The 2018 rookie class was initially met with skepticism – and, for the most part, rightfully so.
In the wake of a celebrated 2018 Draft – one that looked quite a bit stronger and deeper on draft night than it does right now, by the way – this year's crop featured some big names at the top but wasn't considered as meaty through the first round as its predecessor.
Nine months ago, perhaps the two best players in the class – Luka Doncic and Trae Young – were among the most polarizing. International accomplishments aside, Doncic faced questions about his athleticism, and whether his playmaking would translate to the NBA level. Meanwhile, Young suffered through a rough final few months at Oklahoma and was the key piece in a bold draft-night deal before turning in one of the more disastrous summer league showings in recent memory.
Fast forward to late-March, and I'm not sure Dallas or Atlanta would do anything differently. Doncic is going to be the Rookie of the Year – that debate was virtually over in February – but Young's second-half has at least made it a conversation. And if the vote was up to the players, there's a good chance he'd win it.
Nevertheless, after almost one full season, the 2018 draft class looks about as promising as one could reasonably expect. Doncic is already tracking as a future superstar, Young is on his way, and the guy who went number one overall is quietly putting up 16 and 10 as a 20-year-old.
Yes, Sacramento should've taken Doncic, but Marvin Bagley has made that pick defensible, at the very least, while Jaren Jackson, Wendell Carter, and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (and sometimes even Collin Sexton) all look like potential franchise pieces. Mikal Bridges is probably a step or two below franchise piece, but he's been rock solid in a mostly chaotic situation.
Combing through the lottery, only a few picks look like potential mistakes. After a few minutes of waterboarding, John Hammond probably admits he should've taken Carter, but Mo Bamba had some moments before his injury, and he was never fully given an opportunity amid an unexpected Nikola Vucevic breakout. Kevin Knox and Miles Bridges have had the ups-and-downs you'd expect from rookie wings, and the jury is still firmly out on the final two picks of the lottery, Jerome Robinson and Michael Porter Jr.
Robinson failing to break into the Clippers' rotation is a bit of a disappointment, but not overly surprising. And for Denver, the Porter lottery ticket is still worth the gamble, even as it looks increasingly likely that we won't see him until next fall.
And all of this is before mentioning names like Kevin Huerter, Mitchell Robinson, Landry Shamet Jalen Brunson and Rodions Kurucs – each of whom look the part of a solid, NBA rotation player for the next decade-plus.
As the season winds down, let's take a look at the rookies in recent weeks.
Trae Young, Hawks
Again, Doncic will be the rightful Rookie of the Year, but throw out Young's first two months and it's a much closer race. Since mid-December, Young is averaging 20.7 points, 8.3 assists and 4.1 rebounds on 44 percent shooting, including 39 percent from beyond the arc. That's a 46-game sample of borderline-All-Star production. Young has been even better since the All-Star break, averaging 25.3 points, 8.8 assists and 4.6 rebounds on 45/41/87 shooting splits, while topping 30 points five times in 16 games.
His turnover rate is still an issue, as is his on-ball defense, but Young's steady improvement– especially compared to how he looked at summer league in July – is one of the more underrated storylines of the season.
Luka Doncic, Mavericks
While Young has found his stride in the second half, Doncic looks to have hit somewhat of a rookie wall since the break. Over his last 13 games, he's putting up 22.4 points, 9.2 rebounds, 6.6 assists and 2.0 steals/blocks, but his efficiency has plummeted from the field (41%), from three (28%), and at the line (65%). Doncic is still a nightly triple-double threat – he has three since the break, including one in 27 minutes on Saturday – but a lingering knee issue looks to be slowing him down a bit.
On the whole, though, Doncic's talent and knack for playmaking are undeniable, and for as promising as Young, Ayton, Bagley and Jackson look, he remains unquestionably the best long-term asset in the class.
Deandre Ayton, Suns
The No. 1 overall pick hasn't had a singular breakout stretch, but other than Doncic he's been the most consistent rookie wire-to-wire. Ayton has only one 30-point game on the season, but he's failed to score in double-digits just 10 games – half of which came before Jan. 1. Since missing a string of five games to end January, Ayton's numbers are nearly identical to his season-long figures – 16.3 points, 10.2 rebounds, 1.8 assists, 0.9 blocks per game – so while he hasn't necessarily made a leap, he also hasn't faded in the second half.
Ayton isn't without his flaws. While he's a good free throw shooter (75%) for a big man, he gets to the line fewer than three times per game, and that number drops to 1.7 FTA/G over his last 10 contests. He also hasn't demonstrated the floor-spacing ability that he flashed, on occasion, at Arizona, misfiring on all four of his attempts from three on the year. He has looked fairly comfortable in the mid-range, however.
Josh Okogie, Timberwolves
Okogie doesn't have the raw production of the top players in the class, but he's been a valuable rotation piece for virtually the entire season. The Georgia Tech product has been a fixture in the starting lineup for the last three months, benefiting from the departure of Jimmy Butler and a subsequent, long-term injury to Robert Covington. While Okogie's numbers in that span (36 games) are nothing special – 8.7 points, 3.0 rebounds, 1.4 assists, 1.3 steals – he's made a significantly larger impact than most expected in Year 1. He'll have to improve as a shooter to be truly valuable fantasy asset going forward, though.
Marvin Bagley, Kings
It took him a while to gain the advantage of Nemanja Bjelica, but since taking on a larger role in mid-January, Bagley hasn't looked back. Over his last 23 games, he's doing virtually exactly what he did at Duke a year ago, providing above-average scoring with marginal contributions elsewhere. In that span, Bagley is averaging 15.8 points, 8.3 rebounds and 1.1 assists in just over 26 minutes per game. He was temporarily slowed by a knee injury, but in three games since returning, Bagley is nearly averaging a point per minute, while shooting 59 percent from the field.
While his limited contributions in assists, steals and blocks are concerning, Bagley has the potential to be 20-and-10 guy if the workload is there. Plus, his ability to get to the free throw line at a top-35 rate in the NBA is extremely encouraging – especially as his three-point shooting has been wildly inconsistent.
Collin Sexton, Cavaliers
While the Cavs have been one of the NBA's three worst teams all season, Sexton has done his part to flip the narrative on his rookie year. Weeks into the season, he was criticized by teammates to the point that Larry Drew had to intervene, but Sexton has gradually stabilized over the course of the season, and his long-term outlook is significantly brighter now than it was three months ago.
The good news: Sexton is averaging 20.5 points on 48.5 percent shooting since the All-Star break, and an 18-point effort in Sunday's loss to the East-leading Bucks snapped an eight-game streak of at least 20 points. Sexton has found his outside stroke during that time, converting a shade under 45 percent of his 5.6 threes per game, while hitting 81 percent of his free throws.
The bad news: Averages of 2.7 rebounds and 2.7 assists since the break are extremely low for any guard playing nearly 34 minutes per game. So is 0.6 steals – especially for a player with Sexton's reputation on that end of the floor. It's been 16 years since any player has averaged at least 33 minutes and 20 points per game with fewer than three assists and three boards per game over a full season. What that means for Sexton's long-term outlet is tough to say at this point. The scoring has been a pleasant surprise, but he lacks the table-setting skills teams typically covet at the position.
Mo Wagner, Lakers: Mostly out of the rotation while the Lakers were pseudo-playoff-contenders, Wagner has earned some more run over the last few weeks, though he's reached double-digit minutes only five times since the start of March. His highlight of the season came in a start against Boston on Mar. 9, when he put up 22 points, six rebounds and three assists in 34 minutes.
Troy Brown, Wizards: The 15th overall pick probably should've gotten some looks earlier in the season, but hey, Jeff Green has to get his minutes somewhere. Brown ultimately entered the rotation shortly after the All-Star break, but he'll be in line for an extended look over the next two weeks following an injury to Trevor Ariza. He's already started the last two games and had his best outing of the year – 13 points, five rebounds, three assists – in a loss to Denver last week.
Zhaire Smith, 76ers: It's essentially been a lost season for Smith, who broke his foot in August and just made his season debut Monday night in Orlando. He likely won't be a part of the playoff rotation, so Philly may not know what it has in Smith until next season. You know who'd be a perfect fit on this Sixers roster? Mikal Bridges.
Kevin Huerter, Hawks: Your favorite shooter's favorite shooter hasn't been quite as productive since the All-Star break as he was in the weeks before, but that's partially due to the Hawks limiting his workload. Huerter is still sitting at a healthy 38 percent from three on 4.7 attempts per game for the season.
Landry Shamet, Clippers: The Clippers got a scare on Sunday as Shamet left a win over the Knicks with an ankle injury, but it doesn't look to be anything that'll cause him to miss extended time. The Wichita State product could be the steal of the draft, and he's up to 42 percent from three (4.9 3PA) on the year.
Donte DiVincenzo, Bucks: DiVincenzo returned from a lengthy injury absence on Mar. 7 and played in four games before aggravating the bursitis issue in his heel. He's on the shelf indefinitely as the postseason nears.
Jalen Brunson, Mavericks: A full-time starter since the end of March, Brunson hasn't dipped below double-figure scoring since Mar. 2, and he should continue to see closer to 30 minutes a night with Tim Hardaway, Jr. done for the season. Over his last 13 games, Brunson is averaging 15.7 points, 4.5 assists and 3.4 rebounds, while hitting nearly 54 percent of his field goal attempts.
Mitchell Robinson, Knicks: David Fizdale has pivoted back toward DeAndre Jordan of late, but that hasn't prevented Robinson from swatting everything in sight. Robinson has at least two blocks in each of his last 22 games, despite averaging just 22.0 minutes per game over that time.
Keita Bates-Diop, Ohio State: Last season's Big Ten Player of the Year barely saw the floor before the All-Star break, but injuries have thrust him into the rotation over the last few weeks. He hasn't done much, outside of an 18-point, six-rebound, two-steal, two-block showing in a Mar. 10 win over the Knicks.
Mikal Bridges, Suns: Bridges has been a 20-plus-minute player for most of the season, but he's seeing even more run in the extended absence of T.J. Warren. The Villanova product continues to struggle with inconsistency, but on the whole he's provided about what most expected as a rookie: defense, floor spacing and minimal mistakes.
Miles Bridges, Hornets: His move into the starting lineup may have been more due to necessity than merit, but Bridges has responded well over the last 16 games, putting up 8.9 points and 5.5 rebounds on 49/35/80 shooting splits. He doesn't get to the line a ton and is a streaky three-point shooter, though he has strung together some of his best games of the season in the last two weeks. Bridges set a career-high with 20 points – to go with seven boards, three assists and three steals – in Saturday's win over Boston, and he followed up with 16 points and six boards in Sunday's victory in Toronto.