The 15 rookies who have caught my eye so far this NBA season
After getting compared to the woeful 2000 and 2013 NBA Draft Classes leading up to draft night, the 2020 Draft Class has actually been one of the better classes in recent memory. There are a handful of players with All-Star potential, and maybe even All-NBA potential. There are also a number of solid rotation players that were selected at various points in the first and second rounds. Through a quarter of the season, here are the 15 rookies who have caught my eye.
Note: There are two more rookies who have a ton of potential that do not appear on this list due to injury (Obi Toppin) and lack of playing time (Devin Vassell). I expect both to be impact players once they get enough serious run on the court.
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If you haven’t had an opportunity to check out Tyrese Haliburton, watch this highlight tape . You’ll notice a couple of interesting things about Haliburton’s game. First, he has a funky, almost juvenile push shot – but it goes in… very often (50-47-82 shooting splits). Another thing you’ll notice, there are no mid-range shots. Haliburton is an advanced analytics darling and has a shot chart that resembles James Harden (if Harden only averaged 8.5 field goal attempts per game). In fact, he’s only taken 11 shots this season that weren’t three-pointers or inside the paint. Lastly, you should take note of his pose and feel for the game – he has a point guard’s vision but has no problem playing off the ball. Even if his numbers stay near where they currently are – 11.4 PPG, 4.9 APG, 3.0 RPG – he is and projects to continue to be one of the best three players in this draft, if not the best.
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How can you not love watching LaMelo Ball? Every time he touches the ball, there’s the potential for a highlight-reel play. He’s so tall for a point guard, and plays fast, but not in a hurry (some coach speak for you), and he’s certainly not afraid to throw a behind-the-back pass in traffic or slick, no-look crosscourt pass. His three-point shot has so much arc you think it might hit the ceiling and his layup package is so smooth. He’s averaging 11.4 PPG, 6.3 RPG, and 6.0 APG with 40-33-70 shooting splits, so he’s not the most efficient player right now, but he’s definitely ahead of where most people projected him to be at this point in his career. If he develops at the trajectory he’s currently on, this kid will absolutely be an All-Star and possibly even an All-NBA player in the future.
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I mean, need I say more? Look at where James Wiseman is catching that lob…off a flat-footed jump, no less!! Wiseman has elite athleticism for a seven-footer. He’s still extremely raw – remember he basically went straight from high school to the NBA because he only played in three games at Memphis – but the Warriors have to be thrilled with his potential. Through 16 games, Wiseman is averaging 11.8 PPG, 6.1 RPG, and 1.4 BPG this season. If he develops quickly alongside Steph Curry and Draymond Green this year, he could be ready to be a legitimate contributor on a contender next season when Klay Thompson returns.
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Every draft, there are a handful of players – typically sophomores, juniors, or seniors – whose draft stock is way too low considering their abilities and physical profile. As I outlined in my final mock draft, Immanuel Quickley had the pedigree, efficiency, and body to be an impact player in the NBA: As a sophomore was SEC Player of the Year, shot 42.8 percent from three, and had a gangly 6-foot-10 wingspan that would be able to help him play bigger than his 6-foot-3 height on both ends of the court. I had him pegged at no. 29, which was earlier than most mock drafts, but he ended up going no. 25 and has played like he should have gone in the top-five in retrospect. Quickley has been a stud thus far for the surprisingly competent Knicks, averaging 11.6 PPG and 2.5 APG while shooting 37.9 percent from three. He’s flashed more pick and roll abilities than he did at Kentucky and already possesses one of the best floaters in the NBA. When the season ends, expect Quickley to be a First-Team All-Rookie performer.
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Seemingly every draft, there’s a high-risk, high-reward prospect that soars up the board in the final days leading up to draft night. Some years that prospect ends up being a stud like Jaylen Brown; other years it ends up being a bust like Mario Hezonja. Patrick Williams was that prospect for the 2020 NBA Draft, and, thus far, he looks to be much more Jaylen Brown than Mario Hezonja. While he’s still very raw, Williams clearly has the size and athleticism to be a two-way impact player and is competent enough to play 25.4 MPG right now without standing out like a sore thumb – which is no easy task when you consider that about nine of the NBA’s best 15 players are forwards. Williams will almost certainly be a solid NBA player, but we’ll have a better idea of just how high his ceiling is in the next two years.
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Anthony Edwards, Minnesota T’Wolves
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Anthony Edwards, the 2020 NBA Draft’s no. 1 overall pick, has been a mixed bag this season. On one hand, he has been very inefficient, averaging 13.1 PPG on 36-31-83 shooting splits and averaging more turnovers (1.9) than assists (1.7) per game. He’s a bit of a chucker on offense and has the tendency to lean back too far on his jump shot, leading to inconsistent results. He’s also on an absolute train wreck of a franchise in Minnesota. On the other hand, he clearly has a ton of potential as seen by this recent game against the Warriors where he flashed the ability to be a three-level, go-to scorer from the guard position. Oh, and he also might be the most athletic guard in the NBA as seen by this tomahawk slam. In conclusion, it’s too early to tell whether Edwards will be a stud or a bust, but it’s safe to conclude that he’ll be spectacular one way or the other.
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It’s highly unusual to see a rookie on a contending team be the focal point of the team’s offense for a stretch of games, but because of Covid-related absences in early-January, we got to see what Tyrese Maxey could with an increased usage rate. The results were very promising: During a six-game stretch in which he played 30.4 MPG, Maxey went out and averaged 18.8 PPG, 3.8 RPG, and 3.5 APG, including a 39-point, seven-rebound, six-assist game against the Nuggets. While he has since been relegated back to his “spark off the bench” role, Maxey is clearly an NBA player and has the potential to be an impact player for Philly in the years to come.
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Boston fans have to be absolutely elated by the play of Payton Pritchard thus far. Through 14 games, he’s averaging a modest 7.7 PPG, 2.6 APG, and 2.4 RPG, but he’s been extremely efficient (49-43-90 shooting splits) and weathered the storm admirably as the team’s third guard while Kemba Walker was out for the first month of the season. Pritchard is injured right now, but he should return in two weeks and the Celtics will need him to once again play big minutes as Marcus Smart just suffered a pretty serious-looking calf injury. Pritchard doesn’t have the All-Star ceiling that these players above him possess, but he has a very high floor and projects to be one of the league’s top backup point guards for years to come. If he could be Boston’s version of Monte Morris, then he’ll end up being one of the steals of the 2020 NBA Draft.
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Xavier Tillman has quietly been an impressive role player for the surprisingly good Grizzlies this season. Forced into early playing time due to Jaren Jackson Jr.’s injury, Tillman has averaged 8.3 PPG, 4.1 RPG, and has shot 53.8 percent from the field. His game is reminiscent of Montrezl Harrell in that he has a great floater in the lane and already has the wherewithal to be an effective roll-man in pick-and-rolls. He’s also a hustler and comes up with a number of loose balls and deflections. Some of these perpetually terrible NBA franchises should be closely monitoring the Grizzlies to see how they’re not only finding hidden gems in the draft but quickly developing those gems into legitimate role players.
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Speaking of hidden gems that the Grizzlies continue to uncover in the draft, Desmond Bane, a 6-foot-5 wing out of TCU, looks to be a perfect three-and-D role player for Memphis moving forward. Through 14 games, he’s averaging 9.1 PPG and shooting a league-best 52.0 percent from three-point land. He also has a plus-5.8 points per 100 possessions on/off point differential, which is something you don’t always see from rookies. Despite being the last pick of the first round, Bane has already established that he’s an NBA player and projects to be a starter-level rotation player for the majority of his career.
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Jae’Sean Tate is a pretty unique rookie – he’s a 6-foot-4, 230-pound, 25-year-old bulldozer of a forward who went undrafted out of Ohio State and played in the NBL Australian league in 2019-20 before signing with the Rockets. If you followed his career at OSU at all, you’d be downright shocked that he’s not only in the NBA but often starting and playing over 25 MPG in the NBA this season. In college, Tate could handle the ball like a guard, but couldn’t shoot worth a lick (career 27.7 percent three-point shooter), so he just tried to bully-ball his way into the paint every time he had the ball. Since then, he’s developed into a good wing defender, become at least serviceable beyond the arc (33.3 percent from three), and appears destined to stick in the league. He even had the tenacity to get chippy with James Harden during the Rockets’ training camp when Harden was acting like a juvenile. That right there tells me Tate is here to stay.
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Isaac Okoro was my best bet to win Rookie of the Year when the season began. Unfortunately, he missed some time with an injury and also simply won’t put up impressive enough offensive statistics to take home the award. That being said, Okoro is still going to be a good wing in the NBA. He’s comfortable finishing around the basket in crowds with either hand, he’s strong and athletic enough to defend small forwards, and he’s tenacious. That combination from a player his age doesn’t often fail. Once Okoro improves his outside shooting, he could be a problem in this league.
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Speaking of tenacity, Precious Achiuwa is the personification of tenacious. He may be listed as a rookie, but Achiuwa looks like a grown man standing at 6-foot-8 and weighing in at a muscular 225 pounds. In about 16 MPG, Achiuwa is averaging 7.5 PPG and 4.8 RPG while shooting an impressive 64 percent from the field. He also has an above-average Player Efficiency Rating (17.5) and appears to be an ideal #HeatCulture big man who will, alongside Bam Adebayo, scare the living hell out of opponents around the basket for years to come.
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At the beginning of the season, Cole Anthony was supposed to be a spark-plug off the bench for the Magic. Unfortunately, starter Markelle Fultz tore his ACL and forced Anthony into action as the team’s primary ball-handler a little sooner than the team was hoping. Like most young point guards, Anthony has been up-and-down during his rookie season. He’s average decent numbers, 10.6 PPG, 4.4 RPG, and 3.6 APG, but shooting an ugly 35.5 percent from the field and 31.9 percent from three. Despite this inefficient shooting, Anthony has still had a couple of great moments as a rookie, including a recent 21-point game in a win against fellow rookie point guard, LaMelo Ball, and, of course, this incredible walk-off three-pointer against the T’Wolves.
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The Foreign Kids on the OKC Thunder
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Two rookies have caught my eye on the OKC Thunder this season: one for the right reasons and one for the wrong reasons. Theo Maledon looks like he could be one of the steals of the draft (picked no. 34) as seen by this recent 24-point explosion against the Nets . In addition to being able to shoot the ball from deep (37.7 percent from three), Maledon is already able to make cross-court passes with either hand off the dribble – a skill typically reserved for the game’s elite playmakers. Expect Maledon to be a stud for the Thunder in the years to come. On the other end of the spectrum is the 7-foot, 190-pound Aleksej Pokusevski. Pokusevski, who had “Dragan Bender” written all over him before the draft, is having a spectacularly awful season shooting the basketball as he’s hitting only 24.7 percent from the field and 18.5 percent from three. Most amazingly (and concerning if you’re the Thunder), however, is the fact that Pokusevski has not attempted a single free throw in 276 minutes thus far. That’s right, zero free throws!! I’d expect him to be out of the league at the end of his rookie deal.