While the season is still very young, we have seen plenty of exciting, promising, and worrying rookie performances.
Though we are just a couple of weeks into the season, we have seen a good sample for first impressions of the 2017-18 rookie class. While this list doesn’t cover every rookie (or even every interesting one), it does go through the early performances of a dozen or so notable newcomers beginning their NBA careers.
The best rookie through 10 games is a guy who wasn’t actually drafted this past summer. Ben Simmons hasn’t just separated himself as the Rookie of the Year favorite, he’s put himself in a great position to become an All-Star this February.
Like Blake Griffin in 2011 or his teammate Joel Embiid last year, Simmons has clearly benefited from having a year to get stronger and learn the system without the pressure of game reps. He’s averaging 18.4 points, 9.1 rebounds, and 7.7 assists per game, more than even the most optimistic projections could have been expected. If he continues this type of play throughout the entire year, this will go down as one of the best rookie seasons in league history.
If anyone can give Simmons a run for his R.O.Y. money, Lonzo Ball is the most likely candidate. Ball is the only rookie to average more assists than Simmons so far and has added a more-than-respectable 10 points and 7.5 rebounds a night. His 29-10-9 game against the Suns was fantastic, but he struggled to get anything going against some of the league’s best perimeter defenders in Patrick Beverley and Ricky Rubio.
That night-to-night inconsistency is the only reason he’s behind Simmons at the moment, but his peaks have Simmons’ level. While not all of the Lakers’ improvement can be placed at Ball’s feet, he has been a huge reason why this is the best team in Purple and Gold that we have seen in a few years.
Next Man Up
With how well the following player has played, the fact that he isn’t in the previous category is really a testament to how stacked this year’s rookie class is.
While Boston’s title hopes were likely dashed after Gordon Hayward’s devastating injury, Jayson Tatum has done an admirable job in his stead. Tatum has done well to score 14.0 points per game on a very efficient 56.3 eFG% in his increased role. With how naturally he has fit into Brad Stevens’ system, Tatum probably has the best chance of any player to jump into the R.O.Y. conversation with Simmons and Ball.
Not Amazing, But On Track
Dennis Smith Jr. had real R.O.Y. momentum after his Summer League performances, but the reality of the NBA has slowed him down just a bit.
He’s posted a solid 11.3 points and 5.7 assists per game, but on one of the worst teams in the league, he has struggled to make the national impact of some of the other rookies. His minutes might get limited once Seth Curry returns to the already crowded Mavericks backcourt, but he has had a strong—though not spectacular—start to his career.
The disastrous start to Phoenix’s season opened the door for Josh Jackson to take on a bigger role, but so far he hasn’t jumped at that opportunity. His athletic potential is clear, but he’s still extremely rough around the edges. His 36.6% from the field isn’t going to cut it and his three-point stroke is still a work in progress. His defense has improved since the coaching change, but the numbers still have a long way to go to recover from the hole of the opening three games.
Perhaps the most surprising of the three, Lauri Markannen has had a very strong beginning to his career. He is much more effective offensively right away than I expected with 15.6 points per night and a 41.7% clip from deep. A large part of his efficiency comes from his shot selection which creates a shot chart that looks like something out of a Daryl Morey daydream.
While his defense has been an expected problem, his 9.6 rebounds per night has been a pleasant surprise. If he can continue rebounding that well and stay efficient from the field, it will be interesting to see if the Bulls give him a chance to play more minutes at center to give defenses a different look.
Off to a Bumpy Start
While many players have started strong, there are always a few who struggle out of the gates. Tenth overall pick Zach Collins has played just 15 minutes this season and has yet to score a point. While he missed a couple games with an illness, the fact he hasn’t cracked the Blazer rotation this far into the season is concerning. Portland obviously thought highly of him considering they traded two picks to get him, so it is worth watching his progress over the coming weeks.
While less concerning than Collins, Donovan Mitchell’s start hasn’t exactly been smooth. He’s shown the defensive flashes we all were expecting, but his offense hasn’t translated at all to the NBA. He is shooting just 32% from the field and the Jazz have a 78 ORTG with him on the court. He’s good enough defensively to warrant minutes even with his lack of offense, but he will need to turn it around if he wants that to continue.
The final disappointment is also the most troubling. For as well as Ben Simmons’s career as a Sixer has begun, Markelle Fultz’s has been equally disastrous. It was clear from the second he stepped on the court something with Fultz’s shoulder was bothering him, but it turned into a much more serious problem.
Markelle Fultz changed his free throw shooting form and this is how it looks… pic.twitter.com/OO8fJLsZuD— Ballislife.com (@Ballislife) October 10, 2017
Reports of structural damage and cortisone shots were concerning, but the end result was an indefinite break to recover from a “muscular imbalance”. That would be worrying enough even without Bryan Colangelo theorizing that Fultz’s shoulder injury was caused by the changed shooting motion and not the other way around.
Hopefully, there is no psychosomatic problem with Fultz’s shot and he can recover in the approximately three-week timeline Philadelphia has projected, but this has already become yet another inauspicious start to the career of a top Sixer pick.
Ethan Miller - Getty Images
Late First Gems
Twitter hipsters will tell you that Kyle Kuzma is the best rookie on the Lakers (he’s not), but he has been very good. He is tied with Tatum as the second-leading rookie scorer and has given Luke Walton no choice but to play him 20+ minutes a night. Kuzma carried his Summer League momentum into the early season, making himself the early favorite for the steal of the draft.
While not as big a name as Kuzma, Atlanta’s John Collins has had a similarly explosive start. He’s big, extremely athletic, and has shown real versatility in his game. He leads rookies in rebounding, is third in win shares, and is providing value for an Atlanta team starved of talent. Collins won’t get a lot of buzz based on the team he plays for, but he has already become a very solid pick.
2nd Rounders to Watch
The final group is composed of a couple of Oregon kids who inexplicably fell in the draft. Jordan Bell has, if nothing else, already made a big name for himself. While he projected as a defense-first guy, he has found prosperity in the Warriors’ offense and scored on a ridiculous 89% of his shots. He has a completely unsustainable MVP-level 30.3 PER, but his penchant for explosive garbage-time dunks will keep him interesting.
The final player on this list, Dillon Brooks, has already forced his way into a very tough Grizzlies rotation. Brooks is fifth in minutes among rookies which is impressive for any second rounder and while the “next Malcolm Brogdon” comparisons are going to be made, he hasn’t reached that level yet. His numbers are lagging behind his comfort level, but he has already cemented a spot in the Grizzlies rotation.
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