The early part of the 2022-23 NBA season has been a welcomed fresh start for a number of surprise players looking to add some hardware to their résumés.
While there is still plenty of season left, a handful of players have jumped into the driver’s seat for the NBA’s biggest accolades so far.
After a down season riddled by injuries in 2021-22, Luka Doncic has jolted to an early lead in this year’s MVP race with career-best and league-leading offensive stats, and is doing it all with seemingly less help from the rest of his Dallas Mavericks team than in previous years. Still, Doncic will have some stiff competition to fend off down the stretch with the likes of Stephen Curry and Giannis Antetokounmpo putting up some eye-catching numbers themselves.
Meanwhile, it’s still early for this year’s rookie class, but it’s looking like a tall task for any other first-year player to catch Paolo Banchero in the Rookie of the Year race. Banchero put up at least 20 points in each of his first six games, which included a stretch of back-to-back 30-point performances.
The Defensive Player of the Year, Most Improved Player and Sixth Man of the Year awards all feature close races so far, but there is time for other contenders to jump into the conversation and for current contenders to separate themselves as well.
Here’s a look at who the ESPN experts believe have already made a case for the NBA’s biggest accolades this season:
Who is your way-too-early pick for MVP?
Nick Friedell: Luka Doncic. He carries the Mavericks every night and seems to have less help around him than he did last season. He also figures to have the narrative on his side this year given that Giannis Antetokounmpo already won the award in 2019 and 2020.
Kendra Andrews: Stephen Curry. The one knock against him is that the Warriors are struggling to produce wins as a team, sitting just outside of the play-in picture at 12th in the West. But there is no denying the level at which Curry has started the season. He has scored at least 30 points in 10 of his 14 games played this season, including 50 in a loss to Phoenix on Wednesday. Earlier this month, Curry was the oldest player to record consecutive 40-point games since Michael Jordan in 2002.
Ohm Youngmisuk: Antetokounmpo looks like he’s on a mission. He scored 30 or more points in six straight games — including 44- and 43-point performances. But the most important statistic was the Bucks starting the season 9-0.
Tim MacMahon: Doncic has a slight lead over Antetokounmpo, who has missed a few games, which isn’t a major issue in the long run, but it’s a quarter of the season so far. Meanwhile, Doncic is more dominant than ever, leading the league in scoring (34.4 points per game) with career-best efficiency (60% true shooting).
Andrew Lopez: Jayson Tatum and the Boston Celtics had quite the curveball thrown at them to start the season, but they haven’t missed a beat with Joe Mazzulla at the helm. Tatum has been a big part of that, averaging a career-best 31.1 points per game. No Celtics player has ever averaged 30 points per game over an entire season. Tatum doing that and keeping the Celtics near the top of the East gives him the early nod here.
Who is your way-too-early pick for Defensive Player of the Year?
Friedell: Jarrett Allen. The Cavs are rolling, and Allen at center is a major reason. He’s a force down low and has become a focal point of one of the most impressive teams in the league.
Andrews: Milwaukee is leading the league in defense right now, and at the center of it all is Brook Lopez. Lopez is leading the league in total blocks with 35, and his presence in the paint is impacting the way opponents have to play the Bucks. Opponents are taking just 21.2% of their shots at the rim against Milwaukee, which is the lowest in the league, according to Second Spectrum Tracking. And of those shots, they’re hitting just 64%.
Youngmisuk: Lopez is on a helluva run. He already has nine games of two or more blocks, including three games with five or more blocks. He leads the league in blocks with 35 and could very well hold on to this lead.
MacMahon: López. The Bucks have the stingiest defense by a significant margin, and Milwaukee has a few candidates in Antetokounmpo, perimeter stopper Jrue Holiday and Lopez. I’ll go with Lopez in part because Milwaukee was in the middle of the pack defensively last season when he barely played due to injury. The Bucks allow only 96.9 points per 100 possessions with Lopez on the floor — the lowest among their dominant defensive trio.
López: The Bucks are first in the NBA with a 104.9 defensive rating — more than three points better than second-place (LA Clippers, at 107.4). The Bucks could have three Defensive Player of the Year candidates in any given season — Antetokounmpo, Holiday and Lopez — but let’s give love to Lopez for his start to the season. Lopez is second in the league in blocks per game (2.5) and top five in stocks (44 combined steals and blocks).
Who is your way-too-early pick for Rookie of the Year?
Friedell: Paolo Banchero. He’s making the Magic relevant again, matching the kind of numbers that only Shaquille O’Neal put up as a rookie in a Magic jersey. He’s the guy. There is no other option if he stays healthy.
Andrews: Banchero, almost no contest. He’s averaging 23.5 points per game after six consecutive 20-point games to start the year, and registering at least 30 points in his past two games. He’s proving he was the correct No. 1 overall pick in the draft, and can be the centerpiece the Magic have been waiting for.
Youngmisuk: There’s so much to be impressed about with Banchero. From starting his career by scoring 20 or more in his first six games to back-to-back games with 30 or more points in each, Banchero looks like the runaway Rookie of the Year. Only injury can seemingly slow him down as an ankle injury sidelined him recently.
MacMahon: Banchero, and this one is pretty easy. He’s leading all rookies in scoring and rebounding, and he ranks second in assists. He’s more than living up to being the No. 1 overall pick and looks the part of the long-term franchise centerpiece the Magic so desperately need. Indiana’s Bennedict Mathurin is the only other real challenger in the Rookie of the Year race so far.
López: Banchero is running away with this award. He started the season with six consecutive 20-point games, which is tied for the third most to start a career in NBA history behind only Elvin Hayes (10) and Wilt Chamberlain (56). Banchero has very much looked the part of the No. 1 pick in the draft while averaging 23.5 points per game early in the season.
Who is your way-too-early pick for Most Improved Player?
Friedell: Lauri Markkanen. The Jazz have been the biggest surprise in the league early in the season — and Markkanen is a huge reason. The 25-year-old took the momentum he gained from leading Finland in EuroBasket and has been rolling early in the season averaging a career-high 21.3 points and 8.4 rebounds a game.
Andrews: Even after spending just half of a season with the Indiana Pacers, Tyrese Haliburton’s play and numbers started to jump from the first half of the year. And now getting to start the season with Indiana, he’s primed to keep growing. He’s already averaging 20.6 points per game with a career-best 49.2% shooting percentage and is leading the league in assists (10.4).
Youngmisuk: Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. SGA has forced its way into the discussion for Most Improved Player. We already knew how good he is, or so we thought. Gilgeous-Alexander has taken his game to another level to start the season, averaging 32.3 points per game. He was seventh in scoring through his first 11 games. While he has increased his scoring every subsequent season from the previous year, this year’s jump has been dramatic. He has increased his scoring average by six points per game and is shooting career highs of 54.6% from the field and 90.6% (up from 81%) from the line. But he’s also getting it done on defense, too, averaging career highs of 1.9 steals and 1.4 blocks. We’ll see if he can keep this up and if Oklahoma City will give him the opportunity to play in enough games to win this award or if they tank towards the end of the season.
MacMahon: Desmond Bane, who actually owns the Most Improved Player trophy from last season, which Ja Morant won but gave to his Memphis backcourt mate because he believed Bane deserved it. Bane has followed that up by making another massive leap, putting himself in the early All-Star conversation. Bane came into the league as a pure catch-and-shoot threat but now has developed into an all-around scorer. The majority of his 3s come off the dribble now, and he’s shooting at a 45.1% clip from long range.
López: With a full season in Indiana under his belt, Haliburton is starting to take off. Haliburton is averaging 20.6 points and a league-best 10.4 assists per game. He’s also shooting a career-best 42.4% from 3-point range on seven attempts per game. Ever since he was traded to Indiana last season, Haliburton has thrived and this year in the full-time point guard role, he’s looking even more comfortable.
Who is your way-too-early pick for Sixth Man of the Year?
Friedell: Malcolm Brogdon. On paper, the fit between Brogdon and the Celtics was there from the beginning. The key for Brogdon was to stay on the floor and be a calming veteran influence the group needed. So far, so good. Brogdon has been solid, averaging almost 14 points per game and helping the Celtics get off to a nice start.
Andrews: Brogdon has been a dream fit for the Celtics, especially their second unit. The one concern for Brogdon is his health. He missed Boston’s past two games because of a hamstring injury, but if he can stay on the court and maintain his production level he could take this award.
Youngmisuk: Brogdon has been a great fit coming off the bench, providing some scoring, playmaking and defense for the Celtics. If he can stay healthy, Brogdon should be a finalist for the award.
MacMahon: Bennedict Mathurin is the early Rookie of the Year runner-up. He leads all bench scorers in scoring (19.9 points per game) and has done it efficiently (63% true shooting) with a blend of acrobatics and long-range marksmanship. Cleveland’s Kevin Love, who ranks among the league leaders in plus-minus, deserves strong consideration, too.
López: Dallas forward Christian Wood got off to a hot start to the season with three consecutive 20-point games. Wood has put up three double-doubles off the bench so far and has been the Mavericks’ third-leading scorer this season behind Doncic and Spencer Dinwiddie, putting up 16.7 points per game. He has also been the team’s second-leading rebounder, trailing Doncic, at 7.5 a game. The Mavericks lost the two games Wood missed this season to the Magic and Wizards. With him on the court, they’re 8-4.