There’s a lot of talk about the Rookie of the Year race right now.
Multiple members of the Philadelphia 76ers and Utah Jazz have stated their cases and voiced their support for Ben Simmons and Donovan Mitchell throughout the season. It’s likely that one of the two will achieve the accomplishment when all is said and done.
Just because it’s likely a two-horse race, though, doesn’t mean there weren’t others in this year’s class that opened up eyes.
The Boston Celtics thrust Jayson Tatum into a primary role that very few could’ve thrived in the way he did. Lonzo Ball clearly has a high ceiling as the future face of the Los Angeles Lakers. Lauri Markkanen showed flashes all season with a Chicago Bulls team that had its moments early. You can mention De’Aaron Fox, Dennis Smith Jr. and John Collins as well regarding players who have seen success in their first go-round in the NBA.
The majority of these guys found success either early or in the midway portion of the season. There wasn’t too much of a struggle to find their game at the professional level.
The same cannot be said for three other rookies, all of whom were lottery picks, but that has changed in the final stretch of the year. It’s something that proves the worth of player development over the course of an entire 82-game long campaign.
Let’s have a look at this trio and highlight their recent body of work.
A nagging shoulder injury forced the number one overall pick in the 2017 NBA Draft to miss 68 games this year. In addition, videos of Fultz’s altered shooting form floated around social media. It didn’t take long for pundits and fans alike to scream “BUST!” at the top of their lungs with the former Washington product.
But wouldn’t you know it, the 19-year-old guard looks like he’s got plenty of potential as of late. Averages aren’t really an indicator here in the small eight-game sample size he’s been back, but there have been a number of examples. The explosiveness? It’s there. The handle? It’s there. The confidence? It’s there.
Obviously, the Sixers are going to take it easy on Fultz by monitoring his minutes and likely taking extra precautions with his playing time in the postseason, but there’s something there to be excited about.
There hasn’t been very much to be excited about when it comes to the Phoenix Suns, but the gradual progress of Jackson is a light at the end of the tunnel. He has flown under the radar because of the team he plays on, so a lot of fans aren’t aware of how much better he’s gotten since the beginning stages of the season.
Misuse and an inconsistent role plagued the first few months of Jackson’s rookie year. That has changed significantly since the New Year. In the span of 39 games, the 21-year-old forward is averaging 17.2 points and nearly six rebounds per contest. He’s gone 44 percent from the field and is nabbing a steal a game as well.
And since St. Patrick’s Day, a night where he scored a career-high 36 against the Golden State Warriors, he’s averaged 22.6 points per game. There’s plenty of work to be done with the three-point shot (26.3 percent on the year), but it’s clear that when his usage has increased, so has his production. It’s quite possible that between Devin Booker and the Kansas alum could form a formidable duo moving forward in the desert. They just need the right coach to make it work.
When the Charlotte Hornets sent Monk down to the G-League multiple times to get game reps in for experience, there was a collective groan by the NBA audience about how he wasn’t ready for the big stage. That was partly true.
You see, the developmental franchises are used for that very criticism. Take a player or rookie who is buried on the bench for any team in the association. In Cleveland, we cover guys like Ante Zizic who had that distinction of being “raw” coming into it. At first, the big man came into Cavaliers games looking unprepared for professional level basketball. With two or three games left in the season, he has a completely different confidence and understanding of the ins and outs of the court.
Monk could’ve been overwhelmed by the stage. The Hornets organization could’ve thought that he needed work. Either way, going down to the G-League completely revamped his psyche and, therefore, his freedom as a player in the pros. The recent torrid stretch for the former Kentucky Wildcat guard is a telling sign of what the experience did for him.
Using that same month-long sample as done with Jackson previously, Monk has been electric as a volume-scoring sixth man off the bench for Charlotte, which is a big reason why they’ve made a push late in the season. In that stretch, he’s averaging 11.8 points on 36.3 percent from deep, taking six of his 10 attempts per game beyond the arc. Most recently, he’s ripped off three straight games with at least 21 points in each game, including a career-best 26 against the Orlando Magic.
As you can see, the learning curve for one guy could be completely different than the other. There’s a difference between somebody who gets an opportunity right away to show off their skill set and somebody who has to wait it out to get their turn. In other cases, one rookie could grasp it easier than another can at first, but maybe the rigors of the 82-game season cause a role reversal down the line.
As the league gets younger and younger, you can’t put a time limit on first to third, sometimes even fourth-year players to blossom.
For some, success is natural and comes early. For others, it takes takes patience.