One Flaw Every Top NBA Rookie Needs to Fix

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistMay 29, 2018

One Flaw Every Top NBA Rookie Needs to Fix

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    When picking out holes in top NBA rookies' games, it's important to remember that mere survival is a feat in that first year.

    The game is faster, the players larger, stronger and smarter. Schemes shift, vulnerabilities get exploited immediately and heaven help the rookie who has to face a team the second time—when the scouting report is complete, and opponents know exactly how to capitalize on weakness.

    This season, we got spoiled. Several rookies—Ben Simmons, Donovan Mitchell and Jayson Tatum, particularly—showed up and performed like vets. They were exceptional, and even they fought to hide holes in their games. Along with the rest of the members of the 2017-18 All-Rookie teams, those three have a lot to work on this summer.

Ben Simmons, Philadelphia 76ers: Complete, Total, Utter Lack of a Jumper

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    Matt Slocum/Associated Press

    It's not just that Ben Simmons can't shoot; it's that he won't even try.

    For a player who routinely refused to even make eye contact with the rim when left unguarded, Simmons was still remarkably effective. He'll probably win Rookie of the Year handily, right in the midst of the three-point era, without making a three.

    From a defense's perspective, there's nothing better than a player you know won't fire away from the outside, no matter how open he is. It gives the scrambled rotations a chance to reconstitute, and it allows help defenders to cluster around the lane without fear of perimeter reprisal.

    Simmons' conversion rates—31.6 percent from 10-16 feet, 39.3 percent from 16-23 feet and zero percent from deep—don't even matter. It's the lack of attempts that constricts Simmons' massive potential.

    Just 3.9 percent of Simmons' shots came from beyond 16 feet. Those 11 triples he took? Heaves. All of them. Every one motivated by a late shot-clock or end-of-quarter situation. Simmons flat-out refused to take jumpers unless the only alternative was a turnover.

    "There's never been a year where I haven't gotten better at something," Simmons told reporters when asked about improving his shot this summer.

    And the "something" which Simmons must improve has never been more obvious.

Donovan Mitchell, Utah Jazz: Pull-Up Jumper Accuracy

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    Only James Harden, Damian Lillard, Kemba Walker and Chris Paul attempted more than Donovan Mitchell's 304 pull-up triples in 2017-18.

    A ball-handler's willingness to fire on the move contorts defenses, forcing them to switch, stay attached as they scramble over a high screen or crowd the offensive player in an isolation situation. Well, at least that's what happens when defenders are worried about the ball-handler making those pull-up threes.

    Mitchell struggled in that regard, hitting only 29.3 percent of them. Of the 16 players who took at least 200 pull-up threes, Mitchell converted at a higher rate than Russell Westbrook. And that's it.

    Already a dynamic finisher with an explosive first step, Mitchell is a brutally tough cover. But if he could force defenders to honor him as a shooter from beyond the arc when he has a live dribble, forget it. Nobody in the league will be able to stay in front of him.

Jayson Tatum, Boston Celtics: Physical Strength

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    Rookies don't come with more offensive polish than Jayson Tatum, so we can't in good conscience suggest he needs to add anything to his offensive game. Inside and out, Tatum is a fully formed scoring weapon—already adept at getting buckets from all three levels and still only scratching the surface of what he'll be with more reps against NBA competition.

    Added strength will help, too.

    In the Eastern Conference Finals, JR Smith, though not a fearsome defender by reputation, had some success irritating Tatum with extreme physicality off the ball. Smith denied Tatum on the catch, got into his body in one-on-one situations and generally made the rookie feel him.

    Tatum is still skilled and shifty enough to combat physicality like that, but if he adds some muscle to his frame (which'll happen naturally over time), he'll also have the option of fighting back. Already, Tatum has a knack for shoving smaller defenders out of his way on drives with a lowered shoulder. He has the mentality to get physical—now it's a matter of his body catching up.

    This is nitpicky. Tatum is basically a finished product.

    But getting stronger could also help him convert at a higher rate around the rim. He shot 62.9 percent from inside three feet, which was a shade below the league-average figure of 65.8 percent.

Kyle Kuzma, Los Angeles Lakers: Defense

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    Kyle Kuzma is more than just a three-point shooter, though his 36.6 percent conversion rate from deep and the way he burst onto the summer-league scene because of his long-range accuracy make it seem like his success is tied directly to the long ball.

    Great feet, a decent fake-and-go package and developing court sense make Kuzma a much more complete offensive weapon than many might think. He is, unfortunately, only an offensive player at this stage of his career.

    Kuzma's minus-1.57 DRPM ranked 83rd out of the 90 power forwards listed in ESPN's Real Plus-Minus database, and the Lakers' defensive rating was 2.1 points better when he sat.

    Life on D is tough for combo forwards, who have to slide between shot-creating wings and bulkier threats underneath. Beyond that, rookies routinely struggle on defense. Adjusting to the pace, sophistication and physicality of the NBA game is almost cruelly difficult. Kuzma is 6'9" and moves well, so he has the tools to be an average defender.

    He's just nowhere close right now.

Lauri Markkanen, Chicago Bulls: Post Game

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    Floor-stretching shooters in the frontcourt are basically vital to functional NBA offense these days, and Lauri Markkanen used his rookie season to prove he's already one of those.

    He hit 36.2 percent from deep, smack in line with the league's overall average but excellent for a player of his size (7'0") whose volume was so high (5.9 three-point attempts per game). Markkanen also flashed a dangerous off-the-dribble game and defended with more intensity than advertised.

    To fully meet his potential as an offensive force, Markkanen has to get better on the block.

    No, it's not a post-up league anymore. But opponents got away with slotting smaller defenders on Markkanen too often. He averaged .81 points per play on post-ups, which ranked in the league's 36th percentile. That's not enough to dissuade savvy coaches from using quicker wings to hassle Markkanen on the perimeter. Most nights, opponents would view Markkanen posting up as a "win" on defense.

    If he adds a more physical, close-range component to his scoring repertoire, Markkanen gets pretty close to unstoppable. And in fact, he doesn't even have to set up on the block and operate. Big perimeter scorers like Dirk Nowitzki and Kevin Durant do just fine when they isolate at the elbow. Returning next season with some kind of hybrid post-isolation package (anything that punishes shorter defenders, really) would go a long way toward making Markkanen a star.

Lonzo Ball, Los Angeles Lakers: Finishing at the Rim

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    Everybody fixates on Lonzo Ball's busted outside-shooting form, but it was his inability to connect from closer range that really hurt his efficiency as a rookie.

    Ball made just 49.4 percent of his shots inside three feet and 26.9 percent from 3-10 feet. The league average from those distances was 65.8 and 39.4 percent, respectively.

    A lack of top-end athletic burst may always keep Ball from being an elite finisher. He doesn't have the fast-twitch explosion to finish over or dart around most interior defenders. He struggles to create separation off the dribble for the same reason, which compounds his finishing issues. Without a clean runway, he's at an even greater athletic disadvantage.

    Addressing this weakness requires a combination of skill development and physical transformation. Ball is bound to develop better court awareness as he ages, but it'll take work to get stronger and quicker.

    Good news: He's trying.

    "He has been in [the weight room] pretty much every day I have been in here around this time," Kyle Kuzma told reporters of Ball's offseason workout regimen. "You can tell he is taking the weight room a lot more serious, and that is going to help him by allowing him to recover faster and hopefully next year be on the court more because of that weight room."

    Most defenders play Ball to pass. If he becomes even an adequate finisher, opponents will have to treat him more honestly when he attacks the lane. For a guy with his vision, that could open up scoring opportunities all over the floor.

John Collins, Atlanta Hawks: Defensive Awareness

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    After a few months in the holster, John Collins' three-point shot showed up over the final three months of the season. He shot 35.6 percent on threes from January on. The sample was tiny (45 attempts in that span), but the development was encouraging.

    Collins also displayed elite bounce that enabled him to finish above the rim and make an impact on the offensive glass.

    Having now complimented the 6'10" pogo stick twice, we get to the issue at hand: Collins needs to develop his defensive instincts. All of that athleticism isn't much good if Collins can't channel it intelligently.

    Too often, his attempts to swat shots into the 19th row resulted in an opponent getting an easy offensive board and sticking it back in for two. Rotations were often a step slow, and Collins was exceptionally foul-prone early in his rookie season.

    Despite solid individual rebounding numbers (7.3 in 24.1 minutes per game), Collins' presence on the floor damaged Atlanta's team defensive rebounding, per Jeff Siegel of Peachtree Hoops:

    "The Hawks were particularly poor on the defensive glass when he was in the game: they gave up a 28.8 percent offensive rebound rate to their opponents when he was out there and a 34.8 percent rate when he played center. Both of those numbers rank below the 10th percentile among big men this season."

    Some players have more natural timing and feel on D than others, but the good news for Collins is that he can make up a lot of ground by studying film and getting more reps. Based on his motor and coachability as a rookie, there's a good chance Collins eventually becomes an impactful defender.

Denni Smith Jr., Dallas Mavericks: General Efficiency

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    This is the broadest problem area we've listed, but there's no other option for Dennis Smith Jr., who's fresh off one of the single least efficient seasons in NBA history.

    Smith Jr. is only the fourth player to combine a usage percentage north of 28.8 percent with a true shooting mark of 47.3 percent or lower in a season. When you realize the other three are Chris Webber, Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan, that club doesn't sound so bad...until you realize Webber was washed in the age-31 season he made the list, as were Bryant and Jordan, aged 37 and 38, respectively.

    Smith gets a pass as a rookie taking on massive offensive responsibilities. The learning curve is brutal, and the Mavs weren't any good this year. He didn't have enough help.

    But if Dallas expects Smith to be a cornerstone, he can't continue to shoot 31.3 percent from deep, 39.5 percent from the field and 69.4 percent from the foul line. Those shooting splits wouldn't be acceptable for a low-minute, defensive specialist big man. For a lead guard, they're, saw the stat. They're historically bad.

    Improved shot selection will help, as will a better feel for when to draw contact and when to use that nuclear bounce to finish over or around a contest. Smith is a player with no physical limitations. He's a weapons-grade athlete. If he puts the work in, he'll get there.

Bogdan Bogdanovic, Sacramento Kings: Age

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    Sorry, but there's no fixing this one—not unless the Sacramento Kings are quietly nearing a breakthrough in reverse-aging technology. 

    Bogdan Bodganovic looked wildly advanced for a rookie last year. He needed only a split second to zip through the pass-dribble-shoot decision tree that paralyzes so many first-year players, and he often made the right call.

    He'd slip deft bounce passes to roll men, or fake a crosscourt heave to manipulate the defense before delivering the dime he wanted to throw all along. Advanced stuff.

    You'd catch yourself marveling at the polish and heady play (and 39.2 percent stroke from deep), and get lost wondering how good this guy might become once he develops.

    And then you'd realize he was already 25.

    Bogdanovic, who'll turn 26 in August, can still improve, but there's no way to avoid pricing in his age when considering his career trajectory. The level of play he showed as a rookie may essentially be his peak. He's older than Kyrie Irving, Anthony Davis, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Victor Oladipo, Bradley Beal and Otto Porter, just to name a notable half-dozen.

    Bogdanovic is past the age where leaps occur. The best he can hope for is moderate improvement before his physical prime ends. That sounds bleak, but Bogdanovic is a genuinely helpful rotation player right now. That's nothing to scoff at.

Josh Jackson, Phoenix Suns: Shooting Mechanics

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    The losing environment in Phoenix wasn't conducive to development, but Josh Jackson improved anyway.

    The 6'8" wing averaged 11.2 points, 4.1 rebounds and 1.2 assists with a true shooting percentage of 46.8 before the break, and he finished the post-break slate by averaging 18.7 points, 5.9 rebounds and 2.5 assists on a true shooting percentage of 50.1.

    That Jackson also managed to show flashes of on-the-move playmaking and defensive potential speaks to his work ethic and ceiling. Had he mailed it in down the stretch for a tanking Suns team, he would have gotten away with it.

    The key for Jackson going forward is ironing out a jumper that still has too much of a forward push to it. It's like he's firing a head-level chest pass—one that features a release-slowing hitch. The ball starts around his belly button, moves out in front of his body, then comes back in toward his head before he flings it like a catapult from his right side. Jackson doesn't get much lift, and the form doesn't utilize his lower half for power.

    Even in that scorching post-break run, Jackson made only 25 percent of his threes. It'll be impossible for him to convert at a league-average rate from deep (or anywhere, really) if he doesn't tune up the form on that jumper.


    Stats courtesy of Basketball ReferenceCleaning the Glass or unless otherwise specified.

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