By: Sam Block
So far this season, the NBA has blessed us with eye-popping rookies all over the place. Sitting about halfway through the season, it is now time to recognize the rookies who have made the transition to the NBA seem absolutely seamless. Due to the fact that Ben Simmons is not truly a rookie, he will unfortunately be excluded from this list. Yes, this is his first year playing in the league. And yes, he is absolutely fantastic. But contrary to popular belief, I do not feel he should be eligible for a list like this, or Rookie of the Year. He is a second year NBA player who got injured in his rookie season. Let’s get this clear folks, Ben Simmons is a superstar. He is not a rookie. Now, on to the list of who I believe are the five rookies having the most impressive seasons thus far.
1. Donovan Mitchell – Utah Jazz
The Utah Jazz got an absolute steal when they selected Donovan Mitchell with the 13th pick in the 2017 NBA Draft. The Shooting Guard out of Louisville has been nothing short of sensational to start his rookie campaign. Coming out of college, he was slightly looked over due to his lack of size, but so far, the lack of size has been a non-issue at the NBA level. After losing all-star Gordon Hayward this offseason, the Jazz were in need of a big-time scorer, and Mitchell has done a great job of filling that role, averaging 18.5 points per game on 43.9% shooting. The Jazz will need Mitchell to continue his excellent rookie season if they want to contend for a playoff spot in the Western Conference.
2. Jayson Tatum – Boston Celtics
When the Celtics lost Gordon Hayward to a significant injury just minutes into the NBA season, Jayson Tatum’s role expanded in a matter of seconds. The rookie out of Duke went from a very talented rookie who would have to fight for minutes on a deep team, to a very talented rookie who would be expected to perform at a high level while logging heavy minutes on a team with question marks. They say “next man up” right? Tatum has been outstanding thus far and looks as NBA ready as a rookie could ever look. Brad Stevens trusts him in clutch moments and he often rewards that trust with exceptional play. Tatum plays the game the way it is supposed to be played and is a very smart basketball player. His athleticism and ability to knock down shots will allow his game to put fear into opponents for years. Tatum is shooting 46.2% from 3-point range and that currently places him 4th in the NBA in 3-point percentage. If Boston wants to win the Eastern Conference, they will need Tatum to play a huge role.
3. Kyle Kuzma – Los Angeles Lakers
Kyle Kuzma started off the season red hot and has cooled off a bit of late. His recent cool stretch should not distract you from the outrageous start he had to this season. The rookie out of Utah is averaging 17.1 points on 46.4% shooting and 6.3 rebounds so far. The Lakers stole Kuzma with the 27th pick in the NBA Draft and Magic Johnson must absolutely love what he has seen from the 22-year-old. Kyle Kuzma plays like he was a top five pick, and quite frankly, I’m not sure how he lasted past the lottery. While he was criticized for his inconsistent 3-point shot, he has shot a solid 37.8% from three-point land so far this season. While the Lakers can’t seem to find any ways to win, Kuzma is certainly not the one to blame. His confidence is sky-high. And yes, it should be.
4. Lauri Markkanen – Chicago Bulls
I will start this one off with a critique of Markkanen. He must improve on the defensive end as his defensive real plus-minus is currently -0.49. However, that should not take away from the fact that he is averaging 14.9 points per game and 7.5 rebounds per game. Markkanen looks very polished to me already, and has an offensive gift at only 20 years-of-age. The Finnish Power Forward out of Arizona is a true 7-footer and along with Nikola Mirotic, has helped the Bulls become a more competitive basketball team. Markkanen’s ability to shoot the 3-point shot will most certainly help keep defenders honest, and if he improves on the defensive end, Lauri has the ability to become an all-star in this league.
5. Lonzo Ball – Los Angeles Lakers
I thought strongly about putting Dennis Smith, Jr. in this spot, but his -2.23 defensive real plus-minus made me shy away from him. Not to mention, Lonzo Ball is 4th among point guards with a 1.42 defensive real plus-minus. Lonzo Ball is the king of getting no credit at all for anything he does at the NBA level. Some people may think I’m crazy for saying this. His father is LaVar Ball, who is constantly getting media attention. But the fact is this…everyone seems to be talking about how Lonzo has been a bust. Not so fast. Lonzo is averaging 33.5 minutes as a rookie. With those minutes he is averaging 10.2 points per game, 6.9 rebounds per game, and 7.0 assists per game. NBA fans always seem to get enamored with players who score points, but it is crucial that we respect guards who can rebound and pass the ball as well. Lonzo is a very solid defender, has ridiculously impressive vision, and also displays a strong feel for the flow of the game. I would love to see more emotion out of the UCLA superstar, but as long as he remains focused, the sky is his limit.
It is not wise to label young NBA players as busts. Guys like Trey Lyles and Caris LeVert have seemed to turn a corner this year and look like great NBA players, but were once labeled as near busts. Let’s make sure to remain patient with rookies like Markelle Fultz, Josh Jackson, and De’Aaron Fox who have not shown us their best basketball yet. I look forward to watching the 2017 NBA Draft Class develop their games to another level throughout the second half of this NBA Season. I am sure we will check back after the season and have a whole new set of rankings. To date, the five rookies I mentioned above have truly been sensational.