Predicting 2017-18 NBA All-Rookie Teams: Is Lonzo Ball on Ben Simmons' Level?
Fortunately, we don't have to decide between Ben Simmons and Donovan Mitchell for Rookie of the Year.
Instead, we can casually slot them both on the All-Rookie First Team and let the voters fight that one out later. Sorry for the spoiler on the first-team front, but...come on. Did you really think they'd wind up someplace else?
This year's is an uncommonly good rookie class, which makes it tough to narrow the field to just 10 names.
Consider: We currently have eight rookies posting positive box plus-minus numbers after seeing just one do it last year. Six own above-average Player Efficiency Ratings after we saw, again, only one pull that off in 2016-17. We'll have enough quality honorable mentions to field a third team and then some.
The panel of writers and broadcasters who decide the teams don't have to consider positions, so we're free to basically make a list of the 10 best rookies and call it a day.
This is a prediction, so it's effectively a guess on how the votes will turn out. But the best way to do that is to take all these rookies, judge them on the merits—measuring statistical production and impact on their teams while considering the demands of their roles—and hope the voters make the right calls.
Judging by this group, the league's future is in good hands.
Small Roles, Big Winners
OG Anunoby, Zach Collins, and Royce O'Neale are producing positive plus-minus figures for quality teams this season. And though their presence here is a prediction they won't be rewarded with all-rookie spots, each deserves acknowledgement for solid role work in winning situations.
Anunoby started at the 3 for a significant chunk of the year in Toronto, Collins has closed several games for the surging Blazers and O'Neale has spent substantial time on the court during the Utah Jazz's propulsive second-half surge. O'Neale has seen at least 15 minutes in every game since Jan. 20, a span in which Utah has gone 21-3.
Jarrett Allen dunked (and got dunked on) a lot and and blocked everything in sight for the Brooklyn Nets, while Bam Adebayo defended brilliantly (against five positions at times) and even functioned as a late-game offensive hub for the Miami Heat. Daniel Theis was a useful floor-stretcher and rebounder for the Boston Celtics before going down for the season with a knee injury.
None of the three enjoyed consistently large roles, but it's telling that all rank among the eight rookies to produce positive box plus-minus figures this season.
If you're looking for the first-year guys who actually helped their teams succeed, it's tough to ignore these three.
Too Little, Too Late
Josh Jackson has exploded statistically since Jan. 1, averaging 16.0 points and 5.5 rebounds per game since the calendar flipped. His production against an injury-hit Golden State Warriors squad on March 17—36 points, six rebounds and four assists—gave him the fourth-highest single-game scoring total and put him in a tie for second-most field goals made by any rookie in a game this season.
Those games before Jan. 1 still count, though. And in them, Jackson was a mess, averaging 9.0 points and 3.5 rebounds on 37.8 percent shooting from the field (23.9 percent from deep).
All-Rookie Second Team: Lauri Markkanen, Chicago Bulls
Lauri Markkanen got to 100 made threes faster than anyone in league history, which probably says more about the NBA's changing offensive landscape than anything else. But hey, he still made the shots.
More fluid off the dribble than you'd expect from a 7-footer, Markkanen has the tools to be better than a Ryan Anderson type. Though, to be fair, Anderson has had a fine career as a sniper with sneaky rebounding chops.
As floors go, that's not bad.
Ideally, the Bulls' future includes lots of Markkanen at the 5. He's shown flashes of extreme competitiveness that'll have to hold up over longer stretches for that dream to become reality. Added strength wouldn't hurt either. If Chicago can get more of the guy who battled with DeMarcus Cousins and Anthony Davis, scoring 14 points and grabbing 17 boards in a double-overtime loss to the New Orleans Pelicans on Jan. 22, it'll have a legitimate cornerstone.
All-Rookie Second Team: De'Aaron Fox, Sacramento Kings
There's an argument to be made that De'Aaron Fox isn't even the best rookie on his team (more on that later), but the point guard has shown enough to warrant inclusion here.
Screamingly fast with the rock in his hands, Fox is one of a handful of guards who generates fast breaks at will. There is genuine Russell Westbrook-John Wall hybrid basketball DNA swirling around in his makeup.
An unwilling shooter (Fox takes less than 20 percent of his shots from deep), he's often still quick enough to put a sagging defender on his heels with downhill drives. He's got bounce, he's competitive and he profiles as a nightmarishly pesky defender in a scheme that actually makes sense.
The Sacramento Kings have a notoriously poor track record of player development, so Fox has that working against him. Still, he's top 10 among rookies in points, field goals, free throws, assists and steals.
One other thing: Despite perhaps not ranking as the Kings' top first-year player, Fox is easily the franchise's highest-ceiling rookie. Just 20 years old, he has a real chance to be an All-Star several times over if his shooting comes around.
All-Rookie Second Team: John Collins, Atlanta Hawks
Only Cedi Osman currently has a higher effective field-goal percentage among rookies. And though Collins is rightly known as a close-range scorer (he's got one of the better dunk reels in the league this season), he's also shown expanded range of late.
Collins hit just one three-pointer through Jan. 8, but he has knocked down eight triples since then.
There's value in a roll man who has to be accounted for, and Collins' early career suggests he'll provide the Atlanta Hawks with vertical spacing. He's a terror on the glass and is lapping the rookie field in offensive rebounding despite ranking just 12th in minutes played.
Collins is the only rookie with at least 400 rebounds, 60 blocks and 40 steals. So even if he never becomes more than a catch-and-dunk option offensively, he'll provide value in other ways.
All-Rookie Second Team: Dennis Smith Jr., Dallas Mavericks
Dennis Smith Jr.'s shooting numbers are just horrendous. There's no other way to phrase it.
Among players who've taken at least 500 shots this year, only Marcus Smart's effective field-goal percentage is lower. For what it's worth, Fox and fellow rookie Josh Jackson are also among the bottom five; shooting is tough for rookies, it seems.
That rotten shooting means Smith Jr. makes the cut on the strength of highlights, counting stats and tools. And if those were the only criteria, he'd easily make the first team.
He's fifth in total points and second in assists among rookies.
Smith is an atomic athlete capable of exploding vertically off two feet with no runway. He put the league on notice with one of the best missed dunks in memory over the summer, and he's attacked the rim recklessly all season.
Credit the Dallas Mavericks for running him out there in a major role (his 29.7 minutes per game puts him seventh among rookies), despite crummy numbers, loads of missed shots and tons of mistakes.
Even in light of the rough ride that has been 2017-18, I'm not sure you'd want to bet on anyone other than Simmons and Mitchell having brighter futures. There's just too much early Baron Davis in Smith to ignore.
All-Rookie Second Team: Bogdan Bogdanovic, Sacramento Kings
Dillon Brooks had a shot here, but Bogdan Bogdanovic snags the final spot on the strength of better shooting numbers and more than double the total assists.
This is the guy who might actually be Sacramento's best rookie, albeit one whose ceiling is far lower than Fox's.
Bogdanovic is already 25, which helps explain his advanced feel, polished offensive game and slick facilitation. Those are skills you'd expect from a guy who's been a productive Euroleague professional since the 2012-13 season.
"[Bogdanovic] definitely doesn't play like a rookie," Fox told James Ham of CSN California in January. "He brings the intelligence, the savvy, the shooting—defensively, he gets after it. He's able to do everything for us."
Despite a recent cold streak, Bogdanovic is still shooting 39.9 percent from three.
Other than Simmons, Mitchell and possibly Fox, Bogdanovic might be the most trustworthy rookie in critical moments. He generally makes the right pass-shoot-drive decision and has enough craft to exploit defenders who treat him like a typical rookie.
Don't bet on much improvement from here, but Bogdanovic has been a steady performer for a Kings team that hasn't had many.
All-Rookie First Team: Ben Simmons, Philadelphia 76ers
In some ways, Ben Simmons is a tough player to evaluate. In addition to the lack of precedent for a 6'10" point guard who might be one of the league's five fastest players in an end-to-end sprint, there are real questions about his unusual game.
Can he continue to thrive without thinking, even for a second, about shooting threes? Seriously, go check out the video of all 10 long-range attempts he's taken this year (eight of which are categorized as "heaves"). You'll note the buzzer sounds on all of them. He literally only shoots threes at the ends of quarters, and they're either baseball-style flings or short-armed flips made at a dead run.
Will his dicey free-throw accuracy (57.1 percent) make him an increasingly exploitable "hack-a" target?
Fortunately, all we're trying to do here is figure out where Simmons ranks among his peers. That's easy: He's been no worse than the No. 2 rookie this season, which gets him comfortably onto the First Team.
This year, Simmons ranks first among rookies in minutes, rebounds, assists and steals, and he's second in points. Only John Collins has more blocks. He is the first rookie since Magic Johnson to amass at least 500 rebounds and 500 assists. Oscar Robertson is the only other guy in that club.
Capable of guarding several positions, a savant-level passer, gifted with the handle and body control to get to any spot on the floor and a phenomenal finisher (74.3 percent inside three feet) despite everyone in the gym knowing he's trying to get to the hole, Simmons isn't just one of the best rookies in the league.
He's one of the best players.
All-Rookie First Team: Donovan Mitchell, Utah Jazz
Donovan Mitchell is the first rookie since Michael Jordan to average over 19 points per game on at least 54 percent true shooting while also posting a usage rate above 28 percent.
That's a bit of a mouthful, and it might sound like statistical cherry-picking. But really, it's a simple illustration of how rare it is for a first-year player to assume such massive offensive responsibility, produce at high volume and, critically, not lay a total egg in the efficiency department.
The load Mitchell is shouldering is practically unprecedented (only 13 rookies have ever produced a usage rate as high as his), and the fact he's done it for a Utah Jazz team that has rocketed up the standings truly sets him apart.
Some rookies get counting numbers on bad teams while sacrificing efficiency and taking their lumps. Think Dennis Smith Jr.
Others slot into smaller roles, protected from the learning curve by good teammates and limited demands. Think Jayson Tatum.
Mitchell doesn't fit either category. He became an offensive alpha just a few games into his rookie season, mixing highlight dunks, a bottomless bag of off-the-dribble tricks and rugged defense with high-volume, self-created three-point shooting...and he didn't do it at the expense of his team's success.
Players like this—aesthetically, statistically, whatever—don't come along often.
Who cares if Mitchell wins Rookie of the Year or not? He's going to be a star.
All-Rookie First Team: Jayson Tatum, Boston Celtics
Tatum was supposed to be a maker of tough shots, a mid- and low-post weapon against smaller defenders who could generate a look with polished moves and innate scoring feel—sort of a Carmelo Anthony type minus the bullying physical strength.
It was a profile that, while intriguing, seemed to suggest efficiency would be an issue.
And then Tatum showed up and drilled every three he took for three solid months.
He's cooled off since draining 50.0 percent of his threes in October, 48.0 percent in November and 45.1 percent in December. On the year, he's down to 42.3 percent overall, which still exceeds all but the most optimistic projections for his first year in the league.
The in-between game is still there, but Tatum has adapted to the modern style of offense better than expected. He takes over 60 percent of his shots from within three feet or beyond the arc, which is a big reason he ranks second among rookies in effective field-goal percentage (minimum 600 attempts).
It'll be tough to get a real feel for Tatum's ceiling until we see him in a larger role. He ranks 10th among rookies in usage and has spent most of the season as the Celtics' third or fourth option. But it's difficult to be critical of a player who has shown such offensive potential so early.
All-Rookie First Team: Kyle Kuzma, Los Angeles Lakers
The fact it's somehow a disappointment that Kyle Kuzma figures to have a long and productive career as a valuable rotation player says everything about one of the league's most surprising stories this season.
Kuzma blew up in summer league play after barely landing in the first round on draft night (27th overall). Drilling threes at rates he'd never touched in college, Kuzma's outside shooting carried over into the early part of the regular season.
For a while there, he was a legitimate candidate for rookie of the year.
But after leading the Lakers in scoring and shooting 39.0 percent from three through Dec. 31, Kuzma cooled, hitting just 34.2 percent from deep and losing about five points per game off his scoring average in 2018.
Kuzma profiles as a modern scoring 4 whose reliable outside touch, excellent footwork and general offensive polish will keep him in rotations for a long time. He's not a pure dead-eye sniper, and his defense isn't up to snuff at either forward spot, but Kuzma should land on the First Team on the strength of top-five marks among rookies in total minutes, points, made field goals, made threes and rebounds.
It also doesn't hurt that playing for the Lakers gets you noticed.
All-Rookie First Team: Lonzo Ball, Los Angeles Lakers
If Joel Embiid can be a first-teamer in 2017 after missing 51 games, it's pretty clear the availability standard is low. And though Lonzo Ball isn't in the same galaxy as Embiid in terms of overall impact, at least we know the 22 games he's missed so far won't preclude a spot here.
Despite a good chunk of time lost to injury, Ball still ranks second among rookies in total assists and third in steals. If we exclude Simmons, he's also got the most total rebounds among backcourt rookies.
Ball's shooting remains a glaring weakness, and while his jumper gets most of the negative attention, it's really his inability to finish at closer range that destroys his scoring efficiency. With a 47 percent conversion rate, Ball ranks in the eighth percentile at the rim, per Cleaning the Glass. So not only can defenders confidently go under every screen, they can also casually back off whenever Ball drives and know he's likely to fling up some off-balance clanger with no chance of falling.
That said, Ball is a hair under 35 percent from long distance since the All-Star break and is an undeniably useful facilitator. Toss in his general smarts and better-than-you-think defense (he's third among point guards in ESPN's Defensive Real Plus-Minus, and the Lakers defend better when he's on the floor), and you've got a guy who, despite tremendous shortcomings in some areas, has been useful in others.
L.A. is 5-5 in March, and Ball has averaged 36.2 minutes per game during that stretch. He's not shocking the world, but he's doing enough right to grab the last spot on the first team.