The 7 most impactful rookies for the 2020-21 NBA season

It’s been only one month since the 2020 NBA draft, and we are finally getting glimpses of what some rookies have been up to in the eight-month hiatus between the end of college basketball to now.

For players like LaMelo Ball, R.J. Hampton and James Wiseman, it’s been closer to a year since they have played in a competitive game. Rookies usually have a buffer with NBA Summer League and a longer training camp, but the COVID-19 pandemic resulted in a compacted offseason with many eager to get on the court.

“I’m so excited,” Onyeka Okongwu told Yahoo Sports before the draft. “It’s been so long since I’ve played a game. March right? That’s like eight months I haven’t played a game. Now I’m just hungry and anxious to play again.”

We take a look at seven players who could have an immediate impact on the court this year.

Charlotte Hornets guard LaMelo Ball plays against the Toronto Raptors.
Charlotte Hornets guard LaMelo Ball plays against the Toronto Raptors during an NBA preseason game on Dec. 12, 2020. (AP Photo/Chris Carlson)

LaMelo Ball | Charlotte Hornets

Ball is the most-hyped rookie in this draft class and is going to draw the most eyeballs and scrutiny in his first season. He was relatively quiet in his first game, playing only 16 minutes and going 0-for-5 from the field and 0-for-3 from the 3-point line. He did have two impressive assists that were all over social media and gave fans a tiny glimpse of what to expect this season. Ball averaged seven assists last season for the Illawarra Hawks over in Australia’s National Basketball League and struggled from outside shooting only 27% from the 3-point line.

His shooting mechanics are better than his brother, Lonzo, coming into the league. If his shot starts to fall, he could drop numbers similar to Atlanta Hawks point guard Trae Young in his rookie season. A friendly reminder that Young struggled in his Summer League debut, shooting only 23.1% from the field and a staggering 12.5% from 3-point range in his first three games.

The Charlotte Hornets need help across the board. The offseason moves of adding Gordon Hayward and three additional draft picks in the second round to play alongside Ball are a step in the right direction. The Hornets won only 23 games last season and finished last in points per game with 102.9 and 29th in offensive rating of 106.3. If Ball can get comfortable from the 3-point line, he could be a game-changer for this organization.

Deni Avdija | Washington Wizards

Avdija is one of the only rookies to start in his first NBA preseason game this season. The Washington Wizards’ two biggest stars in Russell Westbrook and Bradley Beal did not play. If there were nerves playing in his first NBA game, he didn’t let any of it show having a nearly perfect game. He was 6-for-6 from the field and 3-for-3 from the 3-point line, finishing with 15 points in 24 minutes and committing only one turnover. Avdija fell to No. 9 in the NBA draft and is looking like the biggest steal early on in this class.

Brooklyn Nets guard Kyrie Irving (11) defends Washington Wizards rookie forward Deni Avdija (9) as Avdija drives toward the basket.
Brooklyn Nets guard Kyrie Irving (11) defends Washington Wizards rookie forward Deni Avdija (9) as Avdija drives toward the basket during a preseason game on Dec. 13, 2020. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

He has great size at 6-foot-9 and is one of the best positionless players in this rookie class. If this is the sort of confidence we’re seeing already against players like Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, Avdija could be a front-runner for Rookie of the Year. With Westbrook, Beal and the young talent around them, the Wizards could be a fun team to watch in the Eastern Conference this season.

Patrick Williams | Chicago Bulls

The 6-foot-8 wing came off the bench and averaged only 9.2 points and four rebounds in his one season at Florida State. The Chicago Bulls drafted him at No. 4 overall, and some saw the move as taking on a project and developing Williams down the road. In his first two games, Williams is surpassing expectations, averaging 12.5 points in 26 minutes off the bench.

This could be the new start the Bulls organization is looking for this season. They hired Billy Donovan when he and the Oklahoma City Thunder parted ways after a 243-157 record in five seasons. The Bulls also hired several new assistant coaches, including Maurice Cheeks and Billy Schmidt from Donovan’s Thunder staff.

Donovan has been instrumental in developing young players when they enter the league like Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Steven Adams. The Bulls’ roster is full of young talent after picking up Wendell Carter Jr., Coby White and Williams in the first round of the last three drafts. After winning only 22 games last season and finishing 11th in the Eastern Conference, the addition of Donovan and his coaching staff and the early productivity of Williams alongside a healthy Zach LaVine is just what this organization needs.

Isaac Okoro | Cleveland Cavaliers

Okoro’s biggest knock coming out of his one year at Auburn was that he wasn’t a great perimeter shooter - only shooting 28.6% from 3-point range. If that was an area of concern for the Cavaliers front office, it isn’t anymore after Okoro’s gone 3-for-5 from the 3-point line in the preseason and is averaging 16.5 points in his first two games. Defensively, he switches on everything and can guard multiple positions and he even had the game-winning bucket in his first game against the Pacers.

Cleveland has had three lottery picks in the last three years where they took two point guards in back-to-back years with Collin Sexton and Darius Garland and added a tenacious wing in Okoro this year with the No. 5 pick. They have only won 38 games in two seasons and former Michigan head coach John Beilein left in the middle of his first season and promoted assistant coach J. B. Bickerstaff. With how effective Okoro has been early, he could end up being the single-most impactful rookie this year and help lead the Cavaliers to more than 19 wins this season.

James Wiseman | Golden State Warriors

Prior to the NBA draft, there was a lot of buzz surrounding the resurgence of the Golden State Warriors. The Splash Brothers were coming back, the Warriors had the No. 2 pick and things were looking up. Then everything changed once Klay Thompson went down with a season-ending Achilles injury just hours before the draft.

The Warriors still selected center Wiseman with the No. 2 pick and picked up Kelly Oubre Jr. from the Oklahoma City Thunder a few days later. There are high expectations for Wiseman now that Thompson is out this season. He wasn’t able to play in any preseason games after testing positive for COVID-19 and he had his first NBA test against a tough Brooklyn Nets team with a healthy Kevin Durant in the season opener. Wiseman got his first NBA start after not playing in a competitive basketball game in over a year. He played 24 minutes and was the second-leading scorer behind Steph Curry with 19 points. Wiseman was a little slower defensively in the lane and his timing was off in attempted blocked shots but that’s a learning curve that will come with experience. He grabbed six boards and was effective despite the Nets getting the easy win, 125-99.

Golden State Warriors draft pick James Wiseman laughs during a news conference.
Golden State Warriors draft pick James Wiseman laughs during a news conference on Nov. 19, 2020. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)

Last week, it was revealed that Wiseman and Draymond Green tested positive for COVID-19. Both players will miss Golden State’s final preseason game on Thursday.

Wiseman hasn’t played in a competitive basketball game in more than a year. He was showing signs of an improved outside jump shot knocking down 3-pointers at training camp. Wiseman has been compared to Chris Bosh and Chris Webber — high praise for a rookie. His college coach, Penny Hardaway, said Wiseman will be the fastest big from end-to-end in the NBA and predicts he’ll be the Rookie of the Year this season.

Onyeka Okongwu | Atlanta Hawks

The Atlanta Hawks were the worst defensive team in the NBA last season allowing an average of 120 points per game and finishing second to last in the Eastern Conference with only 20 wins. They clearly need some help on defense and picked up one of the best defenders in the draft in the 6-foot-9 forward Okongwu.

“I think I’m the best defender in this draft class,” Okongwu told Yahoo Sports. “I take a lot of pride in my defense. It has been built in me ever since I was a little kid.”

Okongwu finished with 76 blocks — second in the Pac-12 — and averaged 2.7 blocks per game. He has a 7-foot-2 wingspan and has drawn comparisons to Miami Heat’s Bam Adebayo. Unfortunately, we will be waiting to see him play alongside Trae Young for a few weeks due to a left foot injury. Okongwu is participating in modified team practice with contact, progressing toward unlimited team practice and will be reviewed on Dec. 18.

The transformation in Atlanta probably won’t happen this season, but there were solid moves made with the offseason additions of Bogdan Bogdanovic, Rajon Rondo, Kris Dunn and Danilo Gallinari. If Okongwu can grow into the defensive powerhouse he has the potential to be, the Hawks could turn a corner in the next couple of seasons.

Tyrese Haliburton | Sacramento Kings

Haliburton is one of the best passers in this draft class and has great court vision. He is a steal at No. 12 to the Sacramento Kings and is a phenomenal fit in the backcourt with De’Aaron Fox and Buddy Hield. In his second game of the preseason, he logged the most minutes on the team with 30 and scored 11 points. Haliburton also registered a plus-20, dishing out seven assists and grabbing six rebounds with zero turnovers.

Sacramento Kings rookie Tyrese Haliburton works against Portland Trail Blazers forward Carmelo Anthony during their preseason game.
Sacramento Kings rookie Tyrese Haliburton works against Portland Trail Blazers forward Carmelo Anthony during their preseason game on Dec. 11, 2020 in Portland, Oregon. (Abbie Parr/Getty Images)

“Those instincts, for someone as young as he is and was only drafted a few weeks ago, is pretty exciting,” coach Luke Walton said following the win over the Portland Trail Blazers on Sunday night.

There is always a learning curve from college to the NBA, but Haliburton has already shown impressive poise in the preseason and is a seamless fit in the Kings’ up-tempo system.

“My goals this season, first and foremost, is to win Rookie of the Year,” Haliburton told Yahoo Sports on draft night. “I think it’s my biggest goal just being able to prove that I’m the best player in this class. And most importantly, I want to compete for a playoffs spot and help Sacramento get back to the playoffs and win basketball games.”

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