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The NBA has seen a dramatic shift in style since the 2010s, now showcasing a guard-focused style that creates opportunities through ball movement and pace. The one who controls that pace of play is usually the point guard, as defined by the amount of assists they rack up in a season!
In today’s NBA, the ability to distribute the ball has expanded to include not just guards but also forwards and centers as each team tries to get the leg up on the competition! In the 2020-2021 NBA season alone, there were 16 players that collected over 400 assists.
The favorite to be the league’s assist leader this season was last year’s assist leader, Russell Westbrook. However “Point God” Chris Paul, 2021 NBA Most Valuable Player Nikola Jokic, and rising stars Trae Young and Luka Doncic will give him plenty of competition.
Odds provided by Caesars Sportsbook.
|Player||Team||20-21 APG||20-21 Total Assists||Odds|
|Russell Westbrook||Los Angeles Lakers||11.7||763||+110
|James Harden||Brooklyn Nets||10.8||475||+150
|Trae Young||Atlanta Hawks||9.4||594||+550
|Luka Doncic||Dallas Mavericks||8.6||567||+700
|Chris Paul||Phoenix Suns||8.9||622||+1200
|Nikola Jokic||Denver Nuggets||8.3||599||+1500
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The Brooklyn Nets don’t have a true point guard, even when Kyrie Irving is available for them. It seems like Irving will be more trouble than expected for this coming season, so Harden will be thrust into the role as lead playmaker. Surrounded by fantastic shooters and finishers, not to mention Kevin Durant, we expect Harden’s assist numbers to skyrocket.
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Let’s take a look at the favorites to be this season’s assist leader!
Russell “Averaged A Triple-Double For 3 STRAIGHT Seasons” Westbrook with a ridiculous assist to Steven Adams!
(Via @okcthunder) pic.twitter.com/uCU8VNno8s
— Ballislife.com (@Ballislife) April 6, 2019
Russell Westbrook isn’t just known for his ability to create plays, but to fill the stat sheet as a whole. While his efficiency hasn’t been great over the past few seasons, the former Most Valuable Player’s triple-double averages in three of his last four season’s more than make up for it.
Now the leading guard on the Los Angeles Lakers, Westbrook will have more than his fair share of players to create for. Whether it be in the paint, on the perimeter, or for himself, Westbrook’s opportunity to generate assists is higher than ever.
The main issues for Westbrook as he pursues the top of the assist leaderboard are his very own teammates. LeBron James and Rajon Rondo are two of the league’s best playmakers in their own right. How he balances his play with them, especially considering he’s not the most reliable shooter, will determine if he can retain the assist crown.
James Harden with a franchise record FOURTEEN assists in his Nets debut ??? pic.twitter.com/2JEoSqGHuj
— Brooklyn Nets (@BrooklynNets) January 17, 2021
Despite being a key member of one of the highest usage trios in the NBA – himself, Durant, and Irving – Harden managed to finish second in assists per game in the 2020-2021 NBA season. With Irving’s playing status in doubt, Harden will take on more playmaking responsibilities than ever.
Until Irving is cleared to play, Harden will play as the de facto point guard despite his status as a shooting guard. It isn’t a role he’s unaccustomed to, having been one of the top assist leaders for consecutive years.
The biggest thing that may limit Harden’s ability to win the assist crown is the uncertainty of Kyrie Irving going into this season. If Harden maintains his role as primary playmaker for the entirety of the season, he could run away with the top assist spot.
? @TheTraeYoung’s BEST ASSISTS for the @ATLHawks! #NBAAssistWeek
?: “I’m Good” by @curtisroachraps | @unitedmasters
?: https://t.co/5jizS0TWQI pic.twitter.com/BgQGf6wiS5
— NBA (@NBA) August 17, 2019
Trae Young has grown into an All-Star off of the back of his incredible scoring and playmaking ability. While there’s no replacement for Stephen Curry in today’s NBA, Young likely comes the closest to being his heir apparent.
The Hawks All-Star has always been solid when creating for his teammates, but he’s always focused on scoring the ball first. What’s impressive is his ability to keep a focus on distributing, all while improving his scoring numbers.
Young has increased his assist average in each season of his NBA career. The Hawks acquired Delon Wright in hopes of him lessening Young’s playmaking burden, but after a strong post-season showing he is likely to improve his production further.
Luka Doncic with the casual nutmeg assist ? pic.twitter.com/R2iz1hUmx3
— NBA on ESPN (@ESPNNBA) November 3, 2018
Luka Doncic has been shining on the individual level, but he’s not been able to find the team success that he surely wants. Already a two-time All-Star in his third year, Doncic looks primed to make another leap in his career.
Doncic has averaged over eight assists per game over his last two seasons, collecting more than 1500 assists in just three years in the NBA. Despite owning a number of point guards on their roster, none are the playmaking type that can spell Doncic for long periods.
Whether or not Doncic can take top spot will depend on his team’s ability to support his playmaking with efficient finishing. At the moment, the Mavericks offense looks weaker than in years past, so Doncic’s competitiveness will depend on his offensive priorities.
CHRIS PAUL HAD 14 ASSISTS IN THE FIRST HALF ? pic.twitter.com/QM6eDVmrDa
— ESPN (@espn) January 23, 2021
It’s been a long time since Chris Paul had a true pick-and-roll partner, but with the Phoenix Suns he’s found an excellent match in DeAndre Ayton. As the primary playmaker once again, Paul has been brilliant running the show for the 2021 runner-up Phoenix Suns.
Paul had surgery over the offseason to fix an issue in his wrist, but he isn’t expected to miss significant time during the regular season. Having finished second overall in total assists during last season with 622 in 70 games, Paul is a great pick for the assist title again this season.
The biggest concern for Paul’s chances will be his age and Phoenix’s interest in managing his playing time. He played in 70 games last season, but with a proven Finals roster the Suns may be less interested in an ideal finish and more into a fully healthy post-season roster.
?? Career-high 18 ASSISTS for Nikola Jokic.. the MOST by a center since Wilt in 1968! pic.twitter.com/brVw1r37ZL
— NBA (@NBA) December 29, 2020
Nikola Jokic enters the assist leaders’ conversation as the only center to really have a true chance at challenging for the title. Despite his position not being focused on creating for others, Jokic’s unique skillset opens up opportunities for him to make a run at the assist leaders crown.
The reigning MVP collected 599 total assists through the 2020-2021 NBA season while averaging 8.9 assists per game over 72 games played. A big reason why he collected so many assists was his role as the focal point of the Denver Nuggets’ offense with Jamal Murray out due to injury.
The Nuggets are reliant on Jokic’s creation to open up their offense, so the opportunity for him to be at the top of the assist total column is there. However, due to the nature of his position alone, it’ll be difficult for him to make the final leap and challenge the very best guards for the title of assist leader.
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Christian Jope is a writer, social media strategist, and data analyst. A Queen’s University Alumni, Christian is an author and social media strategist with Raptors Cage, while also working closely with MLSE and Canada Basketball through community-driven events.
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