The 2017 NBA season is a little over a month old, so it’s safe to say that we already have a good-enough sample size on this year’s rookie class. Truth be told, it’s been a while since we’ve had a rookie class that has outperformed its own hype. Sure, there have been some who have struggled to getting their games acclimated to the NBA level, but by and large, a good number of this year’s rookies are, simply put, ballin’ out.
For the purpose of this discussion, we’re not going to run down the whole list of rookies who have played meaningful minutes for their respective teams this season. That’s going to take some time and, quite frankly, there have been too many of them to keep track of. Instead, we’re focusing on the rookies that have elevated themselves to prominence, whether it’s by living up to the hype in some form or even better, exceeding our own expectations.
Penthouse potential: Dirk Nowitzki
Basement potential: Ryan Anderson
We’ll be the first to admit that the Dirk Nowitzki comparison is a lazy one. The Mavs icon has been the go-to comparison for every gangly seven-footer with European roots to step foot in the NBA this century. Andrea Bargnani got the same hype. So did Dragan Bender. Go back to the last decade and luminaries like Zarko Cabarkapa, Oleksiy Pecherov, and the immortal Nikoloz Tskitishvili were all pegged to be the next Dirk Nowitzki. None of them ever got to sniff the kind of success Nowitzki has had in his Hall-of-Fame career.
We’re not saying that Markkanen can get to Dirk’s level either. But of all the European prospects that have been packaged in the German’s mold, it’s the Finnish rookie that has shown consistent flashes of not bastardizing the comparisons. He still needs to work on improving his percentages, but he's not wasting the opportunity he’s getting with this joke of a Bulls team. Even if he doesn’t come close to approaching Nowitzki’s level, there’s no shame in getting the Ryan Anderson comparison. He’s got a $20 million contract, right?
Dennis Smith, Jr.
Penthouse Potential: A better version of Baron Davis
Basement Potential: A worse version of Baron Davis
The comparisons here are eerily similar. When Baron Davis entered the league in 1999, he was a 6’3” bowling ball that couldn’t be stopped when he started going downhill. For his part, Dennis Smith, Jr. has exhibited that same type of explosiveness and swag that Davis used to have. The Mavs rookie still has a ways to go to be a decent shooter, but even Davis never managed to be one since he shot 41 percent from the field throughout his career.
This is where Smith has the chance to become a better version of Davis if he puts in the work. He’s barely hitting 40 percent of his shots, but that usually comes with the territory of being a high-usage rookie point guard that’s being asked to play extended minutes for a team that’s going nowhere. Smith’s growth as a player will likely depend on how much the Mavs ask of him. If he is given the space and opportunity to work on his game, deficiencies and all, he has all the tools to be the kind of player we always envisioned out of Davis. As good as he was, there was always a narrative surrounding Baron that he could’ve been better if injuries and commitment issues didn’t get in the way of his career. Smith’s talent is there, and we’ve seen glimpses of a future where he has “superstar” written all over him. The important thing for the rookie to do now is to make sure he doesn’t fall into the same traps that dogged Davis’ career. If he can do that, watch out.
Penthouse Potential: Shareef Abdur-Rahim
Basement Potential: Landry Fields
When was the last time a non-lottery, first round pick has looked as polished as Kyle Kuzma has in the first 20 games of his career? The last guy we can recall who burst out of the gate as well as Kuzma has this season was Andrei Kirilenko back in 2001. They have divergent games, sure, but the readiness to play at this level is the first thing you’ll notice about Kuzma. Now as far as a comparison goes, it’s hard to watch Kuzma play and not be reminded of Shareef Abdur-Rahim, the sweet-shooting hybrid forward who belonged in the now-legendary 1996 draft class.
Kuzma’s maturity on the offensive end is arguably his biggest strength. He’s got a remarkable array of moves off the bounce and in the post that belies his age and experience. He also doesn’t force shots, has a knack for making precise cuts, and is smart enough to understand when to be aggressive and when to play within the offense. In his prime, Abdur-Rahim was that exact same player. He had a multi-faceted game that allowed him to thrive on the perimeter, off the bounce, and in the post, parlaying that skill-set into a pair of All-Star berths and an Olympic gold medal. We’re not sure about Kuzma’s chances of getting a spot in a future Olympics, but we do think that he’s proven himself capable to get an All-Star nod or two if his game continues to trend north.
Penthouse Potential: John Wall
Basement Potential: Rafer Alston
We know what you’re thinking. This is another easy comparison that’s sitting right there on the table. Whether it’s the comparisons about their speed and quickness or their shared history as University of Kentucky alums, there’s no discussion about De’Aaron Fox that happens without mentioning John Wall. On some level, we get why Fox is being compared to the Wizards All-Star. Both are renowned for their end-to-end speed. Both are lauded for their playmaking skills. Both are serial competitors who aren’t afraid to let their opponents know about it.
That said, Fox still has a ways to go before he can even sniff the level Wall has attained in his career. He needs to improve his shooting, something that Wall has been able to do throughout the course of his career. He also needs to figure out the right balance between being a scorer and a facilitator for his team. Wall had his own growing pains in that regard, but he came out on the right side of it because he can do both at elite levels now. Fox’s biggest challenge though is harnessing his own strengths, particularly when it comes to his quickness. Watch Wall in his rookie year and you’ll see someone that played in one speed all the time. If he wasn’t going fast, he was going faster. That breakneck pace was fascinating to watch, but it came at the expense of sustaining his energy throughout the game. Only when Wall learned to slow down his frenetic pace did he evolve into the player he is today. That’s the challenge that Fox will face as he continues his career. If he learns to control his speed and use it as an advantage to control the pace of a game, he has the tools and the skill set to be the kind of point guard Wall is right now.
Penthouse Potential: Steve Smith
Basement Potential: Billy Owens
Smooth. That’s the first word we can come up with to describe Jayson Tatum’s game in the NBA. It also happens to be the first word we can come up with to describe Steve Smith’s when he was in his prime. The similarities between the two are uncanny, and that’s a testament to how refined Tatum’s game already is at this stage in his career. He’s smart with the basketball and picks his spots on when to be aggressive and when to find other guys. He’s also shown flashes of being a volume scorer with his ability to generate points in a number of different ways. If his outside shot isn’t falling, he’ll start to attack the rim. If he doesn’t get calls, he becomes more aggressive. There’s a maturity to his game that’s a lot like Kuzma’s, except that we think that Tatum has a higher ceiling than Kuzma as far as what he could become beyond his ability to score the basketball.
Those who remember Smitty’s virtuoso offensive game forget that he was a smart defender in his heyday too. He had a prototypical small forward body that he used to his advantage. He was quick enough to stay in front of smaller guards and still had enough built in him to defend against bigger guys. And his timing with his hands was sublime. Outside of that guy named Michael Jordan, Smith and Joe Dumars were two of the best when it came to swiping down on the ball just as the offensive player was starting his shooting motion. You know who else has a knack of doing that? Jayson Tatum. Granted, the rookie still has a ways to go to develop an offensive skill-set as refined as Steve Smith, but he’s shown flashes of it this early in his career. Give him a few more years to learn and he could easily turn into a much better version of Smitty.