Four of the first five rookies selected in the 2018 draft enter the season’s home stretch firmly outside of playoff contention. Deandre Ayton and the Suns are among the most egregious tankers, while Luka Doncic’s Mavericks, Trae Young’s Hawks and Jaren Jackson Jr.’s Grizzlies are not exactly dying to tally wins before May’s draft lottery. Marvin Bagley is the lone top-five rookie that has a chance to sniff the postseason, and while Sacramento has earned its place inside the West’s playoff bubble, the Lakers and Spurs could very well destroy the Kings’ playoff dreams. Don’t expect the top-five rookies to dominate the headlines as the postseason approaches.
Yet although the rookie class will be overshadowed for the rest of the season, we shouldn’t discount their respective performances to close 2018-19. The Crossover assessed the first 60 games of the top-five rookies, looking toward their potential in 2019-20.
Deandre Ayton, Suns
Ayton is arguably the most efficient rookie big man since 1980. Some 18 players have averaged 15-plus points and 10-plus rebounds in their rookie season over the last three decades. Of those players, Ayton ranks first in effective field goal percentage, two-point percentage and true shooting percentage. The Arizona product has brought his vast interior skill set to the NBA, displaying a sensitive touch along with a precocious physicality. Ayton has the 12th-most field goals of any player within five feet, outpacing Blake Griffin, Karl-Anthony Towns and Nikola Jokic. Only 31 players have made more than four field goals per game within five feet. Ayton is one of four players to shoot over 70%. He’s been every bit the interior force Phoenix hoped for.
Ayton’s impressive offensive production hasn’t done much to raise Phoenix from the West cellar, though. Much of that comes from his abysmal defensive performance. Ayton sports a 112 defensive rating, helping contribute to the Suns’ No. 29 defensive rating. He’s often lost in the pick-and-roll and has been victimized by a nasty crossover more than once. Ayton is a liability in space and inconsistent rotating near the tin. The effort is there. The instincts are not. There’s plenty of room to grow, and Ayton is likely to trend closer to serviceable defense in year two. Yet even with defensive limitations, his offensive production and skill should give Suns fans hope for a brighter future amid a bleak year.
Marvin Bagley III, Kings
Bagley is likely destined to be a trivia answer for the rest of his career, known as the player selected directly before Luka Doncic. The idea of a Doncic and De’Aaron Fox backcourt is fascinating, and the duo could have formed a true sleeping giant in Sacramento. But the Doncic daydream shouldn’t detract from Bagley’s strong rookie year, which continues to look better as the postseason approaches. The worries over a bust have dissipated, and Bagley will be at least a starting-caliber big in the coming years.
The recent results have been encouraging. Bagley turned in the best performance of his young career on Feb. 21, tallying 28 points and 14 boards in a narrow loss to Golden State. The Duke product is up to 18.1 points per game in his last seven contests, relying on an advanced midrange game. Extending to the three-point line is a possibility in the future, a bonus as Sacramento configures its crowded frontcourt. Bagley is an impressive leaper with an elite second jump, explosive off two feet. Sacramento may have missed on Doncic, but it still landed a versatile scorer in Bagley, capable of climbing to 20 points per game over the course of his career.
Luka Doncic, Mavericks
There’s been plenty of ink spilled over Doncic this season so I’ll be brief, but his rookie season is a true marvel to behold. Doncic is just the second rookie in NBA history to average 20 points, seven rebounds and five assists per game, joining Oscar Robertson’s 1960-61 campaign. Doncic has more clutch points than LeBron James and Stephen Curry, per NBA advanced data.
He has four of the five triple doubles by teenagers in NBA history, with the most recent one coming against the Clippers on Monday night. Doncic slings lobs and cross-court dimes with precision and flair. There’s an intense swagger to his game, uncanny for a rookie. Doncic dominated European competition and was a true prodigy across the Atlantic. He hasn’t slowed down in the United States, and should become an MVP candidate over the next half decade.
Jaren Jackson Jr., Grizzlies
Jackson could unfortunately be shut down for the season as he recovers from a right quad injury, though if all we get from Jackson is a 58-game sample, it’s been an impressive rookie season. Jackson doesn’t have the same scoring ceiling in the interior as Bagley and Ayton, but he’s already shown a knack for rim protection with a decreasing proclivity for committing fouls. The Michigan State product has the best defensive rating of the eight Grizzlies to play at least 600 minutes, with the Jackson, Mike Conley, Garrett Temple trio combining for a 98.8 defensive rating in 774 minutes. That rate is five points better than the league-best Bucks.
In addition to being the best defensive big man in the top five, Jackson has stood out alongside Bagley and Ayton with his embrace of the three. Jackson is making a respectable 35.9% of threes on 2.4 attempts per game, on-par with capable spacers Myles Turner and Jokic. Expect his range to grow heading into 2019-20, possibly granting Memphis a new All-Star big after the Marc Gasol era.
Trae Young, Hawks
Young’s confidence didn’t waver even as he struggled with his shot early in 2018-19. The Oklahoma product shot just 27.5% from three before Jan. 1, a mark that would rank him 213th of the 221 players with at least 100 attempts. Young is making 36.5% of triples since New Year’s Day, and his improved shot has unleashed the best aspects of his game. Young is every bit the daring passer Doncic is, dishing to Atlanta’s bigs at every conceivable angle.
He’s tougher going to the bucket than one would expect given his frame, and there’s a noticeable competitive streak. Young thrived in a win over the Lakers on Feb. 12, pumping up the Hawks crowd as he rolled to 22 points and 14 assists. He has the sixth-best assist rate of any rookie since 2000, on par with Chris Paul and ahead of Ben Simmons and John Wall at 11.7 assists per 100 possessions. Young’s swagger is growing by the game, and the magic from his days in Norman look to be back after a rough start. He’ll battle valiantly to close the gap with Doncic in 2019-2020.