Grading Top NBA Rookies in Every Key Category

The NBA’s 2019-20 rookie class has no shortage of electrifying skill and intriguing potential. Even with Zion Williamson absent, several rising stars have stepped up to impress.

While marquee names like R.J. Barrett and Ja Morant are shouldering the load for their rebuilding squads, some lesser-known rooks have also shattered expectations this season. For example, breakout performers Eric Paschall (Golden State Warriors) and Tyler Herro (Miami Heat) have already made a slew of teams regret passing on them in the draft.

We went beyond the hype and highlights to grade some of the top rookies in each key category. These marks aren’t 100 percent results-oriented, however. Lots of environmental factors influence their statistics, and we’re giving credit to how the players are developing in these areas.

Ja Morant, Memphis Grizzlies – G

Per-game stats: 28.6 Min, 19.1 Pts, 6.6 Ast, 3.2 Reb, 46.5% FG, 41.2% 3pt

Advanced Metrics: 106.0 O-Rating, 109.1 D-Rating (-3.1 Net Rating), 0.065 WS/48 Min, -0.5 BPM, -5.0 TPA

Shot-creation & Playmaking: A-

Shot-making: B+

Off-ball/Intangibles: B+

Defense: C+

Rebounding: B

While Morant’s NBA strengths and weaknesses have generally been as-advertised, his production has exceeded expectations. The No. 2 pick from Murray State is routinely carving up opponents as both a scorer and playmaker, showcasing a ton of moxie as Memphis’ lead guard en route to 19.1 points and 6.6 assists per game.

It’s difficult for opponents to continually thwart his aggressiveness. Nearly half (47.3 percent) of his field-goal attempts are within three feet of the bucket, and he’s converting 57.8 percent on those close-range forays. Morant not only has great maneuverability off the bounce, but he also displays tremendous physicality and body control when attacking the hoop.

His jump-shot release point is low, just like it was in college. He’s hitting just enough shots to make it work, but it would behoove him to elevate and iron out his delivery in the long run. For now, we’ll give him a solid “B” in the shot-making department.

Defense will be Morant’s toughest long-term task due to his modest size and questionable technique. While he puts up a good fight on the perimeter and contests outside shots adequately, he struggles to check drives and post-ups. Morant’s defensive field-goal percentage is 60.6 within 10 feet of the tin and an abysmal 80.6 percent within six feet. Fortunately, those things can be fixed over time.


Nov 25, 2019; Miami, FL, USA; Miami Heat guard Kendrick Nunn (25) shoots the ball against the Charlotte Hornets during the first half at American Airlines Arena. Mandatory Credit: Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

Per-game stats: 29.4 Min, 16.5 Pts, 3.3 Ast, 2.4 Reb, 47.8% FG, 40.4% 3pt

Advanced Metrics: 105.5 O-Rating, 100.9 D-Rating (+4.6 Net Rating), 0.107 WS/48 Min, -0.7 BPM, -7.36 TPA

Shot-creation & Playmaking: A-

Shot-making: A

Off-ball/Intangibles: B

Defense: C+

Rebounding: C

Miami’s breakout guard proved early and often that he’s more than just a G-League standout. After filling up the hoop for the Santa Cruz Warriors last season, Nunn has splashed and sliced his way to a key NBA role.

Spoelstra uses the 24-year-old neophyte in a variety of ways in the Heat offense. Nunn is a dangerous off-ball weapon coming off pin-downs or curling around high screens, and he’s also a valuable initiator. His smooth lefty playing style is tough to contain on sideline or inside pick-and-rolls because he can venture all the way to the cup or stop and pop. Defenders struggle to contain him because he expertly changes speeds and takes unpredictable angles. Although he’s just 6’2″, Nunn is shooting 70.2 percent within three feet of the rim.

If he continues to mix effective drives with efficient long-range shooting, Nunn will have a long, successful career. He landed in a great spot: Even though Nunn is a one-position defender, Spoelstra is great at maximizing players’ strengths and minimizing their weaknesses on that end.


Nov 19, 2019; Memphis, TN, USA; Golden State Warriors forward Eric Paschall (7) during the game against the Memphis Grizzlies at FedExForum. Mandatory Credit: Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

Per-game stats: 31.4 Min, 17.0 Pts, 1.6 Ast, 5.4 Reb, 50.4% FG, 26.7% 3pt

Advanced Metrics: 106.5 O-Rating, 115.5 D-Rating (-9.0 Net Rating), 0.075 WS/48 Min, -3.2 BPM, -38.22 TPA

Shot-creation & Playmaking: B

Shot-making: A

Off-ball/Intangibles: A

Defense: B-

Rebounding: B

Paschall’s emergence is one of the silver linings in the Dubs’ rash of injuries and seemingly lost season. He’s thrived as one of Golden State’s top bucket-getters and rebounders through the campaign’s first month.

He has terrific court awareness as a cutter and passer, and he has a knack for finishing tough plays. Paschall is fearless on his way to the rim, and he possesses tremendous agility and strength in midair. Wednesday’s 25-point, seven-rebound effort against the Chicago Bulls exemplified his calculated assertiveness:

Most of Paschall’s weaknesses are mendable as well. He’s still adjusting to defending NBA forwards, but we’ve seen enough flashes of sharp defense to know he’ll be solid alongside a more talented rotation.

I believe some of his weak defensive numbers are environment-related. Golden State has been a mess on that end after losing Andre Iguodala and Shaun Livingston, along with Klay Thompson and Draymond Green to injury.

And even though he’s not lighting it up from deep yet (26.7 percent), Paschall’s shooting form is fundamentally sound and he’s hitting more than 80 percent of his free-throws. After all, he shot 35.1 percent from three-range during his last two seasons at Villanova.


Nov 29, 2019; Miami, FL, USA; Miami Heat guard Tyler Herro (14) reacts after making a three pointer during the second half against the Golden State Warriors at American Airlines Arena. Mandatory Credit: Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

Per-game stats: 29.9 Min, 14.8 Pts, 2.3 Ast, 4.2 Reb, 44.4% FG, 37.9% 3pt

Advanced Metrics: 108.1 O-Rating, 103.0 D-Rating (+5.1 Net Rating), -0.078 WS/48 Min, -2.3 BPM, -23.2 TPA

Shot-creation & Playmaking: A-

Shot-making: A-

Off-ball/Intangibles: B+

Defense: C+

Rebounding: B

Herro was not projected by most to land as high as he did on draft night (13th overall). In hindsight, he should have been picked even higher.

Kentucky’s one-and-done sharpshooter quickly established himself as one of the 2019 class’s most dangerous offensive weapons. He’s an important part of Miami’s rotation because he stretches the defense with his shooting and also creates shots off the dribble. Herro has a fairly polished array of step-back and side-step moves to get separation and is shooting 46.3 percent on two-point pull-up jumpers.

Nekias Duncan highlighted some sequences that illustrate how Herro manipulates opponents with his footwork:

Like most rookies, Herro is still learning how to defend. He holds his own when contesting shooters on the perimeter, but he’s failed to stay in front of drives and thwart rim attacks. Herro’s footwork, timing and assertiveness all need improvement, and he’s not explosive enough to compensate for those shortcomings.

RJ Barrett, New york knicks G

Nov 27, 2019; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; New York Knicks forward RJ Barrett (right) drives to the net against Toronto Raptors forward Rondae Hollis-Jefferson (4) during the first half at Scotiabank Arena. Mandatory Credit: John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

Per-game stats: 33.2 Min, 15.2 Pts, 3.6 Ast, 5.6 Reb, 40.4% FG, 33.3% 3pt

Advanced Metrics: 102.1 O-Rating, 110.9 D-Rating (-8.7 Net Rating), -0.020 WS/48 Min, -3.3 BPM, -38.0 TPA

Shot-creation & Playmaking: B

Shot-making: B

Off-ball/Intangibles: B+

Defense: B-

Rebounding: B+

The most heralded 2019 draftee other than Zion Williamson has had an intriguing, yet rocky start for the Knicks. It’s extremely difficult to accurately grade Barrett’s performance because his surrounding personnel is far less than ideal.

When he gets space in the open floor, the “Maple Mamba” looks every bit of a special prospect and future star. His size and athleticism pop on end-to-end plays, and he’s displayed active hands and athleticism on defense. However, there are several areas of his game that must be polished.

Barrett is having a tough time consistently creating his own shot, which isn’t shocking because his ball-handling moves are still a work in progress. He’s also struggling to convert close-range buckets consistently. He doesn’t seem to have a smooth, confident touch on drives in traffic, floaters and short bank shots. He’s shooting just 44 percent within 10 feet of the hoop, which is terrible for a wing his size.

It’s hard to be too critical of Barrett, though. He’s asked to do a lot on a team that’s still scrambling to find its identity. Once he irons out these fundamentals—and the Knicks somehow assemble a reasonable roster—Barrett’s efficiency and overall impact will climb.