Absence did not, in fact, make the heart grow fonder as it pertained to the 2019 NBA Draft class over the opening two months of the basketball campaign. Zion Williamson, the most-hyped first-year pro to enter the Association since LeBron James gave hope to Cleveland basketball fans over a decade ago, remained sidelined through the middle of December due to a meniscus injury. The New Orleans Pelicans don’t plan to play him in back-to-back games when he becomes available, per ESPN’s Andrew Lopez.
With Williamson a spectator during the holiday season, Ja Morant sprinted ahead of the pack in rookie power rankings through the end of November, and he returned from back spasms on Dec. 9 with a 26-point night in a win over the Golden State Warriors. The truth of the situation is there is no Rookie of the Year race as of Dec. 11. Morant jumped out to such an advantage after 18 appearances, it’s difficult to imagine anybody catching him by April 15. However, there are several other impressive rookies so far this season.
Nineteen-year-old Jaxson Hayes was never supposed to start during the first phase of the post-Anthony Davis era for the New Orleans Pelicans. As part of a rotation that probably won’t add Zion Williamson until 2020 and that had Derrick Favors for only nine of the team’s first 24 games, Hayes averaged 9.0 PPG, 4.6 REB and 1.1 BLK. New Orleans keeping Hayes a solid off-the-bench option once Favors resumes his role should help Hayes come along slowly but surely. It’s a matter of when, not if, Hayes makes Jahlil Okafor surplus to requirements.
We’re admittedly giving Coby White a pass for his chilly and scoreless nights here because, surprise, surprise, the Chicago Bulls are a dysfunctional mess. Jim Boylen is a dead-man walking in the Association coaching world. As Joe Cowley of the Chicago Sun-Times wrote, the Bulls (finally) decided to play White, who averaged 11.9 PPG, 3.7 REB and 2.4 AST in his first 25 appearances, at lead guard, the position he was always intended to play in the league. Boylen is running out of time to prove he’s the right man to develop White into a point guard worth a seventh-overall draft pick.
With John Collins suspended since early November, the Atlanta Hawks needed forward De’Andre Hunter to be ready for prime-time action directly out of the gates. His first eight appearances were a mixed bag, but he eventually located consistency and became a double-digit scorer capable of averaging 12.8 PPG and 4.0 REB a night.
Hunter will never be the most important part of Atlanta’s core. His player efficiency rating compared to others at the position is concerning. (Fellow rookie Brandon Clarke was seventh among SF in PER on Dec. 11.) We still want to see more of the Trae Young-Collins-Hunter trio before judging too harshly.
2018 second-round pick Devonte’ Graham became a surprising breakout star for the Charlotte Hornets over the team’s initial 26 contests, and rookie forward PJ Washington is another promising piece the club possesses during its latest rebuild. While Washington averaged nearly 16 PPG across his first five games, a November cold streak saw him drop in rookie power rankings. At 12.2 PPG and 5.0 REB, he’s well on his way to finishing in the top eight, if not higher, in both categories among rookies.
The New York Knicks ended the 2018-19 season with a league-worst 17 wins. New York may struggle to hit that number by next spring. RJ Barrett probably represents the line that separates legitimate Rookie of the Year contenders from pretenders. As of the middle of December, Barrett was tied for fifth in scoring (14.3 PPG) and third in rebounds (5.3 REB) among eligible rookies, but he also did little to calm concerns about potential shooting woes some had regarding his ceiling before his debut. In his first 23 games, he converted a paltry 53.9 percent of his free-throw attempts. At that same time, he was 10th on the Knicks in player efficiency rating.
Miami Heat teammate Kendrick Nunn (more on him later) overshadowed first-round pick Tyler Herro for much of November, but the 19-year-old deserves recognition for shooting over 43 percent from three-point range that same month and for sitting tied for fifth among rookies in scoring (13.9 PPG) on Dec. 11. Following a trio of forgettable games, Herro tallied 22 points in a win over the Washington Wizards, and he drained five of 11 three-pointers while leading all scorers with 27 points in a 110-105 victory over the Chicago Bulls. He put up a goose egg in Miami’s 14-point win over the Atlanta Hawks on Dec. 10.
Twenty-one-year-old forward Rui Hachimura mirrored the Washington Wizards in inconsistent play over the first 11 games of the campaign. Since the start of December, however, the ninth pick of the draft played like a bargain well worth the price Washington paid to secure his services. In his first six games of the month, Hachimura averaged 20.2 PPG and 7.8 REB while shooting 49 percent from the field and 88 percent from the charity stripe. He totaled 30 points and nine rebounds during a loss to the Los Angeles Clippers, and he then tallied 27 points and seven boards in a win over the Philadelphia 76ers.
The collapse of the Golden State Warriors this fall provided much joy for those who grew to dislike the former dynasty. Don’t look now, but 23-year-old rookie forward Eric Paschall seems a good one for Golden State’s future. The second-round pick out of Villanova received 18 starts in his first 24 appearances, and he became his team’s second-leading scorer (16.6 PPG) behind D’Angelo Russell with Stephen Curry out indefinitely (broken hand).
Monte Poole of NBC Sports Bay Area recently explained how Draymond Green has taken Paschall under his wing. With the Warriors in the middle of an unplanned tanking season, Paschall should receive plenty of on-the-court lessons and opportunities to bolster stats for an awful team.
We’re not ready to drop Miami Heat guard Kendrick Nunn down rookie power rankings just because a shooting slump that began on Nov. 27 slowed his momentum. Undrafted in 2018 and relegated to the G League by the Golden State Warriors, the 24-year-old was a revelation for the Heat throughout the club’s first 24 games, 18 of which Miami won. Nunn sits third among rookies in scoring (16.2 PPG), and he earned Rookie of the Month honors for games played in October and November. According to NBA.com, he scored the third-most points (295) by an undrafted player in his first 18 outings since the 1963-64 season.
Nunn scored 36 points, a career-high, to date, in Miami’s 135-121 comeback victory over the Atlanta Hawks on Dec. 10.
It’s easy to be slightly underwhelmed by Memphis Grizzlies rookie Ja Morant since the second-overall selection of the 2019 NBA Draft is playing a season after Luka Doncic and Trae Young produced two of the best debut campaigns of the 2000s. As of Dec. 11, the 20-year-old guard led all rookies in scoring (19.1 PPG) and assists (6.4), and he shot over 43 percent from three-point range (19-44) in his first 18 appearances.
Back spasms threatened to torpedo Morant lapping the field, but he missed only four games before he led all scorers with 26 points in a 110-102 victory over the Warriors. Granted, lighting up a scoreboard against the Warriors this fall doesn’t mean what it meant a season ago, but Morant’s play that night reminded everybody he’s entering 2020 the prohibitive favorite to win ROTY.