What to Make of Best and Worst NBA Rookie Preseasons

Jonathan Wasserman@@NBADraftWassNBA Lead WriterOctober 15, 2018

What to Make of Best and Worst NBA Rookie Preseasons

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    Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press

    There are takeaways from the best and worst NBA rookie performances of the 2018-19 preseason. 

    The challenge is determining what's legitimate or fluky, given the small sample size of games and deeper rotations. 

    We highlighted the strongest and most surprising performances, as well as the most disappointing, and pinpointed what each should mean moving forward.

Deandre Ayton, Phoenix Suns C

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    Ben Margot/Associated Press

    Stats through five preseason games: 18.2 PPG, 9.8 RPG, 2.0 BPG, 61.4 percent FG, 77.8 percent FT

    Initial reaction: It's legitimate

    Deandre Ayton leads all rookies in scoring and rebounds with No. 1 overall-caliber numbers. And none of it seems fluky. 

    He'll continue to earn himself easy baskets with his combination of strength and length but also with his ability to quickly slip/roll toward the rim off screens. His offensive efficiency and rebounding numbers appear to be legitimate and likely to hold for years to come. 

    The question is whether his accuracy has been for real after he shot 37.5 percent on jumpers at Arizona, per Synergy Sports. Ayton emerges as a 20 point-per-game weapon if he becomes reliable in that 15-20 foot range, given how tough it is to contest his high release.

    So far this preseason, he's drilling his attempts from the elbows and short corners, looking fluid, confident and unguardable when rising to fire. He might go through some rookie cold streaks, but his shot-making thus far has been convincing. 

    It's too early to tell how effective he'll be defensively, but so far, there hasn't been any need to sound the alarms. The 7'1", 250-pound center already appears to be disruptive inside in rim protection without the experience to build awareness. 

    Overall, the top pick looks as advertised, particularly offensively, and the Phoenix Suns should feel good about their chances of having the NBA's next All-Star center. 

Luka Doncic, Dallas Mavericks G/F

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    Zhong Zhi/Getty Images

    Stats through four preseason games: 15.0 PPG, 5.0 RPG, 3.5 APG, 47.5 percent FG, 43.5 percent 3PT

    Initial reaction: It's legitimate

    Luka Doncic's preseason start should be what the Dallas Mavericks were hoping for, particularly since they gave up a future unprotected first-rounder to get him on draft night.

    After Doncic won MVP (at 19 years old) of Euroleague, widely recognized as the world's second-toughest competition, there was only one remaining question that could cause anyone to hesitate on his potential: Would limited explosion and speed hold him back against NBA players?

    They didn't against the Philadelphia 76ers last week, when he finished with 15 points, five assists and four rebounds. 

    Doncic has already shown off his unique mix of size (6'7", 218 lbs), skill and cleverness that allows him to get off makable shots without needing flashy athleticism. His handle, shooting, vision and scoring instincts have all looked as effective as they did overseas. 

    This is the player the Mavericks imagined they were getting.  

Kevin Knox, New York Knicks SF/PF

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    Mary Altaffer/Associated Press

    Stats through five preseason games: 8.8 PPG, 6.2 RPG, 32.7 percent FG, 15.8 percent 3PT

    Initial reaction: Calm down, don't panic

    After Kevin Knox shot 35.1 percent in summer league, the preseason inefficiency should have been expected.

    He's also gone from the No. 1 option with a green light in Las Vegas to a supporting role player in games in which New York Knicks head coach David Fizdale is utilizing 15 men. It's tough for Knox to gain rhythm.

    His three-ball isn't falling, and for the first time, he's finding out he can't just easily finish at the rim. 

    Knox is an obvious talent between his 6'9" size and athleticism and his skill set that includes three-level shot-making and face-up dribble moves. He led Kentucky in scoring as a freshman and averaged 21.3 points per game in his first summer league.

    A rough preseason for the 19-year-old rookie shouldn't cause any reason to panic, just like it shouldn't have for Jayson Tatum when he shot 37.1 percent through his first four exhibition games in 2017.

Allonzo Trier, New York Knicks SG

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    Noah K. Murray/Associated Press

    Stats through five preseason games: 14.2 PPG, 2.2 RPG, 1.6 APG, 47.8 percent FG, 30.0 percent 3PT

    Initial reaction: Steal

    The hype machine had been pumping for Knicks draft picks Knox and Mitchell Robinson. Naturally, undrafted rookie Allonzo Trier has outplayed both.

    He's actually outscored most of 2018's first-rounders. 

    It appears that the predraft questions and concerns on Trier were overblown. He was misevaluated after averaging 18.1 points per game on 62.0 percent shooting inside the arc, 38.0 percent from three and 86.5 percent at the line as a junior at Arizona.

    There isn't any one reason why teams passed on him 60 times—it could have been the two failed drug tests for performance-enhancing substances or a style of play that wasn't easy to picture working in a supporting role.

    It now seems obvious that Trier's ability to create his own shot and earn a bucket can carry over to the pro level. With enough size and athleticism, the 6'5" guard is shaking defenders, tough at the rim and able to knock down contested off-balance jumpers. He's confident and skilled.

    Even if he peaks as a second-unit scoring specialist, the Knicks get a steal. And early signs point toward New York having added a third rookie to its core. 

Trae Young, Atlanta Hawks PG

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    Danny Karnik/Associated Press

    Stats through five preseason games: 15.0 PPG, 5.4 APG, 39.4 percent FG, 37.0 percent 3PT

    Initial response: This is Trae Young

    Young's preseason performance should paint an accurate picture of who he'll be. 

    There will be games in which he'll struggle to stay efficient as both a scorer and playmaker. And there will be others when his confidence is pumping, his three-ball is working and takeover mode is activated.

    He'll have 5-of-16 shooting performances, as we saw against the New Orleans Pelicans, and three-turnover, two-assists contests like the one against the Oklahoma City Thunder. But the 22-point, seven-assist line with the game-winner against the San Antonio Spurs won't be his last either.

    Young's style of play will lead to both off nights and games in which he catches fire and carries the Atlanta Hawks. 

    At this stage, the positives outweigh the negatives. It's just encouraging to see that his shot-making and passing are working against NBA defenses in spite of his physical and athletic limitations. 

    Either way, Young doesn't appear to have changed his approach. Trae will be Trae, meaning fans should expect wild shot selection and reckless decision-making to go his exciting brand of fearless, potent offense.

Jaren Jackson Jr., Memphis Grizzlies PF/C

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    Rick Bowmer/Associated Press

    Stats through five preseason games: 13.4 PPG, 1.4 APG, 66.7 percent FG, 55.6 percent 3PT

    Initial response: Memphis Grizzlies made the right pick at No. 4

    Jaren Jackson Jr. was expected to require time. He only turned 19 last month and averaged just 10.9 points per game through 764 NCAA minutes.

    He's looked far more prepared, particularly offensively. And after his performance in summer league, this is another reassuring sign that the Grizzlies made the right call at No. 4.

    The three-point shooting continues to be promising, though at this stage, it's pretty clear that Jackson will be a threat there (38-of 96-at Michigan State, 14-of-28 in July, 5-of-9 in the preseason). It's been even more impressive to watch him shake in the post and flip in righty and lefty one-handers with men against his back.

    His game is expanding, which is scary exciting, given his age and his window to keep improving. Next up: The ability to attack, put the ball on the floor and make a move, an element of offense he flashed glimpses of with the Spartans.

    Jackson should eventually become a defensive ace for his rim protection and switching. He'll just need a season to understand the NBA whistle. 

Miles Bridges, Charlotte Hornets SF/PF

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    Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

    Stats through five preseason games: 12.4 PPG, 6.0 RPG, 55.6 percent FG, 47.4 percent 3PT

    Initial reaction: Fits just fine

    Through two years at Michigan State, the concern with Miles Bridges' pro potential revolved around positional uncertainty. Was he big enough to play power forward at 6'7" or skilled enough for a wing? Does it even matter in today's game?

    Bridges' preseason suggests that questions over his fit were the result of overanalyzing. He's making threes, just as he did in college, when he averaged at least two per game each season. And his explosive athleticism and coordination are translating to easy baskets and improvised one-handers off one foot in the lane. 

    He's squashing the tweener concerns with versatility at both ends of the floor. 

    As long as Bridges continues knocking down catch-and-shoot jumpers, he'll justify being taken No. 12 with his three-and-D, even if he never develops his off-the-dribble scoring and creating. 

Mikal Bridges, Phoenix Suns G/F

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    Michael Gonzales/Getty Images

    Stats through two preseason games: 31.1 total minutes, two points

    Initial reaction: Not looking good

    To acquire Mikal Bridges, the Phoenix Suns had to give up the No. 16 pick (turned into 19-year-old Zhaire Smith) and a future unprotected first-rounder. Phoenix invested serious stock into its second selection of the first round, and he looks like he's far from cracking the rotation after a rough start.

    After totaling three two-point field goals and three assists through 100 minutes of summer league, Bridges needed a strong preseason to build some confidence. It didn't happen.

    Bridges shot 0-of-3 during his debut against the Sacramento Kings and then injured his elbow against the NBL's New Zealand Breakers.

    With Devin Booker, Josh Jackson and TJ Warren back in the rotation and the offseason addition of Trevor Ariza, Bridges, who's 22 years old and still limited off the dribble, won't have a clear path to minutes as a rookie. 

    Given his age, his weaknesses and the overcrowding of the wings/forwards—plus the fact he's already starting behind the eightball by missing most of the preseason—he doesn't have the recipe for successful development.

    It's time to panic, at least about the Suns losing in their draft-night trade with the Philadelphia 76ers.

Grayson Allen, Utah Jazz SG

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    Gene Sweeney Jr./Getty Images

    Stats through five preseason games: 12.6 PPG, 51.1 percent FG, 52.0 percent 3PT

    Initial reaction: There is a role for Grayson Allen

    During Allen's up-and-down four-year career at Duke, there were questions about whether an NBA role would exist for him.

    The Utah Jazz will have to create one following summer league and the preseason. Allen has given their second unit a punch of offense by drilling threes off spot-ups and screens and putting pressure on defenses with his change of speed and his burst.

    He'll cool off from outside and experience games in which his shot won't fall. Allen has always been streaky. But when a hot streak comes, he will be worth playing.

    He looks ready to start building his reputation and long-term value as a bench spark. Between backups Dante Exum and Alec Burks, Allen should get his chance at different points throughout 2018-19. Until he's further up to speed on defense, though, he'll likely start outside the rotation.

Harry Giles III, Sacramento Kings PF/C

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    Rocky Widner/Getty Images

    Stats through six preseason games: 13.3 PPG, 5.7 RPG, 43.3 percent FG, 0.83 BPG, 66.7 percent 3PT

    Initial reaction: Harry Giles III has finally arrived

    After two ACL tears, just 300 NCAA minutes and a full NBA season lost, Giles looks ready. It never seemed like a sure thing he'd get here. But he is playing and contributing, flashing glimpses of someone who appears to be set for a bright future.

    He's more decisive with his post game, his shooting and his passing, a result of added confidence from feeling healthy. 

    Looking ahead, staying durable remains his challenge. But the key takeaway from a persuasive preseason is that a healthy Giles is an effective NBA big man, even if his explosion never returns.