by Rob Joyce
It’s supposed to be a guard-heavy league now, and for the most part that’s the case in the NBA. However, don’t tell this year’s rookie class. Though none of the biggest impact rookies are on serious championship contenders, they are becoming centerpieces to rebuilding jobs that (if all goes well… except perhaps in Philly) should lift their respective franchises into relevancy within a few years.
It’s not entirely forward-heavy, but as the regular season creeps closer to the All-Star break, here are the five rookies who have made the biggest impact:
5) Nikola Jokic, Nuggets:
The surprise on the list, the 41st overall selection in the 2014 draft signed with the Nuggets last July after initially staying with his Serbian League team upon being selected. He doesn’t have the numbers of his fellow rookie teammate Emmanuel Mudiay (who has only played in 29 games after suffering an ankle injury), but offense isn’t where Jokic is becoming a force. Defensively he’s among the better players on an otherwise mediocre unit in Denver, he’s rebounding the ball more and, at 8.7 points per game, is starting to chip in on offense. His Player Efficiency Rating (PER) actually leads all rookies. It’s doubtful he will ever be a star in the NBA, but he can become a valuable asset for a championship team as a fourth scorer who rebounds and plays solid defense.
4) D’Angelo Russell, Lakers:
He’s been inconsistent at times, and has been hampered by some injuries of late, but he has shown flashes of being the future in Los Angeles. His 11.9 points per game is fourth among rookies, and there’s plenty of room for improvement – he’s shooting just over 40 percent from the field, just 32 percent from three-point range, he only gets to the free throw line about once per game (and when he gets there he’s not effective, at just 67 percent). However, in his defense, he doesn’t have a load of help around him, and it can’t be easy sharing the ball during the Kobe Bryant farewell tour. As time goes on expect Russell to become more and more of a force offensively.
3) Jahlil Okafor, 76ers:
The Sixers have gone from being a historically inept dumpster fire, losing 30 of their first 31 games, to merely a bad team. In other words, major progress for perennially-rebuilding Philly! The biggest difference for the Sixers is, one, journeyman Ish Smith, but a close second is Okafor. The big man is averaging 17.5 points a night, and after a rough start shooting-wise, he’s turned it on of late. In January he is connecting on over 60 percent of his field goals, not shooting below 56 percent in any game. His defense and rebounding are still works in progress. However, he has shown that, finally, Philly has found a big man to build around, and he’s only 20.
2) Kristaps Porzingis, Knicks:
Remember when New York picked him fourth overall, and the Barclays Center crowd was overwhelmingly against it? June seems like a long time ago. Now he has a legitimate claim as the most popular athlete in New York, and his career is 43 games old. He’s averaging 14 points and eight boards a contest, has proven he can hit from mid- to long-range and has had multiple “wow” plays. The Latvian’s No. 6 jersey is flying off shelves everywhere, and he’s no Linsanity – Porzingis is here to stay.
1) Karl-Anthony Towns, Timberwolves:
The top overall selection is playing as such. Yes, his offense is still raw, but it’s that way for most 20-year-old big men. His 9.5 rebounds per game and 19 double-doubles both lead all rookies, he’s shooting over 52 percent from the field, 85 percent from the free throw line, and has a 21.2 PER. And he’s garnering the attention of the league, as Kevin Durant has said Towns will one day be a Hall of Famer. We’ll wait before enshrining the rookie in Springfield, but his numbers are on the level of Tim Duncan, David Robinson and Shaquille O’Neal when they were rookies.