This may come as a shock, but the NBA is on a different tier (or seven) from college hoops.
Games are longer with less time to make decisions thanks to the shorter shot clock shorter. The court is bigger, giving defenders even more ground to cover. Players are bigger, faster, stronger and (mostly) smarter. There’s a reason why there are typically just a handful of rookies that even look decent.
The 2018-19 class was a bit different.
After one year, one could call it one of the most talented groups ever. Luka Doncic and Trae Young look like centerpieces that can anchor a top-10 offense in their sleep. DeAndre Ayton flew under the radar in Phoenix but put up one of the most efficient rookie seasons in recent memory. Jaren Jackson Jr. may win a few Defensive Player of the Year awards in his future. Marvin Bagley III is a jumpy, quick-twitch athlete already giving fits to opposing bigs.
Those were just the top five picks. Coincidentally, they made up this year’s All-Rookie First Team. Collin Sexton, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Landry Shamet, Kevin Huerter and Mitchell Robinson made up the All-Rookie Second Team. At bare minimum, all five players project as quality starters. SGA could very well become a two-way star.
It’s rare to have more than five good rookies in a single season. Yet, this year’s class’ awarded 10 still feels like some players were snubbed. Just to give you an idea of how talented this group is, here’s what a hypothetical All-Rookie Third Team would look like:
Allonzo Trier, New York Knicks
The Knicks continued their yearly tradition of stinking up the joint. They ranked dead last in offensive rating (104.0) and were a bottom five defense (112.8). It should come as no surprise that the Knicks finished with the worst record in the league (17-65).
Even with those marks, they were an oddly entertaining team to watch. You can attribute a chunk of that to the shot-swatting of Robinson, but Allonzo Trier quickly became a bright spot.
If there’s any player archetype a New Yorker appreciates, it’s the scorer-with-soul. Trier fits the bill, as he’s a bonafide bucket with some nasty to match. He ranked sixth among all rookies in scoring (10.9) despite taking the fewest shots (8.8) and playing the second-fewest minutes (22.3) of anyone in the top ten. Among those players, only Ayton (60.8) and Jackson Jr. (59.1) posted a higher True Shooting percentage than Trier (56.4).
He will have to add more dimensions to his game moving forward, but Trier flashed some basic passing chops in pick-and-roll. More development will make him more of a weapon. At the very least, the Knicks hit on a guy that can be a spark plug for a decade.
Jalen Brunson, Dallas Mavericks
Oh, right, the Mavericks did have another rookie. Understandably lost in LukaMania was Jalen Brunson, the 2018 Associated Press (AP) Player of the Year. It also hurts that the Mavericks typically employ 17 different point guards that also serve as “Hey, he was on NBA Live 2009″ trivia. It was pretty easy to lose Brunson in the mix.
Well, unless he played your team during the second half of the season.
Brunson started 22 of the 24 games he appeared in after the All-Star break. Across those 24 games, he averaged 14.5 points and 4.6 assists with a 51/35/78 shooting split and a True Shooting percentage just under 60 (59.7).
Oddly enough, most of his best games came against playoff teams: 22 & 5 against the Nuggets; 24 & 5 against the Pacers; 34-5-4 against the Spurs, followed by 20-5-4 against the Nuggets again.
Brunson mostly slid because of his age and fine-but-not-great athleticism. It’s what we in the business call “questionable upside.” But as cliche as it is, there’s value in having a guy that just knows how to play. Brunson can be trusted to run the offense without a multitude of bad decisions killing the flow. He’s going to be around for a long time.
Josh Okogie, Minnesota Timberwolves
Defense is technically half of the game, though almost nobody views it through that lens. Scoring appeals to the fan a lot easier than defense does. But for those who do have an affinity for defense, Josh Okogie qualified as one of the most fun players to watch last year.
It’s rare for rookies to even look competent on that end. They’re guarding the world’s best athletes with more ground to cover than ever. They have to make a multitude of split-second decisions while also navigating screens.
Not only did Okogie pass those tests with flying colors, but he was also trusted with a number of big-name assignments throughout the year. The list of players with the discipline and athleticism to do this to James Harden in isolation is pretty darn short:
T'Wolves rookie Josh Okogie absolutely smothered James Harden … 😳 pic.twitter.com/fpsznUPK2v
— NBA on TNT (@NBAonTNT) February 14, 2019
Okogie must show some growth with his jumper to make the leap from role guy to starter. He shot roughly 28 percent from deep and wasn’t much better from the corners (31.5 percent).
Being a smart cutter (which he is) has value, but he’ll need a consistent jumper to be a real threat.
Mikal Bridges, Phoenix Suns
As good as Okogie was on the defensive end, Mikal Bridges was even better.
At 6’7″ with a 7’0″ wingspan, Bridges was able to credibly defend three positions. He led all rookies in steals (1.6) and deflections (2.7), via Second Spectrum tracking data.
The outline of a nice 3-and-D wing with some closeout-attacking chops is there. He does need to become more consistent with his shot mechanics, however.
There were too many instances of closeouts forcing Bridges to alter his shot. While he shot a decent mark from three (33.8 percent), he was slightly worse on corner shots (31.5 percent). Both marks are a little below his actual level of a shooter, and I expect that to improve moving forward as he gets more comfortable with the speed of opposing defenses.
Wendell Carter Jr., Chicago Bulls
Okay, sure, he only appeared in 44 games and new head coach Jim Boylen may or may not have taken away Wendell Carter Jr.’s shooting freedom. But at his best, Carter was a two-way force. He wasn’t just a great interior defender for a rookie, he was one of the league’s best interior defenders.
Via Second Spectrum tracking data, opponents shot six percentage points worse than their average inside of six feet when challenging Carter. That clip was better than elite defenders and names like Anthony Davis (0.1 percentage points), Marc Gasol (-3.2) and Al Horford—who happens to be a popular comp of his.
Carter has nice touch, a budding post game and sees the floor well. The only thing really missing in his game is a consistent jumper. That should come, assuming he’s allowed to stretch himself in that manner.
Had he’d played more, his base numbers (10.3 points, 7.0 rebounds, 1.3 blocks) would’ve at least landed him on the second team.