The annual race for Rookie of the Year is a typically contested competition and, so far, the 2018-19 season appears to be no different. Between the instantly-sensational Luka Dončić, the beastly Deandre Ayton and electric Jaren Jackson Jr., it’ll likely be up for grabs once award season rolls around in the springtime. Yet, for some franchises — both of the contender and pretender variety — they don’t have the luxury of leaning on a generational talent. That, naturally, is where the second round heroes enter the fray.
Back in August, Basketball Insiders detailed five rookies that could potentially carve out early roles. Two of them, Kostas Antetokounmpo and Jevon Carter, have spent the majority of their rookie campaigns in the G League — so, for now, they’re out. But through the holiday period, three of those five choices have done exactly that — and they may just be ready for even more.
If their respective teams decide to loosen the reins on these talented rookies, a productive and encouraging 2019 would almost assuredly be around the corner.
Élie Okobo, Phoenix Suns
2018-19: 6.7 points, 2.1 rebounds and 2.6 assists in 19.8 minutes per game
The uber-athletic Élie Okobo appeared poised to begin the season behind just veteran Brandon Knight on the depth chart. But following the late summer swap that sent Knight and Marquese Chriss to the Houston Rockets for Ryan Anderson and De’Anthony Melton, it looked as if the Frenchman might see more of the floor than most originally anticipated. At just 21 years of age, Okobo has had his highs and lows, but those big moments have pointed toward a potentially special player. During a seven-point loss to Oklahoma City in October, Okobo posted 18 points, five rebounds and seven assists to go along with an impressive 3-for-6 display from three-point range.
In recent weeks, however, Okobo has struggled and franchise player Devin Booker has handled even more of the point guard responsibilities. With that, Okobo was assigned to the Northern Arizona for some mid-campaign seasoning, where he’s averaged 18.6 points, 4.6 rebounds, 7.9 assists and 1.4 steals per contest. While the Suns have won four of their last five, they’re still well in the Western Conference basement as things stand. Okobo looks like an NBA-caliber asset and he’s proved as much in small bursts — so perhaps this prolonged trip to the G League is just what the 6-foot-3 guard needs.
De’Anthony Melton, Phoenix Suns
2018-19: 6.3 points, 3.1 assists and 1.3 steals in 18.5 minutes per game
Okobo’s recent stall in production has uncoincidentally come hand-in-hand with the recent emergence of De’Anthony Melton. Perhaps the most promising return piece from that aforementioned offseason trade, Melton has come on strong during the month of December. After only featuring in five total games before this month, Melton has started the last seven for Phoenix. His contributions certainly fluctuate just like Okobo, but Melton has been a fit next to Booker as a strong defender and all-around scorer. During a recent loss to the San Antonio Spurs, Melton racked up 17 points, seven rebounds, six assists and two steals over 33 minutes — promising numbers, indeed, even in a blowout.
With Booker and Ayton’s current shortcomings on the defensive end, it’ll be important for the Suns to surround their pair of budding stars with low-usage ball hawks. Melton and Mikal Bridges, Phoenix’s other talented first round-draftee, have fit the bill through a third of the season. Both Melton and Okobo have shown flashes as longterm answers at the point guard position, so it’s tough to envision which will eventually win out. Right now, Melton’s got the edge, but it wouldn’t be surprising to see Okobo jump into the mix again following the All-Star break.
Mitchell Robinson, New York Knicks
2018-19: 4.7 points, 3.9 rebounds and 1.8 blocks on 17.2 minutes per game
Throughout the pre-draft process, Robinson was described as the most mysterious man of the entire class — a notion that only persisted after he pulled out of his workouts as well. Perceived as a first-round lock for some time, Robinson eventually slipped to the Knicks at No. 36. Even with Enes Kanter and the recently-departed Joakim Noah in tow, the fit could not have been more perfect within the rebuilding Knicks’ organization. Thankfully, Robinson has been involved, more or less, since the beginning of head coach David Fizdale’s tenure this season. Although the leash has been short — and the raw 20-year-old can rack up personal fouls in a flash — Robinson is an undeniable bright spot in New York.
Robinson has only notched one double-double, but his paint-protecting prowess has been exhilarating to watch in these early days. In 28 games, Robinson has tallied at least two blocks in 13 efforts — even going three or more in six of them. The crème de la crème, however, came in a November loss against Orlando as Robinson swatted away nine shots. Sure, he only added four points and four rebounds — but the high-ceiling rookie became just one of five players under the age of 20 to block nine-plus shots in a game.
The others are Josh Smith, Anthony Davis, Nerlens Noel and Shaquille O’Neal — so, yeah, Robinson might be on the right track. With the Knicks plummetting toward another top draft pick, look for the 7-foot-1 center to get plenty of extra burn moving forward.
Rodions Kurucs, Brooklyn Nets
2018-19: 8.6 points, 3.2 rebounds and 0.8 turnovers in 17 minutes per game
After a tumultuous trip overseas in Spain, it’s safe to say that Rodions Kurucs has felt right at home in black and white. Most expected first round pick Džanan Musa to be the Nets’ best rookie in 2018-19, but the hard-nosed Latvian has quietly chipped away at head coach Kenny Atkinson’s rotation since the opening tip in October. Of course, Brooklyn is 4-1 since Kurucs was named a starter last week and he’s played more than 15 minutes on eight separate occasions already. If he continues to do the dirty work, stretch the floor and make bucket-saving plays, the Nets will have discovered another quality diamond in the rough.
His rapid success comes after the former projected lottery prospect was essentially benched by Barcelona once he announced his intention to play in the NBA. As his playing time dropped off, so did his stock — now the forward is quickly making up for lost time. Kurucs is still just 20 years-old until February, but his confident, aggressive style of play has made him a fan favorite in the borough already. Kurucs has scored double-figures in seven of his 17 appearances and he’s shot 50 percent from the floor to boot.
On Friday night, Kurucs turned in his best performance yet with a career-high 24 points and three rebounds on 4-for-5 from three-point range. Not bad for the No. 40 overall pick, huh?
Jalen Brunson, Dallas Mavericks
2018-19: 6.1 points, 1.7 assists and 0.6 turnovers in 16.1 minutes per game
After nearly winning every award known to mankind in his last season at Villanova, Jalen Brunson has been a steadying hand for the surprise Dallas Mavericks. Whether that’s as a part of their solid bench unit or filling in for the on-and-off-again injured Dennis Smith Jr., Brunson has exceeded expectations through December. It’s been previously mentioned before, but it deserves repeating: Rick Carlisle thinks the Mavericks walked away from June’s draft with a top-15 pick in Brunson. Despite his status as a second rounder, Brunson has played the 19th-most minutes in his class, all while contributing for a team that remains in the thick of a wild postseason chase.
As a professional, it’s unlikely that Brunson’s line will ever pop off the page, especially if he remains the backup point guard indefinitely, but there’s still room to grow from here. At a paltry 16.1 minutes per game, Brunson has carved out a significant role already, a feat made only stronger by the other veteran guards — Devin Harris, J.J. Barea — on the roster. A few weeks ago, Brunson turned in his best effort so far: 17 points, three rebounds, four assists and a steal with a single turnover over 31 minutes. That, right there, is exactly what the controlled, poised abilities of Brunson can bring Dallas in a bigger role — now he just needs to get the minutes.
At the end of the day, not every rookie will be afforded automatic opportunities to immediately soar. For most second rounders, that journey toward consistent minutes is a rocky affair. But for these five late selections, they’ve begun to make a name for themselves rather fast. Playing time for first years is always volatile, but Okobo, Melton, Robinson, Kurucs and Brunson have all made strong cases to not only keep their minutes — but to earn even more.