NBA Rookie Stock Watch: How the Top-20 Stack Up Heading into 2016-17 Season
Putting much stock in NBA preseason results tends to be a fool's errand. But when it comes to evaluating an incoming rookie class at this point in the year, it's the best evidence available.
How comfortable do the top debutants look in their likely roles? Which youngsters plucked out of the latter portions of the draft have used uncharacteristic opportunities to open eyes and minds within their respective organizations? And who has succumbed to very real injuries during a month that, to many, is rife with fake basketball?
All of this is factored into our first Rookie Stock Watch of 2016-17 because, frankly, there's not much else to go on. Once the regular season starts, we'll have a stronger sample by which to judge the progress of the top 20 picks.
In the meantime, here's a look at how each of those prospects is coming along as the Association pivots toward opening week.
1. Ben Simmons, Power Forward, Philadelphia 76ers
The Philadelphia 76ers' future is on hold until Ben Simmons can make his NBA debut.
According to ESPN's Chris Forsberg, the No. 1 pick in the 2016 draft underwent surgery on Oct. 4 to repair an acute Jones fracture of the fifth metatarsal in his right foot. There is no timetable for Simmons' return, though the initial report of his injury pegged him for a three-month recovery.
Simmons is the latest in a string of Sixers draft picks whose pro arrivals have been delayed by physical ailments.
"I think go back to Year 1, you're with Nerlens [Noel], and then you go to Joel [Embiid], and then you go to Jahlil [Okafor], and now I'm with Ben," head coach Brett Brown said, per ESPN.
With his tremendous talent, Simmons should shine—and send his stock soaring again—soon after he's ready to play, whenever that may be.
2. Brandon Ingram, Small Forward, Los Angeles Lakers
Brandon Ingram spent the entire Los Angeles Lakers' preseason playing a bench role, and he figures to remain Luol Deng's backup for some time once the regular season tips off. The 19-year-old out of Duke still has plenty of kinks to work out in his game, not to mention his frame.
Regardless of role, Ingram has shown some glimpses of why the Lakers nabbed him with the No. 2 pick. Through his first seven preseason games, he shot 38.9 percent from three and looked like a potential lockdown defender with his length and agility on the other end.
If there's such a thing as a breakthrough during the exhibition schedule, Ingram might've had his during a 123-112 loss to the Golden State Warriors in San Diego. He led all Lakers with 21 points on 7-of-10 shooting (2-of-3 from three) to go along with seven rebounds, four assists and two steals in nearly 28 minutes.
“I don’t think it’s too early to say he turned a corner,” Lakers coach Luke Walton said, per the Los Angeles Times' Tania Ganguli. “I think that was a great experience for him. I think the type of player he is, he was in this morning again before practice started, getting work in. He’s had a good night. Still decided to get up early, come get his reps, which I think speaks to the player he wants to be.”
3. Jaylen Brown, Small Forward, Boston Celtics
Preseason stats might not matter, but Jaylen Brown's haven't been pretty so far. He's posted poor shooting percentages from three-point range (27.8 percent) and the free-throw line (59.3 percent) while logging more turnovers (1.7) than assists (1.4).
Those numbers didn't deter the Boston Celtics from starting their prized rookie in two exhibitions. Nor did they temper his teammates' expectations much, if at all.
"I always get excited when he gets in the game because I just want to see what he can do, or what he’s going to do," Al Horford said, per Bleacher Report's Michael Pina. "It seems like he’s always getting a highlight play, and I think that’s just a preview of what we’re going to see during the season."
Brown's shooting and decision making could be points of contention in his game for some time. That he's already able to wow those around him, despite his glaring shortcomings, speaks to the tremendous upside of Boston's second-biggest summer acquisition.
4. Dragan Bender, Power Forward, Phoenix Suns
The Phoenix Suns gave Dragan Bender the green light to shoot threes during the preseason, just as they did at Las Vegas Summer League.
In neither case did he deliver encouraging results.
After knocking down 26.5 percent of his treys in Sin City, Bender banged home a slim 17.6 percent of his 3.6 tries during Phoenix's first five exhibition games. The 18-year-old Croatian sensation missed 11 of his first 12 long-range looks before going 2-of-5 from distance against the Dallas Mavericks.
“We want him to grow confidence-wise,” head coach Earl Watson said, per Suns reporter Tyler Emerick. “Once his confidence grows, he’s going to know what’s a good shot and what’s a bad shot."
Bender will need time to get his confidence and shot selection up to snuff. How long it takes him to do so is difficult to predict, though with Jared Dudley and fellow rookie Marquese Chriss likely ahead of him on the Suns' depth chart at power forward, those pulling for Bender to break out in a hurry might want to exercise restraint.
5. Kris Dunn, Point Guard, Minnesota Timberwolves
Forget about Kris Dunn's sub-.200 shooting percentages and 2.5 turnovers per contest through his first six preseason games. All that matters is the Minnesota Timberwolves have apparently seen enough of their rookie to peg him as the future at point guard.
According to The Vertical's Adrian Wojnarowski, Dunn could assume Ricky Rubio's spot as the Wolves' primary floor general by the time the calendar turns to 2017:
Dunn has done nothing to diminish Minnesota’s belief that he’s the franchise’s point guard of the future, but the organization hasn’t wanted to rush him into the starting job. Rubio, 25, is well aware of the franchise’s plans with Dunn, but has been welcoming in his attitude toward mentoring and working with Dunn.
That switch won't come until Minnesota finds a suitable return for Rubio on the trade market. Per Woj, Tyus Jones, a second-year guard out of Duke, could be gone before Rubio gets moved.
Either way, look for the Wolves to clear the decks for Dunn's take-off before season's end.
6. Buddy Hield, Shooting Guard, New Orleans Pelicans
With Tyreke Evans and Jrue Holiday both slated to start 2016-17 out of commission, you'd think Buddy Hield would be a shoo-in to start next to Anthony Davis for the New Orleans Pelicans.
Apparently, the Pels have already thought twice about that.
According to the New Orleans Times-Picayune's John Reid (h/t CBS Sports), Hield will start the regular campaign right where he spent most of the preseason: on the bench. He upped his three-point percentage over his paltry numbers during Las Vegas Summer League, though a jump from 22.9 percent to 28.6 leaves plenty of room for improvement.
"I can play in this league," Hield told Basketball Insiders. "I can compete with the guys and I can guard and defend."
The Oklahoma product will have to prove it as a reserve before he gets his shot as a starter.
7. Jamal Murray, Shooting Guard, Denver Nuggets
Jamal Murray won't be in the Denver Nuggets' starting backcourt for a while, not with Emmanuel Mudiay and Gary Harris slated for those roles. Nor is he guaranteed to be a second-stringer at either spot; Jameer Nelson and Will Barton are the best bets.
But Murray's ability to play either position, along with his overall moxie, should help the 19-year-old carve out a niche in the Denver Nuggets' rotation.
"Big balls," head coach Michael Malone said of Murray, per the Colorado Springs Gazette's Paul Klee.
That kind of confidence could carry Murray a long way, especially if preseason injuries to Mudiay and Harris nudge him up the depth chart.
8. Marquese Chriss, Power Forward, Phoenix Suns
Perhaps no rookie has looked more impressive during the preseason than Phoenix Suns forward Marquese Chriss.
Through his first five exhibitions, the Washington product averaged 13.6 points, 6.2 rebounds and 2.6 combined blocked and steals. He was at his best against the Dallas Mavericks, when he poured in 17 points, six rebounds, three three-pointers, two steals and four blocks while starting opposite—and not backing down from—Andrew Bogut at center.
"Marquese’s natural reaction was to nicely put him on the ground,” head coach Earl Watson said during an appearance on Arizona Sports 98.7 FM. “He has to stand up for himself; I can never stand between a young player (who) gets hit. He just has to take a stand and let the league know that ‘I’m not mentally as young as my age.’"
Nor has Chriss played at all like a timid teenager. At this rate, he could be ticketed for a permanent starting spot in Phoenix sooner rather than later.
9. Jakob Poeltl, Center, Toronto Raptors
Jakob Poeltl and Lucas Nogueira will both back up Jonas Valanciunas at center for the Toronto Raptors this season. The question is, which of the two youngsters will get the first crack at it?
“It may be matchup-driven in certain situations,” head coach Dwane Casey said, per the Toronto Star's Doug Smith. “Jakob is more of a positional (player). He does a great job of anticipating. Whereas Lucas uses his length more than anything else...he uses his length more than Jakob does. Both need to continue to improve with their rim-protection and paint-protection defence.”
That Poeltl is in the mix at all is a testament to his size, skill and uncommon maturity for a 21-year-old rookie.
“Even though he’s a young player, he’s mature, I say he’s got an old soul,” Casey explained. “He doesn’t get too excited. He doesn’t get too down when he makes mistakes.
“He’s not like your typical young player that has the highs and lows emotionally and psychologically. He can mess up on two straight plays, but he’s going to bounce right back.”
10. Thon Maker, Power Forward/Center, Milwaukee Bucks
Thon Maker' sprained his right wrist early in training camp and had to miss the Milwaukee Bucks' preseason opener as a result.
Since then, the 19-year-old from South Sudan has looked like the skinny kid who skipped college and went straight from preps to pros that he is. During his five preseason appearances, Maker averaged just 3.4 points and 2.0 rebounds while hitting 6-of-16 shots from the field in 14.3 minutes.
Still, The Ringer's Jonathan Tjarks sees room for Maker to fill a significant role this season on a Bucks squad that's scrambling to fill a void in the wake of Khris Middleton's torn hamstring:
The Bucks took a swing for the fences with the pick, and the hypothetical version of what he could be makes sense next to Giannis [Antetokounmpo] and [Jabari] Parker. Despite the logjam of older players ahead of him in the rotation, the Bucks might need the rookie’s combination of defensive activity and shooting ability to win.
11. Domantas Sabonis, Power Forward, Oklahoma City Thunder
That Domantas Sabonis is likely slated to start at power forward for the Oklahoma City Thunder says as much about his competition as it does his own prospects in the eyes of his coaches and teammates.
Ersan Ilyasova, whom OKC acquired from the Orlando Magic in June's Serge Ibaka swap, was more potent offensively, averaging 8.7 points and 5.7 rebounds while shooting 47.1 percent from three to Sabonis' 6.5 points, 2.7 rebounds and 30.8-percent mark from long distance.
But what Sabonis lacks in experience and proven NBA scoring ability, he's thus far made up with heart, hustle and know-how on defense.
“In terms of defensively where he's supposed to be, remembering plays, doing his job, being in the right spots, the right positions, (being) a competitive guy, he's reliable,” Thunder head coach Billy Donovan said, per the Oklahoman's Erik Horne. “Really reliable.”
Reliable enough to translate six exhibition starts into a full-time gig next to Steven Adams during the regular season.
12. Taurean Prince, Small Forward, Atlanta Hawks
There may be no peskier perimeter defender in this year's rookie class than Atlanta Hawks wing Taurean Prince. The No. 12 pick out of Baylor logged three games with three steals apiece during Atlanta's preseason run.
This, in addition to his size and skill at either forward spot, could make Prince a critical cog off the bench in the Hawks' revamped machinery.
"A small forward of his size that has small forward-size skills and a toughness – it's just something that you feel great about having in your program," head coach Mike Budenholzer said, per Hawks reporter K.L. Chouinard.
"He plays very hard. He's very physical. He's fearless. And I think he is skilled, so you start trying to get a little more skill into all that competitiveness and size and athleticism, and you feel like you have a guy that can be a good player."
13. Georgios Papagiannis, Center, Sacramento Kings
A frontcourt as crowded as the Sacramento Kings' is bound to have at least one odd man out. At this point, Georgios Papagiannis could be the one to fill that role.
"I think he can be dominant because of his size and his power," Kings player development coach Larry Lewis told Bleacher Report. "He just needs to get a rhythm and understand the NBA tempo."
First, Papagiannis will have to grasp the nuances of life and basketball in America. The giant Greek speaks and understands English, "but that doesn't mean that when instruction is given, he understands everything in depth," Lewis explained.
For now, the 19-year-old might be better off watching and waiting his turn behind DeMarcus Cousins, Kosta Koufos and Willie Cauley-Stein. In any case, he'll need more than the 30.7 total minutes he played during preseason to find his footing in the Association.
14. Denzel Valentine, Shooting Guard, Chicago Bulls
Denzel Valentine isn't sure when his rookie season will begin, let alone what kind of footing he'll be on. The senior swingman out of Michigan State sprained his left ankle after logging 11 minutes during the Chicago Bulls' preseason opener against the Milwaukee Bucks and hasn't been able to play since then.
"It has been tough sitting out," Valentine said, per the Chicago Tribune's K.C. Johnson. "Basketball is something I love and something I do every day. I feel like it's being taken from me, but I just have to have a positive mindset. The coaches have been great. I've been trying to observe, keep learning as much as I can."
The Bulls won't be pressing for Valentine's production at either backcourt position. They came into training camp with Jimmy Butler, Dwyane Wade and Rajon Rondo as their top three perimeter players, and traded for Michael Carter-Williams on Oct. 17.
It may be a while, then, before Valentine is both healthy and needed to fill a significant role in the Windy City.
15. Juancho Hernangomez, Forward, Denver Nuggets
The Denver Nuggets are still sorting out what exactly they have in Juancho Hernangomez.
“He is a stallion, he is just a wild stallion,” head coach Michael Malone told Mile High Sports' Josh Dover. “I’m not sure he really knows what he is doing but he plays hard, he’s got a motor, he’s got toughness."
That could be enough to convince Malone to give the 21-year-old Spaniard some real playing time this season. The Nuggets figure to spend 2016-17 in flux, sorting through their odd mix of mid-career veterans and baby-faced youngsters to find the core of an eventual playoff contender.
Hernangomez—with his size, skill, versatility and energy—could force his way into Denver's future, and might not have to wait long to do it.
16. Guerschon Yabusele, Power Forward, Boston Celtics
Truth be told, it's tough to tell exactly which way Guerschon Yabusele's stock is going—other than eastward. The 16th pick in the 2016 draft will spend this season playing for the Shanghai Sharks in the Chinese Basketball Association.
Yabusele put up some impressive numbers during the Sharks' preseason skirmish against the Houston Rockets: The 20-year-old Frenchman scored 24 points and posted game-highs in rebounds (12) and free-throw attempts (nine) during Shanghai's 131-94 loss in Houston.
Yabusele won't see competition of that caliber in China, though the C's are less concerned with that than they are the opportunities he'll have to hone his game and his frame.
“There’s great strength and conditioning and nutritionists that come with being on the Shanghai Sharks," general manager Danny Ainge told the Boston Herald's Mark Murphy. "His body looks better already. In the month he’s been there he’s lost a few pounds, and he has a great, great body. And he’s going to get the opportunity to do a lot more while he’s there.”
17. Wade Baldwin IV, Point Guard, Memphis Grizzlies
Wade Baldwin IV appeared to have a bead on being Mike Conley's backup with the Memphis Grizzlies this season. He debuted with a team-high 15 points on 5-of-5 shooting from the field (4-of-6 at the stripe), and followed that up with performances ranging from passable to solid over his next four.
But a sore left knee sidelined Baldwin during Memphis' preseason finale, and a poor jump shot limited him throughout. If the discomfort in his knee persists, the Grizzlies may have no choice but to call on Andrew Harrison to serve as Conley's understudy.
Either way, Baldwin—who played high school ball with Karl-Anthony Towns—may need time to get his head and skills properly oriented, as an anonymous scout suggested to Sports Illustrated:
To expect a ton from Wade Baldwin this year is probably not wise, but he's very talented. He'll be able to help some off the bench, and he'll have some nice moments. … The biggest concern I had with Wade in the draft is that he can be sort of hard-headed and difficult. Not the easiest guy to coach, not the easiest guy to get along with, not super mature.
18. Henry Ellenson, Power Forward, Detroit Pistons
Stan Van Gundy won't stand for his players struggling defensively or on the glass—unless they bring the sort of offensive skill Henry Ellenson has added to the Detroit Pistons' smorgasbord. The 6'11" forward out of Marquette flashed a smooth shooting stroke, hitting 6-of-12 from three-point range in the preseason.
“We’re very fortunate to have him, I know that,’’ Van Gundy said, per the Detroit Free Press' Perry A. Farrell. “It would be a major failure on my part, to be quite honest, if that kid’s not a good player. Look, he’s not only got the size and the skills, he has the talent. He has the approach and the makeup. It’s not like you’re telling him things and he’s ignoring them. He’s got a long ways to go."
With Reggie Jackson in recovery and Detroit aiming for a postseason return, Van Gundy will lean heavily on his veterans in the early going. But if the Pistons prove to be as poor from the perimeter as they look on paper, Ellenson's outside acumen could come in handy before long.
19. Malik Beasley, Shooting Guard, Denver Nuggets
Remember that logjam of guards Jamal Murray is trying to plow through with the Nuggets? Malik Beasley has the same problem, except he might be behind Murray in the pecking order, too.
The 19-year-old out of Florida State missed the Las Vegas Summer League while recovering from a stress fracture and played just 12.5 minutes per game through the first seven legs of Denver's exhibition schedule. During that limited time, he shot 30 percent from the field and 18.8 percent from three, and logged more turnovers (1.4) than assists (0.3).
Still, the Nuggets saw some strong intangibles from Beasley in their training camp.
“He does not lack any confidence,” coach Michael Malone said in Omaha, per the Omaha World-Herald's Jon Nyatawa. “He’s a very strong-willed kid. He believes in himself. He’s done a very good job of showing that out here.”
20. Caris LeVert, Shooting Guard, Brooklyn Nets
Caris LeVert didn't play a single minute during the Brooklyn Nets' preseason.
How, then, could his stock be trending up?
Because the Michigan product is on the mend. According to Nets Daily, he's been dressing, traveling and shooting around with his squad. That's a long way from where LeVert was over the summer, when he was busy recovering from yet another round of surgery on his troublesome foot.
The Nets don't have a timetable for his return, but whenever he's ready, LeVert should find ample opportunity to get himself acclimated to the NBA amid Brooklyn's moribund rebuild.