High-end lottery picks like Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist get most of the pub—and for good reason—but come playoff time, how much will they really matter?
The Hornets and Bobcats, while much improved over last season's squads, have scant chance to make the postseason. In that respect, the rookies who could really have the biggest impact on the legacy of the upcoming NBA season aren't necessarily the ones taken at the top of the draft.
Last season we saw young guns like Kawhi Leonard rapidly improve over the course of the season, before materializing into impact players during the Western Conference Finals. And while getting thrust straight from college into a title chase is serendipitous, that's just the way this league works sometimes. It doesn't necessarily make these guys the best players in the draft class, but it makes them the ones we'll see the most of come June.
Here are three first-year players who could make a big impact on title contenders in 2012-13.
Jared Sullinger – Boston Celtics
Sully's NBA stock has progressed in a negative parabola the past 6 months. It started high after, once again, dominating the Big Ten season over the winter. Thought to be a sure-fire lottery pick, he then saw his stock plummet due to concerns about his size, athleticism and potential risk for injury. Ever since the Celtics selected him (at the ludicrously low spot of 21st overall), however, Sullinger has shown nothing but promise.
He's followed a dominant Summer League tour with an equally impressive exhibition this preseason. He's been thrust into the starting lineup for the Celtics on multiple occasions, and is locked in a head-to-head battle with Brandon Bass for the right to suit up next to Kevin Garnett on opening night.
Sullinger couldn't have been thrust into a better situation as a rookie, as the Celtics—whose aging veterans prefer to play at a methodical pace—are tailor-made for his strengths. He already looks like he could be the steal of the draft.
Perry Jones III – Oklahoma City Thunder
If Sullinger isn't the steal of the draft, however, that title could very well go to 28th overall pick Perry Jones III. And while Jones hasn't been quite as impressive as Sully has thus far, he's shown enough promise to justify the low-risk pick Oklahoma City spent on them.
Blessed with otherworldly physical tools—tools enrapturing enough to project him as a top 3 pick despite concerns over his attitude—Jones already appears to blend much better in the NBA than he did in college. The wide-open spacing of the new league allows him more isolated matchups, where he can use his length and unique skill-set to abuse opposing defenses.
There's a KD-sized road block standing between Jones and fantasy relevance, but he already appears to have seized Daequan Cook's normal minutes. If he continues to impress, his versatility could help him encroach on the minutes of Nick Collison and Thabo Sefolosha, as well. Come season's end, his size could make him a pivotal weapon against Los Angeles and Miami.
Tony Wroten – Memphis Grizzlies
Wroten has been plagued by a nagging ankle during his first NBA training camp, but if his Summer League performance was indicative of his future—in any way shape or form—he's a star in the making. The 6'5" point guard flashed box score stuffing potential during the Vegas exhibition tour, averaging 13.2 points, 4.0 assists, 3.4 rebounds and 1.2 steals in 24.0 minutes per game.
The Grizzlies signed the perpetually underwhelming Jerryd Bayless this offseason, so the road to minutes might be a little rocky at first (especially considering the bum ankle). But by the time playoff season rolls around, Wroten could see significant minutes behind Mike Conley, and could even see some time behind Tony Allen at two-guard.
He's got one of the highest ceilings in the draft class, and the right type of guys around him (Zach Randolph notwithstanding) to help him realize that potential.