7 NBA Rookies Blowing Away Expectations

Jonathan Wasserman@@NBADraftWassNBA Lead WriterMarch 2, 2014

7 NBA Rookies Blowing Away Expectations

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    There aren't too many NBA rookies making an impact. Most of the ones we expected to shine have actually struggled early on, while a few of the later picks have been surprisingly productive. 

    Expectations were really never too high with this group to begin with, but there have been some who've certainly exceeded the bar that was set for them coming out of the draft.


    All statistics obtained from Basketball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted.

Tim Hardaway Jr., New York Knicks

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    When Tim Hardaway Jr. was drafted by the New York Knicks with the No. 24 pick in last June's draft, he had J.R. Smith, Iman Shumpert and Pablo Prigioni ahead of him on the depth chart. I'm actually not even sure Hardaway had any expectations coming in. 

    But Hardaway has been able to do something that so few rookies are capable of. From summer league to preseason to March, he has given the Knicks a reliable, consistent three-point threat. 

    Hardaway is making 1.6 three-pointers a game in only 22.6 minutes, converting them at a 37.7 percent clip. 

    In New York, he's been put in a role that allows him to play directly to his strengths, which include spot-up shooting and getting out in transition. Hardaway has excelled playing catch-and-finish basketball, whether it's been as a shooter or weapon on the break.

    In between, he's been knocking down 40.8 percent of his mid-range jumpers, showing the ability to separate off the dribble into makeable shots. 

    Outside of Carmelo Anthony, you can argue that Hardaway has been the Knicks' most dependable offensive contributor. Defensively, he's got plenty to learn, but considering he was passed on 23 times in one of the weakest drafts in recent memory, Hardaway has blown away expectations.

Michael Carter-Williams, Philadelphia 76ers

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    Michael Carter-Williams has been the most productive rookie in the class, but he's also been the most surprising when you consider his stats versus his draft position. 

    Ten teams passed on Carter-Williams, who's averaging 17.1 points, 6.2 assists and 5.3 rebounds per game. 

    He's posed as an awfully tough backcourt cover early on, given the mismatch he presents at point guard. Carter-Williams takes those long strides that allow him to get into the lane, and at 6'6", he's got the size and length to make plays within, around or over the defense. 

    Defensively, he's been a nuisance—tied for No. 3 in the NBA in steals, Carter-Williams can overwhelm on the ball and disrupt passing lanes off it.

    There are plenty aspects of his game that need fine-tuning, particularly his outside stroke, decision-making and handle, but given the two-way promise and upside he's flashed, trading Jrue Holiday doesn't seem as risky as it once did for the Philadelphia 76ers.

Victor Oladipo, Orlando Magic

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    He was the No. 2 pick in the draft, but I'm not sure anyone predicted a rookie stat line that included 14 points, 4.5 boards and 4.1 assists a game. 

    Victor Oladipo's game continues to grow, just like it gradually did during his career at Indiana. 

    The big surprise and change for Oladipo has been the increased threat he now poses off the dribble—primary a finisher in college, the guard has evolved into a legitimate playmaker. With a more refined handle, he's facilitating pick-and-rolls, driving and dishing to shooters and picking up assists within the offense. 

    In three seasons at Indiana, only twice did he finish a game with more than five assists. As a rookie, he's exceeded the five-assist mark 11 times already, most recently against the Knicks, when he dropped 14 dimes to go along with 30 points and nine boards. 

    It wasn't the only time Oladipo has gone off—he triple-doubled against Philadelphia with 26, 10 and 10 in December. 

    And though his percentages aren't very impressive, he's certainly shown improvement and promise with regard to his jumper. He's hit 67 mid-range jumpers and 55 three-pointers, showing the ability to knock them down off the catch or the dribble. 

    Oladipo came in as a guy whose game was fueled by athleticism, energy and intangibles, and that's ultimately what drove his appeal. But given the progress and strides he's made as an offensive weapon, his NBA value and outlook deserve a significant boost.

Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks

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    One of the wild cards of the 2013 NBA draft, Giannis Antetokounmpo has emerged as arguably the most promising and intriguing NBA rookie this season. 

    Nobody really knew what to expect, but few pegged the "Greek Freak" as a first-year contributor, given the highest level he'd played at was in Greece's second division. 

    "I just wanted to get here," Antetokounmpo told ESPN's Scoop Jackson. "Get here to play in the League. When I got here I had to ask myself, 'Can I play in this league?' Then I go out and compete with the other guys, and uh, Coach gives me that chance to go out there and compete, and I see I belong in this League. Even though I'm 19 years old, I feel like I can do something."

    His upside is really limitless—at 6'9", he's got the height and length of a 4 to match the game, athleticism and agility of a wing. 

    Still, Antetokounmpo's skill set is extremely raw—his upside has mostly been flashed in doses. But we've seen the complete package, from dynamic slashes and perimeter-shot creativity to high-flying finishes and defensive playmaking. 

    If Antetokounmpo is ever able to put it all together, we could be talking about the No. 1 player in the class when it's all said and done.

Trey Burke, Utah Jazz

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    Despite leading Michigan to an appearance in the national championship game, Trey Burke's draft stock never really took off. His uninspiring numbers during the athletic-testing portion of the combine had scouts skeptical over his upside, leading to eight teams passing at the draft, including a few that could have used a point guard. 

    But Burke has proved those wrong who felt his under-the-rim style of play would limit him. Though he's been somewhat inconsistent, the guard has helped a mediocre team win some games as its floor general and primary decision-maker. 

    The Utah Jazz are actually 20-14 when both Burke and Derrick Favors start, per Jazz radio voice David Locke.

    Just like he did in college, Burke values each and every possession, and he does a tremendous job with ball security. He's averaging 5.4 assists to just 1.8 turnovers in 30.8 minutes a game. 

    As a scorer, he's been effective in the mid-range, where he's made 79 shots on nearly 39 percent shooting. That pull-up jumper is ultimately going to be his money-maker, given his comfort level with it and his struggles finishing at the rim. And he's got plenty of range—Burke is making 1.6 three-pointers a game, and you can expect his 33.8 percent stroke to rise over the next few seasons. 

    Whether you view him as a future All-Star or not, Burke has certainly proven he belongs out there. Like all rookies, he's got some adjustments to make, but Burke appears to have the floor game, perimeter stroke and basketball IQ to successfully run an NBA offense.

Nate Wolters, Milwaukee Bucks

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    The Milwaukee Bucks found themselves a player in the second round—Nate Wolters has proven early on that he belongs in the NBA.

    He's made the most of his minutes—when given the chance, Wolters has put up some pretty big numbers for the Bucks, including a recent 15-point, seven-board, eight-assist, one-turnover gem in a win over Orlando. 

    Wolters is a terrific decision-maker with the ball—he's coughing it up less than one time per game while averaging 3.4 assists in 22.1 minutes. 

    Offensively, Wolters is crafty and deceptive. He's making 41.7 percent of his shots around the foul line, where he's got an array of floaters and runners to choose from on the move. 

    Wolters isn't going to make any All-NBA teams, but his poise and playmaking instincts should allow him to flourish as a backup for years to come.

Tony Snell, Chicago Bulls

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    The stats might not reflect it, but Tony Snell has held his own as a rookie for the No. 4 seed in the East.

    Snell was a late-bloomer in terms of finding the NBA radar—after standing out during the pre-draft process, he made as big of a jump up boards as any other prospect in the country. 

    Now, he's playing nearly 20 minutes a game for the Chicago Bulls, something nobody would have predicted last year or even a few months ago. 

    Snell's confidence has clearly grown since the start of the season, and though he doesn't get many plays called for him, he's been able to contribute within the offense as a spot-up shooter and slasher.

    Snell has hit double digits in scoring on 12 occasions, and he's making one three-pointer a game. 

    He hasn't exactly offered much firepower, but given the minimal expectations coming in, the Bulls should be pleased with what they've gotten.