Around The League: Rookie Update

Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Which rookies are playing well? How much does it matter?

While it's still early, the 2013 draft class looks even weaker than advertised.

Two of this year's top prospects, Nerlens Noel and C.J. McCollum, have yet to play and three more, Otto Porter Jr, Alex Len, and Anthony Bennett, have battled injuries, so it's possible, even likely, that this draft is remembered more fondly in future years. It is also true that the transition from college to the NBA is difficult and thirty odd games are not enough to judge how a player will perform over the rest of his career.

With that being said, it is interesting to note how many of the rookies that are contributing this year are those who were deemed "projects" before the draft. Steven Adams was a freshman who averaged 7 & 6 for a team that was blown out in the first round of the NCAA tournament. As a rookie, he is already excelling in rotation minutes as a rebounder and defender on the best team in the Western Conference.

Giannis Antetokounmpo was considered years away from NBA production, making the jump from the second league in Greece to the highest level of competition in the world, where even his most ardent fans expected that he would spend the season warming the bench and providing League Pass curiosity at the end of uncompetitive Bucks games. Less than halfway into his first NBA season, he has already started 7 games for the (admittedly injury ravaged) Bucks, shooting 54% from two and showing glimpses of terrifying defensive potential.

Trey Burke and Michael Carter-Williams have both been valuable, but neither has been very efficient. MCW has stuffed the stat sheet more than any other rookie, but has struggled with accuracy after a strong start. Burke has provided a badly needed offensive threat that has rescued the Utah offense from its historically awful depths, but his miniscule free throw rate is a cause for concern. Victor Oladipo is the other rookie putting up promising counting stats without any efficiency.

I am more sanguine about the long term prospects of Carter-Williams, Oladipo, and Burke than of their arguably more productive counterparts Tim Hardaway Jr, Mason Plumlee, and Matthew Dellavadova, each of whom has posted sparkling efficiencies and low turnover rates without demonstrating much in the way of ancillary skills.

What do these statistics mean? Among players who receive playing time during their first year, talent tends to show itself quickly. To pick a year at random, let's look at the 2002-2003 rookie class.

Not every productive player from that class is on the list. Tayshaun Prince barely played his rookie season, Euros like Luis Scola and Nenad Kristic didn't come over, and eventual productive role players like John Salmons and Matt Barnes did not play much or impress during their rookie seasons. However, the eventual stars of that class, including 19 year old draftees Amar'e and Nene, produced during that first year.

Like the 2013 class, the 2006 draft is often maligned as subpar. What did that class look like its first year?

With a few exceptions, that list is a pretty good summary of its players careers. Neither Aldridge nor Rondo was particularly stellar, but both showed signs of what they would eventually accomplish. The best player from that draft to miss this list was Kyle Lowry, who barely saw the court in Memphis. J.J. Redick received sparse playing time, but provided an accurate foreshadowing of his career in his limited minutes.

What do all of these statistics mean? Are there examples of players who were unimpressive as rookies that went on to have impressive careers? Of course. Most of those players either did not see the court in their rookie year or were inefficient in a large role. The best example is Kevin Durant, who posted a 28% Usage as a nineteen year old rookie. There are also plenty of individual examples of unproductive rookies who became role players later on in their careers. Is it possible that this will happen to the class of 2013 en masse? It's not likely. There will always be exceptions, players whose games stagnate or improve dramatically, but at the risk of seeming obvious, good rookies usually become very good players and bad rookies usually do not become more than mediocre players.

In retrospect, the 2013 draft class is fascinating from a risk/reward standpoint. Lurching into the speculative, it is conceivable that the best four players in the class could be Carter-Williams, Adams, Antetokounmpo, and Noel. All four players were seen as raw, undeveloped athletic freaks in contrast to the more polished offensive skillsets of players like Anthony Bennett, Kelly Olynyk, and Ben McLemore. If nothing else, this season is providing a reminder of the vast discrepancy between the college and pro games and how much length and athleticism translates in comparison to "polished skills" in our league.


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