RJ Barrett and the NBA Rookies with the Most to Prove This Season
Entering the 2019-20 season, a group of NBA rookies will have added incentive to prove themselves sooner to teams who passed on them, media who questioned their draft spots or fans with lofty expectations.
Some will even endure more extra pressure, like RJ Barrett, who'll want to prove he can become the New York Knicks' next star after they traded Kristaps Porzingis and whiffed on the summer's top-flight free agents.
It's still all about the long term, but getting off to a promising start is especially important for these specific players' images and confidence.
RJ Barrett, New York Knicks
RJ Barrett wouldn't be under as much pressure had he gone to the Memphis Grizzlies at No. 2 or the Atlanta Hawks at No. 4. But he went to the New York Knicks, a spotlight franchise desperate for a star.
And since he just averaged 22.6 points at Duke and is the Knicks' highest draft pick (No. 3) since Patrick Ewing went No. 1 in 1985, expectations are naturally high.
While New York added a handful of veterans this offseason to strengthen the franchise's credibility, the priority list for the front office and fanbase still starts with the first-round pick's development. Right now, hope for the future seems dependent on Barrett.
He may already have to extinguish newly raised skepticism after shooting 37.3 percent from the field and 28.6 percent from three-point range in Las Vegas Summer League. He'll want to diminish concerns about his shooting and ball-handling for shot-creation, which are worrisome potential problems when scoring is expected to drive his NBA value.
The projected No. 1 pick entering the 2018-19 season, Barrett wound up being leapfrogged by Zion Williamson and Ja Morant. He shouldn't be short on motivation entering his rookie year.
Darius Garland, Cleveland Cavaliers
Darius Garland played four full games at Vanderbilt before injuring his knee and becoming the fifth pick, ahead of more proven prospects, in the draft.
Some may question whether the Cleveland Cavaliers wrongly fell for a tiny sample size of production. They passed on Jarrett Culver, who just led Texas Tech to the national title game, and Coby White, another point guard who averaged 16.1 points, 4.1 assists and 2.3 threes through 35 games.
Garland should be eager to prove he was worth the risk. And while his ultimate task will be to show Cleveland he can succeed alongside Collin Sexton, establishing himself as the more valuable asset should also be an unspoken goal.
To hold the most individual value before his second contract, Garland will want to win primary ball-handling duties over Sexton and emerge as the lead guard who makes more decisions. And there is some doubt over whether he can after he totaled more turnovers (15) than assists (13) during his short time at Vanderbilt and averaged 3.9 assists to 2.4 turnovers in the 33 games we found logged between NCAA, AAU, high school All-Star events and Eurocamp.
Scouts are on the fence about whether Garland is a quality starting point guard or an undersized 2 and scoring specialist. He'll make a lot more money by developing into the former.
Cameron Johnson, Phoenix Suns
While Cameron Johnson was presumably excited about being taken in the lottery, he'll now want to prove the Phoenix Suns made the right call.
That's because pre-draft projections had him landing in the 20s or 30s. He was the surprise pick of the first round. Fans will be quick to turn on both Johnson and Phoenix if he struggles as a rookie, particularly since he's already 23 years old. One of the selling points was that he'd be more NBA-ready, so his approval rating could plummet quickly.
Fans may be even quicker to react knowing Phoenix passed on summer league stars/shooters Tyler Herro and Nickeil Alexander-Walker.
With an injury history, below-average positional athleticism and limited creativity to his game, Johnson's shooting will be under extreme pressure, especially since the Suns finished last in three-point percentage a year ago.
Kevin Porter Jr., Cleveland Cavaliers
Viewed as a lottery talent by some, including Bleacher Report, Kevin Porter Jr. fell all the way to No. 30 overall, presumably due to questions about his impact and professionalism.
He only averaged 9.5 points in 21 games, missing one due to a suspension that caught the attention of NBA scouts.
Porter will be looking to prove the concerns over his maturity were overblown, and that USC wasn't the most suitable place for him to showcase himself fully.
While he might have benefited from going to an established playoff team, he could be looking at legitimate minutes in Cleveland this season. Porter should ultimately have more freedom to create and play through mistakes than he did in college, so it should be a good opportunity to give opponents an early taste of what they passed on.
Flashing his advanced one-on-one game and functional athleticism could lead to regretful general managers. But he should also make an effort to prove he can score and pass within an offense working off the ball since there have been questions about how efficiently he can generate offense without needing to catch and hold or over-dribble before getting into a low-percentage pull-up or step-back.
Michael Porter Jr., Denver Nuggets
Since arriving at Missouri in 2017 as a potential No. 1 overall pick, Michael Porter Jr. has played 53 NCAA minutes and none in summer league, the G League or the NBA. He'll join this year's rookie class after missing all of last season with the Denver Nuggets.
His fall to No. 14 overall in 2018 reflected the league's loss of confidence in the 6'10" forward. Injuries to his back, his hip and, most recently, his knee have raised skepticism.
At this point, Porter should just be looking to prove his body can hold up. But over time, he'll want to prove he can get back to functioning as the scoring mismatch he was in high school.
While coaches and fans will be anxious to see how his jump shot looks, Porter should be more focused on regaining his ability to turn the corner, explode above the basket and take contact.
Cam Reddish, Atlanta Hawks
Cam Reddish's value has declined since he started last season viewed as a potential top-three pick. However, the Atlanta Hawks still gave him a semi-pass by taking him at No. 10.
He'll be out to prove that last season was a fluke and that Atlanta wisely bought low and caught a break.
With inconsistent execution and decision-making, Reddish shot a scary 35.6 percent from the field at Duke last year, totaling 96 turnovers to 70 assists.
The numbers and eye test suggest he struggles badly when under pressure, both as a shooter and finisher. He shot 20-of-97 on contested catch-and-shoot jumpers (20.6 percent) and 47.3 percent at the rim (29th percentile). He added the most value as a three-point threat (2.5 per game), but he only connected at a 33.3 percent clip.
Reddish didn't enjoy great spacing on a Duke team that shot 29.6 percent from three. However, with Trae Young and Kevin Huerter entering Year 2, Allen Crabbe and De'Andre Hunter (43.8 three-point percentage at Virginia) joining the rotation and John Collins' outside touch improving (34.8 three-point percentage, 55 threes), the poor-spacing excuse will be tougher to justify in Atlanta.
Stats courtesy of Synergy Sports.