One of the great joys of the regular season is the mess of it—one game rolling into the next, and one performance into another, like a six-month basketball fever dream. Watch enough of it, and you gain a certain admiration for the players who just make shit happen. Some are stars who seem to be everywhere at once. Others are role players who step into a game and instantly commandeer the offense or fly around on defense. These are the players who always manage to make their mark, for good reasons or bad. They’re the players you can’t stop watching.
The most outstanding among them make up the Make-Shit-Happen All-Stars, a collection of the basketball luminaries doing the most on the floor. Activity shouldn’t be confused for achievement when evaluating actual basketball talent, but in this case that activity is the point. This is all about frantic shot blockers who are always out of control, the hustle junkies who manage to put their body on the line on every play, and the gunners who can’t seem to stop dribbling.
A few considerations:
• Shooting a lot isn’t enough. This isn’t just about attempts or usage rate, but rather the players who are constantly making shit happen. They don’t fade into the background on one side of the ball or the other.
• Playing is a prerequisite. There are players all across the league who would veer wildly out of control if given the opportunity, but because they don’t have that opportunity, they don’t actually do much on an NBA court. You have to actually log real minutes to get shit done.
• Restraint is a demerit. For as much as I appreciate a mature role player who stays in his role, this isn’t the place for it. These are players who err on the side of pressing. Players like Patrick Beverley and Matisse Thybulle wreak havoc on defense, but play so safely within themselves on offense as to hurt their case.
Without further ado:
G: Kyle Lowry, Toronto Raptors
If there was any doubt that Lowry would be a first-ballot selection, it was obliterated on Tuesday night when, in the fourth quarter of a hard-fought game against the Bucks, Lowry attempted to nutmeg himself through the legs of George Hill:
It’s a wonder that something like that would even cross Lowry’s mind, but not so surprising that he might try it once it did. Testing boundaries is part of what makes Lowry a first-class competitor; a want to win every possession lends itself to a kind of gamesmanship, through which Lowry regularly out-thinks basketball’s standard practices. Only one other player (Montrezl Harrell) has taken more charges this season, and if the public data were more complete, it would probably tell us that no player has taken more charges over the past decade. Lowry was pulling up for quick 3s before they were deemed good shots, and ripping through for fouls before it was even a point of emphasis for NBA refs.
Following that instinct can clearly lead Lowry to some bizarre places. It’s also what makes him one of the game’s preeminent scramblers—the kind of persistent defender who plugs into this action and that, interfering wherever he can. It’s what keeps him moving even after he gives the ball up on offense. There’s always another way to gain an edge, which means that Lowry is always searching. His mix of effort and guile are a perfect make-shit-happen cocktail: the activity to stay involved paired with the cunning to transform a play entirely.
G: Ben Simmons, Philadelphia 76ers
Injury cannot stand in the way of Simmons getting his due as one of the most actively strange players in the league. There’s nothing quite like the first quarter of a game when Simmons is resolved to go full throttle; it takes time for even the best teams to adjust to a 6-foot-10 point guard on a perpetual downhill, hurtling toward the basket with untold power. Exceptionally few players—and, really, people—have this kind of size and speed. Yet even if they did, it’s safe to say that they wouldn’t use those attributes in quite the way that Simmons does. This is an All-NBA-caliber player who might decide to go one-on-four on the break so that he can attempt a layup backwards:
All this from one of the most disruptive defensive players in the league. Every possession with Simmons is an adventure. You never know when he might leap into the air only to decide, midway, that he would very much rather pass. He is the NBA’s most interesting player in transition, as much for what he won’t do as for what he can. A refusal to shoot outside the paint all but requires that Simmons do too much. To get the best of an entire defense, Simmons must force angles, crash through bodies, thread passes, wing hook shots, shuffle his timing, and attempt all manner of weirdness in defiance of the way the game is usually played. It’s as if his entire offensive game were made of idiosyncrasy.
F: Julius Randle, New York Knicks
Randle does a lot on the court, not all of it good. While that might be a problem for the Knicks, this is a value-neutral space; what matters for our purposes is the doing itself. You cannot watch a game involving Randle without becoming acutely aware of his presence. His drives move headlong into traffic, pushing forward with all the regard of a monster truck derby. Genuine physicality makes for a great watch. So much of modern basketball is oriented around players avoiding contact (as to better slink to the rim) or creating contact (to specifically bait a foul) that a degree of pure, battering-ram power can feel refreshing. Zion Williamson, Giannis Antetokounmpo, and LeBron James wield it to their advantage, albeit more responsibly. Each picks their spots. Randle, in contrast, takes them all.
His is a style of interjection. Randle is a skilled big—too skilled, really, to be parked down in the dunker spot or boxed into hard rolls alone. Once he has the ball in his hands, however, Randle keeps it for longer than any other center in the league. Often, those possessions go something like this:
There’s really no reason why Randle should use almost as many isolation possessions per game as Kawhi Leonard and Luka Doncic, according to Synergy Sports, other than the fact that Randle seems to insist upon it. The results are sometimes impressive and always eventful.
F: Kelly Oubre Jr., Phoenix Suns
Oubre exists in a world beyond moderation. The only way to defend is by slapping the floor, jumping passing lanes, and rotating to the point of over-rotating. The only way to contribute to an offense is by attacking at full tilt, no matter the broader goals of the team or the circumstances involved. It’s a lot. When the Suns swung the ball to Oubre for a wide open corner 3 earlier this month, he squared up his shot, pump faked no one, and drove baseline for an incredible reverse dunk while drawing a foul:
NBA coaches will tell you that this is a good problem to have—that, especially at the professional level, the need to rein in a player is preferable to the alternative. You can see this with the Suns, who benefit in certain ways by having a talented wing dialed up to 11. When Oubre drives, he isn’t necessarily out of control—just out of his element. There’s a decent handle there, and the outline of a more complete player. Where Oubre runs into trouble is with his decision tree, which skips all the intermediate judgments in favor of the most extreme solutions. There is never a dull moment. Just last week, Oubre air-balled a layup on a two-on-one fast break. When a teammate gave him a chance to redeem the possession, Oubre gathered himself for this season’s most ill-fated dunk attempt. It was the best kind of chaos, and all because Oubre tried to quiet his yips with a wild overcorrection.
F: Pascal Siakam, Toronto Raptors
The Raptors will regularly play stretches of defense so oppressive that it seems they may never lose again. Siakam is the most convincing evidence—a roaming defender with great help instincts, let loose to break up plays all over the floor. Whether Toronto stays man-to-man or works through its full battery of hybrid zone schemes, Siakam often winds up wherever the action is, eager to muck up some free-flowing possession. With a stop comes a chance to run, and a chance to run gives Siakam a long creative runway.
For a player with Siakam’s versatility, the open court becomes 94 feet of canvas. What broke the game open for Siakam last season was a confidence in his ball skills. It takes comfort handling the ball for a player to reliably scale up their offense as Siakam did, shifting his high-energy game into isolations, post-ups, and pick-and-rolls—developments that made him the NBA’s Most Improved Player. And what is improvement if not pushing on the edges of your game? Siakam is only this good because he pressed to do more. So now he does a bit of everything, and he does it in a way that is singular to him. There’s some improvisational genius to the way he pivots his way through trouble, used with every passing month in some new and exciting way:
Siakam might be slightly overstretched in his current role, but that helps his case here. With increased usage comes the room—and need—for Siakam to push his game even further.
G: Marcus Smart, Boston Celtics
An absolute menace. When one of the game’s best defenders is also one of its best floppers, they open up every possession to some pretty wild possibilities. Many end in high tension; even scoring on Smart can be frustrating for opponents, which only dials up the intensity of a game and, most importantly for our purposes, results in any number of players trying desperately to make shit happen. If the opponent Smart is assigned to guard wants to prove a point, they’ll have to overdribble and overextend to reach it. If they try to circumvent Smart instead, that means some other, lesser teammate will have to do more than they normally would. Smart, all the while, is still pesky and determined enough to force his way into a play, blowing it up from the inside. There’s always so much going on whenever Smart is around, even when he might not seem to be directly involved.
Give Smart the ball and he’ll keep the game busy. He’s a reliable point guard, but the kind of reliable point guard who will loop through the paint for this sort of high-risk play:
It’s an unpredictable style, grounded just enough to keep it on the rails. You never know when Smart might decide to launch up a 3 before a possession really develops, or if one of his bolder playmaking attempts will end up triggering an opponent’s fast break. You also can’t rule out that his latest gamble could be crazy enough to work. All of it pushes a game to the edge of disorder, the most exciting place for a basketball game to be.
G: De’Anthony Melton, Memphis Grizzlies
For a young Grizzlies team with a limited supporting cast, the chief appeal of a player like Melton is that he puts things in motion. Most of the team—Ja Morant obviously excluded—is most comfortable making the second or third play on a given possession. Melton can at least get things started, and has played his best basketball in a sort of wild-card role for the second unit. Let a caretaker like Tyus Jones keep things in order, and swing the ball to Melton when you need him to let loose.
It’s a great developmental opportunity, which is to say that Melton’s game might be a bit too loose at this stage. When called upon to create, he tends to dance back and forth in search of some way to slide through. It doesn’t always work:
But it’s really the trying that counts. It wouldn’t suit Jones to force a square peg into a round hole, but Melton has the disposition to give it a go. So what if he turns the ball over? Who cares if a runner gets away from him? Melton will lock in on defense, poke away an opponent’s dribble, and then go right back to work, messy as that might be. Memphis doesn’t mind some helter-skelter, which is great news for a guard who racks up deflections, turnovers, and offensive rebounds while helping to accelerate the pace.
F: Kevin Porter Jr., Cleveland Cavaliers
The best part of every Cavs game is when Porter slides into the lineup, and then proceeds to freelance his way into impressive plays that only sometimes work. Exhibit A:
Those are two savvy feeds for a 19-year-old wing: first a leading bounce pass that Tristan Thompson wasn’t quite in position to take advantage of, and then a no-look dish to Thompson that would have resulted in a dunk, if not for Andre Iguodala. The vision is clearly there—as is the willingness to give it a whirl. As a result, Porter does something in almost every game that pops off the screen on daring alone. As he drives, he blends loping steps with little hesitations and sudden bursts. Good instincts allow him to work his way to the basket, even if he’s not quite strong enough to power through for a finish once he gets there.
There are rookies who float through games, gradually working their way into the mix and doing their best to get by. Porter is not one of them. If he gets the ball, he’s sight-reading his way through new scenarios, stringing it all together on the fly. If he’s guarding the ball, he’s probably out of position and almost surely fouling, which is really just another way of making shit happen. Porter commits more fouls per minute than almost anyone else in the league. It’s a remarkable achievement for a perimeter player, and one that can only be accomplished with hyperactivity. Porter needs to chill to become a more competent NBA defender, but for now, he’s wound up enough to keep things interesting.
F: Sekou Doumbouya, Detroit Pistons
Doumbouya has a tendency to take the game into his own hands for minutes at a time, hustling his way into opportunities so that he can wing it on offense. The key is that he’s just coordinated enough to really try some shit; his handle might not be secure, per se, but it’s enough to get a 6-foot-8 forward into possible scoring position. Doumbouya will jack up a 3 if he’s open, or try to run a pick-and-roll if you let him. When he collects a defensive rebound or picks off a pass, he will keep driving until the defense stops him—a good instinct that leads to some crazy attempts.
Some of Doumbouya’s fastbreak layups, taken at a full sprint, will ricochet off the backboard without catching any rim at all. It’s striking—all this energy, harnessed without the kind of touch that is so easy to take for granted in the NBA. Like many first-year players, Doumbouya has only been helpful in controlled stints, and his production has already trailed off significantly since jumping into the rotation in January. His cutting has slowed. His focus has wavered. Still, you can see him spring to life when he gets the ball in his hands, and he finds it just enough to do some things.
F: Caris LeVert, Brooklyn Nets
No one in the NBA moves like LeVert, whose every drive is drawn in fits and starts. Throwing on the brakes requires its own kind of athleticism; you can see opponents (and bigs especially) struggle to keep up with LeVert step for step, inevitably overcommitting in one direction or another as he makes his way along. Then, after lunging into position, LeVert will rise up for some strangely difficult shot, having exhausted most of the shot clock. It is a fascinating and frustrating pattern. LeVert has the basic tools to create, which is why Brooklyn has come to rely on him as a kind of secondary point guard in the absence of Kyrie Irving. Yet when he tries to create for himself, LeVert yo-yos his defender back and forth with precious little to show for it. For a player who works in isolation as much as LeVert does, it’s jarring—though not entirely surprising—that he shoots just 21.7 percent out of those one-on-one scenarios, per Synergy Sports. Something in LeVert’s creative game always seems to be just a bit off:
The more his usage increases, the more glaring LeVert’s quirks become. This is just what he does; putting the ball in LeVert’s hands can give an offense some shake, allow for spots of dynamic playmaking, and create a lot of action. There’s a hypnotic effect to LeVert rocking a live dribble. It just tends to be more successful in theory than in practice.