2022 NBA Rookies Most Likely to Look Like Steals

Jonathan WassermanAugust 10, 2022

2022 NBA Rookies Most Likely to Look Like Steals

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    Malaki Branham (David Dow/NBAE via Getty Images)

    NBA prospects slip through the draft's cracks every year.

    What second-rounders will emerge as rookie rotation players like Herb Jones and Ayo Dosunmu did last season? Which undrafted player has the best chance to earn a role, the way Jose Alvarado did in New Orleans?

    Steals can also be late lottery and mid-first-rounders who develop into quality starters or even stars. Tyrese Haliburton, Tyrese Maxey, Desmond Bane, Tyler Herro, Jordan Poole, Keldon Johnson and Kevin Porter Jr. were all taken outside the top 10 over the last few years.

    History says we'll see a handful of players outperform their draft slots and prove they were taken too late.

Malaki Branham, San Antonio Spurs SG

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    Malaki Branham (David Dow/NBAE via Getty Images)

    Predraft B/R ranking: No. 10

    Drafted: No. 20

    Shaedon Sharpe, Johnny Davis, Ousmane Dieng, Jalen Williams, Ochai Agbaji, AJ Griffin and Dalen Terry are all guards/wings who went before Malaki Branham. But there were also scouts who had Branham ranked ahead (or near the front of the list) of these top-20 picks. Now that he's in San Antonio, there is a decent chance he's starting for the Spurs at some point this season.

    Though not an explosive athlete, he compensates with shot-making versatility and a knack for knowing how to separate using timing and patience over speed or athleticism. Abrupt pull-ups, post fallaways, catch-and-shoot threes and hesitation drives off ball screens were behind Branham's production at Ohio State. And his sharp, three-level scoring skills were on full display in summer league, where he averaged 15.4 points and shot 42.3 percent from deep.

    Devin Vassell figures to play minutes at the 3, while Josh Primo could steal point guard minutes. Branham, who'll play his entire rookie season at 19 years old, should have an ideal opportunity to play big minutes and through mistakes with a Spurs team that's now in full rebuild mode.

Jalen Duren, Detroit Pistons C

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    Jalen Duren (AP Photo/John Locher)

    Predraft B/R Ranking: No. 9

    Drafted: No. 13

    Jalen Duren might not look like a confirmed steal until 2024 or 2025. He doesn't turn 19 years old until November 18, which hints at enormous room for his skill level to improve.

    He's already put together enough flashes of post footwork and passing (at his age) to suggest more half-court offensive potential/purpose than similarly athletic anchors like Robert Williams or Mitchell Robinson.

    In the short team, he should look comparable finishing and rim protecting with his package of 6'11", 250-pound size, a 7'5" wingspan and special leaping ability.

    While he gradually develops his post game and touch, he'll still receive plenty of easy-basket opportunities playing with Cade Cunningham and Jaden Ivey. And even if it takes time for Duren to build his defensive IQ and feel for the whistle, his tools and athleticism will immediately translate to shot-blocking.

    An immaculate physical profile and defined role create a high floor. But given his age, his established, signature up-and-under moves, positional vision (that separates him from other 5s) and star defensive upside, it's worth betting on an outcome that results in Duren offering Robert Williams' strengths/impact with another level of offensive value.

Tari Eason, Houston Rockets F

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    Tari Eason (AP Photo/David Becker)

    Predraft B/R Ranking: No. 12

    Drafted: No. 17

    Tari Eason made an NBA-ready case during summer league, finishing fourth in scoring among 2022 draft picks and second in rebounding. He could compete for a starting job as a rookie, particularly since he showcased enough face-up scoring skills and defensive range to play the 3 alongside Jabari Smith.

    At 6'8", 216 pounds and 21 years old, Eason seems built to contribute right away, at least with translatable transition play, motor/aggression around the basket and tools, energy and mobility for making defensive plays on the ball. Eason finished as one of five NCAA players on record to register a steal percentage above 4.0 percent and a block percentage over 6.0 percent.

    With offensive talents like Kevin Porter Jr., Jalen Green and Alperen Sengun, the Rockets will value Eason's two-way play and toughness in the lineup.

    But Eason could look like a bigger steal each year, assuming he builds on the flashes of ball-handling and shooting. He'll turn it over and miss too many threes as a rookie. However, Eason clearly has the ability to make a move off the dribble and attack from the arc or step into catch-and-shoot jumpers.

    Though he'll start his career playing more of an energizer role, there is a lot more scoring versatility for the No. 17 pick to unlock.

Kenneth Lofton Jr., Memphis Grizzlies PF

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    Kenneth Lofton Jr. (Bart Young/NBAE via Getty Images)

    Predraft B/R Ranking: Unranked

    Drafted: Undrafted

    Jaren Jackson Jr.'s foot injury may open a door for undrafted forward Kenneth Lofton Jr.

    Teams overthought his unorthodox body and NBA fit when they chose to keep passing on the 280-pound big man. He's been a force in every setting: college basketball (16.5 PPG, 10.5 RPG), FIBA—where he was the leading scorer for a USA team that featured top-five picks Chet Holmgren and Jaden Ivey—the NBA combine and most recently summer league (14.9 PPG).

    Outlier prospects exist, and Lofton looks like one of them because of his skill versatility and levels, IQ and competitiveness. Despite lacking speed and burst, defenders routinely look deceived when Lofton puts the ball down (8-of-12 attacking closeouts) or uses counter footwork in the post (80 FGM).

    Aside from how sharp he is scoring inside 15 feet, Lofton also adds value with his physical paint presence and passing. He finished the season at Louisiana Tech with assist and rebounding percentages both over 20.0 percent.

    Lofton's shot also seems to be improving, even if the percentages or consistency aren't there yet. Adding a three-ball—he made five in summer league—would be a significant development, as would the Grizzlies helping their 19-year-old get in better shape. Both seem like decent bets.

Josh Minott, Minnesota Timberwolves F

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    Josh Minott (Bart Young/NBAE via Getty Images)

    Predraft B/R Ranking: No. 28

    Drafted: No. 45

    Though rawer than most rookies, including the Minnesota Timberwolves' No. 26 pick Wendell Moore Jr., Josh Minott could make a quick appearance and impact in a limited role.

    His numbers may never pop, but his quickness and bounce will, particularly for this roster, which lacks electric athletes outside of Anthony Edwards.

    Despite limited scoring or creation polish, Minott registered an impressive 7.2 BPM at Memphis, second on the team above lottery pick Jalen Duren. He'll play a similar role in Minnesota, tapping into his athleticism and motor off the ball to pick up finishes, making smart passing reads and flying around defensively (3.1 STL percentage, 5.4 BLK percentage at Memphis).

    But scouts all noticed tweaked shooting mechanics at the NBA combine, and then he came out in summer league and confidently drilled 5-of-12 threes after hitting two all season as a freshman.

    Minott becoming a spot-up three threat would be a significant development for Minnesota given how useful he could already be as a two-way energizer without scoring.

    His explosiveness should ultimately feel like a needed complement behind Kyle Anderson's skill-dominant package.

Jabari Walker, Portland Trail Blazers PF

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    Jabari Walker (Bart Young/NBAE via Getty Images)

    Predraft B/R Ranking: No. 45

    Drafted: No. 57

    Jabari Walker was a big winner of summer league, leaving with a standard NBA contract.

    The addition of Jerami Grant will make it tough for the second-rounder to get any rookie minutes this season in Portland. But we expect to see Walker surface at some point over the next few years, something No. 57 picks rarely do in the NBA.

    Just playing to his strengths, Walker could earn a role by making threes and hustling under the boards for second-chance points. In 59 career NCAA games, he shot 39.9 percent from deep and registered an outstanding 19.3 rebounding percentage.

    Otherwise, he was a highly efficient post scorer (52.5 percent FG, 85th percentile) and roll finisher (13-of-25) at Colorado.

    Athletic and creation limitations will prevent Walker from putting the ball down often in the half court, but he has the right off-ball skills and motor for a complementary role and stretch-4 spot.

TyTy Washington, Houston Rockets PG

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    TyTy Washington (Zach Beeker/NBAE via Getty Images)

    Predraft B/R Ranking: No. 18

    Drafted: No. 29

    The Houston Rockets should get use out of their No. 29 pick, even if it's in a backup role.

    But even the starters may value TyTy Washington's floor game and feel for setting teammates up. He had a terrific assist-to-turnover ratio at Kentucky (120 ASTs, 51 TOs). And we rarely got to see him with full freedom to run the offense, as he had to share the rock with Sahvir Wheeler, who logged 115 pick-and-roll possessions and 74 as a transition ball-handler.

    Predraft, we often referenced Washington's 17-assist game when Wheeler sat to highlight the first-round pick's facilitating instincts. And at this stage of the Houston Rockets' rebuild, Washington looks like the most natural playmaker for others on the roster.

    It may take longer for the Rockets to get efficient scoring production out of the rookie, mostly because of his athletic limitations and some hesitation shooting threes. But his 57.4 percent mark on floaters, 58.7 percent mark on short jumpers, 62.5 percent mark on rim finishes and 75.0 percent clip from the line are also promising touch indicators. His 43 made pull-ups (38.7 percent) in the half court were an encouraging shot-making sign for a guard who may struggle to get all the way to the basket.

    Being older for his class (turns 21 in November) and lacking burst kept scouts from seeing upside. But for a No. 29 pick, the bar for earning steal status is lower. Teams may have let Washington slip too far. He should emerge as a useful guard and keeper in Houston's young core.

    Stats courtesy of Synergy Sports, Sports-Reference.com

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