Through roughly one month of NBA basketball, there isn't much certainty around the league. A shorter preseason coupled with historic spikes in pace seem to have added more variance than ever, and it's too early to tell whether the Celtics will really have a top-five defense all year long. Nobody knows what's happening with the Cavs. It's impossible to say whether the Wolves are good or bad. The Thunder are either in team-meeting mode or blowing teams out, and so on.
One early trend that appears to be sustainable, though: whether it's Donovan Mitchell, Ben Simmons, Jayson Tatum, or Kyle Kuzma and Lonzo Ball in L.A., we are going to spend the entire year talking about the rookies.
This is one of the deepest classes of rookie talent the NBA has ever seen, and every night, one of them pops up around the league to steal the spotlight. So to help process what's happening, and celebrate this windfall for basketball fans and draft nerds, here is the first installment of our semi-regular rookie rankings. Let's begin.
15. Markelle Fultz, 76ers
Fultz has only played in four games, and his showings in those four games were, uh, stressful for everyone. There are other rookies who would steal this spot if we were strictly basing these rankings on production. OG Anunoby and Jordan Bell have been terrific off the bench in Toronto and Golden State, Dillon Brooks has been a solid option in Memphis, Caleb Swanigan has been good in Portland, and if you want to take NBA hipsterdom to the extreme, Jarrett Allen has had a few very nice stretches for the Nets. But none of them have the lurking potential of Fultz, whose struggles and injuries have been a major storyline around the entire NBA. If he gets healthy and remembers how to shoot, he still has as high an upside as anyone taken in last June's draft. For now, he's something like an NBA Reddit urban legend—taking lefty jumpers, inspiring thinkpieces about his smile, making cameos on Embiid's Instagram—casting a mystifying shadow across one of the deepest rookie classes ever.
14. Bam Adebayo, Heat
Of the also-getting-votes rookies mentioned in the Fultz section above, all of them project as good role players over the next few years and beyond. But Bam Adebayo may hit a level beyond that. Granted, he's currently catching DNPs behind a now-healthy Hassan Whiteside and Kelly Olynyk in the Miami frontcourt, but when he's gotten the opportunity, he's looked very good. That includes eye-popping summer league numbers, but also 13 points and 13 rebounds in 31 minutes against the Wolves last month, which prompted SI's resident Heat homer to text me, "Get on the BAMWAGON." He's mobile enough to guard the pick-and-roll, he should be a good rim protector, and if the minutes ever open up in Miami, he's the sort of rangy, blue–collar center who fits well with where the game is going. So, I don't care that he's not getting minutes right now. I'm on the Bamwagon.
13. Josh Jackson, Suns
In most of the Suns games I've seen, Jackson has looked a little bit lost. Some of that isn't necessarily his fault. He's playing next to tweeners in Dragan Bender and Marquese Chriss, while TJ Warren's the incumbent small forward, and has been fantastic. Meanwhile, Jackson's shooting is very much a work in progress—currently 37% from the floor and 26% from three. But there are a few moments in every Suns when you see why Phoenix made him a top–five pick—he's active on defense, great in transition, and his do-everything game is a good fit next to scorers in Booker and Warren. If his shooting can improve as he gets more comfortable, he'll be higher on this list by the end of the year.
12. Malik Monk, Hornets
Monk's shooting has been pretty uneven early on, and that'll probably continue all season. That's fine. Even as Monk struggles to get acclimated, there are revenge games against the Knicks, and there is the occasional fourth quarter explosion. And that's perfect. I didn't come here for Malik Monk consistency, I came for Malik Monk fourth quarter explosions.
11. Jonathan Isaac, Magic
Isaac's not seeing heavy minutes yet, and his offense comes and goes—he's currently averaging 6.4 PPG and 4.6 RPG in 20 minutes—but it's already clear he'll be a great defender. He's so long and mobile that you imagine him fitting well in a dozen different situations over the next decade. In Orlando, the specific situation we're imagining is nightly adventures with Aaron Gordon, harassing teams with fits of athleticism and blocks. Before the draft, the worry with Isaac was that he could arrive in the NBA looking like Jonathan Bender for the new millennium—too slight, not coordinated enough, etc.—but it's already clear that Isaac can do more than that. If we're talking strictly upside, Isaac's flashes early on, coupled with struggles from his peers, might make him top-three pick if the league re-drafted.
10. Frank Ntilikina, Knicks
Frank is great on defense, he's looked capable as a distributor, and his arrival as a stabilizing point guard presence who's not Ron Baker or Ramon Session has been a legit factor in the Knicks becoming a (I can't believe I'm saying this) potential playoff team. His offense is still a ways away from adding the "3" into 3-and-D, but for now he's the perfect Robin to Porzingis's Batman. And honestly, after he answered the King's criticism by shoving LeBron in the chest Monday night, 10 might be too low.
9. John Collins, Hawks
Every time I've seen John Collins this year, he's either been dunking on someone or attempting to dunk on someone. He's not quite amazing enough to make Hawks games worth watching, but he's been efficient in limited minutes—18 and 12 per-36 minutes—and his quest to postertize the whole league is something we should all admire. Shout out to Kent Bazemore's Instagram, as well.
8. Kyle Kuzma, Lakers
Kuzma is very good on offense, not great on defense, and vibrant in the media.
Speaking of which, now is a good time to mention that the internet is a big reason why following today's rookies is more fun than ever. To wit: earlier this week Kyle Kuzma sought out Kobe Bryant for advice. They went to dinner. They were spotted by a fan, whose friend detailed the dinner on NBA Reddit, complete with video evidence. In the end, we even found out what they ate. Kuzma had a ribeye. And Kobe:
The NBA internet is terrifying, and also great.
7. Lonzo Ball, Lakers
Lonzo is currently experiencing more of the "terrifying" side of the modern NBA media landscape, and yes, his jumpshot is a disaster at this point. Joel Embiid has scored more points through two games in L.A. than Lonzo has scored at Staples Center all year long. So, it's rough. Everyone is watching, too. Some of the scrutiny is the price of the (wildly successful) marketing by his father, and the Lakers haven't necessarily helped by marketing him as a franchise-altering star before he can make 25% of his threes. But Lonzo's ranked here because he continues to be as fascinating as any rookie in the league. He's helping in more areas than Kuzma, and he's already shown that he will be a really, really good point guard if he can figure out the jumper. That's good enough for me.
6. De'Aaron Fox, Kings
Fox may not have quite as much upside as Ball, but he's been more electric early on. He's already one of the three fastest players in the league, and he's been helping Sacramento off the bench all season long. At the moment, he's averaging 11.1 PPG and 4.9 APG in 26.1 MPG. I wrote about Fox before last year's draft, and everything is still true: he has the personality of a superstar, and if his jumper is half-decent, that's what he'll become. Of course, after shooting 33% from three through October, Fox is 1 of 14 in November (8.3%), and the Kings' offense has fallen off a cliff. Still, for all the horrendous Kings performances you'll see this year—about one in every four games—the Sacramento future looks brighter than anyone would've imagined a year ago. And Fox is at the center of it.
5. Dennis Smith, Jr., Mavericks
The Mavs have been awful—even worse than the Kings—but Smith has been exactly as delightful as expected. In this clip, he makes Pau Gasol looks 60 years old. In this clip, he goes coast–to–coast past Iman Shumpert and a frozen LeBron. In this clip, he's dunking all over the Wizards on the way to an upset win. There will be lots of Dennis Smith clips for all of us this year. In November, he's averaging 19.6 PPG, 3.9 APG, and 5.1 RPG on 41% shooting, and 37% from three. In almost any other year, he'd be the clear choice for Rookie of the Year.
4. Lauri Markkanen, Bulls
This Dirk/Markkanen tweet is a good argument against all kinds of stats, info, and certainly Twitter.
But still: Lauri is GOOD. He doesn't have to be Dirk or Porzingis, but he's not Channing Frye, either. He's already rebounding better than most scouts expected he would, he's shown more skills off the dribble than we saw at Arizona, and he's the lone bright spot during an otherwise abysmal Bulls season. Markkanen's averaging 14.7 PPG and 7.7 RPG through the first six weeks, and as his jumper improves (currently 36% from three), he could be a matchup nightmare for years to come. Gar Forman and John Paxson have gotten many, many things wrong over the past five years, but betting on Markkanen might not be one of them.
3. Donovan Mitchell, Jazz
Donovan Mitchell does most of what Dennis Smith Jr. does, but he's got more size, and he's better on defense. For the month of November, he's averaging 19.9 PPG, 2.4 APG, and 3 RPG, with 42% shooting and 34% from three. Mitchell will have to become a better passer, and his offense needs to become more efficient, but for a player who was expected to be a 3–and–D specialist or maybe a fifth starter, Mitchell has already blown a lot of minds with the Jazz. Also, he's the first rookie who's ascendance forced the whole league to sit up and notice how incredible this draft class has been. It's one thing to see Fox and Smith doing their thing, and Lonzo has had his moments, but once guys like Donovan Mitchell started dropping 20 a night, all of us realized that maybe this year was different.
2. Jayson Tatum, Celtics
There are ways to downplay what Tatum's done with the Celtics this year. You can explain his success by pointing to Brad Stevens and Boston's five-out offense, full of threats who make Tatum's job much easier. You could also point out that had he gone elsewhere in the draft, he might look more like a young Rudy Gay, a high–volume tweener that can't help you very much in today's game. Both of those arguments are accurate to a point, but they don't do justice to just how good Tatum's been.
As someone who was skeptical of his game coming into last year's draft, I'm baffled by how much better he's gotten since last year at Duke. His defense has been excellent, and offensively, contested long-twos have turned into threes, and 34% three-point shooting in college has become 48% three-point shooting in the NBA. Some of that success may not hold up all year, but he's already further along than even Danny Ainge could've expected. He's big enough to fit well as a switching wing in the modern NBA, and his footwork and finishing at the rim are so refined at 20 that it's kind of crazy to think how advanced he could be in a few years. For now, the Celtics will continue to win, and continue to infuriate anyone rooting against them.
1. Ben Simmons, 76ers
Watch these highlights, man.
Shooting is supposed to matter, right? I thought that was the whole lesson of the Warriors—shooting is the most important skill in the modern NBA. But so far Simmons has flipped that logic on its head. I wrote about this two years ago, wondering if maybe shooting concerns were overblown because Giannis was the blueprint for Simmons in the NBA, but eventually I became skeptical, too. There were questions about Simmons's effort, his defense, and his shooting coming out of LSU, and it seemed like he'd complicate your team's future as much as he'd improve it.
Through the first month of the season, all of that skepticism looks ridiculous. Simmons is a problem—for other teams. He has the size of a center and he's faster than most point guards, and it's still not clear how any team can or should guard him. Earlier this week he was asked about the Sixers' playoff chances and said this: "[The fans] see. Everybody has the Internet, League Pass. This is just the start.” That's what's scary. We're watching one of the deepest classes in NBA history, and there are weekly arguments about who ranks where among the field, but there is no question about who's No. 1.