Head to Head: NBA Rookie Surprises

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We are roughly a quarter of the way through the NBA season and have already seen some impressive performances from several rookies. In today’s Head to Head, Alex Kennedy, Ben Dowsett and Jessica Camerato break down the rookies who have surprised them the most so far this season.

Kristaps Porzingis, New York Knicks

When the New York Knicks selected Kristaps Porzingis with the fourth overall pick in this year’s NBA Draft, he heard loud boos from Knicks fans in attendance. Additionally, many pundits criticized Phil Jackson’s selection since well-known prospects like Emmanuel Mudiay and Justise Winslow were still available.

What these critics failed to realize is that Porzingis is the real deal. The 7’3 forward from Latvia shined during his pre-draft workouts, displaying his unique skill set and ridiculous measurables. Those who did their homework – studying Porzingis’ film and watching his draft workouts – saw a potential star who had a very high ceiling and the physical tools to be a matchup nightmare in the NBA.

On draft night, when I sent out a tweet complimenting the Knicks’ decision to go for the “dare-to-be-great” pick in Porzingis, my mentions filled up with upset New Yorkers – some calling me an idiot and others accusing me of being sarcastic. That’s how upset and insecure Knicks fans were about this pick.

Well, through the first month of the season, Porzingis has silenced his critics and turned those doubters into believers. He has also exceeded all expectations. Even his biggest supporters didn’t expect him to be this good, this quickly.

Porzingis has posted very impressive numbers, proving that he’s much more NBA-ready than many projected. Through 17 games, the 20-year-old is averaging 13.3 points, 9.1 rebounds and 1.9 blocks in just 27.2 minutes per game. His per-100-possessions numbers are incredible: 25.1 points, 17.1 rebounds, 3.5 blocks and 1.4 steals. In other words, good things are happening when Porzingis is on the floor.

With his strong early play, Porzingis is in the Rookie of the Year conversation and his numbers stack up well against his peers. He is currently ranked third among rookies in scoring, second in rebounding, second in blocks and second in double-doubles. This is even more impressive when you consider he’s only sixth among rookies in minutes per game.

But it’s not just his numbers that have turned heads, it’s how he has filled the stat sheet. Many of his plays excite the fan base and give the Knicks momentum, such as his put-back dunks and monster blocks.

The advanced analytics also show just how effective Porzingis has been this season. As of right now, the Knicks’ forward is ranked first among all rookies in Real Plus-Minus, second in Estimated Wins Added, second in Value Added, second in Rebound Rate and third in Player Efficiency Rating.

Not bad for a guy who was considered a “raw project” just a few months ago. It’s safe to say there aren’t any fans in New York booing Porzingis these days.

– Alex Kennedy

T.J. McConnell, Philadelphia 76ers

Evaluating rookies in their first season in the NBA is difficult on its own, for several reasons. We’re often talking about teenagers, and in nearly every case are looking at guys who have spent much (or all) of their basketball lives dominating at every level – only now they’re entering the top league in the world. Everything is faster, everyone is stronger. It’s extremely rare, especially in the modern day where top prospects typically declare for the draft as underclassmen, for more than one or two rookies to have a truly positive impact in a large number of minutes.

In today’s league, though, one team in particular makes the evaluation process for rookies even more convoluted: the Philadelphia 76ers. In their extreme conscious effort to avoid any long-term money on the books, the 76ers have left themselves in a situation where very few actual NBA-caliber players are on the roster. How does one evaluate a younger guy if everyone on the team is young, and most aren’t realistic candidates as future NBA rotation players? Thanks for another wonderful bit of entertainment, Sam.

All this said, those who’ve taken the time to watch a few Philadelphia games have actually seen the occasional flash from their rookies. Most notable of course is third overall pick Jahlil Okafor, but garnering much less publicity (probably in large part because he wasn’t drafted and, well, plays for the 76ers) has been point guard T.J. McConnell.

Certain pieces of the Arizona product’s stat line look ugly, but that’s simply unavoidable while playing big minutes for this team – and if one can sift through the noise, there are some encouraging signs. McConnell has been virtually the only 76ers ball-handler capable of initiating offense, and as such has assisted on a gaudy 37 percent of the team’s baskets while he plays. He’s shown himself to be a capable pick-and-roll initiator in stretches, and has been adept at finding spot-up shooters out of the two-man game.

He’s shooting just 29 percent from three, but is managing 50 percent overall despite that and has generally good shooting numbers. McConnell’s turnover numbers are off the charts, but again, this is just tough to avoid as a primary ball-handler on a team this devoid of offensive talent. The only glaring knock on him that can’t be explained away by his surroundings is the shocking fact that, through 475 minutes, he’s yet to attempt a single free throw.

Whether McConnell would be having success on a real NBA team is tougher to say, and at 23 already and undrafted, his ceiling is pretty low overall. But he’s been a rare semi-bright spot for a franchise that almost never has any these days, and his yeoman’s work shouldn’t go unnoticed.

– Ben Dowsett

Nemanja Bjelica, Minnesota Timberwolves

Kristaps Porzingis headlined the international rookie class in the 2015 NBA Draft. This season, a 2010 pick is making a name for himself in his first year.

Minnesota Timberwolves power forward Nemanja Bjelica was drafted by the Washington Wizards five years ago. The former 35th pick last played for Fenerbahce Ulker in Turkey before signing with the Timberwolves in July. His accolades include Euroleague MVP and All-Euroleague First Team.

Bjelica is averaging 7.3 points and six rebounds per game this season, including a 17-point, 11-rebound double-double against the Chicago Bulls. He ranks sixth among all rookies in rebounds, behind only Karl-Anthony Towns, Porzingis, Jahlil Okafor and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, three of which are top five picks.

Bjelica is playing 26.5 minutes per game, fourth highest on the Timberwolves. The Timberwolves are a good fit for the 27 year old as he transitions to the NBA. There are adjustments from the international game along the way, but playing on a young team that is focused on building and development provides the opportunity for significant playing time.

He wasn’t the flashiest rookie name entering this season, but he is making his mark already in Minnesota.

– Jessica Camerato