#1. Zion Williamson
New Orleans Pelicans
PF | Duke
As of the writing of this article, Zion Williamson has yet to bless us with his presence on an NBA court. Back on October 18th, the Pelicans announced that their prized #1 overall pick from the 2019 draft would be out for a “matter of weeks” with a vaguely described knee injury. That vague knee injury turned out to be a torn meniscus in Zion’s right knee – a more severe injury than was expected. New Orleans released a timetable of 6-8 weeks, and I myself am dubious that he will return prior to that 8 week mark; in fact, I would predict that Zion does not see the floor until 2020.
Pelicans’ newly hired GM David Griffin has been consistent in his shielding of Zion from the monumental expectations that come with this level of notoriety, making a statement in the days following the ’19 draft that combo guard Jrue Holiday would be the centerpiece for the Pelicans, now that franchise icon Anthony Davis had been moved to the Lakers. That careful guarding, combined with the “shoe blowout” incident at Duke that forced Zion out for a matter of weeks, the knee bruising Zion suffered in high school and the tweak he suffered during the Las Vegas Summer League opener versus former teammate R.J. Barrett and the New York Knicks that kept him out for the remainder of that showcase.
As fans count the days until Zion’s NBA debut, Zion himself spends the days rehabbing and studying, pushing as hard as he can to become the best version of Zion Williamson that he can be. While fans are quick to notice Zion’s explosive athleticism and imposing frame, more nuanced observers have often noted how high his motor is, and how humble and selfless Zion is for a player with such a pedigree. Coaches and teammates alike have raved about Zion the human, even more so than Zion the athlete, as hard as that is to believe.
Be patient, NBA fans. The wait may be longer than we planned, but the reveal will be worth it. I guarantee it.
In the meantime though, here’s a nice mixtape from back in Zion’s glory days at Spartanburg Day School up against my alma mater, Dorman High – a game I had the great privilege of attending.
Even if you don’t have time for a whole mixtape, at least check out the first 20 seconds – Zion had the best play of the whole game on the first play!
#2. Ja Morant
PG | Murray State
Note: All stats are per game.
In the absence of Zion Williamson, fellow South Carolina native and #2 overall pick in the ’19 draft Ja Morant has built an early case as the favorite to win Rookie of the Year for this class. Ja comes in a year older than most of his former freshmen counterparts, and it has shown thus far on the court. Yes, Ja may be racking up turnovers like it’s nobody’s business, he ranks 10th in the entire NBA in turnovers thus far with 46, sandwiched in between unfortunate company Zach LaVine and Terry Rozier, however, these turnovers aren’t an indication of poor production. Rather, it is a sign of just how ambitious and creative some of Ja’s passing is; those who saw his highlights probably picture Morant as a Russell Westbrook-type guard with a penchant for tunnel vision, but one of Ja’s most enticing skills as a college prospect was his ability to use the threat of his own athleticism to unlock the offensive games’ of his teammates. At Murray State, the talent around him struggled to capitalize on those open looks; Murray’s teammates on Memphis are leaps and bounds ahead as shot makers. That has allowed Ja to sustain a 1.57 assist-to-turnover ratio, despite an unheard of +30% usage as a rookie. To do so, Ja has had to rack up the 18th most assists in the league to this point, a pretty amazing feat as a rookie. I only hope fans are not numbed to these passing numbers given the success of Trae Young last year. (Trae finished #2 in total assists across the entire league with 653)
What has been most impressive about Ja’s first dozen or so games as an NBA lead guard has been his composure down the stretch in tight games. In his third game as a Grizzly, after putting up 10 points and 4 turnovers two days ago against the Bulls, Ja came out and put up 30 points and 9 assists on Kyrie Irving and the Brooklyn Nets, and stuffed the daylights out of Kyrie on a last-second jump shot attempt with a 1-point lead.
Ja gets the block on Kyrie Irving to seal the win on October 27, 2019. Credit House of Highlights for the video clip.
However, none of that compares to the heroics of Ja Morant in the closing moments of last week’s game versus the Charlotte Hornets. Ja led his Grizzlies into the home of the Hornets, and with a dozen seconds to go, his team has a chance to split the 117-117 tie game and go home winners. The ball goes into Ja, who sizes up Terry Rozier before getting a switch onto fellow rookie Cody Martin. The following shot ensues:
Ja Morant hits a buzzer-beater to beat the Buzz City Hornets at home. Ja put up 23 points and 11 assists this game.
#3. R.J. Barrett
New York Knicks
Well, we’re a month in to the NBA season, and so far the Knicks appear to be the only absolute tire fire of an organization in the NBA right now. Phoenix has exploded out of the gates, Kevin Love and the young guys have kept the Cavs fun and engaging, and even Charlotte has put up a near-.500 record and seen the exciting emergence of Devonte’ Graham. Meanwhile, the co-GM’s (or whatever they do) of the Knicks, Steve Mills and Scott Perry, have begun very craftily laying the groundwork to shift blame for this disastrous season onto coach David Fizdale, who was hired prior to last season and has two remaining years at around $5 million annually on his coaching contract. Generally, it is a bad sign when the front office is giving explicit signals that this season is already a failure when the team is about a dozen games into an 82-game schedule, but as we have seen time and again before under this disastrous Dolan-run organization, the Knicks can and will do whatever it takes to embarrass themselves.
Unfortunately, all of this drama has shifted the focus off of player development and onto god-knows-what, and the play of R.J. already seems to be worse for it. Already, it seems that NBA teams have begun to adapt to Barrett’s tricks, and his lack of either true high-level explosiveness or shot-making ability has allowed opposing teams to force his offensive game into a limited and predictable box. Barrett started out the season with four reasonably impressive scoring games, and against impressive teams – Boston, Brooklyn, and San Antonio all defeated the Knicks, but R.J. was impressive in each game. His efficiency was not elite, but it was certainly better than I would have predicted coming into this season. The following tweet demonstrates one of his more impressive finishes – while I wish he was more adept at foul-drawing, it is clear that with this type of ridiculous touch, R.J. is going to score at a productive level, even in the NBA.
However, as the season has progressed, R.J.’s play has fallen off, and so too has his production. At this point, everyone has heard the quote Coach Fizdale gave after playing R.J. 40 minutes in a blowout loss to Sacramento, but what has not been noted is his clear drop in performance since that game. In the 7 games since, RJ has scored fewer than 10 points three times, after doing so only once in his first seven games; his shooting from three is concerning as well – Barrett went 4-6 in his third game of the season versus Boston, but has gone 10-33 from 3 since then for a disappointing, though not entirely shocking, 30.3%.
However, all hope is not lost for R.J. Barrett. I was lucky enough to see R.J. in person for the first time at the Las Vegas Summer League, and what stood out to me more than any move on the floor was a free throw that R.J. took. Midway through the third, Barrett was fouled, and after missing the first free throw, a heckler yelled something to the effect of “Nice brick Barrett!” from the crowd. R.J. pauses, receives the pass from the ref, drains the second free throw and gives a downright nasty glance into the stands right at the area the heckler had been. What that tells me is that R.J. has what we like to refer to as a “chip on the shoulder” – this is a guy that is not going to back down when the going gets tough, and he is not going to lose confidence in himself because some clown on Twitter has done so. This is a guy that knows his worth, and knows what he wants – to be the best basketball player he can possibly be. As I said earlier with Zion, R.J. wants to be the best possible version of R.J. Barrett, and I believe the already-mounting pressure of the Knicks will only serve to refine the diamond I believe Barrett can become.
#4. De’Andre Hunter
SF | UVA
On paper, Hunter’s rookie season has not been all that impressive thus far. His numbers certainly do not exude “Top 5 pick,” and his play on the court is no different. However, this is not to say that his play has been poor; rather, Hunter has simply been incredibly inconsistent with his offense. De’Andre opened the year shooting 6/26 from 3 (a worrying 23%) over his first eight games of the year. In the games since, however, Hunter has not only ramped up his volume from 3, but has simultaneously begun hitting his shots – going 14/29 (around 48%) from 3 in only six games since. One promising sign is that the vast majority of Hunter’s 3’s have come from “Above the Break” – which pretty much just means non-corner shots – shooting 15/42 (35.7%) thus far from that area. He has also made 5 of his 13 corner attempts – if he can bump up those corner attempts and makes over time, then 36% or so from above the break is all he needs to shoot.
This clip is pretty self-explanatory – De’Andre Hunter comes into the NBA with a pedigree as a big-time player.
As I mentioned though, inconsistent play by Hunter is borne out across the board statistically; his two-point shooting has been downright dreadful, though the vast majority of his missed have come in the past couple of weeks since John Collins’ suspension was announced. Certainly, this added burden must be considered, but I still want to point out that Hunter is shooting a dismal 47.9% at the rim – not exactly promising for a guy of his height and frame. Another indicator of poor finishing around the rim – Hunter is 3/5 on dunk attempts this season, meaning one dunk every four or so games. Hunter does demonstrate touch as a shooter and as a finisher, but for him to be an efficient full-time starter on a good team, he will need to find a way to create easier opportunities at the basket. Look for him to develop as a cutter in an effort to get two or three easy buckets a game.
The absence of the Hawks’ #2 option has forced the older rookie in Hunter to step into a much heavier offensive load, not in small part because of how poorly his teammate Cam Reddish is playing – shooting 23.6% on 3.6 3’s per game and an even more concerning 34.3% on 5 2pt attempts per game. Hunter himself is shooting pretty poorly as we have covered, totallying a meager 50.7% TS%, putting him in company with NY Knicks Julius Randle and Elfrid Payton.
Those who were lower on Hunter pre-draft will likely point to his inefficiencies thus far as clear indicators of future performance, but I am hesitant to do so. This is a Hawks team that is very much in flux right now, and Hunter has been one of the anchoring pieces. His offensive production has not been efficient, but it has been critical, and what he has brought on the defensive end has been promising, though not entirely surprising. Has Hunter done anything to cement himself as a player clearly worthy of a top-5 pick pedigree? Perhaps not. But until someone rises up and takes that spot from him (cough cough Eric Paschall cough) I am satisfied with how De’Andre has adapted thus far to the NBA. I am a believer that most players can be developed, but only a few are drafted into the proper environment; well this Atlanta Hawks team led by Lloyd Pierce seems to be every bit the part. I am cautiously optimistic with both Hunter and the Hawks as a whole, and cannot wait to see where the back half of the season goes for the squad once Collins returns and is properly reassimilated.
#5. Darius Garland
PG | Vanderbilt
Well, Darius Garland was by far the toughest prospect in the lottery to evaluate coming into the 2019 Draft, and I cannot say I have that much better of a feel on his game a month into his young NBA career. The biggest takeaway of the Cavaliers’ season to this point is that Darius Garland and Collins Sexton are wholly and utterly incompatible. On this awful Cavs team, the two are able to simply play through poor defensive showings, and do their best to make things work on offense. Both are point guards, that much is clear. Both have the size and defensive acumen of a point guard (“defensive acumen” is a generous phrase for both) and it is clear that both need to act as lead guards, handling the ball on the majority of possessions.
Thus far, we have seen Collin Sexton remain mostly in control of this Cleveland offense. Sexton has played 30 minutes a game at 25.9% usage and putting up an 11.4% AST% in a clear sign that Sexton is acting more as a scoring guard than a facilitator. Garland himself has carved out only 19.8% usage thus far, meaning he isn’t getting many shots created for him nor the opportunity to create his own shots. Drafting Garland was drafting a shot-maker, and thus far the Cavs have stunted his growth in that department. Now, this may seem somewhat ridiculous given Garland’s shot attempts – 54 3pt attempts and 145 attempts total through only 14 games, but this is a Cavaliers team that is 4-10, for crying out loud! They have the 23rd ranked offense in the league judging by offensive rating. Cleveland just spent the #5 overall selection on Darius Garland, and they drafted him to be a scorer first, a scorer second, and hopefully a full-fledged PG down the line. Pairing Sexton and Garland has been a disaster thus far, if not in terms of on court production, then in terms of a player development plan of attack.
As I mentioned though, Garland’s shooting percentages have not been all that promising. He is shooting a disappointing 33.8% total from the field, a rather jarring number even for a rookie. This includes 29.6% 3PT shooting on almost 4 attempts per game, which again may seem like a pretty high total, but for a shoot-first guard with the type of range Garland has, on the type of team Cleveland has, to be shooting only 4 three’s a game – well it simply isn’t enough.
I mean, check this stuff out. Seriously, it’s ridiculous.
I am still very much in “wait and see” mode on Darius Garland. Again, he played 5 games of college competition before coming into the NBA; his evaluation was more along the lines of a guy like Anfernee Simons, who spent 5 years in high school and then came straight into the NBA. What is clear is that Darius Garland can shoot. What is unclear is how much freedom this Cleveland team is going to give him – in short, when do they pull the plug on the dual-PG experiment. I am a huge believer in Collin Sexton (I am a sucker for “high motor” and his game vs. Minnesota in college will forever make me a believer) and am starting to come around on Garland as someone that at least deserves the chance to try to helm an NBA offense. Yet, for either of these guys to hit anywhere near the level they are capable of, they need room to breathe, and that simply isn’t going to happen together on this Cleveland team.