It’s been a little more than a month since the NBA season tipped off, which means the members of the 2019-20 rookie class have had a few weeks and 10-15 games to get acclimated to their new normal. (Well, most of them have. Get well soon, Zion.) Let’s check in on the progress of some of the new campaign’s most notable freshmen, starting with a baby bear who more frequently plays like a swan with a bomb strapped to his chest:
(My apologies if your favorite rookie is not listed below. The season is young. We’ll be back.)
Ja Morant, Grizzlies
For a minute during Memphis’s visit to Indiana on Monday, things got scary. With the Grizzlies trailing by 11 points and just under 40 seconds remaining in the first half, Morant saw a chance to grab a two-for-one and try to cut into the Pacers’ lead before intermission. So the no. 2 pick in the 2019 draft gunned it end-to-end, taking the ball straight at Pacers center Myles Turner with the aim of finishing around, over, or straight through one of the league’s premier shot blockers. It didn’t go his way:
Ja Morant was helped off the court after this hard spill. pic.twitter.com/SNBVMvmces— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) November 26, 2019
After Turner swatted his shot, the 20-year-old Grizzlies guard crashed in a heap, back-first, into the knee of a cameraman along the baseline. He needed to be helped off the floor and back to the visiting locker room at Bankers Life Fieldhouse; Memphians held their collective breath.
And then, about three minutes into the second half, Morant checked back into the game, seemingly none the worse for wear. And about six minutes after that, the kid offered a suggestion that if he’d learned any lesson at all, it was that he should just say to hell with trying to lay the ball up ...
… and attack even harder and faster next time:
This sort of push and pull has defined the start of Morant’s career. The former Murray State star’s combination of sudden detonation and venom when assaulting the rim calls to mind Russell Westbrook—Ja’s favorite player, natch—but at a spindly 6-foot-3 and 174 pounds, his frame more closely evokes someone like Jamal Crawford. As SB Nation’s Zito Madu has noted, bodies like Morant’s aren’t built to survive repeated midair collisions with significantly larger humans. This cruel fact of physics has already led to some of the bad kind of heart-stopping moments, like the one just before halftime Monday.
And yet, at least at this stage, Morant seems uninterested in playing any other way. He’s got a diverse enough game to produce without pursuing pain; he leads all 2019-20 rookies in points and assists per game, and is on pace to be just the sixth rookie ever to average more than 19 points, six assists, and three rebounds, joining Oscar Robertson, Allen Iverson, Damon Stoudamire, Damian Lillard, and Trae Young. But in addition to boasting the speed, handles, agility, craft, and grace to live in the spaces between defenders, Morant also has the springs and the snarl to live on top of their goddamn heads. And when he gets knocked down, his primary answer is to get up and do it again like he really means it this time. He’s forever betting that the wall is going to break before he does.
This is at least somewhat concerning; it does not seem to be a recipe for a long, healthy, and prosperous NBA career. But it is pretty freaking breathtaking to watch. Morant has filled the vacuum created by Zion Williamson’s absence, becoming both must-see TV and your Rookie of the Year front-runner thanks in part to his seemingly insatiable desire to destroy everything. Let’s just hope he doesn’t hurt himself in the process.
Speaking of Grizzly cubs …
Brandon Clarke, Grizzlies
The no. 21 pick out of Gonzaga has been an analytics darling in the early going. Clarke leads all 30 rookies who have played at least 165 minutes in [deep breath] true shooting percentage, effective field goal percentage, defensive rebounding percentage, win shares, player efficiency rating, value over replacement player, and player impact estimate [cleansing exhale]. The counting stats ain’t half bad, either: 12.7 points, 6.3 rebounds, 1.2 assists, and 1.1 blocks in just 22.3 minutes per game.
Brandon Clarke swallows shot, Brandon Clarke buries shot— Fastbreak Breakfast (@fastbreakbreak) November 14, 2019
Nothing but respect for MY #roy pic.twitter.com/Fln1Hotmvl
The defensive versatility that made Clarke the West Coast Conference’s Defensive Player of the Year last season has started to translate, sometimes subtly and at others much more obviously. What’s been most impressive, though, is how quickly he’s become an offensive contributor in Memphis. He’s made an instant impact as a dive man and a vertical spacer, shooting 20-for-24 after setting a pick and rolling to the basket (only four players have produced more points per possession on such possessions, according to Synergy Sports). He’s shown great touch on his floater, splashing 27 of 35 attempts that have come in the paint but outside the restricted area, according to NBA.com. And while the bulk of his opportunities have come in the lane, Clarke’s also flashed a strong shooting stroke, hitting 17 of his first 20 free throws and nine of his first 19 3-point tries.
Clarke has played only 38 minutes alongside both Morant and Jaren Jackson Jr. so far, but if the shooting continues to look real, expect that figure to go up as the season progresses. I’m with my colleague Kevin O’Connor: I think Clarke’s for real, and that means he should get plenty of opportunities to grow alongside the other cornerstone pieces of the youth-movement rebuild in Memphis.
Tyler Herro and Kendrick Nunn, Heat
After ranking 26th in points scored per non-garbage-time possession last season, Miami’s up to 12th in offensive efficiency this season. A lot of factors have contributed to the Heat’s rise—the addition of Jimmy Butler as a new focal point, the emergence of Bam Adebayo as a legitimate playmaking hub in the half court and in transition, the resurgence of Goran Dragic as a second-unit scoring threat and table-setter—but the arrivals of two new plug-and-play perimeter weapons shouldn’t be overlooked.
@MiamiHEAT rookies Tyler Herro and Kendrick Nunn have 14 PTS apiece at the half! #NBARooks#HEATTwitter 68#BeTheFight 44— NBA (@NBA) November 15, 2019
Watch Live: https://t.co/3bTQPOmwYk pic.twitter.com/45XanXgoww
Herro exited Kentucky after one season, arriving in Miami with plenty of flair as the 13th pick in last June’s draft. Nunn, on the other hand, went undrafted in 2018 out of Oakland University, where he played his senior season following his dismissal from Illinois after pleading guilty to a misdemeanor battery charge stemming from a 2016 domestic violence arrest. After leading Division I in 3-point shooting as a senior at Oakland and averaging more points per game than any player in the nation save Trae Young, Nunn spent last season with the Warriors’ G League affiliate in Santa Cruz before the Heat signed him to a non-guaranteed deal. “We thought he would be a guy that we could develop,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra told Jake Fischer of Bleacher Report.
Despite their disparate paths to the NBA, Herro and Nunn have each added firepower and versatility to the Heat’s offensive attack. Both can shoot off of movement or spotting up at a standstill, from the corners or above the break, off the catch or off the bounce. Both can handle the ball and run the pick-and-roll, and can beat defenders off the dribble to get to the rim (though Nunn’s ahead of his fellow rook when it comes to pace and craft as a driver). Nunn and Herro rank second and third, respectively, among rookies in 3-point makes, and seventh and 10th in 3-point accuracy among rooks with at least 25 attempts. They’ve both held their own on defense, too, with the 6-foot-5 Herro using his size to battle opposing wings and Nunn proving both active at the point of attack and opportunistic, trailing only New York’s RJ Barrett among rookies in steals.
Nunn rode a strong preseason to a spot in Miami’s starting lineup and hasn’t looked back, averaging 16.9 points, 3.3 assists, 2.5 rebounds, and 1.3 steals per game. Herro, meanwhile, has become one of Spoelstra’s top guns off the bench, averaging a shade under 15 points on 44 percent shooting as a reserve. They’ve helped make the Heat one of the deepest teams in the league and, at 12-4 with a top-seven point differential, a team to be reckoned with in the Eastern Conference playoff chase.
Eric Paschall and Ky Bowman, Warriors
You take silver linings where you find them when you’re 3-15, have more than $125 million in salary suffering through various degrees of injuries, and the only history you’re chasing is the kind you’d really prefer didn’t make it into the record books. Steve Kerr and Co. can take some solace in knowing that this disaster season from Planet Bullshit is at least providing an opportunity to develop some new young contributors. While Golden State’s 2019 first-round pick, Jordan Poole, hasn’t yet taken advantage of that chance—only two rookies in the 3-point era have taken at least 150 shots and posted a lower effective field goal percentage than Poole thus far—two other first-year Warriors are grabbing on to it with both hands.
The Warriors snagged former Villanova forward Eric Paschall when he slipped into the second round last June—fitting, considering our own Kevin O’Connor tabbed him before the draft as a potential Next Draymond Green (taken 35th, as you might remember). But young Draymond never had to operate as a no. 1 option, and nobody without access to some powerful dark magic could have expected that Paschall would lead Golden State in total points, made field goals, field goal attempts, and free throw attempts through 17 games. What’s wild is that he’s handled it remarkably well; among rookies who have used more than 20 percent of their team’s offensive possessions, only Miami’s Nunn has a higher true shooting percentage.
The 6-foot-6, 255-pound forward has shown a capacity to operate from the block (1.36 points per post-up possession, the fourth-best mark in the NBA, per Synergy) and as a smart cutter away from the play’s initial action (1.50 points per such possession, putting him in the 82nd percentile in the league) when he’s not working on the ball and facing up on his defender. He does that a lot: He’s gone iso on 19.2 percent of the offensive plays he’s used, the sixth-highest share of possessions in the league, behind only MVPs (James Harden, LeBron James, Russell Westbrook) and second-unit gunners (Spencer Dinwiddie, Austin Rivers). Those one-on-one trips aren’t always pretty—turnovers are an issue, and he sure does snap-kick his legs on that jumper a lot—but it’s all in the service of expanding his game during a dead-end season that’s quickly become little more than a sandbox. Paschall certainly seems to be responding to Kerr’s confidence in him with more confidence of his own:
This beautiful driving finish on LeBron was right after Paschall hit an iso midrange jumper on LeBron pic.twitter.com/iEtOGwdnj1— Drew Shiller (@DrewShiller) November 14, 2019
Speaking of confidence: Bowman, an undrafted rookie, wormed his way into many watchers’ hearts with his willingness to go jaw-to-jaw—or, I guess, jaw-to-shoulder—with Hassan Whiteside after some extracurricular activity …
Ky Bowman ain't taking that chicken wing from Hassan Whiteside without words pic.twitter.com/9ETLPqri1G— CJ Fogler (@cjzero) November 5, 2019
… and he just keeps earning more chances with his play as the Warriors’ lone healthy point guard. The Boston College product busts his ass on the defensive end; he’s fond of talking about how he’ll “pick up 94,” harassing opponents the length of the court. He’s also averaging 9.1 points, 2.6 assists, 2.2 rebounds, and 1.0 steals in 21.8 minutes per game on 48/44/92 shooting splits, and ranks second among rookies playing at least 10 minutes per game in assist-to-turnover ratio. He also just went toe-to-toe with Chris Paul and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander in a close loss to Oklahoma City, popping for 24 points, five assists, and three steals:
As a player on a two-way contract, Bowman can spend only 45 days with the Warriors before they have to either send him back to the G League or convert his contract into a full-time NBA deal, which would require opening up a roster spot. That could be tricky—Golden State is hard-capped, meaning it can’t exceed the “apron” (the point $6 million above the luxury tax threshold) at any point in any transaction, so they’d need to either waive a non-guaranteed player (like, say, big man Marquese Chriss) or make a trade where they send out a player and take in no salary in return to create a spot for Bowman.
If he keeps this up, though, GM Bob Myers might have to get creative. “Obviously, I want to keep him,” Kerr recently told reporters. “I think we feel really strongly about that.”
Goga Bitadze, Pacers
Ankle sprains for both Myles Turner and Domantas Sabonis pressed the 20-year-old Georgian into a larger role than anticipated early in his NBA career. But Bitadze responded to the challenge with some strong, steady minutes, quickly establishing himself as the sort of rim protector that opponents need to be mindful of as they probe the paint:
Bitadze leads all rookies in blocked shots, and ranks 17th among all players in swats per game. He’s rejecting 8.9 percent of opponents’ 2-point attempts during his floor time, which would be the third-highest block percentage of any rookie in the past 10 seasons to play at least 150 minutes, behind only the Celtics’ Robert Williams and the Knicks’ Mitchell Robinson last season. Opponents are shooting a minuscule 39.6 percent at the rim when Bitadze is defending, an elite rate; with him on the court, Indiana’s allowing a microscopic 100.6 points per 100 non-garbage-time possessions, a league-best-caliber defensive efficiency mark.
Some of that’s due to a conservative scheme under head coach Nate McMillan that calls for the 6-foot-11 Bitadze to drop back in pick-and-roll coverage and use his size and length to act as a deterrent at the rim, but he’s also flashed some quick feet when tracking drivers from the perimeter. For a 20-year-old to come in and instantly contribute to a top-10 defense is rare, and pretty special. When the rest of Bitadze’s game comes along, too—he’s taken only 11 3-pointers so far, but he’s got the touch to make them, and he’s shooting 76.5 percent from the foul line—the Pacers are going to have an awfully nice player on their hands … and, given the contracts they’ve handed out to Turner and Sabonis in the past couple of seasons, some very interesting roster management decisions to make.
Coby White, Bulls
I keep getting Patty Mills vibes when I watch White play. Maybe it’s the way he always seems to be bouncing on the balls of his feet as he springs toward the ball; maybe it’s the cool hair and smile. Maybe it’s that, like the Aussie, White can seemingly go from puttering around to wreathed in flames at the drop of a hat, as he did in incinerating the Knicks to the tune of 27 points in 27 minutes on 7-for-11 shooting from 3-point range:
As is often the case with young guards, White’s start in Chicago has been plagued by inconsistency. Look no further than his past two outings: 28 points on 12-for-19 shooting to support Zach LaVine’s superhuman effort on the road in Charlotte on Saturday, followed by a 3-for-13 stinker in a bad loss to the Blazers at home on Monday. He’s got the hops to get up and throw down, but he’s struggled with finishing inside, shooting just 46 percent on attempts at the rim. His defensive work has been spotty, too, though that’s something of a team-wide condition for the Bulls, who play a ramped-up and aggressive style that can create mistakes (no team forces turnovers on a higher share of opponents’ possessions) but can also get carved up (Portland scored 115.2 points per 100 possessions against the Bulls on Monday, repeatedly beating Chicago rotations with skip passes out of the high pick-and-roll).
The learning curve can be steep for rookie guards, especially ones stuck in combo roles on teams with veterans already entrenched in the backcourt. White might be in for an up-and-down season as he tries to navigate the uncertainty in Chicago. The ups ought to be pretty entertaining to watch, though.
De’Andre Hunter, Hawks
It’s been an awful couple of weeks for Atlanta, which has lost seven straight games and 10 of 11, completely pulverizing any of the good vibes created by Trae Young’s white-hot start. One silver lining as the losses mount, though: Hunter, the fourth pick in June’s draft, has started to come on after a slow offensive start to the season.
Through eight games, the former Virginia star was averaging 8.3 points and 1.4 assists in 27.4 minutes per game, shooting just 36.9 percent from the field and 23.1 percent from 3-point land. Over Atlanta’s past nine outings, though, Hunter has taken a step to fill the void left by John Collins’s PED suspension and Kevin Huerter’s shoulder injury, averaging 15.7 points and 2.2 assists in 34.3 minutes per game, while shooting 22-for-48 (45.8 percent) from long distance. He’s looked smooth and confident of late, willing to fire off the catch or probe with the dribble, get to his preferred spot, and either rise up for a jumper or use his 6-foot-8 frame and strength to burrow his way inside:
Everything in Atlanta revolves around Young, and his ability to stretch defenses past their breaking point with the threat of his pull-up shooting and preternatural court vision. Hunter can fit neatly into a complementary role in that ecosystem as a low-usage, defense-first athlete on the wing. If he’s capable of more than that, though—if he can soak up a larger share of possessions efficiently, hit 3s from the top of the floor as well as the corners, and put the ball on the deck to take it right at shot blockers and finish with authority—he could wind up adding some interesting wrinkles to what’s already a pretty compelling collection of young talent in Georgia.
RJ Barrett, Knicks
I wrote a bit about the sunny side of Barrett’s game in my guide to surviving yet another dire Knicks season a couple of weeks back, and he continues to rank among the rookie leaders in scoring (fourth, at 15.1 points per game), rebounding (second, 5.6), assists (second, 3.6) and steals (first, 1.4) as he toils away on a strong contender for Worst Team In The League status. One other thing worth monitoring: Barrett’s free throw shooting has started to tick up, from 44.3 percent through his first 10 games to 63.6 percent over his past six. Not exactly Mark Price, I’ll grant you, but the more consistently the 19-year-old can knock down his freebies, the more dangerous he becomes as a driver and bull-in-a-china-shop offensive rebounder.
Terence Davis, Raptors
I highlighted the Ole Miss product’s emergence last Friday. On Monday, he chipped in 11 points on 5-for-8 shooting with three rebounds and an assist in 21 minutes as the Raptors outlasted the 76ers. More importantly, when he was hit with a bogus foul on Josh Richardson early in the fourth quarter, the basketball gods intervened on his behalf:
Terence Davis called for a phantom foul, Nick Nurse loses his mind. Richardson proceeds to miss all three free throws and then the crowd loses its mind pic.twitter.com/V0or84frsy— Heart of NBA (@HeartofNBA) November 26, 2019
Defenders don’t always get the “ball don’t lie” justice they deserve. Clearly, someone up there likes what Davis is bringing to the table north of the border.