5 NBA Rookies on Fire so Far in 2018-19

Jonathan Wasserman@@NBADraftWassNBA Lead WriterDecember 11, 2018

5 NBA Rookies on Fire so Far in 2018-19

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    Rick Scuteri/Associated Press

    The 2018 NBA rookie class is off to a hot start.

    Five players have stood out in different ways. While the height of their ceilings vary, it's taken each of these rookies little time to adjust and emerge as effective starters, particularly on offense. 

    They've distinguished themselves, either by producing with efficiency or impact atypical of a first-year pro.

Luka Doncic, Dallas Mavericks

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    Brandon Dill/Associated Press

    Key stats: 18.2 points, 6.5 rebounds, 4.1 assists, 43.6 percent FG, 38.4 percent 3PT

    The early front-runner for Rookie of the Year, Luka Doncic hasn't wasted any time adjusting to the NBA's speed and athleticism.

    He's already a top-40 scorer in the league, leading the Dallas Mavericks with 18.2 points per game. Meanwhile, the production hasn't been empty, as his team is eighth in the Western Conference standings. 

    Doncic carried Dallas to its 13th win Saturday night, rattling off 11 consecutive fourth-quarter points to fuel a late comeback over the Houston Rockets.

    Coach Rick Carlisle hasn't treated the 6'7", 218-pound teenager like a rookie, putting him in the ninth-most (tied) pick-and-roll situations per game among NBA players. And he's generating 1.0 points per possession with a 60.9 effective field-goal mark.

    Doncic has quickly answered the predraft questions over his potential to create with crafty ball-screen offense, unpredictable change of speed, special handles and a signature step-back move.

    Averaging 4.1 assists and 2.3 threes per game (38.4 percent 3PT), his passing and shooting have also carried over from Europe. 

    Last year's Euroleague MVP has been this season's top NBA rookie through two months. And considering he's experienced this early level of success before turning 20 years old, signs are pointing to a perennial All-Star capable of leading the Mavericks back to relevance. 

Jaren Jackson Jr., Memphis Grizzlies

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    Morry Gash/Associated Press

    Key stats: 13.3 points, 4.6 rebounds, 1.9 blocks, 51.2 percent FG, 33.3 percent 3PT

    After averaging 10.9 points and 3.2 fouls in 21.8 minutes at Michigan State, 18-year-old Jaren Jackson Jr. entered the draft viewed as a project. Roughly two months into his NBA career, he's already an impact player for the Southwest Division-leading Memphis Grizzlies. 

    Playing and producing more than he did in college, Jackson has caught on fast, even though some inconsistency will hurt his Rookie of the Year chances.

    He's shooting 70.2 percent inside five feet, a big improvement from last year, when he converted just 54.2 percent of his attempts around the basket, per Synergy SportsJackson has been an effective back-to-the-basket scorer as well, making 52.7 percent of his post-ups.

    It's still his ability to stretch the floor and protect the rim that drives his value and sets him apart. Jackson figures to eventually join the exclusive club of players (Joel Embiid, Kristaps Porzingis, Serge Ibaka, Raef LaFrentz) to average a three-point make and two blocks per game.

    He's hit 21 three-pointers in 25 contests, a promising start, regardless of his 33.3 percent mark. And defensively, he's top 10 in the league, blocking 1.9 shots per game.

    His defensive real plus-minus (1.68) ranks top 50, per ESPN.com. Despite fouling four times per game, Jackson's playmaking and switchability hint at elite defensive upside. 

    He's been the most effective two-way big from the 2018 class. And chances are, if the Phoenix Suns could redo their selection, they'd give Jackson serious thought at No. 1.

Collin Sexton, Cleveland Cavaliers

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    Tony Dejak/Associated Press

    Key stats: 15.7 points, 2.7 assists, 45.8 percent FG, 43.8 percent 3PT

    From high school and AAU to Alabama, Collin Sexton had earned a reputation for scoring. And it's held up through 26 NBA games.

    He's third among rookies, averaging 15.7 points on 45.8 percent shooting, 43.8 percent from three and 88.6 percent from the free-throw line.

    Sexton torched John Wall and the Washington Wizards on Saturday, finishing with 29 points and six assists. He's caught fire over the last 10 games, averaging 19.7 points on 48.0 percent.

    On the season, he's gone to work with a pull-up jumper that's connecting 3.4 times per game, tied for 12th-most in the league. Only Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson, DeMar DeRozan and Kawhi Leonard are making more shots in the mid-range, where Sexton is shooting 44.3 percent.

    He's been accurate from behind the arc as well, giving the Cavaliers a three-level scorer who can take over for stretches.

    Sexton still requires significant growth as a facilitator, as he's totaled 69 assists to 60 turnovers—numbers that aren't indicative of a starting point guard. But he'll now receive plenty of practice with George Hill being moved to Milwaukee.

    Regardless, Sexton is the hottest rookie in the league, proving himself capable of matching buckets with veteran NBA scoring ball-handlers.

Allonzo Trier, New York Knicks

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    Howard Simmons/Associated Press

    Key stats: 11.3 points, 1.9 assists, 47.0 percent FG, 39.1 percent 3PT

    Coming out of the draft, the excitement in New York focused on Kevin Knox and Mitchell Robinson. And then Allonzo Trier emerged during preseason. He's a now a top-10 rookie scorer with a higher field-goal percentage than Doncic, Trae Young, Sexton and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. 

    Averaging 11.3 points in 23.3 minutes, Trier's one-on-one game and shooting have carried over from Arizona, where he distinguished himself as a natural bucket-getter. 

    Shooting 57.1 percent on two-dribble shots and 52.7 percent on shots after three to six dribbles, he is both an advanced shot-creator and shot-maker, crafty off the dribble and able to separate into balanced pull-ups and step-backs. And though not overly explosive, he's losing defenders off shake-and-bake maneuvers, getting to the basket and demonstrating impressive body control on finishes.

    He's been effective working off the ball as well, knocking down 52.4 percent of his catch-and-shoot chances with a 78.6 effective field-goal percentage. Trier isn't shooting many threes, but he's converted 18 of his first 46 (39.1 percent).

    Turning 23 years old in January, the Knicks' undrafted rookie may not possess the upside that's attached to Knox or Robinson. But Trier has become a key pickup for this rebuilding franchise. And assuming it can strike a deal with him once his two-way contract expires, he should be a valued rotation player in New York for the foreseeable future. 

Deandre Ayton, Phoenix Suns

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    Barry Gossage/Getty Images

    Key stats: 15.8 points, 10.1 rebounds, 2.5 assists, 59.5 percent FG

    It hasn't been a perfect start for Deandre Ayton, but 2018's No. 1 pick is still putting together historic numbers for a rookie. He's on pace to join Shaquille O'Neal and Buck Williams as the only rookies to average at least 15 points and 10 rebounds on 55-plus percent shooting.

    Ayton is playing to his strengths offensively, making 5.0 field goals per game inside five feet, where he's converting at a 72.8 percent clip—a higher mark than those of Joel Embiid and Blake Griffin. The 7'1", 250-pounder is consistently earning himself easy baskets by rolling to the rim, putting back misses and waiting in dunker's position, tapping into his power and length to finish above traffic. 

    He's also shooting 51.3 percent on post-ups, making 1.5 per game, tied for the seventh-most in the league. Ayton demonstrates solid back-the-basket footwork and soft touch on his one-handers in the paint.

    There is no question he'll have to improve defensively and focus on staying engaged from start to finish. His energy has wavered, while concerns over his awareness in rim protection have followed him from college to Phoenix.

    Being the first pick in the draft has ultimately created sky-high expectations, which, along with the success of Doncic and Jackson, also contribute to his off nights and weaknesses being magnified.

    But offensively, Ayton is already an interior force, scoring with unique efficiency during his first NBA season. 


    Stats courtesy of Basketball Reference and NBA.com unless otherwise noted and up to date going into Monday's games.