Seven most impressive rookies of the NBA season so far
Markelle Fultz vs. Lonzo Ball was supposed to be the central storyline that dominated this year’s rookie class. Pick No. 1 vs. pick No. 2. Former Pac-12 adversaries who often seemed to have genuine acrimony towards each other. Game-changing talents at the point guard position, each one heading to a major market in the hopes that he would rejuvenate a once great but currently dormant franchise. What wasn’t to like? But then life happened. An ugly shot form or two, a suspect shoulder injury here, a family scandal involving the Chinese government there, and so forth. Now the spotlight has been taken away by a new group of fabulous first-years. And here are the ones who have been the most impressive through this first month of the 2017-18 NBA season.
*Stats courtesy of NBA.com and ESPN*
Dennis Smith Jr, PG, Dallas Mavericks
I pity the fool who tries to stand between a leaping DSJ and the basket. The No. 9 pick’s bounce has been the stuff of cultural folklore dating back to his high school days, and he is already proving his worth in other dimensions of the game as well. Smith’s 15.8 points per game leads all 2017 draftees. He’s also canning 2.4 triples a contest in November and is taking center stage as the primary initiator of the Dallas offense, leading them in both assist average and usage rate. Smith’s first step is TNT, and he seems to improve in the pick-and-roll with each passing day. Indeed, Junior is a glimmering lantern of hope on a 2-13 Mavs team, and don’t worry, he can still do that other thing too.
Donovan Mitchell, PG/SG, Utah Jazz
A largely forgotten commodity at lucky No. 13 in this year’s draft, The Mitchell Report is emerging as a much-needed young savior for a Jazz squad that lost Gordon Hayward to free agency, and then Dante Exum and Rudy Gobert to injury. He’s more a gunner (14.6 shot attempts a game) than a distributor (2.4 assists a contest) and his 38.1 percent shooting leaves much to be desired. But Mitchell has been demonstrating some well-rounded scoring capabilities for a first-year (ranking in the NBA’s 78th percentile on spot-up opportunities and the 72nd percentile in isolation situations) and complements them nicely with a sturdy defensive backbone. Simply put, he checks off a lot of boxes for a ground-and-pound Utah team still trying to find their new identity on offense.
Lauri Markkanen, PF, Chicago Bulls
I suppose 2017 hasn’t been all bad, as it has graced us with the presence of The Finnish Finisher. There’s a strong argument to be made that Markkanen is the rookie who has most exceeded expectations since being drafted. One of the lone consistent producers on a skin-and-bones Bulls team this season, the sharpshooting seven-footer carved out a meaningful role for them from the very first game, and he continues to do cool new stuff with it. Markkanen is sandblasting opponents from the perimeter to the tune of 14.7 points on 2.4 threes per game and has also been a pleasant surprise as a suctioning force on the glass (7.7 rebounds a night, tops on the team). Bobby Portis’ return could steal a bit of his shine, but otherwise, so far, so good for the 20-year-old stud.
Jayson Tatum, SF/PF, Boston Celtics
It should be considered a federal crime for somebody of Tatum’s youth and inexperience to possess such polish and maturity on the court. The teenager leads all rookies with 48.9 percent shooting from distance and is just as good from inside the arc thanks to his quick instincts and his Michael Jackson-like footwork. It was Tatum who picked up much of Gordon Hayward’s playing time and scoring slack, and it’s been Tatum who has provided the Celtics with a crucial pivot to help ignite the flames of their 13-game win streak. Yes, the ex-Duke Blue Devil is drawing praise from up and down the basketball aisle, and, oh yeah, it turns out he’s pretty darn good on the highlight reel as well.
Frank Ntilikina, PG, New York Knicks
My autocorrect may still call him Frank Nickelodeon, but the 19-year-old is the real deal. Whether he’s defending on the ball or off it, Ntilikina is a total boa constrictor on that end of the floor. He’s third in the entire NBA in steals per game, and he’s not afraid to throw his long French limbs at anybody from James Harden to LeBron James. Distributing the basketball (4.3 assists per game and 7.6 of them per 36 minutes) is also an area of particular strength for Ntilikina. And while he has only hit double digits in scoring once this season (shooting [gags] 34.8 percent from the field as a whole), the early returns are still highly encouraging for everybody’s favorite nephew, Frankie Smokes.
Kyle Kuzma, PF, Los Angeles Lakers
*whispers* Big Baller Kuzma is the only Lakers rookie who matters.
A player whom many were anointing the steal of the 2017 draft after he blazed a path of destruction during Summer League and preseason, Kuzma has kept his hype train rolling well into the regular season. With as complete of an offensive toolkit as you will find — dribble drives, mid-post turnarounds, catch-and-shoot threes, hesi pull-up jimbos, you name it — the University of Utah product has arguably been the purple and gold’s best player this year. Kuzma throws up 15 and 7 a night whilst hitting over half of his shots. Those numbers have been steadily increasing since the loss of Larry Nance Jr. to a broken hand. Now Kuzma has a rear-naked chokehold on the Lakers’ starting power forward spot, and he’s not letting go until the rest of the NBA taps out.
Ben Simmons, G/F, Philadelphia 76ers
As it turns out, Ben 10 isn’t just a Cartoon Network show — it’s also the number of different ways that kid in Philly can beat you. Feasting his way to 17.8 points, 9.2 boards, and 7.7 dimes a night through his first 14 professional contests, Simmons is a menace. At 6-foot-10, he gets to the rim with the same ease that most normal human beings would have putting on a pair of pants, and he seems to have eyes, not only on the back of his head, but on the top, the side, and on every other pore of his body as well. Simmons may be a zero from long-range (literally, with no makes on seven three-point tries this year), but he has a wet enough elbow J to keep defenses honest when they dip under screens on him. It’s a true rarity for a player of his bruising athleticism to have such an innate feel for the game. So don’t miss out and be sure to get “Ben Simmons: Rookie of the Year” tattooed on your forehead while you still can.