This year’s rookie class doesn’t quite have the highs of last year’s crop (Paolo excepted). But unlike in most years, players are filling essential roles on teams with deep playoff aspirations. Let’s examine a few and see who could swing a playoff series.
Note: we’ve already talked about my favorite rook, AJ Griffin, who added his second game-winner of the season in a wild last-second (literally! There were three lead changes in the final second, singular!) victory over the Chicago Bulls Sunday night.
Andrew Nembhard and Bennedict Mathurin, Indiana Pacers
Nembhard: 25 min | 8.9 pt | 4.0 ast | 3.0 reb | 1.0 stl |46/41/87 FG/3P/FT% splits
Mathurin: 29 m | 17.6p | 1.5 a | 4.0 r | 0.6 s | 42/35/80 splits
Checking in on the Pacers, who are starting to come back to Earth a little. They are currently 14-14 and eighth in the East, so they may not make the playoffs at all, but they have arguably two of the highest-impact rookies on teams today.
Mathurin has garnered the lion’s share of the press this season, so let’s start with Nembhard. Nembhard was a second-round pick who forcefully grabbed a rotation spot from typically youth-averse coach Rick Carlisle. He’s a jack-of-all-trades who can run the pick and roll, shoot, cut off-ball, and even defend the other team’s best player — his top defensive matchups are a who’s who of All-NBAers like Steph Curry, Jimmy Butler, Damian Lillard, and LeBron James.
Note the versatility there. The Pacers don’t have any wing-sized wings, so Nembhard (listed anywhere between 6’3” and 6’5”) is the best of a bad set of options. He’s not a lockdown artist by any means, but his greatest attribute is balance — he’s strong for his size and always in the right position, and he’s very difficult to shake. Nembhard’s ability to always be involved in the play is catnip for demanding, cerebral coaches like Carlisle.
Offensively and defensively, Nembhard has proven an ability to do almost everything at a competent level, and he’s absurdly well-rounded for a rookie. He’s been everything from a spot-up shooter to the main initiator for the Pacers on offense.
In summary, I get major Malcolm Brogdon vibes from Nembhard. There aren’t many second-round picks who are deserving starters in the NBA, and fewer still on playoff teams, but Nembhard is as ready as any rookie for the bright lights of the postseason.
Mathurin made waves as an early contender for both Rookie of the Year and Sixth Man of the Year (although he’s cooled off recently). He’s a heads-down bull in a china shop, rampaging to the rim like Juggernaut and collecting bodies on the way:
Mathurin has proven his shotmaking ability, splashing from all parts of the court and playing with furious strength. He doesn’t settle for contested jumpers when he thinks he can get a shoulder on his man and get closer to the hoop. He’s also very willing and intuitive as an off-ball mover.
Benn’s shot has gone cold, but he always keeps the pressure on the rim and has loads of confidence. Don’t forget, this man outscored — and beat — LeBron after a preseason declaration that the King needed to prove he was better than Mathurin.
Mathurin is not yet capable of making advanced passing reads (his attempts to run the pick-and-roll can be an adventure), and while his on-ball defense is ok, he gets lost off the ball.
But both those things are typical struggles for rookie scorers. If Mathurin can overcome the rookie wall and figure out how to contribute to winning basketball even without his shot falling, he’ll be an important part of the Pacers’ surprising march to the postseason.
Walker Kessler, Utah Jazz
17 m | 6.1 p | 0.6 a | 5.7 r | 1.8 b | 76/—/58 splits
One of the many pieces the Jazz got back from their mammoth haul in the Rudy Gobert trade was a bonafide Gobert replacement. Kessler was a shotblocking savant in college, and it’s translated perfectly to the NBA game, as he’s one of the league leaders in blocks despite playing fewer than 17 minutes per game.
Kessler is already an elite drop defender, navigating the in-between spaces of deterring ballhandlers without giving up lobs to rolling bigs. He knows when to feint at the guards to cause them to pick up their dribble versus when to trust his teammates to get back in front of their man. He’s improving his rebounding discipline with every game.
Offensively, Kessler runs hard in transition, using his young legs to keep up with his guards and get easy dunks:
Kessler might already have better hands than his predecessor, making a variety of tough catches that Jazz fans have too often seen fumbled out of bounds in the past:
On a Utah team with many ballhandlers and shooters, Kessler pretty much only touches it when it’s dunkin’ time, and that’s fine! He’ll need more on-ball reps to develop a passing feel and a more advanced offensive game, but that’s not an option for Utah, given their surprising playoff aspirations. To be a late-game threat, Kessler also needs to eventually hit a consistent 65% of his free throws.
Regardless, Kessler is a valuable role player as-is; a little more offensive polish could make him a future foundational piece.
Dyson Daniels, New Orleans Pelicans
20 m | 5.6 p | 2.4 a | 3.7 r | 0.8 s | 51/39/65 splits
I don’t watch college basketball much, but I’ve learned over the years to mostly ignore incoming player comparisons. Too often, they simply reflect a combination of size and one or two skill overlaps, neutering the individual nuances every player brings to the table.
But I have to admit that preseason comparisons of Daniels to Lonzo Ball were eerie. The lanky guard is a carbon copy of Ball — the hit-ahead passes to jumpstart the offense, the active hands, the intelligent defensive positioning.
Daniels would be a point guard on any other team, but New Orleans runs a democratic offensive system that lets nearly anyone bring the ball up off a rebound. And CJ McCollum, Zion Williamson, and Jose Alvarado have most of the half-court ballhandling responsibilities. But Dyson has a keen passing eye, and he rarely holds the ball for more than a second, even when he’s 90 feet from the hoop:
That sort of passing is contagious, and it helps keep the ball ping-ponging around.
Like Ball, the biggest question with Daniels coming in was his shot. But he’s been confident and successful so far, shooting when he’s open and attacking over-eager closeouts. Of course, he’ll need to maintain a high level of accuracy to make playoff opponents care, but at this point, Dyson’s done nothing to make me doubt him.
Shaedon Sharpe, Portland Trail Blazers
20 m | 8.1 p | 0.5 a | 2.7 r | 0.3 s | 47/33/60 splits
Like Mathurin, Sharpe has showcased strong shotmaking flair from all over the court, and his absurd vertical gives him a third dimension to attack from. For example: what even is this?
Teammate Trendon Watford thought he was making a normal pass to a cutting Sharpe for an easy layup, but Sharpe decided to engage his booster engines at just the right time to turn a layup into a poster dunk.
He’s not limited to high-flying acrobatics. Sharpe can create his own shot from anywhere on the court. He has a surprisingly weak handle, but his first step and strength allow him to get separation anyway. A cold stretch in December has brought down once-sterling shooting splits, but Shaedon has showcased both deep range and a nice touch on pull-up middies. As shown above, he’s got a wonderful sense of off-ball timing on his cuts to the rim before he blasts off for another oop.
Defensively, Sharpe is trying, but he sat out his only year of collegiate eligibility, so his head is still spinning as he attempts to decipher the complexities of modern NBA offense. His passing also remains a major weak point: Sharpe’s assist rate of 3.7% is one of the lowest in basketball. That makes Walker Kessler, a center who goes entire quarters without touching the ball on offense, look like Chris Paul by comparison.
Overall, Sharpe is a volcanic eruption waiting to happen on any given night. Though his minutes may dive in the postseason this year, he’ll be an excellent break-glass option in case of a scoring emergency.
Other Rookies Deserving Mention
David Roddy, Memphis Grizzlies
Roddy’s been a fixture in the rotation since Game 1, and he’s better than his numbers suggest. After starting the year in a ghastly shooting slump, Roddy has hit a respectable 37% from deep since the calendar flipped from October to November, and he knows how to use his strength to bully to the rim.
His unique basketball body (6’6”, 260 lbs) doesn’t easily slot into the traditional positional spectrum, but he’s played chiefly wing for the Grizz. Despite his build, Roddy has quick feet that let him credibly guard 2-4. Anybody who can be a league-average shooter and defender will always find minutes.
Christian Koloko, Toronto Raptors
Koloko has made a name for himself as a defender in Toronto. He hasn’t shown much in the shooting, rebounding, passing, or non-fouling departments (the latter category limits playing time, suppressing the former), but he’s been so good defending the rim with his Boeing wingspan (7’5”) and switching out onto guards on the perimeter that Toronto hasn’t hesitated to use him in specific matchups. He could be the defensive disruptor the Raptors need in a first-round series.
Keegan Murray, Sacramento Kings
I wrote about Murray in Summer League and about the Kings recently, which is why he doesn’t get a bigger feature here. He’s back up to 37% from three on large volume for a rookie, although he’s struggled with his defense and finishing at the rim. Unfortunately, with so many mouths to feed in Sacramento, Murray’s been largely relegated to a spot-up shooting role… understandable, given the Kings’ success, but disappointing given the exciting versatility he showed in July.
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