive into the Southeast and not only look at the biggest surprises, but how they may affect the rest of the season for the respective squads.
Big D in the ATL
In these first few weeks, we’ve seen the future of the Atlanta Hawks. Unfortunately, after a hot 2-0 start, led by Trae Young and his ridiculous 38.5 point, 7.0 rebound and 9.0 assist stat line, the Hawks lost their star point guard to a nasty ankle injury. Of course, the offense has taken a hit as they rank just 25th in scoring and 24th in offensive rating.
But, the major surprise has been their defense.
Atlanta boasts the 11th best defensive rating in the NBA and they rank seventh in opponent points allowed. The Hawks’ strong play on the defensive side of the court has been a group effort, with rookies De’Andre Hunter and Cam Reddish proving major contributors; the strong, athletic wings have struggled to find their place in the offensive hierarchy, but the duo has proven themselves immediate impactors on defense.
Throw in John Collins, the defensive-minded DeAndre’ Bembry and others, and head coach Lloyd Pierce has a wealth of defensive weapons at his disposal.
While he hasn’t been on the floor that much because of the injury, Atlanta has done a fantastic job surrounding Young with big, athletic bodies that allow him to be his best on offense. Collins, Hunter, Reddish and Kevin Huerter feature some serious size — each of them stand 6-foot-7 or taller — and have proven the perfect foil to Young’s 6-foot-2 frame. Alex Len and Bruno Fernando have brought some more size, as the two have filled their own roles quite nicely as well.
If they can keep up the defensive intensity, the Hawks could prove one of the biggest surprises in the NBA, not just the Southeast, when Young can return and get the offense back on track.
Hot Rookies in South Beach
All eyes in Miami were supposed to find Jimmy Butler. Outside of that, the prevailing thought was that Bam Adebayo would be their next big breakout.
And, while Butler has missed time and Adebayo has performed well, their contributions have paled in comparison to what the HEAT’s two rookie guards, Tyler Herro and Kendrick Nunn, have managed thus far. And, amidst a 4-1 start to the regular season, the two have put the rest of the league on notice.
After developing in the G-League, Nunn has thrived in Miami. His scoring and efficiency — 22.4 points, 51.8% shooting from the floor and 48.4% from three — have been more than impressive. In fact, Nunn’s 112 points through the first five games of the season are the most for any undrafted player in NBA history. Among all players, the last to score at least 100 points through the first five games as a rookie was Kevin Durant.
Talk about elite company.
Nunn has proven a major contributor in every facet of the game for Miami and is a major factor behind their strong start. He’s a strong rebounder, for a guard, anyway, and has some solid court vision, often knowing the right pass to make and when to make it. Nunn has proven strong on the defensive end as well.
Herro, meanwhile, has easily looked like a draft steal. The former Kentucky product has proven a knock-down, deadeye shooter and has provided the HEAT with an offensive weapon to play around with. Against Atlanta, Hero erupted for 29 points as he hit from deep, found success as he drove to the rim and managed to look solid in the mid-range. Herro even found his way to the charity stripe 16 times.
With Butler missing the HEAT’s first three games, their success has largely come at the hands of Herro and Nunn. If the duo can keep it up, they could find themselves in a tight race for Rookie of the Year while Miami could find themselves back in the postseason.
Charlotte Is… Good?
No. The Charlotte Hornets are not good. But they haven’t been that bad, either.
The Hornets were widely considered the worst team in the league coming into the season. But, through five games, they have at least looked competent, which would somehow prove better than advertised.
After a 27 point outburst in the opening game of the season, fans took notice of rookie PJ Washington, and he continued to shoot it well when Charlotte faced off against Sacramento and he posted 23.
Sophomore Devonte Graham only played 46 games for the Hornets last season, but he has proven a key contributor for them this year; Graham has led the team in scoring (16.4 ppg) and assists (7.6 per game). And, like Washington, has found a solid shooting stroke. From three-point range, Graham has managed to hit on more than 50% of his shots.
Miles Bridges has also picked up where he left off last season, while a healthy Cody Zeller has been a major boon for the frontcourt. While it took a few games, former-Boston Celtic Terry Rozier has also seemed to find his stride; after an unceremonious debut, Rozier has shot a good percentage and managed at least 17 points in each of the last three games.
More importantly, Rozier hasn’t tried to do too much, and playing within the offense has translated to team success.
At the time of this writing, Charlotte leads the league in three-point percentage and has the 2nd most made three-pointers. Those two leads aren’t likely to hold, but, right now, they are bright spots for Hornets fans to celebrate. And, while they may not make the postseason, Charlotte clearly has some talent that the team can look forward to for years to come.
Isaiah Thomas Looking Like Isaiah Thomas
The injury-plagued point guard had a terrible run of bad luck. But now, set to step in for John Wall, recovering from an Achilles injury and expected to miss the season, he has another chance to find his former self.
And, in a limited capacity, Thomas seems to be on the right track. In his Wizards debut, Thomas finished with 16 points and knocked down 4 three-pointers while dishing out 5 assists. He followed that up with 17 points and 10 assists in the barn-burner vs. the Houston Rockets, where the Rockets and Wizards combined to score 317 points. The Wizards may have come up short, but the positive play of Thomas was certainly encouraging.
Thomas, a former MVP candidate, has looked like a shell of that player in recent seasons. But, with almost the entire NBA backing him, it would be a pleasant and welcome surprise, as well as a feel-good story, if he can recapture his former form.
There are always surprises at the start of a new NBA season, and there are bound to be more as it progresses. So far, these are the biggest of the Southeast division and, while they may fizzle out or be forgotten as the season goes along, that doesn’t make them any less exciting.