Ja Morant, Tyler Herro and the NBA Rookies You Need to Know Not Named Zion

Zach Buckley@@ZachBuckleyNBANational NBA Featured ColumnistOctober 17, 2019

MEMPHIS, TENNESSEE - OCTOBER 08: Ja Morant #12 of the Memphis Grizzlies dribbles the ball in a preseason game against the New Zealand Breakers at FedExForum on October 08, 2019 in Memphis, Tennessee. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Donald Page/Getty Images)
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The buzz surrounding the 2019-20 NBA rookie class is real, and it's spectacular.

Sure, much of that hype is attached to Zion Williamson, and deservedly so. The 6'6", 285-pounder looks and plays like a real-life Monstar, only one with the charisma of Bugs Bunny. His hops are jaw-dropping, his playmaking is advanced, his versatility is endless, and his dunks are already drool-worthy.

But there's much more to this freshman crop than the new face of the New Orleans Pelicans. From the player picked after Zion to some taken in the second round to yet another selected last year, we're breaking down all the rookies you need to know who aren't the No. 1 pick.


Ja Morant, G, Memphis Grizzlies

Ever heard of a 20-year-old floor general? You have now.

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After dropping 10 dimes per night as a sophomore at Murray State, Ja Morant is giving the Grizzlies 7.7 helpers per game in preseason action. That's the second-most of any player, and he's only logging 20.7 minutes per tilt. (To save you all the math, that's 13.4 assists per 36 minutes.)

"He looks amazing," Grizzlies guard Dillon Brooks told reporters. "He looks like Derrick Rose. Whatever you guys are saying in the media is exactly what he looks like."

In case this memory was buried beneath his avalanche of injuries, Rose was once crowned the Association's youngest-ever MVP.

If it's possible to say this ahead of a player's official NBA debut, Morant looks special. He's a natural distributor with the handles and athleticism to also put up 20-plus points per night. He's a relentless attacker, and Memphis might play all season with the turbo button pressed, or at least whenever he's out there with Jaren Jackson Jr. and fellow freshman-to-know Brandon Clarke.

Beale Street has bounce, and Morant is the heart and center of those springs.


RJ Barrett, G, New York Knicks

He shared a college locker room and the Duke scoring lead with Williamson. He turned 19 in June and in mid-October leads the NBA in preseason minutes per gameby 7.3. He joined a team overloaded with point guards as a non-point guard, and it already sounds like he'll get reps at the position.

Are we sure RJ Barrett isn't the most interesting rookie in this class?

He's not a perfect prospect (is anyone?), as he battled bouts of tunnel vision and an inconsistent outside shot at Duke. But he also averaged 22.6 points, 7.6 rebounds and 4.3 assists as an 18-year-old on a marquee ACC team. For all the focus on his faults, it kinda seems like people gloss over his obvious strengths.

"He doesn't remind me of any rookies," Knicks head coach David Fizdale said, per Marc Berman of the New York Post. "It seems like he's already done this before. I feel he's ahead of the game to most rookies I've coached."

Barrett might pace the 'Bockers in points this season. He could lead the rookie class in floor time. He might come close to New York's high number in assists, and good luck to all opposing defenses if he can harness his outside stroke.


Tyler Herro, G, Miami Heat

Get this man a cape.

Tyler Herro's...well...heroics helped him shine in Sin City, and they're doing the same in South Beach-based exhibitions.

He's played two preseason contests in front of his new home fans. In the first, he had 18 points, three boards and three assists on 7-of-13 shooting (2-of-5 from deep). In the second, he had 14 points in the first five minutes and finished with 23 points, five triples and five rebounds.

You know what those numbers mean for the 19-year-old scoring guard? A bunch of name-based puns, of course, but also "untouchable" status within his new organization.

"They've been firm on him and [Bam] Adebayo being untouchable," one general manager told Heavy.com's Sean Deveney. "... They think they've got the second coming of Klay Thompson offensively."

Holy prodigious praise, Batman! (OK, we're done...for now.)

The offensive qualifer to the Thompson comp is critical since Herro's effectiveness at the less glamorous end could determine his minutes. Then again, Miami had a top-10 defense last season but landed 26th on offense. This team might need a superhero scorer, and the youngster is a natural.


Darius Garland, G, Cleveland Cavaliers

Darius Garland shouldn't look this comfortable.

He played four games (and two minutes of a fifth) of college basketball before suffering a season-ending meniscus tear. His four full-game opponents were Winthrop, Alcorn State, Liberty and a sub-.500 USC squad. He never suited up at summer league. Now, he's been thrown to the wolves against NBA defenses, and he just took a blowtorch to one overseen by Brad Stevens.

Throw as many caveats at Garland as you want. The Celtics sat most of their recognizable names. His other big outing this preseason came against an Argentinian team. He laid a two-point egg against the Detroit Pistons.


The process trumps the results in the preseason. Garland is effortlessly finding his own shots. His step-back jumper looks like it was manufactured in the same lab that built those owned by James Harden, Damian Lillard and Luka Doncic. His shooting range is, as one Cavs official put it, "almost endless," per Cleveland.com's Terry Pluto.

Garland doesn't have much help around him, and he's a funky fit with Collin Sexton. Again, whatever. Cleveland will lose a ton of games this season, but Garland's highlight reel will be among the best this rookie class has to offer.


Michael Porter Jr., F, Denver Nuggets

Remember him?

It feels like forever ago that Michael Porter Jr. was headed to Missouri as a near-lock to go first overall in 2018. In the NBA realm, it was a lifetime ago. Kawhi Leonard hadn't left the San Antonio Spurs (let alone the Toronto Raptors). Paul George had yet to play for the Oklahoma City Thunder. Anthony Davis seemed (mostly) content with DeMarcus Cousins and Rajon Rondo in New Orleans.

The hoops landscape has changed at a rapid rate ever since, while Porter has effectively been stuck in the mud. A back injury held him to 53 minutes over just three games at Missouri, then it wiped out his would-be rookie NBA season. A knee sprain subsequently knocked him out of summer league and further delayed his debut.

But he finally hit the big-league hardwood this preseason, and he's basically been the walking bucket so many had pegged him to be. Through his first three games, he's scored 32 points in 49 minutes. That's 23.4 points (and 9.5 rebounds) per 36 minutes. Oh, and he's shot a ridiculous 62.5 percent from the field.

"People don't really know how good he really is," Nuggets guard Monte Morris said, per Mike Singer of the Denver Post. "This is him with injuries, and he's still phenomenal. I'd hate to have seen him two, three years ago when there wasn't no injuries."

The injury-free Porter is a matchup nightmare as either an oversized wing (6'10", 210 lbs) or a face-up 4. He has the handles to free himself, the size to shoot over anyone and the touch to tickle the twine from all three levels. While Denver might handle him with kid gloves, fans should expect the #LeaguePassAlert to sound whenever his number is called.


The Best of the Rest

Rick Scuteri/Associated Press

This class has so many potential contributors that we couldn't limit ourselves to Zion plus five.

Jarrett Culver has the most preseason points of any Minnesota Timberwolves player not named Karl-Anthony Towns. That feels significant.

De'Andre Hunter and Cam Reddish could have a huge say in whether the Atlanta Hawks are just fun to watch or are legitimate playoff threats. The same goes for Coby White and Daniel Gafford with the Chicago Bulls, and Nickeil Alexander-Walker and Jaxson Hayes for the Pelicans.

Philadelphia 76ers defensive-minded freshman Matisse Thybulle seems destined for the rotation of a title contender. Ditto for Golden State Warriors quick-strike scorer Jordan Poole and possibly Los Angeles Clippers glue-guy-in-training Terance Mann.

Boston Celtics gunner Carsen Edwards is a fireworks show waiting to happen. His 7'6" teammate Tacko Fall and the Denver Nuggets' 7'2" shot-blocking, three-point-shooting center Bol Bol will be fascinating to watch during the big-league portions of their two-way contracts.

We could keep going, but you get the idea.

This rookie class is loaded way beyond its most marketed member.

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