10 NBA rookies poised to make the biggest impact this season: Luka Doncic, Collin Sexton ready to shine
These players should have the most immediate success among their impressive 2018 rookie class
The 2018 NBA rookie class has a chance to become absolutely awesome -- maybe even the best since the 2009 rookie class, which brought stars like Blake Griffin, James Harden, Stephen Curry and DeMar DeRozan into the league.
But that doesn't mean we'll know how good this rookie class is immediately.
What follows is a list of the top rookies who'll impact the 2018-19 NBA season. But this is not a list of the players who I believe will be the best basketball players five years from now. For example, I believe Mohamed Bamba has a chance to become a star. But I also believe Bamba will take a while to get there. And I believe he's on a tantalizing young team in Orlando that will have plenty of growing pains the next few years. So he's not on this list.
Ditto for Michael Porter Jr. He certainly has the scoring ability to become a future All-Star. But he's in a situation in Denver where he'll be battling for minutes -- and it's fair to assume the Nuggets will err on the side of extreme caution in managing his injury and history.
These are the players who I believe are in a good situation to produce immediately, and who are mature enough as basketball players to do so.
10. Donte DiVincenzo, SG, Milwaukee Bucks
Relevant numbers: You mean, numbers that are more relevant than the 31 points DiVincenzo scored in the national title game, when Villanova needed him most and when he absolutely caught fire? How about these numbers: He shot 40.1 percent from 3-point range last season. He took the most 3-point attempts for one of the most 3-point-reliant teams in college basketball last season. And he measured a 42-inch vertical leap at the combine, which tied for the best vertical at the combine.
Why he'll make an impact: First of all, because he wants to. DiVincenzo has one of the most impressive drives I've seen out of a collegiate player. He goes all out, all the time, and that's bound to impress coaches. Second of all, the Bucks need him to. Milwaukee ranked 20th in the NBA in 3-point percentage last season, and 27th in 3-pointers made. They need more offensive fireplugs. Giannis Antetokounmpo can't do it all himself. New coach Mike Budenholzer is more a defensive-oriented coach, but he'll see what DiVincenzo can bring to the table on the offensive end.
9. Alize Johnson, PF, Indiana Pacers
Relevant numbers: The Indiana Pacers were one of the worst rebounding teams in the NBA last season. It's no surprise they drafted Johnson, who was one of the best rebounders in college basketball last season; he averaged double-digit boards both seasons at Missouri State, and his defensive rebounding percentage ranked him seventh in the nation last season, according to the college hoops advanced stats site KenPom.com.
Why he'll make an impact: Think Kenneth Faried, another star mid-major rebounder who simply outworks everyone else on the floor. Johnson can do other things as well -- he's a nifty passer for a big man, and his shot shows promise. The Pacers are a team on the rise. They need guys like Johnson who know their role and execute it.
8. Marvin Bagley, PF/C, Sacramento Kings
Relevant numbers: For a guy who absolutely dominated his single collegiate season at Duke (at least on the offensive end), there sure was an inordinate amount of Bagley hate going on before and after the draft. Yes, he sometimes looked lost on defense (though he performed at least adequately in summer league). But simply put, Bagley was the best player on the most talented team in college basketball last season. His offensive statistics were virtually identical to No. 1 overall pick Deandre Ayton's (21.0 points and 11.1 rebounds per game). And he shot just shy of 40 percent from 3-point range-- damn impressive for a near-7-footer.
Why he'll make an impact: Because the Kings' front office has staked its reputation on Bagley's success. This franchise passed on some big-time talents in a stacked draft (Luka Doncic, Jaren Jackson Jr. and Mohamed Bamba, to name a few) in favor of Bagley. As a player, he reminds me a bit of Andrew Wiggins. He's the same pogo stick of an athlete, but Bagley is 3 inches taller and with a motor that perpetually runs hot. I know that may sound like damning with faint praise. But isn't the No. 1 issue people have with Wiggins his motor?
7. Grayson Allen, SG, Utah Jazz
Relevant numbers: Allen was the first collegiate senior selected in the 2018 NBA Draft. Last year, the Los Angeles Lakers selected Villanova senior Josh Hart late in the first round; he was the second senior selected that draft, and he became an impact player, shooting nearly 40 percent from 3-point range, averaging nearly eight points per game and starting more than a quarter of the Lakers' games. In 2016, Buddy Hield was the first collegiate senior selected, and Malcolm Brogdon was a senior who was selected early in the second round. After Hield was traded midseason to Sacramento and upped his minutes, he averaged 15.1 points per game and shot 42.8 percent from 3-point range; Brogdon won Rookie of the Year averaging 10.2 points and 40.4 percent from 3-point range. Despite this being the age of one-and-dones, you don't have to look far to find four-year college players who make immediate impacts in the NBA -- especially guys who can shoot it. Allen has the collegiate numbers to back it up: a career 38 percent 3-point shooter, excellent athleticism and an ability to either be a role player or take a star turn.
Why he'll make an impact: The Jazz are one of the NBA's deepest teams, so the main question might be how much Allen can get on the floor -- and once he does, whether he's able to play defense at a level worthy of perhaps the best defense in the NBA.
6. Collin Sexton, PG, Cleveland Cavaliers
Relevant numbers: The dynamic point guard shined in the summer league, averaging nearly 20 points per game over seven games and getting to the rim at will. He's more of a slasher than a shooter at this point, but Sexton still managed to shoot a not-terrible 33.6 percent from 3-point range in his one-and-done season at Alabama. He needs the ball in his hands a lot, evidenced by a usage rate that was among the highest in college basketball.
Why he'll make an impact: Sexton has the most Russell Westbrook-ian mentality of any rookie in this class. The young man is an absolute killer on the basketball court, one of the most confident players you'll ever come across. This could make him a fan favorite in Cleveland, a city that's yearning for a new star after LeBron James left for the Lakers. It's not like the future of this franchise lies with George Hill or Jordan Clarkson. At some point this season, and I would assume sooner instead of later, Ty Lue is going to hand Sexton the keys to this car and tell him to go.
5. Kevin Knox, SF, New York Knicks
Relevant numbers: Knicks fans booed the Knox pick on draft night. Then came summer league, when Knox was playing like he had something to prove. Knox averaged 21.3 points over four summer league games, ranking fourth, and seemed like the all-around player that the Knicks were hoping for. Plus, Knox will be one of the youngest players in the NBA this season -- he just turned 19 in August -- so there still could be plenty of growth in his game.
Why he'll make an impact: Were you one of those people who chastised the Knicks on draft night for skipping on Porter Jr. and taking Knox? I was. But it had nothing to do with Knox and everything to do with Porter's ceiling. Knox is a perfect third option for a good NBA team. He's not going to be a star. And he'll certainly take his lumps this season as he adapts to the NBA on a Knicks team that feels like it's at least a year away (not to mention a max free agent or two away) from Eastern Conference relevance. But Knox will have an opportunity to shine.
4. Deandre Ayton, C, Phoenix Suns
Relevant numbers: Take this for data: Slightly more than 7-feet tall and 250 pounds, with a daggone 43-inch vertical. Ayton is a physical marvel who -- despite an odd fit at Arizona, which had an odd inability to get the big man the ball -- felt like a man among boys in the college game. While his defense leaves a bit to be desired, Ayton dominated the interior on offense, averaging 20.1 points and 11.6 rebounds. He also managed to shoot 34.3 percent from 3-point range.
Why he'll make an impact: The Suns have lots of talented players who have question marks around them. Can Devin Booker become a complete player and live up to his massive contract? Can Josh Jackson improve his shot selection? Can Mikal Bridges translate as a 3-and-D wing, or perhaps something more than that? Can Dragan Bender prove he'd even be a rotation player for a half-decent team? The questions marks around Ayton -- his motor, his defense -- seem to fit right into a team that'll spend its 2018-19 season evaluating which of these young talents are true foundational pieces.
3. Wendell Carter Jr., PF/C, Chicago Bulls
Relevant numbers: Did any rookie in summer league impress as much as Carter did? In five games, he averaged a near-double-double (14.6 points and 9.4 rebounds) and thrived on defense, averaging nearly three blocks per game. He just looked like a smart basketball player, as fully formed of a talent as any of these rookies. Carter's fit last season at Duke was not ideal, playing in the clogged paint alongside another one-and-done big man in Marvin Bagley III, but he still quietly had a standout season. The icing on the cake was his 41.6 percent 3-point shooting.
While he'll make an impact: Carter walks into a great situation. His fit alongside Lauri Markkanen seems ideal to maximize the talents of each big man. A cerebral, offensive-minded coach in Fred Hoiberg ought to maximize Carter's skill set. And the Bulls may not be playoff-ready, but this team is bound to take a step forward from its 27-win finish last season. Carter will have an opportunity to thrive on a team with some young talent -- Markkanen, Zach LaVine, Kris Dunn, Bobby Portis and now Jabari Parker -- where Carter fills a need.
2. Trae Young, PG, Atlanta Hawks
Relevant numbers: Let us all forget the disaster that was Trae Young's first three games in summer league in Utah, where he started his NBA career 2 of 16 from 3-point range. Instead, let us all focus on what he did in the Las Vegas Summer League, where he was … pretty good! He averaged 17 points and 6.8 rebounds in four games in Vegas. (To make the inevitable comparison, Steph Curry averaged 17.4 points per game during the 2009 summer league.) While comparing anyone to an all-time great like Curry sets them up for inevitable failure, the truth is we haven't seen a collegiate season so Curry-like since Curry left Davidson to go to the NBA. In his freshman season, Young attempted 327 3-pointers and made them at a 36.1 percent clip; in his junior season, Curry attempted 336 3-pointers and made them at a 38.7 percent clip. Both players led the nation in usage percentage; Young also led the nation in assist rate, whereas Curry ranked eighth.
Why he'll make an impact: Maybe it'll be a positive impact. Maybe it'll be a negative impact. I'm of the mind that Young will take some time to adjust to the NBA game (much like Curry would have if he'd jumped to the NBA after his freshman season). But Young's Hawks are branding themselves as the mini-Warriors. They're filled with shooters, or at least theoretical shooters. Young is going to have some clunkers like he did in summer league. But he's going to have some Curry-esque, take-your-breath-away moments as well.
1. Luka Doncic, SG/SF, Dallas Mavericks
Relevant numbers: Doncic is coming off close to a perfect season for Real Madrid last year in the EuroLeague, which is considered the second-best basketball league in the world after the NBA. Doncic was the EuroLeague MVP and the EuroLeague Final Four MVP as he led his team to its first EuroLeague title in three years. Doncic's per-36 numbers during a season in which he turned 19 were remarkable, averaging 20.9 points, 6.6 assists and 7.8 rebounds. And unlike many American players who are coming from the collegiate game, Doncic has proven he's NBA-ready. Last season in EuroLeague and the Spanish league -- both leagues filled with grown men -- Doncic played in 61 games, roughly double of what American collegiate players played.
Why he'll make an impact: He's the most skilled player from the stacked 2018 draft, but he's not going to one of those typically talent-barren lottery-level teams. This Mavericks team already places a decent amount of talent around Doncic. They are obviously going to have a tough slog to make the playoffs in a brutal Western Conference. But a Rookie of the Year-level campaign from Doncic -- plus a sophomore jump from Dennis Smith Jr., a defensive boost from DeAndre Jordan, steady near-star production from Harrison Barnes and an end-of-career contribution from Dirk Nowitzki -- could give the Mavericks a puncher's chance.
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