If you’ve been paying attention for the first few weeks of this season, you’ve undoubtedly noticed how many rookies are making an impact around the league. The NBA’s shifting COVID-19 protocol and struggles to maintain a uniform product have justifiably dominated the discussion in recent weeks, but it’s certainly worth noting the positive early returns on the draft, which was just a couple of months ago.
LaMelo Ball recently became the youngest player in league history to record a triple double. James Wiseman is starting and producing at a high level for the Warriors. Tyrese Haliburton is already an irreplaceable cog for the Kings. Anthony Edwards has been inconsistent but has flashed an offensive skill set more diverse than advertised. Those are just the headliners.
Granted, this is a very a small sample, but we’ve learned a lot after nearly a month of games. It does seem like this rookie class is already better than most expected, and that it could end up being surprisingly strong in the long run. Here are my early thoughts and takeaways from the early part of the season.
1. I touched on this concept a couple of weeks ago, but I think more than ever, it’s important to be as specific as possible when trying to classify the quality of a given draft (particularly before it actually happens). The discourse surrounding the current rookie class was muted for several reasons, primarily the absence of a true consensus No. 1 pick and a dissonance of opinion among NBA executives and scouts over the draft’s top picks. It’s accurate to say that many teams preferred not to win the 2020 lottery, with the pressure always high, but the difference in quality among the top picks was thought to be marginal. I think there was also a level of burnout that impacted the way people around the league (myself included) talked about the draft, given how much extra time everyone had to spend thinking about these prospects, with the original June date rolling back to November and creating a somewhat arduous draft cycle. There was some degree of exhaustion bias (did I just make that term up?) that clouded judgment.
It’s also worth noting I heard recurring concerns from executives over how the extended time away from basketball due to COVID-19 might negatively affect these rookies, who were left to their own devices to train and prepare and given less time than ever to acclimate to their new teams before the season started. One thing that’s fairly clear now is that in many cases, the pandemic had the opposite effect. Many players took the time seriously, have integrated well and have become immediate contributors. There have been a lot of pleasant surprises.
2. Here are the 2020 draftees currently playing more than 20 minutes per game: Edwards (No. 1), Wiseman (2), Ball (3), Patrick Williams (4), Isaac Okoro (No. 5) Deni Avdija (9), Haliburton (12), Cole Anthony (15), Saddiq Bey (19), Tyrese Maxey (21) Payton Pritchard (26), Desmond Bane (30) and Théo Maledon (34). Of course, this says nothing about their individual play or the state of their teams, but that’s a pretty strong list. Killian Hayes is out with a hip injury, and Onyeka Okongwu and Obi Toppin just returned from injuries of their own. Immanuel Quickley has been an immediate help for the Knicks. And Devin Vassell, Kira Lewis, Isaiah Stewart, Aleksej Pokusevski, Precious Achiuwa, Malachi Flynn and Xavier Tillman have broken into their teams’ rotations and been helpful to varying extents.
Of course, this information is highly circumstantial. Long-term, it’s maybe not indicative of too much, and most of these rookies are on teams that fall somewhere on the spectrum between actively bad and constructively rebuilding, so there’s incentive for them to play out of the gate. But the opportunity these rookies have been afforded does allow us to make some soft observations and inferences about what they might become—and in a lot of cases, what we’ve seen so far is pretty exciting.
3. The most impactful rookie so far has pretty clearly been Haliburton, who has made the Kings eminently watchable late at night. His immense understanding of the ebb and flow of a game has allowed him to step in right away, and while the Kings can’t guard anyone, they’re a much better team with him in the game. Haliburton is getting harder and harder to keep off the floor, having already earned Luke Walton’s trust in crunch time. He was the No. 4 prospect on our final Big Board, and his fall to the 12th pick is old news by now. Still, you’re probably going to hear about it for a while.
For what it’s worth, my understanding of the situation is that his realistic range started with Atlanta at No. 6, but that Haliburton’s camp actively worked to land him on a team where he could play major minutes immediately (which looks like a smart decision). The sense I’ve gotten in conversations with various sources was that the Pistons, Knicks and Suns always preferred other players. Haliburton was in play for the Wizards at No. 9 before Deni Avdija slipped. The Hawks and Spurs already had crowded backcourts. Sacramento happily capitalized, and Haliburton has already shed the prospect label, warranting far more immediacy as a piece who is clearly already important to team success.
It’s hard to precisely describe all the things he’s naturally good at, but Haliburton is a savant. His unorthodox shooting mechanics were never that big of a deal for two reasons: his range is legitimately deep, and he gets the ball out of his hand rather quickly. Whether he was a true point guard never really mattered in a league where teams are relying on multiple-handler attacks. De’Aaron Fox is actually an ideal long-term partner, with the ability to get into the paint on drives, kick the ball out and allow Haliburton to attack and make plays with extra space after defenses have already collapsed or rotated. He’s already one of the smartest, most technical passers in the NBA, and he hardly ever turns the ball over. The next step will be getting stronger, creating his shot more effectively and applying more downhill pressure on the rim—if Haliburton is able to do that efficiently, he’s going to be a star. If not, he’s still going to help you win a lot of games.
4. I’ve already seen enough to throw out some of the modest concerns I had about LaMelo Ball (the No. 2 prospect on our board), who’s acclimating well in Charlotte. After some initial kid gloves, Ball has begun to earn enough trust from coach James Borrego to play longer spurts coming off the bench and seems to be handling that role just fine. We knew Ball would have bad shooting nights, make the occasional mystifying turnover and unnecessarily flashy mistake. All of those things have happened, but his ball security has been surprisingly good on whole.
First of all, Ball is averaging nearly a triple double per 40 minutes. His raw production is there and has always been a strength. While he’s shooting only 40.3% from the field and 67.9% from the line, Ball has made a respectable 33.3% of his threes, despite his unusual mechanics. It’s a small sample, but cosmetically it quells any fear of him being a non-shooter. He’s looked mostly unfazed by the leap in level. The reports out of Charlotte surrounding his adjustment and willingness to buy in have been positive.
Ball has always been a streaky scorer, and there will be ups and downs in that department for the foreseeable future. But the big positive so far is that his ability to impact games in other ways already translates. Ball has legit size and is an exceptional rebounder who can start the break with long outlet passes. It’s not a surprise that his natural feel is really strong, but the quality of his work on the glass will help him facilitate transition offense on bad shooting nights. He’s extremely fun to watch in the open floor and one of the most imaginative passers to enter the league in recent memory. Ball is already pulling off the types of unique assists most players can’t fathom or won’t try.
It’s pretty clear Ball brings enough to be a starting caliber player in short order, and that his production floor should be fairly high, as expected. Charlotte’s guard logjam has kept him coming off the bench, but he’s inching closer to the 30-minute mark on many nights. The big questions are the same as they were before the draft: where Ball’s ceiling actually lies, how close to the playoffs he’ll eventually be able to lift the Hornets, and how much more efficient a scorer he’ll become in all facets. We can’t know any of those things anytime soon, and whether the Timberwolves and Warriors will come to regret passing on him, we’ll see. But there’s been much more positive than negative so far.
4. Another relative non-surprise: No. 1 pick Edwards has been a mixed bag for Minnesota, shooting just 37.8% from the field on 12.7 attempts per game. Edwards is not the reason the Timberwolves aren’t very good, but he also isn’t helping the immediate cause on a regular basis. For now, that’s O.K. The Wolves knew what they were signing up for, and Edwards has certainly flashed his talent in spurts, particularly as a passer, which was visible at Georgia but didn’t manifest as often as you’d think. I don’t think anyone expected him to be a pillar of efficiency right away. To his credit, he’s handled himself with a good deal of humility and doesn’t look overwhelmed by the spotlight. As a 19-year-old on one of the league’s worst teams, you kind of have to focus on the positives. The NBA was never going to be an easy adjustment for him, stylistically or otherwise.
That being said, the reality should be setting in that it may take Edwards a significant amount of time to deliver on the No. 1 pick. He was a quick study at Georgia by all accounts, and by the end of the season, you hope he’ll become a more frequent cutter and presence at the foul line. Coming off the bench may be good for his growth into more than just a volume scorer. Edwards has a bad habit of being stagnant without the ball and still takes too many tough shots. But Minnesota has done a good job managing expectations and giving him freedom to make mistakes. If other rookies from this class continue to play well, the external pressure to perform may ramp up. Edwards does lead all rookies in scoring—it just hasn’t been pretty.
5. Wiseman’s sheer size has allowed him to hit the ground running for the Warriors, and he should be entrenched as their starting center for some time as Golden State is forced to think about an eventual post-Curry future. The long hiatus between his brief college career and NBA debut hasn’t prevented him from being effective, averaging a double double per 40 and receiving wild amounts of hype from local media. The Warriors do seem genuinely excited about him, and his role within the organization is proving to be the strong learning situation many hoped for.
Wiseman has gotten to show off his full range of abilities and has shot the ball encouragingly well from distance, leaving hope that he can be a more-than-adequate floor spacer in the long run. He’s still a bit too in love with his midrange jump shot. I’m still not sure he’s a future superstar, and he needs to learn to impose himself more physically versus falling back on his skill if he wants to make that leap. He still hasn’t quite figured out how to play hard all the time, and his defensive positioning needs work. But as a legit seven-footer who can outrun most of the bigs in the league already, Wiseman offers an undeniably strong base for Golden State to mold and looks like an eventual impact player on both ends already, which is meaningful enough.
6. Chicago’s selection of Williams at No. 4 looks like an early win for Arturas Karnisovas and the Bulls’ front office: Williams, the youngest college player in the draft, is well ahead of schedule as a 19-year-old getting his feet wet as a full-time starter in Chicago. His limited playing time and offensive role at Florida State made him a tricky prospect to assess. But Williams has been up to task, shooting the ball well from all over the floor and holding up well defensively, with a solid frame and good instincts. Those positive traits were apparent projecting forward, but his readiness for the speed of NBA play in a basic sense was not. As a versatile 6' 8" wing defender, Williams should play in the league for a long time, and his long-term potential is pretty significant given how far along he is already. He’s on his way to being a very valuable piece for the Bulls.
7. As it turns out, there were not one, but two undervalued Tyreses in this draft: Tyrese Maxey, who unexpectedly fell all the way to the 21st pick, stepped into the spotlight as the 76ers’ roster was thrown into flux due to COVID-19 protocol. He looks like a worthy bench piece when Philly gets back to full strength. Maxey rated as the No. 12 prospect on our board even after an uneven season at Kentucky, and his scoring chops and physical readiness have frequently been on display. He’s not getting to the foul line at all, which is a tad concerning, and he’s making only 27% of his threes. But Maxey plays fearless, he’s been effective scoring in the paint, and he looks like a valuable sparkplug in the making.
8. The Pokusevski experience has been a wild ride, but it’s strangely watchable, even though he’s shooting an abysmal percentage from the field and turning the ball over all the time. He can’t get into the paint, bombs threes and tries wild passes without much conscience. But you can see why the Thunder—who are working with a longer competitive timeframe than any other team, and are comfortable with him making mistakes—were eager to get him into their system, as there aren’t a lot of 7-footers with his type of perimeter mobility. Oklahoma City would certainly have preferred to draft him in the 20s, rather than trading up to No. 16 to make the pick, but the rest of the league had smoked out their intentions months before the actual draft, and they deemed him worth the gamble.
The rail-thin Pokusevski is dealing with a greater step up in level than any other rookie, and that much has been evident. He is not a good player right now and may not be for some time. But, again, the Thunder’s ability to inherit short-term risk for long-term benefits is a byproduct of all the first-round picks they own for the better part of this decade. When you have so many bites at the apple, it’s acceptable to swing and miss every now and then . What Pokusevski’s second contract looks like is truly anyone’s guess. If he turns into a starting-caliber player, I’ll be mildly surprised, but I will also never doubt Sam Presti again.
9. Quickley and Pritchard deserve some mention as instant-impact picks that were panned by critics. I’ve touched on Quickley’s situation in the past, but the Knicks’ close ties to Kentucky, particularly the presence of Kenny Payne on staff, helped New York nail this pick. Both Quickley’s work ethic and his shooting prowess blossomed over the course of his sophomore year at Kentucky. He fought his way into the rotation, became his team’s best player and reaped the benefits as a first-round pick. He’ll be better off as a combo than as a pure point guard long-term, but it’s hard to argue the Knicks should be handing extra minutes to Elfrid Payton, even though they’re a surprisingly competitive team. We’ll see how well the Obi Toppin selection pans out for New York, but landing a useful guard later in the first round is a helpful notch in the belt for Leon Rose’s fledgling front office group.
I think what’s clear now in Pritchard’s case is that Boston had the foresight to address its guard depth issues ahead of time, a situation that wasn’t necessarily apparent heading into the draft. it just goes to show that there’s nothing wrong with drafting for immediate need in the first round, as long as the player’s immediate value matches up with his rookie salary structure. For experienced college players, it’s an important distinction. Given his toughness, maturity and track record of performing under pressure, Pritchard’s early success isn’t surprising at all. People will be curious to see how far he can progress by the time his next deal rolls around, which is why many graded him as a second-rounder (he was No. 40 for us), but Boston hit that pick on the head and appears to have a solid, affordable backup under team control for the next four seasons. Even if Pritchard is never more than that, it’s great value for where the Celtics got him.
10. This looks like the most fun Rookie of the Year race in some time, with Ball, Haliburton and Wiseman (in no order) the three obvious favorites. I’d be surprised if anyone else vaults into that mix, particularly with Edwards struggling. Haliburton is arguably the best player of the three right now, but the award tends to be about production. The other guys, particularly Ball, might have glossier counting stats come spring.
This notion may have gotten lost somewhere in the run-up to the 2020 draft, but there was always a sense that there was depth to this class. A lot of teams felt that there were plenty of players available with strong chances at carving out significant NBA careers—just not necessarily future All-Stars. It’s way too early to call, but that may prove to be true. And now that we’ve seen these guys play, it’s feeling much more like a positive thing.