Life can get difficult for NBA rookies with so many adjustments needed both on and off the court. Young players have to get used to the raised level of competition on a nightly basis, a changing role as they work themselves into a team, and the grind of a long professional season. An NBA rookie also has to adjust to a new lifestyle from what they experienced in college. This includes dealing with money, fame, and distractions on a bigger scale. How a young man handles those adjustments can not only impact his rookie season but possibly the trajectory of an entire career. There have been 96 rookies to debut in the NBA this season.
NBA Rookie Report
The league’s biggest rookie debut has yet to happen this season. Number one pick Zion Williamson has yet to lace them up for the New Orleans Pelicans, after having a preseason knee injury. He is close to making his return to the court, and there’s no doubt that all eyes will be on this NBA rookie when he debuts. Even without the headliner of this class, there is still a good crop of first-year players making an immediate impact. This year’s group covers all the bases as well, spanning from teenagers to a journeyman in his mid-twenties. There is also developing talent at each position, with both perimeter and post players stepping up as rookies.
The Front Runner
With the number one pick having not played yet in the 2019-20 campaign, it has been the man selected behind him who has taken the spotlight. Ja Morant has been by far the best NBA rookie through the first half of the season. The Memphis Grizzlies guard has shown consistency and fearlessness which first-year players rarely have. He leads all rookies in both points and assists, and has his team sitting as the eighth seed in the tough Western Conference. He has also answered some of the questions about his game, shooting 39% from three through 34 games. Morant is becoming a regular on highlight reels with his explosion to the rim.
By normal standards, this is an older rookie class. However, there are still a few teenagers starting their careers on the right foot this season. R.J. Barrett was drafted third overall with hopes that he could become the piece that finally begins the New York Knicks rebuild. While the team is still struggling, the 19-year-old wing from Duke has been making a good impression. Barrett is averaging 14 points and five boards and is second among first-year players in steals. His efficiency is still a work in progress, but he has shown the ability to get buckets. As he learns and matures his shooting percentages should go up, but he definitely needs to improve from the free-throw line. For a scorer whose game is built on slashing to the rim, 60% from the charity stripe is not good enough.
Fellow teenagers, Coby White, Jaxon Hayes, and Kevin Porter Jr. are also doing good things for their respective teams. White is one of 11 rookies averaging double digits, and like Barrett should improve in efficiency as his comfort level goes up. Hayes has stepped right in for the Pelicans to provide a post presence. He leads all first-year players with 45 blocks and is shooting 65% from the floor. The 19-year-old Porter has found a role off the bench for the struggling Cleveland Cavaliers.
The Gonzaga Bulldogs are currently number one nationally in the college basketball polls. That looks even more impressive considering their two best players from a season ago are now experiencing life as an NBA rookie. Forward Brandon Clarke has become an efficient option off the bench for the Grizzlies. He ranks in the top seven first-year players in points, rebounds, and blocks, all while shooting 66% from the floor. He does all this in just 21 minutes a night. His former Bulldog teammate Rui Hachimura has started all 25 games he has played for the Washington Wizards. He is providing around 14 points and six rebounds a contest.
Kendrick Nunn is by far the most unlikely NBA rookie success story this campaign. He went undrafted in 2018 and played for the Santa Cruz Warriors in the G-League a season ago. The Miami Heat signed him last April, and he has been a mainstay in the team’s starting lineup all year. Much like the Heat’s success at 27-12, Nunn came from way off the radar. The 24-year-old guard has shown a toughness that fits right in with what Coach Erik Spoelstra wants from his players. He is second among rookies in points and assists. Nunn scored a career-high 36 in a win over the Hawks and has only failed to score in double digits seven times in 39 games.
The Heat’s hot first half has been bolstered by a rookie they actually drafted last summer as well. Guard Tyler Herro is instant offense off the bench for Miami. He is scoring over 13 points a night, while shooting 39% from beyond the arc.
His former Kentucky teammate, P.J. Washington, is also having a solid debut season in the NBA. A starter from day one with the young Charlotte Hornets, the versatile forward has been steady and productive. Size-wise, he is a bit in between the ideal power or small forward. Luckily, in today’s NBA that is not the issue it might have once been. Washington has a certain craftiness to his offensive game and has really improved his outside shooting ability.
Now comes the toughest part for an NBA rookie. As the All-Star break approaches, the grind of the long professional season can start to take its toll. The middle of the season can force some rookies to hit a wall while they adjust to the every night challenges this league provides. Some of these first-year guys could falter down the stretch as wear and tear becomes an issue. On the other hand, there will undoubtedly be a few rookies who find their footing in the next few weeks, and finish the season much stronger than they started it. All the while, the countdown is on as to when one of league’s most anticipated debuts will finally happen.
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