The 2020 NBA draft class faced numerous unique challenges because of the COVID-19 pandemic. They didn’t have March Madness to rise up draft boards. They didn’t have summer league. They didn’t have a full preseason to acclimate to the next level.
But there’s still plenty of meaning to be gleaned from the various rookie performances this season. So just like we have the past two seasons, let’s identify the best comps for the 2020-21 rookie class.
Some ground rules, before we begin:
- This analysis is only about offensive comparisons. Individual player defense is too tricky to measure, particularly using box score stats, to make confident comparisons, so the model calculating these comps ignores that half of the game.
- The comparisons use a mix of stats that reflect a mix of offensive style, like usage rate, and offensive success, like points scored. The three counting stats used—points, rebounds, and assists—are converted to a per-75-possessions basis to account for differences in minutes played and pace, and true shooting percentage is also indexed to the league average to account for efficiency inflation.
- The pool of possible comps includes 532 players—every rookie since the 1999-2000 season to play at least 800 minutes.
As always, an important caveat is that every player is different, so these comps represent possible futures rather than definitive outcomes. For instance, if we plug LeBron James’s rookie season into the model, his top comps include Russell Westbrook on the one hand—and Tyreke Evans and Michael Carter-Williams (both fellow Rookie of the Year winners) on the other. Yet as this season’s results suggest, a near-full season’s worth of information is plenty to trace realistic trajectories.
The following lottery picks are not included because they haven’t played enough minutes to form a meaningful sample: Onyeka Okongwu (no. 6 pick), Killian Hayes (no. 7), Jalen Smith (no. 10), and Aaron Nesmith (no. 14). Players are listed by draft slot.
Without further ado, the top five comps and takeaways for most of 2020’s lottery picks, as well as some other rookies of note:
Anthony Edwards, Timberwolves (no. 1 pick)
Top five comps: (1) Coby White, (2) J.R. Smith, (3) Collin Sexton, (4) Dion Waiters, (5) Jordan Crawford
What it means: Edwards is one of the most extreme examples of a high-usage, low-efficiency rookie. The 19-year-old has fired up shots this season, with or without Karl-Anthony Towns and D’Angelo Russell next to him, becoming one of 16 rookies this century with a usage rate of at least 27 percent. But among that group, the only players with a lower efficiency are Jordan Crawford and Dennis Smith Jr.
(In this chart, TS+ compares a player’s true shooting percentage to the league average; 100 is average, higher than 100 is above average, and lower than 100 is below average.)
Rookies in the 21st Century With a 27 Percent Usage Rate or Higher
|Player||Rookie Season||Usage Rate||TS%+|
|Player||Rookie Season||Usage Rate||TS%+|
That dichotomy drives Edwards’s largely lackluster comps; J.R. Smith enjoyed a long, productive career, and Sexton is now a valuable offensive player, but none of these players’ careers represent a desirable outcome for a no. 1 pick. Nobody on Edwards’s list has ever made an All-Star team. (However, Russell, a one-time All-Star, is his no. 6 comp, just behind Crawford.)
To improve his standing in the years to come, Edwards will need to boost both his creation for others—none of these five comps is particularly known for his passing ability—and his own efficiency. Even as he’s poured in points since the All-Star break, he’s needed a lot of shots to get there. Out of 48 players this season—all players, not just rookies—with a usage rate of at least 25 percent, Edwards ranks last in true shooting percentage.
One further item to note: In The Ringer’s NBA Draft Guide last year, Kevin O’Connor pegged Waiters as one of Edwards’s top comps. The early stats bear out that unfortunate impression, too.
James Wiseman, Warriors (no. 2)
Top five comps: (1) Drew Gooden, (2) Marreese Speights, (3) Myles Turner, (4) Kristaps Porzingis, (5) Marcus Fizer
What it means: Perhaps no rookie this season engendered more debate than Wiseman, whose debut campaign is over after he tore his right meniscus earlier this month. Wiseman’s comps reflect those differing opinions—they run the gamut from a max-contract star to solid starters to career reserves, all of which remain viable career paths for the Golden State center.
The good news for Wiseman is that he scored a lot, pouring in 18.8 points per 75 possessions, which places him in the 92nd percentile among rookies this century. The bad news is that he rarely created for others (1.1 assists per 75, in the seventh percentile) and didn’t get to the free throw line as much as other highly touted rookie bigs. The worst news is that Wiseman’s porous defense doesn’t show up here, because we’re looking only at offense—and that’s a rather large difference between his early play and, say, Porzingis’s.
One lingering curiosity from his shortened rookie season, which this list of comps furthers, is whether Wiseman’s 3-point stroke can improve as his game matures. Wiseman took only one 3-pointer in his three-game college career, but he made 32 percent on about one attempt per game in his first foray behind the NBA line. Defensive ability is the main separator between his more successful comps (Porzingis and Turner) and the others on his list, but the ability to stretch the floor on offense is a key factor as well.
LaMelo Ball, Hornets (no. 3)
Top five comps: (1) Steve Francis, (2) Trae Young, (3) Luka Doncic, (4) Jordan Clarkson, (5) Ja Morant
What it means: Like Wiseman, Ball saw his rookie season derailed by injury—though, per a report Monday night, he might be back for Charlotte’s final playoff push. Unlike Wiseman, Ball boasts a resplendent list of comps—including the three best seasons for a rookie guard since the leaguewide explosion in 3-pointers last decade.
There are many, many ways to demonstrate the magic of Ball’s rookie season. My personal favorite is that he’s one of 14 guards in league history to average at least 15 points, five rebounds, and five assists per game—and he ranks third among that select group in true shooting percentage, behind two guys named Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan.
Now, this comp list is another way. Last season’s Rookie of the Year, Morant, is on it. So is the winner before that, Doncic. And the winner before that, Ben Simmons, would be on this comp list too if we removed 3-point attempt rate as a consideration.
We’re still waiting to see just how high the other young point guards on this list climb the NBA ranks. Ball’s now clearly a part of that elite group too.
Patrick Williams, Bulls (no. 4)
Top five comps: (1) Kyle Singler, (2) Hedo Turkoglu, (3) Moe Harkless, (4) Trenton Hassell, (5) Chandler Parsons
What it means: Williams is the first but far from the last member of the 2020-21 rookie class with a meager usage rate, even relative to other rookies; the average usage rate for rookies this century is 18.5 percent, four ticks higher than Williams’s. The two teammates with whom the young wing has shared the most floor time are Zach LaVine and Coby White, which doesn’t leave many opportunities for an unproven scorer to create for either himself or others.
To his credit, Williams has had his hands full on the defensive end, guarding the likes of Zion Williamson, Kawhi Leonard, and LeBron James. Alas, as a reminder, this exercise doesn’t look at defensive performance, so the comps can judge only Williams’s less impressive offensive numbers.
Isaac Okoro, Cavaliers (no. 5)
Top five comps: (1) Luguentz Dort, (2) Nik Stauskas, (3) Rodney McGruder, (4) Grant Williams, (5) Paul Zipser
What it means: Okoro was advertised in the Draft Guide as a “superb defender” with weaknesses at jump shots, free throws, off-ball movement, and burst on drives. In other words, he was never going to fare well in this exercise. Dort is a perfect fit as Okoro’s no. 1 comp—a fellow defensive menace on the wing with effectively zero contributions on the other end. But Dort has demonstrated a meaningful offensive leap in his second season, doubling his scoring average and boosting his usage rate by half; Cleveland fans can only hope their rising sophomore does the same.
Obi Toppin, Knicks (no. 8)
Top five comps: (1) Miles Bridges, (2) Chandler Parsons, (3) Frank Kaminsky, (4) Jorge Garbajosa, (5) Rodions Kurucs
What it means: In a crowded frontcourt, playing for a demanding coach on a surprise playoff contender, Toppin hasn’t found much room to stretch his rookie limbs. And in the relatively few minutes he has appeared, his offensive diet has completely shifted from his final college season, when he was named the national player of the year.
At Dayton, Toppin took just more than half of his shots at the rim, per Hoop-Math; in the NBA, he’s taking the plurality of his shots from long distance. Perhaps as a result, the 6-foot-9 power forward with tremendous athleticism is posting a piddling free throw rate—ranking in the eighth percentile among rookies this century.
To this extent, Bridges seems like a fitting early comp for Toppin, as a fellow high flyer without the possession-to-possession consistency to match his highlight-reel dunks. Bridges has made real strides, as a shooter and all-around player (and rapper!), since he was a rookie; Toppin might need more playing time to match.
Deni Avdija, Wizards (no. 9)
Top five comps: (1) Kenrich Williams, (2) Chris Singleton, (3) Grant Williams, (4) Omari Spellman, (5) Darius Bazley
What it means: Playing next to Russell Westbrook and Bradley Beal, Avdija hasn’t had the chance to demonstrate any level of offensive flair. His 12 percent usage rate ranks in the third percentile of rookies this century, and is last among all rookies with sufficient playing time this season. Avdija hasn’t been particularly efficient in his limited opportunities, either, converting only 33 percent of his 3-pointers and 64 percent of his free throws.
Avdija is just 20 years old, with plenty of time for his production to flourish, but this list of comps isn’t encouraging. Most future stars exhibit something enticing as a rookie.
Devin Vassell, Spurs (no. 11)
Top five comps: (1) Keith Bogans, (2) Miles Bridges, (3) Jae Crowder, (4) Paul Zipser, (5) Justin Jackson
What it means: Vassell is a lot like Toppin: playing in a crowded backcourt, for a demanding coach, on a playoff contender that can’t extend too many minutes to a rookie. Vassell’s shot has translated to the NBA—he’s made 41 percent of his 3-pointers—but he hasn’t really contributed anywhere else, and thus his comps fit into the squishy middle of 3-and-D-on-a-good-day wings.
Tyrese Haliburton, Kings (no. 12)
Top five comps: (1) Milos Teodosic, (2) Malcolm Brogdon, (3) Leandro Barbosa, (4) Bogdan Bogdanovic, (5) Steve Blake
What it means: One strange dichotomy stands out from Haliburton’s statistical profile. He ranks in the second percentile of rookies this century in free throw rate, meaning he barely gets to the line at all—but he’s in the 79th percentile in TS+, meaning he is tremendously efficient even with a lack of freebies. He’s on pace for one of the most efficient low-free-throw seasons in league history.
The free throw problem dates back to college; Kevin wrote in the Draft Guide that Haliburton “generally avoids contact at the rim.” Yet his shooting form was also a concern, and Haliburton has nailed 41 percent of his 3s on a large volume at the NBA level. He’ll also need to rectify his free throw struggles to leap toward stardom.
But that’s the only real demerit on Haliburton’s report. More than anything else, these comps fit the impression that Haliburton, only a sophomore when he entered the draft, possesses excellent basketball IQ and is wise beyond his years. Teodosic and Bogdanovic were already EuroLeague stars before reaching the NBA, and Brogdon and Blake were both four-year players at ACC powerhouses. That trend continues further down Haliburton’s comp list too: No. 6 is Yogi Ferrell, no. 7 is Jalen Brunson, and no. 8 is Kirk Hinrich, all upperclassmen at excellent basketball programs.
Bogdanovic stands out because Haliburton was essentially his replacement after Sacramento let him leave in free agency, but Brogdon represents an even more superb comp, in both playing style and production—right down to the fact that Haliburton may win Rookie of the Year ahead of a fellow rookie with better numbers but fewer games played.
Kira Lewis, Pelicans (no. 13)
Top five comps: (1) Bobby Brown, (2) Darius Garland, (3) Khalid El-Amin, (4) Langston Galloway, (5) Alexey Shved
What it means: The final lottery pick with enough minutes to make comparisons exemplifies the entire spirit of the exercise. On the one hand, this isn’t the most illustrious set of comps for a player who has mostly struggled to find playing time in New Orleans and hasn’t shot well when he has. (His TS+ is just 85, in the ninth percentile among rookies this century.) But the presence near the top of his list of Garland—a potential plus point guard as he develops himself—offers a bit more optimism. By the way, Kevin’s no. 1 comp for Lewis in last year’s Draft Guide? Why, it’s Darius Garland.
Let’s run through a handful of non-lottery rookies with top comps worth addressing:
• Get excited, Knicks fans—even if Toppin’s rookie season, and ensuing list of comps, underwhelms, no. 25 pick Immanuel Quickley has been a revelation in the backcourt. His top comp is reason for even more enthusiasm: Donovan Mitchell.
That comparison seems outlandish on first glance, but take a closer look at how eerily similar their rookie stats are; Quickley is basically Mitchell with a more optimized shot profile.
Donovan Mitchell vs. Immanuel Quickley As Rookies
The Knicks passed on Mitchell in the 2017 draft, choosing Frank Ntilikina with the no. 8 pick instead. But now they have their own version, three years later.
• Another under-the-radar rookie worth discussing is Jae’Sean Tate, whose top comp is Paul George. The two players arrived for their rookie season under divergent circumstances: George as a 20-year-old lottery pick, Tate as a 25-year-old undrafted veteran of pro leagues in Belgium and Australia. That difference means Tate’s ceiling is almost certainly lower than George’s All-NBA status. But both players spent their rookie seasons as defensive stoppers, with nearly identical counting stats; there’s a reason Tate leads all rookies in a number of advanced value metrics.
• One more outrageous top comp, for the Grizzlies’ Xavier Tillman, presented without comment:
Kawhi Leonard vs. Xavier Tillman As Rookies
|Statistic||Kawhi Leonard||Xavier Tillman|
|Statistic||Kawhi Leonard||Xavier Tillman|
• And finally, the top comp for fellow Grizzly Desmond Bane is also notable: Mike Miller played for the Magic as a rookie, but he soon became a key player for the Grizzlies; in fact, he still holds the franchise record for points in a game (45). At the moment, Bane’s 46 percent 3-point accuracy is the second best for any qualified rookie in NBA history, and the Miller comp fits both his team and the probability that he’ll be an ace shooter for a long time to come.
• The model doesn’t consider a player’s pre-NBA history or where he was drafted—but it still matches the Thunder’s Théo Maledon, a French point guard picked 34th, with Elie Okobo, a French point guard picked 31st, for his no. 1 comp.
• On a similar note, the top comp for the Nuggets’ Facundo Campazzo is Matthew Dellavedova—a delightful little bit of synchronicity for two pesky point guards with knacks for getting plays shared on NBA Twitter.
• And finally, to end with more of a bummer: The top two comps for the Thunder’s 19-year-old 7-footer, Aleksej Pokusevski, are Stanley Johnson and—oh no—Nikoloz Tskitishvili, who has the unfortunate honor of recording the joint-fewest career win shares (negative-1.6) for any lottery pick ever. But Poku has perked up of late, hitting 20 points three times in a five-game span. Perhaps by the end of the season, his comps will augur a more encouraging future for the youngest player in the NBA.
Stats through Sunday’s games.