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NBA Rookie Of The Year Watch – 3/27/18

With only a few weeks remaining in the 2017-18 season, a check-in on this strong rookie class is long overdue.

Ben Nadeau

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Two fantastic rookies have entered the proverbial ring and only one can emerge victorious at season’s end — but will it be Ben Simmons or Donovan Mitchell? The last time Basketball Insiders weighed in on the Rookie of the Year race, it was just over a month ago — so what has changed since then? Honestly, both everything and nothing. Do you prefer the 6-foot-10 point forward nearly averaging a triple-double or the high-scoring, high-flying guard that finishes games like a five-time All-Star? There is truly no wrong answer.

Although the top two contenders for the award are signed, sealed and delivered, earning an honorable mention is nothing to scoff at either. From playing considerably large roles on playoff-bound teams to filling up the box score, this rookie class has emerged as one of the strongest in recent memory. With that in mind, let’s check in on some of the league’s most impressive youngsters heading into the final few weeks of their inaugural seasons.

6. Lauri Markkanen, Chicago Bulls

With the Bulls’ season all but over, it’s been understandably easy to forget about Markkanen and his pitch-perfect style of play at times. The Finnish 7-footer has been consistently stellar since October, however, averaging 14.8 points and 7.6 rebounds over 61 games and contributing those numbers from day one. From his long-range forte, Markkanen is tallying two three-pointers per contest, which ranks just him ahead of the perennially great Kristaps Porzingis (1.9), Khris Middleton (1.8) and LeBron James (1.8).

Furthermore, Markkanen’s statistically solid resume ranks him 4th in scoring, 2nd in rebounding and 2nd in three-point makes per game for all rookies. Alongside Kris Dunn and Zach LaVine, the Bulls have certainly acquired some intriguing pieces to build around — but Markkanen is undoubtedly the crown jewel. It’s been a turbulent season for Chicago, so Markkanen’s name has unsurprisingly fizzled from the conversation, but he absolutely looks like a franchise cornerstone and a force for years to come.

5. Josh Jackson, Phoenix Suns

As of late, Josh Jackson is scorching hot and everybody is more than happy to watch him smolder.

With the Suns currently leading the race to the bottom, Jackson has been officially unleashed. Through the first half of the season, Jackson scored 15 or more points on just five occasions. But since the calendar flipped to the new year, Jackson has reached that mark in 23 of the Suns’ last 33 games. While he’s not even close to the shooter Devin Booker currently is — Jackson still just shoots 26 percent from three-point range — the 21-year-old forward has bloomed with purpose. Last week, Jackson dropped 36 points, six rebounds, four assists and two steals on 60.9 percent shooting against Golden State, often using his hyper-athleticism to exploit a battered Warriors side.

In March alone, Jackson has averaged 15.2 points, 5.1 rebounds and 1.5 steals on 44 percent shooting. Beyond his burgeoning offensive skills, Jackson is often long enough to defend most guards, but athletic enough to bang in the paint with those bigger and stronger than him. All in all, things have started to slow down for the high-energy prospect and Phoenix has reaped the benefits. Should the Suns land a blue-chip rookie like Luka Doncic or Marvin Bagley in the upcoming draft, things could finally take off for this slumping franchise.

Either way, Jackson will be at the forefront of Phoenix’s future indefinitely.

4. Kyle Kuzma, Los Angeles Lakers

While Kyle Kuzma certainly went through a mid-season rough patch, the talented scorer has still been a major asset to an overachieving Los Angeles outfit.

Averaging 15.8 points and 6.2 rebounds, Kuzma has logged important minutes alongside Julius Randle, Brook Lopez and, until February, Larry Nance Jr., in a crowded backcourt. And since the latter was moved to the Cleveland Cavaliers, Kuzma’s playing time has skyrocketed even higher. Kuzma has reached the 20-point plateau in half of Los Angeles’ games this month and he looks like he’ll finish the season the same way he started it.

On an individually strong Lakers roster, Kuzma ranks 3rd in scoring, 4th in rebounding and 4th in three-point percentage — an impressive showing for the former No. 27 overall selection. Before the season began, the Lakers were expected to find themselves at home in the conference basement once again. Instead, Los Angeles is currently closer to the eighth seed (10 GB) than they are from the league-worst Phoenix Suns (14 GB) — this achievement falls squarely on the early development of Kuzma.

While Kuzma deserves plenty of rookie praise, he won’t win the biggest prize — but that’s perfectly fine. He’ll have to settle for a likely berth on the NBA All-Rookie Team — oh well!

3. Jayson Tatum, Boston Celtics

The early season injury to Gordon Hayward obviously thrust Jayson Tatum into the spotlight back in October, but the Celtics haven’t stopped leaning on their impressive rookie since — and rightfully so. Through 11 games in March, Tatum has averaged 16.1 points and 6.1 rebounds on 50 percent from the floor. With Kyrie Irving and Marcus Smart both sustaining major injuries since the All-Star break, a heavy load has been asked of Tatum — and, more or less, he’s delivered. Tatum has played in all 74 games this season and the just-turned 20-year-old has helped keep Boston locked-in to the conference’s second-best record.

Although he’s no longer making half of his three-point attempts, 42.5 percent is still a considerable asset for this determined Celtics squad. That remarkable conversion rate ranks Tatum at No. 13 in three-point percentage league-wide, just narrowly ahead of All-Stars like Stephen Curry (42.3), Karl-Anthony Towns (42.7) and veteran teammate Al Horford (42.9) — not bad for a rookie, huh?

T-1. Donovan Mitchell, Utah Jazz

Lately, the fiery debate between Donovan Mitchell or Ben Simmons for the No. 1 rookie slot has only gotten stronger. While Simmons is still likely the frontrunner, it would be simply unwise to dismiss Mitchell’s monster performances along the way. Mitchell has scored 20 or more points in six straight contests, a streak exists within a crucial 11-2 stretch that has kept the Jazz alive in the cutthroat postseason chase. Capped off by an electric 35-point effort — albeit in a four-point loss to the forever-tough San Antonio Spurs — Mitchell has continued to lay serious claim to Simmons’ crown.

Mitchell currently sports a 28.8 percent usage rate, good for 23rd across the entire NBA and ahead of both John Wall and Kemba Walker. For a rookie, that’s nearly unheard of. Naturally, much has been made about Mitchell’s shooting percentages, but it’s also hard to argue with the win-loss column too much. Since Rudy Gobert returned from a month-long PCL injury in mid-January, Utah owns a record of 24-6 — you can thank Mitchell for that as well.

The polarizing differences between the two top rookies have made for a compelling race down the stretch, but particularly so now that Mitchell has the Jazz within striking distance of the playoffs. Mitchell’s 20.3 points per game lead all rookies and he undeniably has a strong case for taking home this award.

T-1. Ben Simmons, Philadelphia 76ers

In the other corner, of course, is Ben Simmons, the do-it-all point forward that is a triple-double threat every night. Simmons has tallied 16 points, 7.9 rebounds, 8.1 assists and 1.7 steals per game on an extra-efficient 53.8 from the floor. Although he’ll have to improve on his range this offseason — 77.8 percent of his shots have come within 0-10 feet — it’s been wildly entertaining to watch Simmons let the game come to him. His 10 triple-doubles only trail LeBron James (16) and Russell Westbrook (23), the latter of whom just won MVP last year for averaging one over an entire season.

As a 21-year-old, Simmons has come pretty close to that mark himself.

And as Basketball Insiders’ Dennis Chambers pointed out during a deeper discussion last month, history is also very much on Simmons’ side: “Just six players have finished a season averaging at least 16 points, seven rebounds, and seven assists per game while shooting 50 percent from the field: LeBron James, Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, Oscar Robertson, and Wilt Chamberlain.”

For rookies, Simmons is 2nd in points, 1st in rebounds, 1st in assists and 1st in steals — if that’s not Rookie of the Year worthy, what is? With Simmons leading the way, the 76ers have gone 10-3 and risen from postseason pests to potential owners of home-court advantage in the first round. Simmons will likely terrorize the NBA for years to come — that much seems evidently clear already — but he’ll have to hold off Mitchell’s strong chase to close the season out.

And this may seem like a total cop-out — but why not both?

The dual-winning selection has only happened three times in NBA history: Dave Cowens and Geoff Petrie split the honors back in 1970-71; Grant Hill and Jason Kidd did so in 1994-95; and, finally, Elton Brand and Steve Francis in 1999-00. You’d be hard-pressed to find any fans — casual or crazed — that can’t appreciate the artistic abilities of both Mitchell and Simmons, no matter how difficult this looming decision may seem.

Either way, whatever happens over these final two weeks, this rookie class is shaping up to be one of the finest versions yet.

Ben Nadeau is a Seattle-based writer in his second year with Basketball Insiders. For five seasons, he covered the Brooklyn Nets for The Brooklyn Game.

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NBA Daily: Tacko Fall Out To Prove He’s More Than Tall

Most of the attention centered around Tacko Fall stems from his height, but after an impressive combine outing, he’s out to prove that there’s so much more to him.

Matt John

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Tacko Fall was one of the many participants who attended the NBA Draft Combine this past week in Chicago.

By so doing, the combine retrieved all of his official measurements as a player such as his height, weight, and wingspan among others. After the combine was over, Fall had the following measurements.

Height (without shoes): 7’5 ¼’’
Height (with shoes): 7’7″
Weight: 289 pounds
Wingspan: 8’2 ¼’’
Standing Reach: 10’2 ½”
Vertical Leap: 26.5″

Those measurements set many records at the combine. So, in case you didn’t know it before, growing has never exactly been an issue for Tacko Fall. Even though the findings that measured how freakishly tall Fall is shocked the masses, none of them really fazed the man himself as long as that meant he wasn’t going to grow anymore.

“I kind of already knew so I wasn’t really surprised,” Fall said. “I don’t think I’m going to keep growing. I think it’s just going to stay there. Hopefully. We’ll see.”

Fall’s physical advantages made him look like a man among boys in his four years at the University of Central Florida. The Senegal native averaged 2.4 blocks and 7.7 rebounds – in only 23 minutes per game – and put up a scorching field goal percentage of 74 percent over the four-year span of his college career. Basically, Fall’s good stats mainly come from his unrivaled length.

During his time at the combine, Fall believes that sticking to his guns and not doing things out of his comfort zone made him look good to spectators.

“I think I’m doing pretty good,” Fall said. “I’m holding my own. I’m not going out there doing anything out of character. I’m staying true to myself. I’m playing hard. I’m talking. I’m running hard. I’m doing everything that I need to do.”

Despite his towering presence, Fall is not expected to be a high selection in this year’s NBA Draft, if he is selected at all. Not many mock drafts at the time being list his name among those who will be taken, and the ones that do have him among one the last selections in the draft.

Some of his primary critiques as a player include his low assist-to-turnover ratio and his faulty shooting mechanics. The biggest one of them all is his lack of mobility. Being as tall as he is would make it hard for anyone to move around well enough to compete with NBA offenses that rely more on quickness and spacing now than it did on mass.

The concerns surrounding Tacko’s mobility were made loud and clear to him. That’s why he believed he had something to prove to the skeptics at the combine.

“For people my size that’s the biggest thing that they’re looking for,” Fall said. “‘Can he move?’ ‘Can he keep up with the game?’ ‘Can he run the floor?’ ‘Can he step out and guard?’ I feel like I have the ability to do those things. So, coming in here and having the opportunity to play against great competition and showing my abilities have been a great blessing for me.”

Before the combine, Fall’s stock benefited from his final performance as a college basketball player. Tacko and the ninth-seeded Knights fought the first-seeded Blue Devils until the very end but ultimately lost 77-76. Fall had much to do with UCF’s near-upset over Duke, putting up 15 points, six rebounds and three blocks in 25 minutes before fouling out.

That game did a lot for Tacko’s belief in himself as a player leading to the combine. Putting up that kind of stat line against one of the best college basketball programs with three top-10 prospects with so much on the line had to make him feel good about his chances. He said as much following his performance at the combine.

“That was definitely one of the best games in my college basketball career,” Fall said. “It helps build confidence. You go toe-to-toe with those people. You think, ‘Wow I can really do this.’ All you have to do is keep working and working and keep proving that you can step out there and compete every night.”

For some prospects, the NBA Combine is nothing more than just a formality. In fact, multiple prospects for this upcoming draft – including RJ Barrett, Rui Hachimura, and consensus No. 1 pick Zion Williamson – decided to skip out on it. For prospects who are on the bubble like Tacko, it’s a rare opportunity to show that there’s more to them than what they showed in college.

Fall recognized the importance of the occasion and voiced his appreciation for the chance he had to show everyone who attended what he can bring to a basketball court.

“It’s been a great experience,” Fall said. “I’m blessed to be here. I worked really hard. I thank God I’m in this position. I just got to take advantage of it.”

Tacko’s efforts impressed scouts and media members alike. There have been rumblings that his play at the combine has further increased his stock in the NBA Draft. Even with all the work he’s put in and the ambition he has to make it to the biggest stage, Fall is soaking it all in.

“I’m enjoying it because not a lot of people get the opportunity to come here,” Fall said. “I’ve worked really hard and God put me in this position. I’m just trying to enjoy it.”

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NBA Daily: Bruno Fernando Is Ready To Take On The NBA

After his sophomore season at Maryland, Bruno Fernando is confident that he is ready to take on the NBA, writes James Blancarte.

James Blancarte

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The 2019 NBA Draft Lottery kicked off the draft season in a shocking way as numerous teams jumped into the top four due to the new draft structure. After the Lottery, it’s a bit easier to predict the order in which Zion Williamson, Ja Morant and R.J. Barrett will be selected. Who gets drafted after that, and in what order, is still very much unclear. There are some consensus players in the upper half of the first round. After that, things get very interesting.

Expect the mock draft boards to be all over the place as we move closer to this year’s draft, especially after going through the Combine. Many once less-heralded players show up to the Combine with eye-opening physical measurements, impress in workouts and scrimmages and demonstrate a level of professional polish, among other things.

Last year, after his Freshman season as Maryland, center Bruno Fernando participated in the draft process. Fernando did not sign with an agent and ultimately returned to Maryland where he continued to raise his profile. This year, Fernando again participated in the Combine and spoke with Basketball Insiders.

“I think what’s different this time around is just how much easier it’s gotten. For me, how much more comfortable I am. How much easier it is. Obviously, you know what to expect,” Fernando told Basketball Insiders. “I think just really being here and being around the guys on the team has been a completely different experience than I had last year. This year I know a lot more of the guys. I’ve been working out with a lot of different guys. I think it’s just been a much, much better experience.”

Starting all but one game his sophomore year, Fernando averaged 13.6 points, 10.6 rebounds, 1.9 blocks and two assists per game. These averages were a significant jump over his freshman year. Fernando uses an aggressive, mobile game at and around the basket to do his damage. After solidifying his game on the court, he felt comfortable enough signing with an agent and letting Maryland know he wouldn’t be returning for his junior year. Fernando is now confident about his positioning in the draft, which played a factor in his decision to not play in five-on-five scrimmages.

“Last year I was in a position where I didn’t really know where I stand as much. Last year I had to find out a lot of things coming into the combine,” Fernando said. “And this year I think I am in a position just by talking to my agent and my coaches where I feel like I’m in a position where I’m a lot comfortable compared to last year, in a much better place. Having that that feedback from teams really, my agent really felt like that was the best decision for me not to play five-on-five.”

Fernando’s offensive prowess and athletic upside have him looking like a solid first-round pick. According to the Basketball Insiders version 3.0 mock draft, Fernando is projected to go anywhere from 14th- 29th overall. Tommy Beer projects him to go 25th. Being drafted in the first-round, in general, portends a better career as teams find themselves with a greater financial stake in the player and accordingly will be pinning higher hopes for that prospect.

At 6-foot-10, Fernando projects as a low post threat with excellent handwork who can score with a variety of moves down low as well as a lob threat. Fernando also occasionally takes advantage of steal and breakaway opportunities to run the floor and score easy points with his ferocious dunking ability. He didn’t do much damage from distance, although his shooting stroke and mechanics make that part of his game a potential future weapon in his arsenal. Fernando addressed that very point.

“The part of my game that is unseen so far is my ability to space the floor. My ability to dribble the ball and put the ball on the floor, take guys off the dribble and my shooting ability,” Fernando told Basketball Insiders. “I really think my shooting ability is something that people don’t notice that I am able to shoot the ball. Just because of my situation in Maryland where I didn’t really take many shots. You know, I never really had to come outside and try to play outside. You know we had a lot of really good players on the perimeter. I think it’s really just a matter of me staying to true to myself, who I am and trying to win in the best way possible.”

Any team in need of a possible pick-and-roll threat who can score down low should keep an eye on Fernando. Whether a team believes that Fernando can also be successful as a stretch big is not as clear. Where Fernando ends up is still totally up in the air. Regardless, he’s grateful for the opportunity to be the first representative from his own home country of Angola to play in the NBA and made it clear that he has been hearing from other Angola natives.

“Sending a lot of love and positive energy, lot of words of encouragement for me and I think it is really special to get those text messages,” Fernando told Basketball Insiders. “Having people from home texting me every single day. Just knowing that a whole nation is behind me. I’m here fighting and sacrificing to make a dream come true, something that will not just benefit me but a whole nation.”

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NBA Daily: Who Is Cam Reddish?

An underwhelming season at Duke casts a shadow over Cam Reddish, who oozes talent and potential. Shane Rhodes looks to answer the question: Who is Cam Reddish?

Shane Rhodes

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“I’m Cam Reddish.”

Cam Reddish gave the tongue-in-cheek response Thursday at the 2019 NBA Draft Combine when asked “who he is” as a basketball player.
But who is Reddish?

A former high school phenom, five-star recruit and projected top pick, Reddish was expected to flourish at Duke University under the watch of Mike Krzyzewski. When R.J. Barrett and Zion Williamson later followed him to Durham, North Carolina, the three were expected to take the NCAA by storm.

Things didn’t quite go as planned.

While he is still a projected lottery pick, the jury is out on just who Reddish is and how his game will translate to the NBA. A dominant force in high school, the reserved 19-year-old took a backseat to Barrett and Williamson as the three tried but failed to capture a National Championship in their lone season together at Duke.

When compared to the sky-high expectations that were set for him, Reddish underwhelmed mightily as a Blue Devil, and that played a major part in their failure. Relegated to the role of a spot-up shooter and the third option on offense, Reddish averaged an okay, not good 13.5 points on just 12 attempts across 36 games. He managed a meager 35.6% from the field (33.3% from three) and dished out just 1.9 assists per game. When he had the ball, he often deferred to Barrett and Williamson, too often for some.

The focal point of his high school team at Westtown School, Reddish was lauded for the ability that made him a top recruit. He oozed (and still oozes) athleticism – Reddish, who weighed in at 208 pounds, was measured as 6-foot-8 with a 7-foot wingspan at the Combine – and is as versatile as they come. At Westtown, Reddish ran the point, while he spent most of his time at the two-guard or in the front-court at Duke. He was an aggressive, efficient scorer that had no problem getting what he wanted on the floor with the ball in his hands.

But at Duke, that player that Reddish was, the aggressiveness and ease at which he operated, seemed to disappear for long stretches. Those struggles have cast a large shadow over someone that had the look of a future superstar, and Reddish’s draft stock has taken a hit as a result. While some still stand behind him and his talent, plenty of others have faded Reddish in favor of other prospects.

But, at the Combine, Reddish isn’t dwelling on what was or what could have been at Duke. He just trying to learn and get back to being that do-it-all force that he was.

“I’m just trying to learn about the NBA process,” Reddish said. “I’m just trying to get back to who I can be, who I am.”

But that begs the question: who, exactly, is Reddish, and what could he do at the NBA level?

“I feel like I can do everything,” Reddish said. “I was more of a shooter this year – I don’t want to classify myself as just a shooter. I feel like if I just go out there and play my game, I can do a variety of things.”

“Once I show that, I should definitely move up [draft boards].”

There were plenty of flashes of that player during his short stint at Duke. Reddish, at times, seemed to will the ball into the basket, while his shooting stroke appeared to be as good as advertised. He had a knack for performing in the clutch, with multiple shots to win or tie the game for Duke, or keep them in it down the stretch when the others started to fade. The wing managed double-digit points in 23 games, 15 of which he posted 15 or more points (with 20 or more points in eight of those). Reddish managed 18 multi-steal performances and recorded a block or more in 16 games as well.

Wrap all of that up with his plus-defensive ability, and Reddish could very well prove the type of player that could do a little bit of everything for an NBA squad. But he can bring more than that, not only on the court, but off the court as well.

While some may perceive his passiveness alongside Barrett and Williamson as a negative, a lack of “mamba-mentality” or killer instinct that many teams hope for in their top draft picks, Reddish could (and probably should) just as easily be applauded for his willingness to share the ball and step into an ancillary role on a team loaded with talent. As we saw this season with the Boston Celtics, who were projected by many to go challenge the Golden State Warriors for the Larry O’Brien trophy but flamed out against the Milwaukee Bucks after a season fraught with discontent, that can be hard to do on the biggest stage.

And, while he is the quiet type, Reddish made it a point to say that evaluators shouldn’t confuse that for laziness or lack of effort.

“I’m kind of reserved – my personality is kind of reserved – some people might take that as lazy or too laid back. But that’s not just who I am, I’m just a naturally reserved, calm guy.”

There were certainly issues, however.

Despite flashes, Reddish wasn’t the player he could be on anywhere near a consistent basis, even in a smaller role. His time at Duke revealed some major deficiencies in his game and presented some serious causes for concern; a penchant for bad shots, struggles close to the basket and the inability to maximize his athletic gifts. On more than one occasion, he looked to have turned the corner, only to drop another underwhelming performance soon after.

All of that doesn’t exactly bode well for Reddish’s transition to the NBA, regardless of the team that picks him on draft night.

But, the potential is there for him to be great. Now it’s on Reddish to capitalize on that potential.

Reddish could very well prove the most polarizing prospect in the 2019 Draft Class. His ability to maximize his natural talent and recapture the aggressiveness that pushed him to the top of his recruiting class could prove the difference between him becoming the next Jeff Green or the next Paul George

Or, should he really find himself at the next level, he could become the first Cam Reddish.

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