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Which NBA Rookies Make Day-One Impact?

Though rookies generally aren’t big contributors, these first-year players can make an impact from day one.

Jesse Blancarte



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The 2016-17 rookie class was pretty difficult to assess throughout the pre-draft process. If you checked out Basketball Insiders’ Consensus Mock Drafts in the weeks leading up to the draft, you likely noticed an unusually high number of players who climbed up and plummeted down the board – with a select few holding a consistently high position.

As it turned out, the draft ended up being even more unpredictable than most projected. The Boston Celtics are a good example of this as they took Jaylen Brown (No. 3), Guerschon Yabusele (16), Ante Zizic (23), Demetrius Jackson (45), Ben Bentil (51) and Abdel Nader (58), all while trying to put together a deal for a star player – most notably Jimmy Butler. A lot of teams went with the draft-and-stash strategy, so it will take more than a few years to really get a sense of which teams scored big in this draft and which teams struck out.

While the draft itself was difficult to project, we may have a better shot at predicting which rookies will have the biggest impact this upcoming season. With this mind, here is a list of rookies who seem poised to be the biggest day-one contributors from this class.

5. Buddy Hield, New Orleans Pelicans

Coming off of a fantastic senior season at Oklahoma, Hield is well-situated to make an impact for the New Orleans Pelicans from day one. The Pelicans have more experienced players in their backcourt, including Jrue Holiday, E’Twaun Moore, Tyreke Evans, Langston Galloway, Tim Frazier and Alonzo Gee. However, Evans is still injured and, at 22 years old, Hield may already be one of the most complete and prototypical shooting guards the Pelicans have on their roster.

With Holiday at point guard and Anthony Davis wreaking havoc in the frontcourt, Hield has the opportunity to slot in as a valuable weapon off the ball with his three-point shooting. In his fourth and final season at Oklahoma, Hield averaged 25 points, 6.3 rebounds, 2.2 assists and 1.2 steals, while shooting 50.1 percent from the field and, most importantly, 45.7 percent from distance. His numbers were jaw-dropping, especially when you consider that he was attempting 8.7 three-pointers per game. If Hield can knock down the open shots that his teammates will generate for him while playing solid perimeter defense, he has a good shot of establishing himself as one of the most impactful rookies in the upcoming season.

The question is, are we going to see the version of Hield that scorched the NCAA last season or are we going to see the inefficient gunner who struggled during the Las Vegas Summer League?

4. Dario Saric, Philadelphia 76ers

Saric, the No. 12 overall pick in the 2014 NBA Draft, was acquired by the Philadelphia 76ers in a draft-night deal with the Orlando Magic. However, he has been playing overseas for the last two seasons so this upcoming campaign will count as his rookie year. At 22 years old, Saric has the experience to be an immediate contributor in Philadelphia. Specifically, he has played in some top-level settings, such as the Adriatic League, Turkish BSL League and for the Croatian national team, which is generally considered more effective experience than college basketball.

His recent play in the Olympics has drawn widespread praise, including from 76ers head coach Brett Brown. While Brown admitted that Saric does not have elite athleticism, he does have a multi-faceted game with the ability to put the ball on floor and stretch defenses to the three-point line from the power forward position.

Saric has the experience and skills to be a significant contributor this upcoming season, but his success will likely depend on how well Coach Brown can integrate him into his rotations. Saric occupies a crowded frontcourt, which includes top pick Ben Simmons (who may play more point forward), Jahlil Okafor, Nerlens Noel and Joel Embiid among others. With Saric’s shooting and Simmons’ ability to penetrate opposing defenses and create open looks for his teammates, they could form a dynamic tandem. However, it’s possible that Brown settles in on lineups that don’t feature Saric in a way that allows him to utilize all of his talents.

3. Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers

Embiid, another 76er who was selected in the 2014 draft, also makes this list. Drafted third overall, Embiid entered the NBA after one year at Kansas. He was projected by many to be a future star based primarily on his rapid improvement in recent years and his physical profile.

Unfortunately, just before the draft, Embiid underwent surgery on a broken navicular bone in his right foot, which was projected to take four-to-six months to recover from. Embiid ended up missing what would have been his entire rookie season. He then missed last season after the bone failed to heal as quickly as expected. He ultimately had another surgery in August of 2015 and there are still some lingering concerns over his health.

Despite those concerns, Embiid’s upside is incredible. He has ideal size, length and athleticism at center, and he should have the mobility to play both ends of the court effectively. It’s tough to truly project what kind of player he can be until we see some live game action from him, but after two years of working within the 76ers’ program under head coach Brett Brown and his staff, there is reason to believe he could be a significant contributor this upcoming season.

2. Kris Dunn, Minnesota Timberwolves

After playing four years of college basketball at Providence, Dunn enters the upcoming season as one of the most experienced top prospects in the draft. Dunn has been lauded as a polished point guard who can make his presence felt on both ends of the court. Anyone who watched Dunn play at the Las Vegas Summer League knows that he is also a fiery competitor, which was apparent in his head-to-head matchup against Toronto Raptors guard Norman Powell.

The problem for Dunn this upcoming season is that the Timberwolves already have veteran point guard Ricky Rubio slotted as the starting floor general. Head coach Tom Thibodeau has stated that the two could potentially play alongside one another, though we’ll see how that goes. Neither Rubio nor Dunn are knockdown shooters (though Dunn showed significant improved last season), which may prevent them from being able to play together effectively. However, Dunn and Rubio are both good defensive players, which may offset their limitations on offense. Also, it is entirely possible that Rubio gets traded at some point this season considering the fact that he was made available in trade discussions earlier this offseason.

Despite the obvious concern over playing time, Dunn will get an opportunity to prove himself as a viable contributor this upcoming season. With plenty of college experience and the ability to play both ends of the court effectively, Dunn has the chance to make a big impact throughout next season. Oh, and playing alongside former No. 1 picks Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins (as well as Minnesota’s other impressive young talents) should only make Dunn’s life easier as he transitions to the NBA.

1. Ben Simmons, Philadelphia 76ers

After watching Ben Simmons’ overall play at the Las Vegas Summer League, some doubters may want to lighten up their criticism of his game. It’s true that Simmons should have been able to make a bigger impact during his lone season at LSU, but it’s not unprecedented for a top prospect to struggle at the college level only to subsequently thrive at the NBA level.

Additionally, Simmons will likely be given the keys to the 76ers franchise from day one considering his unique ability to run an offense from the forward positions. Simmons has a unique ability to see the floor better than many gifted NBA point guards and this court vision, coupled with his excellent passing skills, allow him create easy baskets for his teammates. His size and overall athleticism let him to attack the rim in ways that traditional point guards can’t, which should be a big weapon for the 76ers moving forward. With this in mind, it will be important for the 76ers to put knockdown shooters around him so that his passes become assists rather than missed opportunities.

Of course, Simmons’ ineffective jump-shot is a concern and that is something he will need to tighten up as he continues developing. We have seen players with ineffective jumpers improve their mechanics and overcome their limitations. If Simmons does that, while maintaining his creativity with the ball and ability to rebound from the forward position, he should be well-positioned to take the Rookie of the Year award next season. Versatility is the name of the game in today’s NBA, and no one in this draft is as versatile as Simmons.

Jesse Blancarte is a Deputy Editor for Basketball Insiders. He is also an Attorney and a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.


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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.

Spencer Davies



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.

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NBA Daily: Raptors Look To Fine-Tune The Defense

The Toronto Raptors’ defense had a letdown against the Cavaliers, but has been outstanding overall.

Buddy Grizzard



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.

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NBA Daily: Jaylen Brown Set To Return For Celtics

The Celtics finally got some good news on Thursday. Jaylen Brown’s return is imminent.

Moke Hamilton



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

“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.

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