Josh Elias | April 22nd, 2019
As I’m sure you’ve noticed by now, I like to keep my finger on the pulse of the current NBA topics of conversation and write about such things as “Hank Gathers has been dead longer than 79% of the NBA has been alive” and “Rodney Rogers was a thing once, I wonder what happened to – oh. Damn.” It’s time to keep that trend going and interrupt the most important month of the season to talk about a bunch of guys whose years are over.
We are now midway through the first round of the NBA Playoffs, and one thing that means is that, for every impactful rookie aside from Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Landry Shamet, the season is over (and their seasons are all but guaranteed to end tomorrow).
At The Scorecrow, we have had Troy Pierce cover this year’s rookie class throughout the entire season, and he’s done a great job at it too. So, of course, I feel it’s my duty to steal his thunder by writing about the rookie class as a whole now that there’s not really a valid reason to write about them.
See, this draft class, for one, promises to be one of the more impressive draft classes ever if players pan out the way that it looks like they will based on their first 82 games. Not only did Luka Doncic and Trae Young have such historic rookie years that they took DeAndre Ayton, who averaged 16.3 points, 10.3 rebounds, and 1.8 assists (for context, Ayton is only the fifth player since Shaquille O’Neal‘s 1992-93 rookie year to post numbers of 16+ and 10+ as a rookie… and the other four all won rookie of the year and all went on to attend multiple all-star games), out of the Rookie of the Year conversation entirely, but the depth of this class of rookies is second to none.
If we were to label every player who’s both played more than 20 minutes per game this year and played in at least half the season’s worth of games a key role player (which seems more than fair to me, considering that narrows it down to the top seven or eight players in the rotation for most teams), we would have a list of 20 rookies who are making an impact reaching at least “key role player” status.
That has never been the case before, in the seven decades of NBA history we now have.
That list of 20 includes players who are already top five in the assists and blocks leaderboards. It includes 14 players who have started the majority of their games this year. It includes two second-round picks and two players who weren’t even drafted.
It’s the only year where we’ve seen that many rookies make that much of an impact, and very few draft classes came anywhere particularly close. Oddly enough, one that does is the draft class from right before this one, who produced 19 such players. The only other year with 19 is 1980, a draft class that, while deep enough to produce 13 players who lasted 10+ years in the league, was largely unspectacular near the top, producing a merely respectable five all-stars and one Hall-of-Famer in Kevin McHale.
But while the significance of the impact these young players are already having on the league is absolutely incredible, that’s perhaps not the most unique thing about this past year’s rookies.
Because not only was this an all-time great draft for players, it was an all-time great draft for teams as well. Think about it, do you remember a draft that’s seen every single one of the top five picks show all-star potential as rookies? Or even a year where there’s merely an argument to be made that the top five picks are actually the five best players in the draft.
Despite gaining almost no media attention for it, Deandre Ayton has surpassed expectations and would be Rookie of the Year almost any other year even with a team that seems hellbent on making things harder for him than they need to be.
Marvin Bagley posted the third best numbers, on great efficiency no less, on arguably the fastest growing team in basketball.
Doncic was nearly voted into the all-star game, and it’s not outlandish to believe he deserved it. He’s almost certain to win MVP and is showing all the signs of a star.
Jaren Jackson Jr. dealt with the least stable team in basketball (having 27 teammates in a year should not be possible while playing on only one team) and injuries that caused him to miss over a quarter of the year, and still came out of the season with everything to be proud of as the second-youngest player in the NBA.
Young had such a good end to the year that he’d have a legitimate case for an All-NBA team if that was how he’d played all year.
There’s our top five, and they all had their years go about as well as they could’ve possibly gone. They might just all make the All-Rookie First Team, and if not, certainly they’ll all be in one of the two All-Rookie teams. Gilgeous-Alexander, Shamet, and Mitchell Robinson are really the only players who could have a case to beat any of them out.
You might be thinking to yourself that’s just what’s supposed to happen, but seriously, that’s special. Especially when you look back at other recent draft classes. Markelle Fultz‘s career is approximately on par with that of Greg Oden so far. Josh Jackson‘s been aggressively bad. The top five from 2016 produced exactly zero players who would be in that year’s All-Rookie First Team (although, of course, Ben Simmons would make up for it the next year). In 2011-12, we had seven players named to that list instead of the usual five, and Kyrie Irving was still the only player from the top five to make it that year, even with the increased odds.
Even the best drafts had their notable disappointments early on. Darko Milicic, anybody?
You have to go back a little over a decade to find a year where all of the five had a case for All-Rookie First Team, to 2008-09. The year of Derrick Rose. Michael Beasley, O.J. Mayo, Russell Westbrook, and Kevin Love rounded out the top five, and only Love had to settle for All-Rookie Second Team. Even he averaged 11.1 points and 9.1 rebounds, and, of course, his trajectory would continue upwards for quite a while after that.
There was a similar case in 1996-97, a draft class that saw over a third of the first round become all-stars later in their careers. Ray Allen was the spoiler in that case, and, funnily enough, received the seventh-most votes, just like Love would a dozen years later.
There was actually one draft class, though, that actually set the standard here, and it happens to be the same draft class that set the standard in most ways: 1984.
When I mentioned Darko Milicic earlier, there was another name that came to my mind as being just as infamous of a bad pick. Sam Bowie.
What would you say if I told you Bowie looked like almost as good of a rim protector as Hakeem Olajuwon did when they first came into the league? After all, he averaged 10.0 points, 8.6 rebounds, 2.8 assists, and 2.7 blocks. That was good for third in the league in blocks, only behind Olajuwon and Mark Eaton, who ludicrously blocked more shots than both rookies combined. He was far from a bust until he broke his leg… and then his other leg.
Just about every parallel this rookie class draws is to one of the all-time greatest drafts. 2008 produced three players that are likely to join the Hall of Fame (plus Goran Dragic, who might make it on international accolades), 1996 produced 11 all-stars, three (and soon to be five) Hall-of-Famers, and three MVP winners, and 1984 produced Jordan, Olajuwon, Barkley, and John Stockton – all all-time greats.
There’s a good chance these young guys follow in those stars’ footsteps, and if they keep it up at the pace they have so far, there’s going to be a good argument for 2018 to be one of the best draft classes and one of the best-drafted draft classes ever.
Questions and comments?
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Main Credit Image: Christian Petersen, 2019 Getty Images