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Early Season Hidden Gems 

Bad Men, Bad Takes – Season 1

Basketball season is back! We are finally able to fill that small, empty void in our hearts, triggered by the final buzzer of each year when we realise we will be without NBA action for another off-season.

With the 2021-22 season now well underway, players are rested and have come forth with renewed energy in the opening games. The media is aflame with a plethora of highlights and articles of all our returning favourites, and its safe to say we can’t get enough of it.

With our attention locked on the high flying dunks, deep threes and intimidating defence, it is easy to miss the efforts of some of the league’s more quiet achievers.

Below, I’ll take a look at three ‘Hidden Gems’. Players who fly under the radar, out of direct view of the cameras, yet contribute to their team’s successes, each in their own way.

Lauri Markkanen: Seizing Opportunity?

A player I had honestly forgotten about, Lauri saw some struggles in his most recent season with the Bulls. Nagging ankle and shoulder injuries, as well as some lacklustre play, saw Markkanen playing off the bench for half of the 2020-21 season.

His performances so far haven’t been great. He has been struggling to shoot efficiently from deep, currently converting only 23 percent of his threes; his overall field goal percentage a measly 30%.

Despite the slow start, however, Markkanen is displaying flashes of good play which we can only hope will build as the season progresses. He looks to be developing good chemistry with his teammates, in particular Ricky Rubio and Evan Mobley.

Lauri Markkanen has shown glimpses of his potential since joining the Bulls. Credit: The Chicago-Sun Times

What Lauri Markkanen does provide is a good passing option as he cuts to the basket. On multiple occasions we’ve seen him take off in stride toward the rim to flush some athletic dunks. (If you haven’t seen him obliterate Nikola Jokic yet, check it out here)

In the first few games of the season at least, it looks as if Lauri Markennen is settling in well in his new Cleveland home. Given some time to adapt to the new system and players, I’m sure we will see his shooting numbers improve. Lauri isn’t by any means an interesting player, but be sure to check in on him every now and then.

He might surprise you.

Jalen Brunson: Know Your Role.

Jalen Brunson gets a mention on my list as a player who has become a cornerstone of the second unit for the Dallas Mavericks.

Arguably the fourth best player on the team, Brunson has become a great scorer off the bench. He’s come out of the gates hot, shooting 45.5% from three and having multiple 17-point outings.

In addition to his three-point shooting, Jalen is unafraid of contact and devious on the inside, leveraging his stocky frame and footwork to routinely score over much taller defenders. He isn’t the fastest player in the league, but no energy is wasted. His movements are considered and deliberate. There was a moment late in the 1st quarter in Dallas’ win over the Rockets which highlights this; a screen from Porzingis followed by a feinted hesitation froze the defending D.J Augustin, clearing space for Brunson to mosey into the lane and take a wide open shot from the elbow.

Jalen Brunson has shown improvement and is helping shoulder the load with Luka Doncic. Credit: Dallas Morning News.

One improvement I would like to see in Brunson is his leadership and creating for others. Coming into his fourth year of NBA basketball, this season is primed for the Dallas 6th man to prove to us he can aid Luka in controlling the flow of the Mavericks offence. Since the season started, we have in fact seen an increase in Brunson’s assist numbers, almost doubling his average from the previous season. While it is an incredibly small sample size, his 11 assist game against the aforementioned Rockets is proof of this.

Brunson is continuing to develop into a valuable piece for the Dallas Mavericks, and is someone I will be keeping an eye on between watching Luka Doncic highlights.

Ricky Rubio: Facilitation is Key.

This is the second Cavalier on this list, but hey, the Cavaliers have entered the season looking, dare I say it, competitive!

With notable wins over Denver and Atlanta top start the season, this is the most Cavs basketball I have watched since LeBron was still suiting up in the navy, gold and wine. My belief is that their success can be attributed in good part to their improved passing and positioning on offense.

Ricky Rubio, known for his pass-first play style, has been a key contributor in improving Cleveland’s ball movement. Since joining the Cavaliers, Rubio has thus far posted an impressive 9 assists per game, and contributed 14 points per game to boot. In the small sample size we’ve viewed this season, the Cavaliers as a whole have improved considerably from 23.8 assists per game last season to 28.3 (shout out to Collin Sexton who is working on his passing too).

In the wake of Darius Garland’s early exit against the Grizzlies, Rubio was handed the reins to the starting point guard slot, with hopes he could take it to the Atlanta Hawks. Boy oh boy, did he take it to them.

Ricky Rubio has helped the Cavaliers find consistency and flow on the offensive end this season. Credit: The Game Haus.

The Cavaliers did not go hungry, with the veteran guard ensuring everyone got a touch of the ball, racking up 8 dimes in the game and helping the starting 5 all scoring in double digits. Rubio also looked in control as he led the team in scoring, amassing 23 points while shooting 9 from 15 overall, and shooting 43% from deep.

It didn’t stop on the offensive end, either. Active hands and physical ball pressure kept the Hawks at bay, with the Cavaliers holding the reigning 5th seed to 100 points, on a measly 38% from the field. Rubio aided on this end with 6 boards and a steal.

What we can take away from Ricky Rubio is the value of team basketball and a willingness to share the ball. When the Cavaliers are in rhythm and working together, they actually look like a promising, albeit developing, young team.

Don’t get me wrong, there’s a LONG way to go before we can consider the Cavaliers a competent NBA franchise, but acquisitions like Rubio are a good indicator the top brass are looking in the right direction.

So there we have it, a small sample of guys to keep an eye on this season. They may not make the big headlines, but there is a lot we can learn from every player on an NBA roster.

Keep an eye out for the hidden gems.

~ Ben Guy (The Big Nug)

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