Rookie roundup: Jahlil Okafor stars as NBA’s best rookies make debuts
After an opening night filled with veteran-laden rosters, the full slate of NBA games Wednesday brought the debuts of most of the draft’s top picks.
For Philadelphia, Jahlil Okafor quickly established himself as a legitimate option in the low post. In Miami, Justise Winslow emerged as a spark-plug for the Heat’s second unit. And in his Knicks debut, Kristaps Porzingis tantalized New York with flashes of his unique skill set.
Anyone with doubts about Okafor’s excitement to play in Philadelphia just needed to watch his first quarter, when the former Duke star went 5 for 5 with 10 points in less than six minutes to start his career. Okafor showed the moves that made him a coveted pro prospect ever since high school—a soft touch around the rim, quick moves in the paint and a big body that already belongs on an NBA court. With his strong performance, Okafor became just the eighth rookie since 2000 to score 20 points in his regular season debut. Okafor’s 26 points were the second-most by a center in his NBA debut since ’63, topped only by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Despite the 112–95 loss to Boston, Okafor showed his worth as the draft’s third pick.
Winslow’s stats from his debut won’t do his overall performance justice in Miami’s 104–94 win over Charlotte. The 10th overall pick from Duke simply made the Heat look better every time he was on the floor. The rookie played solid defense, moved the ball on offense, finished a plus-26, and energized the crowd with hustle plays and one massive dunk.
Winslow is in the enviable position of joining a team filled with veterans. Instead of being counted on to carry the load, Winslow can make his mark as a high-energy role player, and let others like Chris Bosh, Dwyane Wade and Gerald Green take care of scoring. In the preseason, Wade compared Winslow to Ron Artest, and in his debut, Winslow flashed the potential that could make him a solid cog on any team for years to come.
Porzingis started for New York, a surprise for many who considered him a multi-year project before he would realize his potential. The takeaway from Porzingis in his first game was he showed he wasn’t overmatched on the court. Although his frame will still need to fill out, Porzingis was plenty competitive matching up with the Bucks’ frontline. Porzingis showed he himself will be a matchup problem, consistently making his way to the free-throw line and emerging as a solid scoring threat to help ease the burden off Carmelo Anthony. The No. 4 pick finished with 16 points in 24 minutes, with nine coming from the free-throw line.
In a matchup between the draft’s top two picks, Karl-Anthony Towns outplayed D’Angelo Russell in the Timberwolves’ 112–111 win over the Lakers. Towns scored 14 points on 60% shooting and grabbed 12 rebounds, although he struggled at times defensively when matched up with Julius Randle. Russell played 26 minutes and scored only four points, sitting out most of the fourth quarter in a tight game, which isn’t an encouraging sign. Still, on a couple occasions Russell showcased his slippery passing and ability to push the pace, and his game will undoubtedly grow.
In Denver, teenage point guard Emmanuel Mudiay played 38 minutes, and led the Nuggets to an upset 105–85 win over the Houston Rockets. Mudiay’s play was up-and-down, with his 11 turnovers sticking out like a sore thumb. They’re the most by any player in an NBA debut since ’77–78 when turnovers were recorded. But Mudiay also showed an ability to lead the offense, recorded nine assists to go along with his 17 points. Mudiay was a plus-13 in his time on the court, and hit three of his five three-point attempts.
Elsewhere, the Magic’s Mario Hezonja scored 11 points in 25 minutes, Trey Lyles was scoreless in eight minutes for the Jazz and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson scored eight points and was a plus-16 in 24 minutes for the Nets. Devin Booker added 14 points for Phoenix against the Dallas Mavericks.
Here are some highlights from the rookie debuts: