We are roughly a quarter of the way through the NBA season. In the first six weeks, teams and players are beginning to separate themselves, including the rookies. Some have fared better than others, but I believe most would be impressed with the class as a whole thus far, considering the players had very little time to adjust to the NBA competition and lifestyle.
With that in mind, let’s check in on a handful of the rookies worth mentioning, and give them a quarterly report card. Because of the aforementioned circumstances, the grading is generous, and reflects a draft class contributing much more, earlier on, than most anticipated.
The players are listed in alphabetical order, with the exception of two guys that I’m saving best for last.
With Markelle Fultz going down with a season ending ACL injury, Cole Anthony has taken the keys as a starting guard for the Orlando Magic. Similar to Edwards, Anthony has struggled with efficiency as a whole (only at 38.4% since becoming a starter), but he put up a 21-point effort on 8/12 shooting against Charlotte in late January. He also had a game winning three for Orlando against the Timberwolves:
Anthony, while working through efficiency issues, has stepped up in the wake of Fultz’s injury, has played impressive defense, and has kept the Magic’s perpetual hopes of being the 8 seed in the East alive.
Minnesota has certainly separated itself from the rest of the Western Conference, sitting dead last at 4-14, already 3 games back of 14th. However, they’ve been without Karl-Anthony Towns most of the year, and D’Angelo Russell has missed 3 games well.
This has left Anthony Edwards with a larger role than anticipated, resulting in him leading all rookies in scoring at 13.6 PPG. He struggled with efficiency at Georgia, and it was somewhat expected that would continue his first year in the league.
While he is the leading scorers for all rookies, it’s mostly due to usage. His effective field goal percentage (which accounts for 3s being worth more than 2s) is 39%, with is only in the 3rd percentile of all NBA guards (per Cleaning the Glass). The Timberwolves, already an awful defensive team, are a even worse with Edwards on the court, too, about a half point worse in defensive rating.
All in all, he’s putting up counting stats on inefficient shooting while learning to play NBA defense. This is largely what most expected from Edwards his first season, and his performance so far is nothing to worry about. He certainly makes plays that make you understand why he was taken first overall, it’s all just a matter of improving and becoming more efficient of a scorer.
A few rookies have benefitted from COVID-19 protocols, thrusting them into more minutes as guys ahead of them were forced to sit due to contact tracing. Maxey is one of them, and he made sure to take advantage.
With the 76ers rotation decimated, Maxey played 44 minutes, and scored 39 points on a very efficient 18/33 shooting against Denver on January 9th. Since then, he’s averaged 9 points a game in almost 20 minutes for Doc’s squad. Maxey isn’t shooting particularly well from three and draws very few fouls due to the number of floaters and tough shots he takes, so there’s definitely room for improvement.
Maxey appears to be an absolute steal in this draft, going 21st to the 76ers. He’s already shown why.
Okoro is seen as a project pick, a defensive-minded wing whose jumper is still a work in progress. Cleveland has trusted Okoro with a hefty amount of playing time, leading all rookies in minutes per game (35.8) by a wide margin.
Okoro isn’t getting much usage, and his box score stats are not all that impressive (8-2-2 on 39% shooting), but he has provided a defensive presence at the wing position for a Cleveland team that desperately needed it.
Most of the rookies have had some issues with efficiency, which is common. What Payton Pritchard is doing, however, is not normal.
How about almost a 50-40-90 season? Pritchard is shooting 42.5% from three and has stepped up as a rotation guard Boston needed while Kemba Walker was out due to injury. Boston’s net rating is almost 11 points better when Pritchard is on the court for them, an amazing number for anyone, much less a rookie with little time to prepare.
Before going down with an MCL injury almost two weeks ago, Pritchard helped quell some concerns about depth for the Celtics, surpassing all expectations. In turn, he made Boston’s selection in the draft, 26th overall, go from a potential reach to a steal.
Speaking of steals, Quickley was taken one pick before Pritchard by the New York Knicks. And thus far, he’s outplayed fellow first round teammate Obi Toppin, who was taken at #9.
Tom Thibodeau usually doesn’t trust rookies with much playing time. However, Quickley has earned it, with scoring outbursts of 23, 31, and 25 so far this season. While he is one of the best shooters in the class, much of his scoring has come from the floater. In fact, he ranks second in the entire NBA in percentage of shots that are runners/floaters, per Synergy. Some have described his game as reminiscent of Lou Williams of the Clippers.
As always with a Thibs coached team, defense is a priority. At Kentucky, Quickley had 5 total blocks in 2 years of college basketball. In 16 games with the Knicks, he already has 7, and is in the 95th percentile in block % among NBA guards. He has shown to be a sparkplug off the bench, and a pleasant surprise for Knick fans, who desperately needed one.
Dotingly referred to as “Project Pat” by some in the Chicagoland Area, Pat’s arguably most impressive trait thus far has been his desire to guard the opposing team’s best player.
At Florida State, Williams was a terrific help-side defender, and was capable of guarding both the ball handler and screener in the pick and roll. In his short career with Chicago, he’s already guarded LeBron James, Luka Doncic, and Giannis Antetokounmpo. His defense on LeBron garnered praise from the King himself:
Williams has also shot very well out of the gate, 43.6% from three. However, one issue that concerns many Bulls fans is his desire to take long twos: 21% of his attempts are classified as “long twos” per Cleaning the Glass, and that’s good for 95th percentile at his position.
If Williams can clean up the shot profile, which isn’t a very hard thing to do at all, he seems on track to prove that the Bulls were smart to “reach” for him with the 4th pick.
It’s been a mixed bag for the rookie, but the fact he hasn’t been a complete disaster thus far is a huge win for Golden State. That’s not even a jab at Wiseman, but when you play 3 college games, then miss the rest of the season and jump into NBA basketball without any Summer League or proper time to work with your teammates, that’s an unbelievably tough challenge. Wiseman has seemed up to the task.
He’s had some issues defensively, particularly fouling, but in this clip, he shows his upside as an uber-athletic rim protector:
Most impressively, Wiseman’s shot has come along quicker than many scouts thought. He’s currently shooting 40.9% from three and is well on his way to becoming a key piece to the future of the Warriors.
The Best for Last
One guy that hasn’t gotten enough media attention from this draft class is LaMelo Ball (just kidding).
LaMelo has certainly had his moments that make your jaw drop as a passer:
We knew he was a gifted playmaker coming into the season. However, there were a lot of question marks about his shooting ability, his defense, and his maturity.
As for the shooting, the inconsistency is there. He’s had 5 games shooting above 50%, and 5 games below 35%. With that said, his true shooting percentage is 52.7%. This isn’t even league average, but considering his shot profile and shooting splits everywhere else he’s ever played, this is higher than many anticipated.
He’s shooting 29.2% on catch-and-shoot threes, and 30.8% off the dribble. His mechanics aren’t exactly the same when comparing those two scenarios and it’s certainly something he’ll need to clean up if he wants to improve in this area.
Defensively, he is an aggressive rebounder, ranking 11th among all NBA guards in rebounding percentage. His help-side defense has been very good considering expectations, and while steals aren’t the perfect indicator of good defense, he’s 2nd in the entire NBA in Steal %. This is important because it’s a sign of effort, which was a huge question mark during the scouting process for LaMelo.
Is LaMelo Ball an inefficient, inconsistent scorer? Yes, but all things considered, he has surpassed many expectations. Has he impressed defensively? Absolutely. Is he the gifted passer he was proclaimed to be coming into the season? For sure.
It will be fascinating to see how his game progresses over the rest of the season.
I made a point to reserve one A+ for the best rookie (compared to draft selection and expectations) so far this season. That is Tyrese Haliburton.
Haliburton ranked 2nd on my own big board prior to the draft because of his efficiency and defensive ability. While I thought both would translate to the NBA, I didn’t think he’d be this good this early.
A pristine 60.2 True Shooting %, Haliburton is above league average for guards in scoring at all three levels:
FG% at the Rim: 67% (61st percentile)
FG% on Mid-Range Shots: 50% (85th percentile)
FG% on Threes: 42% (78th percentile)
Haliburton is one of the lone bright spots defensively for this Sacramento Kings team, which is on pace to have the worst defensive rating in NBA history. While he does have a slight frame that should fill out over time, his long arms allow him to contest shots without fouling.
His finest moment this season was a complete 4th quarter takeover against the Chicago Bulls, in which the Kings pulled out a 128-124 win:
Steal of the draft.