1 Flaw Every Top 2018 NBA Rookie Needs to Address This Offseason

Andy Bailey@@AndrewDBaileyFeatured ColumnistJune 15, 2019

1 Flaw Every Top 2018 NBA Rookie Needs to Address This Offseason

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    For the second season in a row, the NBA boasted a deep rookie class with talent at every position.

    The 2018-19 crop of rookies featured 15 who played at least 1,000 minutes and had an above-replacement player box plus-minus. There were 17 such first-year players in 2017-18. The average for the five seasons prior to that was 9.8.

    The league is experiencing a recent influx in talent that it hasn't had in a while.

    However, talent and production don't always go hand in hand. Even though Luka Doncic, Trae Young and plenty of others in this group put together great rookie campaigns, they all have flaws they can address.

    The 10 rookies we'll focus on here are those who made this year's All-Rookie teams. But before we dive in, let's look at some honorable mentions.

Honorable Mentions

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    Mikal Bridges: Three-Point Shooting

    Mikal Bridges had a good argument to make an All-Rookie team. He was fifth among the class in box plus-minus.

    If he wants to prove the voters wrong, he'll probably need to pour in threes at a higher rate. His profile suggests he can be a three-and-D specialist, but shooting 33.5 percent from deep isn't going to cut it.


    Miles Bridges: Playmaking

    Miles Bridges had NBA-ready athleticism before he entered the league, and he had a chance to show it off with some highlight-reel dunks as a rookie. But he'll need to improve his on-ball skills a bit to take full advantage of his physical gifts.

    Among Charlotte Hornets players with at least 500 minutes, Bridges was ninth in drives per 36 minutes and 11th in assist percentage out of drives. As the game grows increasingly positionless, Bridges will need to leverage his athleticism into open shots for his teammates.


    Wendell Carter Jr.: Shooting

    Wendell Carter Jr. has a chance to be a Swiss army knife for the Chicago Bulls. Among rookies across NBA history who played at least 1,000 minutes, Sam Bowie and Tim Duncan are the only two who matched or exceeded Carter's rebounding percentage, assist percentage and block percentage. Carter is the youngest of those three by two years.

    To fully unlock his versatility, he'll have to be more efficient as a scorer. On the season, he shot only 6-of-32 from three (18.8 percent) and 72-of-207 (34.8 percent) on all shots from outside of three feet.


    Mohamed Bamba: Defense

    Shot blocking was one of Mohamed Bamba's most exciting traits heading into last year's draft. And his 7.0 block percentage as a rookie lived up to that hype.

    However, the Orlando Magic surrendered 4.0 more points per 100 possessions when Bamba was on the floor, which put his defensive rating swing in the 14th percentile, per Cleaning the Glass.

    Teammates can have a lot to do with that, but as a potential defensive-system anchor, Bamba has to be able to clean up others' mistakes on the perimeter.


    Kevin Knox: Everything

    Kevin Knox played 2,158 minutes this season. Among the 197 rookies in the three-point era who logged at least as many minutes, Knox' box plus-minus ranks last.

    The New York Knicks' net rating (net points per 100 possessions) was 11.3 points worse when Knox was on the floor.

    In other words, the No. 9 pick had a rough rookie season.

    He did show some flashes, though. A 34.3 percent clip from downtown is encouraging for a 6'9" player, but he has to cut out or improve in the mid-range (he was last in mid-range shooting percentage this season), pass more, turn it over less and defend anything.

Kevin Huerter: In-Between Game

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    Aaron Gash/Associated Press

    In today's analytically driven NBA, teams have rightfully marginalized the mid-range jumper. But as defenses catch up to the revolution and start taking away the three, players who can score at all three levels will be fine.

    Kevin Huerter has the potential to be a great shooter. Over half of his shot attempts this season came from downtown, and he hit 38.5 percent of those. But on twos from beyond 10 feet, he was only 30-of-84 (35.7 percent).

    In future seasons, he'll need to develop the ability to still score whenever he's chased off the line.

    In 2018-19, only eight players put up at least 200 twos from beyond 10 feet and shot 40-plus percent from both that range and downtown: Rudy Gay, Kyrie Irving, Darren Collison, Bryn Forbes, Klay Thompson, Stephen Curry, Buddy Hield and Otto Porter Jr.

    Huerter has the ability to be that kind of shooter. And if he becomes that while flanking Trae Young/John Collins pick-and-rolls, the Atlanta Hawks will be tough to defend for years to come.

Mitchell Robinson: Foul Trouble

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    Frank Franklin II/Associated Press

    There have been only six seasons in NBA history in which a player qualified for the minutes leaderboard and put up a double-digit block percentage. Five of them belong to Manute Bol, most recently in 1990.

    The sixth came courtesy of Mitchell Robinson in 2018-19.

    Robinson's historic prowess as a shot blocker undoubtedly contributed to his 5.7 box plus-minus, the fifth-best mark ever posted by a rookie.

    Moving forward, he'll have to work on staying out of foul trouble.

    Richaun Holmes and Nerlens Noel were the only players in the NBA who averaged more fouls per minute this season. To be able to impact the game, he has to stay on the floor.

    "Coach always tells me to be disciplined on the ball, don't go for pump fakes," Robinson said early in the season, per Marc Berman of the New York Post. "I took that to my head and just went for it. I got Coach on me about that. When they jump and leave their feet, you leave yours, too. It helped me out a lot."

    Things are already trending in the right direction. Before the All-Star break, Robinson averaged 6.0 fouls per 36 minutes. After the break, he was down to 5.4.

Landry Shamet: Playmaking

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    Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

    Part of what made Landry Shamet effective as a rookie was that he stuck to his strengths.

    More than 70 percent of Shamet's shot attempts this season came from beyond the three-point line, and he hit 42.2 percent of those looks. Smart shot selection helped him lead all rookies with at least 100 three-point attempts in true shooting percentage.

    This summer, he should look to expand his game beyond being a catch-and-shoot threat.

    Shamet shouldn't stray too far from what already makes him solid, but adding more diversity wouldn't hurt.

    This season, 88.3 percent of the shots Shamet made were assisted. That was the sixth-highest mark among the 157 players who took at least as many shots.

    Having the ability to create his own shot from time to time would make Shamet even more dangerous. It would open things up for his teammates as well.

Collin Sexton: Playmaking for Others

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    David Dermer/Associated Press

    Collin Sexton did not have much of an issue creating his own shot as a rookie. Only 39.1 percent of his makes were assisted.

    But as a point guard, Sexton needed to use more of that playmaking and creation for his teammates.

    He was 19th in the NBA in total drives. But among the 74 players with at least 500 drives this season, Sexton was 61st in assist percentage out of such plays. His 3.0 assists per game often made it feel like he was more of a wing than a point guard.

    "As far as his role on this team, he's the general," then-Cleveland Cavaliers head coach Larry Drew told Bleacher Report's Greg Swartz in mid-December. "He makes us go."

    Unfortunately, they didn't go far. When Sexton was on the floor this season, Cleveland scored 2.2 fewer points per 100 possessions, putting his offensive rating swing in the 36th percentile, per Cleaning the Glass.

    Ideally, playing your floor general would lead to more scoring. As Sexton learns how and when to set teammates up out of his drives to the rim, better offense will follow.

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander: Shot Selection

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    Kelvin Kuo/Associated Press

    After endorsing mid-range shooting for both Kevin Huerter and Landry Shamet, let's go the other way with Shai Gilgeous-Alexander.

    The Los Angeles Clippers rookie shot a respectable 36.7 percent from deep this season. He just didn't shoot enough from out there.

    Eight rookies attempted at least 50 threes and hit a league-average percentage on them in 2018-19. Gilgeous-Alexander was comfortably last among that group in three-point attempt rate (percentage of total shot attempts from deep).

    You can't fault Gilgeous-Alexander for attacking from the mid-range. He's shown decent chops in there, making 42.2 percent of his 237 two-point attempts from beyond 10 feet.

    However, he can't be afraid to let it fly from deep. The more he does, the more defenders will have to play up on him outside the three-point line. If they're overly aggressive, it'll be easier for Gilgeous-Alexander to make a decisive move to set up a closer shot.

Marvin Bagley III: Shooting

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    Rich Pedroncelli/Associated Press

    Even as he struggled to find a consistent role for the Sacramento Kings, Marvin Bagley III had little trouble putting up raw numbers when he was on the floor.

    He averaged 20.6 points, 10.5 rebounds and 1.3 blocks per 75 possessions. Among rookies who logged at least as many minutes, Elton Brand, Tim Duncan, Alonzo Mourning, Shaquille O'Neal, David Robinson, Arvydas Sabonis, Ralph Sampson and Karl-Anthony Towns were the only ones who matched all three numbers.

    However, Sacramento's net rating was 5.4 points worse with Bagley on the floor, per Cleaning the Glass.

    The defense struggled more than the offense with Bagley out there, but he can fix some of his issues on that end with good old-fashioned effort.

    This offseason, he should be focused on honing his shooting. In fact, he started doing so during the season.

    "We're just trying to help him a little bit, get his confidence up," Sacramento Kings teammate Buddy Hield said of working with Bagley on his shot, per NBC Sports Bay Area's James Ham. "That's the thing about being teammate, me and Bogi [Bogdanovic], I think it's good for him to shoot with two good shooters."

    Bagley shot 31.3 percent from deep as a rookie. If he can get that up to around or above the league-average 35.5 percent, his already intriguing face-up game could become nightmarish for opposing defenses.

Jaren Jackson Jr.: Rebounding

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    Brandon Dill/Associated Press

    Jaren Jackson Jr. offers an intriguing mix of size, perimeter skill and defensive versatility. He's understandably drawn comparisons to Kevin Garnett.

    Where the comparison falls short, at least for now, is on the boards.

    In the three-point era, there have been 135 individual seasons in which 6'11"-plus rookies have logged at least 1,000 minutes. Jackson's 10.1 rebounding percentage ranks 130th in that group.

    A defensive possession doesn't end until someone grabs a defensive rebound. Jackson won't be a complete player on that end till he figures out how to collect more of those.

    He certainly has time. Garnett was also 19 as a rookie, and his rebounding percentage is 96th on that list. By the time he hit his peak, Garnett led the league in rebounds per game for four straight seasons.

Deandre Ayton: Shooting Range

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    Ralph Freso/Associated Press

    Most of the criticism leveled at Deandre Ayton over his freshman campaigns at Arizona and with the Phoenix Suns revolved around his defense.

    As an NBA rookie, he may have been prone to the occasional lapse off the ball or blow-by on the perimeter, but he had a positive impact on that end of the floor.

    Phoenix allowed 2.2 fewer points per 100 possessions (71st percentile) when Ayton was on the floor, per Cleaning the Glass. That was in large part because his opponents' offensive rebounding percentage dropped 4.2 points (96th percentile).

    Cleaning up the boards is a part of defense, and Ayton is already impressive there. He also averaged over a block and a steal per 75 possessions.

    This isn't to say Ayton can't get better on that end. But for purposes of this discussion, let's talk about his shooting range.

    Ayton was wise to concentrate much of his offense around the basket. Nearly 50 percent of his shots came within three feet of the hoop. The average distance on all of his attempts was 6.7 feet.

    Ayton's shooting stroke should one day enable him to start launching threes. It doesn't have to be a steady part of his offensive diet, but forcing centers to defend the three-point line is crucial for offenses these days.

Trae Young: Defense

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    John Amis/Associated Press

    While acknowledging the limitations of catch-all defensive metrics—it's hard for any system or formula to measure what makes a player effective on that end—Trae Young was 514th among the 514 players listed for ESPN's defensive real plus-minus.

    He looks like a potential juggernaut on offense, but until his contributions on that end can outweigh his limitations on the other, he'll be a minus overall. That's how both box plus-minus and real plus-minus characterized his rookie campaign.

    Young doesn't have to be a lockdown stopper on the perimeter. Again, his value will always be mostly tied to his offense. But the Atlanta Hawks won't be contenders unless Young can be close to neutral as a defender.

    Stephen Curry is a good model to follow here. He's bigger than Young, but not by much. And his moderate success on defense has far more to do with awareness than athleticism.

    With experience, Young should also start to recognize where and when to be in certain spots. If he can anticipate certain actions, he won't have to be the superior athlete to at least slow them down.

Luka Doncic: Free-Throw Shooting

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    At just 19 years old, Luka Doncic had a historic NBA debut.

    The only rookie who matched or exceed Doncic's totals for points (1,526), rebounds (563) and assists (429) was Oscar Robertson in 1961. Robertson was 22 years old and played 714 more minutes.

    Doncic has a chance to be a truly special point forward. But like everyone else here, he has flaws.

    One that can be easily identified and addressed is free-throw shooting.

    He's already ahead of the curve at getting to the line. Among the 178 players who took at least 500 field-goal attempts this season, Doncic was 18th in free-throw attempt rate (free-throw attempts divided by field-goal attempts).

    However, his 71.3 free-throw percentage was 5.3 percentage points below average.

    If Doncic had been even average from the line, his true shooting percentage would have gone from 54.5 to 55.5. If he were five percentage points above average from the line, his true shooting percentage would have been 56.3. Eighty-one percent from the line doesn't feel like too much to ask of this wunderkind.

    These improvements may not sound like much, but over the course of an entire season, they can be. Doncic hitting enough free throws to get to 81 percent this season would've bumped the Mavericks' season-long point differential from 20th to 18th.

    As Dallas gets better and starts competing for a spot in the postseason, every point will matter.


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