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Don’t Panic About Your Favorite NBA Rookie

There will be slow starts and hot takes, but give them time

Getty Images/Ringer illustration
Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Slow starts aren’t death sentences. But for NBA rookies, they can feel that way. It’s tradition: Place unrealistic expectations on lottery picks, and when they don’t produce as anticipated, immediately, sew the league’s scarlet letter around their neck — “B” for bust. First impressions can prove to be true, as in the case of Hasheem Thabeet. But some players, like J.J. Redick, show they were judged too hastily.

The top of the 2016 NBA draft class will no doubt cause fans to panic early in the season. But don’t fear. These players require patience as they develop. Some rookies fell into situations where they might not receive early minutes, while others are in an embryonic phase of their basketball lives. The Ringer has retrieved the hottest NBA takes from the future to explain why you shouldn’t panic if a rookie gets off to a slow start:

Brandon Ingram, Lakers

It’s December and Luol Deng is still starting over Brandon Ingram, and when he does play, the Duke product is getting tossed around like a rag doll.

Kevin Durant has said that looking at Ingram is like looking in the mirror. They’re both tall and lanky with long limbs. It took years for Durant to pack on weight, just like it will for Ingram. Durant weighed 215 pounds as a rookie and reportedly couldn’t even bench press the standard 185 pounds once at the NBA combine. The similarity only fuels the Ingram hype. As a rookie, Durant scored an astounding 20.3 points per game, but it came on an inefficient 45.1 effective field goal percentage, due to Durant adjusting to the league’s physicality. Ingram will need to adapt, too. Durant was just significantly better and more athletic at the same age, so expectations must be calibrated.

Ingram won’t wow you like Durant did (and still does), but that’s OK: Focus instead on Ingram’s skills that should more immediately translate. He has a special blend of size and speed that make him a tough cover when factoring in his shooting stroke. If Ingram screens, sometimes the defense will switch, which puts a guard on him. Then he can use his size to shoot over the top.

Or, if Ingram is against a slower forward or a big, he has the speed to shimmy his lanky frame to the rim.

Adjusting to the pro game’s physicality could limit Ingram’s efficiency against starters. Before graduating to a starting role, coming off the bench could be good for Ingram, since he needs live reps to improve on some of his weaknesses, like ballhandling and at-rim finishing.

Buddy Hield, Pelicans

There’s a chance Jamal Murray is a better player long-term than Buddy Hield, but Hield is more likely to contribute before Anthony Davis hits free agency in 2020. Just after Christmas, the early returns on Hield are mixed. He’s hitting 3s, but he’s not doing much else. Did the Pelicans make a mistake?

Buddy Hield launched Oklahoma to a deep tournament run as a senior with his flamethrower 3-point shot. The spotlight on Hield divided the draft community. Some scouts felt he was overhyped, while others thought Hield made massive strides (it’s possible both of these takes are true). The Pelicans fell in the latter group, selecting him sixth overall. But the mixed reviews were only amplified after Hield’s so-so summer league performance. If those struggles continue into the season, expect to see him compared to the likes of Jimmer Fredette, Ben McLemore, and Nik Stauskas.

If he does start slow, Hield and his fans should remember the trajectory of J.J. Redick. Their developmental paths are actually quite similar, even putting aside their common sharpshooting skill sets. Redick’s primary weaknesses entering the NBA were his defense, ballhandling, and athleticism. Just like Hield. Redick was buried on the bench under veterans over the first two seasons of his career in Orlando. When he did play, he couldn’t defend; he looked like a bust. But he was actually improving out of public view and, once he was ready, he never relinquished his role as a knockdown shooter and reliable defender. Things will be different for Hield. The Pelicans will be without Tyreke Evans and Jrue Holiday to start the season, so Hield’s going to be tossed into the fire as a starter, and won’t be so sheltered during his early days.

There’s little doubt Hield is capable of becoming a 3-point threat. The biggest adjustment will be draining shots at a less frequent rate. It’s not always easy for high-usage college players to adapt to a reserve role in the pros. He shot 45.7 percent from 3 as a college senior and hit a ton of clutch shots from Stephen Curry–range. As he develops his ability to race through screens, he’ll become a weapon for Alvin Gentry, much like Redick is for Doc Rivers. Even if Hield’s shot isn’t falling, he’ll be a factor due to the attention he attracts, spotting up from deep. But since he doesn’t offer much playmaking or defense, it’ll appear as if he’s offering nothing. Fans can’t overreact to that, though. It will take more than a few months for Hield to become a competent defender. Remember, in April he was committing these sins:

On this play, Hield is defending Villanova’s Josh Hart — a likely early second-rounder in 2017 — and gets burned as if he were playing against James Harden. Hield’s footwork is clunky, and he leaps at a subtle pump-fake. Hield has the measurables to be an average defender, but he too often falls out of position or loses focus. Film study and skill work with coaches, with live reps on the floor, might be the remedy. Hield’s a better athlete than Redick, so it comes down to whether or not he absorbs what he’s taught.

Hield could become a one-dimensional scorer unless he improves as a ball handler. He made strides over his last two years with the Sooners, adding spin moves, basic crossovers, and a reliable off-the-dribble jumper. He still can’t create space in one-on-one situations, but that’s a skill that won’t come for many years, if ever. It’s his progress as a pick-and-roll playmaker that’s worth monitoring.

Hield’s summer league numbers weren’t great, but his progress between the end of the college season and the summer was evident. He flashed moves he never displayed at Oklahoma, like Euro-steps and more advanced dribble hesitations. It’ll be a new challenge against starter-level NBA players, but for an athlete who was self-made into a college superstar and has a natural drive to be great, he seems like a solid bet to continue improving. Hield can carve out a successful NBA career as long as he’s shooting the ball effectively. If he develops other attributes, like pick-and-roll playmaking, he could end up being a lot better than anticipated. It might just take time for him to get there.

Ben Simmons, Sixers

Just two games into Ben Simmons’s career, he’s shooting less than 30 percent on a high volume and hasn’t hit a single attempt outside 10 feet.

Ben Simmons is a bad jump shooter, and it’s a flaw that will be exacerbated by his particular situation in Philly. Defenders will sag off him, and the Sixers’ lack of floor-spacing shooters will suffocate driving lanes. It’ll be difficult to score efficiently or make plays. Sixers fans might even feel Evan Turner déjà vu. But until Simmons plays with personnel that enhance instead of reduce, there’s not much use in losing sleep over his faults. Instead, admire all his glorious, mouth-watering moments as a playmaker.

Simmons is a force. He has the body of a power forward, and the speed, ballhandling, and passing vision of a guard. Even without room on the floor, he’s still going to make special passes that get fans out of their seats. Those passes will be even be more common in transition.

These are the flashes of Simmons’s potential greatness. The Sixers regularly push the pace, but they ranked 26th in transition scoring efficiency last season, according to Synergy, a number Simmons will certainly improve. Playmaking in the half court won’t be easy, but it’s Simmons’s performance on the break that could be more indicative of his future.

Players with Simmons’s freakish traits should also be able to defend all five positions. But he lacks one key component: effort. His lethargic defense was a big part of LSU’s poor performance last season. Could that trend continue on a team racking up Ls? Possibly. But if Simmons simply plays hard, it’s a sign that he’s committed to making the Sixers great again. Even if he struggles in the half court, it won’t matter, as long as he’s showcasing his transcendent potential in other facets. All Sixers fans want is to feel hope, and that’s what Simmons can provide.