Thursday, June 11, 2020

Six Rookies Primed to Make an Impact When NBA Returns

 Six Rookies Primed to Make an Impact When NBA Returns

During a normal NBA season, it might take an entire year for a rookie to fully grasp the speed, size and schedule of the professional game. Often sophomores, like in the case of Mavericks guard Luka Doncic, are more comfortable in year two and display significant jumps from their first pro season. But the nearly four-month hiatus from gameplay for the league’s 22 best teams could impact rookie development as much as any other group of players.

While some rookies, like R.J. Barrett, the No. 3 pick in the 2019 NBA draft, and 2019 No. 4 overall pick De’Andre Hunter will not return to regular season action until next December at the earliest, other first-year players could see more traditional sophomore jumps during the league’s resumption of play in late-July. Here are a few rookies worth keeping a close eye on that could make a major difference upon the season’s resumption on July 31.

Ja Morant, Memphis Grizzlies
Morant’s inclusion on this list comes with little suspense as, at the time of the league’s stoppage on March 11 due to COVID-19, he was the presumptive choice for 2019 Rookie of the Year award. Still, Morant’s level of play could rise to another level when the Grizzlies return to action. In 59 games thus far, Morant averaged 17.6 points and 6.9 assists per game, while shooting nearly 50% from the field. Per Elias Sports Bureau, if he keeps up his production and Memphis ends up making the postseason, he would join just Elgin Baylor and Michael Jordan as the only rookies to lead a playoff team in points per game and assists per game.

Recent high-usage rookie guards who were drafted in the lottery like Doncic, Trae Young and Donovan Mitchell showed progression in both scoring and playmaking between their first two seasons and it’s not an outlandish thought to think that that the Morant could experience a similar jump come July. The Grizzlies will return to play as the No. 8 seed in the Western Conference, up 3.5 games on the ninth-seeded Trail Blazers. Draft steal Brandon Clarke also appears poised to improve at the end of his first season and Jaren Jackson Jr. has exhibited both his scoring prowess and rim protection during his second year in the NBA. As a whole, don’t be surprised if the Grizzlies hold on to a playoff spot thanks to the improvement of their playmaking rookie.

Zion Williamson, New Orleans Pelicans
Again, a no-brainer selection, but a worthy inclusion on a list of rookies who could improve this July. While Williamson missed his team’s first 44 games of the 2019-20 season due to a right meniscus tear, the young Pelicans star was aggressive and impactful from his very first appearance on January 22. The 2019 No. 1 overall pick averaged nearly 24 points and 6.5 rebounds per contest in his 19 games of action before the league halted play. He scored 20 or more points 16 times in that span. New Orleans was playing some of its best basketball of the season when the NBA stopped as it had won eight of its final 13 games. While Williamson was looking increasingly comfortable with every game, look for him to cut down on his turnovers this summer while keeping his scoring numbers in the mid-20s. Like Morant, the Pelicans could be one of the most entertaining NBA teams in Orlando and the rookie’s summer jump could add even more excitement to a Pelicans team that had already moved into must-watch League Pass territory.

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