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NBA Players Performing Better Than Expected in 2021

| January 8, 2021 11:23 am PDT
7 NBA Players That Are Exceeding Expectations

The NBA is like most sports. It’s very much about “what have you done for me lately.” That’s why people are raising an eyebrow at the struggling Raptors or doubting Luka Doncic’s dominance after a somewhat slow start.

It goes both ways, though. While fans and bettors note the teams and players that under-perform, we’re all also victims of being prisoners of the moment and praising those that exceed expectations.

Like any year, there are certainly a good amount of NBA players that are exceeding expectations right now. Are these hot starts that will stick and that we can trust when we look to place bets?

Let’s gauge that by breaking down some of the best starts for the 2020-21 NBA season.

Darius Garland, PG, Cavaliers

Season Points (per game) Rebounds Assists Steals Blocks Shooting %
2019-20 12.3 1.9 3.9 0.7 0.1 .401
2020-21 17.2 3.3 6.7 1.3 0.3 .455

Garland easily stands out as one of the most improved players this year, as he’s basically doubled his assists per game and has turned into a reliable scorer.

Oh, and his handles are filthy.

His efficiency has improved, he’s playing better defense, and he’s finding ways to make the guys around him better. It translated into a hot start for the seemingly lowly Cavs, and if his play continues, he just might make Cleveland a fringe playoff contender.

I’m understandably not so sold on the Cavs as a whole, but any confidence you have in betting on Cleveland stems from Garland’s leap in year two.

There are a lot of ways to make money from betting on the NBA. If Garland can make betting on the Cavs part of that, he’d have done his job.

Christian Wood, C, Rockets

Season Points (per game) Rebounds Assists Steals Blocks Shooting %
2019-20 13.1 4.6 1.0 0.5 0.9 .567
2020-21 23.6 8.0 1.6 1.0 2.0 .553

Wood is a very interesting case, as the Houston Rockets really rolled the dice on his upside when they signed him this off-season.

The talent, potential, and production were honestly always there, as Wood was a per-minute monster. However, there had always been questions about his defense and the sustainability of his production when he got handed minutes as a starter.

Something tells me his ex-girlfriend might regret dumping him now.

Wood has dominated as a scorer, he’s made his presence known in the paint as a shot-blocker, he’s been efficient, and he’s even been solid on the glass. The defense and rebounding could see a bump yet, but offensively, Wood seems to be the real deal.

The funny thing is people feared that Wood’s ability to score was propped up by a lot of volume in a small window of opportunity.

That window has only grown, and his efficiency (at least so far) has only improved.

Betting on the Rockets is a complicated notion with the fluidity of James Harden’s future, but Wood’s big leap is reason to believe they could be relevant without him.

Jaylen Brown, SG, Celtics

Season Points (per game) Rebounds Assists Steals Blocks Shooting %
2019-20 20.3 6.4 2.1 1.1 0.4 .481
2020-21 26.9 4.6 3.1 1.6 0.6 .577

Jayson Tatum is averaging just as many points and is still the guy that makes the Celtics go, but he also was supposed to be playing at this level.

The hope was always that Brown would get there, but I’m not so sure anyone really expected this.

Brown has jumped by almost seven points per game as a scorer while he’s still an active defender. His playmaking has also improved, and he’s become a more efficient player as a whole.

His explosiveness as a scorer is so off the charts that he’s already set a new career-high.

It’s helped offset the departure of Gordon Hayward and the absence of an injured Kemba Walker, and this duo’s dynamic play has kept the Celtics among the league’s better squads.

Can Brown really keep up this elite scoring? Only time will tell, but if he can, he’ll easily be exceeding expectations. To be frank, he already has.

Julius Randle, PF, Knicks

Season Points (per game) Rebounds Assists Steals Blocks Shooting %
2019-20 19.5 9.7 3.1 0.8 0.3 .460
2020-21 22.1 11.4 7.4 0.7 0.3 .509

Randle’s evolution as a player has made the normally poor Knicks potential playoff threats. His volume really hasn’t changed compared to last year, but new Knicks head coach Tom Thibadeau is putting the ball in his hands more.

It’s working out nicely.

That could have easily just led to Randle chucking more or taking ill-advised shots. On the contrary, Randle has (for the moment) improved greatly from long range (shooting .407 from deep to start the year), and he’s more than doubled his assists per game.

Randle’s overall stat line should even out as the season goes on, but the playmaking seems like it is here to stay. That makes him more of a complete offensive player, and also makes the Knicks better.

Could it make New York worth backing as a playoff team at your favorite NBA betting sites? Perhaps.

Nikola Jokic, C, Nuggets

Season Points (per game) Rebounds Assists Steals Blocks Shooting %
2019-20 19.9 9.7 7.0 1.2 0.6 .528
2020-21 24.1 11.7 11.9 1.4 0.6 .614

Jokic is another guy like Randle that was honestly already producing. He was doing so at a higher level than Randle and had his Denver Nuggets in the Western Conference Finals last year.

A constant triple-double threat, Jokic clearly put in the extra work this off-season, and to start the year, is averaging a triple-double.

It’s obviously possible he cools down as a passer, but he’s putting up historic assist numbers for a center. And he just so happens to be leading the entire league in dimes per game.

The production is one thing, but the way Jokic puts up these silly numbers is, well, kind of silly.

The scoring is closer to what you’d expect out of an elite center, and Jokic is straight flames (.471!) from long range. I doubt the shooting is sustainable, but Jokic is getting it done at every level right now.

His rise to an even higher status of elite for big men cements Denver as a 2021 NBA Finals threat.

Stephen Curry, PG, Warriors

Season Points (per game) Rebounds Assists Steals Blocks Shooting %
2019-20 20.8 5.2 6.6 1.0 0.4 .402
2020-21 32.0 5.3 6.4 1.0 0.3 .463

A career-year at age 32? Don’t mind if I do, says Stephen Curry.

The veteran sharpshooter could have easily wilted under the pressure of being forced to carry a young Warriors team – especially after losing his Splash Brother Klay Thompson to a torn Achilles.

But Curry took all the doubt and criticism personally.

He worked hard during the off-season, and through the first seven games of the 2020-21 NBA season, he’s looked like a legit MVP candidate.

It’s anyone’s guess if it sticks, but Curry is presently hoisting more shots per game than he ever has, and it’s led to his highest scoring average of his career.

Curry even produced his best-ever scoring effort this year.

The team around him is tough to trust, but Curry clearly realizes he has to take his game up a notch to keep his Dubs competitive. If his team ends up maturing on his watch, Golden State’s fast and free ways (#1 in pace) just might have something here.

Kevin Durant, SF, Nets

Season Points (per game) Rebounds Assists Steals Blocks Shooting %
2019-20 0.0 0.0 0.0 0.0 0.0 .000%
2020-21 28.2 7.0 4.8 1.2 0.8 .514

Durant’s case is similar to Curry’s. His former teammates only saw action in five games last year, but a torn Achilles kept KD from playing at all.

The comeback from an entire year away from basketball and the recovery from such a devastating injury combine to lock Durant into this list of NBA players that are exceeding expectations.

I picked the Nets to represent the Eastern Conference in the 2021 NBA Finals, so Durant coming back and playing well doesn’t shock me one bit. But this well this soon?

Yeah, color me a tad surprised.

It’s early, too, so it’s possible Durant hasn’t even fully tapped into what he can do after so much time off. But as things stand, he’s averaging the second-most points per game of his career and shooting the best from long range he ever has.

The Nets haven’t won consistently with him yet, but there was always going to be an adjustment period for a player on a new team. The early numbers tell you that KD is still the old KD, and if that’s going to stick, Brooklyn will be an interesting team to bet on this year.


It’s interesting to note any NBA players that are exceeding expectations for three reasons; it’s nice to acknowledge promising growth, player development can tell us the trajectory of a team, and big leaps can translate into surprise MVP runs.

I don’t right now believe all of these guys are really going to make that type of run, but the big names like Jokic, Curry, and Durant are absolutely in the mix.

Whether you buy their hot starts or not, it’s always worth keeping tabs on the updated 2021 NBA MVP odds.

Even if these guys can’t be the league MVP, they’re still red hot to start out the 2020-21 NBA season, and it’s worth highlighting their strong play.

How it impacts your bets, of course, is entirely up to you. Just don’t ignore these strong efforts when you place bets going forward.

Noah Davis
Noah Davis

Noah Davis is one of the more diverse writers at GamblingSites.com. Like many of his colleagues, he's a huge fan of both football and basketball. But he also writes about box office records, TV show prop bets, DFS, and all kinds of other subjects.

When it comes to the NFL, Noah's favorite team is the Cleveland Browns. He enjoys cheering them on with his wife and daughter.

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