Mark R Bacon—Main Event Sports DC
The 2019-20 NBA season started on a down note regarding the incoming rookie class after Zion Williamson’s knee injury, but the newest crop has turned the narrative around in a hurry as the calendar turns to November. The No. 2 and No. 3 picks have each shown flashes of All-Star potential, while the rest of the lottery is rife with quality contributors. We should have a healthy crop of Rookie of the Year contenders after Williamson’s injury.
Who has impressed the most in the opening games of their NBA careers? Let’s break down the best of the rookie class after the season’s first 10 days.
Kendrick Nunn, Miami Heat
Just two rookies since 2000 have scored at least 110 points in their first five games: Kevin Durant and Kendrick Nunn. The former G Leaguer has been a revelation in Miami’s first five games this season, ripping off 112 points, one shy of Durant’s record. And Nunn’s scoring tear doesn’t appear to be a complete outlier.
The Oakland product scored 24 on opening night as the Heat blew out Memphis, then poured in 25 against Minnesota on Sunday. The strong start mirrored his production in college, when Nunn averaged 25.9 points per game as a senior en route to Horizon Player of the Year. Nunn’s memorable start to his Heat career continued on Thursday. He made 10 of 15 shots in a win over Atlanta, canning four threes in a game-high 28 points. Nunn is a sharpshooter from beyond the arc and a fearless driver to the tin. He plays bigger than his 6’2” frame, fitting right in with the gritty Heat culture ingrained by Erik Spoelstra. Miami has found another needle in the haystack, now a franchise trademark in the post-LeBron era. Paired with lottery selection Tyler Herro–a sneaky Rookie of the Year candidate–Miami could have the best rookie class of 2019-20.
Ja Morant, Memphis Grizzlies
There was a lowering of expectations for Ja Morant and the Grizzlies as we approached opening night, and such skepticism was understandable. Morant entered the NBA at 20-years-old following a pair of seasons in the Ohio Valley, dropped from the land of mid-majors into the ferocious Western Conference. Early struggles would be understandable.
Morant will struggle in spurts throughout the season, and he’s battled turnover issues early on. But the star quality is clearly present for Memphis’ newest phenom. Morant is an athletic marvel with maturity beyond his years in the pick-and-roll. Expect plenty of highlight performances before April.
Morant calmed the concerns within his first week as a pro. It’s been rocky in spurts for the No. 2 pick, but Morant provided the best rookie performance of the young season on Sunday against Kyrie Irving and the Nets. Morant dueled the 2016 champion down the stretch, tying the game with a layup in the final seconds of regulation before blocking Irving’s shot to send the game to overtime. Memphis earned its first win of the year as Morant tallied 30 points and nine assists, vaulting the Grizzlies headfirst into their next era.
R.J. Barrett, New York Knicks
New York’s prized rookie is likely to have a similar year to Morant. Barrett may produce an inefficient shot chart, and he may rack up the turnovers as the Knicks fall to the depths of the lottery. But the Duke product’s highs should provide optimism for the future at Madison Square Garden. Frank Ntilikina is on shaky ground in the point guard rotation. Kevin Knox remains unproven after a difficult rookie year. Perhaps Barrett will flash franchise cornerstone potential after two questionable lottery picks.
Barrett’s potential was on full display in back-to-back games on Monday and Wednesday. Barrett scored 26 points against the Celtics to start the week, outgunning fellow No. 3 pick Jayson Tatum. Wednesday’s performance was more impressive. Barrett led the Knicks’ comeback win over the Bulls with 19 points, 15 rebounds and nine assists, with six of his rebounds coming on the offensive glass. Barrett’s physical tools are elite at the wing. He’s an impressive leaper and surprisingly strong when he burrows his way into the paint. The long-term jumper remains a work in progress. In the interim, Barrett can rely on his strength and savvy to potentially lead all rookies in scoring.
Rui Hachimura, Washington Wizards
John Wall’s injury effectively takes Washington out of playoff competition for the time being, though there could be seeds of talent budding in the nation’s capital. Bradley Beal signed on for a two-year extension on Oct. 17, and he’s now joined by an impressive lottery talent out of Gonzaga. Forward Rui Hachimura is averaging a solid 18 points and seven rebounds per game through four contests, and more importantly, he’s showing the offensive skill that could land Washington a key building block back to relevance. Hachimura plays lighter than his stout 230-pound frame. He’s a capable isolation ball handler, one who can make plays outside of simple rolls to the rim. Hachimura can finish with either hand and his range is legitimate. Watching Hachimura bang a three off a pick-and-pop against Houston was encouraging. Seeing him hit a fadeaway over P.J. Tucker was downright tantalizing. Hachimura is among the most gifted offensive players in this class.
Matisse Thybulle, Philadelphia 76ers
Apologies to Herro, P.J. Washington and Coby White, but we’d be remiss if we didn’t highlight Thybulle’s dominant defensive start. The Washington product is already a rotational cog for a team with Finals expectations, earning 21.8 minutes per night despite shooting 23.8% in four games. Thybulle’s defensive production explains the hefty minutes share. He leads the league in steals while averaging 1.5 blocks per game, wrecking offenses with a 7’0” wingspan and ballhawking anticipation in passing lanes. Thybulle’s defense makes him an instant-impact addition. He should mirror the careers of Tony Allen and Marcus Smart, excelling as a defensive stopper while ideally rounding his game to respectable status on the other end. He could impact the race for the Eastern Conference crown in May.