An Early Look at the 2014 Rookie Class

"The deepest draft ever," they said.

"You'd be stupid not to tank this year," they said.

Time will, of course, tell, but so far I see no evidence to contradict my early prediction that this year, like every other year in NBA history, at least one of the top draft picks will be a bust. Even when some bets are better than others, there is no certainty around the future NBA performance of NCAA athletes. Stockpiling picks is far more important than maximizing your 25% chance at the #1 overall pick.

Anyway, on to this year's rookies:

Black, Tarik HOU FC (4.0) 18 312 .364 .227 1.5 4.0 13.4 15.8 0.9
Mirotic, Nikola CHI PF (3.5) 20 351 .327 .221 1.6 3.8 18.9 13.8 3.1
Ennis, James MIA GF (2.5) 19 273 .251 .187 1.1 2.7 12.3 7.9 2.3
Parker, Jabari MIL PF (3.0) 21 622 .256 .181 2.3 2.5 19.9 9.6 2.9
Papanikolaou, Kostas HOU PF (3.0) 19 485 .208 .133 1.3 1.1 12.5 8.0 5.6
McDaniels, K.J. PHI SG (2.0) 20 515 .184 .130 1.4 1.0 18.8 7.5 2.3
Bogdanovic, Bojan BRK SF (3.0) 18 553 .148 .072 .8 -0.8 15.4 4.7 1.6
Napier, Shabazz MIA PG (1.0) 19 448 .152 .060 .6 -1.2 13.8 5.1 4.5
Rudez, Damjan IND SG (3.0) 19 329 .132 .057 .4 -1.3 14.2 1.8 2.0
Payton, Elfrid ORL PG (1.0) 23 569 .144 .052 .6 -1.5 12.7 6.7 9.7
Ingles, Joe UTH SF (3.0) 20 365 .112 .037 .3 -1.9 8.3 3.9 4.7
Noel, Nerlens PHI C (5.0) 17 524 .209 -.011 -.1 -3.4 12.7 10.3 2.5
Stauskas, Nik SAC SG (2.0) 20 262 .010 -.044 -.2 -4.4 10.3 2.6 2.4
LaVine, Zach MIN PG (1.0) 16 361 .031 -.061 -.5 -5.0 19.0 4.8 6.0
Exum, Dante UTH PG (1.0) 20 359 .030 -.062 -.5 -5.0 11.9 4.0 5.6
Wiggins, Andrew MIN SF (3.0) 19 551 -.028 -.104 -1.2 -6.3 18.8 5.7 1.8

Only 16 have played 200 minutes. Some of that is due to injury; Julius Randle, Marcus Smart, Noah Vonleh, and of course, Joel Embiid would all certainly have heavy minutes if they were healthy. But it is clearly true league-wide that most rookies are finding it tough to crack their team's rotation.

Of these 16, only one lottery pick (Parker) is playing above-average basketball, who perhaps should have been the #1 overall pick. It's early, and I expect things to change. But so far there are some clear signs:

Nikola Mirotic is clearly not doing a lot of things thatThibbs wants defensively, and his 6.8 PF/48 are evidence that he's still getting used to guarding NBA players. But he's clearly got the skills to be a star NBA big man. His true shooting is at 60%, he's an elite 3-point shooter, his rebounding and shot-blocking are good, and he's got solid handles.

Jabari Parker is a conundrum to me. Is he a power forward or a small forward? The algortihm cannot decide, and I have only personally seen one Bucks game. In any case, he has very good hands (2.2 STL/48) and has a low foul rate (unusually good for a rookie). He's either rebounding great or a little below average, again, depending on whether you think he's a small or a power forward. On paper, he looks like he has a bright future.

Nerlens Noel is another conundrum. He looked great in summer league, and great in the preseason. Neither of these are guarantees of success, of course, but why he's been having such trouble rebounding is unclear to me. He may be a little out of position (perhaps he is better suited to power forward). He's got great hands (second in steals for rookies behind Elfrid Payton). He's clearly very raw offensively, but we all knew that coming in. I continue to believe that he will get better as the season goes on.

Is it weird that Philly's best shot blocker isn't Noel, but a shooting guard? K.J. McDaniels is often Philly's best player. He rebounds, he blocks shots, he has 3-point range. You'd think this would be good news for Philly, but sadly it probably is not. McDaniels has a very weird contract and will be a restricted free agent next year. The odds that the rest of the league will let Philly re-sign him for the league minimum are pretty low, because someone is going to offer him 3-4 years for 2 or 3 million, and it's hard for me to see the management team paying a player who will then become an unrestricted free agent right around the time when the team might be hitting its stride (if "the plan" comes together). 

The vaunted target of the #RigginForWiggins campaign may be showing a lot of athleticism, Andrew Wiggins has been horrific at actual basketball so far. He's a poor shooter (46% TS), a poor rebounder, a bad passer and turnover-prone. But hey, dat vertical leap, amirite? In his defense, Flip is making him look even worse. Many of Minnesota's offensive sets devolve into "give the ball to Wiggins and see what he can do." Well, it turns out that all Wiggins has so far is a poor handle, a step-back jumper that looks good but tastes terrible, and a three point stroke that he doesn't use very often. And if you force him to "create" on the wing, you're going to lose a lot of games and make him look bad in the process. Eric at Canis Hoopus recently wrote an interesting take about this:

Do I think he's a great three point shooter right now? I do not. But  in the short term this is the development direction that makes the most sense to me. Try to make him into a true "3 and D" player until he develops the skills to add more things to his game. Instead of throwing him the ball in difficult spots and asking him to make plays he isn't capable of making, get him moving to open spots on the perimeter. Simplify. Ask him to catch and shoot when it's there, swing the ball when it isn't.

I would go so far as to say that this isn't just a building step, it is an essential part of being a star offensive player. If you look at the best offensive players, simply catching and shooting threes is a big part of their efficiency. Even high usage players like Harden, Love and Durant shoot a lot of assisted threes. Furthermore, even if Wiggins' handle improves, by and large this is not an area where players make huge leaps in development. He isn't going to ever dribble the ball like LeBron James. He will likely never be good enough to be a star player unless he becomes a great catch-and-shoot player, and the sooner he (and Flip) realize this, the better.

While we are speaking of Wiggins, in a recent interview, Brett Brown lamented that none of his rookies are playing this year. He claimed that before the draft, he was sure that he'd be rolling with Andrew Wiggins and Nik Stauskas. I'm not sure what he's suggesting here. Does he think those two would have helped!? Having those two on his roster would almost assuredly have made his team worse. And that's impressive, given that Philly is on track to win about 9 games.

Elfrid Payton may not be a star yet, but there are signs that he will be. You can teach a guy to shoot (unlike ball-handling, this is something players do tend to get better at), so when a young player is good at steals, rebounds and assists, there is lots of reason to be excited. It is one of the reasons I am still high on Michael Carter-Williams, despite his terrible start this year.

Tarik Black and Kostas Papanikolaou are two guys you probably didn't have on your radar last year, right? It's weird how this happens a lot in Houston. Those guys must just be really lucky. So far Black looks like a one-trick pony (but the trick is rebounding, so that's a good thing), and Papanikolaou looks a little less raw; he has already had a few passes show up on Sportscenter.

Dante Exum actually looked really good during the preseason, but he and Zach Lavine just aren't ready yet.

The future might be bright in Miami, since both James Ennis and Shabazz Napier are producing, but so far Napier hasn't excelled much other than showing some three point range, and Ennis hasn't gotten the kind of minutes I'd like to see to make any judgments just yet.

I remember all last year, there were a lot of folks that were dead certain that this draft would be one for the ages, right up there with 1984, 1996, and 2003. I wonder if they are still dead certain, and if so, I wonder where their certainty comes from?