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The NBA is a league ruled by commodities and assets, whether that be players, picks or cap space. No such asset has proven harder to gauge than the fresh-faced crop of 18 and 19 year olds that enter the league each season. This season’s rookies have been one of the more intriguing to date, coming off the heels of the impressive 2017/18 class which included Ben Simmons (Rookie of the Year), Donovan Mitchell and Jayson Tatum, the league has been witness to two more exceptionally skilled and dynamic talents in Trae Young and (almost) certain Rookie of the Year Luka Doncic.
Both young guns led their teams to 29-53 and 33 – 49 records respectively, whilst these are far from competitive, when you consider the talent on Atlanta and Dallas this year it makes for an interesting comparison to other first year players in similar situations.
The first player that comes to mind is Collin Sexton of the Cleveland Cavaliers; the young point guard struggled to start the year amongst a tumultuous locker room and the firing of Coach Tyronn Lue. As the year went on Sexton grew as an on court leader and player with averages of 17 points, 3 rebounds and 3 assists per game shooting 40% from the behind the arc. The interesting comparison to make between a player like Sexton and that of Doncic and Young is the win/loss record of their teams despite seemingly fairly equal levels of supporting talent. Had the roles been reversed and either Trae or Luka ended up on the Cavs, could this Cleveland team have won 30 games?
This makes for an interesting NBA conundrum: Each rookie can be broken into 4 Tiers, each of my own (genius) devising.
The “Star” tier (Young, Doncic); Rookies who can contribute to a team’s success immediately while simultaneously leading their team in key statistical categories (scoring, assists, rebounding).
The “Empty Stats” tier (Colin Sexton, DeAndre Ayton, Marvin): Players who are more than capable of putting up impressive numbers on bad teams, albeit while not essentially adding to the team’s record.
The “Role Players” tier (my personal favorites) (Josh Okogie, Mikal Bridges, Landry Shamet and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander): Players who are a value add to their teams as soon as they step onto the court, key peripheral contributors on mid to good teams (see LA Clippers whole roster).
The “Potential” tier (Rodions Kurucs, Aaron Holiday and my friend and fellow Melburnian Deng Adel): Rookies who can impress in limited minutes, the “potential” tier who you just keep talking yourself into despite their small sample size.
Anyway, back to that conundrum I was talking about. When it comes to rookies, and more specifically the assembly of the 1st and 2nd All Rookie 1st teams, what is more important asset to have? I think the obvious answer is guys in the Star tier, but what comes next? A possible (maybe not probable) future star like Ayton or Bagely that, whilst they have shown huge flashes of upside, have fairly extreme flaws (see Ayton’s defense), or a more limited asset like Shai who’s ceiling may not be as high, but their current baselines lends itself to team and franchise success and stability?
This years voting breakdown for the all rookie teams lends itself to the notion that “Star” and “Empty Stats” guys are more valuable assets, the notable exception being Jaren Jackson Jr who really impressed me in the small sample of games he suited up for this season (58 Games. 14 / 5 / 1 on 50% FG and 36% 3P). Though without getting into the nitty gritty and revealing my true biases as a Cavs fan, are there not players more deserving than Jackson Jr and Bagely who’s season averages are a little underwhelming?
The rookie teams don’t take into account positions so it would have been understandable if one of either Sexton or Gilgeous-Alexander made the cut for the 1st team. Sexton averaged more points (17p/14p) and assists (3/1) than both Bagely and Jackson Jr, whilst maintaining a relatively similar PER on a significantly worse team than the Kings and Grizzlies. Gilgeous-Alexander’s case resides less in the numbers, (13 points, 2.8 rebounds and 3 assists) and more in his ability to contribute consistently on a successful team. SGA started the majority of games at the point for a playoff team that held the number one seed in the west for the first month of the season. His ability to play in a fluid and dynamic offensive system as a first year player, whilst contributing defensively, immediately enamored him with coaches, players and the media. There are arguments for both players, though ultimately my bias lends itself towards Sexton replacing Bagely in the 1st team.
The interesting factor to note is the very different tier that Sexton and SGA reside in, lending my vote to Sexton is as much about personal bias having watched every Cavs game this season, as it is about numbers. He was the 2nd leading scorer behind Kevin Love and in the few games the Cavs won, he was a pivotal factor not only scoring the ball but providing an energetic presence for the team to rally around.
Sexton is someone I have categorized as an “empty stats” guy, whilst Shai is undoubtedly a “role player” rookie. I’ll leave it up to you as the reader to determine what player you would rather have, Sexton’s averages are better in every category, yet Shai’s contributions on a playoff team cannot be understated. It just goes to show that stats aren’t everything, while Sexton played all 82 games and put up surprisingly good numbers in the absence of veterans like Kevin Love, Shai thrived in a deep, well coached team in the LA Clippers, contributing throughout the season without struggling profoundly at any point. Not to mention SGA’s contributions in the NBA’s pressure cooker that is the playoffs.
These two guards perfectly summate the “who would you rather?” question that these rookies pose. The NBA is a fickle and harsh breeding ground for talent; some players are nurtured and grown while some are thrown head first into the deep end. And as a result we now have one of the most intriguing conglomerations of rookie talent in quite some time, with many potential all stars and even more potentially very effective and sought after role players. This year’s rookie crop could be one of the deeper drafts of the last decade.