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Eight NBA Rookies Who Have Struggled, Soared, or Surprised

From LaMelo Ball living up to the hype to Payton Pritchard exceeding it to Anthony Edwards dealing with it, we run down some of the most intriguing starts from first-year players

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

One of the many giant unknowns heading into the 2020-21 NBA season was how a rookie class impacted by COVID-19 would adjust to life in the league without the traditional structure—summer league, offseason workouts, a full training camp, etc.—that’s usually a vital part of the onboarding process for first-year players. Nearly a month in, it seems like the answer is: pretty much the way they usually do? Just like normal … you know, without all of the Actual Normalcy.

Let’s take a look at how some of the more prominent members of the 2020-21 rookie class have fared so far, starting—as these things often do—right at the top of the list:

Anthony Edwards, Timberwolves

First, the good: The first pick in the 2020 draft leads all freshmen in scoring, averaging 12.2 points in 25 minutes per game off the Minnesota bench, and his physical gifts often straight up demand your attention.

Forty percent of Edwards’s shot attempts have come at the rim—a strong split for any wing, rookie or otherwise. He’s got the quickness to catch opponents off guard; the burst to push into the crease he’s created; the frame and strength to barrel through defenders; and the body control to finish through contact. When he gets deep in the paint, Edwards has sudden springs—the kind of bounce that leaves you marveling at just how easily he gets off the floor to hammer it home:

He’s also shown flashes of playmaking touch and vision; he gets into the teeth of the defense and makes on-time feeds with either hand to set the table for teammates:

Being able to navigate the size and length of NBA defenses, move through congestion, and make a play is no small feat for a 19-year-old—especially one who, as our Jonathan Tjarks detailed after the draft, skipped his senior year of high school, entered college a year early, and is the fourth-youngest player in the rookie class. It’s great that he’s already showing those sorts of signs, because—as you’d expect—he’s still got a long way to go pretty much everywhere else.

Edwards’s block, steal, and defensive rebounding rates all rank near the bottom of the league among wings—the numbers match his occasional lagging activity, awareness, and effectiveness on the defensive end. He likes to dribble into the sort of pull-up and stepback launches that make highlight reels, but his shot’s not ready for prime time yet; he’s just 29-for-102 (28.4 percent) overall on jumpers. Sometimes his confidence in his physical tools leads to tunnel-vision drives that hit brick walls or produce low-percentage flails—he’s made only 46 percent of his tries at the rim, and he’s had 12 shots blocked, second most among rookies. Add it up, and out of 153 players who have taken at least 100 shots this season, Edwards ranks 151st in effective field goal percentage. It’s not what you want—especially given the defensive struggles and occasional head-scratchers that such a neon-green prospect will sometimes produce:

There’s plenty going wrong in Minnesota, from the predictable (a defense once again ranking among the league’s worst) to the unexpected (most importantly, franchise linchpin Karl-Anthony Towns missing nine games after suffering a wrist injury and testing positive for COVID-19). The degree to which Ryan Saunders and Co. can amplify Edwards’s aggression, get him to translate it to the defensive end, and accelerate his learning curve will go a long way toward determining how quickly things turn around.

Immanuel Quickley, Knicks

I highlighted Quickley a bit when I wrote about New York’s strong start a couple of weeks back, so I won’t belabor the point, but I feel compelled to come again with praise for the most devastating floater game this side of Henry Rowengartner’s mom.

Those sorts of runners and floaters have accounted for 40 percent of Quickley’s attempts, and he’s cashed in a cool 51 percent of them. You don’t often see such a deft in-between game from such a young player, and it’s been a key part of Quickley carving out a role under new head coach Tom Thibodeau. But that role isn’t nearly as large as some Knicks fans would like, given how poorly New York’s offense has fared when Julius Randle and RJ Barrett share the floor with starting point guard Elfrid Payton, and how well the team has performed when those two run with Quickley.

Quickley rarely gets to the rim, and his 3-point stroke has been streaky, but the Kentucky product has been a live wire off the bench, averaging 20.1 points and 5.3 assists per 36 minutes with an assist-to-turnover ratio hovering around 3-to-1. He’s showing signs of being a credible defender in the backcourt. It’s been a loooooooong time since the Knicks had a young guard who could shoot, run point, and defend. It’s early, but it looks like Leon Rose might have found one with the 25th pick.

James Wiseman, Warriors

I’m not sure any rookie has had more heaped on his plate than the 19-year-old Wiseman. The no. 2 pick went from 13 months without in-game action to manning the middle for Golden State—first without Draymond Green’s tutelage, and now, famously, with it—against what has been, according to several strength of schedule metrics, one of the league’s toughest opening slates. Going from three games at Memphis to suddenly captaining the back line of Stephen Curry’s team … well, you wouldn’t blame Wiseman if his head still hasn’t stopped spinning.

In some moments, Wiseman has shined amid that pressure. At least once a game, it seems, he flashes some aspect of the skill set that convinced the Warriors to select him: He has great speed running the floor for a 7-footer and a soft touch on his jumper; he boasts a mammoth wingspan to track down and swat shots; and he has the potential to be a havoc-wreaking vertical spacer rolling to the rim in the half court and even an end-to-end threat attacking off the dribble in transition:

Like Edwards, though, Wiseman’s early days have featured more valleys than peaks. He might one day become a playmaking stretch 5, but right now, he’s a developmental prospect with shaky hands who’s attempting one 3-pointer per game and has nine assists and 23 turnovers in 293 minutes. His long-term promise hasn’t convinced defenses to stop showing Steph four bodies every time he touches the ball; Golden State’s offense has produced a mere 100.3 points per 100 in Wiseman’s minutes, a rate that would sit several subbasements below last in the league.

Wiseman is a work in progress on defense, too. He’s not always as forceful as he needs to be grabbing boards in traffic, which is one reason Golden State is in the bottom five in defensive rebounding rate. He ranks 14th in the league in blocks, but opponents take a higher share of their shots at the rim and generate more points per possession when he’s patrolling the paint, in part because his eagerness to chase a rejection can open up dump-off passes or offensive rebounding opportunities for his man. He can be a split second too early or too late to get into position on defense, which has resulted in sending opponents to the line a ton, and he’s averaging six personal fouls per 36 minutes of floor time.

All told, the Warriors have been outscored by 9.6 points per 100 non-garbage-time possessions with Wiseman on the court, according to Cleaning the Glass, and have outscored opponents by 4.4 points per 100 with him off of it. The difference, as Tjarks recently noted, is even more stark in Wiseman’s minutes with Steph and Draymond: a plus-25.3 net rating when the two champions play without the rookie, and minus-8.8 with him.

It’s notable that Wiseman didn’t log a single fourth-quarter minute during Golden State’s recent wins over the Clippers, Raptors, and Lakers. It’s also notable, though, that both Wiseman and the Warriors looked fantastic in Wednesday’s demolition of the Spurs. The rookie terrorized San Antonio with his length and athleticism, and Golden State outscored the Spurs by 18 points in 20 minutes with the Steph-Dray-Wiseman troika sharing the court. They’re learning how to play together, and the potential is clear. But can the Warriors serve two masters here? When you’ve got two future Hall of Famers looking something like their peak selves, how much should you prioritize the future over the present?

The Warriors’ chances of future perennial contention may well depend on Wiseman getting as many developmental reps as he can handle this season. Golden State’s best shot at competing this season, though, might be finding someone else who can let Steph and Draymond cook in crunch time while the youngblood learns from the bench.

LaMelo Ball, Hornets

At the start of the preseason, I wondered how head coach James Borrego would juggle a Hornets rotation that suddenly had too many pieces to fit into all the most prominent spots. Would he stick with starters Devonte’ Graham and Terry Rozier rather than slotting Ball right into the starting five? And, if so, how well would the no. 3 pick handle beginning his NBA career as a reserve? Well, Borrego has stuck with his incumbents, but the results have been mixed. Charlotte’s starting five has been one of the league’s worst big-minutes lineups thus far. Ball as a sixth man, though, has worked out quite nicely, thank you very much.

LaMelo is putting up per-minute numbers that call to mind some of the best rookie lead guards of the past several decades. He’s helped transform long-moribund Charlotte into a pass-first team with style for miles (and, well, Miles). He’s an adrenaline shot to the Hornets’ heart. Ball grabs the ball off of the rim (he leads all rookies in rebounds per game) or straight from the opponent (seventh in the league in steals) and constantly hunts opportunities to turn a ho-hum possession into a friggin’ party:

What leaps off the screen is his sheer feel: He has an advanced understanding of where players are on the court, where they’re moving, why they’re moving there, and how to make them move where he wants them to instead. He’s already manipulating help defenders with his eyes and alternating his own playmaking pace—letting the ball go a beat early this time, hanging onto it for an extra half-second the next—to keep them guessing and open up more fruitful passing angles. It’s been only 14 games, but this doesn’t feel like a small-sample fluke; this feels like a savant showing the world that, in spite of the understandable concerns about his circuitous path to the league, he does, in fact, already have the game wired.

No matter what kind of pass Ball throws—an 80-foot heave in transition, a pocket pass to a rolling big through a thicket of limbs, a lob over the top, a post entry, a basic two-hand feed to a shooter coming off a pindown, a one-hand bullet past two unsuspecting defenders—he’s always hitting dudes right in the hands and shooting pockets, right where they need the ball to be able to make their next move. That pays dividends: LaMelo’s teammates are shooting 45.1 percent from the field overall this season, but 47.3 percent off of one of his passes, according to NBA Advanced Stats.

LaMelo, like big brother Lonzo, struggles with his shot; he’s shooting just 45.5 percent inside the arc and 33.3 percent beyond it, and LaMelo will need to nudge those numbers north to keep defenses honest. He’s also prone to ball-watching and getting lost; the Hornets, a top-10 defense overall, have hemorrhaged points with Ball on the court, whether playing with a traditional big man behind him or in small-ball lineups. There are steps to take, things to tighten up. For now, though, all that pales in comparison to what Ball is bringing to the court—not least of which, the smile he put on Miles Bridges’s face at the end of the last play of the clip above, fresh off rolling to the rim for yet another tomahawk dunk:

Playing with LaMelo seems fun. The Hornets, for the first time in ages, are fun. Let’s enjoy that while it’s fresh and hot, and worry about efficiency later, yes?

Speaking of smart guards who seem like they’d be fun to play with:

Tyrese Haliburton, Kings

Haliburton’s style is less, shall we say, ostentatious than Ball’s. Watch him play for a couple of minutes, though, and it becomes clear that he shares LaMelo’s innate feel for the game—a bone-deep sense of how and when to move both his body and the ball to wring every drop of offensive value out of a play.

He beats defenses in the rests between notes: with the look-away that gets the help-side leaning in, opening up a skip pass to the corner; or the pump fake that forces a big man to commit, creating an angle for a dump-off. Haliburton has the gift for tricking defenders into thinking he’s moving into his shot when he’s actually just elevating to drop it down. At 20 years old, he’s already got a veteran’s timing—an advanced understanding of when to catch a defense napping and when to be a bit more patient to let a play develop, and this aptitude is a big reason he’s got a strong 3.7-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio:

Haliburton doesn’t take a ton of shots, but he almost exclusively takes good ones—rarely rushed, typically in rhythm, and mostly in the paint or beyond the arc. He’s had some fun with pre-draft questions about the form on his jump shot, and that’s because, just like at Iowa State, it’s working: He leads all rookies in 3-point makes, and is drilling long balls at a scorching 49.2 percent clip.

The Kings will keep scuffling near the bottom of the Western standings as long as they field a frankly hilariously bad defense. Haliburton’s early play, though, has brought into relief the outline of an awfully spicy team built around the three-guard combo of Haliburton, De’Aaron Fox, and Buddy Hield, with Harrison Barnes as a stretch 4 and Richaun Holmes as the rim-running roll man; they spread the floor, push the pace, and share the ball. That Kings team might never produce anything above a league-average defense, but it’d be incredibly hard to guard, and incredibly fun to watch. And if Haliburton can continue to make the right play time and again, the team would probably be more competitive than the Kings have been for most of the past 15 years.

Patrick Williams, Bulls

Despite averaging just 9.2 points in a reserve role during his lone season at Florida State, Williams skyrocketed up draft boards because talent evaluators believed that he could both immediately step into a complementary role at the pro level and develop his talent to become a feature piece. Billy Donovan has wasted no time testing the former, slotting the no. 4 pick in as his starting small forward and promptly tasking the rookie with some of the most difficult defensive assignments in the NBA.

Williams’s most frequent defensive matchups look like an object lesson in rookie hazing: Kawhi Leonard, LeBron James, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Luka Doncic, Luguentz Dort. (OK, so one of these things is not quite like the others.) It’s been an awfully chilly welcome to the league:

But as demoralizing as it must be to be on the receiving end of sledgehammer low-post shoulder blocks and ankle-jellying stepbacks from the All-NBA team, Williams has acquitted himself about as well as any 19-year-old could be expected to—and has earned some high praise along the way.

“I think he is going to be an exceptional talent,” LeBron said of Williams after a 117-115 Lakers win earlier this month. “Long arms; he has Kawhi-type of hands that I noticed out on the floor, so I knew I couldn’t play with the ball much. You can tell he is just laser sharp on just trying to get better and better.”

You’ll hear the Kawhi comp a lot for Williams, a strong 6-foot-7 forward who didn’t put up outsized offensive numbers in college but looks like he belongs in the NBA from Day 1. (For what it’s worth: There are some statistical similarities between Leonard’s rookie season and Williams’s start.) We should probably pump the brakes before projecting Williams as a perennial top-five player for the bulk of this decade, but it’s hard not to like what he’s flashed so far.

Williams has looked comfortable off the dribble getting to high-arcing floaters and midrange jumpers, rising up on balance and letting go with a soft touch. He’s shooting 50 percent from midrange, 50 percent from 3-point land, and 87 percent from the foul line—numbers that you’d expect to come down a bit, but suggest he’s got the form, confidence, and feel to be a legit shooter in the league with more reps. He’s a disruptive defender with above-average block and steal rates for his position and a good sense for when to use his 7-foot wingspan to try to shut down passing lanes. He’s not a playmaker yet, but he hasn’t looked out of sorts handling the ball, making the extra pass, or attacking a closeout for a drive-and-kick to keep Chicago’s offense moving:

These aren’t necessarily advanced reads, but Williams’s willingness to make them, and his ability (though, full transparency, he’s got more turnovers than assists in the early going) offers evidence in support of the notion that there’s untapped potential here—a burgeoning skill set that, tended carefully, could blossom into something more. Right now, Williams looks the part of a solid, rotation-level big wing. The exciting part, though, is imagining what he might look like a year from now.

Jae’Sean Tate, Rockets

While the eyes of the basketball-watching world were fixated on James Harden’s ongoing search for the exit, something legitimately fun was happening in Houston. A 25-year-old journeyman was digging his claws into his first NBA job, and doing his damnedest to make sure that, no matter what happens with this iteration of the Rockets, it won’t be his last.

After going undrafted out of Ohio State in 2018, Tate headed overseas to start his professional career. Stints in Belgium and Australia laid bare his path to the league, the same one traveled by guys like his teammate P.J. Tucker: He’d have to guard, and he’d have to guard well, and he’d have to guard everybody. So far, so good. The 6-foot-4, 230-pound spike strip has checked everyone from small-ball centers to jitterbug point guards for Houston, sliding his feet and absorbing punishment with his oak-barrel chest. He’s got good hands, and he knows how to use his length when opponents get ready to shoot or pass; he seems to make offensive players of all shapes and sizes uncomfortable, which is a pretty good way to stay on the court.

The defensive work establishes Tate’s floor, but the spark he’s shown on the other end—especially since the Harden trade—makes him even more fun to watch.

Tate is constantly attacking the basket. Nearly 60 percent of his shots have come at the rim, and he’s shooting 65.2 percent inside the restricted area, just below decidedly-not-6-foot-4 dudes Aaron Gordon and Mitchell Robinson. When playing off of one of Houston’s primary ball handlers, he does it with smart, well-timed cuts that have produced 1.71 points per possession, according to Synergy Sports. When these players aren’t available—like, say, when Harden has just been traded, and John Wall and Eric Gordon are out with leg injuries—Tate can bring the ball up the floor, run a serviceable pick-and-roll, get to his dominant left hand, and charge all the way to the rim. Rockets coach Stephen Silas has even tried out inverting his offense, taking advantage of Houston’s capacity to run five-out with Christian Wood and DeMarcus Cousins by letting Tate attack opposing guards with his back to the basket in the post.

Tate’s future will likely depend on whether he can become a reliable 3-point shooter; he’s made just one-third of his triples so far, and just 68 percent of his free throws. In the meantime, he’s a fearless bruiser who can defend up and down the positional spectrum with a combination of physicality and craft that evokes comparisons to a mini-Zion and Anthony Mason, and he will keep getting chances to make an impact in Houston and to make a name for himself in the league. It might not be enough on its own to salve the wound left by Harden’s departure and keep Houston from sinking to the bottom of the Western standings. It’s something, though, and pretty cool in its own right.

Payton Pritchard, Celtics

With Kemba Walker sidelined for the first 11 games by ongoing left knee issues, a Celtics offense that sometimes stumbled with him off the court last season needed another source of scoring and playmaking to support star wings Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. Brad Stevens found it in Pritchard, a four-year starter at Oregon who went straight from winning the Bob Cousy Award (fitting!) as the nation’s top collegiate point guard into the Celtics’ rotation without missing a beat—or, for that matter, too many shots.

Pritchard is patient off the dribble, with enough shiftiness to work his way into the paint, get into shot blockers’ bodies, and finish in traffic. He’s shooting 69.6 percent inside the restricted area, which is third best among rookies to attempt at least 20 up-close shots (he is behind only Wiseman and Memphis’s Xavier Tillman, both of whom have about a foot on the 6-foot-1 guard). He’s also been an immediate threat from beyond the arc, shooting 43.6 percent from 3-point land, and 42.3 percent on extra-deep triples from beyond 25 feet; LaMelo is the only rookie who’s taken more of those and made them at a higher clip. That capacity to stretch defenses and puncture them underneath has been a major boon for second-unit lineups without much shot creation; it helps create more space and better looks for young bigs like Robert and Grant Williams.

Combine that with tough, opportunistic defense both at the point of attack and as a helper—he’s fourth among rookies in steals, and Boston’s allowing 6.1 fewer points per 100 possessions in his minutes—and Pritchard has been one of the most productive rookies in the whole class so far. Not bad for the 26th pick. Walker is back in the lineup now, which might mean that Pritchard’s minutes and opportunities will start to dwindle. But with Boston looking like it’s going to be in a nip-and-tuck fight for the top spot in the East, and with Kemba’s knee likely to remain an object of interest all season long, Stevens might find that the rookie that forced his way into the rotation is now someone he can’t really take out of it.

All stats and records entering Thursday’s games.