While it’s too early to make any sweeping, long-term judgments on the NBA’s 2019-20 rookie class, it feels like an appropriate time to evaluate their play as the league pauses for an indefinite hiatus due to the coronavirus pandemic.
This list was determined based on how the rookies played this season, not how they’ll project down the road. Several rookies with bright futures — Detroit’s Sekou Doumbouya, Indiana’s Goga Bitadze, and Boston’s Grant Williams among them — didn’t make the list because they had limited roles in their first pro seasons. Two players who weren’t in the 2019 NBA Draft class but still qualified as rookies were selected.
Scoring efficiency, defensive contributions, and impact on winning were weighted in determining the order. The rankings would look very different if we were projecting which rookies have the brightest future long-term.
For now, these were the NBA’s best rookies for the 2019-20 season.
Culver badly struggled offensively as a rookie, shooting just 40.4 percent from the field, 29.9 percent from three-point range, and 46.2 percent from the free-throw line. There were some silver linings, though: Culver finished well at the rim (58.3 percent) and held his own defensively, posting a 1.8 steal rate and 2.1 block rate. He remains a key piece for the Wolves’ future next to D’Angelo Russell and Karl-Anthony Towns, and should have plenty of shooters to kick out to if he can grow into a lead ball handler. Expect him to take a massive leap in value if he can improve his scoring efficiency. It can’t get much worse.
The Cavs’ decision to select Garland at No. 5 overall one year after picking another point guard in the top 10 in Collin Sexton always felt like a high-risk, high-reward gamble. Garland had played only five games at Vanderbilt before tearing his meniscus, and would be one of the league’s smallest players at 6’1 and under 200 pounds. What Cleveland saw in Garland was the vision of a lead guard who could pull-up to shoot from anywhere while masterfully orchestrating an offense. He showed both his upside and his downside during a rookie season in which he started 59 games.
Garland took 42.3 percent of his shots from deep and made them at a 35.5 percent clip. His playmaking was a bit underwhelming, finishing with an 18.5 percent assist rate while averaging 4.5 assists per-36 minutes. For Garland to improve his scoring efficiency from his 49.8 true shooting percentage, he’ll have to find a way to become a better finisher at the rim (46.8 percent) or blossom into one of the league’s elite shooters.
Barrett might have had the toughest task of any rookie in the league: to act as a high-usage offensive creator for one of the worst teams in the NBA at 19 years old. It isn’t fair to expect a rookie thrive in such a role, and Barrett had his share of struggles as expected. He failed to score efficiently, posting only 47.9 percent true shooting and hitting just 61 percent of his free throws. He had nearly as many turnovers (124) as assists (143). Still, there were some moments of promise, like a 27-point effort vs. Atlanta in his final game. Barrett would be wise to focus on becoming the best defensive player he can be while his offense adjusts to the NBA level. Barrett still has a bright future ahead of him, but his rookie season shows how the steep the climb from college to the pros is even for top picks.
The Hawks took Hunter at No. 4 overall after a national championship run at Virginia to give Trae Young some help defensively and a shooter who could stretch the floor. He earned mixed reviews in that role as a rookie. Despite being considered one of the top defensive prospects in the draft by mainstream evaluators and already 22 years old, Hunter ranked only No. 13 in defensive RAPTOR among rookies. He was a solid three-point shooter at 35.5 percent on nearly five attempts per game, but his lack of an in-between game meant he still finished with below-average efficiency (52.1 true shooting) as a scorer. Hunter doesn’t have as much upside as some other rookies in this class, but he can still perform well in his role if he can cause more havoc as a team defender and start to diversify his offensive skill set.
Porter was a worthy gamble for Cleveland with the last pick in the first round. Always brimming with talent as a 6’5 wing with rare shot-making ability and a developed handle, Porter flashed the skills that make him so intriguing when he dropped 30 points on the Heat in a February win. His scoring efficiency (53.5 percent true shooting) was better than many players drafted in front of him, and he also showed impressive ability to finish at the rim (71.8 percent) when he got there. The next steps are becoming a more consistent three-point shooter, developing into a willing passer, and using his physical tools to make a bigger impact on defense.
Pascall took advantage of a wide-open opportunity with the Warriors this season while the team’s roster was decimated by injuries. The 6’6 forward was drafted at No. 41 overall after a strong three-year career at Villanova, and proved that the scoring chops he showed in college could translate to the next level. Pascall was fifth among all rookies by averaging 14 points per game and he did it on impressive 57 percent true shooting. How he ultimately fits Golden State as a long-term piece returns up for debate — Does he have a position defensively? Can he improve as a three-point shooter? — but the production he provided as a rookie should help keep him around the league for a long time.
Hachimura pretty much played to his college scouting report during his rookie season with the Wizards: he showed off impressive scoring touch but remains a work in progress defensively and as a passer. Hachimura has great touch both at the rim (71 percent inside of three-feet) and on his mid-range jumpers. He hasn’t yet stretched out his jumper to three-point range, but his offensive game will take another leap when that happens. His defensive impact was underwhelming given his physical tools and he still struggles to read the floor as a passer. If Hachimura can improve his “feel for the game,” he’ll have the chance to take a big leap as he gets older.
12. Cam Reddish, G/F, Atlanta Hawks
Reddish was a highly-touted high school player who couldn’t quite live up to expectations during his one-and-done season at Duke. The Hawks took him with the No. 10 pick knowing he’d need time to develop but had all the physical attributes teams covet in a wing. His rookie season was predictably a roller coaster ride, but there were some real highs. Before coronavirus put the season on indefinite pause, Reddish had averaged 16.4 points and shot 38.9 percent from three-point range over his last 10 games. He also had some impressive defensive moments putting his 7’1 wingspan to use — his 1.9 steal rate was the highest of any player drafted in the lottery.
Reddish is still a volatile bet for long-term success, but there’s no denying his potential. Atlanta might have been the best possible landing spot, too, with Trae Young hopefully spoon-feeding him open looks for many years.
Hayes was a late-blooming high school prospect who skyrocketed up draft boards during his only season at Texas. The Pelicans drafted him at No. 8 overall and put him in a limited role (17 minutes per game), where he showed off what makes him such a promising piece long-term. A 6’11 center with a 7’3 wingspan, Hayes runs the floor like a guard and has a rare combination of coordination and touch. His ultra-efficient finishing translated immediately: after posting a 73.9 true shooting percentage in college, Hayes finished at 67.5 true shooting as an NBA rookie that ranked No. 8 in the whole league. Rim-running centers aren’t exactly the most valuable archetype in today’s NBA, but Hayes’ unique physical gifts make a great option long-term next to Zion Williamson in New Orleans.
Thybulle was the best defensive rookie in the NBA this season and it wasn’t particularly close. Taken at No. 20 overall after four years at Washington, Thybulle’s monstrous block and steal rates with the Huskies transferred up a level seamlessly. He finished as one of only nine players ever to post a block and steal rate greater than three percent — two of the others are prime seasons from David Robinson and Hakeem Olajuwon. At his best, Thybulle’s defensive playmaking felt like must-see TV, with every momentum-swinging turnover causing an eruption of joy from Sixers fans. He remains a work in progress offensively, but his jumper looked passable on low volume (35.2 percent from three) and he was effective in transition.
Washington made serious strides as an outside shooter during his sophomore season at Kentucky, and that progress carried over to the NBA after the Hornets selected him with the No. 12 overall pick. A long and strong 6’8 forward, Washington took nearly 40 percent of his shots from three-point range and hit them at a 37.4 percent clip. He also offers value as a rebounder and defender, giving Charlotte the lineup flexibility to move him all over the court. There’s nothing particularly flashy about his game, but having a steady two-way forward with length (7’2 wingspan) and the ability to stretch the floor is bound to make Washington a valuable piece for a long time. There’s a reason he started all but one game for the Hornets this year.
The No. 7 pick out of North Carolina had several fleeting moments of brilliance — like seven fourth-quarter three-pointers in a November victory over the Knicks — in an otherwise ineffective first half of the season that saw the 6’5 combo guard take lots of shots without making many of them. Everything seemed to click after the NBA All-Star Game, though: In his last nine games, White averaged averaged 24.1 points and 5.1 assists per game on 46/39/90 percent shooting splits.
White only finished the year with 50 percent true shooting even after his late season hot stretch, but it became easier to see the type of role he can eventually grow into. This is a speedy combo guard with deep shooting range and immense confidence in his own scoring ability. Even at age 20, he had no problem creating his own shot against NBA defenses, and showed the ability to almost single-handedly win the Bulls games when he got hot. Whether White ultimately ends up as Chicago’s point guard of the future or settles into a sixth-man role, he looks like he has both a high floor and high ceiling as a microwave scorer.
The Heat drafted Herro at No. 13 overall to be a prolific off-ball shooter, and that’s much pretty much what he became as a rookie. Herro took 47 percent of his shots from three-point range and made them at a 39 percent clip. Herro was already an elite shooter off spot-ups, finishing in the 95th percentile on such play types, per Synergy Sports. Herro is a natural fit playing next a dominant ball handler like Jimmy Butler, darting around screens in the half-court and leaking out in transition for open looks early in the shot clock. While his defensive impact and offensive creation ability remain a question, the Heat can feel good about Herro’s ability to excel in his role going forward.
Davis bet on himself when he decided to decline the chance to be a second-round pick on a two-way deal to instead work towards a guaranteed contract at summer league as an undrafted free agent. The Toronto Raptors would eventually give him the deal he was looking for, and Davis rewarded their faith by emerging as a key bench piece for one of the best teams in the East. A strong and athletic 6’4 guard, Davis was an advanced stats all-star all year, leading the rookie class in 538’s RAPTOR and finishing third in PIPM. He hit nearly 40 percent of his three-pointers and played solid defense while finishing with per-100 possession averages of 21.7 points, 9.5 rebounds, and 4.7 assists per game.
As a high school senior playing for Brandon Roy in Washington state, Porter was considered by some to be the best long-term NBA prospect in the American pipeline. His progress was undercut by a scary back injury from the moment he arrived at Missouri, which pushed him down to the No. 14 pick in the draft. The Denver Nuggets essentially redshirted him in his first year before unleashing him this season, when Porter confirmed what many scouts already firmly believed: as long as he stays healthy, he’s going to be a lethal scorer.
A long and bouncy 6’9 forward, Porter showed soft shooting touch all over the floor by hitting 42 percent of his threes and finishing with 59 percent true shooting. A walking mismatch nightmare on the offensive end, Porter adds size, shooting, and athleticism to any lineup. While there are still some holes in his game — Can he make his teammates better as a passer? Can he hold up defensively? — his pure scoring ability makes him well worth the weight for a Nuggets team on the brink of contention.
Nunn went undrafted out of Oakland in 2018 after originally getting booted from Illinois following a domestic battery charge. The Heat picked him up late last season and gave him a chance to show off his scoring touch as Jimmy Butler nursed an injury to open the new year preseason. Nunn didn’t relinquish his starting spot all season, giving Miami an athletic 6’2 guard who could stretch the floor (36.2 percent from three) and fit into a variety of lineups.
There’s no doubt Nunn can put the ball in the basket — he was the Heat’s fourth leading scorer at 15.2 points per game on just a tick under league-average scoring efficiency (54.5 percent true shooting). The question is if Nunn can be more than a volume scorer. He didn’t get to the free-throw line consistently and often failed to make his teammates better as a passer. He turns 25 years old before next season.
Clarke had short arms, a thin frame, and a notable lack of shooting ability as he entered the draft as one of the oldest prospects in the class. Despite all that, Clarke was widely identified as a top sleeper after a historically dominant two-way season at Gonzaga. The Grizzlies traded up to select him at No. 21, and he already looks like arguably the biggest steal of the draft.
Clarke excelled in the NBA in all the same ways in did with the ‘Zags on his way to averaging 12 points and nearly six rebounds per game. He is the living embodiment of an elite athlete, blessed with quick-twitch muscles, supernatural ability to get off the floor, and the coordination to finish plays above the rim on both ends. He’s also a hyper-aware player whose excels as a help defender and graded out in the 95th percentile as a roll man on offense. While Clarke was considered to be a defense-first prospect in the draft, it’s his incredibly efficient scoring that has translated immediately: his 67 percent true shooting ranked No. 9 in the entire NBA.
2. Ja Morant, PG, Memphis Grizzlies
Morant is a lock to win Rookie of the Year, and he absolutely deserves it. The No. 2 overall pick powered the Grizzlies’ surprising run to the No. 8 seed in the West by leading the team in scoring (17.6 points per game) and assists (6.9) at age 20. The strengths he showed out of Murray State translated seamlessly to the pros. This is already one of the league’s fastest and most explosive point guards, leveraging his athletic gifts to consistently put pressure on the rim. Morant is a threat to put his defender on a poster with every drive, with his ambitious missed dunks becoming just as memorable as the ones he converted. In addition to being a skilled driver, Morant is also blessed with excellent vision and the ability to throw almost any pass. He plays with a rare creativity to his game, often creating scoring chances for Memphis out of thin air using nothing but improvisation. His shooting — 36.7 percent from three on 2.4 attempts per game — even appeared ahead of schedule.
Morant made the transition from mid-major college phenom to the leader of an NBA team in one short year. He has already proven he can score efficiently in a high-usage role and have a pronounced impact on team success. Memphis has itself a new star to build around.
1. Zion Williamson, F, New Orleans Pelicans
Consider that Williamson missed the first half of the NBA season with knee surgery, only to return putting up all-star-caliber numbers as a 19-year-old. Williamson’s impact was that dramatic on his way to averaging 23.5 points per game on hyper-efficient 62.4 percent true shooting. The scariest thing is he was still playing himself into shape and figuring out how to best leverage his talents as he was doing it.
All-in-one metrics like PIPM already had Williamson grading out as about a top-40 player in the league in his first 19 games. This happened despite Williamson rarely initiating the Pelicans’ offense and clearly looking a step slow on defense. New Orleans mostly treated Williamson like a big man as a rookie, where he used his awesome combination of strength and touch to finish inside at will. From the very start of his career, Williamson was able to bully NBA players like they were college kids. We can’t wait to see where he goes from here.