5 NBA Rookies Who Could Prove Doubters Wrong Next Season

Jonathan Wasserman@@NBADraftWassNBA Lead WriterAugust 30, 2017

5 NBA Rookies Who Could Prove Doubters Wrong Next Season

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    Frank Franklin II/Associated Press

    Midway through the NBA season, 2017's draft class could look even stronger than the top-five picks suggest.

    We know Markelle Fultz, Lonzo Ball and Jayson Tatum will produce. And it became apparent in summer league that Donovan Mitchell could be a steal. It wouldn't surprise anyone if he emerged as one of the better rookies.

    The following five could wind up shocking their detractors with impact play despite questions or concerns about their age, athleticism or skill sets. They'll each benefit from having signature strengths to bank on and roles suited to optimize those strengths.

    We chose a prospect from each tier of the draft, including the top 10, lottery, middle of the first round, late first round and second round.

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Top-10 Surprise: Frank Ntilikina (New York Knicks, PG/SG)

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    Frank Franklin II/Associated Press

    Reason for doubt

    Frank Ntilikina only turned 19 years old in July, and unlike the other lottery guards, he's not entering the NBA with much production under his belt, having averaged just 5.4 points and 1.5 assists per game in the Pro A.

    Skinny and young, he has the same "project" label coming in that Kristaps Porzingis had in 2015. But he also has the same chance to surpass expectations by playing to his strengths with a long leash.

    Unfortunately, Ntilikina may also face scrutiny because he was drafted by Phil Jackson to play in the triangle. With Jackson gone, many will question whether or not he was the right pick over NC State's Dennis Smith Jr.


    Why he'll exceed expectations

    Ntilikina started 32 of 45 games last season for Strasbourg IG in the LNB Pro A, France's top division. It's not the Euroleague, but he has experience playing against pros, and his 6'5" size and monster length will help against NBA guards.

    And despite all the negativity surrounding the New York Knicks, it wasn't a terrible landing spot for Ntilikina, who'll have the chance to play right away without too heavy of a workload alongside Porzingis, Tim Hardaway Jr., Willy Hernangomez and possibly Carmelo Anthony.

    Ntilikina should succeed the way Malcolm Brogdon did last year with the Milwaukee Bucks—by moving the ball, shooting and defending. The Knicks' new combo guard brings similar length, three-and-D capability and basketball IQ, which should translate in a complementary role, even if he isn't the most dangerous athlete, scorer or playmaker.

    It also can't hurt that Ntilikina is already working out with teammates like Hardaway and even Anthony.

Lottery Surprise: Luke Kennard (Detroit Pistons, SG)

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    Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

    Reason for doubt

    Luke Kennard went from shooting 42.0 percent overall as a freshman role player to the 2017 lottery. He lacks traditional speed, strength, length and explosiveness for an NBA guard or wing.

    Will he be able to separate from his man or finish at the rim? Can he guard the faster, more athletic players at his position? There are questions concerning Kennard's transition from college to the pros.


    Why he'll exceed expectations

    Those questions above? Kennard will answer them quickly. His footwork, jumper and basketball IQ are just too sharp.

    Kennard landed with a team that will need his services as a shooter (43.8 percent 3PT at Duke in 2016-17), with the Detroit Pistons having finished No. 28 in three-point percentage (33.0) last season. Unless it suddenly clicks for Stanley Johnson, who regressed last year, coach Stan Van Gundy will have no choice but to call on Kennard behind Avery Bradley and Tobias Harris.

    One of the most productive prospects from the 2017 class, Duke's former 19.5-points-per-game scorer brings a high skill level and unteachable instincts that should help compensate for below-average athleticism.

    Van Gundy already expressed confidence in the rookie, addressing Kennard's ability to make plays off the dribble, mental toughness and adaptability. But he also talked to Keith Langlois of Pistons.com about Kennard's potential to hold his own defensively—one of the biggest question marks and perceived threats to his playing time:

    "The thing I didn't know that he showed me is he has the ability to move his feet defensively. Now, he's still got a long way to go in terms of handling some of the other things, rotations and things like that. But he certainly showed that he can get down in a stance and move his feet. I did not have a good feel for that going into the draft, so that was a positive."

    Kennard won't routinely take over like he did in college, but as long as he can crack the Detroit rotation, his indisputable shot-making and underrated passing will translate to complementary offense.

Mid-First Round Surprise: John Collins (Atlanta Hawks, PF)

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    Frank Franklin II/Associated Press

    Reason for doubt

    A year ago, John Collins had finished a quiet freshman season (7.3 points, 3.9 rebounds per game) off the NBA radar.

    Last season, he led the nation in player efficiency rating, though he was still the eighth big drafted—behind Jonathan Isaac, Lauri Markkanen, Zach Collins, Bam Adebayo, Justin Patton, D.J. Wilson and T.J. Leaf.

    Falling behind that many bigs and dropping outside the lottery doesn't bode well for stellar projections. That said...


    Why he'll exceed expectations

    Collins is a good bet to finish his rookie season as the most productive of that bunch.

    The Atlanta Hawks have a better shot at winning the lottery than competing in the playoffs. Collins is already the most exciting big in an Ersan Ilyasova-Dewayne Dedmon-led frontcourt. His development should be the priority for coaches.

    He'll have the chance to play significant minutes and through mistakes.

    Even without proven shooting range or refined one-on-one skills, his explosive athleticism and motor should continue leading to easy baskets (62.2 percent FG at Wake Forest in 2016-17) and rebounds (14.8 per 40 minutes). Collins averaged 15.4 points and 9.2 boards per game on 59.3 percent shooting in the summer league, so that didn't appear overly challenging for him, either.

    With good timing as a roll man and cutter and the coordination to catch and finish in traffic, he should give Dennis Schroder a needed weapon in the two-man game.

Late-First Round Surprise: Caleb Swanigan (Portland Trail Blazers, PF/C)

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    Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports

    Reason for doubt

    Listed at 271 pounds at the 2015 Nike Hoop Summit, Caleb Swanigan arrived at Purdue out of shape and off the radar. Even after transforming his body, expanding his offense and leading the nation in double-doubles, there was skepticism, considering he was passed on 25 times.

    At 6'8", he lacks traditional size for a center and the foot speed to guard players on the perimeter. He isn't quick off the dribble or explosive around the basket.

    Combine all that with the fact that the Portland Trail Blazers have a logjam in the frontcourt and there's plenty of room for doubt.


    Why he'll exceed expectations

    Despite those on-paper issues, Swanigan appears set to prove doubters wrong. He'll lean on his unteachable rebounding instincts and vision, but he also looks poised to build on his new motor and jump shot.

    Improved skills and conditioning have Swanigan in position to produce in the NBA one year after scouts deemed him either second-round worthy or undraftable.

    He's become proficient in a number of key role-playing areas that should lead to immediate playing time.

    His 22.5 rebounding percentage at Purdue in 2016-17 was elite, and with a 250-pound frame, 7'3" wingspan and nose for the ball, his success under the boards will translate. More importantly, he's already shown he can compete at a higher level posting 14.9 points, 10.4 rebounds in summer league and earning First Team honors.

    Swanigan has also established himself as a terrific passer, both out of the post and in the high-low game, throwing dimes from the elbows or top of the key to cutters and divers. He averaged an impressive 3.0 assists per game last year and dished out seven in the summer league championship game.

    He'll push Noah Vonleh and earn backup center minutes by stretching the floor with his improved spot-up jumper. Last season, Swanigan hit 38-of-85 threes (44.7 percent) and shot 78.1 percent from the line, appearing far more confident and fluid.

    The Trail Blazers will look smart for ignoring the questions that have followed Swanigan since high school. He'll crack their rotation this year by boxing out, moving the ball and making enough open outside shots.

Second-Round Surprise: Jordan Bell (Golden State Warriors, PF/C)

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    Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

    Reason for doubt

    Jordan Bell has widely been considered a steal from this year's draft. But even as a steal, second-rounders aren't usually part of their team's short-term plans (especially when joining defending champions). Simply put: That's why they weren't drafted sooner.

    Bell has glaring weaknesses on a roster that doesn't have many. As Bleacher Report's Zach Buckley put it: 

    "He's not the longest (6'11 ¾" wingspan) or the strongest, two of the primary traits that make [Draymond] Green such an effective small-ball center. And while Bell looks comfortable as a complementary passer, he is woefully underdeveloped as a jump-shooter (10-of-31 last season, per DraftExpress' Julian Applebome)."

    After two years as a Duck, Bell's career high was just 15 points. (He averaged 10.9 per game last season.) He doesn't create his own shot, he hit just three three-pointers at Oregon and his mid-range game also needs serious polish.

    At 6'8", he's undersized for a traditional center and lacks the skill set of most power forwards. And yet, that leads us to our next point. 


    Why he'll exceed expectations

    He's also now a specialized weapon for the NBA's best team, which could use his defensive versatility and motor.

    Over the course of an 82-game regular season, the Warriors are bound to call on Bell for athleticism and defense that their backup 4s and centers can't offer. Bleacher Report's Grant Hughes detailed why Bell could see minutes right away:

    "With Zaza Pachulia and David West aging and with JaVale McGee limited to short stints because of his defensive weaknesses, Bell should get a real opportunity to prove he's the guy [coach Steve] Kerr has coveted during the regular season. All of the Warriors vets, [Draymond] Green especially, will need extra rest after three straight trips to the Finals, which will only increase Bell's chances."

    Bell will play to his strengths in the same role he excelled in at Oregon, where he made his impact reacting off the ball as a shot-blocker, pick-and-roll defender, offensive rebounder and rim runner. He'll also surprise with vision and touch passes, specifically because of Golden State's contagious ball movement and shooters.

    But where Bell could legitimately challenge his doubters is with unexpected offensive efficiency (albeit not in high volumes) by virtue of playing in a system that values sharing and creating for others. After all, did you think McGee was going to record career highs in multiple per-36 offensive categories last season? Or did you project him to be top five in field-goal percentage within five feet of the rim (min. 3.5 attempts per game)? 

    No, he's not going to be a go-to option. Yet he could become a reliable finisher at the rim in the right situations.

    Bell finished No. 22 on our final big board, but was drafted No. 38 overall. He now has a shot to make over a dozen teams look foolish.


    Stats courtesy of RealGM and Sports-Reference.com.