Predicting Which 2019-20 NBA Rookies Will Have the Best Careers

Preston EllisContributor IJune 1, 2020

Predicting Which 2019-20 NBA Rookies Will Have the Best Careers

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    Gerald Herbert/Associated Press

    Evaluating the trajectory of an NBA career after one season can be an ill-conceived practice. See Chauncey Billups, Kyle Lowry and Khris Middleton. It takes time for athletes to develop physically, hone their jump shot, improve their handle and learn to read and react to opposing half-court offenses.

    Fit can also be a problem, as can the culture or state of affairs surrounding a franchise.

    Still, many times, one NBA season can be all you need to project a career.

    The proverbial crystal ball can stick to the shelf as we break down box scores, dive into analytics and salivate over highlight reels. These tools will help us assess just who will carve out the most successful careers.

Honorable Mention: RJ Barrett

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    Mary Altaffer/Associated Press

    A victim of circumstance, RJ Barrett finds himself as the cornerstone to arguably the most mismanaged franchise of the past half-decade. 

    Though the New York Knicks scored what appears to be a successful hire in Leon Rose, we'll believe they've turned a corner when we see it. They have a history of scoffing at developing young talent such as Barrett in favor of acquiring star power

    Should Barrett rise above the persistent distractions and put together a winner in New York, he could become one of the brightest stars in the NBA. As it stands now, he has quite a bit of growth to realize before that dream can become a reality. Barrett's usage rate (86th percentile) is very high for a volume scorer ranking in the 11th percentile in points per shot attempt and ninth in effective field-goal percentage. 

    That's really bad. Barrett ranks in the 25th percentile or lower at every level on the basketball court, even at the rim. His on/off numbers are chilling too, as the Knicks have been outscored by 6.7 points per 100 possessions with Barrett on the court (18th percentile).

    Look, we know Barrett is a rookie and will improve going forward. We know he can create his shot. If he can improve his touch and establish more consistency, his trajectory may rise above the disappointing rookie season we have thus far seen.

10. Coby White

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    Before the All-Star break, the seventh overall pick struggled in a reserve role with the Chicago Bulls, averaging just 16.5 points on 16.2 shots per 36, firing on only 37 percent of his field goals in 55 games.

    In the 10 games that followed, White's numbers skyrocketed to 26.4 points on 46.8 percent from the field, 40.7 percent from deep and 89.5 percent from the foul line. Drawn out over the course of a season, those numbers would have been good enough to make him an All-Star, just slightly above Devin Booker's 26.1 points in 36.1 minutes.

    Before you expel these numbers as "small-sample size," consider Brandon Ingram's numbers in 2018-19. Prior to the All-Star break, Ingram scored 17 points on a 50.2 effective field-goal percentage. In his final nine games, he scored 25.6 points on 56.1/50.0/78.7.

    Seems similar, no?

    It's difficult to know which player White will resemble more closely going forward, but we know he's a microwave scorer who can create his own shot against any defense. Whether he carves out a career as an All-Star-level starting point guard or a high-volume scoring sixth man, he'll be torching opposing defenses for years to come.

9. PJ Washington

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    It didn't take long for PJ Washington to become a high-end role player. In his debut against Chicago, he scored 27 points by hitting seven of his 11 three-point attempts.

    A player of his size (6'7") and skill set is immeasurably valuable. Washington is a versatile defender with a 7'2.5" wingspan and the lateral foot speed to slide out to the wing on quicker perimeter scorers.

    He's first in his class in rebounding, sixth in scoring, seventh in assists, third in blocks, fourth in steals and seventh in win shares.

    Washington doesn't have to earn an All-Star invitation to crack this class. Being a steady and sizable defender who can create a little, rebound and knock down shots will make him a valuable option.

8. Jaxson Hayes

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    Jaxson Hayes stole the show at Las Vegas Summer League in his first minute with a vicious hammer that shook the Thomas & Mack Center for the second time that weekend.

    Though 2019-20 was initially forecast as a "redshirt" season, according to Executive Vice President of Basketball Operations David Griffin, Hayes was forced into action because of injuries to Zion Williamson and Derrick Favors. With that unexpected playing time, he showed more than enough flashes as a rim-runner, shot-blocker and finisher to justify the eighth overall pick.

    On offense, Hayes has already emerged as one of the most deadly transition and pick-and-roll scorers in the NBA. Hayes, ideally suited for Alvin Gentry's offense, is in the 98.8th percentile in transition scoring (1.6 points per possession) and 94th in points per 100 shot attempts (136.9) while carrying the eighth-fastest pace.

    He finished 12th in frequency as a pick-and-roll man and second in free-throw frequency when pushing that action. And this dude loves to rattle the rim, as Hayes finished in the 98th percentile, with 91 percent of his shots coming at the cup.

    Jaw-dropping athleticism makes this raw prospect one of the highest-upside options in the class. Sure, Hayes has plenty of growth to do both physically and mentally, but early signs are promising.

7. Kendrick Nunn

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    This three-time Rookie of the Month arguably did enough to win Rookie of the Year in two of the past six seasons by contributing 15.6 points, 3.4 assists and 2.7 rebounds in just 29.8 minutes per game.

    The 24-year-old undrafted free agent was available to everyone before the 2019 season after spending 2018-19 with the Golden State Warriors' G League affiliate.

    Despite being undersized (6'2"), the Miami Heat added him to their preseason roster only to see him explode for 40 points in their finale against the Houston Rockets. It wasn't a fluke; Nunn would follow the performance by scoring 112 points in his first five regular-season games, an NBA record for an undrafted rookie.

    No one could have predicted this volume scoring guard would supplant Goran Dragic and Dion Waiters in the starting lineup before the 2019-20 season, but his versatility as a perimeter shot-maker and his ability to attack the basket made it happen.

6. Terence Davis

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    Matt York/Associated Press

    A modest box score will often mask Terence Davis' impact. Expanded to per-36, his 16.4 points, 7.2 rebounds and 3.5 assists on nearly 40 percent shooting from three better exemplify his effect on both ends.

    This prototypical three-and-D prospect with a broad wingspan (6'8") does a little bit of everything. He is top-10 in net rating, top-20 in effective field-goal percentage and true shooting among guards, and fourth in net rating among rookies.

    Like Kendrick Nunn, Davis went undrafted. Only in his case, he did so by choice.

    "Honestly, I just bet on myself," he told CBS Sports.

    Foregoing a selection in the second round only to be turned into a two-way prospect worked out for teammate Fred VanVleet, who earned two years, $18 million soon after. The gamble appears to be paying off for Davis as well.

    Davis will not compile gaudy statistics in the same way that some of his classmates will, but his impact on both ends will ensure a long career. At the very least, he could be a Danny Green, Josh Hart or Caris LeVert.

5. Tyler Herro

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    Despite being just 20, Tyler Herro has already emerged as one of the NBA's most prolific three-point shooters. He is one of only five rookies ever to take five three-pointers per game while sinking over 39 percent of them.

    In addition to his three-point shooting that makes him and Duncan Robinson one of the league's most dangerous deep-shooting tandems, Herro is in the 94.8th percentile in spot-up shooting. His off-ball action makes him the perfect fit next to an on-ball playmaker like Jimmy Butler, and he's a decent rebounder for his position (5.3 per 36).

    Assessing his ceiling as an on-ball creator and perimeter defender remains difficult, but with Bam Adebayo and Butler by his side, those concerns are mitigated. Worst case, he could be Joe Harris or Malik Beasley. Best case, he could become a scoring threat similar to Zach Lavine or Devin Booker.

4. Michael Porter Jr.

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    Before a potentially career-altering back injury forced Michael Porter Jr. from action for nearly two full years, the Denver Nuggets' 14th overall pick in 2018 was among the top-two high school prospects in 2017.

    With length and athleticism to spare, Porter became a matchup nightmare for opponents thanks to his size, on-ball proficiency and underrated shooting touch.

    Porter is in the top 20 in three-point percentage (42.2), first among rookies. In addition to grading in the 93rd percentile among three-point shooters, Porter was unequaled from the corner, shooting an NBA-best 57 percent. His 6'10" size also made him a problem for opponents on the glass, where he is second among rookies who played in more than 20 games (14.3 rebounding percentage).

    Despite playing just 670 minutes (barely 100 more than Zion), Porter is seventh in his class in win shares.

    If he can stay healthy alongside Jamal Murray and Nikola Jokic, he'll do more than carve out the fourth-best career in this class—he'll put the Nuggets into immediate title contention. A healthy Porter should become Harrison Barnes or TJ Warren at worst, and maybe even near Kawhi Leonard at best.

3. Ja Morant

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    The reviews are in, and Ja Morant has already emerged as one of the NBA's most exhilarating watches. A gravity-defying wizard, Morant's otherworldly athleticism allows him to make plays few can. Kevin Love narrowly escaped annihilation in what could have been one of the most devastating dunks in NBA history.

    It isn't merely flare. He's a winner, having led the Grizz to a 12-5 record since Dec. 9 while becoming one of just seven rookies ever to average 17.6 points and 6.9 assists (Magic Johnson, Oscar Robertson, Steve Francis, Allen Iverson, Damon Stoudamire, Trae Young). He leads all rookies in both scoring and assists in 2019-20.

    Morant will be the 2019-20 Rookie of the Year and an All-Star in time, and he's already one of the most explosive playmakers in the NBA. A thin frame may impede his defensive versatility, but if he can develop into a sturdy on-ball defender in the way that Stephen Curry has, he may become a top-five player as he approaches his prime.

2. Brandon Clarke

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    This quick-twitch, rim-rolling big ferociously outplayed his modest draft slot (21st), placing first in both VORP and win shares among rookies.

    One of four finalists for the 2018-19 Naismith Defensive Player of the Year, Brandon Clarke was dubbed a defensive prospect at the NBA level. Instead, he emerged as one of its most explosive and efficient scorers, grading in the 91st percentile in points per shot attempt and 90th in effective field-goal percentage. As the perfect pick-and-roll partner for Ja Morant, Clarke places 12th with a 94.7 percentile grade and is sixth-best in scoring frequency.

    Morant's flare for the highlight and command of the offense will drive the Grizzlies, but Clarke could carve out a more impactful two-way career. His 19.9 points, 9.7 rebounds and 2.4 assists (per 36) already rival Morant's 21.2 points, 8.3 assists and 4.2 rebounds, while Clarke shoots better (62.3/40.4/78.5 vs. 49.1/36.7/77.0). In 230 minutes, the lineup of Clarke, Jaren Jackson Jr. and De'Anthony Melton outscored opponents by 21.1 points per 100 possessions, 10th among qualified groups.

    In a vacuum, it may seem ridiculous to anoint Clarke over the engine that drives the Grizzlies. Morant's star power will always surpass Clarke's thanks to his penchant for highlights and impressive statistics.

    However, we're giving Clarke the slightest nod because when you combine his offensive potential to what he can become on the defensive end, you may get a more impactful two-way player. Rejoice, Grizzlies fans. You win either way.

1. Zion Williamson

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    Injuries are the only thing that can keep this generational prospect from dominating the NBA.

    The numbers reflecting his production are as astonishing as his 6'6", 285-pound frame. As the first rookie since David Robinson (1989-90) to record 23.6 points, 6.8 rebounds and 2.2 assists per game, Zion did so with an efficiency that easily separated him from the other 10 rookies.

    In fact, only eight players have matched his numbers and efficiency (59.9 effective field-goal percentage) all time, each of whom has or will finish as a first-ballot Hall of Famer.

    A minutes restriction stifled his numbers and hid just how historic his production truly was. Stretched out to per-36, Zion's 28.6 points and 8.2 rebounds would make him the NBA's eighth-most prolific and by far its most efficient scorer.

    He showed no fear in the face of the NBA's best and most respected defenders, going right after Rudy Gobert and Anthony Davis. Only the league's first and third-best defenses (MIL, LAL) held him below 50 percent shooting, though he'd still score 49 points in those two contests.

    While it's easy to highlight his volume scoring, his defensive effect could become just as impactful. Zion showed glimpses of being able to defend positions 1-5, stifling Darius Garland's crossover while forcing Davis out of the paint.

    Zion's trajectory puts him in line to finish as a first-ballot Hall of Famer. Let's just pray he can stay healthy.


    Stats via NBA.comBasketball ReferenceCleaning the Glass and ESPN unless otherwise noted.

    Preston Ellis covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @PrestonEllis.