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Tune into a full slate of NBA action on any given night, and you won’t be able to miss this sensational rookie class. At least one marquee member will be doing something notable on the hardwood, helping spark a victory while still cutting their teeth in the Association.
Maybe it’s Jayson Tatum spotting up for a corner three before running down the floor and swatting away a shot as a weak-side helper. Perhaps Ben Simmons is controlling the action and then unleashing a bona fide dime to one of his fellow Philadelphia 76ers. You could see Donovan Mitchell calling his own number in a crunch-time scoring scenario or Jordan Bell protecting the rim for the Golden State Warriors.
The list goes on and on.
Last year, Joel Embiid (who played in only 31 games) and Dario Saric lost out to Malcolm Brogdon in an uninspiring Rookie of the Year race before Willy Hernangomez and Buddy Hield joined them as first-team All-Rookie members. Embiid, Davis Bertans, Shawn Long, Demetrius Jackson and Brice Johnson (some of whom saw nothing more than minimal minutes) were the only first-year contributors to finish with positive scores in NBA Math’s total points added (TPA) metric—indicative of performances better than the league average.
That isn’t the case this go-round.
Franchise cornerstones are emerging all over the place, to the point that excluding some rookies from the All-Rookie second team will be a painful process come award season. Travel back to the land of TPA, and—takes a deep breath—Simmons, Tatum, Bell, John Collins, Mitchell, OG Anunoby, Bam Adebayo, Daniel Theis, Lonzo Ball, Tyler Cavanaugh, Maxi Kleber, Daniel Hamilton, Dakari Johnson, Naz Mitrou-Long, Jamil Wilson, Ivan Rabb and Jonathan Motley are all in the green.
Again, some of those young men are playing sporadically (or even less), but the sheer number of legitimate rotation members populating that list is unbelievable.
The improvements also carry over to the top of the class. Whereas last year’s Rookie of the Year battle was a war of flawed candidates, this season’s front-runners have injected quite a bit more excitement into the competition.
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Lonzo Ball, PG, Los Angeles Lakers
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 10.2 points, 6.9 rebounds, 7.0 assists, 1.4 steals, 0.9 blocks
The drama centered around Lonzo Ball’s father is inescapable, and it has played a legitimate part in shaping the narrative surrounding this rookie point guard. So too has the 20-year-old’s poor shooting at the start of the year, giving the impression that he was a hopeless offensive player who didn’t deserve to be selected at any point in the lottery.
Except Ball has quietly—oxymoronic as that may sound for someone with his last name—emerged as a useful player. Not only has he displayed tremendous awareness and quick hands on defense, but he’s beginning to find his perimeter stroke. Over his last eight appearances, he’s averaged 15.0 points, 7.3 rebounds and 6.8 assists while shooting 44.0 percent from the field and 42.9 percent from beyond the arc.
Don’t count him out yet, even if he has a long, uphill climb before award season.
Jordan Bell, PF/C, Golden State Warriors
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 5.2 points, 4.1 rebounds, 1.9 assists, 0.7 steals, 1.1 blocks
An advanced-stats darling, Jordan Bell fares well in all of the kitchen-sink metrics. His 2.99 RPM leaves him behind only 30 players regardless of position. Per NBA Math, his TPA places him at No. 34 overall, trailing only the two leading members of this rookie crop. The Golden State Warriors benefit immensely from his defensive versatility and willingness to fill an appropriate role on the scoring end, as they topple opponents by 15.3 points per 100 possessions when he plays—the fourth-highest mark on the squad.
So, why doesn’t he rank among the top five contenders for Rookie of the Year?
Objectively, Bell has provided about as much value as anyone in this class. But perception matters in the award races, and he can’t escape the fact that he’s been placed in a perfect position to succeed and is only playing 14.8 minutes per contest.
Lauri Markkanen, PF, Chicago Bulls
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 14.9 points, 7.6 rebounds, 1.3 assists, 0.5 steals, 0.5 blocks
Lauri Markkanen has filled an impressively large role for the Chicago Bulls, but it’s also overextending him. As a 20-year-old rookie still learning the nuances of the NBA game, he isn’t ready to serve as one of the team’s leading scorers, which is reflected in his shooting percentages and his negative catch-all numbers.
Without much defensive presence and playing on a team that has used a hot streak to rise only to 13th in the Eastern Conference, Markkanen’s award case hinges on his scoring. And while the volume is present, slashing 42.7/35.7/83.7 leaves him closer to falling into the “next up” section than rising into one of the five featured spots.
Next Up: Bam Adebayo, Miami Heat; OG Anunoby, Toronto Raptors; Bogdan Bogdanovic, Sacramento Kings
5. John Collins, PF, Atlanta Hawks
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2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 10.9 points, 6.9 rebounds, 1.1 assists, 0.7 steals, 1.1 blocks
Has John Collins been the Atlanta Hawks’ best player in 2017-18?
With Dewayne Dedmon missing significant time and Dennis Schroder refusing to serve as anything but a matador on defense, you could make a convincing case for the rookie big man. He has functioned as one of the few two-way assets on this Eastern Conference bottom-feeder, all the while proving his game is built around so much more than high-flying dunks that leave the rim shrieking in pain.
Of course, those are still fun to watch:
Collins lives on the offensive glass, and he’s been effective enough to earn the board-crashing green light from head coach Mike Budenholzer, who typically prioritizes transition defense far more than the creation of second-chance opportunities. He’s competent enough as a passer and a mid-range shooter that he keeps defenses on their toes, allowing for easier chances around the hoop.
And perhaps most impressively, he’s already grasping the fundamentals of defensive positioning, which gives him a chance to use his prodigious hops and impact plays around the rim.
Budenholzer hasn’t consistently moved Collins into the starting lineup yet, and he still inexplicably buries him in the rotation on random nights. That might only get worse now that Dedmon is back in action. But if the Hawks slough off key pieces at the trade deadline and clear a path for the Wake Forest product to play 30-plus minutes per night, he could charge up these standings.
4. Kyle Kuzma, SF/PF, Los Angeles Lakers
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2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 17.1 points, 6.3 rebounds, 1.7 assists, 0.4 steals, 0.4 blocks
Kyle Kuzma can flat-out score. He’s averaging 17.1 points per game while shooting 46.4 percent from the field, 37.8 percent from downtown and 73.9 percent from the charity stripe. Those numbers come after the surprising rookie worked his way through the first scoring slump of his professional career, prompting him to say, “You can’t be Superman all year,” per Shahan Ahmed of NBC Los Angeles.
Considering how frequently Kuzma fires away from beyond the arc (5.3 times per game), the results are even more impressive than they might initially appear in a vacuum. He’s one of only 30 qualified players scoring at least 17 points per contest with a true shooting percentage north of 56 percent this season. The list of rookies to join that exclusive club is short in the current millennium:
- Kyle Kuzma in 2017-18: 17.1 points per game with a 56.3 true shooting percentage
- Karl-Anthony Towns in 2015-16: 18.3 points per game with a 59.0 true shooting percentage
- Stephen Curry in 2009-10: 17.5 points per game with a 56.8 true shooting percentage
- Pau Gasol in 2001-02: 17.6 points per game with a 56.6 true shooting percentage
That Kuzma is putting up those statistics and still ranks No. 4 in the Rookie of the Year countdown should tell you a lot. Not only does it hint at the overall strength of this first-year crop, but it’s also an indication that his defense isn’t exactly palatable.
The Los Angeles Lakers have made plenty of strides on that end during the 2017-18 campaign, but those have come in spite of Kuzma’s persistent desire to serve as nothing more than a turnstile. According to ESPN.com’s defensive real plus/minus, only 14 of 468 listed contributors have fared worse on the less glamorous side, which significantly curtails the former Ute’s overall value.
3. Donovan Mitchell, SG, Utah Jazz
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2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 18.5 points, 3.3 rebounds, 3.4 assists, 1.5 steals, 0.4 blocks
Donovan Mitchell is occasionally prone to the defensive lapses which first-year backcourt players typically suffer, but he is more than making up for said porosity with his relentless scoring habits. He immediately stepped into Gordon Hayward’s departed role as the Utah Jazz’s leading scorer, earning the respect of countless veterans while doing so.
Watch what happens after the final buzzer sounds on any given night. Some opponent will come up to Mitchell and pay his respects, realizing we’re all witnessing a special offensive talent beginning to figure it out at the sport’s highest level.
A rough start to the season—he slashed 34.5/31.9/82.6 during his first dozen games—hasn’t halted his progression. He’s showing off his full bag of tricks every time he takes to the hardwood, dazzling defenders with Dwyane Wade-style slashes to the hoop before completing an alley-oop slam on the next possession. He can tickle the twine from downtown, but he also sits in the 67.3rd percentile as an isolation scorer, the 52.2nd percentile as a pick-and-roll ball-handler and the 89.2nd percentile as a spot-up marksman.
That type of all-around ability is staggering, especially when coupled with passing vision and distributing skills that have helped make him a dual threat out of the Salt Lake City backcourt.
2. Jayson Tatum, SF/PF, Boston Celtics
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2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 13.9 points, 5.5 rebounds, 1.3 assists, 1.0 steals, 0.9 blocks
Can someone help me out? I can’t find a single hole in Jayson Tatum’s game.
When the Boston Celtics need a lanky defender capable of covering any type of perimeter player or providing help from the weak side, they can turn to their versatile rookie. Though he wasn’t much of a point-preventing presence while playing under head coach Mike Krzyzewski at Duke, that has changed dramatically with Brad Stevens’ tutelage. That has come as no surprise to Stevens, given what he told MassLive.com’s Jay King before the season began:
“I don’t know if surprised is the right word, but Jayson Tatum’s defense is beyond his years. He’s very savvy and very long. He uses his length. His arms are out and he gets his hands on balls and deflects passes and discourages drives just because of his length. I think he’ll continue to get better and better with the other stuff systemically, but he’s done a good job for a young guy so far.”
Oh, and Tatum is even better on offense.
Not only has he served as one of the game’s deadliest spot-up marksmen (he sits in the 88.7th percentile in that play type while maintaining a hefty workload), but he has also shown an affinity for creating his own looks and taking advantage of mismatches. His first step is explosive. His touch and creativity around the basket would turn myriad veterans a shade of Celtic green. He’s always under control and rarely makes poor decisions.
While we can’t downplay the role he’s had on the team with the Eastern Conference’s best record, only his job description keeps him from earning the top spot. He’s a supporting piece completing his assignments magnificently, but he isn’t tasked with the same level of responsibility our No. 1 candidate assumes on a regular basis.
1. Ben Simmons, PG, Philadelphia 76ers
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2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 16.9 points, 8.4 rebounds, 7.5 assists, 1.9 steals, 0.9 blocks
Up to this point in his first professional season—the only requirement for Rookie of the Year eligibility—Ben Simmons is averaging 100.5 touches per game for the Philadelphia 76ers, making him the lone NBA player with triple-digit touches. He’s averaging 7.3 minutes of possession, too, which leaves him trailing only Russell Westbrook, James Harden, John Wall, Kemba Walker, Damian Lillard and Dennis Schroder.
Though Joel Embiid currently might be the better player, Simmons is an unquestioned leader for the Sixers. More so than any other rookie in this class, he controls the fortunes of his squad through sheer opportunity, and he isn’t letting those chances slip through his ball-handling fingers.
Yes, the 21-year-old’s lack of jump-shooting ability—even the willingness to take them—is concerning. Simmons has let fly from between 16 and 30 feet (including end-of-quarter heaves) only 14 times in 37 appearances, which comes out to less than once every other game. But even as defenses compress into the paint and attempt to gum up Philadelphia’s half-court efforts, he’s still been able to pick them apart.
Finishing 73.6 percent of his attempts from within three feet is sensational, particularly when defenses know getting into the restricted area is his plan on every possession. A deep set of moves that includes spinning jump-hooks, floaters and everything between has helped him post that scorching percentage, which only Gary Harris (75.6 percent) has topped among guards with at least 50 relevant attempts.
Between that and his preternatural passing vision, Simmons is an impact offensive player in spite of his obvious limitations. Pair that combination with remarkable proficiency on the defensive end—his quick hands and knack for anticipating passing lanes have him at No. 3 among every eligible point guard in ESPN.com’s DRPM—and you have the enduring front-runner for Rookie of the Year.
Along with the rest of the first-year crop, Tatum and Mitchell are closing the gap as Simmons attempts to counter defensive adjustments forcing him to at least consider shooting the ball from outside the paint. But they’re still trying to chase him down from behind.