We all love the NBA draft, but at some point, it’s best to stop haggling about it: at the end of the day, whether players succeed or fail often comes down to the strength of their situation, not who was drafted before or after them, or which teams passed on drafting them. The good news is that the 2018 rookie class has gotten off to a great start, between summer league and the slew of preseason games underway this week. We’ve gotten quick glimpses of how teams plan to deploy their personnel, and seen a number of players rise to the occasion.
With the season a couple weeks away, here are five rookies in strong position to take advantage of their circumstances, earn pathways to playing time, and make an immediate impact for their teams.
Deandre Ayton, Suns
Well, this is just the right amount of obvious. Ayton has always made perfect sense for the Suns on many levels, and while all top draft picks start their career with serious hype, he’s in good position to meet it out of the gate. His 24-point, 10-rebound preseason debut won’t be an every-night occurrence, but given that he might already be the most athletic center in the league, there will be games where those types of stat lines come easily to him. The Arizona product has the advantage of already being familiar with Phoenix, Tyson Chandler on board as a mentor, and Devin Booker to handle primary shot creation. With a new coach and reasonable short-term expectations, the Suns were probably as cushy a landing spot as Ayton could have found.
There are going to be ups and downs, and Ayton’s primary area of development this season will be on the mental side—dealing with the grind of the schedule, staying locked in on both sides of the floor and playing hard through his mistakes. He appears to be on track, and as we noted throughout the predraft process, concerns about his defense were a bit overblown given context. Now able to defend his true position, Ayton’s impressive foot speed and agility can be better appreciated defending in space. Expect opposing teams to try their best to play him off the floor, but the bigger problem for Phoenix might be covering for Ryan Anderson when he’s out there. It helps that Suns can use Trevor Ariza, Josh Jackson and Mikal Bridges in smaller lineups if they need more defensive versatility. The Suns aren’t a playoff team yet, but Ayton is the type of talent that can get them there. If they can stay out of their own way, this should be the year the arrow points clearly upward in Phoenix.
Luka Doncic, Mavericks
It did not take a rocket scientist to understand that Doncic, who was the best player in Europe last season as an 18-year-old, would not look out of place as an NBA rookie. Any serious doubt that he’d be an immediate contributor for the Mavericks was misplaced, and he should be considered a clear frontrunner for Rookie of the Year honors. Dallas’ system and chances of success may revolve around him already, and his ability to grab and go, find open teammates and make instinctive decisions on the fly is a special thing to watch.
Perhaps the most interesting wrinkle here is that the Mavericks seem committed to starting him as their nominal power forward, which, paired with Harrison Barnes, really just means Dallas is going to play small and fast. DeAndre Jordan will be a helpful pick-and-roll weapon, and the Mavericks have enough shooting to spread it out and let Doncic go to work. The early returns on the Doncic/Dennis Smith duo have been positive, and if all continues on course, it’s not far fetched to think the Mavericks could push .500 after winning just 24 games last season. For Doncic, simply landing on a team with offensive weapons and a creative coach is a coup.
Wendell Carter Jr., Bulls
If there’s a silver lining to Lauri Markkanen missing time to start the season, it’s that Carter can slide into increased minutes from the outset and potentially hold them down once the Bulls are fully healthy. Expect Carter, who doesn’t need to score a ton to influence a game to be one of the more impactful rookies anywhere, though the Bulls are likely to struggle. Having Robin Lopez to start games and stabilize the rotation is nice, but Chicago’s most exciting looks will be when Carter comes in at center to help carry the load.
Carter’s all-around feel allows him to mesh with a variety of teammates, whether it’s Markkanen stretching the floor or Jabari Parker sliding to power forward when the Bulls want to run and gun. His game has become unselfish and nuanced, and fits well on a roster that may have a few too many scorers and not enough guys who fill in the gaps. Carter’s worked his way into great shape and could easily star within his role this season. He’s a dark horse for Rookie of the Year votes whenever the Bulls take the training wheels off.
Miles Bridges, Hornets
More than most of the other players in the lottery, Bridges’ unusual mix of skills placed more of a priority on his team fit. The Hornets are a team in limbo right now, but that means there should theoretically be lots of forward minutes up for grabs. Charlotte’s roster is heavy on bigs, and the offensive-minded Bridges and his potential for energy plays should be a welcome antidote to watching defenders sag off of Michael Kidd-Gilchrist for 25 minutes a night.
Playing small, letting Kemba Walker push the pace and using Bridges and Marvin Williams to run and shoot in transition might be the best route to increased frontcourt scoring, as opposed to dated twin-towers lineups using some combination of Cody Zeller, Frank Kaminsky and Bismack Biyombo. If he finds his way onto the court, Bridges should have every opportunity to prove he can be positionless in a positive sense. The Hornets are desperate for some type of foundation.
Grayson Allen, Jazz
It was apparent at Summer League that Allen is ready to fill out an NBA rotation, and while he’ll have to earn minutes in a deep backcourt, Dante Exum’s recurring health issues and Alec Burks’ streaky scoring give him a pathway to establishing himself over the course of the season. Allen is probably a better distance shooter than both of them already, and his competitive moxie has always helped him fit in. Five threes in his preseason debut was a great start.
Going to an experienced playoff team where his skills fill a specific need was an ideal scenario, and you can envision Allen playing on or off the ball next to Donovan Mitchell and helping soak up minutes as the season goes on. His athleticism and ability to sustain hot shooting have always made him an ideal role guy, despite all the controversy that followed him around in college. Utah boasts one of the deepest benches in the Western Conference, and Allen should be a factor on it sooner than later.