Yardbarker’s Pat Heery and Sean Keane address the hottest topics in the NBA. This week: An early look at the 2019-20 season rookie class.
Heery: I’ve been pleasantly surprised by this year’s rookie crop. Before the season started, the only one I figured who would have any real impact for a decent team this season would be the Pelicans’ Zion Williamson. Fast forward one month, and there’s a number of rookies showing out, and none of them are named Zion (he’s been out with a torn meniscus). The Grizzlies’ Ja Morant (18.5 ppg.) looks like a skinny version of rookie year Derrick Rose. The Knicks’ RJ Barrett (15.3 ppg.) is excelling with a more spread out court in the pros. And the Heat’s Tyler Herro (14 ppg.) has Jimmy Butler smiling like a proud older brother every time he hears Herro talking smack to opponents like he runs South Beach.
Who’s been your favorite rookie so far this season? And do you think many of these impressive starts are sustainable?
Keane: My favorite rookie is Morant, who’s tearing through the Western Conference like it’s the Ohio Valley Conference. I expected him to score and make death-defying drives to the basket, but my real surprise is how much athleticism he’s bringing every night. He’s not just hitting game-winning shots, he’s elevating for game-winning blocks as well. Ja’s influence can be seen through the whole team –Memphis (5-9) is playing fast, shooting threes, and whipping the ball around. The Grizzlies are somehow first in the league in assists, replacing grit n’ grind with run n’ shoot. I’m also impressed by Morant’s teammate, Brandon Clarke (12.7 ppg.), who has continued his stellar shooting from last season at Gonzaga, hitting 44% of his threes and holding up defensively as a small-ball center, even at just 6-foot-8.
I’ve also been really impressed with P.J. Washington (12 ppg.), who at age 21 has been the best player on a surprising Charlotte team. By their talent level, the Hornets should be the worst team in the league, but they’re 6-9. Washington is shooting lights-out, and along with second-year forward Miles Bridges, actually represents a ray of hope for the Hornets’ future. They even have $50 million coming off the books this summer for Michael Jordan to wildly overpay someone!
Barrett is the one whose start feels unsustainable to me. Maybe that’s my general pessimism about everything related to the Knicks’ organization, though I didn’t think they’d ruin Barrett for another year or two. He’s scoring a lot, but he’s only shooting 41%, he’s turning the ball over a lot, and overall, the Knicks’ offense is terrible when he’s on the court. And when the inevitable David Fizdale firing happens, and owner James Dolan starts playing blues guitar on the team plane again, the chaos isn’t going to help Barrett thrive. I’m not giving up on him long term, but I think the rest of the season could be pretty rough for the Maple Mamba.
Who are your favorite first-year guys so far? And one-sixth of the way through the season, who looks like the steal of the draft?
Heery: Good call on Clarke. He’s one of those guys who was awesome in college (second-best PER to Zion last season) and is clearly going to be a great role player in the NBA. Yet on draft night, a bunch of teams stupidly passed over him in favor of high upside prospects who sucked in college, like the Hawks’ Cam Reddish. I had Clarke in my top-five and he dropped to 21.
I’m really enjoying the Heat’s rookie duo of the aforementioned trash-talking Herro and 24-year-old undrafted rookie Kendrick Nunn. Herro is shooting over 40 percent from three. I heard a draft expert say on a podcast the other day that Herro would be a top-five pick in a re-draft today. Nunn is a rookie with an asterisk due to his age, but he’s made Dion Waiters obsolete by averaging a little more than 17 a game and shooting over 38 percent from three. These two also just fit the Miami Mafia, hard-ass culture that Pat Riley loves.
I have to throw the Bulls’ Coby White (13.1 ppg.) a little love too for the seven three-pointers he buried in the fourth quarter against the Knicks earlier this month. That kid plays like he spent his formative years exclusively watching Jamal Crawford and Lou Williams highlights Clockwork Orange style. I doubt he’ll ever be a true point guard, but he’ll always be a bucket.
Give me your pleasant surprises and disappointments thus far. And do you think Zion still has a shot at the Rookie of the Year if he plays 50-60 games, or is this Ja’s award to lose now?
Keane: If Ja had struggled, Zion has the game, the pedigree, and most importantly, the national TV games to make a run. But now Ja is killing it, and Zion probably won’t be back until just before Christmas. That means no Rookie of the Year award under the tree this year. I do think Herro could sneak in and steal it, especially if the Heat is still hanging around the top of the East standings and he doesn’t get too exhausted from his pre-dawn workouts with Jimmy Butler.
The biggest surprise among the rookie class is another older rookie, the Warriors’ Eric Paschall, a 23-year-old who has become the lone bright spot and primary scoring option (17.1 ppg.) for the Warriors. All it took was seven players getting injured ahead of him. He forms a devastating thicc boi front court with Draymond Green, and seems to especially delight in scoring on rookies who were drafted ahead of him, such as the Celtics’ Grant Williams, something he also has in common with Draymond. Ultimately, it probably means he’s trade bait for a veteran this summer, but he’s pretty impressive for the 41st pick. Ky Bowman (7.6 ppg.) has been very solid on his two-way deal with the Warriors as well, even if he has to live out of his suitcase in a team hotel because he can’t afford a San Francisco apartment. And Cameron Johnson (9.1 ppg.) may be older than Devin Booker, but he’s been playing like a veteran and justifying his lottery pick for the Suns so far.
Leading the disappointments is the Hawks’ Reddish (7.6 ppg.), who was supposed to be a great scorer out of Duke, but he’s shooting under 24% from three and just under 30% overall. The only thing he’s making is the lowlight reel on Shaqtin’ A Fool . The only person who might be happy with Reddish’s performance is his teammate, De’Andre Hunter (11.1 ppg.). Reddish might distract from Hunter’s lack of offensive production, though DH did put up 27 and 11 against the Bucks for his first career double-double this week. Hunter also has a six-steal game, but right now you’d rather have most of the other lottery guys ahead of this duo. The Cavaliers’ Darius Garland (9.1 ppg.) has been disappointing, but because he only played five games in college at Vanderbilt, he still gets an incomplete on my rookie report card.