Preseason Observations: Rookie Debuts, Early Standouts and More

Preseason Observations: Rookie Debuts, Early Standouts and More

This article is part of our NBA Observations series.

The NBA preseason got underway over the weekend, kicking off a nine-day sprint during which all 30 teams will play between two and four exhibition games. With the obvious exception of No. 2 overall pick James Wiseman, who remains sidelined in Golden State, the first three days' worth of preseason action gave us our first look at most of the league's notable rookies.

Let's take a look at the early returns for a handful of first-year players, as well as some of the other top storylines from a busy weekend in the NBA:

Anthony Edwards, Timberwolves: The No. 1 overall pick made his debut Saturday night against the Grizzlies. While Edwards' 26 minutes off the bench were a team-high, he didn't have many bright spots, going just 2-of-9 from the field (1-5 3PT) and committing three turnovers and five fouls. The Timberwolves' rotation is still a work in progress – Ricky Rubio came off the bench Saturday – but Edwards projects to begin the year in a reserve role behind D'Angelo Russell and Malik Beasley, who started next to each other in the backcourt.

Aleksej Pokusevski + Theo Maledon, Thunder: It's only the preseason, but the Thunder's offense looked shockingly competent Saturday against the Spurs, putting up 73 points in the first half. Pokusevski finished with 14 points, including four three-pointers, eight rebounds and two assists in 23 minutes. The seven-footer is quite smooth for his size, and his shooting motion looks great for a player with his length. However, his lowlights were… pretty low. Meanwhile, Maledon quietly stole the show for the Thunder, scoring a team-high 20 points (2-4 3PT) on 14 shots off the bench. Maledon also added five rebounds and two assists in 29 minutes.

Cole Anthony, Magic: After a quiet debut Friday night, Anthony broke out with 16 points (6-10 FG, 2-4 3PT), four rebounds, four assists and two steals in 27 minutes Sunday versus Atlanta. The 15th overall pick is in one of the best fantasy situations of any rookie, and whether he's ready or not, the Magic will likely count on him for an every-night role off the bench. If you're looking for a Rookie of the Year value play, Anthony is the player I would recommend.

Obi Toppin, Knicks: The Knicks did not look like a good basketball team Sunday night. They managed just 91 points and turned the ball over 22 times against a Pistons team that's not exactly stacked in its own right. Unfortunately for New York, the rotation it rolled out over the weekend isn't too far off from the one we'll see during the regular season.

In Friday's opener, Toppin made a few head-turning plays and finished with 11 points, seven boards, an assist and a block in 20 minutes. He was much less impressive Sunday, when he posted just four points on 1-of-9 shooting, including 1-of-6 from beyond the arc. The Knicks' bench combined to go 11-of-40 from the field. This is going to be a very bad basketball team.

Killian Hayes, Pistons: The seventh overall pick in last month's draft was a disaster in Friday's opener, finishing with just five points (0-3 3PT) and committing seven turnovers in what was an overall horrendous offensive performance for Detroit. Hayes was noticeably more comfortable Sunday night, but he still struggled to find his shot, going 2-of-11 from the floor and 1-of-6 from deep. Expected to open the season as the starting point guard, Hayes should be a decent source of rebounds, assists and steals, but his field goal percentage and turnover potential loom as major fantasy drawbacks.

Elsewhere for Detroit, Saddiq Bey had just one field goal Sunday after coming out aggressively with 14 points on 12 shots in his NBA debut Friday. Bey should have a chance to lock in a consistent role for the talent-deprived Pistons, but in Year 1 he's unlikely to be fantasy-relevant in most leagues.

Patrick Williams, Bulls: Coming off the bench in his debut, Williams finished Friday's blowout loss to Houston with 12 points, three rebounds and three turnovers in 25 minutes. His workload was bumped up to 28 minutes Sunday night, and he responded with 13 points on 12 shots, including a pair of three-pointers. Williams also added three steals, but he committed four turnovers and four fouls. In both fantasy and real-life, Williams is a long-term play – his three-point shooting and defensive production will be areas to monitor this season.

Tyrese Haliburton, Kings: Haliburton played 20 minutes in Friday's debut, finishing with an unceremonious line of five points, three rebounds, two assists and two steals. Prior to Sunday's rematch against Portland, Haliburton compared his first-game jitters to Calvin Cambridge (of Like Mike fame) playing without his magical pair of Nikes. Full disclosure: I've never suited up for an NBA game, but that's a profoundly accurate analogy. In Game 2, Haliburton looked much more like his do-it-all self, posting 11 points (5-10 FG, 1-3 3PT), seven assists, six rebounds, a steal and a block in a team-high 30 minutes off the bench. Given the Kings' lack of guard depth – they were without Cory Joseph on Sunday – Haliburton should walk into a rotation spot from Day 1.

Malachi Flynn, Raptors: One of my favorite rookies in this class, Flynn landed in a great spot for his development in Toronto. It may not be the best spot for immediate fantasy value, but in 20 minutes of action Saturday night, Flynn finished as a plus-35 and looked the part of a player who could challenge for a rotation spot. He hit three three-pointers on his way to nine points, four assists, two rebounds and one steal.

LaMelo Ball, Hornets: Saturday's matchup against Toronto was Ball's first taste of NBA action, but it somehow felt like a vintage Ball performance. One of the more unique prospects in recent history, Ball's debut was equally unique. He finished scoreless (0-5 FG, 0-3 3PT) with a couple of three-point attempts that would've easily drawn a "way off!" from Mike Breen.

But Ball pulled down a game-high 10 rebounds (no other player had more than six) and added four assists – including two (2) behind-the-back passes – in just 16 minutes off the bench. Factor in Ball's four turnovers, and it was almost exactly the type of debut most would expect. He struggled where we thought he'd struggle and excelled where we thought he'd excel. Monday's rematch against Toronto should tell us more, but Ball's fantasy potential, specifically as a rebounder and passer, is already evident.

Isaac Okoro, Cavaliers: The fifth overall pick stole the show in Saturday's opener, running off 16 of his 18 points in the fourth quarter, including two huge three-pointers and the game-winning and-one layup. The Auburn product had four turnovers and just one rebound and one assist in 33 minutes, but he tacked on three steals, while hitting all four of his free throw attempts. Okoro could shift to the bench when Collin Sexton returns from a sprained ankle, but, at worst, he projects as the Cavs' seventh man.

Devin Vassell, Spurs: San Antonio ran a semi-normal rotation for more than half of the game, so it was encouraging that Vassell picked up 25 minutes – the most of any Spurs bench player. He finished with 12 points (3-8 FG), knocking down a pair of threes and adding six boards, two assists, three steals and a block. Historically, the Spurs haven't exactly been a haven for productive rookies, and it's unlikely that Vassell bucks that trend in any meaningful way. However, if San Antonio was to move DeMar DeRozan and/or LaMarcus Aldridge and shift toward a rebuild at some point, Vassell would be at the top of the list of players who would benefit.

Deni Avdija, Wizards: The return of Kevin Durant was the obvious headliner in Sunday's Nets-Wizards matchup, and rightfully so. But Durant's first game alongside Kyrie Irving overshadowed a strong debut for Avdija, who finished perfect from the field (6-6 FG, 3-3 3PT) en route to 15 points, four rebounds, and two assists in 24 minutes. Avdija started on the wing alongside Troy Brown, Rui Hachimura, Thomas Bryant and Raul Neto, though the Wizards were without Russell Westbrook, Bradley Beal and Davis Bertans.

Other Notables

Talen Horton-Tucker brought Lakers Twitter to its knees Sunday night, leading an onslaught over the Clippers with 33 points (11-17 FG, 4-5 3PT), 10 rebounds, four assists and four steals. Of course, the Lakers were without a number of regulars, including LeBron James, Anthony Davis, Dennis Schroder and Wesley Matthews. But Horton-Tucker was nearly as impressive in Friday's opener, and he'd begun to pick up some internal momentum near the end of last season. Considering the Lakers may be the deepest and most talented team in the league, Horton-Tucker's chances of making a fantasy impact this season are slim. But the 20-year-old certainly looks to be more than a mirage, and if he continues to play this well on both ends, Frank Vogel will have some difficult decisions to make.

Montrezl Harrell piled up a pair of double-doubles over the weekend, including a 19-point, 11-rebound, three-assist, two-block performance Sunday night. Questions about his postseason fit aren't going to disappear, but he'll be an incredibly valuable addition for the Lakers during the regular season. 

Nerlens Noel started each of the Knicks' first two preseason games over Mitchell Robinson. It's happening again.

Jerami Grant is a combined 3-of-19 from the field through the Pistons' first two exhibitions. After a 1-of-11 shooting night Friday, Grant finished with eight points, four rebounds and five turnovers in 20 minutes Sunday. On a brighter note for Detroit, Blake Griffin looks healthy and spry. He finished Sunday's win over the Knicks with 10 points, six boards, three assists and a steal in 23 minutes.

Harry Giles stole the show for Portland over the weekend, turning in a pair of impressive double-doubles against Sacramento. In his Blazers debut, Giles posted 18 points, 14 rebounds, three steals, two blocks and one windmill dunk in 25 minutes. On Sunday night, he followed up with 19 points, 13 boards, three assists and two steals in 26 minutes. Terry Stotts acknowledged Giles' play during Monday's media session, but he didn't sound overly bullish on Giles' chances of playing major minutes during the regular season.

Kevin Durant looked a lot like the old Kevin Durant on Sunday night. Fittingly, his first points in a Nets uniform came via a blow-by dunk, and Durant added four more baskets on his way to 15 points on 5-of-12 shooting. He also chipped in three assists, three rebounds and a pair of blocks in 24 minutes. The Nets play just one more preseason game (Friday vs. Boston) before taking on Golden State in the regular season opener.

John Wall also looked a lot like his old self in a pair of matchups against Chicago. In a 19-minute debut Friday, Wall posted 13 points, nine assists, five rebounds and two steals. On Sunday night, he went for 21 points, four assists and two rebounds in 24 minutes. Physically, Wall looked every bit as dynamic as he did prior to tearing his Achilles. His violent change-of-direction crossover is still effective, and he showed no hesitation in attacking the rim and finishing against smaller defenders (looking at you, Coby White). Also of note: Houston attempted 99 threes over its first two exhibitions. 

LeBron James and Anthony Davis sat out both of the Lakers' games over the weekend. The pair is expected to play limited minutes in the Lakers' final two exhibitions, however.

Aron Baynes got the start over Chris Boucher for Toronto on Saturday. Baynes finished with five points and five rebounds in 13 minutes, while Boucher had a well-rounded nine points, four rebounds, two assists, one steal and three blocks in 14 minutes. Keep an eye on that position battle.

Ja Morant appears to have become even better at playing basketball. In 25 minutes Saturday, Morant led the Grizzlies with an efficient 20 points (8-12 FG, 2-3) to go with 11 assists and four rebounds.

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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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