NBA’s Overachievers and Underachievers So Far… | Mark Medina
Written by: Mark Medina. Be sure to follow Mark on X (@MarkG_Medina).
In this time of Thanksgiving, the NBA has numerous players that should express gratitude for their strong starts. During this holiday season, the league also features some players that should wish for better fortune.
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It’s only a month into the 2023-24 NBA season, but it’s not too early to draw conclusions on the early returns.
Granted, the under-performing players can write a redemption story. Those with strong starts also have to maintain their presence during the rest of the marathon season. Nonetheless, below are the most notable overachievers and underachievers so far.
Tyrese Maxey, Philadelphia 76ers guard
It didn’t take long for the Sixers to wish James Harden good riddance. Not only did his departure relieve Philadelphia’s headache on how Harden’s trade request could affect his production. The Sixers already found a definitive No. 2 player to complement center Joel Embiid.
Maxey currently has been on pace to average career-highs in points per game, assists and rebounds. Maxey posted a career-high 50 points in the Sixers’ win over Indiana nearly two weeks ago. And Maxey has hardly griped about his facilitating role the way that Harden once did.
The Sixers’ early-success starts with Embiid, who could win his second consecutive regular-season MVP award. Still, the Sixers’ failure in recent seasons have largely pointed to inconsistency from their No. 2 star (Ben Simmons, Harden). That can change with Maxey, whom Embiid recently dubbed “The Franchise.”
Chet Holmgren, Oklahoma City Thunder center
After missing his entire rookie season last year to heal his surgically repaired right foot, Holmgren has immediately addressed two possible concerns.
First, Holmgren has appeared fully healthy and has not shown any visible discomfort or limitations with his right foot. Secondly, Holmgren has displayed a wide range of skills with his footwork in the post, shooting beyond the perimeter and passing everywhere else.
As for all of those pre-draft questions about Holmgren’s frail frame? Not a big deal. Sure, Holmgren may need to bulk up in the weight room. Yet, he has the skills everywhere else to thrive. Holmgren also made the best of his season-long absence by studying the game and personnel from the bench and on film.
Alperen Şengün, Houston Rockets center
Too premature to liken Şengün to the second coming of Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic. It’s clear, though, that the Turkish big man has taken notes from a certain Serbian center that has won an NBA championship and two regular-season MVPs.
Through his first two seasons, Şengün has shown he has the requisite modern-day big-man skills as a post-up player, shooter and passer. On defense? Şengün often either looked confused, a step slow or apathetic. That has changed under Rockets coach Ime Udoka. Şengün has improved significantly both with his effort and decision making. Not only has that resulted in Şengün showing an improved defensive rating this season (107.7) compared to last (120.3). In addition to Udoka’s coaching and upgraded personnel, Şengün has played a role in the Rockets ranking fifth overall in points allowed (107.0).
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Jordan Poole, Washington Wizards guard
Just like his time with the Golden State Warriors, Poole has dazzled with his productive scoring and crafty playmaking. Just like his time with the Warriors, Poole has soiled those highlight reels with questionable decisions.
In one game play, Poole casually launched a step-back 3 only for Boston Celtics center Kristaps Porzingis to stuff him. In another game during crunchtime, Poole didn’t pick up the ball until it reached halfcourt amid the wrongful assumption that the game clock would stop. In countless other games, Poole showed defensive apathy both in transition and in half-court sets.
No one doubts Poole’s talent. They have wondered, though, if he’s intent on playing the right way and if he can lead a team. So far, he has failed to answer that call.
Klay Thompson, Golden State Warriors guard
Warriors coach Steve Kerr often described Thompson as “no maintenance” for his efficient shooting, dependable defense and indifference with attention. But just like during the Warriors’ second-round playoff loss to the Lakers last season, Thompson has no longer looked like the team’s familiar All-Star. Thompson’s usual accuracy has disappeared. Instead of thriving in catch-and-shoot situations, Thompson has also forced the issue as a playmaker. And he appears a step slow on defense.
Some might speculate this all stems from Thompson wanting to prove his value in the final year of his contract. That’s not in Thompson’s nature, and the Warriors know fully well his strengths and weaknesses. Instead, Thompson has pressed too hard to break out of his slump. Perhaps Thompson turned a corner with a 20-point performance against Houston. Though it often has only taken one game or even one shot for Thompson to shake off bad nights, he needs to replicate these more consistently to prove he can return to full form.
James Harden, LA Clippers guard
After he finally received his wish to play for the LA Clippers, Harden proudly proclaimed himself as “the system.” Too bad that system has needed a restart. The Clippers lost their first five games with Harden. Both Harden and Russell Westbrook struggled with sharing ball-handling duties. Kawhi Leonard and Paul George didn’t receive enough looks. It all looked like a disjointed mess.
In fairness, the Clippers appear willing to make this fit work. Clippers coach Tyronn Lue told the team that Harden will become the team’s primary playmaker, Westbrook volunteered to come off the bench and the Clippers have won their past two games. But given Harden’s slow start and turbulent off-season, his initial struggles became too noticeable to ignore. It’s too early to know whether the Clippers and Harden will succeed together.