With the first half of the NBA season firmly in the rearview mirror, it’s time to look toward All-Star Weekend, the looming trade deadline and, ultimately, the high-stakes playoff chase. Although most of this year’s rookie class — minus one outstanding potential exception — won’t be headed to Charlotte for anything outside of the Rising Stars Challenge, there’s still the matter of sorting out this campaign’s edition of the All-Rookie squads. At this point, the sought-after Rookie of the Year honors will be headed in Luka Dončić’s direction, if not Deandre Ayton’s in the event of a major upset, but the others need not fret just yet!
If you’re in need of a refresher, the All-Rookie teams are voted on by the league’s head coaches, with the single stipulation that they are barred from choosing their own players. The rookies that earn the five highest point totals are selected to the first team, while the next set of vote-getters land on the second. Of note, building a true five-man lineup — ie, two guards, three frontcourt players — does not factor into the final result. So, while the idea of running out a real team of Karl-Anthony Towns, Kristaps Porzingis, Nikola Jokic, Jahlil Okafor and Devin Booker — or, in other words, the 2015-16 First Team — sounds insane in principle, it’s perfectly fair game for the All-Rookie results.
With that in mind, here’s how the two rookie teams might shake out by season’s end.
Honorable Mentions: Wendell Carter Jr., Chicago Bulls; Allonzo Trier, New York Knicks; Landry Shamet, Philadelphia 76ers; Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Los Angeles Clippers; Josh Okogie, Minnesota Timberwolves
Luka Dončić, Dallas Mavericks
What’s there to be said about Dončić that hasn’t been gushed about profusely already? He’s the current odds-on favorite to be Rookie of the Year, while also maintaining his remarkable edge as the third-highest voter-getter in the entire NBA for next month’s All-Star Game. Even if he’s not chosen as a starter, Dončić’s resume is incredible and he may just make it as a reserve selection through the head coach vote anyway. If Dončić does go to Charlotte for the Sunday fireworks, he’d be the first rookie to earn those honors since Blake Griffin in 2011 and, before that, Yao Ming in 2003.
Which is to basically say, for lack of a better term at this point: Whoa. Dončić has started all 43 contests for the Mavericks, averaging 20.3 points, 6.7 rebounds, 5.1 assists and 2.5 three-pointers over 32.1 minutes per game. Craziest of all, he’ll turn just 20 years-old in February — talk about a sky-high ceiling. So, yes, Dončić is a shoo-in for the All-Rookie First Team, if not some even bigger and grander achievements before long.
Deandre Ayton, Phoenix Suns
If Dončić is the runaway winner for Rookie of the Year, Ayton is a fantastic consolation prize. Selected at No. 1 overall, Ayton has been a truly special player for the Suns and the 7-foot-1 center has tallied an impressive 16.5 points, 10.7 rebounds and a block over 31 minutes per game. In a strange way, Dončić’s extremely fast rise to stardom has somehow reflected poorly on Ayton, as if the Suns missed on their evaluation of the two youngsters. But make no mistake: Ayton is a star in the making and the Suns will have likely found their franchise cornerstone for the next decade-plus as well.
In a tight battle against the Nets in December, Ayton dominated Brooklyn to the tune of 26 points, 18 rebounds and three blocks on 81.3 percent from the floor — what else could you want? Paired alongside the superhuman scoring efforts of Devin Booker, the duo currently combines for 41 of the Suns’ 106 points per game — of course, Ayton is just 20 years of age, while Booker is 22. There’s a wait-and-see approach to Ayton’s defense but he appears to be a show-stopping shot blocker at the very least. As with all of the names on this list, there’s plenty of time for Ayton to improve on that below-par front too. But for now, it’s just best to sit back and enjoy the talents of another First Team lock.
Jaren Jackson Jr., Memphis Grizzlies
It’s been a wild ride for Jaren Jackson Jr. through the first three months of his professional career and it’s about to get far more interesting from here on out. After starting the season as surprise postseason candidates, the Grizzlies have recently lost 10 of their last 11 games and sunk to 14th in the conference standings. Should Memphis become sellers at the deadline, Jackson’s usage could balloon between now and April — that alone would make Grizzlies games worth tuning into. At 6-foot-11, Jackson has the chance to be the class’ very best defender and he’s always exhibiting that rim protecting prowess down low.
Jackson has turned in 18 multi-block games — including 12 of three or more — in 45 games and his scoring ability is already beyond what most thought he’d display during his rookie campaign. In one late November contest, Jackson swatted seven shots and went 4-for-4 from deep — so look for no further proof that the 19-year-old might be another unicorn in the making. Within another less top-heavy draft class, Jackson would be the clear crown jewel — alas, he’s still a piece that the Grizzlies can be thrilled about building around for the foreseeable future.
Kevin Knox, New York Knicks
So far, Kevin Knox’s initial foray into the NBA has been forged from some incredible highs, not every-night consistencies. Knox has tallied below his season average of 12.5 points on 17 separate occasions — and failed to reach double-digits scoring in 13 of those — but the Knicks’ newcomer looks like a keeper nonetheless. In a couple of inspired efforts, Knox dropped 31 points and seven rebounds in a slim loss to the 76ers; then, last month, the former Wildcat recorded 26 points and 15 rebounds in stat-stuffing fashion. And although he’s had his fair share of rough performances, Knox has also knocked down two or more three-pointers in 20 games already. Useful in spots all over the floor, Knox just needs to improve his efficiencies before he becomes a household name in the demanding New York market.
There are plenty of reasons to be optimistic as the Knicks also tout Mitchell Robinson, Allonzo Trier and another incoming top-five draftee headed their way, plus the possibility of a max contract free agent. But whether or not the Knicks land a Kevin Durant-level player or add a blue-chipper like Zion Williamson seems less important by the game — Knox might be that good. Those in New York keep checking the horizon for their franchise savior but, the thing is, they may already have him in blue and orange.
Trae Young, Atlanta Hawks
Dončić is an incredible player, obviously, so, until very recently, any time Trae Young was mentioned, even in passing, it came back to the Hawks’ decision to make that draft day swap. Perhaps unfair, and then made even worse by Dončić’s transcendent start, it left Young with little coverage outside of that initial status as a footnote. If those days weren’t far behind already, they definitely will be now. In his own right, Young has blossomed as of late for Atlanta, even notching 16 or more points in all but two games since Christmas.
Furthermore, Young’s 7.2 assists lead all rookies by a large margin, including Dončić’s second-best mark of 5.1. Actually, it’s even better than that as Young’s impressive rate currently lands him in the top ten league-wide, only bested by perennial All-Stars and the breakout stud of the season, De’Aaron Fox. Efficiency has not always been Young’s best friend, but he’s adjusted to the stronger defenses and professional schemes as well as one might hope for such a high-usage college standout. Naturally, Young has not reached the massive summits that he did during his single season at Oklahoma — no 48-point explosions just yet — but it feels like the best is still to come here.
Collin Sexton, Cleveland Cavaliers
Once touted as a possible Rookie of the Year frontrunner, Collin Sexton has settled into a positive, reliable role for the Cavaliers. Although he’s not torching opposing defenses, Sexton has held his own against stiff competition since the New Year — a list that now includes Lonzo Ball, Jrue Holiday and Victor Oladipo. Sexton has averaged a solid 14.6 points and 2.8 assists on 41.7 percent from the field so far, all while shouldering a massive load of responsibility for one of the NBA’s worst teams. While it’d be a real shame to miss out on the potential of a Sexton and Kevin Love-led duo, snagging more future assets to put around their 20-year-old centerpiece is a tantalizing thought.
Kevin Huerter, Atlanta Hawks
Young isn’t the only talented rookie in Atlanta and Kevin Huerter has been an excellent Robin to the point guard’s Batman. Huerter wasn’t even the starter until late November but he’s proving why he soared up draft boards during combine season. In the last month, the Hawks have turned the reins over to their wonderful class of prospects and, in turn, have won more games in the last 30 days (eight) than they did in the first 60 (six). Undoubtedly, Huerter’s microwavable scoring has been a large reason why. Known as a certifiable bucket-getter, Huerter still contributes offensively beyond just points, even registering three or more assists on 22 instances in 2018-19 already. Whether or not he turns into the next Klay Thompson, Huerter absolutely fits into the mold of the modern NBA — he’ll be on the Second Team come springtime at the very least.
Rodions Kurucs, Brooklyn Nets
Without a doubt, Rodions Kurucs has been a hot-ticket item as of late — and for good reason. The second-rounder out of Latvia has earned an increase in playing time since Dec. 14 and Nets instantly became better, that much is clear. Since Kurucs joined the starting lineup, Brooklyn has only gone 13-5, no big deal. The No. 40 overall selection has scored double-digits in four of the Nets last six games, including a 24-point breakout performance against the Boston Celtics. For a 20-year-old that was banished to the bench in Barcelona, his early contributions are out of this world. Kurucs may be raw, but he’s aggressive, fills his role and exhibits an ability to hit from long range or off the rebound. If he keeps this up, it’ll be really hard not to reward Kurucs with a well-deserved spot on the Second Team.
Marvin Bagley III, Sacramento Kings
At this time, the spectacular is not exactly in Marvin Bagley III’s wheelhouse — but for what he lacks in gaudy statistical lines, the power forward makes up in off-the-bench consistency. Bagley has grabbed 10-plus points in his last four contests — paired with solid rebounding numbers of seven, nine, 11 and eight to boot — all over an average of just 23 minutes per game. Before a back injury knocked the rookie out for nearly a month, Bagley was still finding his feet as a reliable scorer but he’s worked well with Harry Giles, Sacramento’s other promising frontcourt asset. The Kings have gone 3-1 since his return to the rotation, so the surprise franchise could start leaning on the 19-year-old as they push to get back in the crowded Western Conference playoff picture. If Bagley gets his assumed second half bump in minutes, there’s a great chance that he’ll have the numbers and growth needed to earn these rookie honors.
Mikal Bridges, Phoenix Suns
With yesterday’s news that Wendell Carter Jr. would miss the next 8-12 weeks following thumb surgery, Mikal Bridges slides seamlessly into his spot as the Suns’ two-way standout. Bridges is feeling things out as an NBA scorer, but he provides stellar defense and contributes in ways that don’t always show up in the box score. The former Villanova star won’t pour it in, especially when playing alongside the high-usage Booker, but Bridges ranks second in steals per game (1.37) and sixth in three-point percentage (34.7) among all qualified rookies. Bridges’ high BBIQ often translates into easy thefts, exhibited by his 20 multi-steal performances through 46 career contests. Bridges hasn’t begun his professional journey with as much noticeable star power as many others in his draft class, but there’s bankable potential here in no uncertain terms.
It’s only late January, so the fates of these talented rookies are nowhere close to sealed — with the exception of a generational few, of course. Competition for the two All-Rookie squads are always fierce, but more importantly, they’re not an indication or guarantee of future successes. So whether or not your favorite first-year makes the cut in April, this draft classes looks to be as good as advertised. Between Doncic gunning for an All-Star Game berth and the unexpected abilities of a second-rounder in Kurucs, the first-year narratives have been wholly entertaining — no matter where voting lands at season’s end.