A look at the top rookie scorers in the NBA so far sees a name from a year ago atop the heap.
Philadelphia point guard Ben Simmons, selected first overall in 2016 but who missed the 2016-17 season, leads all freshmen in points with 16.4 per game (in five games). Which means this year’s no. 1, PG Markelle Fultz, will be cast in a supporting role for the Sixers.
We say, nice problem to have.
Fultz, along with big names Lonzo Ball (Lakers), Jayson Tatum (Boston), Josh Jackson (Phoenix) and De’Aaron Fox, made an impressive top 5 in this year’s draft.
But, what of the lesser-knowns and unsung draftees and first-year players who are finding their footing in the NBA this year?
For instance, in 2016-17, Sixers power forward Dario Saric (12th overall, 2014) made an instant impression, finishing second in rookie scoring with 12.8 points per game, while starting just 36 of 81 games.
Who are this year’s Dario Sarics? Here are 15 outside of the top 5 in the draft class who might make an impact in 2017-18.
15. Jarrett Allen, C – Brooklyn Nets
When the Brooklyn Nets finally did get to draft someone this year — they could have had the no. 1, had they not dealt it away all those years ago — they made a solid choice. The worst team in basketball last year needed an athletic center to replace the soon-to-be traded Brook Lopez (he was sent to the Lakers in a draft day trade) and Texas freshman Allen was available at no. 22. With the Longhorns, the San Diego native averaged 13.4 points and 8.4 rebounds per game. So far this year, the energetic Allen is playing behind Timofey Mozgov (part of the Lopez deal) and has made the most of his minutes. He didn’t play in the 2-2 Nets first game, but since he has averaged 14.7 minutes of playing time, recording 3.0 rebounds, 2.0 blocks and 6.0 points per game.
14. Caleb Swanignan, PF – Portland Trail Blazers
When all is said and done this season, Caleb Swanigan could be one of the true “steals” of the 2017 draft. Picked 26th overall out of Purdue University, the power forward has put in yeoman’s work behind starting PF Al-Farouq Aminu. In three games and just 14 minutes average floor time, the Indianapolis born Swanigan has averaged 5.0 points, 4.0 rebounds and 2.0 assists. What he does need to work on are his free throws, as he has shot just 4-for-14 from the charity stripe. At Purdue, Swanigan was a stud in his sophomore season of 2016-17, finishing second in the nation in rebounds with 12.6 and was first in the nation in double-doubles with 28 (in 35 games for the Boilermakers).
13. OG Anunoby, SF – Toronto Raptors
By all counts, Raptors first round (23rd overall) selection OG Anunoby is fitting right in. Being taken that late in any NBA draft guarantees nothing — especially on a good team like Toronto — and so far, the Indiana University product and UK born small forward has made the most of limited opportunity. And, the rookie wasn’t expected to start the season at all after tearing his ACL in January. In four games with the Raps, Anunoby is averaging 6.0 points, 2.8 rebounds and 1.8 assists during 16.3 minutes average playing time. A good perimeter shooter (he was 36.5 percent effective in the NCAA), he has hit on four of 11 attempts from beyond the arc with Toronto. With little pressure to succeed, it should do him well north of the border.
12. Luke Kennard, SG – Detroit Pistons
Just playing at Duke University, under Coach K, is daunting enough. After being drafted 12th overall by the Detroit Pistons this year, there is a whole new set of pressures on shooting guard Luke Kennard. He made first team all-ACC with the Blue Devils in his sophomore season last year and decided to forego his final two years of NCAA eligibility to declare for the draft. The Pistons liked what they saw in the Ohio native, who shot 43.8 percent from three-point range in 2016-17 and averaged 19.5 PPG. In four games for Detroit this season, Kennard has averaged 4.8 points, 1.8 rebounds and 1.0 assists in just over 13 minutes average playing time. He is just 1-for-7 so far in three-point attempts, but give him time.
11. Jonathan Isaac, PF – Orlando Magic
Isaac is the highest pick in this list, having gone at no. 6 to the Magic in the draft. The gangly power forward caught the eye of many a scout as a freshman at Florida State, where he averaged 12 points, 7.8 rebounds and 1.5 blocks per game with the Seminoles. Having decided to go the one-and-done route, his efforts for the Magic have paid off early. He has already started two of four contests and averaged 18.8 minutes of playing time. He has scored 5.5 points per game and also averaged 4.5 rebounds, as well as recording four steals and three blocks.
10. Justin Jackson, SF – Sacramento Kings
There is something to be said for being a champion even before hitting NBA hardwood. Small forward Justin Jackson won a NCAA title with the North Carolina Tar Heels this year and brings considerable athleticism and a decent scoring touch from three-point range. The Kings traded down in this year’s draft to pick the collegiate superstar and he’ll get ample opportunity to prove himself alongside veterans like Zach Randolph and Vince Carter. In his first four games, Jackson has started every time, averaging 18.5 minutes of playing time. He has recorded 5.5 points per game, as well as 2.0 rebounds. Jackson, a career 34 percent shooter from beyond the arc at UNC, has hit on three of nine attempts so far.
9. Dwayne Bacon, SG – Charlotte Hornets
The Hornets did quite well for themselves in this year’s draft, despite not having a top 10 pick. At no. 11, they took Kentucky freshman shooting guard Malik Monk, who has played fairly well so far. We think they did even better at no. 40, selecting Florida State sophomore Dwayne Bacon. While Monk has outscored Bacon 7.5 points to 6.0, the sharpshooting Bacon has been more proficient from three-point territory, dropping 5 of 11 attempts (Monk is 6-for-23). Bacon has also been a more prolific rebounder with 21 in four games to Monk’s six. We think Monk, who is younger by three years, will be a player, but the Hornets got a second round steal in Bacon.
8. T.J. Leaf, PF – Indiana Pacers
Indiana lost a whole lot of talent and scoring in an off-season that saw the departures of three of their top five scorers, including Paul George (OKC), Jeff Teague (Minnesota) and C.J. Miles (Toronto). It was imperative, then, to re-stock the cupboard at the draft. It will be a long year in the Hoosier State, which means 18th overall pick T.J. Leaf will get to showcase his considerable offensive and defensive skill set. As a freshman at UCLA last year, the Tel Aviv, Israel born Leaf led the Bruins in scoring with 16.3 points per game, shooting a lofty 46.6 percent from three-point range. He added 8.2 rebounds and 1.1 blocks per game, too. In five games with the re-tooled Pacers, he has played 16.8 minutes per game, with 7.0 points, 2.8 rebounds and 44.4 percent three-point shooting.
7. Donovan Mitchell, SG – Utah Jazz
When Gordon Hayward flew the Jazz coop for Boston in free agency this summer, there was a considerable void to fill in the shooting department. The Jazz, who felt that Hayward would bolt, made a move up in the draft to trade for shooting guard Donovan Mitchell from NCAA powerhouse Louisville (he was drafted by Denver at 13th overall). As a sophomore, Mitchell averaged 15.6 points per game for the Cardinals and shot 35.4 percent from three-point territory. He has started three of five games so far for the Jazz, averaging 7.0 points and 2.8 assists. On Tuesday night in Los Angeles, he put up 19 points against the Clippers, shooting 3-for-9 from beyond the arc.
6. Dillon Brooks, SF – Memphis Grizzlies
If he keeps playing like is in Memphis, Canadian Dillon Brooks could end up being the big steal of the 2017 draft. A star for 2017 Final Four participant Oregon, Brooks offensive skill set was pro ready. The Pac-12 Player of the Year averaged 16.1 points, 3.2 rebounds, 2.7 assists and 1.1 steals in 35 games for the Ducks. However, he had to wait a round and a half to be picked by Houston at no. 45. The Rockets then dealt him for a future second rounder, which could come back to haunt them. Brooks has played very well for the 3-1 Grizz. He has averaged 27.5 minutes per game and averaged 8.8 points, 2.3 rebounds, 1.0 assists and 1.5 steals. He set a scoring record for a debut by a Canadian, scoring 19 points against New Orleans on Oct. 18.
5. John Collins, PF – Atlanta Hawks
Like Eastern Conference cousin Indiana, it was an off-season of upheaval in Atlanta. Gone from a Hawks team that finished fifth in the conference were superstar Paul Millsap (Denver), Dwight Howard (Charlotte) and Tim Hardaway (Knicks). Those three averaged 46.1 points per game collectively, which is hard to replace. Without a top 10 pick, the Hawks had to be creative and at no. 19, they could have done worse than selecting Wake Forest sophomore power forward John Collins. Now, he won’t soon make Hawks fans forget about fellow PF Millsap, but Collins has thus far been impressive in his debut season. In just 19.3 minutes average floor time in four games, he sits seventh in rookie scoring with 11.8 points, along with 7.8 rebounds. He already has two double-doubles in the young season.
4. Dennis Smith Jr., PG – Dallas Mavericks
It was a revolving door at point guard in a down year for the Mavericks, who failed to make the playoffs after finishing 33-49. Guys like J.J. Barea, Seth Curry, Devin Harris and even Deron Williams all took turns at floor general. It was imperative, then, that with a top 10 for the first time in nearly 20 years, they get a guy who could be a future leader. Enter N.C. State freshman Dennis Smith Jr. He was ACC Rookie of the Year for the Wolfpack, averaging 18.9 points, 6.2 assists and 1.9 steals per game. He’s already been a hit in Dallas (and made new “friends” at Golden State, like motormouth Draymond Green). He has started all three games in Big D and has averaged 15.0 points, 5.3 assists and has shot 33 percent from beyond the arc.
3. Mike James, PG – Phoenix Suns
As “rookies” go, Mike James is greybeard at 27. The former Lamar University product went undrafted and then apprenticed over in Europe, playing in Croatia, Italy and Greece for four seasons before signing a free agent deal with Phoenix this past summer. He became the first NBA player ever to sign a two-way affiliate contract after leading the Suns in multiple categories during the summer league. James has thus far done very well on that two-way deal, sharing floor minutes with Eric Bledsoe. He has averaged 21.2 minutes per game in five contests, with 11.6 points and 3.4 assists. He has shot 40 percent from beyond the arc, too.
2. Kyle Kuzma, PF – Los Angeles Lakers
The Brooklyn Nets, forever making draft blunders, may end up regretting the trade that sent Kyle Kuzma (picked 27th overall) to the Los Angeles Lakers. The rookie SF/PF out of Utah has, along with no. 2 pick Lonzo Ball, been very impressive four games into the season for the 2-2 Lakers. He has been inserted to play 27.8 minutes per game and put up 14.5 points, 4.0 rebounds and 1.3 assists. Kuzma’s most impressive effort was the 20 points he scored against New Orleans on Oct. 22. He also added six rebounds, two assists and a steal. Of course, his college pedigree said as much about him, as he averaged 16.4 points, 9.3 rebounds and 2.4 assists for Utah in his final year.
1. Lauri Markkanen, PF – Chicago Bulls
With forwards Jimmy Butler and Taj Gibson gone, the Bulls needed a guy to step up and play — because it’s going to be a long, long year in the Windy City. The Bulls are all-of-a-sudden bereft of elite scoring talent, so Finnish collegiate star Markkanen will have all the time he needs to develop into a NBA All-Star. The 7’0″ native of Vantaa, Finland was drafted seventh overall by Minnesota, then packaged up with Zach Levine and Kris Dunn for Butler and the rights to Justin Patton. In one season with the Arizona Wildcats, Markkanen averaged 15.6 points, 7.2 rebounds and shot a healthy 42.3 percent from beyond the arc. He has been that effective in three games so far with the Bulls, with a slash line that reads: 16.3 PPG (second to Ben Simmons in overall rookie scoring), 9.3 rebounds and 45.5 percent three-point shooting (10 for 22).