Heading into the 2014 NBA Draft, the excitement around the current rookie class was incredible. It was touted by many as the strongest draft since 2007 (Durant, Oden, Horford, Noah, Conley, Thad Young, Marc Gasol) and possibly since the 2003 draft that gave us LeBron, Wade, Melo, Bosh, David West and of course Darko … I kid, I kid.
But seriously, one NBA GM was quoted as saying “The 2014 draft is so loaded, there are a half-dozen players in it that would have gone No. 1 in 2013.”
“The 2014 NBA draft is going to be epic,” wrote ESPN’s Chad Ford. “It is one of the most talent-laden I’ve ever seen. There are as many as five to eight future All-Stars in this group …. It’s going to be big.”
Wiggins was to be the next coming of LeBron, Jabari was Melo 2.0, Embiid the next Olajuwon and Julius Randle was an 18 year old Zach Randolph.
The hype was real and I was probably as guilty as anyone at building it with my draft series last June.
So now that we’ve had a month to look at this incoming rookie class, how are they stacking up?
Well, the truth is they’ve been somewhat underwhelming.
The hype has all but evaporated and we’re left with a bunch of kids – cos that’s what most of them are – struggling to find their way in the world’s toughest league.
Tied for the lead in scoring among rookies is the #1 pick Andrew Wiggins. Wiggins has started every game for Flip Saunders’ Minnesota Timberwolves and is averaging 11.9 points per game through the first 14 games. He is definitely as athletic as advertised but the rest of his game needs considerable refinement.
Wiggins turned heads around the league recently with a 29-point performance versus Sacramento, but Flip Saunders was quick to put it into perspective.
“I don’t want to say it was a coming-out party, but I think we saw some things that we expect out of him,” Saunders said. “We force-fed him a little bit. But he took initiative. He was active, had four steals. He was active at both ends overall and did a pretty nice job overall for us.”
Unfortunately Wiggins followed that up with a 4-14 shooting effort versus Milwaukee and then managed just 3 points in 29 minutes at the Lakers on Friday night; and we all know everyone gets their numbers against the Lakers this year.
He’s been active defensively swiping 1.2 steals per game, but has been disappointing in most other facets with a FG% barely over .400, hitting just 68% of his FTs, dishing only 1.1 assists per game and racking up a widely inefficient PER of 9.6. Wiggins clearly has a long way to go to be the next LBJ.
Jabari Parker was touted as the most NBA-ready prospect in the draft and many considered him to be the next great scoring forward to enter the league. Melo 2.0!
Didn’t Harold Miner teach us a listen about these types of comparisons?
Through 18 games, Parker is also averaging 11.9 points per game on a respectable .453 FG%, but connecting on just a quarter of his 3-point attempts. Parker has been ok on the boards, grabbing just north of 6 per game and he’s also stealing the ball 1.3 times per game, while limiting his turnovers (1.6) but frankly I expected more.
By comparison, Melo averaged 21 points, 6.1 rebounds, 2.8 assists and hit 32.2% from downtown as a rookie. Even on a per-36 minute basis (per basketball-reference.com), Parker just does not stack up.
The best rebounding rookie, former Kentucky big man Nerlens Noel, is actually from the previous draft class. After spending over a year recovering from a torn ACL, Noel is averaging 6.5 rebounds and has been active defensively, as he was at Kentucky, with 1.3 blocks and 1.6 steals per contest. Yet despite the off-season talk of an improved jump shot and offensive skill-set, it has not translated so far with Noel scoring just 7.9 points per game, with a season high of 17 points.In addition to the struggles of those top prospects, lottery picks Julius Randle and Aaron Gordon have both been lost to season-ending injuries (although Gordon could possibly return), Marcus Smart has missed all but 5 games this season due to injury and is still in the midst of a multi-week absence, Noah Vonleh has played a total of 24 minutes on the season due to injury and a limited role, while #3 pick Joel Embiid will not set foot on a court this season.
It has definitely been an inauspicious start for this much-anticipated rookie class, which begs the question; were we all just flat out wrong about them?
There are some who say ‘relax, they’re just super young’. And that’s true – they are young. After all, most of the 2014 lottery picks had played only one year of college hoops before declaring for the draft. Most of them are 19 and 20 year olds who are still maturing both physically and mentally.
The problem with that argument, however, is that LeBron, Carmelo, Durant, Anthony Davis and Kyrie Irving were all only 19 when they made their NBA debuts and those studs were taking numbers right off the bat.
To me, some of the struggles we’re seeing are partly circumstantial. Aside from Noel, none of these rookies have free reign over their teams as other rookies did in years’ past. The teams they’re on still expect to win games this year and are striving to make the playoffs; so developing their rookies to be alpha-dogs right away is not priority number one for those Head Coaches.
To illustrate the point, Carmelo averaged 17.9 field-goal attempts per game as a rookie. LeBron averaged 18.9. Jabari Parker, on the other hand, is averaging 10.6 field-goal attempts, while Andrew Wiggins is also getting just 10.6 shots off per game.
Anthony played 36.5 minutes per contest as a 19 year old rookie, James a whopping 39.5 minutes. Parker and Wiggins are both running around for less than 30 minutes per contest.
In fact, only Noel and European rookie Bojan Bogdanovic, who played professionally at the top level in Europe for 5 years before signing an NBA contract, are averaging over 30 minutes per game so far out of the entire rookie class.
For all the criticism of the Sixers and their extended re-building strategy, Philly are the only franchise who throw their rookies out there for extended minutes to see what they can do. They did it last year with Michael Carter-Williams and the results were surprisingly good. They’re doing it with Noel this year; only he’s struggling a little to adjust after over a year off.
But none of the other rookies are getting that. Dante Exum is playing just 18.4 minutes off the bench in Utah, Zach LaVine just 21.3 minutes (and those are inflated by the injury to Ricky Rubio), while Vonleh is getting regular DNP-CDs in Charlotte.So are we expecting too much from this rookie class or are they not good enough to earn a larger role? Well, it is way too early to answer that question, but there should be definitely be some warning signs flashing.
When measured by efficiency (PER), the better performing rookies so far have been Gordon, Nikola Mirotic (who also played several years in Euroleague before joining the Bulls), Jordan Clarkson in limited minutes for the Lakers, Parker and James Ennis who has pro experience after being an MVP candidate in our own NBL last season.
These guys need reps and until they get them, we have to consider their struggles to be nothing but growing pains and preach patience.
As always, the truth of the matter lies within the wise words of the Growing Pains theme song:
“We’re nowhere near the end.
The best is ready to begin.”
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