By: Alec Garcia (@alecbruins)
The 2017-2018 NBA season saw an influx of impactful rookies that we haven't seen since 2003. Yet, the top 2 picks only played a combined 69 games. The number one overall pick Markelle Fultz appeared in only 17 games this season including the playoffs. It's difficult to fault Markelle Fultz for the Sixers inability to consult medical professionals year after year. But Fultz showed some flashes in the games he played at the end of the regular season. He still had that advanced handle and knack for finding open space. He showed that he still had the ability to get to the rim and finish. The main concern is still Fultz shooting like DJ Khaled. The whole situation is bizarre and there's still so much unknown. In a basketball sense the Sixers can't afford to have both Simmons and Fultz on the court refusing to take jump shots.
The number two pick Lonzo Ball also struggled to stay on the court for the Lakers which led to inconsistency in his game. Lonzo was highly scrutinized throughout the draft process and NBA season in large part due to Lavar who was oblivious to any repercussions his words would have on Lonzo. On the court though, Lonzo showed much of what we already knew. He's instinctual and incredibly gifted as a passer but sometimes lacks the aggressiveness to score. That's just not who Lonzo is though, and that's okay because he does so many things on the court the casual fan won't ever appreciate. His basketball IQ is elite and it shows in his play. Perhaps the most impressive part of his rookie season, was the presence and instincts he brought on defense, which was undeniably considered the weakest part of his game during the draft process.
Ben Simmons was not part of the 2017 Draft class but he's still widely considered a rookie since he missed the entire 16-17' season. He's also widely considered the Rookie of the Year with Donovan Mitchell a very close second. Ben Simmons is a anomaly in every sense of the word. No starting point guard in NBA history has been as tall as Simmons (6'10) and over the past few months, we’ve seen him transform the position. Ben Simmons can't shoot. He actually refuses to shoot. In fact, all 10 of Simmons 3-point attempts on the year came on buzzer-beating heaves. None of this actually mattered until he ran into Brad Stevens and the Celtics. Since the All-Star break, he averaged 14.1 points (on 56.9 percent shooting), 8.6 rebounds, and 10.1 assists. Stylistically, comparisons to both Lebron and Magic are inevitable. His defensive real plus-minus would rate favorably across any position 1 through 4 meaning he can guard all those positions and be very good at it. Simmons has the highest ceiling and is the most well rounded in a crop of very talented rookies. His court vision and playmaking ability are advanced at this stage but his future success will be somewhat dependent on developing at least a decent jump shot.
Donovan Mitchell was the star of the postseason. He astronomically exceeded all expectations for his rookie season. The no. 13 pick in the 2017 NBA Draft averaged 24 points per game on 42% shooting. He had the 3rd highest usage rate (29.1) among rookies in NBA history. Donovan Mitchell is a bucket-getter and he's able to score in tight spaces. What separates Mitchell from his peers is combining his incredible explosiveness with his ability to score from behind the arc. He made more 3s (187) than any rookie in NBA history Rookies usually specialize in one area and will be utilized over the course of the season for that particular skill. Mitchell is also a very capable defender he's very strong with quick feet and was assigned to Westbrook and Paul George on multiple occasions. It's important to note permiter defense is much easier when you have the best rim protector in the league as your teammate. The future in Utah looks very bright with Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert as young cornerstone players.
The loss of Gordon Hayward dealt a devastating blow to the Celtics’ title dreams in Game 1 of the NBA season. But in stepped Jayson Tatum, a 19-year old rookie who has Boston two games from the NBA Finals. The injury to Hayward was devastating but it most certainly had ripple effects in accelerating Jayson Tatum's rookie season. Tatum was immediately inserted to essentially replace a max contract player. It didn't take him to long to prove he was capable of doing so, between October and December, Tatum shot 50.8 percent from the floor, 47.1 percent from 3-point range, and 82.4 percent from the free throw line. Fast forward to the playoffs, where Tatum now holds the franchise record for consecutive 20-plus-point (5) postseason games as a rookie surpassing none other than Larry Bird. Everyone scoffed at Danny Ainge post-draft when he insisted that Tatum was his guy all along and he would have taken him first overall had the Celtics not made a trade with the Sixers and moved back to third. It's clear Ainge saw something in him early but now Tatum has put everyone on notice.
Nobody would have expected Lonzo Ball to be widely considered the Lakers second best rookie. Lonzo was the second overall pick, the local product, who was beloved by the fan base. But it was the 27th overall pick, Kyle Kuzma, who stole the show. Unless you watched PAC 12 hoops, Kuzma was widely unknown as a prospect. He was a 3-year college player at Utah in an age of one-and-done types. His unanticipated rise led him to be tied with Julius Randle as the leading scorer for the Lakers this season. Kuzma, like Donovan Mitchell is a bucket-getter. He was the first Lakers rookie since Magic Johnson in 1979-1980 to have at least four 30-point games in a season. There is no doubt Kuzma is a much better player with Lonzo on the floor and with the two of them and other young pieces the Lakers have a very bright future.
LeBron James called the 2017-18 rookie class “probably the best since 2003." He wasn't wrong in his assessment, and this postseason only adds credibility to his claim. Rookies have started in 53 playoff games, which is the highest in the past 21 seasons. Three rookies (Mitchell, Tatum, Simmons) averaged at least 16 points in the playoffs, the best since that spectacular 2003-04 class. It will be intriguing to watch the progression of this class into potential stardom in the coming years.