As the first portion of the NBA season unfolds, each week we will highlight a handful of make-or-break players who will determine their team's fortunes, for better or worse. Before Christmas, you will have a full rundown of each team's bellwether, so you can ride the ups and downs of the rest of the season with them.
Last week, we covered:
Khris Middleton, Milwaukee Bucks
Evan Mobley, Cleveland Cavaliers
Chet Holmgren, Oklahoma City Thunder
Kyle Lowry, Miami Heat
Julius Randle, New York Knicks
This week ...
Jaden McDaniels, Minnesota Timberwolves
Timberwolves wing Anthony Edwards has been the most electrifying player in the NBA early this season. We knew he was coming. Maybe not to the degree that his combination of athleticism, fluidity, power and competitiveness is now drawing favorable comparisons to Michael Jordan. But we knew he was coming.
What we missed is the multiplier effect of McDaniels' emergence alongside Edwards, which lifts the ceiling off what we thought possible in Minnesota. This is no longer a team identified by the awkward frontcourt fit between Karl-Anthony Towns and Rudy Gobert. The Timberwolves are marked by the brilliant coalescence of Edwards and McDaniels, who complement each other on the wings like a brash James Bond villain and his silent evil henchman, wreaking havoc on whatever opponents are trying to accomplish on the perimeter.
Edwards' scoring, efficiency and playmaking have improved each season to the point in this, his fourth year, he can practically do anything he wants offensively. McDaniels is his release valve, finding pockets wherever defenders sag and making them pay, as he did multiple times down the stretch of their victory against the Boston Celtics on Nov. 6. McDaniels is shooting 40% on 3.4 3-point attempts per game over the past two seasons, including 46% (6-of-13 3P) on catch-and-shoot opportunities and 47% (9-of-19 3P) from the corners.
Edwards will continue to improve as a facilitator, and McDaniels will focus on how best to complement that improvement with more cutting, curling and even creating. The bones are there, and the speed with which they are fleshing them out is generating a tornado of opportunity. McDaniels is evolving as an extension of Edwards, forcing opponents to quantify how to provide help on the latter and still account for the former.
The reverse could be true on the defensive end, where McDaniels is establishing himself as a bona fide Defensive Player of the Year candidate, and Edwards — when he wants to, when he can, given his offensive responsibilities — operates in tandem, combining to stop both the opponent's star and his best wing outlet.
Here are the six players whom McDaniels has spent more than five minutes defending this season, according to the NBA's tracking data: Jayson Tatum, Stephen Curry, Brandon Ingram, Lauri Markkanen, Trae Young and Jamal Murray. They have combined to shoot 40% (18-of-45 FG) against McDaniels over 46 minutes, when their teams are scoring 89.2 points per 100 possessions — the equivalent of the NBA's best-ever defense.
Those players' perimeter partners — Jaylen Brown, Andrew Wiggins, Dyson Daniels, Jordan Clarkson, De'Andre Hunter and Michael Porter Jr. — shot a combined 36.8% (14-of-38 FG) when defended by Edwards. The exterior defense of Edwards and McDaniels frees Gobert to protect the rim more and defend in space less (just as the two-man dynamic between Edwards and McDaniels eases the offensive burden on Towns).
There is a real chance both Edwards and McDaniels make the All-Defensive first team this season — a big freaking deal in any era of the NBA's history. Over the past 50 years, 18 sets of teammates have made the first team in the same season, and 12 of those pairings have combined to yield 22 championships in tandem:
Jrue Holiday and Brook Lopez, Milwaukee Bucks (2023)
Jrue Holiday and Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks (2021)
Chris Paul and DeAndre Jordan, Los Angeles Clippers (2015-16)
Kevin Garnett and Rajon Rondo, Boston Celtics (2011)
Tim Duncan and Bruce Bowen, San Antonio Spurs (2005, 2007-08)
Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen, Chicago Bulls (1992-93, 1996-98)
David Robinson and Dennis Rodman, San Antonio Spurs (1995)
Joe Dumars and Dennis Rodman, Detroit Pistons (1989-90, 1992-93)
Hakeem Olajuwon and Rodney McCray, Houston Rockets (1988)
Kevin McHale and Dennis Johnson, Boston Celtics (1987)
Sidney Moncrief and Paul Pressey, Milwaukee Bucks (1985-86)
Maurice Cheeks and Bobby Jones, Philadelphia 76ers (1983-84)
Bobby Jones and Caldwell Jones, Philadelphia 76ers (1982)
Bill Walton, Maurice Lucas and Lionel Hollins, Portland Trail Blazers (1978)
John Havlicek and Paul Silas, Boston Celtics (1975-76)
Jerry Sloan and Norm Van Lier, Chicago Bulls (1974)
Walt Frazier and Dave DeBusschere, New York Knicks (1974)
Wilt Chamberlain and Jerry West, Los Angeles Lakers (1973)
The spectrum of All-Defensive wing duos ranges from Jordan and Pippen, who made the first team together in five of their six championship seasons, to Moncrief and Pressey, who made two first teams together in the mid-1980s and averaged 51 wins over seven seasons as teammates, including three appearances in the Eastern Conference finals (where they lost to the eventual champion each time).
Either path is far more encouraging than the reality Minnesota faced last season, when the pairing of Towns and Gobert looked as if it could stunt any growth in the franchise's near future. The front office is now free to move either in service of a new identity — a two-man wolfpack hunting any and every wing within reach.
Andrew Wiggins, Golden State Warriors
It is becoming more remarkable by the day that Wiggins started the 2022 All-Star Game and so clearly served as the Warriors' second-best player on their most recent championship run. He missed 45 games last season — a month to an adductor injury and the final two months for personal reasons — before a mediocre showing in the playoffs, and he has been exceedingly worse through 12 games this season.
His per-game scoring (10.8 points), passing (0.9 assists) and defensive counting statistics (0.8 combined blocks and steals) are all roughly half of his career averages, and the man who grabbed 8.8 rebounds a night in the 2022 NBA Finals is averaging four per game this season. The advanced stats are even worse. Wiggins ranks last in the league in Value Over Replacement Player (-0.5), per Basketball Reference.
Wiggins owns Golden State's worst on/off differential on both ends for an alarming -26.1 net rating. Opponents are outscoring the Warriors by 13.7 points per 100 meaningful possessions when Wiggins shares the floor with Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green, per Cleaning the Glass. When anyone else plays with that trio instead, they are outscoring opponents by 31.7 points per 100 possessions.
One statistic making the media rounds this week: Only twice has anyone besides Curry scored 20 points for the Warriors this season — Dario Šarić in a two-point win over the Oklahoma City Thunder and Brandin Podziemski (23) and Šarić again (21) in Tuesday's loss to the Timberwolves in which Curry was out with a knee injury and Draymond Green and Klay Thompson were ejected fewer than two minutes in. Wiggins has averaged 20 points in a season three times and exceeded that figure 20 times during the 2021-22 season. He is now shooting career worsts from the field (39.5%), 3-point range (15.2%) and free-throw line (50%).
Wiggins is playing a career-low 26 minutes per game, and Warriors head coach Steve Kerr has looked elsewhere in the clutch, even favoring Podziemski, the 20-year-old rookie, on occasion. Wiggins is 28, in the prime of his career and playing on a team full of mid-30-somethings who needed him at his best two years ago. This is supposed to be his time. He could cost his teammates the rest of theirs if he reverts to the inefficient and disinterested player he was for years in Minnesota, but even that would be better than this.
Dereck Lively II, Dallas Mavericks
The Mavericks have been searching for a center to partner with Luka Dončić ever since Nico Harrison assumed control of the front office (and even before then). They traded for Moses Brown, who lasted 26 games and a single start before his release on Feb. 10, 2022, the same day the Kristaps Porziņģis era ran its course. They dealt Porziņģis for Dāvis Bertāns at the 2022 trade deadline, acquired Christian Wood a few months later on draft night and signed JaVale McGee as soon as free agency opened. None of it worked.
Dallas grabbed the lowest percentage of rebounds last season and ranked bottom 10 in opponents' field-goal percentage at the rim, which translated to the league's 25th-rated defense. That was enough to keep the sixth-rated offense out of the playoffs, so Harrison took another swing, drafting Lively this past June.
Three weeks into Lively's rookie season, there are encouraging signs he could become the rim-running and -protecting weapon Dončić desires. Lively's double-double off the bench on opening night earned him the starting spot in the second game of the season, and he is averaging 13.6 points (on 72.9% shooting from the field), 10.6 rebounds and 1.6 blocks per 36 minutes — along with 26 dunks in his first 11 appearances.
There are talents, and there are skills to harness them into winning contributions, and Lively is somewhere in between. The Mavericks still rank 25th in both rebounding percentage and defensive rating and last in opponents' field-goal differential at the rim. Lively has been neither a dominant rebounder nor a consistent rim protector, and Dallas has fielded a below-average defense with him on the floor. These are all short-term concerns, as the Mavericks expedite Lively's development to meet their immediate needs.
It took DeAndre Jordan, for example, three years to become a full-time starter, another two to establish himself as a dominant rim-runner and -protector and three more to earn his first and only All-Star selection. Jarrett Allen, as another example, was an All-Star by age 23, and it still took him several seasons to earn the sort of playing time it takes to see if his averages per 36 minutes translated to single-game production.
How quickly the 19-year-old Lively ascends in his role will determine how seriously the Mavericks should be taken as a contender this season. It might also help Dončić decide if Dallas will be his long-term NBA home.
Jalen Johnson, Atlanta Hawks
It is not easy building a team around Trae Young, whose usage on offense is often matched by how often he is hunted defensively. The Hawks kept Clint Capela and De'Andre Hunter, but traded Kevin Huerter and John Collins, paid a hefty price for Dejounte Murray and figured Saddiq Bey could provide more toughness.
That amounted to a top-10 offense, a bottom-10 defense and a net rating of 0.1 last season. Atlanta finished 41-41, survived the play-in tournament and lost in the first round of the 2023 playoffs — perfectly average two years removed from an Eastern Conference finals appearance. The price tag mounted, and the talent drain from cutting costs meant a once young team's trajectory was headed in the wrong direction.
Enter Johnson, who, along with Onyeka Okongwu, has injected some energy into a tired team. The 22-year-old Johnson supplanted Bey in the starting lineup two games into the season. He is averaging 14.7 points, 7.7 rebounds and 2.2 assists in 30.1 minutes per game, shooting 61.1% from the field and 46.9% from 3.
More importantly, Johnson is establishing himself as a dangerous defender. He has the athleticism to run with Young on offense and stop opponents from running on the Hawks, all in a 6-foot-9 frame. Johnson drew Antetokounmpo in the third game of the season and held the two-time MVP to six points on six shots over 25 possessions. He has spent more time guarding ball-dominant forwards Julius Randle, Zion Williamson, Paolo Banchero and Towns, who shot a combined 10 for 33 (30.3%) opposite Johnson.
Atlanta's defense, which still ranks among the league's 10 worst, allows 107.1 points per 100 possessions when Johnson is playing — 10 points better than the team's average and the equivalent of a top-five unit.
In his third season, Johnson has already made himself an invaluable role player. His connective contributions, along with his size, unlock a slew of lineup combinations for new Hawks head coach Quin Snyder. Not so easy to pick on Young when Johnson's 7-foot wingspan is always lurking on the perimeter.
There is also room for offensive growth if Young and Murray allow Johnson to try his hand at secondary playmaking, and the Hawks should find more than 2.9 3-point attempts per game for a shooter so blistery hot. Johnson has the tools to fortify the defense around Young without sacrificing offensively, and that makes building the roster so much easier. If he elevates the offense, too, the Hawks are awfully dangerous.
Alperen Şengün, Houston Rockets
The Rockets are the NBA's biggest surprise three weeks into the season, and Şengün is the early favorite for Most Improved Player — and not just because he is doing his best Nikola Jokić impression on offense.
Şengün, who turned 21 years old in July, leads Houston in scoring and rebounding, and his six assists per game are second only to one-time All-Star point guard Fred VanVleet. Your obligatory list of 6-foot-11 guys who have averaged a 19-8-6 in NBA history (since Şengün has grown two inches over the past two years): Jokić (six times and counting), Wilt Chamberlain (twice) and Kevin Garnett. Perhaps you've heard of them.
Offense has never been the question for Şengün. New Rockets head coach Ime Udoka demands defensive effort, and Şengün is providing that, too, currently serving as the anchor of a top-five outfit on that end. He is contesting 6.9 shots inside of 6 feet per game and holding opponents 6.4% below their season averages — the statistical equivalent of what Anthony Davis did around the rim for the Lakers last regular season.
Şengün is nowhere near as versatile as Davis, but he is an intuitive player, and that can often be enough when you can touch the rim from your feet. Just ask Jokić. When Jokić was 21 years old, he averaged a 17-10-5 for a 40-win edition of the Denver Nuggets. He did not become the MVP for another four years. It took time for coach Michael Malone to build a defense worthy of championship contention around Jokić.
I would not be so bold as to say Şengün could become the next Jokić, but even a semblance of the Serbian forces us to rethink the possibilities for a team that also boasts two recent No. 2 overall picks. Who would have thought Şengün so quickly might supplant Jalen Green and Jabari Smith Jr. as Houston's most promising prospect? Not the Celtics or Thunder, who both traded the Şengün pick prior to the 2021 draft.
The Rockets might not have known, either, since they spent the start of free agency trying to sign Brook Lopez away from the Bucks. There is little doubt Udoka would have trusted Lopez's history of rim protection over the promise of Şengün, and Houston's ascent would have felt more manufactured. Instead, Şengün has not just earned Udoka's trust; the Turkish big man has accelerated the Rockets' rise, and that provides clarity on how to lay a foundation for a winner from the cluster of raw materials this team's been.