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NBA Rookie Ladder: Ranking The Top First-Year Players

Mark J. Rebilas, USA TODAY Sports

As the 2018-19 NBA season approaches full swing, let’s check in on the best rookies thus far.

Now that we’re more than a third of the way into the NBA season, many of the league’s storylines are starting to form. However, many of this year’s rookies have been out of the spotlight with the exception of Luka Doncic. Let’s check in on the best five rookies of 2018, and how their play so far could translate into success down the road.

1. Luka Doncic, Dallas Mavericks

Luka Doncic

Jerome Miron, USA TODAY Sports

Doncic has far and away been the best rookie in the NBA this season. All while simultaneously proving those who considered him to be just another mediocre European prospect wrong. He’s first among rookies in points, third in rebounds, second in assists, and third in steals per game, highlighting his impressive versatility while serving as the most important playmaker on his team. Also, Doncic has operated tremendously in clutch time this season, as he boasts a 64% clutch field goal percentage. He is tied for first in the NBA among players averaging more than 3.5 points per game in clutch time. Most importantly, his outstanding play has helped the Mavericks form a push for the playoffs. They now sit two games above .500 in a jam-packed Western Conference.

The only concerns with the European guard’s play this season have efficiently related. He’s only shooting 42% from the field and is averaging 3.5 turnovers per game, but these should fix themselves over time as he adapts to NBA-level defense. Soon, Doncic will become the next European superstar to emerge on the Mavericks, and he will be one of the premier dynamic guards in the league. Sorry Phoenix, Sacramento, and Atlanta, but you had your chance!

2. DeAndre Ayton, Phoenix Suns

DeAndre Ayton

Mark J. Rebilas, USA TODAY Sports

Despite being a centerpiece of a Phoenix Suns team heading nowhere this season, Ayton has quietly emerged as one of the most efficient big men in the league. He’s averaging over 15 points per game this season on 58% shooting, and has the 25th-best player efficiency rating in the league. Also, Ayton has quickly become a rebounding machine, leading all rookies in both offensive and defensive rebounds per game while being the only rookie to average a double-double. Ayton has also established himself as a dedicated defender, as he sits at ninth in the NBA in contested shots per game.

If if weren’t for Doncic’s stellar play out of the gate, Ayton would be an easy rookie of the year frontrunner in most years. His only weaknesses up to this point are his nonexistent threat from three-point range (he’s only attempted two field goals from there) and his mediocre status as a rim protector, as he’s averaging less than a block per game. However, these skills should progress as he grows into his role as a dominant two-way center, and Ayton could quickly emerge as one of the best in the game at his position.

3. Jaren Jackson Jr., Memphis Grizzlies

Jaren Jackson Jr.

Rick Bowmer, AP Photo

Although the Grizzlies’ big man hasn’t put up insane numbers up to this point, Jackson Jr.’s impressive versatility has elevated his status as one of the most dominant rookies this year. Jackson Jr. has shot well for his size, posting 13 points per game on 52% shooting to go with an impressive 33% from deep. He’s more than held his own on the defensive end, as well, posting the ninth-most blocks per game in the league and the fourth-most steals per game among rookies. Further, he’s 30th in the NBA in Defensive Real Plus-Minus (DRPM), and is ahead of the likes of Steven Adams, Marcus Smart, and Joel Embiid in that category.

Jackson Jr.’s game is not completely polished just yet, however. He’s only averaged about 3.5 defensive rebounds per game, which is concerning for a player of his stature. This number could look smaller because of front court partner Marc Gasol’s  impressive rebounding ability, but nonetheless, he should be doing more in that area. With that said, Jackson Jr. and Gasol should quickly form one of the NBA’s most exciting front court duos on both ends of the floor, and will lift Memphis’ status as contenders for years to come given the team avoids its previous injury luck.

4. Wendell Carter Jr., Chicago Bulls

Wendell Carter Jr.

Jonathan Daniel, Getty Images

Without Chicago’s other big man Lauri Markkanen for much of the season, Wendell Carter Jr. has held his own against the NBA’s top bigs. As expected heading into the Draft, Carter Jr.’s versatility as a multi-tool player has proven itself, as he’s second among rookies in rebounds, third in blocks, and ninth in assists per game. Additionally, he’s made his presence felt on both ends of the floor, averaging double-digit scoring and the second-most contested shots per game among rookies.

The main concern with Carter Jr.’s play thus far, along with many other rookies, is his shooting efficiency. The former Duke center only has an effective field goal percentage of 49%, and shooting an abysmal 21% from deep, which is an area that was supposed to be a strong suit of his heading into the season. It is an area that can be easily improved, however, and could turn him into one of most uniquely skilled two-way big men in the league in the near future.

5. Trae Young, Atlanta Hawks

Trae Young

Getty Images

Aside from Doncic, Trae Young has been one of the few dynamic playmaking guards among rookies out of the gate. Young is averaging 15 points per game this season to go with over seven assists per game, the latter of which is the most among rookies by a wide margin and 11th in the NBA. His ability to create for himself and his teammates is something that the Atlanta Hawks were desperately looking for when they traded for him, and in that sense, it seems that they’ve found their guy.

Unfortunately, this impressive playmaking ability has been without efficiency for the former Oklahoma guard. Young is averaging almost four turnovers per game, good for fifth-most in the NBA, along with atrocious shooting percentages from deep and overall, which are at 24% and 37%, respectively. Furthermore, his DRPM ranks dead last in the entire league by almost 0.9, and this, along with his poor shooting, has resulted in the Hawks sitting at the bottom of the Eastern Conference. These concerns were loudly voiced about Young’s game heading into the NBA Draft this summer, and unless he can turn them around, his flashy numbers won’t mean much to this middling Hawks team.


Honorable Mentions: Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Los Angeles Clippers; Marvin Bagley, Sacramento Kings

Edited by Kat Johansen.

Before Trae Young in 2018, who was the last rookie to score 35 points and record 10 assists in a game?
Created 12/17/18
  1. De'Aaron Fox
  2. Ben Simmons
  3. Stephen Curry
  4. Damian Lillard

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