As much as ESPN would like you to not believe this, there are other rookies in the NBA besides Zion Williamson. And with Zion currently sidelined as he recovers from tearing his meniscus, the spotlight has sharpened considerably on those who might take up his vacated mantle as the NBA’s top newbie. While we’re only a matter of games in to the nascent season, some rookies already look like massive steals relative to their draft position in April.
Any conversation about rookies to this point has to begin, shockingly, with the Miami Heat’s duo of Tyler Herro and Kendrick Nunn. It wasn’t improbable to suggest ahead of the season that Herro could be in for a strong season, with his first round draft pedigree and shooting abilities likely to help a Heat team that desperately needed it. However, Herro has been scoring at all levels through five games, averaging 17 points and 5.3 rebounds per game despite a pedestrian 36.8% three point field goal percentage. In a win over the Atlanta Hawks last Tuesday, Herro dropped 29 points while shooting 7-for-9 from the field. The Heat drafted Herro for his solid athleticism and stroke – now, it looks like Herro could be a potential max-contract player down the line with the well-roundedness he has displayed to this point.
Nunn’s performances to this point, meanwhile, have been completely eye-opening. An undrafted product from Oakland, Nunn spent last year in the G-League developing, and really only expected to figure into the Heat’s plans when Jimmy Butler left the team briefly for the birth of his child. Now, Butler is back with the team, but Nunn continues to start for the team, and looks incredible while doing so. Averaging 22 points per game and fresh off his own 29 point performance in the second leg of the Heat’s sweep of the Hawks, Nunn now has set the record for the most points through five games by an undrafted rookie. Additionally, he joins Kevin Durant as the only rooks to score 110 points through the first five games of their career since 2000. Based on Nunn’s status as a 24 year-old rookie and small 6’3” frame at shooting guard, there’s probably some regression coming his way. Still, however, his poise in the biggest games of his career to this point has been awfully impressive. Don’t be surprised if Nunn can carve out a role in the NBA for a long time.
Two other late lottery picks that hadn’t garnered a lot of headlines in preseason were Rui Hachimura and PJ Washington of the Washington Wizards and Charlotte Hornets, respectively. Hachimura’s athleticism and ability to play multiple positions displayed at Gonzaga jumped off of the scouting report as potential fits for the NBA. Hachimura is averaging 19.3 points per game on 46% shooting for a poor Wizards team and has displayed a smoother jumper than he had in college, which often proves a stumbling block for many top prospects in his mold. Couple that with his pulling down 7 rebounds per contest to this point, and Washington could have a crucial building block for its future. Hachimura’s ceiling is limitless, and it seems perfectly reasonable to project him as a future All-Star down the road, and a current Rookie of the Year candidate right now.
Washington similarly flashed intriguing potential at Kentucky, with his effortless bounce and developing skillset proving too enticing for the Hornets to pass up with the #12 pick in the Draft. He has rewarded GM Mitch Kupchak’s faith to this point, exploding for 27 points with 7 threes (an NBA debut record) in Charlotte’s opener. While still young and developing, Washington might not provide the instant impact of an older player like Nunn in year one, his 52.0% three point field goal percentage to this point provides a glimpse of hope for the Hornets’ otherwise dim future after they lost Kemba Walker in free agency. It’s extremely difficult to make predictions about Washington at this point, as his scoring averages have dipped and he might have difficulty delivering on his potential on a night-in, night-out basis as a young player. Still, the Hornets are likely going to want to lock him down on a long, lucrative contract given their young rebuild.
Finally, the top-three pick that has impressed the most to this point is RJ Barrett. While #2 overall selection Ja Morant has been inconsistent as he continues to acclimate from mid-major basketball at Murray State to the NBA game, Barrett has taken his year of experiences at Duke and looks right at home playing under Madison Square Garden’s bright lights for a bad Knicks squad. Barrett has already put up 26 points against the Celtics, going toe-to-toe with Kyrie Irving at times, and followed that effort up with a 19-point, 15-rebound performance squaring off against the Bulls in the Knicks’ lone win so far. Barrett’s free throw shooting needs to come a long way before he’s going to challenge for any scoring titles, but he certainly has a wealth of ability as a multi-level scorer. He’ll be given every opportunity to develop under David Fizdale, who has experimented with Barrett at point guard so far. RJ might be hungry after slipping to the #3 pick in the draft as the consensus top high school recruit in the class of 2018. With Zion out, expect Barrett to continue to put in highlight performances throughout his rookie season. Not that it would catch too many people off guard, but before long, Barrett could be one of the Eastern Conference’s toughest defensive assignments for the rest of his tenure in New York.