We’re now a month into the 2017-18 NBA season, and into the careers of a new class of NBA rookies. Let’s check in on the freshmen in the first installment of Rookie Redraft, a semi-regular look at which first-year players would earn top-10 spots if we ran back the lottery right now.
WOULD TOTALLY BE ON THIS LIST IF HE COULD SHOOT: Lonzo Ball, PG, Los Angeles Lakers
Yeah, I know: 31.3 percent from the floor, 25 percent from 3-point land, and 50 percent from the line ain’t it. Lonzo won’t be in our top 10 until that haunted heave starts finding the bottom of the net more often.
There’s more than one way to impact the game, though. Lonzo’s fifth in the league in assists and just outside the top 20 in assist percentage (the share of teammates’ buckets on which he notches a direct helper). He’s fifth among rookies in rebounding, and second only to Russell Westbrook among NBA guards. (At least, among those who aren’t 6-foot-10. We’ll get to him in a second.)
Ball’s slight, but he’s got good defensive instincts and active hands, ranking third among rookies in steals and averaging as many deflections per game as Giannis Antetokounmpo and Avery Bradley. He’s logging the second-most minutes on a team that has, shockingly, turned in the NBA’s No. 4 defense.
It’s Jason Kidd’s right to consider comparisons between him and Lonzo “a stretch.” But only three players before this season had averaged more than nine points, seven assists, five boards and a steal per game as rookies: Kidd, Chris Paul and Magic Johnson. That’s where Lonzo’s at right now, keeping the ball moving and keeping his head up. Don’t be surprised if he rockets up these rankings when he starts checking the one box everyone’s focusing on.
With that said:
1. Ben Simmons, PG, Philadelphia 76ers
This isn’t hard.
Here’s the list of players who have averaged at least 17 points, nine rebounds and seven assists per game as rookies: Oscar Robertson and Ben Simmons.
Here’s the list of players who have assisted on more than 25 percent of their teammates’ baskets, pulled down more than 10 percent of available rebounds and made 50 percent of their shots as rookies: Magic and Ben Simmons.
(OK, so Ben’s at 49.7 percent entering Wednesday’s play. I think it’s OK to give him the benefit of the round-up. Also: if you remove the field-goal percentage qualifier, Lonzo shows up. Just saying.)
Simmons leads all rookies in minutes, points, rebounds and assists per game. He’s still only making 37.1 percent of his shots outside the restricted area … so it’s a good thing he’s a 6-foot-10, 230-pound Hummer with a Bugatti Veyron engine that opponents can’t stop from getting wherever he wants. Simmons has taken nearly 62 percent of his shots within eight feet of the rim, and he’s making nearly 61 percent of them. When you’re shooting high-percentage shots over helpless defenders, you don’t need to be Peja Stojakovic.
Through four weeks, Simmons isn’t just the front-runner for Rookie of the Year. He’s a legitimate All-Star contender. The wait is over. It was worth it.
2. Jayson Tatum, SF, Boston Celtics
So that’s why Danny Ainge was so cool with trading the No. 1 pick.
Pressed into a larger-than-anticipated role due to injuries, the 19-year-old has fit seamlessly as an insta-starter at small forward. As advertised coming out of Duke, Tatum’s a polished offensive player with a veteran’s footwork, a tight handle for a 6-foot-8 teen, a great sense of how to use his length to create space to shoot, and a knockdown stroke when the Celtics swing the rock.
The Celtics haven’t asked Tatum to create his own offense very much — reasonable, since Kyrie Irving and Al Horford exist — but have depended on him to take and make almost exclusively good shots, to attack scrambled defenses and off-balance closeouts in pursuit of something good, and to move the ball when there’s nothing there. They’ve also asked him to hold his own defensively, and he’s been up to that challenge, too, using his length to plug passing lanes, and looking comfortable switching perimeter assignments. He’s earned enough of Stevens’ trust to log 30 minutes a game for the NBA’s No. 1 defense. Most 19-year-olds can’t pull that off.
The path will get rocky. He won’t keep making half of his 3-pointers. The lack of explosion that’s caused him some difficulty finishing at the rim — just 55 percent inside of four feet, according to Ben Falk at Cleaning the Glass — will become more of a factor. He will, at some point, look like a 19-year-old. (He briefly did on Tuesday.)
That we’re still waiting is remarkable. The Celtics remain the NBA’s hottest team thanks in part to Tatum’s ability to shoulder a significant load without buckling.
3. Kyle Kuzma, PF, Los Angeles Lakers
Given a chance to crack the Lakers’ starting lineup by a broken bone in Larry Nance Jr.’s left hand, the 6-foot-9 Kuzma has continued to produce, averaging just under 15 points in 37 minutes per night as a starter while shooting 45 percent from the field and 90 percent from the foul line. He’s helped fill the rebounding void Nance left, pulling down 9.5 caroms a night, and has worked to step up his game on defense.
I’d tell you where Kuzma’s individual season stats rank among rookies, but I wouldn’t want him to get mad.
“I try to focus on all the top players in the league, because that’s where I want to be, so I don’t feel like rookies are a stick[ing] point for me to try to battle with,” he recently said. “I look at guys like Antetokounmpo and LeBron because eventually, that’s where I want to be.”
[…] where would you have drafted yourself?
Kuzma: Definitely in the Top 5.
He’s making it hard to argue.
4. John Collins, PF/C, Atlanta Hawks
There are not very many reasons to watch the Hawks. Collins, for my money, is the best.
The 6-foot-10, 235-pound power forward out of Wake Forest just pops off the screen at you, a jittery ball of elbows and knees perpetually coiled and ready to spring in the direction of the ball. He’s been a monster on the offensive glass, ripping down 16.5 percent of his teammates’ misses, the fourth-highest share in the league.
He runs the floor and fills the lane with purpose. He swats shots with impunity, ranking second among rookies in blocks per game and third in block percentage. Opponents are shooting 53.3 percent near the basket with him defending, according to NBA.com’s tracking, 10th in the NBA among rotation bigs.
There are wrinkles to iron out, headlined by a propensity for hacking that has the rookie leading the NBA in personal fouls. But there’s juice here — athleticism, will and a sense of when to explode out of a crouch to do something cool.
5. Lauri Markkanen, PF, Chicago Bulls
The Bulls started the season without their top two power forwards after BobbyPortis caved in NikolaMirotic’s face. Already expected to be one of the NBA’s worst teams after jettisoning Jimmy Butler, the Bulls handed the starting four spot to Markkanen, the Finnish 7-footer they took with the No. 7 pick they got in the Butler deal.
So far, so good!
Everyone who watched Markkanen at Arizona knew he could kill in the pick-and-pop and put the ball on the deck a little, but what’s most encouraging about the 20-year-old’s early work has been its variety. Markkanen’s only got 16 assists in 11 games, but he’s thrown some surprisingly slick passes. In defiance of his pre-draft scouting report, he’s moving his feet defensively and competing on the glass, ranking second among rookies in rebounds per game and tops in defensive rebounding rate.
Comparisons to Dirk Nowitzki and Kristaps Porzingis feel very lofty this early, but we thought the same thing when Kristaps got Dirk talk two years ago, and now he’s averaging 30 a night and getting fringe MVP buzz. What exactly the Bulls have in Markkanen remains to be seen, but impressing LeBron seems like a sign you might have something special.
And the rest of our top 10:
6. Mike James, PG, Phoenix Suns: When Eric Bledsoe decided he didn’t want to be in Phoenix anymore, he opened the door for James — undrafted out of Lamar University in 2012, kicking off a five-year run overseas — to take his place. The 27-year-old has made the most of the opportunity, averaging 13 points, 4.2 assists and 3.6 rebounds in 26.4 minutes per game as a starter to help the Suns get off the mat.
7. Dennis Smith Jr., PG, Dallas Mavericks: Fourth among rookies in assists, second in scoring and, evidently, first in LeBron’s heart. Also, he can do this:
… which is cool.
8. Bogdan Bogdanovic, SG, Sacramento Kings: The 25-year-old Serbian hasn’t yet looked like the game-breaker he was in Europe, but he’s averaging 9.4 points in 23.4 minutes per game on pretty efficient shooting. That’s earned the 2014 draft-and-stash a spot as Dave Joerger’s starting shooting guard — which has benefited Buddy Hield (just under 15 points in 25 minutes per game on 51/60/88 shooting in six games as a reserve) — in the Kings’ youth movement.
9. De’Aaron Fox, PG, Sacramento Kings: Late-game heroics aside, the jumper is still an issue — Fox is shooting just 33-for-112 (29.5 percent) outside the restricted area this season. He’s finishing well when he gets there, though, making two-thirds of his tries at the rim, and showing the playmaking chops (5.2 dimes per game, with a 2.5-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio), speed off the bounce and poise that made him June’s No. 5 pick.
10. Donovan Mitchell, SG, Utah Jazz: Not much is going right in Utah right now. One of the few bright spots: Mitchell, 6-foot-3 guard with a 6-foot-11 wingspan and bounce for days, trying to fill the Jazz’s gaping perimeter void. He’s kicking in 14.6 points in 26.7 minutes per game, and stepping up to the plate to guard opposing scorers.
It hasn’t always been pretty, but Mitchell’s shown enough to give Quin Snyder a reason to keep letting him get loose:
— Utah Jazz (@utahjazz) November 14, 2017
Infuriated your favorite rookie didn’t make the list? Let me know about it.
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