By Jamal Murphy
The 2017-18 NBA season has been a great one so far, with plenty of storylines, including Golden State’s quest for dynasty status, LeBron James’ quest to make an eighth straight NBA Finals appearance, and the Houston Rockets’ quest to upset the balance of power in the Western Conference. However, one of the season’s biggest and most exciting stories, and the one that provides the most promise for the league moving forward, is the historic strength of this season’s rookie class.
While it is surely premature to truly assess this rookie class in terms of future stardom or where they would rank with, say, the LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Carmelo Anthony draft of 2003, it is hard not to jump the gun a bit when looking at the stacked class of 2017 and how they have taken the league by storm.
“It is,” Memphis Grizzlies rookie and former Oregon star Dillon Brooks said, adamantly, when I suggested that this year’s rookie class was looking like one of the best in a long time.
“It’s better than LeBron James, Melo and D. Wade’s class, you know, from top to bottom,” he qualified. “Not even seeing Markell Fultz play — I played against him in the Pac-12, and he’s an amazing talent, and he hasn’t even played yet. Then you have Lonzo Ball, you got Josh Jackson, Jayson Tatum, Donovan Mitchell coming out of nowhere, Kyle Kuzma coming out of nowhere, guys that just want to prove themselves every day. This is a hungry class from top to bottom, from round one to round two. All these guys in this class are going to do big things.”
While Brooks might be a bit biased and too young to fairly judge the strength of his rookie class as compared to other historic draft classes, he’s certainly doing his part on the basketball court. The 45th overall pick has started 50 of the Grizzlies’ 58 games, logging 28.2 minutes per game and scoring 9.0 points per game.
Those are solid numbers for any rookie in any season, but it is just average for this season’s crop.
Eleven rookies are averaging 10 points or more, the most since 2008, and like Brooks said, we have yet to see number-one overall pick Markelle Fultz at full strength.
NBA veterans have also taken notice.
“Yeah, all these guys, Dennis Smith, Donovan Mitchell, Jayson Tatum, all these guys have been playing out of their minds, [Lauri] Markkanen, all these guys are really hooping right now and doing it for teams that are fighting for playoff spots — and they got big roles — so, it’s been a great rookie class,” Pelicans superstar Anthony Davis told me in Los Angeles during All-Star weekend.
The Wizards’ all-star John Wall agreed and also had an explanation for this precocious rookie class.
“This rookie class has been great, and it’s a testimony to how the NBA has evolved,” Wall said at All-Star media day. “The NBA now is a lot more spacing, a lot of pick and rolls, and guys that used to have legit power forwards and legit centers, you don’t have that anymore. Most guys playing the center role are athletic bigs that can catch dunks or they’re shooting threes, so the floor is a lot more spaced.”
I asked if it was different for him when he entered the league in 2010.
“Oh, it’s a big difference,” Wall exclaimed. “I remember Nene and [Marcin] Gortat were my big men, you really had to play through the post, it really was big men down there battling. Now, it’s more the guys that play the two can play the three, the guys that play the three can play the four, guys that play the four can play the five now. So, it’s a lot different, and these [rookies] are coming in shooting a lot more threes and are a lot better.”
Whatever the reasons, this rookie class is loaded at all positions.
At the guard spot, Mitchell leads all rookies in scoring at 19.7 points per game, to go with a 17.05 PER, for a Utah Jazz team that is two games over .500 and just on the outside looking in at a playoff spot in the Western Conference. Ben Simmons, drafted number one overall by the 76ers in the 2016-17 draft, but seeing his first NBA action this season due to injury, is a 6’10 point guard putting up 16.7 points, 7.7 rebounds, 7.4 assists and a 19.15 PER.
Lonzo Ball, while receiving much negative attention due to his father’s antics, looks like a keeper for the Lakers, averaging 10.2 points, 7.1 assists and 7.1 rebounds in 33.5 minutes a game (12.30 PER), numbers eerily close to Jason Kidd’s production as a rookie. The young lottery picks, De’Aaron Fox and Dennis Smith Jr., of the Kings and Mavericks, respectively, have been solid if not yet consistently spectacular, while showing flashes of their enormous potential.
You want swingmen? The aforementioned Tatum (15.7 PPG, 5.0 RPG, 30.7 MPG, 15.06 PER) for the Celtics, the Suns’ Jackson (11.2 PPG, 23.4 MPG, 10.33 PER), the Lakers’ Kuzma (15.5 PPG, 5.8 RPG, 29.3 MPG, 14.36 PER) and Brooks have all contributed substantially to their teams, living up to or exceeding early expectations.
This rookie class has big men covered as well, with the Bulls’ Markkanen (14.8 PPG, 7.7 RPG, 30.3 MPG, 14.83 PER), the Hawks’ John Collins (10.2 PPG, 7.0 RPG, 58% FG, 22.5 MPG, 19.70 PER), and the Heat’s Bam Adebayo (7.4 PPG, 5.4 RPG, 20.5 MPG, 17.21 PER) all having productive rookie campaigns.
Other rookies of note include the Kings’ Bogdan Bogdanovic (11.5 PPG, 40% 3PT, 27.3 MPG, 13.97 PER), the Clippers’ Milos Teodosic (9.2 PPG, 5.0 APG, 24.8 MPG, 10.90 PER) and the Nets’ Jarrett Allen (7.6 PPG, 5.1 RPG, 59% FG, 17.91 PER), who teammate Spencer Dinwiddie said was aptly nicknamed “Tim Duncan” in high school.
As Brooks’ comments attest, many of the rookies are keenly aware of the strength of their class and draw inspiration and motivation from it.
“Of course, man,” Hawks’ forward John Collins said when asked if the class was motivating him. “This rookie class is ridiculous from top to bottom, even to the second round. When you look at it, a couple second-rounders in the draft, years before, could’ve went first round easily. I’m kind of proud just to be in this draft, like I said, from top to bottom, this draft is loaded.”
Tatum, the rookie out of Duke, whose numbers are particularly impressive considering he’s on a veteran Celtic team contending for a championship, agrees.
“Our class is really strong, and I felt that way coming into the draft. It’s not just one or two guys, it’s a handful of guys that are contributing as rookies, starting, playing a lot of minutes,” Tatum said during All-Star weekend.
Markkanen, the Bulls’ rookie big man, admitted that he is pushed a little harder by the success of his fellow rookies.
“Oh, yeah, as a competitor, yeah, I look at that and see other guys doing so well. I can name so many rookies that are doing such a good job. So, I’m really proud of being in that draft class, I’m trying to be one of those guys. But that definitely motivates me even more, even though I’m locked in all the time.”
Although it is still early in the process (shout out to Joel Embiid), the 2017-18 rookie class has the look of something very special. The veterans see it, the rookies understand it and the numbers show it.
“It’s a heck of a rookie class, for sure. The league’s in good shape with young talent,” Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni said, stating the obvious.
Only time will tell just how good this class will be in comparison to other draft classes and how many future all-stars and superstars we are witnessing in their infancy. But it is clear that it will be a lot of fun to watch.
Indeed, the NBA is in great shape.
Jamal Murphy is a contributor to CBS Local. He writes extensively about college basketball, the NBA and other sports, often focusing on the intersection of sports and social justice/awareness. Listen to Jamal on the Bill Rhoden On Sports podcast (iTunes & Soundcloud) that he cohosts with legendary sports columnist, Bill Rhoden. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter: @Blacketologist.