Best Team-Rookie Pairings from Early NBA Season
A handful of NBA teams and their rookies have come off as puzzle-piece matches early on. And the right fit can make all the difference in a prospect's development and a franchise's roster.
These pairings consist of both rookies and teams who've benefited from finding each other on draft night. Had these prospects ended up somewhere else, it could have been tougher for them to succeed this early, or worse, it could have stunted their long-term development.
The following rookies are either playing to their strengths or adapting quickly to new roles that suit them. And their coaches are seeing immediate results.
Ben Simmons and Philadelphia 76ers
The Philadelphia 76ers had the lowest offensive efficiency in the league last year. They needed someone to take control and provide another source of playmaking and scoring. Averaging 18.1 points and 7.4 assists, Ben Simmons has singlehandedly filled that void during his first NBA season.
For Simmons, Philadelphia has given him an ideal setting—one where he can play exclusively on the ball and make the majority of decisions. He leads the NBA in touches per game. The offense will continue to run through him, even if Markelle Fultz returns to form.
The emergence of Robert Covington could also be tied to Simmons' knack for drawing attention and finding teammates. Covington, who's No. 4 in the league in three-pointers made, shooting 43.3 percent, has seen the frequency of his open shots (four to six feet) outside 10 feet rise to 34.5 percent from 30.8 percent, and his wide open shots (six-plus feet) rise to 22.5 percent from 14.4 percent.
Shooters like Covington and JJ Redick, as well as a dominant presence like Joel Embiid, have only helped ease Simmons' transition and create a more suitable fit.
Jayson Tatum and Boston Celtics
Jayson Tatum's fit in Boston wasn't as clear over the summer, when at one point, the Celtics had Jae Crowder and a healthy Gordon Hayward. But after Boston traded Crowder to Cleveland and Hayward went down, Tatum suddenly had to step in right away, and it's worked out for both the prospect and the team.
The fact that he, Jaylen Brown and Marcus Morris are so versatile and interchangeable—and that head coach Brad Stevens plays positionness ball—has worked in everyone's favor.
Tatum has ultimately accepted his role as the No. 4 option, and he's thrived in it, showing the ability to score without needing the isolation moves that made him look so advanced and appealing before June's draft.
Converting 50.0 percent of his catch-and-shoot chances, 47.8 percent of his threes and 58.7 percent of his shots off zero dribbles, Tatum has adapted quickly to an off-ball role.
He's now in position to play key playoff minutes and games every year for the foreseeable future. And between the reputable coaching staff and supporting talent, Tatum has a similar environment to develop in as Kawhi Leonard had in San Antonio.
Donovan Mitchell and Utah Jazz
Coming out of Louisville, Donovan Mitchell needed a place to play through mistakes as a decision-maker and shooter. The Utah Jazz didn't know it at the time, but they'd soon need to replace Gordon Hayward's scoring punch and add a guard to fill in for Dante Exum, who's out with a shoulder injury.
It's worked out nicely for both the prospect and his team, with Utah adding athleticism and firepower and Mitchell getting early minutes. He's improving fast with a green light from head coach Quin Snyder, having averaged 9.3 points per game in October and 17.6 in November. Over his last six contests, he's 13-of-33 from three.
He's already moved into the starting lineup and even received some time working at the point. If he proves that is a position he can eventually handle, it could boost his value with combo versatility and playmaking.
Had the Denver Nuggets kept their selection and not traded down from No. 13, Mitchell would be competing for time and shots with Jamal Murray, Emmanuel Mudiay, Gary Harris and Will Barton. The Jazz's move up is immediately paying off for the franchise and the rookie, who may already be the team's second-most valuable asset behind Rudy Gobert.
John Collins and Atlanta Hawks
For NBA teams, it's rare that the best player available also fills a major positional need.
Third among rookies in player efficiency rating so far this season (minimum 18 minutes per game), John Collins has at least put himself in the mix for the top prospect picked No. 19 on down. And with an underwhelming Atlanta Hawks frontcourt that includes Luke Babbitt, Ersan Ilyasova, Dewayne Dedmon and Mike Muscala, Collins has had a clear path to the floor and starting lineup.
Tied for No. 13 in the NBA in pick-and-roll possessions per game, he's getting the chance to play through mistakes and receive valuable early reps.
Despite lacking both shot-creating skills and high-level talent around him, Collins still leads all qualified rookies in field-goal percentage (58.1). The game will only become easier for him once the Hawks improve their roster and Collins sharpens his offense and defensive IQ. That's something he'll have a good opportunity to do with plenty of available playing time.
OG Anunoby and Toronto Raptors
Having entered the draft after injuring his knee and averaging 6.8 points through 50 career games at Indiana, OG Anunoby didn't give teams a clear picture of what they were scouting. It's a good thing the Toronto Raptors rolled the dice, because they're already seeing returns on their gamble and Anunoby looks to have a strong situation suited for his development.
He's capitalizing as a spot-up shooter, making 44.0 percent of his catch-and-shoot attempts and 39.6 percent of his threes. Inside the arc, he's converting 63.4 percent of his shots, averaging 1.80 points per play on cuts and 1.37 points per play in transition.
His 1.69 real plus-minus ranks No. 2 on the team behind Lowry, No. 2 among rookies behind Ben Simmons and top 50 in the league.
Anunoby has already earned seven starts at forward and could wind up winning the job permanently sooner than anyone anticipated. The Raptors ultimately value his role-player and defensive potential.
Kyle Kuzma and Los Angeles Lakers
Kyle Kuzma would have been a steal regardless of who took him at No. 27. But his early success can also be tied to his fit in Los Angeles.
After establishing an immediate rapport with Lonzo Ball during summer league, Kuzma earned the chance to play right away for the Lakers. And he's capitalized by being the only NBA rookie to lead his team in scoring.
Kuzma gives the lineup a needed shot-creator who can generate his own offense or make threes (1.7 per game) working off the ball.
Shooting a career-high 54.4 percent from the field, Julius Randle has also benefited by playing off Kuzma's perimeter versatility.
Head coach Luke Walton may sit him for stretches until he starts to show more improvement defensively, but it's clear the Lakers added a second cornerstone and that Kuzma is in a good spot to take off.
Jordan Bell and Golden State Warriors
The Jordan Bell-Golden State Warriors fit looked good from miles away.
Getting traded by the Chicago Bulls for cash considerations could wind up being one of the best things to happen for Bell, who can now play to his strengths while providing defense and energy to a roster that's already loaded with scorers and playmakers.
For now, he's only seeing 9.3 minutes per game, but in that time, he's shooting 72.7 percent from the field, owning a player efficiency rating of 21.80.
In his first career start with Draymond Green and Kevin Durant out, Bell finished with seven points, six rebounds, six blocks, four assists and two steals. A poor ball-handler, shot-creator and shooter, he's succeeding by leaning on his athleticism, motor and passing instincts, which a simplified role allows him to do.
The Bell-Warriors pairing has been a textbook example of how a good fit can help jump-start a prospect's career.