Who Are the NBA Rookies Outperforming Expectations?

Jonathan Wasserman@@NBADraftWassNBA Lead WriterDecember 31, 2018

Who Are the NBA Rookies Outperforming Expectations?

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    Adam Hunger/Associated Press

    A handful of NBA teams have received immediate contributions from their 2018 draft picks.

    The players at the top of the board have performed well and even exceeded the lofty expectations created by their high draft slots. 

    But steals taken outside of the lottery have also emerged as potentially valuable long-term building blocks and rotation players.

    These rookies have caught on quickly and are outperforming the typical players taken in their draft slots during their first NBA seasons.    

Deandre Ayton, Phoenix Suns

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    Only Shaquille O'Neal and Buck Williams were able to average at least 15 points and 10 rebounds and shoot over 55 percent as rookies. DeAndre Ayton is on pace to join them through 37 games. 

    Even as the No. 1 pick, he's scoring with remarkable efficiency while ranking No. 12 in the league in boards (10.9 per game). Ayton has turned up the pressure even more recently, averaging 21.9 points and 14.4 rebounds over the Phoenix Suns' last seven games. 

    His 22.2 player efficiency rating is right on par with Kyrie Irving's (21.4), Karl-Anthony Towns' (22.5), Anthony Davis' (21.7) and Blake Griffin's (21.9) during their first NBA seasons. 

    He's been one of the league's most effective players from the foul line to the basket by finishing efficiently at the rim off dump-downs, lobs or rolls, scoring over the shoulder or knocking down shorter jumpers.

    Eleven NBA players are making at least five field goals per game in the restricted area, and Ayton's 74.6 percent mark ranks second to Giannis Antetokounmpo's (76.5). He is tied for third in points per game from the elbows while shooting 52 percent on post-ups.

    Resisting the urge to launch threes, Ayton has still flashed encouraging shooting potential, mostly in the mid-range, where he's making 1.2 shots per game at a 39.6 percent clip.

    Allowing opponents to shoot 64.8 percent against him, Ayton has had trouble making the right defensive reads and demonstrating proper technique in rim protection. And his energy has wavered. But he is also showing signs of improvement, particularly during the Suns' streak in which they've won five games since December 13.

Luka Doncic, Dallas Mavericks

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    Twelve rookies (since 1946) have averaged at least 15 points, five rebounds and five assists per game. Luka Doncic, whom the Atlanta Hawks traded to the Dallas Mavericks on draft night, is on pace to become No. 13 and has the third-highest true shooting percentage of the group at 56.7, only behind Michael Jordan (59.2) and Magic Johnson (60.2). 

    His reputation has held up. A pro for multiple years overseas before arriving in Dallas, Doncic is notably advanced—fundamentally, mentally and physically. 

    He's already had numerous clutch, fourth-quarter stretches and shots, a habit that's carried straight over from Europe.

    Predraft concerns about his scoring upside and shot-creating suddenly appear to be a result of overthinking. 

    Doncic is tied for No. 30 in the NBA at 19.6 points per game, burning defenses with his crafty footwork, ball-handling and shotmaking skill. He's developed go-to moves to create separation, such as the step-back, but he's also innovative, capable of countering and improvising with non-traditional runners, leaners and post-ups.

    His passing was a strength more expected to translate. Doncic continues to showcase his vision, anticipation and feel, having emerged as an immediate pick-and-roll setup man.

    His dual-threat offense has led to questions about the Mavericks' need for Dennis Smith Jr. and whether they want him hijacking possessions and touches from Doncic.

    Regardless, the Dallas front office looks savvy for its draft-night gamble of trading its 2019 first-round pick (top-five protected) to move up two spots to No. 3. 

Jaren Jackson Jr., Memphis Grizzlies

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    Mary Altaffer/Associated Press

    Long-term potential was Jaren Jackson Jr.'s selling point during the draft after the then-18-year-old shot 0-of-4 in an NCAA tournament loss to No. 11-seeded Syracuse to finish his one college season at Michigan State with averages of 10.9 points and 3.2 fouls in just 21.8 minutes per game. 

    Instead, he's been an immediate impact player at both ends for the Memphis Grizzlies. 

    Already with a 36-point game and a pair of 27-point efforts, Jackson is shooting 57.5 percent inside the arc, including 50.6 percent on post-ups, and a respectable 34.1 percent from three. He's scoring inside and out, flashing his offensive versatility that hinted at exciting upside down the road. But he's executing at an impressive rate right now. 

    Jackson is blocking 1.7 shots per game and allowing opponents to shoot 49.4 percent against him. The Grizzlies are giving up 7.2 fewer points per 100 possessions with him on the floor. 

    Fouling 5.3 times per 36 minutes, he is still trying to understand the NBA's whistle. But overall, Jackson has exceeded expectations after going No. 4 overall.

Josh Okogie, Minnesota Timberwolves

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    The numbers won't show it, but Josh Okogie is making his mark, giving the Minnesota Timberwolves a needed element of energy.

    He isn't out there to score; rather, the No. 20 overall selection has emerged as a spark because of his athleticism, effort and defense in 19.1 minutes per game.

    He applies pressure in different ways, usually by attacking the rim and guarding with intensity around the perimeter. 

    Okogie's hustle play has been a fitting addition in a rotation that goes through Karl-Anthony Towns, Andrew Wiggins and Derrick Rose. His value will continue to rise as his spot-up shooting improves.

Landry Shamet, Philadelphia 76ers

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    The Philadelphia 76ers found value at No. 26 with Landry Shamet, who's given them 20.4 minutes per game and a three-pointer in 31 of his 37 matchups.  

    With a simplified role, Shamet has played to his strengths, focusing on knocking down catch-and-shoot threes and keeping the ball moving. He's 64-of-164 (39 percent) from behind the arc, looking equally comfortable from NBA distance as he was at Wichita State. And he's turned over the ball just 18 times in 37 games.

    He originally seemed to be destined for the G League after the Sixers traded for Zhaire Smith on draft night (and before Markelle Fultz's rookie issues returned). 

    Shamet has ultimately been one of the few non-lottery picks to crack and stick in his rotation. And with Philadelphia aiming to compete for an Eastern Conference championship over the next few years, he's on the verge of becoming a valuable piece, able to contribute reliable shotmaking and decision-making on a rookie contract, even if he never adds anything else.

Rodions Kurucs, Brooklyn Nets

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    The Brooklyn Nets have won nine of their last 12 games, and Rodions Kurucs has played a role, averaging 9.7 points per contest during the streak. 

    His plus 7.1 net rating leads the rotation.

    Any rookie contributions from the No. 40 pick are a bonus, particularly in this situation. The Latvian only played a combined 59.3 minutes last year in the Spanish ACB and Euroleague.

    Light on his feet, Kurucs is making plays off a mix of his 6'9" size, mobility and energy, scoring on drives, cuts and transition chances. His athleticism and motor are powering him to baskets inside 10 feet, where he's shooting 61.5 percent.

    Kurucs' recent shooting has also led to more excitement over his development. The forward has hit a three-pointer in six of his last 10 games.

    He recorded a key block in overtime in a two-point victory against the Charlotte Hornets on Wednesday, showcasing his ability to slide with guards and contest shots. For a rookie who is far from peaking physically, Kurucs has flashed enough lateral foot speed and natural playmaking ability to fuel optimism regarding his defensive outlook.

    Whether the 20-year-old forward hits the rookie wall or not, head coach Kenny Atkinson figures to continue throwing opportunities at Kurucs. He has value tied to his versatility, as well as his development, and is an obvious long-term piece. 

Allonzo Trier, New York Knicks

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    Lynne Sladky/Associated Press

    Undrafted out of the University of Arizona, Allonzo Trier has suddenly become a potential key building block for the New York Knicks.

    They signed him to an NBA deal Dec. 13 at the end of his two-way contract and 45 days of service. 

    Trier's identity hasn't changed since high school. He continues to make his mark strictly by scoring, often off his own shot creativity fueled by his ball-handling skill, footwork and change of speed. 

    He's taking the majority of his field-goal attempts after three to six dribbles, making them at a 48.6 percent clip. It's a tribute to his ability to convert contested pull-ups and step-backs jumpers as well as finishes with a man on his hip.

    Averaging 10.7 points (tied for No. 8 among rookies) in 22.9 minutes per game while shooting 44.5 percent from the field and 37.3 percent from three, Trier has looked convincing early on. The big question concerns the soon-to-be 23-year-old's ceiling and whether New York is looking at a bench spark or starting-caliber player.

    Either way, the Knicks win with Trier, a needed freebie toward their rebuild.

                                       

    Stats courtesy of NBA.com and Basketball-Reference.com.