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Everyone likes to get shiny new toys, which is why the NBA offseason and its annual February trade deadline pack so much promise.
Sometimes, though, it’s that boring old present from Aunt Shirley that you wind up valuing the most.
That’s why Georges Niang’s work for the Philadelphia 76ers early in 2021-22 earned an animated and amusing reaction from Sixers center Joel Embiid recently.
Niang – an opponent Embiid previously saw only on rare occasions as a backup forward for Utah in the other conference and during college in Kansas-Iowa State matchups – already has demonstrated his worth and importance to Philadelphia’s solid 8-3 start.
After Philadelphia’s sixth straight victory Saturday, the big man said of Niang: “I used to think he sucked, honestly. Obviously, on this team he’s doing way more than [shooting 3s]. What I’m impressed with is he’s a competitor. He brings so much joy to all of us, on and off the court. I’m just glad I have him.”
A lot of players are feeling that way about some new teammates three weeks into the season. That includes household names, the high-priced trade or free-agent acquisitions of whom big things were expected, as well as some more surgical additions to address needs. Here are 10 of them thus far:
1. Kyle Lowry, Miami Heat
If Lowry’s impact wasn’t already apparent from his first eight appearances for the Heat (they were 7-1), it was glaring in his ninth, the loss to Denver Monday when the veteran point guard missed all eight shots and went scoreless for the first time since Dec. 9, 2018. Usually Lowry’s individual stats aren’t as important as what his floor orchestration and pace mean to Miami. As buddy Jimmy Butler said earlier this season, it took Heat players a minute to realize how fast they have to play with the stocky leader. “He’s always looking to pitch the ball ahead,” Butler said. “You’ve gotta be in some really great shape to be out there in what we call the ‘Kyle Chaos.’”
2. DeMar DeRozan, Chicago Bulls
Five years after posting his career-best 27.3 ppg at age 27, Lowry’s former Toronto running mate is snugging up right behind that with 26.9 ppg at age 32. His impact on the Bulls has been valuable, both in providing veteran stability and in the tandem he forms with Zach LaVine. Now Chicago has two closers, two offensive threats to torment foes when both are hitting and to tide them over when one is cold. Two other newcomers have boosted the Bulls in the standings: point guards Lonzo Ball and Alex Caruso, who wreak havoc defensively. As for DeRozan, he still is one of the league’s best mid-range threats, but his 39.1% from deep so far is his best ever.
3. Carmelo Anthony, Los Angeles Lakers
Let’s be honest, it felt like the Lakers were throwing a bone to LeBron James’ older pal when they signed him in August, a shot at a ring in a limited role at a bargain rate (this is the third consecutive season Anthony is playing for less than his rookie salary 17 years ago). But he has had another resurgence, better thus far than his Portland act. Anthony’s per-36 minutes scoring average (22.3) is his highest in five years and he never has shot better: 50% overall, 52% on 3-pointers. He has scored 20 or more five times and he’s averaging 3.5 3-point field goals compared to his career mark of 1.3.
4. Montrezl Harrell, Washington Wizards
This could be a group entry, the guys GM Tommy Shepard points to when Executive of the Year nominations are being cast. Kyle Kuzma has enhanced his reputation since leaving the Lakers. Spencer Dinwiddie, in his return from a torn right ACL last year, fits more nicely next to Bradley Beal than Russell Westbrook did. And Harrell has felt unleashed while still fulfilling his Sixth Man duties. Want to explain his bump of more than four points and about three rebounds per game from 2020-21 with the Lakers? It’s all in the PT, up from 22.9 minutes to 30.0. As he said recently, “Montrezl Harrell is on the floor, brother. That’s the biggest difference. … I didn’t really get to be utilized how I wanted to be last year. I damn near felt like I had a season off.”
5. Patty Mills, Brooklyn Nets
Nobody was expecting Mills to be a version of Lowry for Brooklyn – the Nets didn’t seem to have that need – but that’s sort of what the 33-year-old point guard has been. Average citizens would get investigated for fraud if they tapped an insurance policy so soon after signing, because Mills instantly became indispensable when Kyrie Irving got snared in New York’s vaccine policy. Somehow Mills is shooting 47.4% from 3 compared to 32.4% on twos, while dishing up plenty of intangibles. “Just a true pro, through-and-through,” teammate Kevin Durant said. “Just how he approaches his craft every day is an inspiring thing to anybody. …Beating his chest into the crowd, making timely plays underneath the basket, getting steals, just playing with energy.”
6. Evan Fournier, New York Knicks
Fournier’s Opening Night splash – 32 points in the overtime victory vs. Boston – sent a message that the Knicks, who also added four-time All-Star guard Kemba Walker, had bigger plans than last season’s jump from 21 to 41 victories. The pair haven’t been as sharp as they were during New York’s 5-1 start: Fournier has shot 41.5% in the 2-3 stretch, while Walker has been worse at 31.6% with a game off Sunday on the first night of back-to-backs. Still, they rank as the Knicks’ third- and fifth-leading scorers, with Fournier able to create and hit from anywhere and Walker as a veteran complement to Derrick Rose to divvy up 48 minutes.
7. Georges Niang, Philadelphia 76ers
When ballots come due for the NBA’s annual awards, Niang at his current pace could get heavy consideration for Most Improved Player. Then again, like Harrell, increased opportunity might explain his heightened production more than any particular individual upgrades. Thanks to the void in the Sixers’ rotation due to Ben Simmons’ absence, Niang’s scoring (from 6.9 points with Utah last season to 12.2 now), shots (5.6 to 9.5) and minutes (16.0 to 22.9) all are up. By the way, Embiid isn’t the only one who is impressed. Coach Doc Rivers credits Niang’s development in the Jazz’s disciplined operation. And guard Seth Curry said: “He knocks down shots, so he’s a threat out there. … And he’s an underrated playmaker — he puts the ball on the floor, making the right decisions. He’s just a smart player offensively, reading the defense, mixing in good screens, slips. He’s an easy guy to play with.”
8. Ricky Rubio, Cleveland Cavaliers
Rubio, a favorite of coach J.B. Bickerstaff dating to their early Minnesota days, was brought in as a veteran mentor for and backup to Cleveland’s young backcourt and as a $17.8 million contract that will come off the books next summer. But now, with Collin Sexton’s torn left meniscus, the 31-year-old Spaniard is much more than that. Don’t expect Rubio to again put up a career-high 37 points the way he did Sunday in the Cavs’ victory over the Knicks, but his workload and his production both should go up now. Bickerstaff already was leaning on Rubio to spark the offense when needed, settle his young teammates down and close out close games. “That’s why we fought to get him here,” Bickerstaff said. “We know what he’s capable of and how good of a player he is.” Forward Lauri Markkanen, another offseason pick-up, was getting his post-Chicago game back together until he hit virus protocols, but Rubio is essential.
9. Steven Adams, Memphis Grizzlies
Adams and Jonas Valanciunas figure to be linked, if not forever then at least this season, thanks to the massive four-team trade that saw them swap workplaces. And in sheer stats, New Orleans seemed to get the better big man, with Valanciunas putting up 19.5 ppg and 13.9 rpg. Adams’ 8.3 and 8.2 are fine with the Grizzlies though because his offense is coming without any shift in focus (just 6.4 shots per game) and it’s his defense, rebounding and screen-setting that they value most anyway. Adams has been quick to develop chemistry with his Memphis teammates, too, notably wunderkind point guard Ja Morant.
10. Grayson Allen, Milwaukee Bucks
Allen’s third NBA stop in four seasons has enabled his breakthrough individually. He’s averaging 14.5 points in 29.1 minutes, while launching 8.5 3-pointers nightly and hitting 40% of them. And when you think about it, he is plugging two holes in the defending champions’ rotation as they sputter through injuries in the early season: He has taken over at shooting guard for former starter Donte DiVincenzo, still recovering from postseason foot surgery, and he’s picking up slack in perimeter shooting caused by Bryn Forbes’ return to San Antonio. That earned him a surprise two-year, $20 million extension. The 6-foot-4 former Dukie also has won over teammates with his floor burns and athletic ability, and has developed some nice two-man maneuvers with Giannis Antetokounmpo.
Jonas Valanciunas, New Orleans Pelicans
• Imagine the Zion-less Pelicans without him (shudder)
JaVale McGee, Phoenix Suns
• Helpful veteran big now, at 19.7 points and 13.3 boards per 36
Nemanja Bjelica, Golden State Warriors
• Almost 50% more accurate from deep (57.9%) than Steph
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Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.
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