For most players in the NBA, context matters. For rookies, it’s everything. Some rookies, like Emmanuel Mudiay, are given the green light to play heavy minutes with high usage, allowed to grow from mistakes and experience. Others must find a niche on a team that wants to stay competitive. The depth of the talent in the 2015 draft class is much more vast than in previous years, but even more importantly, so many of these rookies have landed in situations that have fostered success early in this season.
Any rookie conversation has to start with Kristaps Porzingis. The Prince of Latvia has crusaded through New York, becoming the Mecca of Basketball’s white knight, all the while transcending the bounds of a rookie’s value on a team with playoff aspirations.
Porzingis has hosted several block parties so far this season, and put almost everyone in the league on a poster with vicious put-back dunks—or, the Porzingis special. He’s gone head-to-head with Dirk Nowitzki, and impressed the future Hall of Famer. Porzingis’ persona has consumed the league and has Knicks fans salivating about their future for the first time in decades. Phil Jackson’s project draft pick is already a success as far as the casual fan is concerned, but Porzingis also has the tantalizing combination of height and quickness that will make him perfect archetype for future big men in the NBA. His physical gifts give him the ability to shift between the 4 and 5, swallowing up rebounds and stretching the floor next to Robin Lopez, while also possessing the rim protection as a perfect complement to Carmelo Anthony when the Knicks shift to smaller lineups.
Porzingis hasn’t had to stretch his game beyond his limits so far because he is in an ideal scenario on this Knicks team. He doesn’t need to be the primary offensive option—Anthony takes on that role. But don’t get it twisted. Despite what he has done so far, he should be capable of further developing his skills in his meaningful NBA minutes to one day take over as the face of New York Basketball.
Devin Booker isn’t a headliner as far as rookies go, but his play of late has helped him emerge as one of the most effective rookies in this deep class. Booker has become more than just a pure shooter and trendy favorite among entrenched NBA followers. While his shooting touch is simply gorgeous, he will need to increase his usage to become more of a threat.
Finding the ability to create his own shot will be the next step for Booker, as 88.2 percent of his 3 point attempts are assisted. If he can harness the off-the-dribble three, Booker will be impossible to check.
As the ball handler in a PnR, Booker is averaging 1.10 Points Per Possession (PPP) good for third among players with at least 20 possessions. The sample size here is incredibly small, only 20 possessions, but he has at least shown that he has the skills to be a threat, and the shooting touch to force defenses to fight over screens.
The youngest player in the 2015 draft has plenty of time to expand his offensive capability. He is a fitting compliment alongside either member of the Eric Bledsoe-Brandon Knight backcourt, and along with TJ Warren off the bench, is clearly a big piece of the Suns’ future.
Justise Winslow’s situation makes me believe in fate. LeBron James left Miami for Cleveland, and Chris Bosh’s injury pushed the Heat into the lottery. Detroit could have taken him with the eighth pick, but instead went with Stanley Johnson. Boston offered a package of picks to Charlotte in order to get Winslow, but the Hornets stood firm and selected Frank Kaminsky, letting Pat Riley get his man, as Winslow, who fell to the Heat at 10, landed in a situation to learn from a Championship organization.
Winslow has elite defensive instincts and the athleticism to make him perfect off Miami’s bench. His strength and length allow him to swiftly defend multiple positions and develop his offense in a patient and comfortable way.
After a sizzling run from late November through early December, teams have begun to figure Winslow out, going under screens on him, taking away driving lanes, and forcing him to shoot. Winslow will have to find new ways to attack the rim and develop a more consistent jumpshot in order to be a more effective offensive option. But beyond his individual offensive development, Winslow remains an integral component of Miami’s rotation, legitimately contributing to the team’s success.
This season, the Heat have greater aspirations than getting Winslow raw box stats and his on/off splits show how valuable he has been despite some lackluster individual numbers.
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Winslow clearly plays an important role on a Conference Finals hopeful. This situation will teach him the character he needs to build in order to continue his winning resume, which he should have no problem doing under the tutelage of Pat Riley and the Miami Heat.
Jahlil Okafor’s character struggles are a perfect example of what can go wrong on a team that has no interest in winning games. Coming directly from the National Championship and winning tradition at Duke, Okafor is now one of the few real talents on his team, but his style of play has largely clashed with what the 76ers are trying to do.
Off the court issues aside, Jahlil Okafor’s low post scoring ability will make teams think twice before going small against him. Okafor has a unique offensive skill set that allows him to take advantage of most opposing big men. His face-up game is quick and powerful. Watch here as he blows by Joakim Noah using quickness alone.
Here, he shows his power, able to put Kevin Love in the basket for the easy two.
Offensively, Okafor works best in the half court. His on/off pace splits, tell an interesting story. The 76ers, who are ninth in pace at 99.32, average 97.30 with Okafor on the floor compared to 102.72 with him off. But offense is only half the battle and Okafor also has a long way to go defensively. A long, long way.
Despite playing on a team ranked 21st in defensive rating at 103.9, the 76ers allow 5.4 points per 100 possessions more when Okafor is on the floor. But the footwork and mobility he shows on the offensive end could certainly translate on the other side of the court. For the time being, Okafor is one of the top rookies on skill alone, but has plenty of growing up to do, and is far from done developing as an NBA talent.
Largely a two-man race at this point, Karl-Anthony Towns has made a legitimate case for himself as the Rookie of the Year. Towns represents the future of NBA big men—versatile, quick, and long. He can protect the rim, switch onto guards defensively out of the PnR, and step out to shoot, which creates a ton of space for guards and wings to penetrate. These skills make him a necessity alongside non-shooters like Ricky Rubio, and gives room to Andrew Wiggins and Zach LaVine to attack rather than be forced to space the floor—a role they that works against their strengths.
He has been as good or better than Anthony Davis during his rookie season. How’s that for perspective?
Towns is a perfect example of an exception that proves the rule that a team with a rookie center will punt on defense. Nylon Calculus Rim Protection stats show his dominance as a defensive anchor and they are corroborated by his 2.99 DRPM, which ranks 15th in the league. Towns has helped his team improve from a defensive rating of 109.6 that was last in the league last season, to 103.5 that is 19th, per NBA.com SportVU data.
What makes Towns so special is the fact that he doesn’t have to fit into a role. He is both the perfect puzzle piece for this Wolves team because anyone can fit with him. So far, Towns has only slightly explored the depths of his game. With as bright a future as anyone in the league, Towns will continue to impress as his game expands into an increasingly larger role.
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