Utah @ New York, 12 pm. Gordon Hayward is set to make his season debut for the Jazz this afternoon, and it’s hard to overstate just how good an all-around player the former Butler University star has become. The 6-foot-8 swingman enters his seventh season as a near-20-point scorer, with his per-game average ticking upwards every year he’s been in the league. He can keep the offense moving, with an assist rate over 20 percent, and has hit on 35.5 percent of his nearly 5 three-point tries a game the past two seasons. Most importantly, he uses his long arms well, and has turned himself from a minus defender into an average-or-better one. With his combination of speed, timing, hustle, and those gangly limbs, Hayward had even taken the mantle from LeBron James as the NBA’s premier chasedown artist:
On the other side of the floor, Carmelo Anthony has yet to surpass 25 points, and his shooting is as bad as it’s been since he established himself as a superstar. In fact, through five games, Anthony’s season looks nearly identical to his second year in the league, when he averaged 20.8 points per game as an inefficient 20-year-old. With the emergence of Kristaps Porzingis and offseason addition of Joakim Noah, the Knicks have re-established Anthony as a small forward near-exclusively, pulling him further away from the basket. As a result, Melo has taken as many shots from beyond 24 feet as he has inside eight feet this season. New York’s rebounding is so bad, though, that Jeff Hornacek can ill afford sacrificing size to juice up the offense.
Portland @ Memphis, 3:30 pm. Stuck out in the pine forests without an appropriate level of national fanfare, Damian Lillard is morphing into a literal god damn supernova before our very eyes. Friday night in Dallas, Lillard scored 42 points on just 18 shots, hitting 5-of-6 from deep (and I mean DEEEEEEEEEP) and getting to the free throw line at will.
Second in the league in scoring, averaging over 34 points per game, Lillard needs to be defended out to 28 feet — but he’s quick enough that he’ll split the double-team, and strong enough that when he does knife into the paint, he can absorb contact, finishing around, over, and through opposing giants. Not to get too hyperbolic, but at his best, Lillard blends the shooting of Stephen Curry with the explosiveness of pre-injury Derrick Rose, adding in a cooperative style of leadership that makes the 15th man in Portland feel as crucial and empowered as the superstar himself.
Sacramento @ Toronto, 6 pm. Of course, the only man to sit atop Lillard on the scoring chart is Toronto’s DeMar DeRozan, averaging 35.8 points per game following a ho-hum 34 in Friday night’s win over Miami. DeRozan is the first player since Michael Jordan in 1986 to kick off a season with five straight 30-plus-point games. Unlike most players who see huge scoring upticks, the 27-year-old hasn’t added a new move to his arsenal, or dragged his game out behind the three-point line. He’s just doing even more DeMar stuff, and doing it better than he ever has. Never a good, or even just prolific, long-range shooter, DeRozan has knocked down just one of his eight triples so far; the guy is barely getting to the rim half as much as last year, too. But man, he’s owning the in-between area in a way we haven’t seen since even Jordan himself? DeRozan could become just the sixth man in NBA history to average 30 points and hit less than one three-pointer every two games: the others were World B. Free, George Gervin, Adrian Dantley, Dominique Wilkins, and Michael Jordan.
At the very least, DeRozan’s 30-point streak is likely to continue tonight. Sacramento is sixth from the bottom in field goal percentage allowed, fifth-worst in three-point shooting against, and has sent opponents to the free-throw line more than all but two other teams. Though their slow pace superficially masks it, Dave Joerger’s outfit has the fourth-worst defensive rating in the league — and they’re particularly generous to enemy shooting guards. The Kings have given up 21.3 points per game, on a combined 56 percent shooting and 30 free throw attempts, to their opponent’s primary player at the position. DeRozan comes in already shooting 55 percent from the floor, with nine free throw tries per game.
Milwaukee @ Dallas, 7 pm, NBATV. Bucks rookie forward Thon Maker took one of the craziest, most circuitous routes to the NBA before landing in Milwaukee in July’s draft. When he was just five years old, Maker’s uncle arranged for Thon, his brother, and his aunt to flee to Uganda, and escape the Second Sudanese Civil War. After settling down and beginning school in Perth, Australia, the already-quite-tall Maker was discovered by Ed Smith — the equivalent of a predatory AAU “coach,” but for poor African-Australian refugees — and brought Maker to live with him in Sydney so that he could have better opportunities in education and training. Smith did not send him to school for the next year-and-a-half, until enrollment was required for Maker to play in the local high school basketball league. On the eve of the playoffs, however, Smith and Maker flew out to a talent showcase in Texas instead, and never returned.
Smith soon moved the rest of his own family to the United States, and he and Maker each embarked on a whirlwind tour of the North American amateur basketball system. Maker spent his eighth-grade year, at age 15, bouncing between two academies in Louisiana, before enrolling at the Carlisle School in rural Virginia for high school. After leading Carlisle to the state title and winning state Player of the Year honors as a sophomore, Maker transferred to Orangeville Prep, about an hour northwest of Toronto. He originally intended to reclassify into the Class of 2015, eventually decided against it, then successfully petitioned the NBA to consider 2015 his true high school graduation, with his 2016 season at Orangeville granted postgraduate status, so that he could enter this past summer’s draft, where Jason Kidd selected him tenth overall. Despite being on the NBA radar for several years, the 7-foot-1 Maker is still so raw, and his amateur career so curated and protected, that he is one of the most mysterious prospects to enter the league in some time.
Denver @ Boston, 7:30 pm. Despite Thursday night’s six-point loss to Cleveland, Brad Stevens has to be absolutely thrilled with Jaylen Brown’s first career start. With Jae Crowder, Al Horford, and Kelly Olynyk all out again tonight (though the latter two are set to return Wednesday in Washington), Boston will continue with their Brown-Amir Johnson-Tyler Zeller frontcourt. It might have been a bridge too far to ask the rookie to guard LeBron in just his fifth game, but Brown more than held his own offensively with a career-high 19 points, three three-pointers, and a team-high plus-12 net rating.
The Nuggets look to shake off a listless, cold-shooting performance in Detroit last night, still showing a strong, auspicious statistical profile despite their 2-3 record. Built on the interior triumvirate of Jusuf Nurkic, Nikola Jokic, and Kenneth Faried, Mike Malone’s team is second in the NBA in rebounding margin, and in shots taken at the rim. The 21-year-old Jokic, last year’s analytics darling, slid down to power forward this year to make room for Jurkic, who is six months his senior and missed most of 2015-16 with a knee injury; the more slender, versatile Jokic averages 10.8 points and 7.4 rebounds a game, while Nurkic, the bruiser, has battered opponents under the rim to the tune of 15.2 and 10.6.
Phoenix @ LA Lakers, 9:30 pm. First of all, let’s talk about how aesthetically stunning Friday night’s game was, before analyzing any of the basketball. Los Angeles wore Hardwood Classic throwback jerseys, honoring the 30th anniversary of the 1987 NBA championship (are they going to do the same next year, for the 30th anniversary of the ‘88 title?), while Golden State donned their standard road uniforms. The Lakers’ yellow-with-purple perfectly complemented the Warriors’ blue-and-yellow, creating a striking visual:
Now in his twelfth season, Lou Williams just keeps plugging along, doing the Lou Williams things that win basketball games. A second-round draft pick straight out of high school in 2005, Williams joined the NBA right at the tail end of the league’s fascination with the bad kind of combo guard (tiny dudes who play like shooting guards, rather than bigger guys with lead guard skills), and struggled a bit early on as his coaches in Philadelphia tried to fit him in at point guard, with limited success. Once he hit his stride, though, Williams established himself as a dynamic scorer who can make some plays for others: the perfect weapon to unleash in bursts off the bench. The Atlanta native scored 20 points Friday and almost single-handedly held off Golden State’s final push with ten fourth-quarter points, including two back-breaking three-pointers when it looked like the Warriors were primed to make a run. Now 30, Williams serves as the steadying, veteran presence on a Lakers’ bench that is killing folks so far. Partnered with big guard Jordan Clarkson, who can play a little point and handle the sturdier defensive assignment, Brandon Ingram, and Larry Nance, Jr., Los Angeles’ reserves are plus-35 in 63 minutes together, barraging opponents no matter whether the four are paired with center Tarik Black, power forward Julius Randle, or small forward Luol Deng.