NBA

NBA Heat Check: Morant makes year-three leap but Blazers waiting on Dame Time

By Sports Desk November 02, 2021

The new NBA season is two weeks in and narratives are already forming.

The Golden State Warriors are back, the Chicago Bulls' rebuild was a success, and several top teams – including defending champions the Milwaukee Bucks – are toiling.

Those themes may not hold for the entire regular season, but we have now seen enough to recognise some patterns – and the same is true on an individual level.

Which players have made flying starts to this campaign, and which are yet to find their feet? Stats Perform takes a look with the first 2021-22 edition of NBA Heat Check.

RUNNING HOT...

Miles Bridges

The Charlotte Hornets were already a fun watch last year thanks to LaMelo Ball, but the second-year point guard has help in 2021-22. Bridges has been one of the key men in lifting the Hornets to an exciting 5-3 start.

Playing alongside Ball, Gordon Hayward and surprise 2020-21 star Terry Rozier, Bridges leads Charlotte in scoring with 23.1 points per game. Now in year four, his previous best had seen 13.0 in his sophomore season.

Bridges' shooting from the field (47.2 per cent) and from three-point range (34.4 per cent) is actually down on last year, while he is only marginally more accurate from the foul line (88.2 per cent).

But the forward is thriving on having been given increased responsibility this season. He is back to being a regular starter, up to 35.5 minutes per game from 29.3, and attempting almost twice as many shots. Through Monday's games, only seven players in the NBA had attempted more shots from three (61).

With assists (3.4), rebounds (7.9), steals (1.8) and blocks (0.9) also on the rise, the Hornets could have a major asset if Bridges maintains these standards.

Ja Morant

If Bridges' development has represented a major shock, Morant's has not. The Memphis Grizzlies sensation was the Rookie of the Year two seasons ago and dumped the Warriors out in the play-in round last year.

Still, Morant's performances have been mightily impressive. His 28.3 points per game trail only Stephen Curry and Paul George. Having played more games than both, his 198 total points lead the league. Morant also tops the charts for field goals made (75).

After a 2-0 start, Morant had 40 in a losing effort against the Los Angeles Lakers and soon added 30 against the Warriors to return the Grizzlies to winning ways.

The 22-year-old is certainly not the finished article – only Russell Westbrook has had more turnovers than his 34 and a plus/minus of -6.1 suggests his scoring is not making up for shortcomings in other areas – but the rate of improvement indicates Memphis will be rewarded soon enough for sticking by their man.

Harrison Barnes

Barnes has seen what elite looks like, having been drafted by the Warriors in 2012 and started every game across the regular season and playoffs when they won the title three years later.

But Barnes was merely the fourth or fifth scoring option on that team and, through moves to the Dallas Mavericks and then the Sacramento Kings, has taken time to establish himself as a leading man.

This could well be the year, though. Barnes is the Kings' top scorer with 23.3 points per game, boosted by a career-high 36 against the Portland Trail Blazers on opening night.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the forward's scoring output has fallen with each passing performance since that stunning display, but he is bringing more to Sacramento than just scoring. Last year's 6.6 assists were a career high, only to be topped by a staggering 10.3 this time.

Although Barnes' Kings team-mates suggested after the Portland game they were always confident he could produce such displays, his progress at 29 has come as a surprise to everyone else.

GOING COLD...

Damian Lillard

Numerous players have explained away their below-par outputs by complaining about the NBA's new interpretation of the foul rule this season – a "change in the officiating of overt, abrupt or abnormal non-basketball moves by offensive players with the ball in an effort to draw fouls" essentially meaning fewer trips to the foul line for certain stars.

Trae Young, one of those prominently affected, named Lillard as another who was suffering more than usual.

Lillard is attempting only 3.9 free throws per game this year, in line with his career-low rookie year. His 18.6 points are below 19.0 he offered the Blazers in 2012-13. He had 28.8 last season.

But those foul calls are not Lillard's only issue, with his shooting from the field also hugely underwhelming through seven games.

The point guard is making only 34.9 per cent from the field and, having previously scored 4.1 three-point attempts per game, 23.1 per cent from beyond the arc. Those are also career lows and sources of major concern for Portland.

Dwight Howard

The Lakers made significant changes to their roster in the offseason and a number of the new recruits have not yet hit their stride.

It figures that Westbrook, now the third man in LA, should have seen his points (18.3), assists (8.7) and rebounds (8.7) take a hit along with his usage rate (28.5 per cent) after averaging a triple-double on the Washington Wizards, but Howard's slow early-season form was less predictable.

The three-time Defensive Player of the Year played a key bench role in the Lakers' title success in 2019-20, even starting seven playoff games, before joining the Philadelphia 76ers for a season.

Back at Staples Center, Howard is proving far less effective to this point. Both his points (4.3) and, most concerningly, rebounds (4.0) have reached career lows. His minutes are down from 17.3 last year to 15.2 this, but his averages per 48 only further display a decrease in performance – 23.3 rebounds becoming 12.7.

With Howard also involved in an altercation with Anthony Davis during a defeat to the Phoenix Suns, it is fair to say his Lakers return has not so far gone entirely to plan.

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