Monday, November 17, 2014

The Rookie Class

There's been a lot of talk about how disappointing the rookie class has been so far, at least in comparison to the way the 2014 draft class was being hyped at this time last year. No one is putting up really big statistics, but that doesn't mean there isn't a lot to be excited about. Here's a look at how the Top 5 picks from that draft are faring (with the exception of the injured Joel Embiid), listed in order of least to most impressive.

4) Jabari Parker

There's a clear dividing line between Jabari and his peers in terms of athleticism. Guys like Wiggins, Exum and Aaron Gordon might as well be super-soldiers - they are taller, longer and faster than 99% of the players at their position. Jabari is a lot of things, but he isn't that. A football coach would make the other three guys skill position players on the perimeter, but he would put Jabari's big ass on the offensive and defensive lines.

Jabari is listed at 6'8 240, but just from the eye test, he seems a lot thicker and wider than guys like Tobias Harris and Luol Deng. He is a prototype 3/4 forward - he has the skill to play out on the perimeter as a 3, but he's really best suited to being a small-ball 4. He's better as an outside/in player than an inside/out. You would much rather have him trying to take bigger guys off the dribble than trying to post up smaller guys in the box.

The Bucks seem to have realized this, as Jason Kidd tweaked his starting line-up on Sunday, taking Ersan Ilyasova out, sliding Jabari to the 4 and starting Giannis at the 3. Basically, the idea should be to get Jabari in a situation as much like Carmelo in New York a few years ago as possible - playing next to a shot-blocking/pick-and-roll guy at the 5, with a ton of athletes who can play defense and shoot the ball at 1-3.

Jabari hasn't been great, but he has been holding his own while playing out of position on one of the most surprising teams of the early NBA season. Playing next to Larry Sanders and Giannis is probably the best-case scenario in terms of hiding him on defense - that could be a front-court that works for the forseeable future. From there, all the Bucks really need to do is find a few more guards and their rebuilding plan is almost over.

In terms of his individual statistics, you want to see Jabari stop forcing the issue and making the right play more often. Just because he can make a shot doesn't mean he has to take it. Going forward, he is also going to have to become a better jump-shooter, as you don't want a guy with his limited athleticism to be forced to make a living around the rim. Like with many rookies, offensive efficiency is one of the biggest holes in his game right now.

3) Andrew Wiggins

I have a longer thing in RealGM coming up about the brutal road trip the Wolves just finished, which kind of skews a lot of the statistics of their younger players. They went from Brooklyn to Orlando to Miami to Mexico City to New Orleans to Dallas in a little over the week and by the time the trip was over, their season was basically finished. It was not an ideal situation by any means and Wiggins, like most of his teammates, struggled a lot.

Wiggins hasn't been terribly productive as a rookie, but he is holding his own as a starter, as his combination of length and athleticism means he isn't killing his team when he is out there, no matter who is he playing against. He made some really nice plays on James Harden on both ends of the floor - he can make an impact without putting up a ton of stats and there's little doubt he will one day be one of the best two-way wing players in the game.

He's the rare young player where the offense is more of a work in progress as the defense. Wiggins is just not all that skilled - he's not a great ball-handler, he's an inconsistent shooter and he can't really create shots for other players. Without Ricky Rubio controlling tempo and creating shots for him, he can have a really hard time getting good looks at the basket. He is all about that spin move and eventually defenders are going to start sitting on it.

Flip Saunders has taken the 3-point shot out of his repertoire, as he has also done with Zach LaVine and Anthony Bennett, which might not be a bad idea for a young player who needs to focus on a few things early in his career, but let's hope this doesn't turn into a Doug Collins situation in Philly. When Rubio gets back, you are going to want those three guys running up and down the floor as much as possible with Gorgui Dieng at the 5.

Two years from now, that might be a really serious starting 5. This should be a great core for Wiggins to grow up with, as he won't be asked to bite off more than he can chew on the offensive end, at least early in his career. He can focus on playing D, running the lanes, hitting the offensive glass and cutting to the basket, with a few doses of posting up smaller guards and spotting up off penetration from Rubio and LaVine.

2) Aaron Gordon

*The Magic announced on Sunday that Gordon fractured his foot and is out indefinitely

Gordon was considered a reach at No. 4, but I thought that was about where he should have gone, from a talent perspective. There isn't all that much that separates Gordon from Wiggins - he's just as big and just as athletic and he has way more of a feel for the game at this point in his career. And while his shooting profile at Arizona was a major concern, it's not like Wiggins was the next version of Kyle Korver either.

Gordon wasn't starting in Orlando, but he had carved out an important niche for himself already and he was far more productive than Jabari and Wiggins on a per-minute basis. He had a 15.5 PER and per-36 minute averages of 14.5 points, 7 rebounds, 1.5 assists, 1 steal and 1.5 blocks a game on 58% shooting. He's a really smart basketball player who does a little bit of everything on offense and can defend four positions on defense.

The biggest room for encouragement is his early-season shooting numbers - 50% from 3 (on only 8 attempts) and 67% from the free-throw line. He doesn't have to be an elite shooter, so if he can just convert his attempts at a reasonable rate and force defenses to respect him away from the basket, it's a huge win. That might be the blessing in disguise of his foot injury, as he can just work on his shooting form a lot while he's out.

Orlando had been using him as their primary front-court reserve, playing as a small-ball 4 next to either Nik Vucevic or Channing Frye at the 5. I thought the Frye/Gordon combo, in particular, had a ton of promise - Frye is more than big enough to guard Eastern 5's, which opens up the floor for Gordon and the rest of Orlando's perimeter crew to attack the rim. A Vucci Mane - Frye - AG front-court rotation could have kept the Magic in the playoff hunt.

With the way Tobias Harris and Evan Fournier have looked early, Orlando seems to be further along in their rebuilding plan than I had thought coming into the season. They still need to figure out how the Victor Oladipo/Elfrid Payton situation is going to resolve in the back-court, but they have a good combination of size, athleticism, shooting and scoring ability from their front-court, which is more than half the battle right there.

1) Dante Exum

Oh my goodness. Exum's statistics don't jump off the page at you, but he has been incredibly impressive in his first few weeks in the NBA. He has the whole package - the athleticism of Wiggins, Gordon's feel for the game and Jabari's scoring instincts. The talent was never the issue, but there were a lot of concerns about whether he would be able to play in the NBA as a 19-year old coming out of Australian high school ball.

No more. Exum has more than held his own in his time on the floor and he's going to start pressing Trey Burke for minutes at PG, sooner rather than later. Some of the plays he makes - a 19-year old should not be making them. He gets to the rim at ease, he knows how to manipulate the defense in order to create shots for others and he has even shown off the running floater in the lane. He does 1-2 things a game that make you hit the replay button.

Utah has been one of the most exciting teams in the league through the first part of the season and they are quickly becoming one of my League Pass favorites. I particularly love when Exum and Rudy Gobert come off the bench because you don't know what's going to happen. Their combination of length and athleticism is practically unfair - when you have a 6'6 PG and a C who might as well be 7'5*, it does weird things to the other team.

* I called Gobert the French Shawn Bradley before the draft and I am pretty happy with that comp. He's going to be one of the best back-up 5's in the NBA for a long time behind D. Favors - another guy who is becoming a monster this season.

Already this season, I have seen Exum matched up against guys like JJ Barea, Isaiah Thomas and Shane Larkin and it's flat-out unfair. If a 6'6 guy can run point for stretches, which Exum can, it opens up so many possibilities with the rest of the line-up. There's just nowhere to hide a small guard when he is in the game. That's a big deal now, but it's going to be an even bigger deal in a few years, when Utah is in the playoffs.

You can see all the pieces coming into place now. By this time next year, my guess is they will be starting Exum (6'6), Alec Burks (6'6) and Gordon Hayward (6'8) on the perimeter. Where are you going to hide your favorite PG on defense? There are a lot of little PG's who have come into the league with a lot more hype than Exum, but there ain't a damn thing they are going to be able to do against him - he's too big and too fast.

I like all four guys - Jabari, Wiggins, Gordon and Exum all have a chance to be All-Stars. However, if I'm talking franchise players, the guy I have my money on in this draft (outside of a healthy Joel Embiid) is Dante Exum.

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