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NBA Daily: Four Former First-Rounders To Keep An Eye On

It’s almost January and the 2018-19 NBA season is nearly halfway over. And while lots of attention is already being paid to Zion Williamson and the 2019 NBA Draft class to-be, let’s look back to June and the 2018 NBA draft and grade the rookies on their performances thus far, while making an educated guess about how their rookie seasons might wrap up.

This article checks in on all of the top 10 picks in the 2018 NBA Draft, along with some surprisingly strong performers who fell outside of the top 10. We’ll predict the likelihood that each player wins Rookie of the Year and/or is named to an All-Rookie team by examining their stats and their net effect on their respective teams thus far.

Deandre Ayton: 16.3 points, 10.9 rebounds and 1.0 block per game

Rookie Season Projection: First Team All-Rookie

Ayton is having a strong rookie year that looks better with each passing month. His PER is currently 21.3 and he has logged 21 double-doubles through 34 game – more than twice what the next best rookie has done. He has flown under the radar more than he would have in most recent seasons thanks to the exquisite play of fellow rookie Luka Doncic. While Ayton looks a bit lethargic at times – particularly on defense – he has also been nearly automatic when he catches the ball in good position.

What’s more impressive – Ayton is averaging 20.8 points and 15.6 rebounds in his five most recent games, demonstrating a growing comfort and understanding. Ayton has star written all over him and should develop into a double-double machine at the very least.

Marvin Bagley III: 12.7 points, 6.1 rebounds and 0.9 assists per game.

Projection: Second-Team All-Rookie

Unfortunately for Bagley, he will probably always be seen as the Greg Oden to Luka Doncic’s Kevin Durant – albeit a more successful and hopefully far more durable one. But that’s not to say that Bagley hasn’t had his share of early successes. Bagley is posting a PER of 18.4, and he is second amongst all rookies in offensive rebounds and third in free throw attempts despite playing only 23.1 minutes per game – significantly less than other rookies ahead of him. Furthermore, Bagley has scored 15 or more points in 12 games and has posted four double-doubles. While ROY is probably out of the question, the focus for Bagley and the Kings should be to close the season strongly and develop positive habits.

Luka Doncic: 19.0 points, 6.6 rebounds and 4.9 assists

Projection: ROY and First Team All-Rookie

There was a lot of speculation about Doncic coming into the 2018-19 season. Despite incredibly high expectations, he has not disappointed. Beyond the stats listed above, Doncic has hit numerous buzzer beaters, the most recent of which forced overtime last week against the Portland Trailblazers. Doncic does not shy away from big moments. He is almost certainly the most prepared rookie we have seen since LeBron James in 2003, and possibly the most skilled, too. At 6-foot-7, his blend of size, skill and court vision are virtually unparalleled. And he’s only 19 years old.

Warriors guard Steph Curry is no stranger to strong play. And yet he too seems to be impressed with Doncic’s early play.

“He’s found a way to impose his will most nights. It’s going to be good to see him develop into a star,” Curry said.

That’s some high praise from someone at the pinnacle of the sport.

Jaren Jackson Jr.: 13.2 points, 4.8 rebounds and 1.3 assists

Projection: ROY Runner-Up and First Team All-Rookie

Jaren Jackson was always going to be a lower-profile rookie given his Tim Duncan-esque presence and the fact that he relocated to Memphis, one the NBA’s smaller markets. But his impact on the game is about as big as any rookie’s.

Despite a slightly wonky release, he is connecting on 34.1 percent of his three-pointers and 56.8 percent of his two-pointers.  At 6-foot-11, Jackson is a versatile offensive and defensive player who has a high ceiling and a high floor. And he still has room to grow – just think, he is presently the second youngest player in the league.

The Grizzlies —who are a veteran team led by two former NBA All-Defensive players and All-Stars – are 7-4 when Jackson plays more than 30 minutes. They have a losing record when he plays less than 30. That in itself speaks volumes about Jackson and his effect on the game. Jackson could be a transcendent talent, part Kevin Garnett, part Tim Duncan and part Anthony Davis.

If he maximizes his potential, the Grizzlies nabbed a future franchise cornerstone to bridge the present and the future.

Trae Young: 15.4 points, 7.2 assists and 3.9 turnovers per game

Projection: Second Team All-Rookie

Trae Young opted to avoid engaging in a discussion about the 2018-19 NBA Rookie of the Year, saying he’d prefer not to speculate. Unfortunately for Young, it probably won’t be him. While he looked surprisingly effective early on, Young has since come back to earth. He seems to be a bit flummoxed by either the deeper NBA three-point line or the speed of the defense; he attempted 6.7 three-pointers per game in October, 5.4 in November and only 3.6 throughout December – all the while, shooting only 24.6 percent on threes for the season.

But Hawks legend and vice president of basketball, Dominique Wilkins, reminds us that future seasons should look better than the current one.

“I think Trae Young is going to be a heck of a player,“ Wilkins said. “He’s only one year removed from high school. People need to give him time to develop and learn.”

And Young was always going to need time to acclimate to the NBA. He is only six feet tall and 180 pounds. It would have been highly unusual for him to hit the ground running as an under-sized point guard – probably the hardest position to transition to in the NBA. If Young can regain his confidence and get back to his prolific shooting, he is a sure-fire star. If he doesn’t, he will struggle as an undersized point guard who isn’t overly engaged on defense.

But Wilkins was quick to point out that the Hawks should have no regrets about swapping Doncic for Young and the Mavs’ 2019 first-round pick.

“No, man,” Wilkins said. “You can’t go back and look at what should have been or possibly could have happened because we got who we wanted.”

Mo Bamba: 6.6 points, 4.6 rebounds, 1.1 assists and 1.4 blocks per game

Projection: No rookie accolades

Bamba entered the draft with high expectations… and maybe to an unfair degree. Scouts and the media were hypnotized by his length — seven feet tall with a 7-foot-9 wingspan — and his ability to shoot from deep.

But Bamba was clearly a project, albeit one with a relatively high floor. Bamba is only 220 pounds and will be significantly better after adding some needed weight. Through 33 games, Bamba is shooting 31 percent on 1.8 three-point attempts per game – better than Trae Young, Wendall Carter and a number of rookie guards who should theoretically be better shooters.

As much as Bamba needs to hit the weight room though, he also needs playing time. Unfortunately for Bamba, he is stuck in a crowded Magic front court playing only 16.9 minutes per game behind Aaron Gordon, Nikola Vucevic and Jonathan Isaac. He isn’t nearly a disappointment, but he hasn’t been given the opportunity to demonstrate his abilities just yet either.

Wendell Carter: 10.3 points, 6.7 rebounds, 1.9 assists and 1.5 blocks

Projection: Second Team All-Rookie

Carter has been mostly as advertised. He has netted some highlight blocks, posted six double-doubles and is second amongst all rookies in rebounds and blocked shots. Furthermore, Carter appeared to hit his stride as we entered November. He had been playing more than 25 minutes per game in October and November and he scored in double figures in 14 of the Bulls’ 20 games between Oct. 27 and Dec. 4. He even posted a career high of 28 points on Nov. 30 against the Pistons.

But the end of Carter’s streak coincided almost perfectly with the return of Bulls’ star Lauri Markkanen, with Carter’s minutes dropping to just over 21 minutes since Markkanen’s return.

Carter, like Bamba, is in the unfortunate situation of being drafted onto a team with a fair amount of young talent at his position. His well-rounded game clearly translates to the NBA nicely, but we’ll have to wait to see just how well.

Colin Sexton 14.8 points, 3.0 rebounds and 2.5 assists

Projection: First Team All-Rookie

Sexton has been about as polarizing as expected. He began the season slowly and inefficiently, averaging only 12.0 points per game and shooting only 14.3 from three-point territory. But he’s steadied quite a bit since then, scoring 16.1 and 15.1 points per game in November and December, respectively. Additionally, his three-point percentage is up dramatically since October. He is currently fourth in points per game and fourth in assists. He is lighting fast and plays with an unusual confidence for a rookie. He has drawn comparisons to De’Aron Fox, which come off better now given his Fox’s sophomore season than they did earlier in the year. Sexton must work on distributing and learning when to use his speed, as opposed to playing at full speed all of the time. But Sexton clearly has the potential to be a multi-time Allstar.

Kevin Knox: 12.0 points, 4.2 rebounds and .9 assists per game

Projections: Second Team All-Rookie

Knox was viewed as a second-tier prospect after Ayton, Doncic, Young and Bamba entering the 2018 Draft, but he caught the attention of just about every NBA scout and executive with his performance in the Vegas Summer League. He suffered an early-season ankle injury but has been impressive since returning to the Knicks’ lineup. In fact, he has scored 15 or more points in each of his last eight games and has averaged 17.9 points per game on 41.8 percent shooting in December. Knox must continue strengthening his lower body and work on remaining locked in throughout 48 minutes – but considering his versatility and the fact that he’s the third-youngest player in the entire league, Knox could easily grow into an All-NBA player.

And while Rookie of the Year is likely too tall an order, don’t tell Knox or his teammates that. Mitchell Robinson had plenty to say about Knox in the ROY race.

“I got to say my teammate Kevin Knox,” Robinson said. “He’s also blocking shots and playing good defense (in addition to his offense).”

Knox also alluded to his candidacy when asked about his pick for Rookie of the Year.

“If I wasn’t going to say myself then I’d have to go with Luka Doncic or Deandre Ayton,” Knox said.

So while most people have likely counted Knox out for ROY, he hasn’t given up hope just yet.

Mikal Bridges: 7.6 points on 33.3 percent from three-point range

Projection: No rookie accolades

Mikal Bridges had a disappointing start to the 2018-19 season. He wasn’t able to solidify a place in the Suns’ lineup at first, but that has since changed. He averaged nearly 33 minutes per game in December. His play has improved slightly since securing a spot in the starting lineup. He’s averaged 9.1 points and 4.2 rebounds per game as a starter. He is shooting a respectable 33.3 percent clip from deep, and he has a defensive win share of 0.6 and a defensive box plus/minus of plus-0.5 – which is almost identical to teammate Josh Jackson and significantly better than fellow rookie Kevin Knox.

But Bridges was the traditional high floor-low ceiling player. He’s already 22 years old and unlikely to develop at the same rate as most of the players selected ahead of him. But with work, he could develop into a Robert Covington-type player — which is to say he can become a mainstay in the starting lineup of a perennial playoff team.

Other Notable Rookies:

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander: 10.6 points, 3.0 rebounds and 2.9 assists.

Projection: First Team All-Rookie

Gilgeous-Alexander was the 11th pick in the 2018 NBA Draft. He is one of the few lottery picks logging consistent minutes on a winning team. Gilgeous-Alexander has had an up and down season so far, alternating between strong games and poor ones. His PER is subpar (13.2), but so are most rookies’ PERs. He averages 2.9 assists and 1.7 turnovers in 27.4 minutes per game. But he thrives when in a larger role: 16.8 points, 3.5 assists and 3.5 rebounds per game when he plays at least 30 minutes. Gilgeous-Alexander has all the tools to grow into an All-Star, but first he has to prove he can be effective more consistently.

Rodions Kurucs: 9.2 points and 4.1 rebounds per game

Projection: Second Team All-Rookie

Since joining the Nets starting lineup recently, Kurucs is averaging 12.9 points on 55 percent shooting, along with six rebounds per game in 29.2 minutes. The 40th overall pick has had a strong effect on the game. He even posted a double-double in back-to-back games. He fits in nicely and at 6-foot-9. He is an athletic and versatile rebounder and finisher. He will probably never grow into an All-Star, but he moves the needle when on the court and doesn’t require touches or plays to be drawn up to him.

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