The NBA season is in full swing and the 2016 rookie class is falling well short of expectations. Ben Simmons is still sidelined. Other top picks, like Brandon Ingram and Dragan Bender, are off to slow starts. The 2016 draftees have been overshadowed by holdovers from the past like Joel Embiid.
But it’s still only December, and despite some less-than-stellar overall performances, there is plenty of good to be found in this year’s rookie class. Success, especially for rookies, is contextual, and a handful of newcomers shine when their performances are broken down to their core elements. So, instead of a traditional rookie power ranking, let’s rank some of the league’s first-year players by how well their best skills have translated thus far.
1. Malcolm Brogdon, 3-and-D Specialist (and Future President of the United States)
As a history major with a master’s degree in public policy, Malcolm Brogdon’s dream beyond basketball is to alleviate poverty and hunger in third-world countries. With an admirable goal like that, a presidential voice to match, and an intense style of play, Virginia fans bestowed upon him nicknames like “Moses” and “President.” The latter has stuck with him since he joined the Bucks, for good reason: Brogdon was the second-oldest player drafted and already plays like a grizzled, reliable veteran who has experienced the highest of highs and the lowest of lows. Most rookies come in bright-eyed, naive, and unprepared, but the 24-year-old Brogdon entered the NBA with a measured mind-set, and he’s been given the most veteran-appropriate responsibility of filling the 3-and-D role.
Brogdon was the leader of Virginia’s pack line defense and he’s already made a significant impact for the Bucks. Watch him play: You’ll see him consistently in the right position, fighting through on-ball and off-ball screens, communicating with his teammates, and jumping passing lanes. The eye test is supported by the numbers: Opponents are scoring only 0.71 points per possession when defended by Brogdon, per Synergy, which ranks in the 95th percentile of all NBA players. The Bucks aren’t just having their rookie lock down bench slouches; he’s regularly been tasked with defending All-Star guards.
It’s rare for a rookie to already be so reliable defensively, but Brogdon is so much more than just a defensive specialist. NBA teams are thirsty for 3-and-D role players, and the Bucks had one fall into their laps with the 36th pick in the draft. Brogdon is shooting 45.1 percent from 3, which might not be sustainable, but it’s a positive sign considering all the pre-draft questions about his stroke translating. You could argue that Brogdon is actually a “3-and-D-plus” player because of his contributions as a playmaker as a rookie. Brogdon might not be this year’s Draymond Green, but he could be its Jae Crowder.
2. Joel Embiid, Rim Protector
The Sixers are using Joel Embiid like a superstar, with a usage percentage of 36.8 that is third in the league behind only Russell Westbrook and DeMarcus Cousins. As a result of his opportunity, he’s averaging 17.6 points, 7.5 rebounds, and 2.5 blocks per game, making him far and away the leading contender for Rookie of the Year. Those averages come despite a minutes restriction (Embiid averages only 23.8 minutes per game), which makes his per-possession projections something to swoon over.
Embiid is averaging 35.9 points, 15.3 rebounds, and 5.1 blocks per 100 possessions, a threshold that no player has achieved over a full season. If you drop the parameters to 30, 10, and five per 100 possessions since 1973, per Basketball-Reference, we’re presented with an exclusive list of players: Hakeem Olajuwon, David Robinson, Patrick Ewing, and Alonzo Mourning. Those four bigs were dominant offensively and had a knack for rebounding and shot blocking at the highest of levels. Remove the points, and you’ll find defensive aces like Marcus Camby, Ben Wallace, and Tree Rollins. This isn’t a fluky list; the players who achieve these numbers are typically who you’d expect.
Embiid has a lot of progress to make before he joins those elite ranks, but his mere presence has already transformed the Sixers. When Embiid is on the floor, they own a 97.9 defensive rating, which would lead the NBA; when he’s on the bench, it plummets to 108, which would be fifth worst. Embiid is already developing a reputation as a force inside, despite this being just his third month playing professionally after a two-year injury sabbatical. Opponents are shooting just 43.4 percent near the rim when defended by Embiid, the sixth-best mark in the league, per SportVU. He’s not only swatting shots away, but he’s also deterring players from even testing him.
The Sixers go from fun with Embiid to unwatchable without him, and considering how much young talent surrounds him on their roster that says a lot. That’s what happens when there’s a player on the roster who has a chance to help define a new era of basketball.
3. Jamal Murray, Sharpshooter
Jamal Murray was the Western Conference Rookie of the Month in November, and on the year he’s averaging 9.8 points per — you know what, just forget the basic stats when it comes to Murray. They don’t actually matter. The Nuggets rookie is hitting 3s at a 36.7 percent clip, which really isn’t all that impressive. His 2.1 assists per game is uninspiring, as is his 38.7 field goal percentage. These numbers are worse than those Michael Carter-Williams posted in his rookie season, which was part of one of the weakest rookie-season pools in recent history.
But the basic box score can be deceiving. Murray has proved himself to be an assassin this season, whether he’s spotting up (44.3 percent on catch-and-shoot 3s) or whether Nuggets head coach Mike Malone is tasking him with complex off-ball motions on plays like this:
Murray is just a 19-year-old rookie, but he’s already on some Kyle Korver–level shenanigans racing through screens and using them to disappear from his defender. And he’s following all of that up with lasers! This isn’t just a one-time thing, either. Murray pulled a David Blaine on Thunder guard Anthony Morrow again later that game:
Murray is shooting 11-of-26 (42.3 percent) from 3 when he’s coming off a screen, according to Synergy. Maybe that figure isn’t as magical as, say, swallowing (and then regurgitating) live frogs, but it’s awfully good by NBA standards. By comparison, J.J. Redick is shooting 18-of-42 (42.9 percent) from 3 coming off a screen. This production is consistent with Murray’s freshman year at Kentucky. Everything he did at an elite level in college is translating to the NBA: the flawless decision-making reading screens; the fast-twitch, change-of-direction evasive maneuvers; and the ability to adjust his body in midair to release off-balance shots.
So why is Murray shooting 3s at such an average clip overall? Simple: We’re still rolling with small sample sizes. Your takeaway from the past two paragraphs shouldn’t be “Murray is shooting six-tenths worse than Redick!” It’s the process, not the results, that’s so impressive. By exhibiting a blistering ability to get open off the ball and release his shots cleanly, it’s conceivable that as his year (and career) wears on, the numbers will begin to reflect his talent.
4. Pascal Siakam, Mr. Hustle
Here’s a 60-second video of Raptors rookie forward Pascal Siakam using the tried-and-true ancient method of outwork everyone else to make opposing NBA head coaches irate:
Sometimes NFL quarterbacks whip a pass so fast that the TV cameras can’t keep up: That’s what it’s like watching Siakam run the floor. Hustle. Grit. Motor. You’ve heard the platitudes before, and while they get stale around draft time, there really are no other words to describe Siakam’s game. The rookie’s game has flaws — he dropped to the 27th pick because of his age (22), average rim protection, and lack of a dynamic offensive skill set — but he has intangibles that can’t be taught. In two seasons at New Mexico State, Siakam popped onto the NBA radar because he plays with the energy of a toddler hopped up on soda. Siakam and “hustle” are about as closely related as Curry and “shooting.”
The Raptors are leading the NBA with a bonkers 114.9 offensive rating, and their transition offense has played a big role. According to Synergy, the team is scoring 128.9 transition points per 100 possessions, which would go down as the highest rate over the past 12 years (that’s as far back as Synergy data goes). For all his offensive limitations, Siakam actually contributes quite a bit to Toronto’s transition offense with his defensive energy, deflections, and, of course, his maniacal rim-runs.
5. Domantas Sabonis, Floor Spacer
In two seasons at Gonzaga, Domantas Sabonis was an energetic big man who used feel and positioning to score efficiently from the paint. Now in the NBA, Sabonis is a bundle of energy but his offense migrated from the interior to the perimeter. It’s a significant, somewhat unexpected change, and it’s actually working. It’s happening because the Thunder really, really need shooting. They’re the fifth-worst 3-point shooting team in the NBA, and Russell Westbrook needs all the space he can to do what he wants. (For what it’s worth, if you take away all of Westbrook’s 3s, which he converts only 32.1 percent of, the Thunder still shoot only 32.9 percent, which would be sixth worst in the league.)
Sabonis has helped in that floor-spacing department. After attempting only 14 3-pointers in 74 games at Gonzaga, he’s already launched 61 in 26 games with the Thunder. More impressively, he’s hit at a 42.6 percent clip. Of the 163 players to attempt at least 50 triples so far this season, that rate ranks 22nd in the NBA. Based on the role Sabonis has been asked to play, the Thunder couldn’t be any happier with their rookie.
All stats current through Thursday morning except for those obtained through Synergy, which are current as of December 13.