Rookie Report Card: Grading the Lottery, Part I
Rookie Report Card: Grading the Lottery, Part I

With a few first-year players making an impact in the postseason – hello, Landry Shamet – the book is not completely closed on the 2018 rookie class. But as we zero in on the lottery, only one of the top 14 picks, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, plays an integral role for a playoff team.

Gilgeous-Alexander's teammate, Jerome Robinson, hasn't been a regular rotation player in LA, while the other two lottery picks in the postseason – Mo Bamba and Michael Porter, Jr. – are shelved due to injury, and have been for quite some time.

Perhaps Gilgeous-Alexander, whose drive-and-kick to Shamet capped the Clippers' record-setting comeback in Game 2, has more to add to his resume, but for the most part, we've seen what we need to see to properly evaluate the rookie class.

Back in June, nearly 10 months ago, this was a draft characterized by uncertainty. A year earlier, the league had welcomed its most-celebrated class in recent memory, a group headlined by household names, with college stars scattered throughout the lottery. But while the 2017 draft was heavy on starpower, 12 months later it was light on results.

Lonzo Ball was injured and inefficient as the new face of the rudderless Lakers. Malik Monk, an electric scorer and fan favorite at Kentucky, face-planted in Charlotte. And Frank Ntilikina, the latest Savior of New York, looked like he was two years away from being two years away from being two years away.

Meanwhile, other high-lottery picks like Josh Jackson, De'Aaron Fox, Jonathan Isaac and Dennis Smith struggled through rocky transitions to the NBA. And, of course, the near-consensus No. 1 pick, the guy Philadelphia traded up from No. 3 to secure, the dream point guard prospect, forgot how to shoot a basketball.

But it wasn't all bad.

If we were right about anything with the 2017 class, it was its depth. Jayson Tatum, whom Boston shrewdly grabbed at No. 3, was fresh off of leading the shorthanded Celtics to within minutes of a Finals berth. Donovan Mitchell, the 13th pick, was neck-and-neck – at least in his book – with 2016 holdover Ben Simmons in the Rookie of the Year race. And further back in the first round, Bam Adebayo, John Collins, Jarrett Allen and Kyle Kuzma all looked like franchise building blocks.

Still, with the league ready to usher in another crop of rookies, memories of 2017 – the expectations versus the results – were fresh in the minds of evaluators. Opinions on Luka Doncic and Trae Young varied wildly, as did the upside projections on Deandre Ayton, Marvin Bagley and the other bigs near the top of most draft boards. The 2018 class lacked what we thought the 2017 draft promised: sure things, locks to grow into multi-time All-Stars and, in turn, productive fantasy commodities.

Fast forward to mid-April, and there's a case to be made that this year's rookie class is just as promising, if not more so, than its more-ballyhooed predecessor – even with Fox, Isaac and Lauri Markkanen making significant strides as sophomores. It's still (very) early, but 82 games in, the 2018 class is devoid of a true bust at the top, and among the first 10 selections, only Bamba and Kevin Knox – who turned 19 two months before his first NBA game – look like they might be headed in that direction.

While they'll never admit it, Phoenix and Sacramento probably wish they'd taken Doncic, but Ayton and Bagley are tracking as defensible, if not still ill-advised, selections. The Doncic/Young trade, which initially looked more like a straight-up mugging than something the Hawks actually agreed to do, has grown into a much more reasonable debate, especially with the Mavs set to send over another first-rounder as early as this summer.

Further down, both Jaren Jackson and Wendell Carter showed plenty of promise before being lost to injury, while Collin Sexton improved as much as any rookie as the season progressed. As Fox demonstrated a year ago, one season doesn't set the course for an entire career, but on the whole, the 2018 class is off to an encouraging start.

Beginning with the top four picks, we'll take a look back at how each lottery rookie fared in 2018-19 before handing out a final grade:

Deandre Ayton, Suns

Key Numbers: 71 GP, 30.7 MPG, 16.3 PPG, 10.3 RPG, 1.8 APG, 58.5% FG, 74.6% FT, 20.5 PER

Best game: 26 pts (13-16 FG), 18 reb, 3 blk, 2 stl, 1 ast (12/23 at BKN)

Best 5-game stretch: 22.8 PTS, 15.6 REB, 1.0 BLK, 1.0AST, 67% FG, 84% FT (12/15-12/23)

Grade: B+

Ayton's impact on the bottom line was marginal, as the Suns were once again abominable on both ends while tumbling to their fourth straight season with fewer than 25 wins, but for the most part, the No. 1 pick lived up to billing. Overshadowed by Doncic and Young – and even Jaren Jackson – for much of the season, Ayton quietly became just the fifth rookie in the last 25 years to average at least 16 points and 10 rebounds, joining Tim Duncan, Elton Brand, Blake Griffin and Karl-Anthony Towns on that list.

To suggest Ayton is as skilled, offensively, as any of those five would be inaccurate, but he was a consistently efficient scorer around the rim and in the short-mid-range, though he never dusted off the three-point shot that was occasionally on display at Arizona. Of more pressing concern is Ayton's inability to get to the free throw line. He's a decent foul shooter for a big man, hovering around 75 percent for the season, but Ayton took just 4.1 free throws per 100 possessions. That placed him ahead of only two other full-time starting centers: Al Horford and Brook Lopez, each of whom spend considerable time roaming the perimeter.

Defensively, Ayton held up better than expected, but that partially speaks to the level of expectation. Still, while he has a ways to go on that end, Ayton tangibly improved throughout the season and ended up averaging nearly a block and a steal per game.

Fantasy-wise, there's little reason to believe Ayton's scoring and rebounding will regress, and if anything he could encroach on 20-and-12 territory next season if he moves into the 33-35 minute range. In the longer-term, his upside will hinge on the development of his outside shot and playmaking in the halfcourt. If he can ever become more than a league-average shot-blocker, that's an added bonus.

Marvin Bagley, Kings

Key Numbers: 61 GP, 25.2 MPG, 14.8 PPG, 7.6 TRB, 1.0 APG, 1.0 BPG, 50.4% FG, 30.8% 3PT, 18.9 PER

Best game: 32 pts (10-15 FG, 1-2 3PT, 11-13 FT), 7 reb, 1 ast, 1 stl, 1 blk (2/10 vs. PHO)

Best 5-game stretch: 22.4 PTS, 10.0 REB, 1.4 AST, 1.2 BLK, 57% FG, 54% 3PT, 68% FT (3/17-3/24)

Grade: B

Much like Ayton, Bagley turned in a productive statistical season, but it's still too early to discern just how high his long-term ceiling may be. Arguably the best player in college basketball last season, Bagley's transition to the NBA was met with some rightful skepticism, but to his credit, he quickly established himself as an effective offensive player at the next level.

While he didn't start a game until mid-January – coincidentally, Dave Joerger is now unemployed – Bagley still managed 12 points, six rebounds and a block through the first month of the season. His three-point shot was expectedly shaky – as was his defense – but his athleticism and touch around the rim made him an efficient finisher. 

Even when the Kings dropped out of the playoff race, Joerger never truly turned Bagley loose, though an injury to Nemanja Bjelica opened the door for an expanded role. After the All-Star break, Bagley averaged 18.5 points, 9.2 rebounds, 1.1 assists and 0.9 blocks in just under 28 minutes per game. More importantly, he discovered his outside shot, hitting nearly 40 percent of his 2.2 attempts per game.

All in all, the Kings have to come away encouraged by Bagley's debut. He's more limited than Jaren Jackson and isn't the transcendent star Doncic looks to be, and while passing on the presumptive Rookie of the Year may haunt the organization, it's already clear this won't be a Darko Milicic redux.

On a per-minute basis, Bagley was nearly as productive as any rookie in the class. Under Luke Walton, he'll almost certainly have an expanded role, and the numbers suggest that could equate to a double-double average in Year 2. Per 100 possessions, Bagley trailed only Doncic and Young in scoring, while ranking fourth in rebounds and second in free throw attempts.

Luka Doncic, Mavericks

Key Numbers: 71 GP, 32.2 MPG, 21.2 PPG, 7.7 TRB, 5.9 APG, 1.0 SPG, 3.4 TOV, 42.7% FG, 32.6% 3PT, 19.4 PER, 30.6% USG, 7 triple-doubles

Best game: 35 pts (14-24 FG, 3-9 3PT, 4-6 FT), 12 reb, 10 ast (1/27 vs. TOR)

Best 5-game stretch: 27.4 PTS, 7.0 REB, 6.4 AST, 1.6 STL, 2.6 TOV, 47% FG, 37% 3PT, 67% FT (1/07-1/16)

Grade: A-

Doncic avoids an outright A mostly because his efficiency doesn't quite measure up to his impressive per-game numbers. Averaging 21, 8 and 6 with eight triple-doubles as a rookie is more than enough to make him my highest-rated player, but after a shaky second-half, Doncic finished with a 43/33/71 shooting line – not bad, by rookie standards, but not good.

Shooting aside, Doncic turned in one of the best statistical seasons in league history, placing himself in the elite company of the NBA's one-name legends. Doncic became the first rookie since Oscar Robertson to average at least 20 points, seven rebounds and six assists per game. He was also just the seventh rookie to record at least 1500 points, 400 assists and 70 steals, joining the likes of Michael Jordan, LeBron James and Damian Lillard.

That's not to imply Doncic was a lockdown defender, by any means, but it's tough to loaf your way into more than a steal per game. Doncic may never be a positive on that end, but he's a heady team defender who gets his hands in passing lanes, and his average athleticism wasn't the issue some scouts believed it might be early on.

Offensively, it was almost immediately clear that Doncic's uncanny ability to create space with crafty ball-handling and footwork would translate to the NBA level. He struggled in his first NBA game but quickly rebounded to average 19 points and four assists through his first month. As Doncic's profile ascended, the Mavs initial vision of a Doncic-Dennis Smith partnership quickly faded, and Smith, a top-10 pick in 2017, became expendable.

Even with the body type of Knicks-era Jason Kidd, Doncic was consistently able to get to his spots, and he occasionally offered reminders that, despite his pudgy frame, he can still finish above the rim.

Doncic's outside shooting ran hot and cold for much of the season, but he's more than comfortable launching from deep three-point range, with an advanced stepback at age 20. As a playmaker, he shows signs of an early-Harden-like ability to read and react in an instant – equally comfortable snaking a pick-and-roll as he is whipping a cross-court pass to an open corner shooter. As the roster around him naturally improves, Doncic's passing will become even more integral

He ran away with the Rookie of the Year race after a red-hot stretch leading up to the All-Star break, and while Young played his way into the debate, Doncic enters the offseason as the near-undisputed No. 1 pick in a 2018 re-draft.

Jaren Jackson, Grizzlies

Key Numbers: 58 GP, 26.1 MPG, 13.8 PPG, 4.7 RPG, 1.1 APG, 1.4 BPG, 50.6% FG, 35.9% 3PT, 2.4 3PA/G, 16.4 PER, 5.1% BLK

Best game: 36 pts (13-22 FG, 3-7 3PT, 7-7 FT), 8 reb, 2st (11/30 at BKN)

Best 5-game stretch: 18.6 PTS, 5.2 REB, 1.6 AST, 2.8 BLK, 58% FG, 50% 3PT, 90% FT (11/23-12/02)

Grade: B+

It's not fair to penalize Jackson for missing the final third of the season, so he gets a B+ for his 58-game run as one of the best young defenders in the league. Thanks to a JaMychal Green injury, Jackson entered the starting five in the third game of the season and held onto his spot in the lineup until a severely bruised quad muscle ended his season just before the All-Star break.

Jackson's contributions were less-tangible than those of Ayton or Doncic, but prior to the injury, he was firmly in the best rookie not named Luka Doncic discussion – if not leading it. Jackson's per-game numbers don't leap off the page, but he was the league's best two-way rookie, putting up nearly 14 points per game on better than 50 percent shooting, while also accounting for 2.3 blocks/steals and 0.9 made threes.

Jackson became only the fourth rookie ever to notch at least 80 blocks, 50 threes and 50 steals, needing only 1,515 minutes and  58 games to do it. The other three players on that list – Lamar Odom, Shane Battier and Kristaps Porzingis – each played at least 2,000 minutes and 72 games

As a rebounder, Jackson still has room to grow, and he'll also have to prove he can stay on the floor and keep himself out of foul trouble. Jackson picked up at least five fouls 19 times – nearly a third of his games – and fouled out of six contests, doing so in fewer than 26 minutes on four of those occasions. While there were some signs of progress in that area before the All-Star break, Jackson still gets a little too handsy – on and off the ball – and he finished eighth in the league in personal fouls per 36 minutes (5.2) and per 100 possessions (7.2).

Overall, though, the Grizzlies have to be thrilled with Jackson, who was by no means projected to be this good after one year at Michigan State. He'd shown signs of elite shot-blocking and three-point range, but he's further along in both regards than most expected – especially for a 19-year-old who won't turn 20 until mid-September.

With Marc Gasol gone and Mike Conley likely to follow, the stage is set for Jackson to be the face of the post-Grit-and-Grind era in Memphis.

Read on: Grading the Lottery – Part II

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Nick Whalen
RotoWire's NBA Editor and host of the RotoWire NBA Podcast. Nick was awarded the FSWA Best Podcast -- All Sports award in 2017 and 2018. Many years ago, Stromile Swift gave Nick his unbelievably sweaty headband after a preseason game. Despite its failure to match his school colors, Nick went on to wear that headband for the entirety of his sixth grade basketball season. Catch Nick on Twitter @wha1en.
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