We’ve got to hand it to the rookie class of 2017-18, one of the deepest and best there has been in 10 seasons.
Fully 12 freshmen finished the season in double digits in scoring, with lead rookie scorer Donovan Mitchell finishing 21st among all players with 20.5 per game. Speaking of Mitchell, he came to play in the post-season too, averaging 24.4 points in Utah’s 11-game run (11th overall, so far).
The last time there were more than 10 rookies who averaged more than 10 points per game came in 2008-09, a season which saw the debuts of Derrick Rose, Eric Gordon, Russell Westbrook, Marc Gasol and Kevin Love. They all surpassed 10+ plus, among a group of 13.
However, we can’t discount the fact there were some other future stars in the 2008-09 freshman class, like DeAndre Jordan, who mustered 4.3 PPG that year.
There is reason to believe that the 2017-18 rookies have quite a few players, who, with expanded roles next year, will enjoy even greater success. There are 15 we believe will break out, and five more who will establish themselves as bona fide stars and kill it next season.
20. Frank Ntilikina, New York Knicks – Break Out
Picked eighth overall by the Knicks in 2017, Frenchman Ntilikina showed signs in a very demanding market that he can be a real good two-way player in the future. Still just 19 (he’ll be 20 before the 2018-19 season), Ntilikina appeared in 78 games, starting nine. He averaged 5.9 points, 2.3 rebounds, 3.2 assists and shot 31.8 percent from three-point territory. His new coach in the Big Apple, David Fizdale, says he likes Ntilikina’s compete level and that he is a true combo guard with a “big-time wingspan.” Like any rookie, the young native of Ixelles, Belgium rode the roller-coaster ups and downs of a first season in the big league. Right at the end he did provide a glimpse at his worth to the Knicks franchise. In back-to-back games against the playoff bound Cleveland Cavaliers on Apr. 9 and 11, he scored 17 and 16 points, respectively, along with 10 total rebounds, nine assists and five steals. And just in case anyone is thinking it was just against the Cavs’ scrubs, he scored 17 against LeBron and Co. on the 9th.
19. Jordan Bell, Golden State Warriors – Break Out
There aren’t many rookies from contending teams on this list, especially since it’s very difficult to get the kind of floor time they need to either go boom or bust. We believe the Dubs’ Bell, who has hardly seen the floor in the playoffs, has the resilience to go the extra mile next year. He’s battled ankle injuries all season long, but in a clogged center/power forward position with Golden State, when he’s been given enough playing time, he’s shown is untapped potential. Bell, picked 38th by Chicago last year and trade to the Warriors, started 13 of his 57 games and averaged 4.6 points, 3.6 rebounds and 1.0 blocks. Bell did log a double-double this season, when he had 20 points and 10 rebounds in a December win over the Lakers in 25 minutes playing time. Three Warriors ahead of him on the depth chart, veterans David West, Zaza Pachulia and JaVale McGee all have expiring contracts this year. It’s not likely they will all get new deals, providing Bell an opening.
18. Royce O’Neale, Utah Jazz – Break Out
It is both a blessing, and a curse, that Jazz rookie small forward O’Neale plays on the same team as superstar-in-the-making Donovan Mitchell (more on him later). Bypassed in the 2015 NBA draft out of Baylor, O’Neale spent two seasons playing pro in Europe before being signed to a free agent deal by the Jazz last summer. It turned out to be a good one, as he came off the bench to provide decent secondary scoring in both the regular season and the playoffs. In 69 regular season contests (four starts), he averaged 5.0 points, 3.4 rebounds and shot 35.6 from beyond the arc. As an added bonus, O’Neale was even better in 11 playoff games, with 7.1 points, 3.5 rebounds and 35.7 percent three-point shooting. In fact, the swing-man was great in the five-game series loss to Houston, twice dropping 17 points and averaging four boards a game in the absence of SG Ricky Rubio. The future is bright in Salt Lake City.
17. Malik Monk, Charlotte Hornets – Break Out
The season-ending six-game surge by Hornets first-year SG Malik Monk could be looked at two ways. One, given the playing time, he was truly able to show the club why they chose him 11th overall last year, averaging just under 20 points in those half dozen games. On the other, the games were meaningless (i.e. garbage time) and the opposition was mailing it in against a non-playoff team like Charlotte. We suggest the evidence indicates the former to be more true. Playing behind veterans Jeremy Lamb and Nicholas Batum, Monk alternated between decent and low floor time, seeing action in 63 total games and averaging 6.7 points, while shooting 34.2 percent from three-point territory. In his final six games, four were against playoff bound squads Washington, Philadelphia and Indiana (two games back-to-back to end the season). Monk scored, in order, 17, 16, 22 and 17 points in those games. His new coach, James Borrego, thinks Monk is “dynamic” and “fascinating” and that with better three-point shot selection can be a star.
16. Bam Adebayo, Miami Heat – Break Out
Most of the off-season talk in South Beach is centering around the status of expensive — and disgruntled — starting center Hassan Whiteside. Many pundits are openly asking if it’s time the franchise moved on from the big man, who was largely disappointing in five playoff games. While Edrice “Bam” Adebayo might say all the right things as Whiteside’s back-up, he probably wouldn’t mind taking over the minutes at center. And we think, given ample floor time, the 2017 14th overall selection out of Kentucky can fluorish. Like Whiteside, Adebayo didn’t impress in the playoffs, not putting up near the numbers he had in the regular season. However, he was given over four minutes less average playing time in his first post-season. In 69 games this season, (19 starts), Adebayo averaged 6.9 points, 5.5 rebounds and 0.6 blocks. He also registered six double-doubles, including a huge 16-point, 15-rebound, 5-block effort in a win over Toronto in January.
15. Luke Kennard, Detroit Pistons – Break Out
All around, it was a disappointing year in Detroit. The squad thought they had found the secret sauce to get in the post-season by acquiring Blake Griffin, but still ended up falling short anyway. That deal, though, did have a silver lining for one player, he being 12th overall pick Luke Kennard. The former Duke Blue Devil moved up one place in the shooting guard pecking order, since SG Avery Bradley went to the Clippers in the Griffin swap. Slotted in at no. 2 behind Reggie Bullock, then, Kennard enjoyed way more minutes, especially in March and April when the Pistons were fighting for a playoff spot. Kennard logged 10 points a game and shot 36.2 percent from three-point range in March (15 games), then upped it to 14 points and 54.5 percent three-point shooting in six April contests. He shot a very noteworthy 41.5 percent from beyond the arc during the season, second only to Jayson Tatum in qualified rookie stats in that category.
14. Dennis Smith Jr., Dallas Mavericks – Break Out
We would have ranked Smith higher, but it is going to be a transition year for a Mavericks team that missed the playoffs for the second year in a row and lost out on a top lottery pick when they fell to 5th (from the 3rd position). Smith, drafted ninth overall out N.C. State in 2017, lived up to his placement in the draft, garnering the starting point guard job and finishing tied for fifth in rookie scoring at 15.1 PPG, while adding 5.2 assists (third among rookies) and 3.8 rebounds. He will break out — if he hasn’t already, given a good freshman campaign — but it will be muted compared to others on this list. Why? Because Dirk Nowitzki isn’t getting any younger, SG Wesley Matthews will be coming off injury rehab and Harrison Barnes may not be able to sustain the scoring clip he has been on since coming over from Golden State. We’re rooting for Smith to break out and as a true underdog story, he just might.
13. Jarrett Allen, Brooklyn Nets – Break Out
It’s tough playing center in the NBA as a rookie, it’s even tougher when toiling for the miserable outfit that Brooklyn has been the last three years. And, they will have to watch as Cleveland takes their 8th overall pick in this year’s draft. But, Nets fans, that big black cloud swirling over the heads of your team looks like it might be breaking up. In Jarrett Allen, who wasn’t taken until no. 22 out of Texas by Brooklyn last year, the Nets finally have a good man up front who can take over starting duties (from the likes of Timofey Mozgov and Jahlil Okafor). After the team dealt Tyler Zeller, Allen got the most starts at center over the remainder of the season. Of his 72 total games, Allen started 31 and registered 8.2 points, 5.4 rebounds and 1.2 blocks per game. He had four double-doubles this season and led all rookies in total blocks with 88.
12. John Collins, Atlanta Hawks – Break Out
With Ersan Ilyasova out of the way, the starting power forward’s job is John Collins to lose. And when the Hawks dealt Ilyasova to Philadelphia, the first year man out of Wake Forest (he was taken 19th overall) grabbed the ball and literally ran with it. Overall, he finished with 10.5 points per game (11th among qualified rookies), 7.3 rebounds (third for rookies), 1.1 blocks (80 total, second) and recorded 11 double-doubles (fifth most for first year players). Once his playing time increased later in the season, Collins performances ramped up. In the final 32 of his 74 games, he logged seven of 11 double-doubles, including an outstanding all-around performance against Miami in early April, where he scored 19 points, added 10 rebounds and had an assist, a block and a steal. Hawks fans have to be excited about this guy, who the high minds at ESPN say was seventh among all rookies for future potential.
11. Dillon Brooks, Memphis Grizzlies – Break Out
Only one rookie played all 82 games for his team this season and he was 2017 45th overall selection Dillon Brooks. The Canadian forward out of Oregon may turn out to be the steal of the draft, given that he started 74 games and finished 10th in rookie scoring with 11 points per game, including 35.6 percent shooting from three point range. The Grizz were lousy in 2017-18, getting second best odds at the no. 1 pick in this year’s draft (they fell to 4th at the lottery) but Brooks was a huge bright spot. He averaged well under 10 points per game before the New Year, but once 2018 rolled around, Brooks got into high gear, which bodes well if he can hold the momentum. While it was a nothing contest and a loss against the playoff-bound Oklahoma City Thunder to end the season, it was also marked Brooks single highest offensive output on the season — and he did it against OKC’s “big 3” who all started. Brooks fired a team high 36 points (four less than Paul George’s 40) on 14-of-22 shooting, including 3-for-7 from three-point territory.
10. De’Aaron Fox, Sacramento Kings – Break Out
Like the rest of his team and the fans, De’Aaron Fox has to be ecstatic about the Kings hitting the lottery jackpot this year and moving up to no. 2 (from no. 7). Fox himself was a fifth overall selection by the Kings in 2017, so this top-3 pick will allow the Kings to go after a shooter like Luka Doncic (who is projected to go no. 2). Fox, yet another Kentucky Wildcats’ product, saw more action at point guard than fellow rookie Frank Mason III (34th overall last year) and made the most of it, finishing ninth in rookie scoring at 11.6 points per game, while adding 2.8 points and 4.4 assists (fifth for rookies) and 70 total steals (seventh). Of all the no. 5 picks in the last 10 years, Fox figures to be one of the better ones. It’s a list that includes DeMarcus Cousins, Kevin Love, Ricky Rubio and Jonas Valanciunas. Not bad company, indeed.
9. Josh Jackson, Phoenix Suns – Break Out
The Suns retained the no. 1 pick in this year’s draft, which should put DeAndre Ayton right into a decimated front court. That is good news too, for last year’s fourth overall pick out of Kansas, 6’8″ SG Jackson. He had a heck of a first season, finishing seventh in freshman scoring with 13.1 points and fourth in steals with 1.04 per game (80) total. Jackson also had five double-doubles in 77 games (35) starts. Jackson must have liked playing the New Orleans Pelicans, since two of his double-doubles came against them, the last of which was a superb effort. He scored 22 points, pulled down 11 rebounds and had an assist, a block and two steals. Jackson, a class act who brought a nine-year-old Suns fan with spina bifida to the NBA lottery, must have been good luck for his team Tuesday night in Chicago.
8. Lauri Markkanen, Chicago Bulls – Break Out
It’s going to be tough for Chicago rookie forward Markkanen to top his 2017-18 season. Very tough. The Finnish born kid, picked seventh overall by Minnesota and traded to the Bulls, started the second most games for his team (68 out of 68), was fourth in rookie scoring at 15.2 PPG, second in rebounds with 7.5, 10th in three-point shooting at 36.2 percent, 10th in blocks with 40 total and third in double-doubles with 14. His signature outing this past season came in a narrow 132-128 loss to New Orleans in late January. That game he went toe-to-toe with DeMarcus Cousins in the paint, pulling down 17 defensive rebounds (while Boogie collected a game high 23, including seven offensive boards). Markkanen completed his double-double with 14 points, while chipping in two assists, a steal and two blocks. His next campaign is going to be interesting, especially with Nikola Mirotic out of the way.
7. Markelle Fultz, Philadelphia 76ers – Break Out
The post-season is over and it’s time to analyze what “the process” means to Sixers no. 1 overall pick Fultz. His sample size was so small in a season marred by injury, it was almost negligible. However, going forward, Fultz’s game and ability to control the game in the back court will shine through once he can put a full season in. As it was, he played just 14 games for the team that traded up to get him first, averaging 7.1 points, 3.1 rebounds and 3.8 assists. He was stuck behind super-rookie Ben Simmons at point guard, but at 6’10” he could be moved easily to shooting guard/small forward, giving Philly one of the most dynamic in the league next year (and JJ Redick is a free agent, too, clearing a spot for Simmons to slide into). Fultz did manage to play in the last 10 regular season games and in the final one, a 130-95 triumph over Milwaukee, he provided a glimpse into future greatness. He didn’t just post a double-double, but a triple-double, coming off the bench to score 13 and add 10 rebounds, 10 assists, two steals and a block. He has a lot to answer for next year and he has the talent.
6. OG Anunoby, Toronto Raptors – Break Out
It’s not all doom and gloom in Toronto, where a dismal effort in the second round and brooming by Cleveland got the coach fired and has caused much angst in the players. While a year or three of uncertainty surely follows for the Raps, Ogugua “OG” Anunoby’s stock is on the rise, big time. We rated him just on the cusp of being a killer (see below), in that his 10-game playoff performance was much better than his regular season effort. The Raptors prided themselves on their bench depth this past season, but only Anunoby separated himself from that herd come the post-season. He started 62 of 74 games at small forward in 2017-18 — after being taken way down at no. 23 — recording 5.9 points and 2.5 rebounds per game and shooting 37.1 from three-point territory. In 10 playoff games, all starts, Anunoby averaged 7.9 points (fourth among all rookies in the post-season), along with 2.1 rebounds and 44.8 percent shooting from beyond the arc (13-for-29).
5. Lonzo Ball, Los Angeles Lakers – Kill It
Forget for a minute, about all the noise surrounding Lakers rookie point guard Ball, much of it emanating from his Dad’s big mouth. The no. 2 pick in the 2017 draft finished 12th in rookie scoring with 10.2 points per game, but should see an increase in that stat once he makes better decisions — or just plain shoots better — from three-point territory. He shot a very mediocre 30.5 percent from beyond the arc and much will be expected of him to do better in 2018-19. Where his most valuable to his team, who he makes better when he is on the floor, is in ball distribution. In 52 games, he was second only to Ben Simmons, with 7.2 per game. He also has the makings of a very good defensive floor general, in that he pulled down 6.9 rebounds, had 1.69 steals (also second for rookies) and 0.83 blocks (43 total, fifth). Ball was also fourth in double-doubles with 13. With fellow super-rookie Kyle Kuzma in the fold, the Lakers may yet return to glory.
4. Donovan Mitchell, Utah Jazz – Kill It
Just think if SG Donovan Mitchell is able to better dial in his shots from downtown next year. The NBA’s rookie scoring leader (20.5 points per game) will be his own tough act to follow in 2018-19, but we feel that if he can elevate his 34.0 percent three-point shooting even a couple of points he’ll be a lot better than 21st overall in scoring. And the 13th overall selection was no one-trick pony in the playoffs, leading his team and all rookie scorers with an eye-popping 24.4 points per game, along with 5.9 rebounds, 4.2 assists and 1.5 steals. Included in his post-season performances were three double-doubles in 11 games, the best of which came during Utah’s lone win against the Houston Rockets in the second round. Mitchell’s double-double included 17 points and a game high 11 assists (tied with James Harden), along with two steals. Offensively and defensively, Mitchell is a dynamo and should only get better.
3. Ben Simmons, Philadelphia 76ers – Kill It
There is just something otherworldly about a point guard who is 6’10” — and can really play. The first of two consecutive no. 1 picks (he was taken numero uno in 2016, Markelle Fultz in 2017), Aussie Simmons has the potential to be an even bigger time player in 2018-19. He started all 81 games he appeared in and finished third in rookie scoring with 15.1 points. That figure is even more impressive considering he took just 11 shots from three-point territory, missing all of them. As a point guard who only scores from inside, it’s imperative that he have excellent ball distribution skills and he does, leading all rookies in assists with 8.2 per game (which tied him with Rajan Rondo for fourth overall in the NBA). Perhaps Simmons most outstanding statistic was the 12 triple-doubles he put up this season, which ranked him third behind only Russell Westbrook and LeBron James. He logged a playoff triple double too, registering 17 points, 13 rebounds, 10 assists and four steals in a game 4 victory over Miami in the first round. Just waiting to burst, this kid.
2. Jayson Tatum, Boston Celtics – Kill It
That trade Boston orchestrated at the draft last year, whereby they gave up the first pick and moved down to third, sure is looking good now. Their selection at three, SF Jayson Tatum, had a great regular season and an outstanding playoffs and we think he might just be scratching the surface of future greatness. The Duke product is second in rookie scoring in the playoffs and first on the Celtics with 18.1 points per game, so far, to go along with 4.5 rebound, 3.1 assists and 1.2 steals in 14 total contests. He was daggers against list-mate Ben Simmons and the Sixers in the second round, lighting them up for 23.6 points, including an amazing 30-for-37 from the charity stripe. He’s been integral to both ends of the floor against Cleveland in the Eastern Conference finals, where the Celtics hold a 2-0 edge. In game 1, Tatum scored 16 and added six rebounds, three assists and two steals in 37 minutes of work. In game 2, which Boston won 107-94, Tatum played 32 minutes and chipped in 11 points, three rebounds, two assists and another steal. Boston has six picks in this year’s draft (including two first rounders), so an already good young team is going to re-stock the cupboard. Yikes.
1. Kyle Kuzma, Los Angeles Lakers – Kill It
Having to perform in the fishbowl that is L.A., especially with much ink and air time devoted to the Ball family, has got to be daunting. That is why we believe that not only can PF Kyle Kuzma become the steal of the 2017 draft, but an important cornerstone piece in L.A. for many years. With Lonzo Ball’s exploits and foibles catching most of the media attention, Kuzma has been able to operate in a bit of a vacuum. The 27th overall pick from the University of Utah finished second in rookie scoring this season with 16.1 points per game. He also grabbed 6.3 rebounds and dished out 1.8 assists in 77 games, 37 of them starts. The 6’9″ Flint, MI native was a very prolific three-point shooter, attempting 434 threes and making good on 159 of them for a 36.6 percent effectiveness rate. Kuzma also recorded 17 double-doubles this season, putting him second among freshmen in that category. To put proof to our theory that Kuzma will only get better, one need only look at the double he put on Golden State in late December, even if it was during a 113-106 loss. He was second only to the Dubs Kevin Durant in points that game with 27 (KD had 33), and he had 14 rebounds, an assist, two steals and a block while playing a game high 43 minutes. This guy is going to be real good.