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2017-18 NBA rookie class could be an all-time great

Oct 20, 2017; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Philadelphia 76ers guard Ben Simmons (25) attempts to drive against Boston Celtics forward Jayson Tatum (0) and center Al Horford (42) during the second half at Wells Fargo Center. Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports
Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

The future of the NBA is in great hands, and the 2017-18 rookie class is a big reason why.

One of the top storylines of the early season is just how many first-year players have made their presence known despite their inexperience. A young and deep 2017 NBA Draft class has proven its worth already. The rookie group has gotten some help from Ben Simmons and a few European imports.

The numbers support the solid play and production of this year’s rookies. Here’s a look at the cumulative per-36 minute averages of the top 25 rookie-year minute-getters from this year’s crop and some other notable draft classes: last year’s weak group and the legendary classes of 1984, 1996 and 2003. All statistics are adjusted to the league-average pace for this season:

 

Maybe the most important column from the above table is the age. The 2017-18 group is producing pretty well despite an average age that’s just barely legal to drink. Nine of the first 10 2017 draft selections were one-and-done prospects. This year’s group set a record for the most one-and-dones in the first round (16).

The per-36 minutes for this year’s class should only progress as the season wears on, considering the class’s overall youth.

Let’s run through this year’s deep rookie class by focusing on the several tiers of players who have impacted the season so far.

THERE ARE ALREADY FIVE LEGITIMATELY GOOD PLAYERS

Ben Simmons, Jayson Tatum, Lauri Markkanen, Kyle Kuzma, Donovan Mitchell*

Rookies are not usually good NBA players. Many of them will play large roles, but that’s because their teams want to develop them, not because their play merits the role.

This season, five rookies have legitimately earned big roles with their teams and are performing admirably in said roles. All of them could make a run at the Rookie of the Year award.

Simmons is obviously the top first-year player right now. He was drafted in 2016, but that doesn’t change the fact that he’s been awesome in his first nine NBA games. His current averages of 18 points, 9.8 rebounds and 8.2 assists have only been matched in a season by Oscar Robertson, Wilt Chamberlain and Russell Westbrook. Yes, his shot is a work in progress. But much like Giannis Antetokounmpo, he’ll be great whether or not he becomes an outside threat.

At the moment, Tatum is No. 3 in Win Shares for the 7-2 Boston Celtics, who have the NBA’s best record. His shot selection has been better than expected (62.7 true shooting percentage) and his plus defense has also been a pleasant surprise.

Markkanen and Kuzma are great examples of modern big men. They both are extremely fluid and are confident in their shot-making abilities from a variety of spots. Markkanen gets more points from the outside, while Kuzma is a bit more spread out in his shot selection. Both have work to do on defense, but they’ve proven to be extremely tough covers for larger players so far. The fact that Markkanen is two years younger makes him the more intriguing prospect.

Mitchell gets an asterisk because he was an offensive disaster to start the season. Nothing was falling in his first five games, but he kept chucking away. It seemed to have paid off, because the rookie has now averaged 20.8 points in 27.8 minutes per contest in his last four games, totaling a true shooting percentage of 59.

His defense has been very good, and his top-shelf athleticism allows him to do things like this:

Don’t be surprised if Mitchell ends up leading the Utah Jazz in scoring this year while also establishing himself as one of the league’s better perimeter defenders.

THE TOP POINT GUARDS ARE STRUGGLING BUT STILL HAVE HIGH CEILINGS

Markelle Fultz, Lonzo Ball, De’Aaron Fox, Dennis Smith Jr., Frank Ntilikina

Point guard is definitely the hardest position to excel at in a player’s first year. The 2017 draft class was as stacked with great point guard prospects as any class in recent memory, and all but one of them (the 20-year-old Ball) are teenagers. That means growing pains, which all five have gone through.

Fortunately, though, all five have at least one outlier skill they can look to as their calling card as they strive for NBA stardom.

Fultz is the weird case here, as the 76ers badly mishandled his shoulder injury and may have wrecked his confidence in the process. Let’s hope he can return with the jump shot and diverse offensive game that made him a deserving top overall pick.

Ball is an amazing passer. Despite his massive shooting struggles thus far, there’s still reason for him to be out on the floor for the Los Angeles Lakers. Fox also can’t really shoot, but he’s a blur when he wants to get to the basket. Smith will someday improve his decision-making so he can take advantage of all that explosiveness and touch around the rim. Ntilikina has hounded ball-handlers with his quickness and length on defense, so we can overlook his lack of offensive production, for now.

RAW PROSPECTS ARE SHOWING FLASHES

John Collins, Josh Jackson, Jonathan Isaac, OG Anunoby, Bam Adebayo, Malik Monk, Jordan Bell

All of these players are raw athletes who need more seasoning but have showed enough in their time so far that they can be solid starters or better.

Collins leads the struggling Atlanta Hawks in Win Shares. That’s not saying that much overall, but he’s doing it in 20.3 high-energy minutes per game by pounding the glass, controlling the airway around the rim on defense and finishing well around the basket.

Jackson, Isaac and Anunoby could turn into elite defenders in the modern NBA. All three have the motor necessary to dominate on that end. Anunoby has made the most positive impact early on, showing advanced instincts and a surprising capability to pass and shoot the ball from distance. He’s earned his minutes off the Raptors bench, and may even deserve a bigger role.

Adebayo, Monk and Bell will probably be specialist types in the NBA (Adebayo and Bell on defense, and Monk on offense). However, their teams have all deemed them worthy of playing time early on. Here’s a play that showcases the type of defender Adebayo already is:

OLDER AND UNHERALDED ROOKIES ARE EARNING ROTATION MINUTES

Bogdan Bogdanovic, Milos Teodosic, Mike James, Dillon Brooks, Dwayne Bacon

Bogdanovic could end up being an above-average starter in the NBA. The 25-year-old is a 6-foot-6 combo guard with a 6-foot-11 wingspan who also happens to have a lethal outside stroke. After a sprained ankle delayed his debut by a week or so, he’s put up 10.4 points in 24.4 minutes per game with a shooting slash of 59.5/36.4/100 in his last five contests.

Teodosic suffered a left foot injury in his second game and is, unfortunately, out indefinitely. However, the 30-year-old displayed the passing and shooting ability in preseason that indicates he can be a low-end starter or excellent sixth man at the NBA level.

James seemingly came out of nowhere. The former EuroLeague star is now a starter for the Phoenix Suns, and has a fantastic basketball IQ. At just 6-foot-1 with average athleticism, the 27-year-old still has very few weaknesses skill-wise.

Brooks and Bacon are second-round picks from the summer who have earned rotation spots with the Memphis Grizzlies and Charlotte Hornets, respectively, for their defensive abilities. Neither guy is contributing much offensively, but the fact that they’re getting consistent minutes despite poor offensive numbers should say something about their focus on the other end of the floor.

The list of current rookies who could become relevant down the line is extensive. Names such as Luke Kennard, Justin Patton, Jarrett Allen, Josh Hart, Brandon Paul, Daniel Theis, Semi Ojeyele, Zach Collins and many more are ones to keep an eye on.

The 2017-18 draft class is certainly not guaranteed greatness. A lot depends on that quintet of young point guards who all went in the top nine. Whatever happens, it’s fun to have an exciting crop of young players that at least has the potential to dominate the league someday.

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4 Comments

4 Comments

  1. Mark

    Nov 18, 2017 at 5:56 pm

    Kelly fixed his original article where he said Magic was rookie of the year, I really appreciate it. He is back on the good list.

  2. Mark Mikel

    Nov 8, 2017 at 9:08 pm

    Jared Johnson- you are right, this is a big rookie class with multiple talented players. You are a legit basketball journalist, unlike Kelly Scalleta- he claimed in his article about NBA rookies that Magic Johnson was rookie of the year- HA. I know, can you believe it?? What a colossal epic fail. Look it up!.

  3. TheGoldenhill67

    Nov 7, 2017 at 11:14 am

    Great article but I noticed there was an incorrect assumption about Ben Simmons. The only comparable rookie years were Oscar Robinson and maybe Magic Johnson(Johnson still had 2 rebounds less and 1 assist less). The other players you mentioned had their great statistical performances in their primes.

    • Jared Johnson

      Jared Johnson

      Nov 7, 2017 at 5:23 pm

      Thanks! I wasn’t meaning to exclude that distinction to rookies, but I must’ve done so by accident. Good catch!

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