The 2016 NBA rookie class has fallen short of expectations. By the numbers, it’s the worst class in modern NBA history. Since 1979–80, the season the league added the 3-point line, no group of newcomers has ever posted fewer win shares (a metric that estimates the number of wins an individual player produces for his team). In layman’s terms, the 2016 class has contributed less toward winning than any other group.
This is unsurprising considering the front-runners for this year’s Rookie of the Year award: Joel Embiid, who was actually drafted in 2014 and appeared in only 31 games; Malcolm Brogdon, who is scoring 10 points per game; or Dario Saric, also drafted in 2014, and who spent two seasons playing in Europe and has only recently started surging in the NBA. You can’t argue with the numbers. Win shares is an objective measure that does a relatively good job of assessing production. Here are the total win shares for each rookie class since 1979:
The 2008 class — featuring Russell Westbrook, Kevin Love, Derrick Rose, and DeAndre Jordan — is one of the best. The 2000 class — led by Jamal Crawford, Mike Miller, and Kenyon Martin — is near the bottom of the barrel. But there are some misfires.
The 1996 and 2003 rookie classes — widely regarded as some of the best ever — rank toward the middle. The 1987 class grades almost equal to 2000, but gave us David Robinson, Scottie Pippen, Reggie Miller, Horace Grant, and Reggie Lewis, as well as longtime contributors like Mark Jackson, Kevin Johnson, and Kenny Smith.
The 2013 class was considered a disaster just a few years ago, but can now boast several stars — Giannis Antetokounmpo, Rudy Gobert, and C.J. McCollum — and a long list of role players including Otto Porter, Steven Adams, Cody Zeller, and Robert Covington. The point is: The narrative changes, you just have to be patient with these kids.
So much of success is contextual. There should be more focus on progress and projection and less on present production. By that, I mean we should be attempting to answer questions such as:
- Have any players shown flashes of superstardom?
- Who has shown skills that would allow them to carve out a long-term role?
- What kind of progress has an individual player made over the course of the season?
- Has a lack of opportunity prevented certain players from showcasing their talent?
- Which players deserve our patience?
The first returns for the 2016 class might not be good, but if we look beyond this class’s raw per-game numbers or advanced analytics and break them down to their core elements, we’ll find the group is blossoming with upside. Here’s my re-draft of the 2016 lottery, followed by some observations about some of the biggest surprises, disappointments, and players who are still under construction.
We’re nearing a milestone for Joel Embiid and Dario Saric. On Wednesday, 1,000 days will have passed since the 2014 NBA draft. Back then, Sixers general manager Sam Hinkie (who stepped down in 2016) was public enemy no. 1 for using lottery picks on two players everyone knew weren’t going to play that season. Embiid was sidelined by injury. Saric was committed overseas. Philly fans looking for an immediate reward after years of losing thought this was unfair. Today, Embiid and Saric are two of the main reasons to feel optimistic about Philly’s future.
Hinkie probably understood the optics of those moves, but he was willing to look foolish in the short-term in order to win long-term. “These two 20-year-olds represent another layer to the construction of our program,” Hinkie said at the time. Others within the Sixers organization (and around the league) didn’t share Hinkie’s long view; but with the excellent play of Embiid and Saric, Philly now has hope. With Ben Simmons out for the season, the Rookie of the Year race is wide open, and they’re the leaders.
Embiid showed Hall of Fame potential in his 31 games played this season. He’s already one of the best centers in the league, a 7-foot-2 behemoth with few flaws. Embiid can control the paint on both ends, and he can drift out to the 3-point line to shoot or attack closeouts. If he stays healthy, he’ll be the defining player of this rookie class, and possibly the most dominant player of his generation.
Saric’s potential is less stratospheric, but the Croatian forward has made significant strides each month, averaging 19.3 points, 7.9 rebounds, and 3.9 assists with a 53.3 effective field goal percentage over his past 18 games. Saric has transformed into the do-it-all point forward he was overseas. He may never post high-volume scoring numbers, but he’s a winning player. From clutch shots to no-look passes to timely blocks, we’re seeing why Saric won multiple championships and MVPs playing in Europe. If the Sixers ever win a title, don’t be surprised when the highlight reel is flooded with plays by Saric.
Context Is Everything
The no. 2 and no. 3 picks in the 2016 draft are having drastically different seasons. Lakers forward Brandon Ingram is posting paltry numbers on one of the league’s worst teams. Celtics wing Jaylen Brown is producing in spurts on the second-best team in the Eastern Conference. Neither player has lived up to the hype typically associated with a top-three pick. They’ve both made strides. They both deserve patience.
Consider their situations. Brown plays a limited role on a winning team, so the opportunity isn’t there for him to post volume numbers. On offense, he is primarily asked to spot up and attack closeouts, which he does well. Brown made tweaks to his raggedy shooting mechanics and now looks more comfortable shooting spot-up 3s. He still struggles off the dribble — he’s missed 30 of 38 dribble jumpers, per Synergy — but he’s shown progress and has become a reasonable threat off the ball. Brown isn’t a go-to scorer, but few rookies are. He’s shown flashes demonstrating that he can be an offensive weapon once his footwork and explosiveness are complemented by a better shot.
When Brown was drafted, Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge praised his physique, saying he has “a man’s body” and can “play with the big boys right out of the gate.” Physical build is often the easiest thing for a player to change in the NBA — they can get in the training room and put on muscle — but Brown was ready out of the box. That’s given him a season’s worth of playing time to evolve into a reliable defender. The Celtics use Brown to defend multiple positions because he has the lateral quickness to stay with the guards and the strength to battle forwards.
The same can’t be said for Ingram, who still looks like a toothpick with limbs. Ingram has gotten roasted on defense because players can plow through him. But since he’s playing on a losing team, he’s still receiving heavy minutes and a consistent offensive role. According to Synergy, the Duke product is scoring only 0.81 points per possession, which ranks in the 16th percentile of all NBA players. That’s not good. But within the context of a rebuilding Lakers team, he’s been asked to run a ton of pick-and-rolls and isolations, both of which are more advanced play types that a teenager might not be ready for.
If Ingram swapped places with Brown and played a more clearly defined role on a winning team, perhaps his efficiency would rise. But that wouldn’t change the fact his body is nowhere close to NBA-ready. Part of the reason the Lakers can’t give him a heavier workload is his body might not be able to sustain the pounding that would come with it. The Lakers knew what they were getting; Ingram they will have to wait for, and they’re being smart by limiting him.
Everything I just wrote about Ingram’s body could be applied to Suns rookie Dragan Bender, who averaged 3.2 points and 2.2 rebounds per game before ankle surgery ended his season. The stats stink. The injury is worse. But he doesn’t turn 20 until November. The Suns drafted a project, and expecting first-season returns would have been asking too much. Consider an alternative reality where Bender goes down the same path as fellow Croatian Saric. It might’ve been tough for Suns fans to wait two years for Bender to come stateside, but they would’ve had a more finished product when he arrived. Saric might’ve looked like a dud, too, if he entered the league immediately after being drafted in 2014.
Marquese Chriss is the more immediate prize for Suns fans. The athletic forward has had explosive performances in his rookie campaign, including seven instances scoring 17 or more points over the past 25 games, but he’s also had his share of duds, where he gets himself into foul trouble or looks lost offensively. Chriss could max out as an underwhelming Jeff Green–level role player, but he looks like a more refined player today than he did one year ago in college.
The Hernangomez Brothers
With Pau and Marc Gasol inching closer to the end of their careers, the league’s next great Fraternal Spanish Duo has come just at the right time with Juancho and Willy Hernangomez, of the Nuggets and Knicks, respectively.
You wouldn’t know it by looking at his stats — 4.9 points in 13.2 minutes per game — but Denver rookie forward Juancho Hernangomez is among the most promising rookies of this class. Nuggets fans are already up on this, because every night they see Hernangomez shining in his role as a spot-up 3-point shooter, who cuts to the basket and provides explosive dunks along with hard-nosed defense. Juancho is a 6-foot-9 combo forward who can shoot the lights out, hitting 46.4 percent from the field. Most of his offense comes from downtown, and he’s scoring 1.12 points per possession, which ranks near the top of the league. Sure, it’s on a small sample of buckets, but what he does should translate even with more volume.
Knockdown shooting was to be expected, though. That was his best skill playing overseas. More impressive is his progress as a defender, and that his athleticism has translated to the NBA game.
Hernangomez is also an explosive leaper near the cup. I’d be interested to see how he’d perform as a rim runner with more reps. But those chances might not come unless the Nuggets start playing more small ball. If he’s able to develop into a beast in the screen game, with the ability to pop or roll, the next stage will be to develop his handle. Nuggets guard Jamal Murray rightfully receives a lot of hype as a potential star (I wrote in-depth about him here), but if Hernangomez start hitting shots off the dribble, the Nuggets could have another star in the making.
Juancho’s older brother, Willy, doesn’t quite have the same upside, but he should be able carve out a long career as a reliable backup center. He’s the other bright spot on the Knicks, next to Kristaps Porzingis. Willy Hernangomez rebounds 20.4 percent of available rebounds, an elite mark for a center, and will only improve defensively as his frame fills out. Playing on a team without any leadership isn’t great for his development (or Carmelo Anthony’s body temperature), but his game has a contagious jovial spirit that should allow him to flourish in whatever situation he lands in.
Opportunity Knocks for Kings
I wrote in-depth about Buddy Hield and Jamal Murray in January, which you can read here, but here’s an update on Hield. Mr. “Steph Curry potential” has been really friggin’ good with the Kings. Since the Boogie blockbuster, Hield is averaging 13.3 points while shooting 45 percent from 3. He’s doing more than just shoot, though. Kings head coach Dave Joerger is throwing Hield into the fire by running more pick-and-roll than he did in New Orleans. The results are promising.
Hield is shooting 15-of-20 on shots that come out of the pick-and-roll, per Synergy. He’s had his fair share of sloppy turnovers, but that’s to be expected for any player who needs to tighten his handle. Hield needs to grow through failure, just like he did over four years at Oklahoma. He can stroke 3s, but to ever become more than a one-dimensional sharpshooter, he’ll need to become a dynamic threat off the bounce. The past month has been encouraging. Vivek Ranadivé must be feeling bullish.
Skal Labissiere and Georgios Papagiannis are also getting touches as a result of the DeMarcus Cousins trade. Labissiere in particular is having an impressive run after spending most of the year in the D-League.
That’s not the prettiest 32-point performance. A lot of those heaves probably should not have gone in, and against better defenders, he’s probably not even getting the shot off. But 32 NBA points is 32 NBA points. He’s one of six players under 21 to score more than 30 points this season (Devin Booker, Myles Turner, Emmanuel Mudiay, D’Angelo Russell, and Karl-Anthony Towns are the others). Skal was drafted 28th and came in with virtually zero expectations. He was a top high-school recruit, and his 32-point game is a reminder why he was once a much-hyped prospect. Maybe Labissiere never becomes a star, but for at least one night, he showed that there’s a chance he could.
Filling a Role
Before the season, I wrote that this is a role-player rookie class. But role players are important. Milwaukee’s Malcolm Brogdon, a potential Rookie of the Year, is going to be an excellent one.
“It’s about mechanics and breaking the game down to an art,” Brogdon told me in January. “That happens by focusing on the fundamentals.” That sums up his game. He’s not super athletic, though he can put a dude on a poster. He’s not the quickest. He’s not the flashiest. But he’s steady: He’s a versatile defender who posts a 2.6 assist-turnover ratio and 40.8 3-point percentage. The Bucks can use Brogdon on-ball or off-ball, which jibes nicely with Giannis Antetokounmpo, their ball-dominant superstar.
About a month ago, an agent texted me saying how Brogdon is considered a good rookie only because he’s actually playing, and that other rookies could have similar impact provided the opportunity. That wasn’t a knock; it’s true. If Brogdon wasn’t playing, you wouldn’t know who he is. On a different team, he might get lost in the shuffle. But he landed in the right place. Other players haven’t been so lucky.
Some players who could have Brogdon’s rep if they played Brogdon’s minutes are DeAndre’ Bembry (Hawks), Malik Beasley (Nuggets), and Dejounte Murray (Spurs). Bembry could end up better than Brogdon if his shot develops, while Beasley is an athletic 3-and-D wing. Murray’s success will depend on his shot, and he can’t learn from a better shooting coach than San Antonio’s Chip Engelland. Some big men to keep in mind are Brice Johnson (Clippers), Damian Jones (Warriors), and Thon Maker (Bucks) — all of whom have versatile games that suit the modern NBA.
The Benefits of Tanking
The Lakers are tanking, but the irony of them benching the overpaid Timofey Mozgov to hand more minutes to rookie center Ivica Zubac is that Zubac is already better. I wasn’t big on the 7-foot-1 Croatian prior to the 2016 draft — he had poor jumper mechanics, an underwhelming defensive skill set, and a major-injury history. But he’s won me over. Zubac’s mechanics have smoothed out, and he’s comfortably hitting midrange jumpers out to 19 feet.
Zubac’s form isn’t the prettiest, and he’s still shooting only 57.9 percent from the line, but I feel a lot better about him extending his shot out to deep-2 or 3-point range than I did prior to the draft. He’s hit 13 of 22 catch-and-shoot jumpers, per Synergy. Finding some semblance of a jumper is important for a modern NBA big man who isn’t a dominant defender. Otherwise, he’s just a guy who scores dirty buckets inside:
Zubac is excellent at finding the blue sky underneath the rim. He has a soft touch with both hands, has light feet, and knows how to fake out defenders with pump-fakes. As the Lakers add more talent and their youth develops, Zubac should have even more space to score inside. He’s been better defensively, too. It seems like Zubac finds himself getting posterized on a near-nightly basis, but at least he’s putting himself in harm’s way and attempting to alter shots. I’ve never bought into the narrative that a player should feel shame or embarrassment when they get demolished by a dunk.
As good as Zubac has been over the past few weeks, there’s a reason he fell to 32nd in the draft, and it wasn’t just his talent or the fact that other players might’ve been better. It was the injury concern. Zubac suffered a navicular stress fracture in his foot in 2014 — the Embiid injury — and then a knee sprain in 2015. We can only hope that Zubac stays healthy.
But let Zubac and Embiid serve as reminders that no player is exempt from injury: The success stories we have now are prone to fall off, just as the strugglers are likely to rise. We are often too quick to judge young players based on the present when things can change so quickly in the future. Development is not linear. The 2016 rookie class might feel like a disappointment today, but we won’t really know how it panned out for years to come. Stay patient.