Note: Even though this is a sponsored post with affiliate links, all of the opinions contained in this post are my own and are based purely on my own hunches, guesses, and whatever my cat tells me to do. And as an FYI, FanDuel gave me some cash to play its daily fantasy games.
Brandon Knight claimed the title of "best player on the Bucks" last year in large part due to how terribly the rest of the roster performed. Knight showed significant improvements from his years in Detroit, but was still generally viewed as a league-average performer, perhaps a little better.
Through five games this season, Knight's claim to "best player on the team" has everything to do with his own production. With per-game averages of 18.4 points, 7.2 rebounds, and 7.2 assists, Knight currently stands in a class all his own. In fact, only James Harden, Stephen Curry, and Gordon Hayward join Knight as players averaging at least an 18/5/5 line per game.
These numbers, and the more advanced metrics behind them, are so far above his career averages that it feels silly to ask if they're sustainable. Instead we should ask ourselves, can Knight continue to play a style that will at least sustain some degree of improvement? Of course, we should think on this topic keeping in mind that everything in this post is subject to an obvious small sample size warning.
It's certainly possible (some might even say likely) that Knight is making a "leap" of some sort. Having insisted over the summer that he views himself as a point guard, Knight was determined to improve his playmaking skills this season, and he's definitely looked to set up his teammates a good amount in the early season. According to NBA.com Player Tracking, Knight currently ranks 8th in the NBA in assist opportunities per game (an assist opportunity refers to any shot on which the player in question would be given an assist if the shot was made). But does that mean Knight is setting his teammates up for good shots? A quick calculation offers a clue. If we divide points created by assists per game by assist opportunities per game, we get something I'll call Assist Efficiency Ratio here. This number should be representative of how valuable or productive a player's passing is, although it will be subject to variability due to things like quality of teammates and offensive system/strategy.
Last year the NBA's elite passers had Assist Efficiency Ratios around 1.2. That includes guys like Chris Paul (1.24), Rajon Rondo (1.15), and John Wall (1.23). In the limited sample size from this season, the league leaders are topping that mark by a bit. Rondo (1.34), Ricky Rubio (1.39), and Wall (1.32) are among the best. Knight, meanwhile, has an Assist Efficiency Ratio of 1.04 this season. He's creating an average of 16 points per game via assist on 15.4 "opportunities." Last year Knight's ratio was 1.16 (11.5 points on 9.9 opportunities per game). The jump in opportunities seems legitimate in quality if not totally in quantity--Knight has handled the ball a ton this year and is doing a better job of finding open guys. He's been been the primary ball handler almost exclusively during his on-court minutes--we haven't seen a ton of dual-PG looks with Knight deferring to another ball handler.
That low-ish assist efficiency ratio suggests two possibilities: either Knight is "creating" low-value shots for his teammates, or those teammates just aren't making the shots he's creating. Considering the Bucks' paltry 36.0% shooting in catch-and-shoot situations so far (and Larry Sanders' general inability to finish anything inside two feet), the latter definitely seems plausible, though Knight isn't a great interior passer who can be counted on to create sure-fire scoring chances near the basket. As always, it's probably a little of both.
For fantasy considerations, Knight seems like a safe bet to set a career high in assists per game this year, but he seems unlikely to stay above the 7.0 line as those opportunities regress a bit, though there's definitely a lot of upside. He should remain a pretty reliable producer in that category while adding above-average scoring and decent three-point shooting.
But what do these numbers mean for the Bucks back in the real world? Well if Knight's AER ticks back up the tenth of a point without a substantial drop in opportunities, it would suggest a pretty nice bump in playmaking ability for Milwaukee's young guard. He's certainly putting himself in position to be successful. While Knight is still prone to quick pull-up shots just inside the arc, particularly in the pick and roll, he's also driving to the hoop quite a bit. He's 8th in the NBA in drives per game at 10.6, and the Bucks are scoring pretty well on those plays. Knight's finishing at the rim still needs a lot of work (he's only shooting 50% inside of three feet), but he appears to be putting a lot more pressure on defenses and thus far has also upped his free throw attempts by around a third.
Knight's explosion in production has been a terrific development for the Bucks in this early season. Even if it doesn't last, it's a good sign for a player who still hopefully still has his best days ahead of him.
Reminder: SB Nation partner FanDuel is hosting daily fantasy basketball leagues every night of the season with the chance to win immediate cash prizes. Here's the link to join in.