Head to Head: Most Surprising NBA Rookie

Which NBA rookies have surprised in the early stages of the 2014-15 season? Our experts weigh in.

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Which NBA rookie has been the biggest surprise in the early stages of the 2014-15 season? We asked three of our experts – Nate Duncan, Jessica Camerato and Jesse Blancarte – to weigh in.

Bojan Bogdanovic

The 2014 NBA Draft was one of the most heralded in recent memory. But while many players have flashed great potential, the inescapable truth that rookies are almost never good NBA players has crushed even this group early on. Take a look at the rookie PER leaderboard: At this moment not a single player has a PER above the league average, and you can rest assured that almost none of these rookies are contributing defensively in a way that box score stats are missing. I certainly expect many of these rookies to play better as time goes on, but if they do not it could open the door for Brooklyn Nets rookie Bojan Bogdanovic.

As an older rookie with high-level European and international experience, Bogdanovic contributes much more in headier areas of the game, like executing the defensive scheme and moving the ball offensively. As a result, he leads rookies with 29.4 minutes per game as Brooklyn’s starter at the two.

Bogdanovic has shown a knack for finding shots in the Nets’ flex sets, flashing to the ball off backscreens and converting on the block with a nice jump hook. He is shooting 56 percent from two-point range at the moment, which is outstanding for a guard. While he is not a deadeye from long range, he is shooting about league-average on 3.9 attempts per game—plenty good enough to space the floor. If the Nets make the playoffs and none of the more heralded rookies break out, Bogdanovic could be a dark horse for rookie of the year at 25 to 1 odds.

– Nate Duncan

K.J. McDaniels

He’s a second-round pick on the worst team in the NBA, so not much was expected of K.J. McDaniels entering the 2014-15 NBA campaign. However, in a winless season, McDaniels has been a bright spot on the Philadelphia 76ers.

The 6’6 shooting guard from Clemson University is ranked fourth in scoring among rookies. He is averaging 9.1 points, 2.1 rebounds and 1.3 assists through eight games.

It’s his 1.63 blocks, though, that are grabbing the most attention. McDaniels ranks second among rookies in that category, behind only fellow teammate Nerlens Noel (1.67). McDaniels is five inches shorter than Noel.

When analyzing blocks per 48 minutes, McDaniels averages the most of all rookies with 3.27. He has demonstrated this level of defensive potential while coming off the bench in all but one game.

The 76ers are struggling this season, but McDaniels has provided highlights in spite of their losses. Take, for example, this monster block where he swatted the ball all the way into the stands.

– Jessica Camerato

Dante Exum

This draft class has been favorably compared to some of the best draft classes over the last decade, and for good reason. There is significant NBA talent in this class, including players like Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker and Marcus Smart. But none of the rookies have really had a major impact so far this NBA season (as their PER ratings prove). However, we have seen encouraging flashes from several rookies, including Utah Jazz guard Dante Exum.

Exum, a 19-year-old kid from Australia, entered the 2014 NBA Draft with more questions surrounding his game than any major prospect in recent years. There just wasn’t a lot of footage of Exum playing against tough competition and so it was hard to predict what kind of impact he could have in his rookie season. What we could tell from the footage was that standing 6’6 with a 6’9 wingspan, Exum has good size to play either guard position. We also could see that he is extremely quick and though not an elite-leaper, could finish at the rim in traffic.

But at just age 19, and with little experience playing against elite opponents, many thought Exum would struggle to stay on the court because of excessive rookie mistakes and mental errors. So far, however, he has been a pleasant surprise, looking much more comfortable than expected on the floor. He is making smart, easy plays within the Jazz offense and is delivering crisp passes to teammates. Some feared that Exum would rely too much on his quick first-step to blow by opponents and get to the rim, which he can’t do as often against NBA players as he did against amateur competition. But Exum has been methodical so far, choosing select opportunities to drive to the rim, and has found success in doing so.

Also, Exum was expected to struggle shooting the ball from the perimeter, but he’s somewhat exceeded expectations from long range as well. It was apparent that Exum had put in a lot of work to improve his shooting mechanics leading up to the draft, and it looks like the work will eventually pay off. I say eventually because Exum is currently shooting just 28.6 percent from three-point range. But I am more concerned with his shooting mechanics and his confidence in his shot than his early-season shooting percentage. His shot is a work-in-progress, but I am convinced that it won’t be a weakness for him long-term like many people expected before the draft.

There are still a lot of questions surrounding Exum’s game, but I have been pleasantly surprised with the maturity that he has played with so far. He isn’t filling up the box score, but he is taking care of the ball (just 0.9 turnovers per game), moving the ball within the Jazz offense, not over relying on his athleticism, shooting the ball with confidence and playing with attention to detail defensively. The rookies have collectively gotten off to a slow start, but Exum has been the biggest surprise so far through the first few weeks of the NBA season.

– Jesse Blancarte


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