Forget about Rookie of the Year: Which of this year’s dynamic debutants would you rather have long term, Donovan Mitchell or Ben Simmons? How about Jayson Tatum or Lonzo Ball? And where does No. 1 pick Markelle Fultz fit in after a season spent mostly on the sidelines?
With their first NBA campaigns mostly in the books, Mike Schmitz and Kevin Pelton rank their top 10 rookies in terms of their future potential and discuss where they disagree.
Who’s No. 1?
Mitchell was my preseason choice for ROY and, in my view, is the rookie with the most star potential because of his mentality and rate of improvement over the past 3-4 years.
As I outlined in January, areas that were clear weaknesses for Mitchell in college and high school — shot-making, finishing in traffic (especially off of one foot), and thinking the game in pick-and-roll — are trending toward strengths for the Jazz star.
From his starting point as a high school power dunker who really struggled to make shots, Mitchell has made almost unprecedented progress, which suggests that he’ll continue making strides across the board. As the game slows down for him, Mitchell should be able to operate more as a facilitator, making every necessary ball-screen read.
I’ve seen enough glimpses to anticipate Mitchell evolving into an eventual lead guard who can blend both scoring and playmaking, rather than the 6-foot-3 scoring off guard most saw him as coming out of Louisville. Mitchell’s physical profile is elite for a lead guard at his size and 6-foot-11 wingspan. The only other point guard in our database with a wingspan of 6-foot-11 or greater is Shaun Livingston. So you have a 20-point-per-game scorer who also has the tools to defend close to three positions; Mitchell was better than the league average defending drives, pick-and-rolls, post-ups and handoffs, according to Second Spectrum data.
On top of all that, Mitchell has a star mentality, rarely shying away from the big moment and embracing the challenge of being a No. 1 option.
Simmons is a unique talent as a 6-foot-10 point guard with an elite feel for the game, and he certainly exceeded my expectations this season. But to me all of the questions we had about him coming out of LSU have been magnified against the Celtics. Not every team has Brad Stevens’ brain or an Al Horford-like defender to sic on Simmons while also slowing Joel Embiid, and the ultratalented Aussie remains an elite passer, a walking triple-double and a regular-season killer when transition is king and defenses aren’t as tight.
But Boston has, for the moment, cracked the code to the 21-year-old rookie, who has averaged just 12 points, 6.1 rebounds, 5.2 assists and 4.2 turnovers with sub-50 percent true shooting in nine games. While Mitchell is turning his former weaknesses into strengths, Simmons’ lack of a jump shot remains a problem, and as his scoring at the rim evaporated against Boston, his defensive motor and overall aggressiveness slowed — both of which we saw regularly at LSU.
People often point to LeBron James‘ somewhat shaky jump shot early on in his career, but when The King was Simmons’ age he was averaging 31-7-7 while making 1.6 triples per game at a 33.5 percent clip. Simmons is a tremendous talent who has proved doubters like myself wrong in a lot of ways, but until he shows a willingness to attack his shortcomings, I’ll roll with Mitchell as the best short- and long-term prospect in this year’s rookie class.
1. Ben Simmons, Philadelphia 76ers
2. Donovan Mitchell, Utah Jazz
I’d say I actually find the choice between Mitchell and Simmons long term more difficult than my Rookie of the Year pick (Simmons) for many of the reasons you lay out. I’d add that Mitchell developing the ability to make the 3 off the dribble could have a transformative effect on how he operates in the pick-and-roll, as I explained in a feature on the rise of the pull-up 3 during last year’s playoffs. Mitchell shot just 29.3 percent on pull-up 3s during the regular season, per NBA Advanced Stats, and has improved to 33.3 percent in the playoffs. Given the way Mitchell has added to his game, I think he’s capable of eventually hitting that shot at a 35 percent clip or better, preventing defenses from going under picks for him.
Still, I’m taking Simmons. He’s starting from a higher point, and for all the discussion of whether he’s really a rookie, age will be a more important factor in future development. The difference there is just two months between Mitchell and Simmons. While I share your concerns about Simmons’ jumper, particularly in a playoff setting, I think part of what we’re seeing against the Celtics is the learning curve — much as Mitchell has dealt with something similar against the Houston Rockets.
Going forward, I love the flexibility Simmons will offer the 76ers as a point guard on offense and a 6-foot-10 defender capable of matching up with basically any spot 1-4. After all, Simmons’ wingspan is just as big as Mitchell’s and he’s got the frame and rebounding ability to go with it. Certainly, improving as a shooter will be important for Simmons. But we’ve already seen that he can be an All-Star-caliber player as a non-shooter and his decision-making and craft should only get better from here.
Pelton: Would you consider Jayson Tatum for the No. 2 spot or do you think Mitchell and Simmons are in a tier of their own?
3. Jayson Tatum, Boston Celtics
I think he’s absolutely in the conversation for No. 2, as he looks the part of a future No. 1 or No. 2 scoring option. I don’t think it’s completely out of the question that he becomes the best player out of the three, especially given how valuable wing/combo forwards are in today’s NBA. As I outlined in November, what has impressed me most about Tatum is how easily he adapted his game, trending away from the isolation-heavy basketball we saw for stretches at Duke and in high school.
During his freshman college season, Tatum finished in the 52nd percentile on catch-and-shoot jumpers, with isolations accounting for 22.8 percent of his offense. Through 90 NBA games this season Tatum ranks in the 93rd percentile on catch-and-shoot jumpers thanks to a quicker, more compact release and added confidence. That’s opened up the rest of his game, allowing him to play off closeouts and use his length and fluidity to glide to the rim, still leaning on his half-court shot creation with the Celtics injury-depleted. Watching him outshine Simmons on the road in overtime of a playoff game speaks to his poise at age 20, more than a year and a half younger than the Sixers rookie.
Six-foot-8 combo forwards who can score and defend multiple positions aren’t easy to find, and Tatum fits the bill. Simmons is just so unique, and his ability to make everyone around him better gives him the slight edge for me. The question with Tatum has always been his ceiling, as he’s not the most physical or imposing athlete, and he had a tendency to live off tough shots in the past. But he looks the part of a future All-Star for many years to come.
Heading into the 2017 draft, I had Fultz as the consensus No. 1 pick, and I still hold out hope that he’ll figure things out long term. Given how Tatum has played, though, it’s safe to say that the Celtics are the winners of their trade with the Sixers up until this point. Is there any question to you that Tatum will be the better long-term pro?
3. Jayson Tatum, Boston Celtics
4. Lonzo Ball, L.A. Lakers
No, in terms of whether I’d hesitate to pick Tatum over Fultz. History shows that how players perform as rookies tells us a lot more about their long-term potential than what they do in college or overseas, so I think even if Fultz had simply missed the season with an injury that had no long-term ramifications, I’d still take Tatum’s potential now over Fultz’s entering the draft. We’ve already seen Tatum produce at a high level in the NBA, and even into the playoffs, and Fultz could be years away from getting to that point — if ever.
To me, the question at No. 3 is between Tatum and my top prospect in last year’s draft, Ball. I know how that sounds given what Tatum is doing right now and Ball shooting 36 percent from the field, but even as he struggled to make shots Ball made an impact on the Lakers’ bottom-line results. They allowed 2.6 fewer points per 100 possessions with him on the court, according to NBA Advanced Stats, and were nearly break-even overall (minus-0.6 net rating).
It’s going to take a lot of work for Ball to develop into enough of a threat off the dribble to be a conventional pick-and-roll playmaker in the half court, but if he can get there and shoots the 3 more like he did at UCLA (41 percent), I think Ball still has potential to have superstar impact. Where would you put him and Fultz?
4. Markelle Fultz, Philadelphia 76ers
5. Lonzo Ball, L.A. Lakers
I still rank Fultz at No. 4, one spot ahead of Ball on my list. I have full belief in his talent as an elite shot creator with positional size and unique athleticism, and it’s important to consider his late-bloomer status when evaluating his development curve.
To me, Fultz needs a pressure-free offseason away from the Philly media, working on his once-patented hesi-pull-up jumper and eventually playing with ultimate freedom in summer league, rebuilding his confidence from the perimeter. Fultz has been too dynamic in different pre-NBA settings for me to dismiss the type of player he can become when he’s firing on all cylinders. Given his intangibles and work habits, I do think Fultz will regain his shooting powers in time, and even if he never becomes the shooter we thought, he’s at least shifty and physical enough to live in the paint while also creating for others.
As for Ball, I also love the way he impacts the game in a variety of areas. He’s an instincts monster and has more or less squashed the notion that he’s a liability defensively, ranking third among point guards in ESPN’s defensive real plus-minus, ahead of names such as Simmons and Marcus Smart. He’s a transition magician who makes everyone around him better and could have likely put together a more complete season if it weren’t for nagging injuries.
With that said, I do question whether he’ll be ever able to score enough to warrant traditional superstar status and unlock some of his half-court playmaking. To me, he’s at his best pushing in transition and relinquishing half-court shot-creation duties to a shiftier ball-screen guard/wing. As you mentioned, the pull-up jumper against under coverage remains a work in progress, especially going right, and he simply doesn’t have much wiggle with the ball or savvy around the rim to combat such erratic shooting numbers.
In 34 games against opponents with a winning record, Ball averaged 9.4 points in 34.5 minutes, shooting 39.6 percent from 2 and 28.8 percent from 3 while attempting only 1.4 free throws per game. He was one of just six players with a true shooting percentage under 45, joining Paul Zipser, Jawun Evans, Michael Carter-Williams, Frank Ntilikina, and DeAndre Liggins.
What worried me more than the percentages was his dip in confidence, which showed in his free throw shooting. I do think he’ll inch closer to 35 percent from 3, but given everything going on around him in a pressure-packed media hub like Los Angeles, I’m interested to see how he’ll respond to any additional adversity and how aggressively he’ll address his weaknesses.
Rather than Fultz, I’m going to complete my top five with Markkanen. Though Markkanen’s value as a rookie fluctuated with his 3-point percentage, he finished right at league average beyond the arc on an impressive six attempts per game.
As Markkanen develops a post-up game to take advantage of switches and teams using smaller defenders against him (he averaged just 0.82 points per chance on post-ups according to Second Spectrum tracking), he should become a matchup problem on offense. Markkanen also proved surprisingly adept at defending on the perimeter, my biggest concern about his game. So although he doesn’t have the upside of Fultz, I think he’s a safer bet going forward.
Rounding out the top 10
Pelton: Who rounds out your top 10? I’m particularly curious how you balance ability to contribute now with long-term potential.
I love Markkanen’s shooting versatility and agility as a 7-footer. His feet are much better than he gets credit for and he’s only going to improve at age 20. In addition to fine-tuning his post game, I think developing as a distributor will help round out his offensive attack.
Next I have Collins, who I thought had some excellent moments and is a future building block for the Hawks. He’s one of the league’s best rim-runners, he spaces the floor vertically as a lob-catcher and the fact that he knocked down 34 percent of his 3s on 47 attempts is a welcome sign moving forward, as he doesn’t turn 21 until late September. He needs to think the game at a higher level and he’s still learning how to defend, but I love his combination of production and upside, especially as a small-ball center.
I know my No. 8 prospect had an up-and-down year and is far from an analytics darling, but I still believe in Jackson. I think if he had ended up in Boston rather than Phoenix fans may be talking about Jackson in a much different light right now, praising his toughness and explosiveness rather than killing him for his lack of shooting and turnover-prone style.
There are certainly concerns about his wild play, shooting and approach, but I think he will eventually thrive in Igor Kokoskov’s system. We always knew it would take Jackson some time, though he did show flashes in the final 15 games. It’s just a matter of whether he’ll be able to develop enough winning habits and improve in a losing environment.
Anunoby has been one of the most underrated rookies in the NBA, playing 83 games (71 as a starter) on one of the top teams in the East after tearing his ACL less than 18 months ago. Coming into his sophomore campaign at Indiana I thought Anunoby had a real chance to be a top-five pick, but the ACL injury cut his season short and Toronto ended up with a steal at No. 23.
He may never be more than a fourth or fifth option offensively, and his feel for the game and assertiveness can certainly improve, but Anunoby is exactly what NBA teams are looking for in a defensively versatile combo forward who can check 1-4 and even slide up to play some small-ball 5 down the road. Given his late-bloomer status and injury history, Anunoby is still very green, but at 6-foot-8, 240 pounds with a 9-foot standing reach and 38 percent 3-point shooting, he’s one of the more intriguing long-term combo forwards in the NBA at 20 years old.
Lastly, Kuzma is by far the oldest player on this list and he needs to improve dramatically defensively and on the glass, but he’s a basketball junkie with a modern skill set built for the NBA, and it’s easy to project him adding something new to his game each and every season given his trajectory so far.
As you mentioned, it’s tough to balance ready-made production vs. long-term upside.
For example, guys such as De’Aaron Fox (not even six months older than Trae Young) and Jonathan Isaac have higher upsides than some of the players on this list, but at what point will they reach those ceilings? Fox and Isaac were both tough to leave off, as was Nets center Jarrett Allen.
Then there’s a guy like Bogdan Bogdanovic, who was a top-10 rookie in the NBA this year but is almost 26 and doesn’t have all that much room for future growth. Dennis Smith Jr. is also an impressive talent but his lack of defensive motor and inefficient play have always been major turnoffs for me when it comes to impacting winning.
What does the rest of your list look like, and how do you weigh ready-made productivity and long-term potential?
Our lists are pretty similar. You don’t have to sell me on Anunoby — I had him on my All-Rookie first team, and given his age and the promise he showed this season, I think it’s possible he eventually transcends a 3-and-D role.
Collins actually finished third among rookies in my wins above replacement player (WARP) metric during the regular season, behind only Mitchell and Simmons, though his RPM wasn’t as impressive. The three closest comparables for Collins at the same age from my SCHOENE projection system include Dwight Howard and Amar’e Stoudemire, so we may be underselling his upside. But I think the number of productive centers in the league right now may limit Collins’ value. That also kept Jarrett Allen and Bam Adebayo off my list.
I’m a bit higher on Smith, who had pretty much the standard up-and-down season for a teenage starting point guard. I don’t think his potential has dropped from when I thought he was the steal of the lottery, though some other rookies have jumped him in line. Fultz and Smith had relatively similar projections by my draft model, so I don’t think given that there are now larger concerns about Fultz’s downside I can put him above Smith.
I’ll round out my list with Isaac, something of a forgotten man because injuries limited him to just 27 games. When he did play, Isaac was reasonably productive, so I’ll give him the nod over Kuzma by a hair. (In his case, a lot of hair.)
Jackson is perhaps the toughest player for me to evaluate. Everything you say in defense of his outlook is reasonable, but second-half performance doesn’t tend to be any more predictive than first-half play and I feel his inefficiency as a rookie confirmed my concerns about him coming out of Kansas. So I’ve got him outside the top 10.