We’re just a few games into the NBA season but some rookies are already beginning to separate themselves with polish and production.
The NBA season is barely a week old but the compressed schedule means we’ve already seen a lot of everyone. This NBA rookie class was generally regarded as comparably weak but several players have already firmly established themselves in their team’s starting lineups and several others are separating themselves from the pack. We have months of basketball before any official votes for NBA Rookie of the Year are cast but here’s who started building a case in the first week of the season.
Which first-year players are making a case for NBA Rookie of the Year?
Last rank: No. 15 pick
Anthony’s numbers aren’t overwhelming — 9.0 points, 4.7 rebounds and 4.7 assists per game — but he’s played a not insignificant role in Orlando’s hot 3-0 start. He’s shooting just 1-of-7 from beyond the arc but he made 8-of-17 in the preseason which should answer at least some of the questions about whether he’s ready to stretch NBA defenses.
The most encouraging sign for Orlando has been his ability to make things happen off the dribble. He’s shot 5-of-9 off drives and while he’s not blowing past anyone he’s been able to create just enough separation by changing speeds and using screens and has leveraged his touch and strength in the paint.
— Orlando Magic (@OrlandoMagic) December 28, 2020
What we’ve seen from Anthony so far is a lot more about raising his floor than his ceiling but he’s looking more and more like a useful piece who can contribute right away as the Magic hunt for a playoff spot.
Last rank: No. 12 pick
Haliburton has looked fantastic as a complementary piece with the Kings, holding things together with his defensive versatility, shooting and playmaking. The efficiency, in particular, has been remarkable. Again, it’s a small sample size but on 11 drives Haliburton has drawn three shooting fouls and handed out 5 assists while hitting both of his shots. In all, that’s 20 points produced on 11 drives. It’s interesting that none of the five assists were of the drive-and-kick variety for 3-pointers but his interior passing is jaw-dropping.
In addition to all that, Haliburton has hit 3-of-8 catch-and-shoot 3s and made both of his pull-ups, showing no problem getting his shot off with his admittedly funky stroke. The long-term question is whether he can spend enough time defending opposing 3s to make a real three-guard backcourt with De’Aaron Fox and Buddy Hield viable. But he’s already looking like an enormous steal for the Kings.
Last rank: No. 1 pick
No rookie has scored more points than Edwards — 48 through three games, but he’s also fit his predraft profile perfectly. We’ve seen his strength and athleticism unlocking buckets most other players can’t even dream of, and we’ve seen shaky decision-making forcing shots at the expense of wide-open teammates or continuing to run offense (you can see both in the clip below).
Edwards has racked up 7 assists to just 2 turnovers and, in all, there’s been far more good than bad. But his defense looks as rough as advertised and he’s hit just 4-of-17 3-pointers. His outlook is still rosy as there’s every reason to think he’ll get more efficient with experience. But it’s clearly going to be a process.
Last rank: No. 9 pick
Avdija has scored just 21 points in three games but scoring was never the most interesting part of his profile, and he’s delivered almost everywhere else. With his high-level international experience, Avdija has looked comfortable playing off Russell Westbrook and Bradley Beal and is averaging 5.3 rebounds, 2.0 assists and 1.0 steals per game. He’s been incredibly efficient in his complementary role — 4-of-8 on 3-pointers and 4-of-7 inside the arc, all on shots around the basket.
On defense, he’s been effective and flashed his versatility, defending players like Seth Curry and Aaron Gordon for double-digit possessions. Russell Westbrook blows the dunk in the play below but you can already see how his defensive awareness and ball-handling ability are going to continue unlocking things for the Wizards.
His box score stats might not be the most impressive but in terms of versatility and the ability to immediately contribute to competitive basketball, Avdija is ahead of most of this class.
Last rank: No. 2 pick
Statistically, Wiseman has been the most impressive rookie so far this season, averaging 14.7 points, 5.7 rebounds, 1.0 steals and 1.7 blocks in just 24.0 minutes per game. The Warriors are just 1-2, with the lone win coming on a buzzer-beater from Damion Lee, so it’s hard to connect his play to winning basketball necessarily. But I’m putting Wiseman in this top spot because he’s looked so much more polished and NBA-ready than expected.
The parts of his profile that were projected as more hypothetical — 3-point shooting and using his athletic tools to be a difference-maker on defense — have shown up. He’s hit 5-of-6 3-pointers and racked up 3 steals and 4 blocks. And he’s even put perimeter playmaking moves like this on tape, arguably as impressive as anything he showed at Memphis.
To be fair, there is still PLENTY to work on. He’s currently averaging 5.0 fouls and 2.0 turnovers per 36 minutes and his shooting and finishing have been shaky on pretty much every shot from the restricted area out to the arc. It may be that he’s a player like DeMarcus Cousins or Karl-Anthony Towns, an immense talent whose shortcomings make it incredibly difficult to build a winning team around. But he’s well ahead of where I expected him to be three games into his NBA career and, low expectations aside, I don’t think any rookie has been more impressive.