Admittedly, it takes years before one can accurately judge an NBA draft class. However, there is something to be said for first impressions and the 2015 rookies have lit up the league in their first NBA season.
It’s somewhat surprising how effective this group has been in year one, since many of the top players in this draft were selected based on their long-term potential rather than their track record or NBA-readiness. Eleven of the 14 lottery picks were one-and-done college players or international teenagers, so immediate results weren’t really expected. However, a number of players from this class are ahead of schedule and already making their presence felt.
Eight rookies – Karl-Anthony Towns, Jahlil Okafor, Kristaps Porzingis, D’Angelo Russell, Devin Booker, Emmanuel Mudiay, Myles Turner and Nikola Jokic (who was drafted in 2014, but is a rookie this year) – are averaging double-digit points.
To put this into perspective, consider that last year’s rookie class featured just five players averaging 10 or more points, and none were averaging as many points as Towns (18 points per game) or Okafor (17.5 points per game). The 2013-14 class and the 2012-13 class each had just four players averaging double-digit points.
The only rookie in recent years to average more points than Towns and Okafor was Damian Lillard, who put up 19 points a night in his first year with the Portland Trail Blazers and went on to win that season’s Rookie of the Year award. But unlike Towns, Okafor and many of the other top prospects in this class, Lillard had spent four years in college, so he was expected to enter the league and contribute at a high level right away.
The fact that this year’s super-young rookies are already doing so well suggests that this could go down as one of the better drafts in quite some time. As previously noted, it does take time to thoroughly evaluate and properly assess a class. But if these early indicators progress and this draft produces a solid batch of stars, that would be excellent for the NBA because, quite frankly, it’s been awhile since there has been a class that’s star-studded and deep.
It’s too early to judge the 2014 class, although one could argue that it has been a disappointment thus far – outside of Andrew Wiggins – just because it was so hyped up and there are still so many question marks surrounding a lot of the players.
It may be too early to write off the 2013 draft too, but as of now, it has been pretty underwhelming. That draft has yet to produce a single All-Star and the No. 1 pick – Anthony Bennett – is currently out of the NBA after being cut by his hometown Toronto Raptors. The best players from the class were pleasant international surprises who exceeded all expectations after being picked outside of the lottery (Giannis Antetokounmpo and Rudy Gobert). The next-best from that class are C.J. McCollum, Nerlens Noel and Victor Oladipo – all of whom are very solid players, but not bona fide stars (at least not yet).
The last draft to produce a number of stars was 2012, as it yielded Anthony Davis, Damian Lillard, Andre Drummond, Draymond Green and Bradley Beal. However, the draft wasn’t very deep and many of the non-star players from that class are now out of the league or are journeymen.
The best draft in recent memory was probably 2011, which produced game-changing stars and plenty of talented role players who will also have long, successful careers. Ironically, that class was criticized as being very weak leading up to draft night. In fact, some reporters covering the draft in New York even asked prospects how it felt to be part of a class that seemed so bad on paper. Well, now that draft looks terrific. It produced five All-Stars in Kyrie Irving, Kawhi Leonard, Klay Thompson, Jimmy Butler and Isaiah Thomas. It also included Kemba Walker, Nikola Vucevic, Reggie Jackson, Brandon Knight, Jonas Valanciunas, Chandler Parsons, Tobias Harris, Kenneth Faried, Enes Kanter, Tristan Thompson, Nikola Mirotic, Alec Burks, Iman Shumpert, Donatas Motiejunas, Cory Joseph, Markieff Morris, Marcus Morris, Bojan Bogdanovic, Derrick Williams, Bismack Biyombo and Shelvin Mack, among others.
The point is, it’s been a few years since the NBA had a loaded draft class (and, unfortunately, some experts are projecting that the 2016 NBA Draft will be relatively weak as well). So if the 2015 class could produce a batch of stars as well as a group of talented contributors, it could help restock the league’s cupboard.
It’s looking like Towns, Okafor, Porzingis, Russell, Mudiay, Booker, Turner and Jokic could be stars if they continue on their current trajectory and reach their full potential.
This class also features high-upside players like Mario Hezonja, Justise Winslow, Stanley Johnson, Trey Lyles, Cameron Payne, Kelly Oubre Jr., Rashad Vaughn, Jarell Martin, Chris McCullough and Kevon Looney. It also includes older players who could contribute sooner than later if given the opportunity such as Frank Kaminsky, Sam Dekker, Jerian Grant, Bobby Portis, Willie Cauley-Stein, Delon Wright, Justin Anderson, R.J. Hunter, Richaun Holmes and Josh Richardson (who has been getting more minutes in Miami lately and is playing very well).
Towns seems poised to win Rookie of the Year, leading all rookies in scoring and rebounding. Despite just turning 20 years old in November, he’s averaging 18 points, 10.3 rebounds, 1.7 assists and 1.7 blocks while shooting 54.6 percent from the field and 81.1 percent from the charity stripe. The most impressive thing about Towns’ rookie year is that he has 41 double-doubles in 70 games. That obviously leads all rookies (no other first-year player has more than 18 double-doubles), but it’s also the sixth-most double-doubles among all NBA players. Just to put this number in perspective, Towns has more double-doubles than veteran All-Stars Anthony Davis (36), Chris Paul (34), Draymond Green (27), Kevin Durant (26), LeBron James (24) and Carmelo Anthony (22) among many others. He has also been incredibly efficient, with a 22.87 PER that ranks 15th in the NBA among all players (higher than a number of All-Stars). Towns has been so good this season that one could make the case that the 2015 NBA Draft has already produced its first star.
Okafor has been extremely impressive as well, even if the Philadelphia 76ers have struggled mightily. Okafor is averaging 17.5 points, seven rebounds and 1.2 blocks while shooting 50.8 percent from the field. Earlier today, he underwent an arthroscopic procedure to address a slight tear of the meniscus in his right knee, which hopefully doesn’t limit him at all going forward. Prior to that injury, Okafor was looking like a cornerstone for the 76ers. He’s years ahead of where most centers are offensively when they enter the NBA, showing the post moves, footwork, patience and basketball IQ of a veteran. He improved as the season progressed, and it was clear that he benefited from the 76ers trading for veteran point guard Ish Smith, who could run the offense, set him up for easy baskets and put him in position to be successful. Towns has Ricky Rubio dishing him passes, which is a huge advantage for him, but Okafor made the most of his situation and supporting cast in Philly and still posted very good numbers. He had some off-court trouble, but nothing major. While his behavior must improve, he is an intense competitor who was frustrated with all of the losses given his life-long success on the court. He’ll have to show more maturity off the court going forward, but there’s no question Okafor could emerge as Philly’s franchise player. It’s going to be fun to watch Towns and Okafor develop (and battle one another) for years to come.
Porzingis was the biggest surprise out of the top prospects. Everyone knew he had a high ceiling, but very few people thought he’d be one of the New York Knicks’ best players from day one. He is currently averaging 13.9 points, 7.2 rebounds and 1.9 blocks. He’ll have to improve his shooting percentages (41.5 percent from the field and 32.7 percent from three-point range), but that’s just nitpicking since Porzingis is such a unique player who can contribute in so many ways. He’s an athletic freak, he can shoot threes, he can defend at a high level and he breaks all of the stereotypes traditionally associated with overseas players. Carmelo Anthony is the star of the Knicks right now, but soon they’ll be building around Porzingis. Phil Jackson has been criticized for some of his decisions since taking over as Knicks president, but he hit a home run when he drafted Porzingis fourth overall. Nobody in New York is booing the kid now.
Russell has been criticized quite a bit since he was drafted ahead of Okafor and is under the microscope as a member of the Los Angeles Lakers, but he still has star potential. The way head coach Byron Scott has developed Russell this season has been baffling – from limiting his playing time to making negative comments about the rookie to the media. Still, it seems like Russell is starting to gain some confidence and showcase his talents. On the season, he is averaging 13.3 points, 3.5 assists, 3.5 rebounds and 1.2 steals in 27.7 minutes. In March, Russell has averaged 18.8 points and seems more comfortable running the Lakers’ offense and taking over when necessary. Russell may not be lighting up the league like some of his fellow rookies, but the potential is there and he’s making strides slowly but surely. It’s assumed that the Lakers will make a coaching change this summer and Russell could really benefit from that.
Rounding out the list of immediate-impact rookies are Denver’s Mudiay (12.1 points, 5.6 assists, 3.3 rebounds and one steal); Phoenix’s Booker (12.5 points, 2.4 assists and 2.3 rebounds while being a terrific shooter); Indiana’s Turner (10.5 points, 5.3 rebounds, 1.5 blocks despite still being just 19 years old); and Denver’s Jokic (10 points, 6.5 rebounds, 2.2 assists and one steal in 20.8 minutes, while shooting 51.1 percent from the field). Again, it’s very possible that years from now, players like Johnson, Winslow, Hezonja, Payne, etc. could also be considered stars; that’s just a testament to this class’ talent and depth.
Now, it’s always possible that the early numbers posted by some of these rookies could just be a fluke and they’ll come back down to earth. It happens – sometimes due to injuries, a change of scenery or just simply regression. One example of this is 2013-14 Rookie of the Year Michael Carter-Williams, whose production has decreased each season since he won the award and is now on the Milwaukee Bucks. Left hip surgery recently sidelined him for the remainder of the season, but he was coming off of the bench prior to the injury, showing how far his stock had dropped.
Even with that said, there’s no denying that the early returns are promising for this year’s group – especially because they are so young. In talking to people in NBA circles, there’s a lot of excitement to watch this draft class develop over the next decade. The thought is, if they’re already playing this well now, how much better can they be several years down the line when they’ve been in a development program, have some professional experience and, in some cases, a better supporting cast?
Since many of these players were drafted largely because of their high ceiling, their best basketball is almost certainly ahead of them. It’s still early, but years from now we could look back on this draft as one that significantly changed the landscape of the NBA and provided the league with a number of new stars.
Middleton, Bucks Aiming To ‘Lock In’ As Season Comes To Close
Spencer Davies catches up with Milwaukee Bucks swingman Khris Middleton in a Basketball Insiders exclusive.
Basketball Insiders had the chance to chat with Khris Middleton about the direction of the Milwaukee Bucks as the season comes to a close.
You guys won three out of four before you came into Cleveland. What was working during that stretch?
Just being us. Doing it with our defense, playing fast-paced offense. Just trying to keep teams off the three-point line. We haven’t done that. We didn’t do that [Monday] or two games ago, but it’s something we’ve just gotta get back to.
With the offense—it seems like it’s inconsistent. What do you think that’s got to do with mostly?
Just trying to do it by ourselves sometimes. Standing, keeping the ball on one side of the floor. We’re a better team when we play in a fast pace. And then also in the half court, when we move the ball from side-to-side it just opens the paint for everybody and there’s a lot more space.
For you, on both ends you’ve been ultra-aggressive here in the last couple weeks or so, does that have to do with you feeling better or is it just a mindset?
I’ve been healthy all year. Right now, it’s the end of the season. Gotta make a push. Everybody’s gotta lock in. Have to be confident, have to be aggressive. Have to do my job and that’s to shoot the ball well and to defend.
Have you changed anything with your jumper? Looking at the past couple months back-to-back, your perimeter shooting was below 32 percent. In March it’s above 45 percent.
I feel like I got a lot of great looks earlier this year. They just weren’t falling. Right now, they’re falling for me, so I have the same mindset that I had when I was missing and that’s to keep on shooting. At some point, they’re gonna go down for me.
Is knowing that every game at this point means more an extra motivator for you guys?
Definitely. We’re basically in the playoffs right now. We’re in a playoff series right now where we have to win games, we have to close out games, in order to get the seeding and to stay in the playoffs. Each game and each possession means something to us right now.
Is it disappointing to be in the position the team is in right now, or are you looking at it as, ‘If we get there, we’re going to be alright’?
I mean, we wish we were in a better position. But where we’re at right now, we’re fine with it. We want to make that last push to get higher in the seeding.
Lots of changes have gone on here. Eric Bledsoe came in two weeks into the season. You had the coaching change and lineup changes. Jabari Parker’s been getting situated before the postseason. How difficult does that make it for you guys to build consistency?
Yeah, it was tough at first. But I think early on we had to adjust on the fly. We didn’t have too many practices. There was a stretch where we were able to get in the film room, get on the court, and practice with each other more.
Now it’s just at a point where we’re adding a lot of new guys off the bench where we have to do the same things—learn on the fly, watch film. We’re not on the court as much now, but we just have to do a great job of buying in to our system, try to get to know each other.
Does this team feel like it has unfinished business based on what happened last year?
Definitely. Last year, we felt like we let one go. Toronto’s a great team. They’re having a hell of a season this year, but I feel like we let one go. This year’s a new year—a little add of extra motivation. We’ve been in the playoff position before, so hopefully, we learn from it when we go into it this year.
Would you welcome that rematch?
I mean, we welcome anybody man. We showed that we compete with any team out here. We can’t worry about other teams as much. We just have to be focused on us.
What has to happen for you guys to achieve your full potential?
Lock in. Just play as hard as we can, play unselfish, and do our job out there night-in, night-out.
NBA Daily: Raptors Look To Fine-Tune The Defense
The Toronto Raptors’ defense had a letdown against the Cavaliers, but has been outstanding overall.
The Cleveland Cavaliers and Toronto Raptors engaged in an offensive shootout on Wednesday that could be a playoff preview. The Cavs protected home court with a single-possession, 132-129 victory. Afterward, the Raptors spoke about the types of defensive adjustments the team needs to make as the postseason rapidly approaches.
“That’s how a playoff game would be,” said DeMar DeRozan, who missed a three at the buzzer that could have forced overtime. “This is a team we’ve been playing against the last two years in the postseason. Understanding how we can tighten up things defensively, how to make things tougher for them [is key].
“[It’s] little small things that go a long way, and not just with them … with every team.”
Raptors coach Dwane Casey concurred with DeRozan that fine-tuning of the defense is needed. He also pointed out that, with young contributors such as center Jakob Poeltl and power forward Pascal Siakam on the roster, defensive experience against the league’s best player, LeBron James, is something they will have to gain on the fly.
“I don’t think Jakob Poeltl played against him that much, and Siakam,” said Casey. “This is their first time seeing it. I thought Jak and Pascal did an excellent job, but there are certain situations where they’ve got to read and understand what the other team is trying to do to them.”
Poeltl was outstanding, leading the bench with 17 points and tying for the team lead in rebounds with eight. Casey praised the diversity of his contributions.
“I thought he did an excellent job of rolling, finishing, finding people,” said Casey. “I thought defensively, he did a good job of protecting the paint, going vertical. So I liked what he was giving us, especially his defense against Kevin Love.”
Basketball Insiders previously noted how the Raptors have performed vastly better as a team this season when starting point guard Kyle Lowry is out of the game. Much of that is due to Fred VanVleet’s emergence as one of the NBA’s best reserve point guards. VanVleet scored 16 points with five assists and no turnovers against Cleveland. It’s also a reflection of how good Toronto’s perimeter defense has been up and down the roster.
According to ESPN’s defensive Real Plus-Minus statistic, three of the NBA’s top 15 defensive point guards play for the Raptors. VanVleet ranks seventh while Lowry is 12th and Delon Wright is 14th. Starting small forward OG Anunoby ranks 16th at his position.
The Raptors also rank in the top five in offensive efficiency (third) and defensive efficiency (fifth). Having established an identity as a defensive team, especially on the perimeter, it’s perhaps understandable that Lowry was the one player in the visiting locker room who took the sub-standard defensive showing personally.
“It was a disgraceful display of defense by us and we’ve got to be better than that,” said Lowry. “We’ve got to be more physical. They picked us apart and made a lot of threes. We’ve got to find a way to be a better defensive team.”
Lowry continued the theme of fine-tuning as the regular season winds down.
“I think we’ve just got to make adjustments on the fly as a team,” said Lowry. “We can score with the best of them, but they outscored us tonight. We got what we wanted offensively. We’re one of the top teams in scoring in the league, but we’re also a good defensive team.”
Lowry was clearly bothered by Toronto’s defensive showing, but Casey downplayed the importance of a single regular-season game.
“We’ve got to take these games and learn from them, and again learn from the situations where we have to be disciplined,” said Casey. “It’s not a huge thing. It’s situations where we are that we’ve got to learn from and be disciplined and not maybe take this step and over-help here. Because a team like that and a passer like James will make you pay.”
While the Raptors continue to gain experience and dial in the fine defensive details, Casey was insistent that his players should not hang their heads over falling short against Cleveland.
“Hopefully our guys understand that we’re right there,” said Casey.
The Raptors host the Brooklyn Nets tonight to open a three-game home stand that includes visits from the Clippers Sunday and the Nuggets Tuesday. After that, Toronto visits the Celtics March 31 followed by a return to Cleveland April 3 and a home game against Boston the next night. With three games in a row against the other two top-three teams in the East, the schedule presents plenty of opportunities for the Raptors to add defensive polish before the playoffs begin.
NBA Daily: Jaylen Brown Set To Return For Celtics
The Celtics finally got some good news on Thursday. Jaylen Brown’s return is imminent.
Finally, some good news for the Boston Celtics.
Jaylen Brown is set to return to action.
Brown has been M.I.A. since sustaining a concussion during the team’s 117-109 victory over the Minnesota Timberwolves back on March 8, but has traveled with the team to Portland and is expecting to return to the lineup on Sunday when the Celtics do battle with the Sacramento Kings.
As the Celts gear up for a playoff run, which they hope will result in them ending LeBron James’ reign atop the Eastern Conference, they’ve picked the wrong time to run into injury issues. Along with Brown, both Kyrie Irving and Marcus Smart have each been conspicuous by their absences, and the team could certainly use all of their pieces as they attempt to enter the postseason on a high note.
Fortunately for Boston, with the Toronto Raptors leading them by 4.5 games in the standings and the Celts ahead of the Cleveland Cavaliers by a comfortable six games, Brad Stevens’ team is enjoying the rare situation of having a playoff seed that appears to be somewhat locked in.
Still, with the team only able to go as far as its young rotation will carry it, Brown addressed the media on Thursday.
“I’m feeling a lot better. I’m just trying to hurry up and get back,” Brown said, as quoted by Celtics.com.
“I’m tired of not playing.”
Stevens is probably tired of him not playing, too.
As we head into the month of April, playoff-bound teams and conference contenders begin to think about playing into June, while the cellar-dwellers and pretenders begin to look toward the draft lottery and free agency.
What’s funny is that in the midst of the Raptors and their rise out East, the Celtics and their dominance has become a bit of a forgotten storyline. When Gordon Hayward went down on opening night, the neophytes from the Northeast were thought to be a decent team in the making whose ceiling probably wasn’t anywhere near that of the Cavs, the Raptors and perhaps even the Washington Wizards.
Yet through it all, with the impressive growth of Jaylen Brown, impressive rookie Jayson Tatum and the rise of Irving as a franchise’s lynchpin, the Celtics stormed out the games to the tune of a a 17-3 record. What made the strong start even more impressive was the fact that the team won 16 straight games after beginning the season 0-2.
Although they weren’t able to keep up that pace, they began the month of February having gone 37-15 and turned a great many into believers. With their spry legs, team-first playing style and capable leader in Irving, the Celtics, it was thought, were a true contender in the Eastern Conference — if not the favorite.
Since then, and after experiencing injuries to some of its key cogs, the team has gone just 11-8.
In the interim, it seems that many have forgotten about the team that tantalized the Eastern Conference in the early goings of the season.
Brown’s return, in one important respect, will signify a return to Boston’s prior self.
With Marcus Smart having recently undergone surgery to repair a torn tendon in his right thumb, he is expected to be out another five weeks or so, meaning that he’ll likely miss the beginning of the postseason.
As for Irving, although reports say that his ailing knee has no structural damage, everything the Celtics hope to accomplish begins and ends with him. FOX Sports 1’s Chris Broussard believes that it’s no slam dunk that Irving returns to action this season, but he’s in the minority. This team has simply come too far to not give themselves every opportunity to compete at the highest level, so long as doing so doesn’t jeopardize the long term health of any of the franchise’s cornerstones.
Make no mistake about it, the Celtics are far from a finished product. With their nucleus intact and flexibility preserved, they will have another offseason with which to tinker with their rotation pieces and plug away at building a champion.
But here and now, with what they’ve got, the Celtics are much closer than any of us thought they would be at this point.
And on Sunday, when Jaylen Brown rejoins his team in the lineup, to the delight of the Boston faithful, the Celtics will be that much closer.