More than baby steps: two players making unheralded leaps this season

Andre Drummond has been the breakout star of this young NBA season.

In concert with his pick-and-roll maestro of a point guard Reggie Jackson, and a more streamlined Pistons roster that better suits his strengths, Drummond has been a terror. His post maneuvers are smoother, and his runs to the rim are impossible to stop. That presence has loosened up opposing defenses and given Detroit’s perimeter guys room to breathe on their outside shots. His two blocks a game are no longer hollow; the fourth-year center is the anchor of the league’s eighth-best defense through seven contests.

He’s not the only player around the league who has found a new gear, though. Bradley Beal has re-dedicated himself to the three ball and is reaping the rewards. Attempting 5.7 long-distance shots compared to just 4.1 last season, the career 40-percent three-point shooter is currently hitting at a 47.1 clip from distance, leading to a 7-point boost in his per-36 metrics (16.4 last year to 23.5 this year), and a 4-point bump in PER (14.0 to 18.1).

Another burgeoning star guard, C.J. McCollum, has taken advantage of a three-fold increase in his responsibilities, helping the Trail Blazers become surprisingly competitive in the early going thanks to his dead-eye shooting.

Drummond, Beal and McCollum have probably taken more pronounced developmental leaps than anyone else in the firs two weeks of action, but that doesn’t mean other players haven’t started to gather themselves in preparation for their own personal jumps.

One player is nowhere near star-caliber, but has benefited from an increased role in a new city and has responded well to the newly-instilled trust of a coach. Another man in particular has found a way to vastly improve upon his wildly successful breakout performance in 2014-’15. Here’s a look at a pair of players whose improvements haven’t been quite as heralded as the trio mentioned above, but have been impressive nonetheless.

Cory Joseph, Toronto Raptors

When Cory Joseph signed a 4-year, $30-million deal with his hometown Raptors in the summer, it was more than just a mere publicity move for the league’s lone Canadian franchise. In just eight games — freed from being the third point guard option in San Antonio — Joseph has flourished in Canada, quickly establishing himself as a key to the success Toronto hopes to have this season.

On a per-36 basis, Joseph’s offensive numbers have tailed off slightly compared to what he did last season. However, the Raptors’ bench as a whole has gotten off to a disastrous start on that end of the floor. Terrence Ross has been listless in all but two games, and is now out of the line-up for at least two weeks with a thumb injury; Patrick Patterson seems to have lost all confidence in his jumper; and Bismack Biyombo, while defensively sublime, can not overcome his hands of stone. He’s shooting 13-for-30 from inside 9 feet, and just 12-for-22 from the restricted area.

Joseph’s individual offensive game has been strong. The ex-Spur has brought a deft touch on short-distance shots (beyond layups). Most of his attempts this season are coming in the paint, and he’s been the anti-Biyombo from that range, draining 16 of his 27 tries. However, he can only prop up his struggling bench mates to a certain degree. Joseph’s played 92 minutes with Biyombo and 113 with Patterson so far; there’s only so much he can do when just 2.9 of his 7 assist chances per game are being converted.

With more competence surrounding him, Joseph has excelled. Fourth quarters have been his jam this year. It’s been Joseph — not All-Star teammates Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan — who has the led the Raptors in fourth quarter minutes with 10.2. He’s making excellent use of that extended run. Defensively, he’s relentlessly pestered opposing point guards and twos, there being no better example than the work he did on Russell Westrbrook in the closing minutes of Toronto’s November 4 win over the Thunder:

JosephSteal

That possession was just one of many in a row where Joseph hounded Westbrook and helped hold the Thunder without a field goal in the final 5-plus minutes of the game. Strong fourth-quarter showings have been the M.O. for the Raptors’ best closing line-up, which features Joseph, Lowry, DeRozan, Jonas Valanciunas, and DeMarre Carroll (when healthy). That five-man unit has been among the league’s best so far, posting an Offensive Rating of 139.9 and a NET Rating of +41.1 points per 100 possessions in 22 minutes together. Joseph’s slashing frees up Lowry to search for openings off the ball, and his defensive prowess gives Toronto a near-impenetrable outer wall.

As the Raptors continue to deal with injuries and sort out an underachieving second unit, Joseph’s two-way stability should earn him even more trust from Dwane Casey, and possibly even enter him in the Sixth Man of the Year conversation.

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Draymond Green, Golden State Warriors

Draymond Green finished as the runner-up in defensive player of the year voting and established himself as the second-best player on the NBA champions last season. While he’s not catching Steph Curry for supremacy on his own team, Green’s play this season has show he’s not content with being second-best. Golden State is off to a blazing 8-0 start despite uneven play from Klay Thompson and Andrew Bogut missing time with a concussion.

Curry — obviously — has a lot to do with that. The praises being sung of the defending MVP and best shooter alive are completely justified. However, Green has truly been remarkable thus far, and in many ways has helped unlock another level for Curry in addition to improving his own game.

Defense has always been the calling card of this supremely versatile and unique player. To no one’s surprise, Green has continued to disrupt opposing teams at all five positions this season:

Green ran into some trouble on the offensive end last season. We saw this early in the NBA Finals against the Cavs in particular. When Cleveland trapped Curry on pick-and-rolls and begged the MVP to pass to Green in the backcourt, Green had trouble creating offense consistently. Too often he barreled full-bore towards the hoop without a real plan in mind, regularly bricking a floater or lay-in, or panicking and throwing an errant pass. While he was a serviceable three-point shooter in Golden State’s bombs-away offense, there was room to improve his 33.7 percent clip. When he shot just 26.3 percent on three-point attempts per game in the Finals, he was exposed as a weak link in the Warriors’ offensive chain.

He’s had no such issues this season. Gains in his offensive repertoire have added new wrinkles to what is already one of the most unique skill sets we’ve ever seen.

Through eight games and 29 attempts, Green has converted on a frightening 44.8 percent of his triples. He’s not someone who can be safely left alone while defenses sell out to prevent Curry from scorching the earth.

However, he’s Steph Curry, and stopping him is more than a one-man job. Green still gets left — routinely — to operate in open space with the ball. What’s concerning for the league is the increased decisiveness Green has shown in taking on playmaking responsibilities.

He’s bringing the ball up the court off his own rebounds, whipping passes to his wings for open threes, and acting as a second point guard on the court, all of which frees Curry up to wreak havoc running around screens.

Per NBA.com, Green ranks 16th in the NBA in points created off assists, and 15th in the league in Adjusted Assists (factoring in secondary assists). Every player ahead of him is either a guard or is named LeBron James. Green’s offensive evolution from last season to today has been rapid, and has unlocked a new ceiling for the Warriors that could even surpass their historically fantastic, 67-win heights of 2014-’15.

About Sean Woodley

Sean graduated from Ottawa's Carleton University with a Journalism Degree in 2014. Since then, he's regularly contributed at SB Nation's Toronto Raptors site, Raptors HQ, while writing and hosting podcasts for Crossover Chronicles. Follow him on Twitter (@WoodleySean), and email him at sean.woodley1@gmail.com if you're interested in exchanging food for written or spoken words.

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