As seen throughout the history of the NBA, some players break onto the scene in surprising fashion.
For example, Portland Trail Blazers shooting guard CJ McCollum averaged 5.3 points in 12.5 minutes per game in his rookie year in 2013-2014 and then 6.8 points in 15.7 minutes per contest in his second year before breaking out as one of the NBA’s top backcourt scorers, averaging 20.8 points in 34.8 minutes in 2015-2016. Since then, he hasn’t looked back.
Jimmy Butler of the Minnesota Timberwolves averaged 2.6 points in 8.5 minutes per game during his rookie campaign in 2011-2012 with the Chicago Bulls. He then saw 26.0 minutes per game in his sophomore season, but put up just 8.6 points as his offensive game began to evolve. After putting up 13.1 points in 38.7 minutes per contest during his third season in the league in 2013-2014, he broke out as a 20-plus point per game scorer in 2014-2015 and has been a perennial All-Star since.
While it took some time for both McCollum and Butler to develop at the NBA level, it created a path and an example for other players who haven’t been thrust into a major role immediately after being drafted.
Here are three players who have surprisingly excelled so far this season, given their history in the league. As seen with each of them, a new and defined role has directly contributed to their success.
Domantas Sabonis (C, Indiana Pacers)
Now in his second NBA season, the 21-year-old Sabonis has technically been a member of three different teams. Drafted 11th overall by the Orlando Magic in 2016, Sabonis was immediately shipped away to the Oklahoma City Thunder in a draft-night trade along with Victor Oladipo in exchange for Serge Ibaka.
After averaging 5.9 points and 3.6 rebounds in 20.1 minutes per game and picking up 66 starts in 81 games for the Thunder, he was dealt (along with Oladipo) to the Indiana Pacers in exchange for Paul George this past summer. Through 14 games for the Pacers, Sabonis has averaged 26.3 minutes and has taken advantage of a larger offensive role with the club, averaging 13.2 points.
Not only has Sabonis taken 8.6 shots per game (up from 5.9 with OKC last year), but he’s also drastically improved his shooting percentage from 39.9 percent to 60.3 percent. He has also brought down 9.5 rebounds per game, which dwarfs his 3.6 that he put up last year. Although he is coming off the bench for the Pacers, he filled in admirably for Myles Turner when he missed seven games due to an injury and he has proven to be one of the best sixth men in the entire league.
If Indiana decides to trade away Thaddeus Young at some point this season, Sabonis would step into the starting five alongside Turner in what would be one of the most exciting young backcourts in the league. His vast improvement on both ends of the floor is obvious and it is clear that his new setting in Indiana has been beneficial. Although he's just in his second year, his progression after just one offseason has been astounding.
Robert Covington (SF, Philadelphia 76ers)
As an undrafted rookie out of Tennessee State University, Covington played just seven games for the Houston Rockets in his rookie season back in 2013-2014, averaging 2.3 points in 4.9 minutes per contest. Despite averaging 23.2 points and 9.2 rebounds in the G-League for the Rockets affiliate that season, the organization decided to release him.
The Sixers swept in and game him an opportunity to play a major role during their “Trust the Process” tanking years. Starting in 2014-2015, he made the most of his expanded role, averaging 13.5 points in 27.9 minutes, 12.8 points in 28.4 minutes and 12.9 points in 31.6 minutes respectively in consecutive years leading up to this season.
While most of the focus has been on Joel Embiid and rookie star Ben Simmons, Covington has made a giant leap forward this season, putting up 16.7 points per contest in 31.3 minutes while knocking down a ridiculous 49.1 percent of his three-point shots. After shooting 33.3 percent from deep last season (137-for-412), Covington has knocked down 55-of-112 attempts so far this year as the team’s go-to scorer from the perimeter. Clearly benefitting from the attention that Simmons and Embiid require on the offensive end, Covington has found himself with a lot of high-percentage looks from the outside and it seems like it’s safe to assume that the trend will continue.
He recently signed a four-year, $64 million extension to remain with the 76ers moving forward.
Tobias Harris (SF, Detroit Pistons)
Harris was taken with the 19th pick by the Charlotte Bobcats in 2011, but was traded on the night of the draft to the Milwaukee Bucks. In his rookie season, he played just 11.4 minutes per game over 42 contests and averaged 5.0 points. After putting up 4.9 points in 11.6 minutes per game in 28 games with the Bucks in 2012-2013, he was one of the six players that was dealt in a deal with the Orlando Magic. He would go on to assume a major role with Orlando, averaging 17.3 points in 36.1 minutes per contest over the final 27 games he played that season.
After averaging 14.6 and then 17.1 points per contest over the next two seasons, he was traded to the Detroit Pistons midway through 2015-2016. He would go on to average 16.6 points in 33.4 minutes during the last 27 games of the 2015-2016 season and then posted 16.1 points per game during his first full season in Detroit last year over a career-high 82 regular-season games played.
Through 15 contests this season, however, he has taken on an increased role on offense for the Pistons. Attempting a career-high 15.7 field goal attempts per game, he is averaging 19.3 points per contest, which is also a career-best. Leading the team in scoring so far while shooting 48.9 percent from three-point range, Harris has come a long way since being an afterthought during his rookie year.
Avery Bradley, Andre Drummond and Reggie Jackson are all nightly candidates to score 20-plus points, but it seems as though Harris has a legitimate shot to lead Detroit in scoring all season long.