While parsing the present NBA news cycle wasteland this week, it felt like a good idea to veer away from critiquing LeBron’s parenting style and instead, daring to dream. So let’s talk about rookies, whom regardless of how you choose to value Summer League performance, have plenty to prove, and whose actual fits in the NBA remain figurative mental sketches at this juncture. We don’t know exactly what these guys will look like, what will translate or who they’ll be playing alongside, but all the information that we do have makes projecting in to the future a fascinating process, in many cases. Let’s take a beat and think ahead.
Zion Williamson, Pelicans
Without question, Williamson already has a hold on national attention. But a big part of what’s so fascinating about his game, particularly his long-term projection, is that he’s inherently low-maintenance. There has always been more nuance to Williamson’s style of play than he generally gets credit for—his extreme athleticism makes his highlights pop, but the crux of his value might be the way he’s able to dominate and dictate gameflow. He’s a perfect fit for how New Orleans wants to play, with Alvin Gentry’s system rooted in not just attacking, but manufacturing stops at a breakneck pace, turning defense into transition play and blitzing opponents athletically. Williamson is a natural engine for all of these things.
The beautiful part of the entire situation is that he won’t be overburdened as a rookie, won’t need to be force-fed touches, and may not accrue quite the same level of offensive mileage as a teenager finding his way in the NBA. Expect New Orleans to deploy an egalitarian offense with a host of willing ball-movers on the roster, allowing Williamson to be a recipient of convenient catches first, and relieving him of any pressure to be a high-usage playmaker early in his career. He may evolve to the point where he’s handling in five-out lineups with shooters all around, but for now, his competitive motor, knack for finishing, ability to turn rebounds and stops into transition offense, and unselfish approach could make him a huge contributor without much assembly required. Williamson has time to work on his jumper and other weaknesses, but for now, his built-in strengths could be enough to help elevate the Pelicans, who intend to pursue a playoff spot. New Orleans will be one of the more fun experiments to follow come fall.
Ja Morant, Grizzlies
While you can expect Morant to take his lumps as a rookie, his individual progression will be the focus, and the pressure should be minimal given Memphis won’t be winning big any time soon. Morant is a quick study who’s been praised by his college coaches for his work ethic, film study, and ability to adjust and learn. Expect those positive habits to persist. While Morant is a much different player than Trae Young, following the recent arc of the Hawks’ young point guard would be a step in the right direction. Morant isn’t the same type of scorer, with more of his offense coming in the paint and his jumper a work in progress, but he’s a special passer and athlete who’ll be able to apply pressure going downhill and in transition right off the bat.
If there’s an immediate concern here, it’s the fact that Memphis could be deploying some pretty questionable lineups in terms of spacing as well as experience. Jaren Jackson Jr. and Jonas Valanciunas figure to start up front, and it’s unclear whether Andre Iguodala will end up playing for the Grizzlies at this point, meaning Kyle Anderson, Josh Jackson and Jae Crowder are in the mix on the wing. While Jackson Jr. is on his way to becoming a viable stretch big, there’s not a deadeye shooter to be found on the roster, and in Morant’s situation, that’s a pronounced negative. He’ll deal with cluttered lanes and high ball pressure, and there are going to be turnovers (they won’t all be his fault). But I’m most curious to see what he looks like—and how the Grizzlies try to play—in February and March more so than in October. Morant has a chance to be pretty special, if the Grizzlies don’t mess this up.
Matisse Thybulle, 76ers
The only important Sixers takeaway from Summer League is that Thybulle, for all intents and purposes, looks like a far superior player to Zhaire Smith right now. Thybulle, of course, is two years older, so that’s not terribly surprising, but he’s also taller, a more dynamic, eye-popping athlete (which is saying something), and a better shooter (albeit, neither is quite there yet). His offensive game and comfort playing with the ball actually stood out more than his defense, which had been his college calling card in Washington’s zone. There are a ton of wing minutes to go around in Philadelphia, and not a lot of established bench contributors lying around.
So as far as rookies who have a chance to impact the greater arc of this season are concerned, Thybulle is a sneaky one. His limited ability to score creatively will be mitigated by playing alongside great passers essentially at all times. Philadelphia should give him first crack at bench minutes, where he can defend both guard spots and ideally, keep defenses honest as a cutter and spot-up option. There’s not necessarily pressure on him to be great immediately, but there’s certainly going to be an opportunity for him to stand out.
Grant Williams, Celtics
The bigs currently on Boston’s roster are Enes Kanter, Robert Williams, Daniel Theis, French import Vincent Poirier, and Grant Williams. Granted, the others are all five-men, and the Celtics can go somewhat interchangeable 2-3-4 with Jaylen Brown, Gordon Hayward and Jayson Tatum, but the point is more that Williams might be walking into the perfect situation for his unique individual strengths. Right now, it’s anyone’s guess how Boston will rotate their guys, but Williams is particularly well-suited to being a very good fifth-best player on the floor (read: better teammates are going to bring out a better version of Williams). Maybe they’ll go super-small, or maybe they’ll play him off a traditional big, but his ability to catch and shoot looked much-improved at Summer League, and if that translates, some of the concerns I’ve long had about Williams’s size and positional fit might be less of an issue.
Even with Kyrie Irving out and the more team-centric, passing-oriented Kemba Walker stepping in to replace him, the Celtics are once again going to have to figure out their pecking order carefully. We’ll get a better sense this season if Tatum is ready to efficiently handle a heavier diet of shots. If Hayward is healthy enough to consistently be the secondary playmaker he was in Utah, it’ll help with distribution. Brown probably ought to focus on defending and rebounding, but he’s going to need touches, too. And as Brad Stevens staggers minutes—with Marcus Smart his only proven perimeter contributor off the bench at present—finding room for Williams at the four off the bench might be the most direct path to augmenting the scorers he already has. Williams is unselfish, competitive, and comes with zero questions about his makeup. If he can knock down shots and simply complement the others in a low-usage role, it won’t be a surprise to see him make a difference quickly.