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November 26, 2012
Early Surprises

by Kevin Pelton


Tuesday marks four weeks into the 2012-13 season, meaning we're starting to transition out of that awkward period when almost any statistical anomaly screams "small sample size theater" and into one where performance becomes meaningful. To bridge the gap between the two times, I've developed an in-season version of SCHOENE that incorporates our preseason projections and performance to date.

For each statistic, the weight placed on 2012-13 performance is determined by this year's denominator (minutes, shot attempts or plays used) relative to weighted totals from the last three seasons used by SCHOENE. For example, Kobe Bryant had played 511 minutes through Saturday, and his average for the last three years (weighted by the same 5/3/2 scale that sets the baseline projection before aging) was 2,517 minutes. So Bryant's projection for rate stats is made up of 16.9 percent his 2012-13 performance and 83.1 percent his preseason projection. (For rookies and other players whose projections are not based on NCAA stats, I used 500 minutes as a baseline.) This indicates that even at the end of the season the SCHOENE projection is as valuable as performance during the current year, but that makes sense given that future projections are made up half of performance the two seasons before the current one. Basically, more data is always better.

Still, some players have substantially improved or hurt their projections for the remainder of the season as compared to the baseline set over the summer. Over the next two days, I'll look at both groups on Basketball Prospectus. Today, we start with the overachievers who have most improved their projections thus far.

1. Andre Drummond, Detroit (.362 projected, .468 updated, +.106)
Naturally, rookies tend to make up most of the spots on this list, since we are less confident about our projections for them as they make the transition from the NCAA to the NBA. Drummond takes top honors on the strength of his .715 winning percentage to date. While nothing has changed in terms of our assessment of Drummond as a project, he has shown he can contribute far more than expected while developing. Coming off the bench, Drummond has been a monster as a rebounder and shot blocker while making 64.9 percent of his two-point attempts. Consider that against college opponents, Drummond shot 54.1 percent and collected just 15.6 percent of available defensive rebounds (now 21.0 percent). The next step for Drummond is maintaining something approaching that level in extended minutes and while playing alongside starter Greg Monroe.

2. Damian Lillard, Portland (.420 projected, .522 updated, +.102)
In a sense, Lillard is the least surprising surprise on this list. Based on his lottery status and co-MVP honors at the NBA Summer League in Las Vegas, it was fairly clear entering the season that the adjustment for Lillard's low strength of schedule at Weber State did his projection a disservice. Not only has Lillard been far better than replacement level, he's actually played at an All-Star clip thus far, ranking 12th in the league in WARP. I'm a little skeptical Lillard can quite keep up that pace, but there is no question the Blazers have found their answer at point guard.

3. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Charlotte (.362 projected, .447 updated, +.086)
The numbers suggested that the next two picks after No. 1 overall selection Anthony Davis would need some time to contribute in the NBA, though their youth would allow them to do so. Consider that assessment one for two. While Bradley Beal has played about to his projection, Kidd-Gilchrist has been productive far earlier than expected. His frenetic style of play has proven a perfect fit for Mike Dunlap's system. Easy buckets and frequent trips to the free throw line have made Kidd-Gilchrist a reasonably efficient scorer. The real story is at the defensive end, where Kidd-Gilchrist has been a monster. He's blocking shots at what would be a solid rate for a center and is one of just two regulars in the NBA with a block rate of better than 4.0 percent and a steal rate of better than 2.0 percent. Derrick Favors is the other, with Drummond missing out because of his limited playing time.

4. DeMarre Carroll, Utah (.398 projected, .460 updated, +.106)
The top returning player on this list, Carroll has quietly put up impressive numbers off the Jazz bench. In a similar fashion to Kidd-Gilchrist, Carroll is making things happen with his energy. His steal and block rates are both easily career highs, and he's making 62.1 percent of his two-point attempts. Carroll has never played more than a thousand minutes in a season, so his projection actually has slightly less weight here than the rookie translations.

5. Jeremy Pargo, Cleveland (.283 projected, .332 updated, +.049)
During his rookie season in Memphis, Pargo looked nothing like an NBA player. To save on their luxury-tax bill, the Grizzlies dumped him to the Cavaliers over the summer with cash and a second-round pick in 2014. Any production Cleveland gets from Pargo is a bonus. He's been surprisingly effective in Kyrie Irving's absence, including a 28-point effort in a win over Philadelphia. Pargo's Euroleague translations suggested he could be a solid NBA backup, so maybe last year's performance was a fluke.

6. Harrison Barnes, Golden State (.303 projected, .349 updated, +.046)
Barnes' projection was so bad that his replacement-level play thus far, in combination with heavy minutes, has been enough to put him on this list. By focusing on spot-up shooting, Barnes has proven an efficient scorer right away. He's also contributing more on the glass than his college performance suggested and rates as average in this regard. The rest of Barnes' stat line is still empty. In 392 minutes, he has 18 assists, eight steals and one block, making him the anti-Michael Kidd-Gilchrist.

7. Jermaine O'Neal, Phoenix (.339 projected, .384 updated, +.044)
Since returning to the Suns following a death in his family, O'Neal has been terrific off the bench, scoring double-figures in five consecutive games. He's grabbing 18.4 percent of available rebounds, has been one of the league's top shot blockers and has a .636 True Shooting Percentage. Forget Nate Silver; the Phoenix training staff is surely made up of wizards.

8. Marcus Morris, Houston (.420 projected, .462 updated, +.042)
When Phoenix kept Luke Zeller on the roster, it allowed everyone to make jokes about the Suns' history of having the lesser brother (Robin Lopez, Taylor Griffin, Jarron Collins, many more). The caveat was the Morris twins, since Markieff easily outplayed Marcus as a rookie. Early in year two, Marcus might be proving the trend correct once again. Playing as a stretch four instead of trying to move out to the perimeter as he did last season, Morris has proven a credible scorer who can contribute in other ways.

9. Anderson Varejao, Cleveland (.532 projected, .570 updated, +.040)
Despite his injuries, Varejao has by far the most established recent track record of anyone on this list, which indicates just how well he's had to play to boost his projection so far. Always a solid rebounder, Varejao has been elite this season, pulling down a league-high 24.2 percent of all available rebounds. Varejao was moving this direction (21.0 percent rebound rate) before injuries ended his 2011-12 prematurely, so this might be a legitimate change that makes Varejao one of the NBA's 10 best centers.

10. Festus Ezeli, Golden State (.307 projected, .345 updated, +.038)
The Warriors' other first-round pick rounds out the list on the basis of his competent play as a replacement for injured Andrew Bogut in the starting lineup. Ezeli has been a strong rebounder and shot blocker and deserves much of the credit for Golden State ranking just outside the top 10 in Defensive Rating without Bogut. Ezeli's above-replacement play is similar to his performance as a junior before an abbreviated senior season pulled down his projection, so I would expect him to keep it up.

Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact Kevin by clicking here or click here to see Kevin's other articles.

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