When the newest members of the NBA fraternity heard their names called on draft night way back on June 21, the high level of uncertainty thanks to the impending free agency made it difficult to truly peg which rookies would be in the best position to succeed immediately in year one.
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With rosters now mostly set as free agency winds down and with summer league in the rear-view mirror, it’s much easier to take stock of where this rookie class sits with training camp just over a month away.
The players on this list aren’t necessarily the most talented, the best long-term prospects or even those most likely to start for their new teams. They are the rookies in the best positions to succeed to start the season, both individually and as teammates.
Luka Doncic – Dallas Mavericks (3rd Overall via trade)
Doncic was the easiest choice on this list both because of his situation in Dallas and his superior résumé. Last summer, he and Goran Dragic led Slovenia to their first ever EuroBasket championship. Then this past year, Doncic capped off his third season in the second-best league in the world by becoming the youngest player to ever win EuroLeague MVP at just 19-years-old.
He’s not the best athlete in the 2018 class, but Doncic is a tall, fluid playmaker with a great feel for the game who should fill out the perimeter perfectly with Dennis Smith Jr. and Harrison Barnes. He’ll also have a potentially devastating pick and roll partner in the newly aquired Deandre Jordan, an excellent rim runner with the ability to take full advantage of Doncic’s penchant for sniffing out easy looks for teammates. With Dallas staying away from any other significant ball-handlers in free agency, his transition to the NBA should be smooth. If he manages to earn Rick Carlisle’s trust, Doncic will be an early Rookie of the Year favourite.
Kevin Knox – New York Knicks (9th Overall)
Coming into the NBA many felt Knox had the potential to eventually develop into outstanding scorer. After a strong Summer League in which averaged a team-high 21.3 points per game and at times looked comfortably in a class of his own, Knox could be further along than even the most optimistic Knicks fans could have hoped for on draft night.
— NBA (@NBA) July 11, 2018
Though Knox has only been a Knick for a month and a half, new head coach David Fizdale has clearly liked his early returns. Last month, Fizdale said he was going to experiment with lineups featuring “a whole bunch of wingspan” including playing Knox at the two. While Kristaps Porzingis at small forward will have to wait until he’s done rehabbing his torn ACL, Fizdale clearly wants to do anything he can to get Knox early reps this season.
In free agency, the Knicks reiterated their comfort level with Knox by only signing one wing in Mario Hezonja to a one-year deal. While it may take Knox some time to adjust to the speed and intensity of the NBA game, he will have early opportunities to get comfortable at this level and endear himself to the fans in Madison Square Garden.
Trae Young – Atlanta Hawks (5th Overall via trade)
From a neutral fan’s perspective, Young is probably the most intriguing rookie in this entire class. After bringing in Jeremy Lin as a steadying presence, Atlanta cleared a path for Young to start producing right away by trading Dennis Schroder to Oklahoma City. In making that trade, the Hawks are clearly embracing what made Young a star at Oklahoma.
We know his story well. Young lit the college basketball world on fire for months, hit unbelievable threes, recorded 30-point double-doubles and was proclaimed the next Steph Curry. As Oklahoma struggled over the latter half of the season, Young’s star lost some of its luster, but he still finished the year leading all major conferences in both points and assists per game .
Due to the trajectory of his college career, Young is going to face lofty expectations and a healthy dose of skepticism this season. Like many rookies, his shooting might fluctuate early on, but his remarkable passing and vision will make him an immediate offensive weapon regardless of if his shots are falling. Atlanta clearly believes Young is the future of the franchise and from the jump will give him every chance to become that type of player.
Josh Okogie – Minnesota Timberwolves (20th Overall)
Although Okogie might be the biggest unknown on this list, he has a chance to be great for Minnesota. The 19-year-old from Lagos, Nigeria is just 6-foot-5 but has an incredible seven-foot wingspan and projects as a great, lengthy defender in Tom Thibodeau’s system. He can play either the two or the three and has flashed promise as an effective floor spacer, something Minnesota surely craves after finishing 29th in catch-and-shoot attempts last season.
No. 20 Pick: Josh Okogie, Minnesota Timberwolves
25% of his shots in the half court were catch and shoot jump shots which he converted for a terrific 1.339 points per catch and shoot attempt [93rd percentile]
Full Scouting Report: https://t.co/SA5n5rbOgI pic.twitter.com/kbe1bmTVqf
— NBA.com/Stats (@nbastats) June 22, 2018
That being said, Okogie is facing a couple of obstacles. He is firmly behind Jimmy Butler and Andrew Wiggins on the depth chart and Thibodeau routinely plays his starters more than anyone else in the league. Additionally, Thibodeau has never played a rookie more than 17.1 minutes per game as a head coach, including Butler’s paltry 8.5 per game while the two were in Chicago.
Despite the situational history which could temper lofty expectations, the good news is that Okogie and fellow rookie Keita Bates-Diop are the only real backup wings on the roster. Jamal Crawford did not re-sign in free agency which should clear a few extra minutes per game for Okogie, out of necessity if nothing else.
Miles Bridges – Charlotte Hornets (12th Overall)
Bridges is incredibly talented, but he never quite found the right role at Michigan State. He frequently played with two other big men – including fourth overall pick Jaren Jackson Jr. – and was asked to play up a position at small forward. Over his two years he still put up 17.0 points and 7.6 rebounds per game while shooting 37.5 percent from three and became a 2018 second-team All-American , but the fit in East Lansing wasn’t perfect.
In Charlotte, Bridges has a chance to provide the Hornets with a dynamic small-ball option at the four. Though he’s slightly undersized at just 6-foot-6, he’s more than strong and athletic enough to score, rebound and defend as a power forward even in traditional lineups. He might have to fight for time with Nicolas Batum and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, but his versatile skill set should complement both players while they’re on the floor together.
Though recent Hornets rookies have found minutes hard to come by, new head coach James Borrego has been willing to trust young players in the past. As the Magic’s interim in 2015, he trusted Orlando’s youth and increased the playing time of then-rookies Elfrid Payton and Aaron Gordon which should play in Bridges’ favor. Maybe Bridges’ biggest benefit in Charlotte, however, is that he will get a chance to play with an All-Star point guard in Kemba Walker and future Hall-of-Famer in Tony Parker who will help give him an even greater chance of immediate success.