As we roll towards the All-Star break it only makes sense to report on the rookie ladder and review which NBA freshmen are making big moves. Consider this report as a complete and unequivocal assessment of where the kids stack up against each other at your own discretion.
- Ben Simmons (16.5 points, 7.7 rebounds, 7.3 assists, 1.8 steals and 0.9 blocks in 34.9 minutes per game): An Australian thoroughbred, Ben came out of the gates head and shoulders above the rest of the rookie class. His size and strength have helped him exhibit consistent brilliance as the Sixers’ point guard from the opening (liberty) bell. With a non-existent jumpshot as the lone crack in his armor, Simmons has still performed at an elite level by using the rest of his skill set to his advantage. When given space he consistently blows by good NBA defenders with a swift first step, finishing strong at the rim. Don’t think anyone expected him to use a wide array of hook-shots and off-balance jumpers, but they are going in early and often. The biggest revelation has been his defense. He can already be considered an above average defender in this league, something very rare for a rookie. His strength and length allow him to battle with big men in the post and his lateral speed, quick hands, and natural instincts make him a nuisance on the perimeter as well. When it comes to rebounding and passing he’s elite, but we already knew that from his high school mixtapes and LSU statistics. Over the past few weeks a combination of getting snubbed from the All-Star game and the sound of Donovan Mitchell creeping up on him may have inspired him to elevate his game and try something new: shooting more mid-range jumpers. The arc is flat, but they are occasionally going in. Now imagine that, Ben Simmons with a jump-shot? Might explain why the Eagles’ Super Bowl win inspired 76ers All-Star teammate Joel Embiid to proclaim “We’re Next!”
- Donovan Mitchell (19.2 points, 3.4 rebounds, 3.4 assists, 1.5 steals and 0.4 blocks in 31.9 minutes per game): No idea how he was left off the initial list of participants for the Dunk Contest, but the one benefit of Aaron Gordon’s unfortunate injury was Mitchell’s subsequent invitation to the event. An exciting, high-flying athlete, Mitchell has exceeded even the most lofty of superlatives from his pre-draft hype bandwagon. A streaky scorer and playmaker at Louisville whose translatable skill to the NBA was supposed to be his defense, Mitchell has actually been a consistent offensive force while focusing predominantly on that end of the floor. Averaging nearly 20/4/4 on 45/35/84 shooting splits, Donovan has proven that he is willing and able to carry the offensive load for the Jazz. Tyreke Evans’ 20/5/5 rookie season is a cautionary tale of putting too much credence in high volume offensive numbers for a rookie suddenly thrust into his team’s primary scoring role, but Mitchell can avoid Tyreke’s eventual career path by continuing to improve on his shooting and utilizing his elite athleticism on the defensive end of the floor. He might not be first on this rookie ladder but Mitchell is definitely the top player of the 2017 NBA Draft that teams are lamenting most for letting him slip.
- Jayson Tatum (13.6 points, 5.1 rebounds, 1.4 assists, 0.9 assists and 0.8 blocks in 31.0 minutes per game): After trading down from the first overall spot to draft Tatum third, Danny Ainge bragged that he would have taken Tatum at one. Right now he can brag again about how well that has turned out for him so far. Time will tell how that trade really works out, but Tatum has clearly been worthy of his selection. Jayson looked to be a natural scorer at Duke, but his shooting stroke looks smoother and quicker than it ever was in college — plus he has extended it. If anyone had told Ainge pre-draft that Tatum would lead the NBA in three-point shooting percentage through several months of the season, even he wouldn’t take it seriously. But truth is stranger than fiction and even with a colder shooting January, Tatum still boasts 48/43/82 splits. Even more surprisingly, he has transitioned seamlessly into Brad Stevens’ defensive system. The Celtics have a flexible scoring forward that they can play with confidence for the next decade. That is exactly what you want to snag in the lottery.
- Lauri Markkanen (15.2 points, 7.7 rebounds, 1.3 assists, 0.6 steals and 0.6 blocks in 30.3 minutes per game): Where are all the haters now? Not only was Lauri the most criticized top prospect in this draft, he also happened to end up in a trade that was heavily scrutinized. Several months later the Finnish sensation has made the Bulls look very smart. His critics may still latch onto concerns about his lack of athleticism and rim-protecting abilities, but they will need to concede that his elite shooting has translated effectively to the pros. Lauri has been surprisingly nimble for a 7-footer and continues to find himself in scoring positions. His rebounding has been solid and should continue to improve as he bulks up. He will never be an elite defender, but if he is an elite offensive player and a good rebounder, why can’t he emulate Dirk’s career (at least to a certain extent)? Lauri is the type of player that sees his stock drop over the summer when his weaknesses get dissected, but then he steps on the court and the equity begins to build up with every productive minute he spends on the court getting buckets.
- Kyle Kuzma (15.7 points, 5.9 rebounds, 1.8 assists, 0.6 steals and 0.4 blocks in 29.8 minutes per game): You would think we would know better after Malcolm Brogdon’s season last year, but look what we have here again: a 22-year-old prospect who produced throughout his NCAA career nearly dropping out of the first round due to a perceived lack of potential? His moxy from leading his college program at Utah has translated to confidence bordering on arrogance. If anything, Big Baller Brand applies better to his rookie season than that other kid the Lakers drafted with the second pick in the draft. Kyle is a bucket-getting savant who is comfortable scoring in isolation, from the perimeter, in the mid-range, on the block, and even off rebounds. So why isn’t he higher on the rookie ladder? Learn how to play some defense! The Lakers don’t exactly value their defensive possessions, but Luke Walton will want to see Kuzma get in the gym this summer and become a more effective defensive deterrent. He has the requisite body and athleticism.
- Lonzo Ball (10.2 points, 7.1 rebounds, 7.1 assists, 1.5 steals and 0.9 blocks in 33.9 minutes per game): The very hyped UCLA product has had an up-and-down start to his Laker career. Lonzo is certainly very comfortable running an offense and conversely uncomfortable shooting or playing consistent defense. With all the hype surrounding him and the antics of his father it is natural that there is no general consensus but rather extremely divergent opinions of his game. The truth probably lands somewhere in the middle. Unfortunately he is injured right now, but it will be interesting to see how Walton re-integrates Lonzo with his new roster, in particular Isaiah Thomas.
- Dennis Smith (14.8 points, 5.0 assists, 3.9 rebounds, 1.0 steal and 0.2 blocks in 29.3 minutes per game): Smith is the perfect example of why we should not put too much weight into summer league performances. Based on his summer play, Dennis was a shoe-in for Rookie of the Year contention. While Ben Simmons has made it look easy at times, every lead guard has their trials and tribulations when handed the keys to the car as a rookie. Coach Rick Carlisle is probably going to lose all of his hair by the end of this season though, as Smith’s inconsistencies have been emblematic of the Mavericks’ campaign. Efficiency struggles aside, Smith still has all the requisite skills and athleticism to develop into a good starting point guard.
- John Collins (10.3 points, 7.0 rebounds, 1.1 blocks, 1.0 assist, and 0.6 steals in 22.2 minutes per game): Superb athleticism doesn’t always make a player effective. On a struggling Hawks team, Collins’ bounce has been a revelation when afforded opportunities. He is extremely aggressive around the rim and a rebounding magnet. Progress with his jump shot and defense has been extremely positive. Not sure why Coach Mike Budenholzer hasn’t fully unleashed Collins yet, but expect some monster stat lines to finish off this season if he starts seeing closer to 30 minutes per game.
- De’Aaron Fox (11.1 points, 2.6 rebounds, 4.3 assists, 1.0 steal and 0.3 blocks in 27.1 minutes per game): When fellow teammates rave about Fox’s elite speed they aren’t being hyperbolic or trying to help boost a rookie’s confidence. Fox is quite possibly the fastest player in the league. This allows him to get to open spaces on the court before anyone else can. His aggression has really picked up in 2018, and with George Hill gone expect him to build on his recent performances. The shooting range will be a question mark until he answers it, but right now he is doing an admirable job running the offense for a talent-drained Kings roster. Defensively you never have to worry about his effort level, and “Swipa” is always a threat to snatch the rock away from the offense.
- Jordan Bell (5.1 points, 3.9 rebounds, 1.8 assists, 1.1 blocks and 0.7 steals in 14.4 minutes per game): This is probably Warriors bias because it seems like every player in their system functions well as part of the greater unit. Bell has had spectacular defensive moments and is in an ideal role. He doesn’t have to do too much on offense besides hustle, set screens, and roll to the rim, but he does those things well. Perhaps a career elite role player, for the purposes of this rookie report that is good enough to squeak into the top 10. Will need to get healthy soon to hold off the following honorable mentions from shoving him out of the way.
- Frank Ntilikina: Long-term possibly one of the five best players from this draft due to his elite defense.
- Jarrett Allen: Offensively talented athletic big who has an opportunity to work his way into the top 10 of the ladder if he continues to get buckets and improves his defense.
- Josh Jackson: Poor start to the season but playing much better of late and the Suns will give him all the opportunities in the world to succeed.
- O.G. Anunoby: Should be higher on this list but the Raptors are too deep to give him more playing time.
- Bam Adebayo: Taking advantage of injuries to showcase an improved array of offensive skills
- Luke Kennard: Looks like an effective sixth man and secondary playmaker.
- Terrance Ferguson: Was a very unknown commodity but has had some bright moments when OKC has let him play.
- Markelle Fultz: A very unfortunate situation for both Markelle and the 76ers, who continue to have unlucky first seasons with their top picks. However, if there is a silver lining for the consensus top prospect coming into this draft, look at where Embiid and Simmons are now.
- Malik Monk: Perhaps he is still getting over his offseason ankle injury but Monk was expected to deliver more offensive fireworks as a rookie. He has mostly been buried on Charlotte’s bench thus far.
- Jonathan Isaac: Injuries stink.
- Zach Collins: Be patient, but Blazers may rue missing on Mitchell.
- Justin Patton: Injuries stink.
- Justin Jackson: Struggling in the rookie wasteland of Sacramento.
- T.J. Leaf: Hasn’t played much for the Pacers.
- D.J. Wilson: Hasn’t been great in the G League.
- Tyler Lydon: Denver could’ve drafted Donovan Mitchell. Ouch.