One Bold Prediction for Every NBA Impact Rookie
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The 2013 NBA draft class may not be as top-heavy as the 2014 class is sure to be, but make no mistake—this season's top rookies are going to have a serious impact.
Watching young players improve and expand their games throughout their rookie seasons is one of the simple joys of being an NBA fan, and this year promises to be no different. The surefire impact rookies (roughly the top 10 picks this season) are going to be a blast to watch.
But the real question is: What will they do this year? It's not difficult to make reasonable guesses about each player's performance, so let's go beyond that. Counting down from when they were drafted, let's make some truly bold predictions for every impact rookie.
No. 10: C.J. McCollum
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Prediction: The C.J. McCollum-Damian Lillard backcourt will excel.
Alright, yeah, this isn't technically just about C.J. McCollum. But the McCollum and Damian Lillard backcourt will be a big part of the Portland Trail Blazers' future, so seeing how they actually play together will be interesting. And here's to thinking they play well sooner rather than later.
Whether or not the McCollum-Lillard pairing succeeds this year will really come down to how well they mesh offensively, because they're almost certain to be torn apart on the other end. Lillard was terrible defensively last season, and to be perfectly honest, McCollum doesn't project to be all that much better.
The good news is that they could be awesome offensively. Lillard and McCollum should be able to play on and off the ball interchangeably, and they each bring a ton of stuff to the table. Lillard was a surprisingly strong pick-and-roll guard last season (he ranked 23rd in the league) and hit 41 percent of his spot-up threes (per Synergy Sports Technology).
It's a bit tricky to project how McCollum will do, as the Patriot League didn't provide the stiffest of competition. But he looked fantastic in the 12 games he played (he broke his foot just a bit into the season), running the offense to perfection and hitting on a whopping 52 percent of his threes (on 64 attempts).
Again, they'll definitely struggle defensively, but once they learn how to play together, they could score like crazy. It's bold, but I'm guessing that most lineups featuring both players end up among the Trail Blazers' best in terms of net rating.
No. 9: Trey Burke
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Prediction: Trey Burke will lead the Utah Jazz in points and assists per game.
This is pretty improbable, but...just check out the Utah Jazz roster heading into next season.
That's a terrible offensive team. Terrible. Gordon Hayward is the top returning scorer, and while he's a very talented young player, he's not exactly an elite shot-creator. In fact, Burke is more or less the sole shot-creator on the roster. He's going to have the ball a ton.
Burke looked a little overwhelmed in summer league, and he'll probably struggle to adjust to NBA-level athleticism at first. But he has no real competition for minutes, he rarely turns the ball over and his greatest skill, running the pick-and-roll, is likely to be a staple in the Utah offense.
Burke makes the right passes and already has a superb jumper—one that he's always ready to fire coming off of picks. Once he adjusts to NBA competition, he should put up some big numbers.
No. 8: Kentavious Caldwell-Pope
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Prediction: Kentavious Caldwell-Pope will play like an elite “three and D” wing by the end of the season.
On top of having maybe the coolest name of any NBA rookie, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope also has serious “three and D” potential. And the Detroit Pistons are going to need him to make good of it if they're to avoid any serious spacing issues offensively.
Caldwell-Pope didn't shoot an elite percentage from three last season, but he still shot the ball well (he hit on 37 percent). Plus, he did so on a massive number of attempts—over half of his shots came from beyond the arc.
The Pistons' mammoth frontcourt is guaranteed to draw multiple defenders in the paint, so Caldwell-Pope should get plenty of open opportunities, particularly if the Brandon Jennings-Andre Drummond pick-and-roll runs smoothly.
Defense is the question here. Caldwell-Pope certainly has the athletic ability and is as good as anyone in one-on-one situations. But he sometimes looked inattentive and lost off the ball. That's a concern in the NBA, where he'll see a lot of off-ball screening. If he doesn't stay tuned in more often, he might not make a huge defensive impact. Not this year, anyways.
All the tools are there for Caldwell-Pope, so we'll just have to wait and see what he does with them.
No. 7: Ben McLemore
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Prediction: Ben McLemore will have the best dunk of the year.
Ben McLemore had a pretty rocky summer league, but on a few separate occasions, he showed everyone watching what Kansas fans have known for a long time now: He can throw it down.
McLemore is known for his smooth outside stroke, but he's perhaps the best athlete of all the rookies. The Sacramento Kings are pretty crowded at guard, but McLemore's guaranteed to get at least some time (it's not as if the Kings will actually be competing for a playoff slot this season), and that means he's sure to have a few vicious slams.
McLemore is often criticized for being passive and not attacking defenders off the bounce. That's a bit of a concern when it comes to his dunk potential, but considering how quickly the Kings play (eighth in the league in terms of pace per Basketball-Reference), he should get plenty of opportunities in transition.
There are a lot of great dunkers in the league, and McLemore's got the potential to join them. Hopefully, it happens this season.
No. 6: Nerlens Noel
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Prediction: Nerlens Noel will lead the league in blocks per 36 minutes.
Nerlens Noel isn't going to average enough minutes to make a run at the blocks-per-game leader, but he should make the blocks-per-36-minutes race (which everyone will be following, obviously) very interesting.
JaVale McGee was last season's blocks leader, rejecting a whopping 3.9 shots per 36 minutes (via Basketball-Reference). That's an impressive number, but so long as Noel fully recovers from his torn ACL (remember, he might not even be on the court until 2014), he could seriously challenge it.
Noel was a shot-blocking machine in college, rejecting 4.4 shots per game and swatting away seven shots or more on six different occasions. He has to bulk up a bit, but he's a freakish athlete with excellent quickness and timing.
The list of collegiate players who have averaged two or more steals and five or more blocks per 40 minutes currently consists of David Robinson, Hakeem Olajuwon and Nerlens Noel (per Canis Hoopus). That should give you a bit of an idea as to how much defensive potential he has.
Noel will be an elite shot-blocker (and maybe overall defender) right out of the gate, and that alone is probably enough to make Philadelphia 76ers fans giddy.
No. 5: Alex Len
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Prediction: Alex Len will be one of the league's best roll men.
Alex Len is a tough player to make predictions for, as he's coming off multiple surgeries and is behind a very good center in Marcin Gortat. But heck, let's go for it anyways.
Len was billed as a the 2013 draft's most complete offensive center, and though that may be true, he's still not exactly polished on that end. Len had some impressive moments, but he converted just 38 percent of his shots in the post (per DraftExpress) and often struggled to establish good position.
However, Len should still make his mark on the Phoenix Suns' offense, as he projects to be an outstanding pick-and-roll man for Goran Dragic and Eric Bledsoe to play with. Len has enviable quickness and mobility for a 7-footer and scored on 65 percent of non-post-up shots around the basket last season (via DraftExpress).
Gortat ranked an impressive 26th in pick-and-roll efficiency last season (per Synergy Sports Technology), and with all his athleticism, Len has a good shot at surpassing that—even without Jared Dudley around to space the floor.
The Suns won't exactly be the most enjoyable team to watch this coming year, but Len's pick-and-rolls should at least provide some excitement.
No. 4: Cody Zeller
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Prediction: Cody Zeller will win Rookie of the Year.
Cody Zeller isn't the favorite to win Rookie of the Year, but that doesn't matter. He looks like the most NBA-ready rookie right now, and oftentimes, that's what's most important.
If anything, Zeller has become way underrated since having a slightly disappointing (but still very good) second year at Indiana. Zeller's no superstar, but he does everything at an NBA level. Even though he's a bit slight of frame, he can score in the post against most defenders and can step out for mid-range jumpers if need be (he addressed any shooting concerns in the summer league).
Zeller also runs the floor extremely well, can finish strong at the rim and should make a good pick-and-roll and pick-and-pop partner for Kemba Walker. Defensively, he projects to be very solid as well. Zeller's not a true rim-protector, but he's mobile enough to blow up pick-and-rolls and take on guards and wings on switches.
Zeller was picked fourth for a reason. Al Jefferson and Walker are going to occupy a lot of defensive attention, and Zeller should have no problem capitalizing on that. He may not be as flashy a pick as Trey Burke or Victor Oladipo, but he's solid and the rookie most ready to play. And that might be enough for a Rookie of the Year trophy.
No. 3: Otto Porter
Prediction: Otto Porter will come close to a “5x5” game.
It's hard to imagine Porter actually recording a “5x5” (when a player tallies five points, rebounds, assists, steals and blocks in a single game) since he doesn't block all that many shots. Last season he averaged less than a block per game and blocked five or more shots just once—not a good sign for his "5x5" chances.
Still, Porter impacts the game on both ends and was a stat-sheet stuffer last season. He was something of a point forward at Georgetown, and his passing ability is outstanding for a big, especially when he's in the high post.
It's hard to say exactly how well Porter's defense will translate to the pro level, as he's not an elite athlete. He is, however, an aggressive, high-IQ defender who plays passing lanes well, and that should be enough for him to rack up steals.
The real problem might actually be Porter's minutes. Martell Webster's three-point shooting is key when it comes to spacing the floor for the Washington Wizards, and he'll definitely be getting a good chunk of time on the wing. The Wizards didn't draft Porter to sit on the bench though, and so long as he can earn enough time, he has the potential to hit (or just barely miss) the "5x5" mark.
No. 2: Victor Oladipo
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Prediction: Victor Oladipo will play at least half of his minutes at point guard.
It's hard to read exactly what the Orlando Magic are planning to do with Victor Oladipo, but they tried him out at point guard in summer league and will probably play him there for a bit at the start of the season.
Jameer Nelson has been a steady hand at the point for a long time, but he's getting up there in years and is a defensive liability. Oladipo may be raw, but he's a superb athlete and by all accounts an incredible worker. The last “shooting guard turned point guard” to fit that description was Russell Westbrook, and I'd say moving him to the point worked out pretty well for the Oklahoma City Thunder.
All things considered, Oladipo played very well in the summer league, averaging 19 points, 4.3 rebounds and five assists per game. He also averaged nearly five turnovers per game, but a little carelessness is to be expected of a young player, let alone one being converted to a new position. Oladipo generally made solid decisions with the ball and highlighted everything with this stepback winner.
The Magic are going to give Oladipo a lot of burn at the 2 (it is his natural position, after all), but he'll likely earn a lot of time at the point as well. Orlando is looking for a new point guard, and Oladipo is as talented and hard-working a player as you can find. He's more than capable of it.
No. 1: Anthony Bennett
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Prediction: Anthony Bennett will be among the Cleveland Cavaliers' top three scorers.
Kyrie Irving is a shoo-in for the Cleveland Cavaliers' top scorer, but the competition for the next two spots is going to be fierce.
Andrew Bynum, Jarrett Jack, Dion Waiters, Tristan Thompson and even Anderson Varejao are all capable of putting the ball in the bucket, so Anthony Bennett has his work cut out for him. But Bennett can flat-out score, and he'll certainly be in the mix this season.
Bennett isn't a great back-to-the-basket big, but he can score efficiently in almost every other way. He's a fantastic athlete who's adept at attacking the basket for someone his size. Bennett's an excellent ball-handler with a quick first step, and opposing 4s are going to have a lot of trouble staying in front of him off the dribble.
Bennett shows particular promise in pick-and-pop sets—last season he scored on 1.06 points per jump shot (per DraftExpress)—and has range out to the three-point line. Bennett averaged a three-pointer per game last year on solid shooting (38 percent), and if he can emulate that at the NBA level, it'll open up a ton of lineup options for the Cavs.
Bennett will have to improve defensively to get huge minutes, as the Cavs have a bit of a logjam in the frontcourt. But he's got all the talent in the world and could end up being a top scorer on the Cavs as early as this season.
Bonus: Kelly Olynyk
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Prediction: Kelly Olynyk will be awesome.
Kelly Olynyk wasn't drafted in the top 10, but he looked so good in the summer league that he's getting a mention anyways.
Olynyk will not be able to do what he did in the summer league against NBA athletes, but it's starting to look like he'll be a very productive player next season. Everything he was lauded for at Gonzaga was on display this summer. He scored from everywhere, flashed some impressive passing skills and looked like the best player on the floor in pretty much every game.
He'll struggle defensively, and it's hard to see a Jared Sullinger-Olynyk combo ever working out in the frontcourt. But he'll be a lot of fun to watch, and that might be what Boston Celtics fans need most.