The 2016-17 rookie class was pretty difficult to assess throughout the pre-draft process. If you checked out Basketball Insiders’ Consensus Mock Drafts in the weeks leading up to the draft, you likely noticed an unusually high number of players who climbed up and plummeted down the board – with a select few holding a consistently high position.
As it turned out, the draft ended up being even more unpredictable than most projected. The Boston Celtics are a good example of this as they took Jaylen Brown (No. 3), Guerschon Yabusele (16), Ante Zizic (23), Demetrius Jackson (45), Ben Bentil (51) and Abdel Nader (58), all while trying to put together a deal for a star player – most notably Jimmy Butler. A lot of teams went with the draft-and-stash strategy, so it will take more than a few years to really get a sense of which teams scored big in this draft and which teams struck out.
While the draft itself was difficult to project, we may have a better shot at predicting which rookies will have the biggest impact this upcoming season. With this mind, here is a list of rookies who seem poised to be the biggest day-one contributors from this class.
5. Buddy Hield, New Orleans Pelicans
Coming off of a fantastic senior season at Oklahoma, Hield is well-situated to make an impact for the New Orleans Pelicans from day one. The Pelicans have more experienced players in their backcourt, including Jrue Holiday, E’Twaun Moore, Tyreke Evans, Langston Galloway, Tim Frazier and Alonzo Gee. However, Evans is still injured and, at 22 years old, Hield may already be one of the most complete and prototypical shooting guards the Pelicans have on their roster.
With Holiday at point guard and Anthony Davis wreaking havoc in the frontcourt, Hield has the opportunity to slot in as a valuable weapon off the ball with his three-point shooting. In his fourth and final season at Oklahoma, Hield averaged 25 points, 6.3 rebounds, 2.2 assists and 1.2 steals, while shooting 50.1 percent from the field and, most importantly, 45.7 percent from distance. His numbers were jaw-dropping, especially when you consider that he was attempting 8.7 three-pointers per game. If Hield can knock down the open shots that his teammates will generate for him while playing solid perimeter defense, he has a good shot of establishing himself as one of the most impactful rookies in the upcoming season.
The question is, are we going to see the version of Hield that scorched the NCAA last season or are we going to see the inefficient gunner who struggled during the Las Vegas Summer League?
4. Dario Saric, Philadelphia 76ers
Saric, the No. 12 overall pick in the 2014 NBA Draft, was acquired by the Philadelphia 76ers in a draft-night deal with the Orlando Magic. However, he has been playing overseas for the last two seasons so this upcoming campaign will count as his rookie year. At 22 years old, Saric has the experience to be an immediate contributor in Philadelphia. Specifically, he has played in some top-level settings, such as the Adriatic League, Turkish BSL League and for the Croatian national team, which is generally considered more effective experience than college basketball.
His recent play in the Olympics has drawn widespread praise, including from 76ers head coach Brett Brown. While Brown admitted that Saric does not have elite athleticism, he does have a multi-faceted game with the ability to put the ball on floor and stretch defenses to the three-point line from the power forward position.
Saric has the experience and skills to be a significant contributor this upcoming season, but his success will likely depend on how well Coach Brown can integrate him into his rotations. Saric occupies a crowded frontcourt, which includes top pick Ben Simmons (who may play more point forward), Jahlil Okafor, Nerlens Noel and Joel Embiid among others. With Saric’s shooting and Simmons’ ability to penetrate opposing defenses and create open looks for his teammates, they could form a dynamic tandem. However, it’s possible that Brown settles in on lineups that don’t feature Saric in a way that allows him to utilize all of his talents.
3. Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers
Embiid, another 76er who was selected in the 2014 draft, also makes this list. Drafted third overall, Embiid entered the NBA after one year at Kansas. He was projected by many to be a future star based primarily on his rapid improvement in recent years and his physical profile.
Unfortunately, just before the draft, Embiid underwent surgery on a broken navicular bone in his right foot, which was projected to take four-to-six months to recover from. Embiid ended up missing what would have been his entire rookie season. He then missed last season after the bone failed to heal as quickly as expected. He ultimately had another surgery in August of 2015 and there are still some lingering concerns over his health.
Despite those concerns, Embiid’s upside is incredible. He has ideal size, length and athleticism at center, and he should have the mobility to play both ends of the court effectively. It’s tough to truly project what kind of player he can be until we see some live game action from him, but after two years of working within the 76ers’ program under head coach Brett Brown and his staff, there is reason to believe he could be a significant contributor this upcoming season.
2. Kris Dunn, Minnesota Timberwolves
After playing four years of college basketball at Providence, Dunn enters the upcoming season as one of the most experienced top prospects in the draft. Dunn has been lauded as a polished point guard who can make his presence felt on both ends of the court. Anyone who watched Dunn play at the Las Vegas Summer League knows that he is also a fiery competitor, which was apparent in his head-to-head matchup against Toronto Raptors guard Norman Powell.
The problem for Dunn this upcoming season is that the Timberwolves already have veteran point guard Ricky Rubio slotted as the starting floor general. Head coach Tom Thibodeau has stated that the two could potentially play alongside one another, though we’ll see how that goes. Neither Rubio nor Dunn are knockdown shooters (though Dunn showed significant improved last season), which may prevent them from being able to play together effectively. However, Dunn and Rubio are both good defensive players, which may offset their limitations on offense. Also, it is entirely possible that Rubio gets traded at some point this season considering the fact that he was made available in trade discussions earlier this offseason.
Despite the obvious concern over playing time, Dunn will get an opportunity to prove himself as a viable contributor this upcoming season. With plenty of college experience and the ability to play both ends of the court effectively, Dunn has the chance to make a big impact throughout next season. Oh, and playing alongside former No. 1 picks Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins (as well as Minnesota’s other impressive young talents) should only make Dunn’s life easier as he transitions to the NBA.
1. Ben Simmons, Philadelphia 76ers
After watching Ben Simmons’ overall play at the Las Vegas Summer League, some doubters may want to lighten up their criticism of his game. It’s true that Simmons should have been able to make a bigger impact during his lone season at LSU, but it’s not unprecedented for a top prospect to struggle at the college level only to subsequently thrive at the NBA level.
Additionally, Simmons will likely be given the keys to the 76ers franchise from day one considering his unique ability to run an offense from the forward positions. Simmons has a unique ability to see the floor better than many gifted NBA point guards and this court vision, coupled with his excellent passing skills, allow him create easy baskets for his teammates. His size and overall athleticism let him to attack the rim in ways that traditional point guards can’t, which should be a big weapon for the 76ers moving forward. With this in mind, it will be important for the 76ers to put knockdown shooters around him so that his passes become assists rather than missed opportunities.
Of course, Simmons’ ineffective jump-shot is a concern and that is something he will need to tighten up as he continues developing. We have seen players with ineffective jumpers improve their mechanics and overcome their limitations. If Simmons does that, while maintaining his creativity with the ball and ability to rebound from the forward position, he should be well-positioned to take the Rookie of the Year award next season. Versatility is the name of the game in today’s NBA, and no one in this draft is as versatile as Simmons.
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