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So much of the NBA season is predictable. Most fans likely anticipated that the Boston Celtics and Denver Nuggets would be atop their respective conferences at the end of the year. You probably knew who 90% of the All-Stars would be before the season even began. That's why, when something special and unexpected happens, it's important to take notice.

Every team, whether a championship favorite or at the bottom of the standings, has someone or something that caught them off guard this season -- a rookie who developed faster than expected, a resurgent veteran or a team that somehow turned a weakness into a strength. These developments have gotten the good teams to where they are, and given the bad teams hope for the coming years.

As the regular season winds to a close, here's a look at every team's most pleasant surprise from the 2023-24 NBA season:

Atlanta Hawks - Jalen Johnson

Jalen Johnson
ATL • SF • #1
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Hopes were high for Johnson entering the season, but it's hard to imagine anyone saw this coming. The third-year forward was well on his way to Most Improved Player consideration before injuries caused him to fall short of the games-played threshold. Johnson seized the starting power forward role, more than tripling his scoring average from a year ago while becoming arguably Atlanta's best defensive player with his size, strength and versatility. The Hawks allowed over three fewer points per 100 possessions with Johnson on the floor this season. Perhaps most crucial to his offensive development, he shot 36% from 3-point range on nearly four attempts per game.

Boston Celtics - Instant chemistry

Even the most super of superteams have traditionally taken a little bit of time to coalesce. Not these Celtics, who raced out to a 5-0 start and never looked back. They've become one of the best regular-season teams of all time, with their plus-11.7 net rating (as of Wednesday night) landing right next to the 1997 Bulls and the 2017 Warriors. New additions Jrue Holiday and Kristaps Porzingis unselfishly fell into their roles, while alpha dog Jayson Tatum sacrificed his scoring average (and possibly postseason accolades) in the name of team basketball. Credit to the players, head coach Joe Mazzulla and the front office for bringing this all together.

Brooklyn Nets - Cam Thomas

Cameron Thomas
BKN • SG • #24
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Already known as a microwave bench scorer, Thomas was able to keep up his production in starter's minutes, averaging over 22 points per game while improving his effective field goal percentage -- not an easy task. The 6-foot-4 guard topped the 40-point threshold three times this season, finishing with 30 or more points 14 times. He may not be the savior of the franchise, but Thomas showed in 2023-24 that he can be a meaningful part of Brooklyn's rebuild.

Charlotte Hornets - Brandon Miller

Brandon Miller
CHA • SG • #24
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The Hornets knew Miller was going to be good -- that's why they drafted him No. 2 overall (somewhat controversially) over uber-prospect Scoot Henderson -- but his immediate contribution to winning has to go down as a pleasant surprise. The Hornets have a positive net-rating this season with Miller on the floor, which is saying something since their overall net rating is approaching minus-11 -- the worst in the NBA and among the lowest in league history. Departing head coach Steve Clifford raved about Miller's rare level of basketball IQ for a young player, and the 6-foot-9 wing averaged over 17 points and one steal while shooting over 37% from 3-point range as a rookie, something only five other players have done in NBA history.

Chicago Bulls - Coby White

Coby White
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The season didn't turn out the way that the Bulls wanted, but White's emergence is a truly surprising development. The fifth-year guard increased his scoring by an average of nearly 10 points while dishing out a career-high 5.2 assists per game and shooting 38% from 3-point range. White was the key to Chicago's offense, as the Bulls averaged 115 points per 100 possessions with him on the floor and just 106 with him on the bench. Trading Zach LaVine and/or watching DeMar DeRozan leave in free agency will be much easier to swallow knowing what White is capable of.

Cleveland Cavaliers - Isaac Okoro

Isaac Okoro
CLE • SF • #35
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The offseason addition of Max Strus meant that, when healthy, Okoro would be the odd man out of the Cavs' starting lineup. Rather than moping around, Okoro shot a career-best 39% from 3-point range (40% from the corner) while averaging nearly 10 points per game. This is in addition to his usual brand of lock-down defense, which helped the Cavs once again land in the league's top 10 on that end. A lack of shooting is what generally kept Okoro off the floor last season, and he clearly turned that weakness into a strength this year.

Dallas Mavericks - Trade deadline moves

It's rare that a team can go from a fringe contender to a true threat after the trade deadline, especially if they don't acquire a superstar. But the Mavericks have been a different team after trading for PJ Washington and Daniel Gafford, going 22-7 since the deadline. The starting lineup of Washington, Gafford, Luka Doncic, Kyrie Irving and Derrick Jones Jr. has been unstoppable, outscoring opponents by over 17 points per 100 possessions in just under 200 minutes with a sparkling defensive rating of 98.3. With well-fitting role players added to the superstar power of Doncic and Irving, the Mavericks are set up for not only this season, but plenty to come. *Honorable mention here to Dante Exum, who went from out of the league to a vital part of a very good NBA team.

Denver Nuggets - Peyton Watson

Peyton Watson
DEN • SF • #8
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Look, there aren't a lot of surprises for the reigning champions, who returned most of their roster from last year. But there were questions as to who would take the minutes vacated by the departures of Bruce Brown and Jeff Green. Michael Malone's bench rotation has been fluid, but one player who seized the opportunity was Watson. He hasn't shot it well from 3-point range, but he is as dynamic as they come in the open court and, as a 6-foot-8 wing, he leads the Nuggets in blocks per game. In fact, his highlight reel of blocked shots is something to behold.

We'll see how Watson fits into Denver's postseason picture, but he's certainly proven himself to be a trustworthy rotation piece moving forward.

Detroit Pistons - Ausar Thompson

Ausar Thompson
DET • SF • #9
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It's rare for a rookie to have a positive impact on winning, but Thompson's defense and intangibles were evident from day one. The Pistons had a plus-5.5 net rating in his minutes this season, and he lowered the team's defensive rating from 119 to 113 when he was on the floor. While the 3-point shooting was atrocious, Thompson's elite athleticism made him a menace in transition and as a cutter, landing in the 70th percentile in finishing at the rim, per Synergy Sports. The shot needs to develop, but the 6-foot-6 wing showed that he can be a productive player even with those limitations.

Golden State Warriors - The young core

If you would have told Steve Kerr that he'd be starting his two rookies at various points during the season, he probably would have given you that trademark smirk and assumed injuries had ravaged the roster. But the Warriors' young players -- rookies Brandin Podziemski and Trayce Jackson-Davis, along with former lottery picks Jonathan Kuminga and Moses Moody -- have essentially saved their season.

Kuminga has been the most obvious addition, averaging over 16 points in fewer than 27 minutes per game, while the rookies and Moody have been key contributors throughout the year. Their emergence also allowed Klay Thompson to move to the bench, where he rediscovered his mojo to help Golden State finish the year with a flourish. While Kuminga may be the only potential star of the bunch, the four young Warriors have helped bridge the gap from the Thompson-Steph Curry-Draymond Green era to the next phase of the franchise.

Houston Rockets - Defense, defense, defense

Last season, the Rockets had the second-worst defense in the NBA. This year, they're in the top 10. That's a miraculous turnaround that you simply don't see very often. What happened? Well, the addition of veterans Fred VanVleet and Dillon Brooks certainly improved the defensive talent and accountability. But there was also a culture shift that came with the hiring of Ime Udoka as the franchise's head coach. He sent the message early to young players like Alperen Sengun, Jalen Green and Jabari Smith Jr. that they needed to play defense in order to stay on the court -- and boy, did it work. The Rockets landed in the top five in the NBA in transition defense, which is often a sign of effort and discipline.

Indiana Pacers - Aaron Nesmith

Aaron Nesmith
IND • SF • #23
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A former lottery pick, Nesmith appeared destined for bust status after failing to carve out a regular role with the Celtics in his first two seasons. He took a step forward and eventually became a starter with the Pacers last season, but he took things to another level in 2023-24. Nesmith is among the league leaders with a 42% clip from 3-point range and has become Indiana's go-to defender against its opponent's top perimeter scorer. His battles with Giannis Antetokounmpo during the In-Season Tournament showed his physicality, but he also has the mobility to stay with quicker guards. Nesmith has become an essential two-way player for a Pacers team knocking on the door of eventual title contention.

Los Angeles Clippers - Harden-Zubac pick-and-roll

Ivica Zubac is scoring a career-high 12 points per game, and he has first-year teammate James Harden to thank. Stories abound of Harden and Zubac working relentlessly on their pick-and-roll synergy after practice, and the results have come early and often. The duo runs its pet play from all over the court, usually with positive results.

Lineups featuring Harden, Zubac, Kawhi Leonard and Paul George have outscored opponents by nearly eight points per 100 possessions this season, and the pick-and-roll mastery is partly to thank.

Los Angeles Lakers - D'Angelo Russell

D'Angelo Russell
LAL • PG • #1
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Russell's name was essentially synonymous with "trade bait" over the last couple of years, and the contract he signed with the Lakers this offseason was largely viewed as a means to a pending exchange for a higher quality guard. Turns out Russell is that higher quality guard, putting up 18 points per game -- his most since 2021 -- on career-best 42% 3-point shooting. And these aren't wide-open catch-and-shoot looks, either (though he's very good at those too). Russell has one of the smoothest, most difficult pull-up 3s to defend, and he's made them at a 39% clip this season.

Russell is in the 79th percentile in dribble jumpers, according to Synergy Sports, and the Lakers' offensive rating has improved from 109 points per 100 possessions to 116 when he's on the floor. In many ways, Russell has been one of the most important Lakers this season, and not many can say they saw that coming.

Memphis Grizzlies - GG Jackson II

Gregory Jackson
MEM • PF • #45
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We have to mention Vince Williams Jr., who was excellent while essentially becoming the Grizzlies' point guard at times this season due to some of the worst injury luck in the history of professional sports. Ultimately, the big takeaway from what could otherwise be considered a lost season is Jackson, the youngest player in the NBA who was thrust into big minutes and eventually a starting role after spending much of his early career in the G League. Jackson will fire from absolutely anywhere on the court, and his average of 13 points in fewer than 25 minutes per game this season has left the members of the Memphis front office with smiles on their faces.

Jackson's efficiency has dipped as his offensive responsibility has increased, but he is certainly now viewed as a key piece to the Grizzlies' future who can thrive alongside Ja Morant, Desmond Bane and Jaren Jackson Jr. under normal circumstances.

Miami Heat - Duncan Robinson

Duncan Robinson
MIA • SG • #55
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Who said Duncan Robinson is just a 3-point shooter? He can still do that too, of course, knocking down 40% from deep this season for the Heat, but he also nearly tripled his number of 2-point attempts per game this season, leading to a scoring jump from 6.4 to nearly 13 points per game. Robinson is leveraging his shooting to take advantage of closeouts, landing in the 75th percentile in shots at the rim, per Synergy Sports.

After a disastrous 2022-23 season, Robinson re-established himself as an important piece for the Heat, albeit doing it in a slightly different way than we're used to.

Milwaukee Bucks - Malik Beasley

Malik Beasley
MIL • SG • #5
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Beasley had a down shooting year with the Jazz and Lakers last season, but he certainly fixed that in his first stint with the Bucks. The 6-foot-4 guard has been everything Milwaukee wanted, knocking down 42% of his nearly seven 3-point attempts per game. Beasley has thrived with all of the shooting space created by stars Giannis Antetokounmpo and Damian Lillard, landing in the 87th percentile in catch-and-shoot situations, per Synergy Sports. According to NBA.com, Beasley averages almost three "wide open" 3-pointers per game, and has made 47% of them -- the true definition of a sharpshooter.

Minnesota Timberwolves - Dominant defense

The Wolves knew they could be a great defensive team after finishing in the top 10 last season, but they've taken things to the extreme in 2023-24 as they battle for the No. 1 seed in the West. Minnesota not only leads the league in defense, but there's also nearly a three-point discrepancy in defensive rating between them and the closest competitor. That's the same difference between second and 11th place.

A resurgent Rudy Gobert -- who will likely win his fourth Defensive Player of the Year trophy -- is a crucial factor, but they've also gotten tremendous perimeter defense from Jaden McDaniels, Mike Conley and superstar Anthony Edwards in a system that has produced consistent results. With an offense that occasionally stalls, it's taken a truly elite defense to get the Wolves where they are.

New Orleans Pelicans - Herb Jones' shooting

Herbert Jones
NO • SG • #5
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Jones has been everything the Pelicans expected on the defensive end, but who could have guessed that he'd become one of the league's leading 3-point shooters? The 6-foot-8 stopper shot 34% from deep in each of his first two NBA seasons, so an improvement to 36% or even 38% would have been a blessing. For Jones to shoot 42% was nowhere near the realm of possibilities entering the season. Credit to the Alabama product for putting in the work, and it's vastly changed the shape of the Pelicans' offense while allowing a Defensive Player of the Year candidate to stay on the floor during crunch time without fear of being a liability.

New York Knicks - Donte DiVincenzo

Donte DiVincenzo
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Last season DiVincenzo established himself as a top-tier role player with the Warriors, which earned him a lucrative deal with the Knicks. Even they must have been surprised to see the sixth-year vet suddenly become one of the league's best high-volume 3-point shooters. DiVincenzo is averaging a career-high 15 points and launching nearly nine 3s per game this season, making over 40% of them. Prior to this season, he had never taken more than 5.3 3-pointers per game. DiVincenzo has been forced to take on various roles due to the Knicks' injuries this season, and he's excelled in absolutely all of them. 

Oklahoma City Thunder - Young defense

Many foresaw a major leap for the Thunder this season on the offensive end given the talents of Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Jalen Williams, Josh Giddey and co., but it was hard to fathom that one of the youngest teams in the NBA would somehow become one of the league's top defenses. As of Thursday, OKC ranked fourth in the NBA in defensive efficiency, up from 13th last season. The major difference, in addition to the improvement of the young players -- particularly Williams -- is the presence of rookie Chet Holmgren, who missed all of last season while recovering from a foot injury.

The spindly 7-foot-1 center has been a revelation in rim protection, landing in the NBA's top five in blocks per game while mastering the art of verticality. He's also mobile enough to hold his own on switches, making the 21-year-old already one of the most versatile defensive bigs in the league.

For OKC to progress this much and this quickly on the defensive end is one of the biggest surprises of the 2023-24 season.

Orlando Magic - Jalen Suggs

Jalen Suggs
ORL • SG • #4
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There was never a doubt about Suggs' defensive potential, but his inconsistent 3-point shooting raised questions about how he would fit next to franchise centerpieces Paolo Banchero and Franz Wagner moving forward. Well, all the 6-foot-5 guard did was go out and shoot nearly 40% from the 3-point line this season on over five attempts per game, a monumental improvement from the 27% he made in his first two seasons. His knock-down shooting has led to a career-high in points and field goal percentage, while he's become a serious All-Defensive candidate for one of the league's top up-and-coming franchises.

Philadelphia 76ers - Paul Reed

Paul Reed
PHI • C • #44
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"B-ball Paul" put up big per-36 minute numbers in his first few seasons in the NBA, but that's not always easy to replicate when you nearly double your playing time. Not only has Reed served as a solid backup to Joel Embiiid, but he also filled in for the big man as a starter for over 20 games this season. Overall, Reed averaged career highs in points, rebounds, assists and blocks per game, while shooting an impressive 38% on over 50 3-point attempts. His job is to help keep the team afloat while Embiid rests or is unavailable, and that's exactly what he's done as the 76ers' net rating is nearly two points better with Reed on the floor.

Phoenix Suns - Bol Bol

Bol Bol
PHO • C • #11
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At the beginning of the season, nobody would have guessed that Bol would be one of the nine Suns receiving significant playing time down the stretch. The unique 7-foot-3 forward has averaged 11 minutes in 42 games for Phoenix after being waived by the Magic, with per-36 minute averages of 17 points, 11 rebounds and two blocks on 62/43/79 shooting splits. He also has stretches of dominance, like his 25-point, 14-rebound performance against the Rockets in February.

With the postseason rapidly approaching, it's wild to think that Bol might be an important part of the Suns' rotation.

Portland Trail Blazers - Dalano Banton

Dalano Banton
POR • PG • #5
With Portland
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Anyone playing against or watching the Blazers for the past two months has felt the same thought creep in: Where the hell did this guy come from? Banton has been nothing short of a revelation for the depleted Blazers, averaging 16 points, five rebounds and four assists since coming over in a trade from the Boston Celtics. At 6-foot-9 with guard skills, Banton presents matchup issues for opponents while allowing the Blazers to be flexible defensively. He's also shot 35% from 3-point range with Portland on over five attempts per game, after failing to crack 30% in his first two and a half NBA seasons.

Banton might not get as much opportunity if the Blazers are healthy next season, but the team will almost assuredly pick up his $2 million option or negotiate a new contract based on his recent production.

Sacramento Kings - Keon Ellis

Keon Ellis
SAC • SG • #23
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The Kings opted for continuity last offseason, but the injury bug had other plans. When Kevin Huerter went down for the season, Mike Brown and his staff employed Ellis, and he's rewarded them with averages of eight points, four rebounds, three assists and two steals on 41% 3-point shooting in 18 games as a starter. The 6-foot-6 guard is in the 91st percentile in catch-and-shoot situations, according to Synergy Sports, and is now an even more vital piece with the late-season injury to Malik Monk. Ellis also provides tenacious defense on the other end, and will likely be a fixture in the Kings' postseason rotation.

San Antonio Spurs - Wemby's rapid ascent

Victor Wembanyama
SA • C • #1
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This Spurs season has been all about Victor Wembanyama, so of course, we're going to talk about him here. Expected to be brought along slowly, the phenom has exceeded even the loftiest of expectations for his first NBA season, locking up Rookie of the Year while also garnering momentum for an All-Defensive spot and potentially even some Defensive Player of the Year votes. He's posted a 5x5 game and nearly had a quadruple-double while averaging 23 points, 11 rebounds, four assists and four blocks since Christmas on 48/34/81 shooting splits. There's really not much more you can say. Just watch.

Of course, the Spurs (and the rest of the world) expected Wembanyama to be great one day. They just didn't know that day would arrive in the middle of his rookie season. 

Toronto Raptors - RJ Barrett's efficiency

RJ Barrett
TOR • SF • #9
With Toronto
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The main attraction in the return for OG Anunoby, Barrett has been better than advertised in his 30-plus games with the Raptors. He's been incredibly efficient while averaging over 20 points per game, and he looks like a strong building block next to Scottie Barnes and Immanuel Quickley moving forward.

RJ Barrett 2023-24With KnicksWith Raptors
















Only a handful of players have put up an effective field goal percentage north of 59% while averaging at least 20 points and 1.5 3-pointers per game, and most of them are named Stephen Curry, LeBron James and Kevin Durant. The Raptors knew they were getting a good prospect with Barrett, but if he can keep this up, he'll be even more valuable than they thought.

Utah Jazz - Collin Sexton

Collin Sexton
UTA • SG • #2
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Not many have probably noticed, but Sexton is having a strong bounce-back season for Utah, averaging nearly 19 points per game on impressive 49/39/86 shooting splits. He's carried the Jazz offense this season, as the scoring has dropped from 117 points per 100 possessions to 108 when Sexton is off the floor. The youth movement is clearly underway in Utah, but it has a nice reminder that they have a strong veteran in Sexton, who could help the rebuild either through his performance or by fetching a nice price in a trade.

Washington Wizards - Deni Avdija

Deni Avdija
WAS • SF • #8
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He's bigger, he's stronger and he's become arguably the most exciting young player on the rebuilding Wizards. Avdija smashed his career highs in points, rebounds and assists this season on 38% 3-point shooting, a massive improvement from the 31% he shot in his first three NBA seasons. The 6-foot-9 forward is one of only 10 players this season to average at least 14 points, seven rebounds and 3.5 assists per game with a true shooting percentage of 60% or higher -- the other nine are current or former All-Stars. With his size, vision and ball-handling ability, Avdija has been incredibly effective in transition, especially when he takes off after grabbing a rebound.

While Jordan Poole was a disappointment for most of the year and Kyle Kuzma was consistently inefficient, Avdija was one of the few bright spots for the Wizards this season.

Looking for more NBA coverage? John Gonzalez, Bill Reiter, Ashley Nicole Moss and special guests dive deep into the league's biggest storylines daily on the Beyond the Arc podcast.