The NBA draft has been a spectacle ever since the first lottery, held way back in 1985. It has grown in prominence over time, with the lottery show becoming a major event, as hundreds of thousands of fans watch their team’s ping pong balls bounce and spin with bated breath. And the draft itself rivals its NFL counterpart in intensity and scrutiny, as the fans cheer and boo as the players make their way onto the stage for their obligatory handshakes with the commissioner. We as fans have always been excited about the next generation of stars that we expect to take the league by storm - and the still evolving pomp and circumstance only furthers that excitement.
The transition from college basketball to the NBA, however, is extraordinarily difficult. There’s more travel, more games, and less time off, and the jump in the competition and sheer size of the competition is staggering. Precious few rookies make good on their talent in year one as a result of this, as well as several other extenuating circumstances (positional battles, coaches that are rookie-averse, etc.).
Fantasy basketball rankings take this into account. ESPN’s most recent list has one rookie in the top-hundred (and that one is Ben Simmons - whose injury likely means that there are zero), and another seven ranked between 101 and 200. Fantasy Pros has zero in its top-hundred. Yahoo! has Simmons in their top-hundred, with Brandon Ingram next in-line at 123. I was a bit ambitious having Simmons and Ingram both in my top-hundred, it would seem. And, in the various rankings, no rookie ranks higher than 15th at his position. After all, only three rookies ranked in the top-hundred across all formats last season.
So, simply put, buyer beware.
That does not mean that it isn’t worth gambling every now and again, particularly as you find yourselves in the later rounds, or have a specific need to fill. And, let’s be frank - nobody wants to read a long-winded post about the inherent riskiness of rookies that doesn’t offer some substantive draft advice. As such, here are five rookies (not including Brandon Ingram, who I wrote about here) that stand to play a substantial role in the upcoming season.
Marquese Chriss, PF, Phoenix Suns
Let’s lead off with a disclaimer - it’s important to not get too excited about the preseason.
Now that that’s out of the way ... have you seen Chriss play yet? He’s an athletic marvel that has forced flashbacks to the heyday of Amar’e Stoudemire, and he looks far more NBA-ready than most anyone expected. He’s averaging 13.6 points, 6.2 rebounds, 1.2 blocks, and 1.4 steals in 27 minutes per game, and he plays at a pace unlike most anyone else on the court. He’s error-prone (he committed six turnovers in his first preseason game), and he can play out of control - but he’s a joy to watch.
Chriss was regarded as one of the biggest gambles of the draft, and it’s difficult to look beyond the lack of experience that he brings to the table. That being said, I have a bold prediction - if he plays regularly, he will be a top-hundred fantasy contributor this season.
Kris Dunn, PG/SG, Minnesota Timberwolves
I am somewhat apprehensive about Dunn, largely due to the Timberwolves backcourt depth and Tom Thibodeau’s reputation for being tough on rookies. And he hasn’t helped matters in the preseason, shooting just 21.9% from the floor and racking up fouls and turnovers at an alarming rate - he has averaged about 3 turnovers and 3 fouls in just over 23 minutes per game.
So why include him? Simple - the NBA GMs and his fellow rookies peg him as the favorite for rookie of the year. It’s not just that, either. Dunn is a refined college product, with the ability to create offense for himself and others, and the sort of defense that should endear him to Thibodeau. His tools, his reputation, and the talent around him are enough to put him on most everyone’s radar.
Joel Embiid, C, Philadelphia 76ers
The 76ers have a glut of players that should play most of their minutes at center, in Embiid, Nerlens Noel, and Jahlil Okafor. They will probably spend time with two of the three on the floor at once (and the injury to Simmons frees up Saric to float between SF and PF), but all three are best-suited playing the traditional center role.
The finally healthy Embiid has the highest ceiling of the three, due to his range and touch on offense, and strong defensive tools. He’s averaging right around 10 points, 5.5 rebounds, and a block in around 14 minutes per game, and he’s punishing opposing defenders in the low post (and getting to the line as a result, where he has drained 25 of 31 attempts). The largest hang-ups are somewhat beyond his control, as the 76ers have to balance their young depth up front, and keeping Embiid healthy.
Buddy Hield, SG, New Orleans Pelicans
Hield is making his first preseason start tonight, and I wouldn’t be shocked if he ended up starting for the Pelicans once the calendar flips to 2017 (if not sooner). He offers some sorely needed 3-point shooting (39.0% in four years at Oklahoma, including 45.7% last year), and the college resume that portends a relatively smooth transition to the NBA. He played 25-plus minutes in three of his four preseason games, as well, so it is clear that the Pelicans have a large role in mind.
If I had made my top-hundred a week or so later, Hield would have very likely made the cut, given what we’ve seen in the preseason. I think he has a chance to be the best fantasy rookie this year, and a top-75-ish fantasy player that helps out with points, assists, and shooting percentages.
Dario Saric, SF/PF, Philadelphia 76ers
Saric was drafted by the Orlando Magic back in 2014, and his rights were dealt to the 76ers later that evening. He spent the next two seasons playing for Anadolu Efes in the EuroLeague, averaging 10.7 points, 6.1 rebounds, and 1.9 assists on .466/.358/.787 shooting. He was slated to play big minutes this season, largely split between SF and PF, and that role should only grown due to the aforementioned injury to Simmons.
As of this writing, Saric has started five of the 76ers six preseason games, and has averaged 8.4 points, 4 rebounds, and 1 assist on .400/.308/1.000 shooting in just under 20 minutes per game. Those EuroLeague numbers seem within reach in his rookie season.