NBA Rookies Who Won't Live Up to Their Draft Spot
High draft picks enter the NBA with pressure to produce and improve each season. There are always a handful who don't live up to their draft spot, particularly as rookies, whether it's due to a need for major adjustments or poor fits with the team that took them.
Lower the bar for the following five prospects as they make the jump from college to the pros.
None of them landed in suitable settings for immediate development. Or, their team just reached too far up the board, creating unrealistic expectations.
RJ Barrett, New York Knicks
RJ Barrett remains unlikely to meet the standard Luka Doncic set as last year's No. 3 pick.
After generating just 0.829 points per possession out of isolation at Duke (59th percentile),.736 PPP as a pick-and-roll ball-handler (47th percentile) and 1.079 PPP at the rim (43rd percentile), Barrett's weaknesses were exposed during summer league, when he shot 37.3 percent, struggling to create separation for himself as a shot-creator and finisher.
His ball-handling troubles will hold him back from shaking free from defenders. However, the New York Knicks signed Elfrid Payton, Marcus Morris and Julius Randle, so Barrett will wind up spending most of his minutes off the ball. And that's not a strength of his, either, coming off a season having generated .898 PPP out of spot-ups (49th percentile) and 0.689 PPP off screens (22nd percentile).
Barrett, who shot 30.8 percent from three at Duke and 28.6 percent in Las Vegas, seems far from being a consistent shooter.
The Knicks front office didn't help its rookie by signing a handful of veterans to steal minutes, ball-handling touches and shots. He'll have a reduced role, probably on a bad team loaded with either youngsters trying to take a step forward (Kevin Knox, Dennis Smith Jr., Mitchell Robinson, Frank Ntilikina) or veterans on prove-it contracts (Morris, Payton, Bobby Portis, Wayne Ellington, Taj Gibson, Reggie Bullock).
New York isn't an appealing starting spot for any rookie, especially Barrett. He would have benefited from landing on a quality team with a defined role the way former Duke star Jayson Tatum did in Boston.
De'Andre Hunter, Atlanta Hawks
The Atlanta Hawks targeted De'Andre Hunter and traded up to No. 4 overall to secure him. They'll regret not staying put and keeping Nos. 8 and 17.
Hunter may turn into a fine role player, even as a rookie. But he won't finish as a top-five prospect from this class.
His floor—propped up by defensive tools and accurate college shooting—looked more attractive than his ceiling entering the draft. Hunter lacks the athleticism and skill set synonymous with upside. He isn't a blow-by athlete, explosive finisher or advanced shot-creator.
Even his jump shot comes with legitimacy questions. He only made 46 threes through 38 games while averaging 32.5 minutes as a 21-year-old sophomore. He shot just 23-of-62 on pull-up jumpers.
Unlikely to be an impact passer or board man after averaging 2.0 assists and 5.1 rebounds, Hunter will seemingly need to become an elite NBA defender to justify No. 4 overall value. I wouldn't bet on it—or his scoring attack suddenly blowing up.
The New Orleans Pelicans, who turned No. 4 into summer league stars Jaxson Hayes and Nickeil Alexander-Walker, will wind up thanking Atlanta for falling in love with Hunter.
Darius Garland, Cleveland Cavaliers
Taking a point guard top-five means expecting an All-Star or high-quality starter at the position. If the Cleveland Cavaliers projected Darius Garland to max out as a mid-range starter, they'd probably have gone in a different direction.
We're not anticipating Garland will turn into the player Cleveland wants him to become. And Collin Sexton stealing ball-handling touches early won't help.
Though an excellent shooter with a signature pull-up, Garland isn't a high-level playmaker—a potential roadblock to stardom for a lead guard. The small sample size of 15 turnovers to 13 assists at Vanderbilt doesn't point straight to doom, but it also didn't help answer questions from high school and AAU about his decision-making and floor game.
Assuming Garland's identity as a scoring ball-handler doesn't change, he'll need that scoring to carry him the way it has for Damian Lillard and Kemba Walker—All-Star point guards who've never averaged 7.0 assists. We'll bet against Garland being as creative or effective inside the arc.
Cameron Johnson, Phoenix Suns
It wasn't Cameron Johnson's fault the Phoenix Suns reached at No. 11. Though presumably thankful for the paycheck that comes with going in the lottery, he'll have a difficult time making Phoenix look smart.
Targeting shooting after finishing last in the NBA in three-point percentage, the Suns passed on 19-year-old Tyler Herro and 20-year-old Nickeil Alexander-Walker for Johnson, who's 23 with an injury history, limited athleticism and no creation to his game.
He's already older than Devin Booker and Mikal Bridges and the same age as Kelly Oubre Jr.
Mostly a catch-and-shoot player, Johnson only shot 14-of-38 on pull-ups as a senior. He didn't even evolve into an elite three-point shooter until his senior year, having finished under 38.0 percent in two of his previous three seasons.
Barely a threat to put the ball on the floor—an odd weakness for a 2-guard or small forward—Johnson converted just two field goals driving to the basket off ball screens, four off spot-ups and five out of isolation all season.
Johnson can be lethal when set, but without a pull-up game, one-on-one skills, playmaking ability or defensive upside, he's too one-dimensional for a rookie on a bad team.
Chuma Okeke, Orlando Magic
Team fit can play a critical role in a prospect's early development. And Chuma Okeke's situation with the Orlando Magic is far from ideal for an injured rookie forward.
Already expected to miss most of the season (if not all) after tearing an ACL last March, the No. 16 pick will begin his career with a team committed to Aaron Gordon, Jonathan Isaac, Nikola Vucevic and Al-Farouq Aminu.
Unless Orlando makes a major trade, it's difficult to picture how and when Okeke fits in. Combine the limited opportunities with the fact he'll need to rebuild strength, confidence and skills, and we could be looking at a more prolonged timetable.
It will look worse on Orlando if, while Okeke sits and slowly comes along, Nickeil Alexander-Walker (the pick right after at No. 17) turns into a stud guard for the New Orleans Pelicans. Because as it stands, the playoff-hungry Magic are still depending on D.J. Augustin with Markelle Fultz's return and impact unknown.
Even though Okeke was dubbed best player available by Orlando, the roster's makeup will make it tough for the injured forward to max out his potential. To live up to his draft spot, Okeke may wind up needing a change of scenery, although the Magic knew what they were getting when they selected him and probably plan to stay patient throughout his rookie contract.
Stats courtesy of Synergy Sports.