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Recalibrating What “Success” Means for the New NBA Rookies

We were due for a comedown after last season’s glut of future stars, but some of the 2016 draft’s most notable players can still shine, if we all adjust our expectations

Getty Images/AP Images/Ringer illustration
Getty Images/AP Images/Ringer illustration

Joel Embiid has already stolen the hearts of the basketball world with his brute strength inside, splashy 3-point potential, political humor, and dancing. Despite flashing his transcendent potential, Embiid is shooting poorly (44 effective field goal percentage) and turning the ball over a ton (zero assists to 16 turnovers), and is still on a minutes restriction. So it’s strange that there hasn’t been a noteworthy performance to step out of Embiid’s 7-foot shadow. The star power of the 2016 rookie class is a lot dimmer now that Ben Simmons is sidelined for at least three months. There have been flashes this preseason, but rookies across the league have underwhelmed.

This class is ripe with role-player talent and relatively weak with stars. There will be players who contribute toward winning as rookies, but it’s unlikely that anyone will have the kind of eye-opening campaign that Karl-Anthony Towns had last season. While it’s too early to flip the panic switch or sound the bust alarm, it’s worth calibrating expectations for the league’s rookies entering the season.

Brandon Ingram, Lakers

This is Ingram, a 190-pound, 19-year-old rookie driving right into the chest of 2015 Finals MVP Andre Iguodala, stopping, and pulling up over the top:

Ingram is so tall that he can shoot over small players, and he’s so quick that he can drive by slower ones. Right now Ingram’s best trait is his shot off the catch, so it’d be easy to tell him to go stand in the corner, but Lakers head coach Luke Walton is thankfully developing the no. 2 pick in other roles. Walton’s motion-based system will put Ingram in spots where he can take advantage of these matchups and develop as a multidimensional threat.

Ingram is running the pick-and-roll, handling the ball in transition, and distributing the ball. His passing vision in particular has been a surprise to observers, but he was a far better distributor than his college numbers indicated (two assists per game at Duke).

Simmons is the elite passer and playmaker from the 2016 class, but Ingram is no slouch. The tall, lanky forward has a knack for delivering pinpoint passes whether it’s from a standstill, like the clip above, or off the dribble. If that pass is a little higher, it’s sailing over D’Angelo Russell’s head. If it’s a little lower, it’s either a turnover or Russell is getting blocked.

“I think Coach Luke put me in a good position to run the point guard with the ball in my hand and get a lot of touches,” Ingram said Wednesday. “When he saw I like to play with the ball in my hands, he put me in a position where I can dribble the ball, make plays for myself, but also make plays for other players.”

Ingram can make an impact off the bench even if he’s not getting buckets because he makes smart decisions with the ball and competes on defense. He was my no. 1 prospect in January because he’s talented across the board, with few glaring weaknesses. Walton’s system is tailor-made for versatile threats like Ingram; if he continues to ingrain himself within the team’s game plan, it wouldn’t be too surprising if he were viewed as the consensus top prospect from the 2016 class by the end of the year.

Kris Dunn, Timberwolves

The 46.7 percent of NBA general managers who predict Dunn will win Rookie of the Year must’ve made their choice before the preseason. You’d hope. Through six exhibition games, the rookie point guard has more turnovers (15) than he does made field goals (9); he shot 1-of-9 from beyond the arc, and just 8-for-35 from 2-point range. Dunn’s shot chart is the Red Wedding.

Yet it’s Dunn’s approach that’s most disturbing, not the blood-drenched court. The problems that plagued him at Providence — decision-making and shot selection — have carried over to the pros.

Here, Dunn clanks his contested jumper off the glass. It’s a two-for-one situation, so you can understand the early-clock attempt. But see the player standing wide open for a 3? He’s wearing the no. 88 jersey. You can’t miss him. It’s Dunn’s teammate. His name is Nemanja Bjelica. He shot 38.4 percent from 3 last season. It would’ve been a smart idea to pass the ball to him, or at least give him a glance before firing away.

For every dazzling play Dunn made in college, there was one that was equally careless. Seeing history repeat itself in the preseason is enough to aggravate fans, let alone Dunn’s new basketball-obsessed head coach, who’s back after spending all of last season hunkered down in his film room bunker.

Tom Thibodeau did his best angry Clint Eastwood impression as Dunn was subbed out of the game after this play. Thibs had good reason to be fuming. Dunn wasted time pounding his dribble, rushed through the pick-and-roll, left his feet, threw a pass to the Ghost of Kevin Garnett, and committed a soft foul on the ensuing easy layup.

Thibodeau reportedly anticipates that Dunn will become the Wolves’ starting point guard about 20 games into the season, sources told The Vertical’s Adrian Wojnarowski. That sounds crazy to me unless Ricky Rubio is traded, or the Wolves are really all in on tossing their prized rookie into the spotlight. It’s difficult to see how Dunn can be trusted to run an offense when he still frequently commits the kind of preventable mistakes made by high school point guards. Putting Dunn on that kind of timetable suggests that the Wolves are actually placing more emphasis on development than making the playoffs.

Of course, if that’s the case, it’s a justifiable decision. Those flawed plays also reveal the extraordinary quickness and burst that made Dunn the no. 5 pick in the first place. Dunn’s numbers will improve: He won’t shoot worse than his 20.7 effective field goal percentage from this preseason. He shot 44 percent off the dribble as a junior in college, per DraftExpress, so it could be only a matter of time before he finds his rhythm.

Dunn plays like a Walmart John Wall. He’s scary fast, though not quite as athletic, and certainly far less developed as a scorer and playmaker. We already know that Dunn can defend, that he can create space off the dribble, and that he’ll show flashes that will make your jaw drop. But by the end of the season I’d like to see the game begin to slow down for Dunn. Developing good habits off the bench against lesser players could be good for him. While adjusting to the speed of the NBA, he’ll need to show that he can play a composed game in order to be more than a low-efficiency scorer.

Marquese Chriss, Suns

Chriss was the boom-or-bust pick of the 2016 NBA draft, a raw, super-athletic big man who lacks feel for the game. After being drafted no. 8 by the Suns, he naturally drew comparisons to Amar’e Stoudemire, Chriss’s athletic predecessor. The hype has only been intensified this preseason because of his explosive dunks.

But Chriss is different from Stoudemire; he’s not a paint bulldozer and has better shooting touch from outside. Before dunking the ball in the clip above, Chriss hovered around the 3-point line, not because he was lost, but because he is capable of knocking it down. Chriss shot 35 percent from 3 as a college freshman and has a nice, compact shooting form. “In draft workouts we do a 3-point drill, and he was one of the highest numbers for big men,” Suns head coach Earl Watson said this week. “You see him developing very quickly. He never had a chance to have consistent NBA reps … so you’re going to see him take an amazing leap.”

Watson has experimented with small-ball lineups that use Chriss at center or power forward, which can really strain a defense with a dynamic player like Chriss. He’s a threat to stretch the floor, drive a closeout, play from the high post, or throw down lobs at the rim, so he has the upside to have explosive scoring nights. This bodes well for him long term, but he has the capability to be so much more if he begins to make strides in other areas as a rookie.

Chriss presently doesn’t offer much else when he’s not scoring. He has tunnel vision as a passer: In college, he had a dismal assist-turnover ratio (0.38) comparable to similarly athletic forwards like Stromile Swift, Al-Farouq Aminu, and Anthony Bennett. In the preseason, he has three assists in 135 minutes, and a 0.27 assist-turnover ratio. Chriss is an uninterested rebounder (12.9 defensive rebounding percentage in exhibition play), which could make Phoenix vulnerable on the boards when they play small. Most concerning, Chriss is allergic to defense and gets into foul trouble.

The Blazers attacked Chriss nearly every single possession to close this game because his defense made Noah Vonleh look like LaMarcus Aldridge. Chriss committed at least four fouls in 25 of his 34 games as a freshman at Washington, and fouled out of 15 of them. Foul trouble isn’t an issue that simply goes away overnight; it’s a symptom of a larger lack of fundamentals and court sense. That takes time. Fans shouldn’t expect Chriss to stay on the floor for heavy minutes.

Success for Chriss isn’t Rookie of the Year honors. It’s not volume scoring. It’s not a weekly appearance on highlight reels. It’s progress in “the little things.” If Chriss starts boxing out for rebounds, stays in his stance on defense, and stops committing fouls because of a lack of focus, then he could reach his upside a lot sooner than anyone expects.

Jaylen Brown, Celtics

Top rookies don’t usually land in established winning situations like Brown has. The Celtics won 48 games last season, making them the 10th team over the last 40 years to win more than 45 games and draft a player in the top five. Brown seems happy with that. “It’s a blessing to be drafted this high and be with a team that’s winning,” Brown said at Celtics media day. “That’s my mind-set about it. I’m learning a lot. I’m about that more than any individual statistics.”

The Celtics expect Brown to play, too, likely in the 15–20-minutes range to start the year. How he contributes will determine his workload over the course of the season. The Cal forward is already a transition threat when ripping down rebounds, taking the ball coast-to-coast, and either flushing down a dunk, getting to the line, or making a timely pass.

It’s Brown’s progression in the half court that’s worth monitoring, though. Celtics head coach Brad Stevens has played Brown in some situations as a small-ball 4, giving him a distinct speed advantage in the pick-and-pop. Brown will likely be doing a lot of spotting up and driving in the half court as a bench role player for the Celtics.

Brown has already had multiple ferocious dunks this preseason; he’s the organization’s most explosive rookie since Gerald Green, who was drafted in 2005. But as defenses adjust to Brown, they’ll likely overplay his drive, baiting him into shooting from the perimeter. Brown shot just 28 percent outside of the paint this preseason, and hit just 29.4 percent of his 3s as a Cal freshman.

If Brown is defused outside, the Celtics might move him down to the block. Brown didn’t get many chances to post up in college because he played alongside two big men most of the time. But the Celtics’ bigs typically space the floor, so the low post is left unconquered now that Evan Turner has departed for Portland.

This is the first basket Brown scored in the preseason, an impressive turnaround jumper ripped from Kobe Bryant’s Midrange Scoring for Dummies. “I think that’s where my bread and butter is. I feel really comfortable in the post,” Brown recently told reporters. If the Celtics receive solid, versatile defense and transition playmaking out of Brown, they’ll be happy with their rookie. But if he makes strides as a shooter or multidimensional scoring threat in the half court, he could make a greater-than-expected impact by the time the playoffs come around.