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NBA PM: Top 5 Rookie Sleepers

Nikola Mirotic might not play a lot at first, but he’s one of a handful of non-lottery rooks that could one day be stars…

Joel Brigham profile picture
Updated 10 months ago on
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There’s no doubt that this year’s rookie class is going to be an exciting one. With loads of young players possessing loads of star quality talent, it’s inevitable that the Rookie of the Year race will be a million times more interesting than last year’s was. Players like Jabari Parker and Andrew Wiggins all but guarantee that.

However, like every year, there are rookies who fall outside of the lottery that could also show great value early in their careers. Even second-round picks and undrafted players can turn into stars, but predicting which of those players will make such a leap is the challenging part.

Knowing that, here’s a look at some non-lottery rookies that could end up being major contributors by year’s end, including a few that look like All-Stars in training:

#5 – Nikola Mirotic, Chicago Bulls (1st round, 23rd pick, 2011) – Lost in arguably the most loaded frontcourt rotation in the NBA, Mirotic may not see as much floor time as he’d like to in his rookie campaign, but if Taj Gibson ends up traded or Joakim Noah and/or Pau Gasol miss any time due to injury, Mirotic is old enough (23) and talented enough to step right in and help pick up the slack offensively. As a stretch four, Mirotic has the ability both to rebound the ball and hit threes, which just so happens to be the two things Kevin Love is best at doing. Mirotic is no Kevin Love, but his similar, less-expensive skill set made it easier for the Bulls to pursue Love a little less aggressively over the summer. Eventually, though, Mirotic is going to be very, very good.

#4 – P.J. Hairston, Charlotte Hornets (1st round, 26th pick) – While Charlotte’s backcourt is pretty crowded with Kemba Walker, Gerald Henderson, Gary Neal and Lance Stephenson, there’s always room in the NBA for a scorer as talented as Hairston. Everyone saw him light up the D-League last season, dropping 40+ points on those defenders multiple times. He should see a decent amount of playing time as rookie, and while he won’t score the 18.3 PPG he averaged in the D-League last year, he will make his mark as a pro-level scorer that can really help Charlotte generate more offense this year.

#3 – Adreian Payne, Atlanta Hawks (1st round, 15th pick) – We’re looking at players outside of the lottery, so Payne just barely qualifies. However, he was a coveted talent in last year’s draft and Atlanta should have no trouble eventually using him as the first big off the bench in their frontcourt rotation. Unlike many of the younger rookies who clearly have some weight room work ahead of them, Payne is already built like a four-year NBA vet, and his inside-outside offensive game and rebounding talents mean he should eventually get plenty of floor time. Al Horford is healthy this year, but there’s no denying that he’s injury prone. A couple weeks of missed time could put Payne on display as one of the more promising rookies in his class. Mike Scott and Elton Brand also will fight for minutes at power forward, but Payne is more promising than either. His time is coming closer to sooner than later.

#2 – Cleanthony Early, New York Knicks (2nd round, 34th pick) – There’s really no reason that Early should have been a second-round pick, but there are plenty of reasons why so many people think New York ended up with one of the steals of the draft by selecting this Wichita State star. Insanely athletic and already built like a pro, Early should thrive in the triangle offense, which highlights players that can sink a corner three-pointer. Early can do precisely that, but he can also score in a lot of other ways. He’ll be an active rebounder and should be very fun to watch on a fast break. He was going to be a solid pro either way, but the Knicks are an especially good fit for him.

#1 – K.J. McDaniels, Philadelphia 76ers (2nd round, 32nd pick) – McDaniels was a first-round talent that slipped to the second round, and he’s about to play for a team with very little legitimate NBA talent. Like any rookie (or any 76er), he’ll struggle, especially since he’s likely to play a little out of position as the starting shooting guard, but he looks like he’ll at least be a contributor on defense, blocking four shots in his first preseason game. There’s no reason he won’t get a ton of opportunity to play this season, making him one of the more interesting second-round picks from this past year’s draft.

Honorable Mention:

Shabazz Napier, Miami HEAT (1st round, 24th pick) – Part of the appeal for Napier is that he ended up on a team that really needed some help at point guard. Napier proved in college that, despite his size, he’s an elite scorer that also exhibits the sort of maturity and leadership that could easily put him at the helm of a veteran team like the HEAT. Mario Chalmers and Norris Cole are both still fighting for point guard minutes, too, but Napier could easily prove himself to be the best of those three, and quickly. Once that happens, he’ll be a in a great situation to succeed as a late first-round pick.

Nick Johnson, Houston Rockets (2nd round, 42nd pick) – The move for Jason Terry shoved Johnson back on a depth chart that already was likely to keep him off the floor behind minutes-eater James Harden, but Johnson has looked like a player with a long future in the NBA. He’s a little undersized, but he’s incredibly athletic and talented, and that’s usually enough to get a kid some floor time. He’s not the most likely candidate to make an All-Rookie team, but he’s a second-rounder with a whole lot of promise.

Undoubtedly, there will be other non-lottery rookies that pop up as successes over the course of the year, but this is a list of some with the talent and/or opportunity to get there. Who else deserves to be mentioned here? Hit up the comments section or continue the conversation on Twitter!

First Season Ad Debuts

With the season just a few weeks away, the NBA is starting to roll out some media for the 2014-15 season. The first ad is a spot from the league called “Everybody Up: Roll Call,” featuring a voice over by hip-hop artist Common, and it goes a long way toward generating excitement for the new year. Enjoy!

Joel Brigham is a senior writer for Basketball Insiders, covering the Central Division and fantasy basketball.

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