NBA’s biggest early surprises in 2023-24: Emerging stars, disappointing starts and more

More than two weeks into the NBA season, each team has tasted victory, and each has suffered defeat (some more than others, of course).

What has been each team’s biggest surprise so far, good, bad or ugly? The Athletic posed that question this week to its NBA staff. Here’s what they said.

Atlantic Division

Joe Mazzulla’s presence: It’s been a revelation to see the way Joe Mazzulla has walked into the season with the level of confidence, vulnerability and openness that would typically emanate from a coach who has seen and done it all. He seems to have fun with recognizing his inexperience while feeling comfortable in his learning process. It’s not just about being defensive against criticism, but naturally steering the conversation around him and his team. Seeing how excited he was after Boston’s first loss of the season shows just how firm his footing is in his position now. — Jared Weiss

Offensive rebounding: The Celtics now crash the offensive glass. After finishing 27th in offensive rebound rate last season and trading Robert Williams, their best player at that skill, they have somehow become a top-10 offensive rebounding team in the early going. Boston acquired a couple of players with a nose for tracking down boards, but the bigger change has come from the coaching staff’s new emphasis on creating second-chance opportunities. Even Al Horford, who has rarely pursued offensive rebounds over his long career, has been chasing after them regularly. If the development is real (I suspect it is), the Celtics’ new ability to extend possessions will give the offense an extra layer it never achieved last season. — Jay King

Cam Thomas: If you are not surprised that Cam Thomas is in the top 10 in points per game at this point, then you must be clairvoyant. Thomas, who is out for a couple of weeks with a sprained ankle, has been a big surprise in Brooklyn, turning into the top-scoring option on a team with Mikal Bridges and Spencer Dinwiddie. He’s doing it mostly efficiently with a middle-of-the-pack effective field goal percentage for his position, according to Cleaning The Glass, and ranking in the 68th percentile in points per shot attempt. That despite taking (as of earlier this week) the third-most shots per game. — Mike Vorkunov



Cam Thomas, Matt Ryan and 8 others to know through NBA season’s first two weeks

Mitchell Robinson’s leap: Entering this season, a narrative followed RJ Barrett. Could he continue his strong playoff run into his fifth NBA season? He has, but while we were all looking at Barrett, someone else emerged: Mitchell Robinson. He’s pacing to break the single-season record for offensive rebound rate. He’s refined his defense at and away from the rim. He’s getting into passing lanes and guarding pick-and-rolls better than ever. Robinson dominated the Cleveland Cavaliers in the first round of the playoffs. Maybe we should’ve been wondering if he was about to make a leap too. — Fred Katz



Mitchell Robinson is taking over the paint for Knicks … and he’s not giving it back

Kelly Oubre Jr: The easy answer would be Tyrese Maxey. But Oubre is the pick here because of the punch he’s given to the 76ers after signing on a one-year minimum. He scored 20.3 points per game last season in Charlotte, but that was under much different circumstances. He’s averaging 17.4 points per game so far, giving the 76ers needed scoring depth, while also shooting more efficiently than he ever has before in his career. That’s career highs so far in 3-point percentage (41.2 percent), points per shot attempt, effective field goal percentage, PER and his lowest usage rate since he was in Washington. (Qualifiers about sample size apply but, hey, let’s live a little.) — Mike Vorkunov

This team is slow (sort of): We could go with Scottie Barnes’ sensational start or Pascal Siakam’s rough first few weeks, but let’s go bigger picture. Heading into Thursday’s play, the Raptors were playing at the third-slowest pace in the league, using an average of 97.89 possessions per 100 possessions. The Raptors have been among the worst defensive rebounding teams, helping to explain that. As well, they are causing far fewer turnovers than last season. Still, given they are the league’s most efficient team in transition and are still scoring the fourth-most points on the fast break per game, you’d expect the Raptors to take pains to run more often. — Eric Koreen

Central Division

Patrick Williams’ regression: His expected development was seen as the key to the Bulls taking another step. Instead, the fourth-year forward has regressed to career-low metrics across the board. He lost his starting job in favor of Torrey Craig only six games into the season, and he hasn’t looked anything like a No. 4 pick. Worst of all, it’s a contract year for Williams. A lot can change, but Williams hasn’t proved he’s a foundational piece. — Darnell Mayberry

Cleveland Cavaliers

Evan Mobley’s shooting struggles: Mobley’s offensive breakout is off to a sputtering start. He is taking even fewer 3s than his first two years and shooting around 22 percent on all midrange shots (he was around 40 percent last season). It could just be a slow start, and the return of Jarrett Allen should help, but it’s worth monitoring. Mobley remains a defensive force, but the Cavs need his offensive side to grow if they’re going to be legitimate threats in the East. — Jason Lloyd

Rookies’ impact: Ausar Thompson is a daily 5×5 watch every night. His shooting has a ways to go, but he’s impacted the game positively in many ways. I figured it would translate sooner rather than later but didn’t think he’d do this much so soon. Additionally, Marcus Sasser has shot the ball lights out, taken care of the ball and defended. He was one of the best scorers and defenders in college hoops the last two years, so that shouldn’t be too surprising, but you never know until you see it. His efficiency numbers are off the charts to begin the season. — James L. Edwards III



Pistons rookie Marcus Sasser is ready for his close-up

The offense: Everyone thought the Pacers might score some points, but first in offensive rating? In the entire NBA? With one All-Star? That would have seemed like a fantasy, and maybe it still is once we get a bigger sample of games. Nonetheless, the Pacers hung a 50-point quarter on Charlotte and 152 points on San Antonio. They are raining 3s, and Tyrese Halliburton is flooring it in transition to get easy rim buckets. The less we speak of the foul-happy defense the better, but this offense might turbo them into the playoff race regardless. — John Hollinger

Giannis-Dame combo: Individually, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Damian Lillard are two of the 10 most powerful offensive engines in the NBA over the last five seasons. While everyone dreamed of their dominance together when Lillard first got traded to Milwaukee, the pairing has not been all that successful thus far. Entering Thursday, Bucks lineups featuring both players were putting up a measly 104.9 points per 100 possessions, a worse offensive number than all but two teams (Portland and Memphis). — Eric Nehm

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The Damian Lillard-Giannis Antetokounmpo duo hasn’t quite clicked offensively, but it’s early. (Benny Sieu / USA Today)

Southeast Division

Dejounte Murray: The Hawks were one of the league’s best offensive teams in the first two weeks, despite Trae Young being off to a career-worst start shooting (33.6 percent). Murray is the biggest reason things are working. Entering Thursday, he was shooting 50 percent from the field and averaging a career-high 22.6 points and 6.1 assists per game. There are going to be lingering questions about how well the Young-Murray backcourt will develop long term, but the fact that Murray signed an extension and surprisingly bypassed expected free agency indicates how committed he is to making it work in Atlanta. — Jeff Schultz

Charlotte Hornets

Gordon Hayward: He’s still in the lineup! After seven games! In all seriousness, the 33-year-old Hayward has looked spry and arguably has been Charlotte’s best player thus far, bulldozing smaller guards from midrange and finding open teammates when help comes. He even has three dunks already after recording 16 all of last season. With a $31 million expiring deal, Hayward’s strong play adds further intrigue to what is likely the Hornets’ biggest trade deadline question. — John Hollinger

Jaime Jaquez Jr.: The rookie’s numbers may not jump off the page at first glance, but he’s quickly earned the trust of Heat coach Erik Spoelstra. The former UCLA star has added some much-needed versatility to the Heat’s offense on the wing, and they’ve trusted him to make plays in some big moments. He hasn’t shot from distance as well as expected (5 of 20 on 3s), but he’s been given the freedom to create offense from the post. And he’s shown some slick moves on the block and a keen sense for finding his teammates when defenses attempt to double him. His brightest moment yet came in Miami’s win over Memphis on Wednesday, which included Jaquez scoring a career-high 11 points and drilling a dagger 3-pointer from the corner with 18 seconds left. — William Guillory

Defense is excelling: Through Wednesday, the Magic ranked fourth in the NBA in defensive efficiency, allowing only 105.6 points per 100 possessions. But while they have slid under the national radar, no one in Orlando would be surprised by the defense’s strong play. Over their final 31 regular-season games last season, the Magic ranked sixth leaguewide in defensive efficiency. It’s a credit to the players but also to what coach Jamahl Mosley and his staff have built since they arrived in 2021. Can the Magic maintain their defense while center Wendell Carter Jr. continues to heal from the fractured metacarpal in his left hand he suffered on Nov. 2? — Josh Robbins

They’re this uncompetitive: The Wizards are just beginning a rebuild, and few people leaguewide, if anyone, expected them to win more than 30 games this season. But still, the Wizards haven’t merely lost five of their first seven games. They’ve been blown out in all of their losses. (While some of the final scores may look close, those more narrow margins largely have been the result of strong garbage-time play from reserves.) The defense hasn’t only been bad; it’s been atrocious, arguably even worse than forecast. Has Washington played a tough schedule? Yes. Is the team integrating a bunch of new, sometimes young, players? Yes, but even in a rebuild, the team’s performance has been troubling. — Josh Robbins

Northwest Division

Michael Porter Jr.: We know how talented Porter is offensively and what he’s capable of doing shooting the basketball. But his defense this season has been nothing short of a revelation. He’s playing the best basketball of his career on that end of the floor, and that’s given the Nuggets another versatile athlete surrounding Nikola Jokić defensively. And it’s been a key to Denver’s NBA-best 8-1 start. — Tony Jones



Nuggets showcase depth, hunger and versatility in their most difficult test yet

Rudy Gobert appears to be back: Gobert was underwhelming last season. He did not move particularly well, and adapting to a new team was a process, to put it kindly. In the early portion of this season, he looks like the player who won NBA Defensive Player of the Year three times in Utah. He is springy, aggressive and dominating the paint for the league’s top-ranked defense. It’s a promising sign for a Wolves team that gave up so much to acquire him. — Jon Krawczynski

Cason Wallace: When you mention the word rookie and Thunder, Chet Holmgren is the name that pops into everyone’s head. But Wallace has been trusted to defend Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, Dejounte Murray, Trae Young and Donovan Mitchell so far in his early career and has been solid. When Shai Gilgeous-Alexander missed a game due to a knee injury, coach Mark Daigneault turned to Wallace to start in his place. We all expected the gangly Holmgren, the No. 2 overall pick, to be good right away, but look out for the Thunder’s other rookie. — Andrew Schlecht

Portland Trail Blazers

Toumani Camara: The 6-foot-7 rookie out of Dayton has quickly endeared himself to his team and fan base with a scrappy, heady and steady game. The 52nd overall pick was thought to be more of a throw-in to complete the Deandre Ayton trade with Phoenix, but he has become a fixture in Portland’s rotation and is threatening to become the starting small forward over Matisse Thybulle, a move coach Chauncey Billups has already experimented with at the start of a recent second half against Memphis. Camara won’t wow you with his averages (5.8 points, 4.5 rebounds, 1.3 assists in 24.6 minutes), but his non-stop hustle, fearless defense and overall spunk have made him a must-play for this young team. — Jason Quick

Keyonte George’s readiness: The Jazz thought there would be a chance of George becoming the team’s starting point guard at some point this season. They didn’t count on that leap coming within the first month, but his maturity on the floor and his dynamic talent have won out quickly. And now, the Jazz have a rookie leading their team. — Tony Jones

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Keyonte George works against the Clippers’ Kawhi Leonard earlier this season. (Rob Gray / USA Today)

Pacific Division

Added rookie depth: The Warriors drafted Brandin Podziemski 19th overall and grabbed Trayce Jackson-Davis 57th. Podziemski had a forgettable summer league and Jackson-Davis looked promising but was limited to only a couple of games because of a hamstring injury, so they entered camp as unknowns, expected to provide little NBA value in the near term. Both are still buried on a healthy depth chart, but both made strong enough early impressions that coach Steve Kerr has been searching for ways to get them on the court. The veterans love them. Jackson-Davis looks like a capable backup big already, something this roster desperately needed. And Podziemski gobbles rebounds from the guard position. Draymond Green and Chris Paul recently demanded the organization bring them back from a G League assignment because of the value they provide. It’s been a surprise. If injuries strike, they could prove a huge depth benefit. — Anthony Slater

Kawhi Leonard’s free throws: It has been seven games, and Leonard has gotten off to an uneven start. On one hand, his 3-point shot has been great, as he is up to 41.7 percent while taking more 3s than ever. On the other hand, he has attempted only 2.9 free throws a game (and missing a career-worst 30 percent of them). Leonard needs the ball more, and he needs to be more aggressive at seeking buckets through contact. How Leonard progresses in that endeavor while the Clippers integrate James Harden will go a long way toward measuring LA’s success. — Law Murray

Poor start: The first quarters have devolved into a nightmare for the Lakers. No team has ever been worse up to this point in a season: Their minus-74 scoring margin in the first quarter is the worst in NBA history through eight games. They have trailed by double-digits in the first quarter in six of their eight games (and four of their five losses). It’s to the point that Los Angeles has to seriously consider changing its starting lineup. They have been outscored by 22.0 points per 100 possessions with their starting trio of Austin Reaves, D’Angelo Russell and Taurean Prince on the floor, indicating they’d be better served replacing one of them once health permits. — Jovan Buha



Injury-riddled Lakers struggling to find ‘cohesion,’ but some problems go beyond health

Phoenix Suns

Injuries hit early: Health was a legitimate concern for this team entering the season. Kevin Durant, Bradley Beal and Devin Booker all have missed time in previous seasons. But to have this hit the first couple of weeks was a bit alarming. Beal’s Phoenix debut was delayed because of a back issue. Booker has missed time with foot, ankle and calf problems. To this point, all seem minor. In another week or so, maybe no one is talking about this. A healthy Suns team should be among the best in the league, but Phoenix struggled without its big three more than it should have. — Doug Haller

Drop in 3-point efficiency: The Kings’ 3-point percentage (32.5) ranked 24th in the NBA entering Thursday. They thrived from 3 last season, finishing ninth with Keegan Murray (41.1) and Kevin Huerter (40.2) leading the way. But Sacramento ranks seventh in 3s made (13.6) per game on the third-highest attempts (41.7) in the league. One has to imagine efficiency will improve once De’Aaron Fox and Trey Lyles are back into the fold. While it is a surprise, it’s still far too early to be overly concerned. — Hunter Patterson

Southwest Division

Dereck Lively II: When Dallas drafted Lively, the team’s coaches and executives were thrilled to have the ideal center to play next to Luka Dončić … sometime in the season’s second half. But Lively, expected to spend time in the G League to begin this season, has been more than just playable; he’s been excellent enough to snatch the team’s starting center position. A big man with legitimate size, who has excelled as a rim runner and shown tremendous, albeit inconsistent, abilities as a rim protector and rebounder, has completely altered Dallas’ ceiling. And while this is often just a cliché, Lively is getting better game by game. — Tim Cato



How Mavericks have subtly made their Luka Dončić-centric offense even deadlier

Dillon Brooks effect: Given where the Rockets’ defense had been over the past two seasons, there was no question that adding All-Defense member Brooks to the mix, even by his presence alone, would raise Houston’s floor. But through the first seven games of the season, his offensive impact stands out just as brightly. The Rockets are nearly 11 points better with Brooks on the floor, the highest mark of his career by far. He’s taking — and making — smart shots, connecting on a whopping 53.8 percent of his 3s and has been given freedom by coach Ime Udoka to put the ball on the floor and take advantage of mismatches. Houston is on a three-game winning streak, the vibes are vibing, and Brooks is thriving. — Kelly Iko

Memphis Grizzlies

Marcus Smart era off to rough start: It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that removing Ja Morant from Memphis’ offense would cause more harm than good. But the Grizzlies weren’t supposed to be this bad with Smart filling the void. The experiment looks increasingly worrisome by the day. Coach Taylor Jenkins has insisted on playing Smart, Desmond Bane and Jaren Jackson Jr. together as long as possible, but they’re essentially 10 points worse offensively and defensively with Smart on the floor. It makes you wonder why the Grizzlies front office didn’t put more of an onus on stabilizing the fort while Morant served his suspension. Smart looks three steps slower defensively as he approaches 30, and his 3-point shooting has completely abandoned him. Bane and Jackson have handled the additional responsibilities fairly well; it’s time for Smart to catch up. — Kelly Iko

Matt Ryan: The Pelicans scooped up Ryan on a two-way deal just a few days before the start of the season and he instantly became one of the most important members of the rotation. With the Pelicans already getting crushed by the injury bug, Ryan has been able to step in and give them consistent minutes while providing the one skill this team desperately needs: outside shooting. Through eight games, he’s shooting 20-of-47 on 3-point attempts (42.6 percent) and he scored a career-high 20 points in the Pels’ win over Detroit on Nov. 2. If New Orleans can ever get its rotation back intact, Ryan, Trey Murphy and Jordan Hawkins will be the best shooting trio this team has assembled in quite some time. — William Guillory

Tre Jones conundrum: When Gregg Popovich first teased the idea of playing Jeremy Sochan at point guard during media day, my mind immediately shifted to fourth-year guard Tre Jones. Perhaps only signing a two-year deal was a bigger indication of his future role, but the difference in the Spurs’ offense with Sochan and Jones on the floor is jarring. San Antonio plays like the league’s worst offense with Sochan and the league’s best with Jones (He’s also performed well defensively). Both are struggling with outside shooting to start the season, but Jones has a calming presence that generates great shots for his teammates and has developed some nice early chemistry with Victor Wembanyama, which should trump everything else right now. — Kelly Iko

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(Top photos of Rudy Gobert, Kelly Oubre Jr., Gordon Hayward: Gary A. Vasquez, Jeff Hanisch, Nell Redmond / USA Today)

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