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NBA AM: 5 Rookies Thriving in the Preseason

Which rookies have been thriving in their first few preseason games? Alex Kennedy shares his analysis.

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5 Rookies Thriving in the Preseason

With the 2015-16 NBA preseason underway, rookies from around the league are getting their first taste of the professional basketball. While it’s incredibly early and it’s not wise overreact to preseason results, these exhibition games do give us an opportunity to see the top picks in action, judge how comfortable they are thus far and find out what they’re learning as they start to adjust from college to the NBA.

Here’s a look at some notable rookies who have impressed thus far.

Karl-Anthony Towns Showing He’s a Perfectionist

Towns, the No. 1 overall pick in this year’s draft, has gotten off to an excellent start with the Minnesota Timberwolves. In his preseason debut against the Oklahoma City Thunder, the young center had 18 points (on a remarkable 8-12 shooting from the field) as well as five rebounds in 28 minutes.

However, rather than being satisfied with his play, he was kicking himself after the game, according to reporters. The 19-year-old was upset that he turned the ball over three times and bit on some pump fakes while on defense. He was also frustrated that he missed four shots, rather than celebrating the fact that he shot an incredible 66.7 percent from the field.

“For the first game, [I was] just getting my feet wet,” Towns told Timberwolves.com. “It was okay… I strive to hit 100 percent [of my shots] every game.”

In Towns’ second game against the Chicago Bulls, Towns played well again, contributing 13 points, 10 rebounds, one block and one steal. He was 4-9 from the field, and he’s perfect from the free throw line through two preseason games (hitting 7-7 attempts so far).

It’s nice to see Towns playing so well this early, especially since he was picked largely off of his potential rather than his NBA-readiness. If he’s looking this good now, it makes you wonder what the future holds for him (especially since he has the luxury of learning from excellent veterans, such as Kevin Garnett).

While everyone in Minnesota has to be excited about Towns’ play, it’s a good sign that he’s being so hard on himself and striving for perfection. Sometimes, that’s what separates the good players from the great ones. He seems determined to reach his full potential and lead the Timberwolves’ talented young core for years to come.

Jahlil Okafor Making Life Easier for His Teammates

In Okafor’s preseason debut for the Philadelphia 76ers, he had 12 points in 17 minutes (hitting 6-10 shots from the field) against the Washington Wizards.

“I think that he had good numbers against good playoff bigs,” Sixers head coach Brett Brown said of Okafor after his debut against the Wizards. “[Washington] lost in the Conference Semifinals in a tough series with Atlanta. I thought with limited minutes, you could see [Jahlil] has the ability to score. I thought he showed that quite well in that little bit of time that he had.”

In his second game, he recorded 12 points once again versus the Cleveland Cavaliers.

Perhaps most impressive is that Okafor has hit 4-5 of his free throw attempts in the preseason (an excellent 80 percent from the line). That is huge since free throw shooting was considered one of Okafor’s weaknesses entering the NBA after he shot 51 percent from the charity stripe last year at Duke. If he continues to shoot that well (or even relatively close to it) from the line, Okafor would be an even scarier offensive weapon for the Sixers.

“I had confidence going out on the floor,” Okafor said after his debut. “I was able to relax, even though I thought I would be nervous. My teammates were able to really relax me so I was able to get more comfortable before I got out on the floor.

“I think I got comfortable within the offense at certain points within the game. I saw our ability to compete at a high level, stay engaged and focused. It was a learning experience.”

Okafor’s success has made life much easier for his Philadelphia teammates. He attracts so much attention from defenders and is a reliable No. 1 option who can get easy points in the paint. Nerlens Noel, who has been playing alongside Okafor at power forward, raved about his new teammate.

“It was so different, in a great way,” Noel said of playing with Okafor. “Jahlil brings such a presence. Last year, I was always going up against the five and having to do a lot. I think Jahlil brings a presence that is more at ease and the offense flows. It was really good.

“I like where I’m at now, being a four-man and being able to guard guys that aren’t able to shoot the ball and still being able to freelance a little bit and help guys out on blocks.”

In the Sixers’ first preseason game, Noel had 13 points (on 4-8 shooting from the field), five rebounds, three assists, one block and one steal in just 22 minutes. In the second game, Noel was even better, contributing 10 points, 15 rebounds and three steals. It’s clear that Okafor and Noel complement each other well and this will be a one-two punch to keep an eye on throughout this season and beyond.

Stanley Johnson is Going Off

Those who haven’t been paying attention to the early preseason games have missed some incredible performances from Detroit Pistons small forward Stanley Johnson. The No. 8 overall pick in the draft has been filling the stat sheet and making his presence felt on both ends of the floor.

In Johnson’s preseason debut against the Indiana Pacers, he had 26 points, four assists, three rebounds and two steals, while shooting 8-17 from the field (including 3-6 from three-point range). He followed up that game with a 12-point, seven-rebound, two-assist, two-block, two-steal performance against the Brooklyn Nets, while shooting 5-11 from the field (and 2-3 from long range). Then, in his third outing, Johnson had 15 points, six rebounds and two assists against the Milwaukee Bucks (hitting 5-12 shots from the field, including 2-3 from three-point range).

He’s shooting the ball well, knocking down 45 percent from the field, 58.3 percent from beyond the arc and 83.3 percent from the free throw line (all of which are higher than his percentages last year as a freshman at Arizona).

While it is just the preseason, it is impressive that Johnson currently leads all rookies in points per game. He actually ranks 14th in preseason scoring among all NBA players, finding himself ahead of superstars like James Harden, Kevin Durant, DeMarcus Cousins and Chris Bosh among others (but mainly because he’s playing more minutes).

Still, even though it’s only exhibition play, this success has to be a great confidence booster for Johnson. Not to mention, Pistons head coach and president of basketball operations Stan Van Gundy been extremely impressed with his draft pick’s poise and abilities.

“It doesn’t faze him,” Van Gundy said of Johnson, per Pistons.com. “In fact, when I told Jodie [Meeks] to handle the ball, Johnson was like, ‘I got this.’ He’s got a great toughness and confidence about him and I think that showed. So with him, we’re working from a pretty good foundation. He’s got a lot to learn, but you’re working with a very, very good foundation.”

The rookie’s versatility has also been on display early on. Due to injuries, Van Gundy actually had Johnson playing some point guard and running the offense at times for the Pistons. He’s been all over the court through three games, playing all but one position so far in the preseason.

“In his first week – because of the injuries – we used him at four positions,” Van Gundy said. “And he’s only been in here a week. … I saw a real competitor. That’s the main thing. We will keep working, but I thought his will was so strong. He is a tough guy and that [shows] through.

“I don’t see him playing the point [often], but as an emergency thing – our best minutes of the game were when he was at the point… He’s sort of a find-a-way-to-get-it-done type of guy.”

Johnson is proving that he can make an impact no matter where he’s put or what he’s asked to do on the court. During the recent game when he had to play some minutes at point guard and run the offense, he we defending Indiana’s Paul George on defense. He did well with the assignment, taking some lessons from the experience and increasing his confidence since he was able to hold his own against George.

“I think anytime you get on the court and get in a NBA game, it’s always a positive,” Johnson said. “Playing against a superstar in Paul George and seeing what that’s like is always positive. I think knowledge is power and your best teacher is experience. The more experience I get, the faster I learn and the faster I can be great.”

If Johnson’s preseason play (and his Summer League play as well) are any indication, it seems like a realistic possibility that he could become a great, cornerstone player for Detroit.

Bobby Portis Continuing to Look Like a Steal

Through Portis’ first three preseason games with the Chicago Bulls, the 20-year-old is averaging 10 points and 12.7 rebounds despite playing just 24 minutes per game. His per-36-minutes averages are 15 points and 19 rebounds, showing just how productive he is playing in his limited time on the court.

At the moment, Portis’ 12.7 boards per game ranks third among all NBA players (currently putting him above great rebounders like DeAndre Jordan, Andre Drummond and Dwight Howard among others).

It remains to be seen how much Portis will play during the regular season since Chicago has a logjam at power forward (with key contributors like Pau Gasol, Taj Gibson and Nikola Mirotic also at the position), but he’s certainly making the most of his minutes so far. There have been rumors that the Bulls could look to make a trade involving one of their power forwards at some point during the campaign, which could create some more playing time for Portis (assuming he’s not the one who is dealt), but there’s no guarantee that such a move will occur.

While Portis needs to get better at finishing around the basket – he’s hitting just 29.4 percent of his attempts from the field – his effort and intensity have been extremely impressive. In Chicago, his role will mainly consist of grabbing rebounds, making hustle plays and providing solid defense, and that’s exactly what he has been doing lately.

He had an eight-point, 14-rebound game in his preseason debut against the Milwaukee Bucks. Then, he had a 10-point, 16-rebound outing in his second game against the Denver Nuggets. Most recently, he had a 12-point, eight-rebound performance against the Minnesota Timberwolves.

After watching Portis play so well in the preseason (in addition to seeing him thrive during the NBA Summer League in Las Vegas, averaging 14.5 points, 8.7 rebounds and 1.3 steals in 28.2 minutes per game), it seems crazy that the big man was somehow on the board for Chicago at the 22nd overall pick. Portis looks more and more like the draft’s top steal each time he steps on the court.

He also has the perfect attitude for a rookie on a contending team. He knows his role and he has been saying all of the right things as he begins his NBA career.

“I feel I played as hard as I could and I’m always going to do that,” Portis told Bulls.com. “I’m not a guy who backs down or gets timid; that rookie stuff is way overblown for me. People say because you are a rookie you can’t do [certain] things, but I don’t believe in that. I believe in doing the things I do, playing my style of basketball out there. I’m a dog out there; I’m not someone who is going to let someone [intimidate] me.”

Bulls head coach Fred Hoiberg has been very impressed with the rookie big man as well.

“I thought Bobby Portis was phenomenal on the glass,” Coach Hoiberg told Bulls.com after the first preseason game. “He struggled finishing, but just his energy [was impressive]. You go out there that first time as a rookie and you’re usually a little intimidated, a little scared. But there was none of that with Bobby Portis tonight.”

Portis seems like he’ll be one of those players that may be hated by opposing players and fans, but his teammates will adore him and he’ll be a fan favorite in Chicago. He’s also a very entertaining individual, who openly describes himself as “crazy” and has stated that he’s not looking to make any friends with the opposition when he’s on the court (opting instead to be a pest who gets under their skin).

While it’s still incredibly early to judge what kind of player Portis will be in the NBA, you have to love his effort and mindset. Based on the early results, it seems Portis has a long NBA career ahead of him.

Kristaps Porzingis Making His Presence Felt

When the Knicks selected Porzingis with the fourth overall pick, he was immediately booed in New York. The frustration was understandable, as the fans want to win sooner than later, but Porzingis is viewed as a project that needs time to develop before making a significant impact. Even Carmelo Anthony was reportedly unhappy with the selection initially.

However, Porzingis has been a pleasant surprise during this preseason and seems much more NBA-ready than anyone gave him credit for during the pre-draft process.

Through two games, the 20-year-old has averaged eight points, six rebounds, 1.5 assists and 1.5 blocks in just 21.5 minutes a night. Most impressive has been his three-point shot, as he’s 3-5 from long range (60 percent).

The 7’2 big man has even played so well that Knicks assistant coach Kurt Rambis, who is working to develop the Latvian rookie, compared him to a hybrid of Dirk Nowitzki and Pau Gasol.

“He might be a combination of both of them,” Rambis said, according to the New York Post. “He can do so many things. You guys haven’t seen it yet. And some of it won’t come out for three, four, five years, either. He’s got to grow up, mature, develop, get stronger and [get] used to the NBA game. He already understands basketball and knows what to do, and he’s an unselfish player. He makes really good decisions. It wasn’t like he was a blank slate coming here. … He’s got three-point range. Like, effortless three-point range, too. It’s not even hard for him to shoot for distance.”

Head coach Derek Fisher tempered expectations a bit, but did make it clear that he believes Porzingis can be a factor for New York.

“For Kris, it is just about not being afraid and taking advantage of every opportunity he gets to make a play,” Coach Fisher said. “He has all the skills necessary to shoot the ball from the perimeter and to post up. What we like about him the most is that he shoots the basketball and challenges shots at the rim. He rebounded the ball well. Those are all the plays that we need him to make.”

Porzingis has also impressed his teammates, including forwards Derrick Williams and Carmelo Anthony.

“With Porzingis, he’s 7’2 and he can shoot the ball, man,” Williams said. “Not too many people his size and his length can shoot it [like that]. It just takes games and experience and him getting out there on the court. He’s going to have the perfect opportunity to do that on this team and learn on the fly while being out there on the court.”

“Y’all are going to keep asking me this the whole year, so I’m going to keep saying the same thing: He’s a very confident person, that’s one thing he doesn’t lack,” Anthony said. “I don’t think he’s going be lacking it anytime soon.”

Porzingis admits that he must adjust to the competition level and physicality of the NBA, but that’s expected.

“It is the next level – this is the NBA,” Porzingis said. “Things were very physical and I have to get used to it. This is the place that I want to be.”

Porzingis’ ceiling is incredible, which is why so many teams were drawn to him in this year’s draft, but we’ll see if he can make more of an immediate impact as well once this 2015-16 campaign kicks off.

Random Rookie Notes

These players didn’t make the list above because they haven’t quite thrived like their peers, but they do warrant a mention. Here are some notes about a few other rookies from around the league.

  • Minnesota Timberwolves point guard Tyus Jones struggled in his preseason debut against the Oklahoma City Thunder, finishing with zero points on 0-5 shooting from the field (although he did have four assists). But in his second game against the Chicago Bulls, he bounced back in a big way with 18 points (on 5-9 shooting from the field, including 3-3 from long range) and nine assists in 25 minutes. Jones’ 6.5 assists per game is the highest average among rookies and currently is sixth-best among all NBA players. Not a bad start for the 24th overall pick.
  • Denver Nuggets point guard Emmanuel Mudiay has shown some flashes of excellence in his first three preseason games, averaging 12.3 points, five assists, 2.7 rebounds and one steal. However, he must protect the ball better, as he has turned it over 17 times (!) through those first three contests. His shot has also been off; he’s shooting just 32.5 percent from the field. The 19-year-old is very raw, but with time it’s easy to imagine him thriving in Mike Malone’s up-tempo offense. He still has a lot of developing to do, but he is the first person to admit that and says he will “be a basketball junkie off the court” until he improves. Fortunately, he’s in a good situation since Denver can be patient with him and it also helps that he’s surrounded by strong veteran leaders who can help him with his transition to the NBA (particularly 12-year NBA vet Jameer Nelson, who has taken Mudiay under his wing).
  • Sacramento Kings center Willie Cauley-Stein has been in the news a lot lately – making some negative headlines and then some positive ones. First, there was a report from James Ham of CSN saying that the No. 6 overall pick was so out of shape that he couldn’t even run up and down the court twice in a row and that he was pulling himself out of drills, which would be a huge problem for a defender so reliant on his mobility. However, through four preseason games, Cauley-Stein’s averages have been decent: 6.3 points, seven rebounds, 1.5 blocks and one steal in 24.3 minutes. Then, most recently, Kings head coach George Karl indicated that he is leaning toward starting Cauley-Stein with DeMarcus Cousins, because Kosta Koufos “fits the bench better,” according to Sactown Royalty. It remains to be seen how Cauley-Stein will be used or how effective he’ll be, but it’s strange so much conflicting information surrounds him.

Alex Kennedy is the Managing Editor of Basketball Insiders and this is his 10th season covering the NBA. He is a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

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