NBA Rookie Report Cards: Grading the Class' Top 10 So Far
It would be easy to spend the next 10 slides ragging on the NBA's current rookie class.
So far, the 2016 draft crew has looked as weak as advertised, especially with Ben Simmons still sidelined for the Philadelphia 76ers. And while there are plenty of other newbies from overseas (and other draft years) who've made their debuts this season, only a select few from those categories have truly shaken things up for their respective squads.
But it's only November, which means it's early in both the 2016-17 season and the careers of the league's freshest faces. Rather than knock those who've fallen short of expectations early, let's appreciate those who've already infused the NBA with noteworthy play.
Here, then, are the top 10 rookies to date, ranked and graded according to individual production and overall team impact.
10. Buddy Hield, Shooting Guard, New Orleans Pelicans (No. 6 Pick in 2016)
Jrue Holiday's return has been a boon to the New Orleans Pelicans, but a bust for Buddy Hield. Since Holiday resumed his spot on Alvin Gentry's bench, Hield has seen just 8.4 minutes of action per night and totaled seven points on 3-of-14 shooting (1-of-8 from three).
The rookie's competition for playing time only figures to stiffen from here on out.
According to the New Orleans Advocate's Scott Kushner, Tyreke Evans made his practice debut for the Pelicans earlier this week. At some point, Quincy Pondexter should be back on the court as well. With each player who comes off the injured list, New Orleans moves closer to fielding a competitive club around Anthony Davis.
According to ESPN's Justin Verrier, the Pelicans intend to keep the Oklahoma product involved to some degree. Whether that role is enough to keep Hield among the top 10 in his rookie class going forward remains to be seen.
9. Jaylen Brown, Small Forward, Boston Celtics (No. 3 Pick in 2016)
Good news: Jaylen Brown's most productive outing since losing his temporary starting spot came against the Golden State Warriors on Nov. 18.
Not-so-good news: He tallied the bulk of his 11 points during garbage time of a 104-88 Boston Celtics loss.
Brown, for one, didn't care for the Warriors' showboating.
"That was disrespectful," the Cal product said, per the Worcester Telegram & Gazette's Scott Souza. "We'll see them again."
He'll have to wait until March to exact his revenge. Whether Brown gets that chance is another story: He had already fallen behind Marcus Smart on Brad Stevens' depth chart before Jae Crowder came back from an ankle injury.
For now, the 20-year-old is having enough trouble earning high-leverage minutes. The day after the Golden State defeat, Brown scored five points in seven-and-a-half minutes during a two-point win over the Detroit Pistons. Two days later, he went scoreless on one shot attempt in just over 13 minutes.
8. Willy Hernangomez, Center, New York Knicks (No. 35 Pick in 2015)
Between Willy Hernangomez and Mindaugas Kuzminskas, the New York Knicks sport two of the top five rookies in terms of per-minute impact.
The 22-year-old Spaniard has found ample leeway in which to operate amid Joakim Noah's recent illness. He poured in nine points and four rebounds in just under 21 minutes during a win over the Portland Trail Blazers on Tuesday. Two days prior, he collected seven points and eight rebounds while taking some unwarranted contact from Dwight Howard in a career-high 29 minutes during a double-digit victory over the Atlanta Hawks.
"They told me about that, but I didn’t feel nothing," Hernangomez said of the elbow to his head and the slap to the face he caught from Howard, per the New York Daily News' Stefan Bondy. "Maybe he felt pain in his elbow; I don’t know. But I didn’t feel nothing.”
Hernangomez might soon feel something in his legs; if he keeps performing as well as he has, he should see plenty of playing time from head coach Jeff Hornacek, even after Noah returns. Having the former Defensive Player of the Year around might be in the rookie center's best interests, if Noah's advice to Hernangomez for battling Howard was any indication.
"(Noah) told me I had to be physical from the jump-ball. Try to be on (Howard’s) back because he wants to do the spin move for the lob pass," Hernangomez said. "I tried to fight every time I had contact with him, and box out because he goes for the every rebound on both rims. I think I have to say thank you to Jo."
7. Malcolm Delaney, Point Guard, Atlanta Hawks (Undrafted in 2011)
Guess who's leading all rookies in assists?
Not Kris Dunn. Not Tomas Satoransky. Not even Andrew Harrison.
Instead, it's Malcolm Delaney. And if you don't know who Malcolm Delaney is, chances are you're not alone.
After going undrafted out of Virginia Tech in 2011, he opted to take his talents to France over waiting out what became a lengthy lockout.
"I didn’t want to be the 15th guy on the bench making minimum money when I could go overseas and work my way up, and my goal was to try and be a millionaire by the age of 25," Delaney told FanSided's Colby Giacubeno.
For five years, he starred overseas before the Atlanta Hawks came calling with a two-year, $5 million offer this past summer. The 27-year-old now makes a comfortable seven-figure salary—and sports a 2-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio—as Dennis Schroder's primary backup in Atlanta.
6. Domantas Sabonis, Power Forward, Oklahoma City Thunder (No. 11 Pick in 2016)
Domantas Sabonis' plate has been as packed as that of any rookie this season.
He's not only started every game for the Oklahoma City Thunder, but he's also done so in place of Serge Ibaka, the stalwart power forward for whom he was traded. What's more, he managed to fend off Ersan Ilyasova, who's since been dealt himself.
Sabonis has done all of this at a new position on a playoff contender. Through his first 15 games, he took 43 three-pointers—more than three times as many as he launched in two seasons at Gonzaga. Better yet, Sabonis made 39.5 percent of those longer NBA looks.
As someone who made his living on the low block in college, Sabonis has much more to his game than just his shot. As The Ringer's Jonathan Tjarks noted:
He almost never looks lost on the floor, and he rarely makes bad decisions. He has a positive assist-to-turnover ratio, and he’s comfortable making plays with the ball, so he could give the Thunder a lot more versatility on offense than Ibaka offered if Sabonis can secure a larger role.
Sabonis' defensive shortcomings have hampered OKC somewhat, but so long as he keeps knocking down threes, his spot in Billy Donovan's starting lineup should be secure.
5. Pascal Siakam, Power Forward, Toronto Raptors (No. 27 Pick in 2016)
Pascal Siakam is one of the two 2016 draftees to have started every game he's played this season. That likely puts him well ahead of whatever expectations the Toronto Raptors had after nabbing him with the No. 27 pick.
Granted, Siakam's spot in head coach Dwane Casey's top five began as happenstance. Jared Sullinger, who signed on this summer to be the Raptors' starting power forward, could be out another two months while recovering from October foot surgery. DeMarre Carroll, normally a choice to nominally play the 4, is in the rotation while working his way back from a knee injury that's plagued him since spring 2015.
Siakam, though, has done his part to plant his flag in Toronto's frontcourt. Through his first 15 games, the lanky Cameroonian averaged 10.2 points, 7.5 rebounds and 2.2 combined steals and blocks per 36 minutes.
If nothing else, the Raptors' depleted depth at power forward could afford Siakam all the time he needs to audition for a spot on his home country's national team.
"If you can play for your country it’s always great," he told FIBA. "So if there is an opportunity, I will definitely take an advantage of that."
4. Brandon Ingram, Small Forward, Los Angeles Lakers (No. 2 Pick in 2016)
The Los Angeles Lakers, led by head coach Luke Walton, have prioritized long-term development over instant gratification, even amid their surprising 8-8 start.
That tactic has benefited no one more than Brandon Ingram, who's had plenty of room to spread his 7'3" wings with the team's killer second unit.
As Bleacher Report's Kevin Ding detailed: "Walton is cultivating Ingram's less-proven talents by asking him to concentrate on defense and tasking him with second-unit ball-handling. Ingram has already revealed a special quality for focusing harder when challenged or a key situation arises."
Ingram rose to the occasion during the Lakers' 111-109 win over the Oklahoma City Thunder on Tuesday. The 19-year-old finished with 11 points and three assists, and he did his heaviest lifting during the fourth quarter. He hit two three-pointers and set up Larry Nance Jr. for a pair of scores to put L.A. up by double digits, then dished to Nick Young for the game-winning triple.
3. Jamal Murray, Shooting Guard, Denver Nuggets (No. 7 Pick in 2016)
Jamal Murray was cold as could be coming out of the gate. But since missing his first 17 NBA shots, the Canadian-born Kentucky product has managed to fire up his stroke. He put that bricky start behind him by hitting 48 of his next 93 looks (51.6 percent), including 22-of-45 (48.9 percent) from three.
Murray found his most heat to date on Tuesday, scorching the Chicago Bulls for 24 points on 9-of-13 shooting off the bench to propel the Denver Nuggets to a three-point win.
“It doesn’t take me long to get hot,” Murray said, per the Denver Post's Christopher Dempsey. “I think every shot is going in, and if I miss I don’t worry about it.”
That's the attitude of a professional scorer—one who's quickly becoming a fixture in head coach Michael Malone's shifting rotation.
2. Dario Saric, Power Forward, Philadelphia 76ers (No. 12 Pick in 2014)
Dario Saric celebrated his first American holiday on Thursday with some sort of Thanksgiving feast. The night before, his on-court famine extended to a second game. He followed up a three-point performance against Miami on Monday by going scoreless in the first half against Memphis on Wednesday.
That all came on the heels of a stretch that saw Saric score 10 points or more in five straight games. Up until facing the Heat, he had been averaging 11.5 points and 6.5 rebounds while nailing 48.5 percent of his threes during the month of November.
The 22-year-old Croatian lost his starting spot to Ersan Ilyasova amid that eruption. If he keeps misfiring, he may have to wait a while longer before he gets it back.
And not just because Ilyasova's been a flamethrower in Philly. Whenever Ben Simmons is ready to play, this year's No. 1 pick will probably have to defend power forwards at the outset. That could make him an awkward fit on that end next to Saric.
In the long run, the Sixers might be better off getting Saric used to playing as a sixth man. They need all the depth they can dig up, and he could eventually thrive as the top dog in Philly's second unit.
1. Joel Embiid, Center, Philadelphia 76ers (No. 3 Pick in 2014)
It's understandable for Joel Embiid to still have his doubts. He's just 11 regular-season games removed from two years of purgatory spent rehabbing foot surgeries and watching the Philadelphia 76ers struggle so mightily without him.
“Honestly, I don’t know how I’m able to do it,” Embiid told NBA.com's David Aldridge. “I’m still trying to figure it out. Sometimes, I feel like I’m lost."
If the Embiid the Sixers have seen thus far is lost, just imagine what he'll look like once he's found his way. He's already the leading scorer, rebounder and shot-blocker among rookies.
He also tops first-year players in turnovers.
Those miscues come, in part, from Embiid still feeling his way through the NBA game. Thus far, he's only been allowed to do so for 22.6 minutes per contest, and not on the second night of a back-to-back.
That hasn't stopped him from using up a ton of his team's possessions—the second-highest percentage in the league overall, per NBA.com, behind only Russell Westbrook. Once he breaks through those barriers, the 7-footer from Cameroon will have all the tools and confidence he needs to be a franchise star in Philly.
“Trusting comes from knowing," Drew Hanlen, Embiid's skills trainer, told NBA.com. "When you know you can do something and are comfortable and confident doing it, you trust that it'll work.”
All stats accurate as of games played on Wednesday, Nov. 23, 2016.
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