Five under-the-radar NBA rookies to watch this season
BOSTON -- When the NBA season officially kicks off, you can bank on much of the rookie hype being centered around the top three picks in the draft - Zion Williamson of New Orleans, Ja Morant in Memphis and the New York Knicks’ R.J. Barrett.
Even with the top picks gobbling up most of the rookie shine, there are always a handful of first-year ballers whose play significantly outperforms where they were taken in the draft.
And while most of the players we’re going to talk about on this list were first-round picks, you won’t find a lottery (top 14) pick among them.
Because by virtue of being among the top 14 players selected, coming into the NBA and making an immediate impact is what’s supposed to happen, right?
Recent winners of the rookie of the year award serve as a reminder of how the best rookies that float to the surface of success early on tend to come from the pool of players selected in the lottery.
Since the lottery’s inception in 1985, only two non-lottery pick players went on to win the rookie of the year.
And while this year’s rookie class has some elite players at the top, there’s no shortage of talented players who are eager to make the transition from being a player with potential to one who proves his worth in this league sooner rather than later.
Here’s a look at some below-the-radar rookies to keep an eye on in camps and on into the regular season:
Nickeil Alexander-Walker, G, New Orleans Pelicans
(Drafted first round, 17th overall by Brooklyn, then traded to New Orleans)
Despite a logjam of talent in the backcourt for the Pelicans, don’t be surprised to see Alexander-Walker emerge as a contributor to the Pelicans. At 6-foot-5 he has good size, excellent length (6-9 wingspan), can play both guard positions and is strong in pick-and-rolls as a finisher at the rim with either hand, or capable of knocking down pull-up jumpers. That kind of versatility will somehow find a way to get on the floor.
Darius Bazley, F, Oklahoma City Thunder
(Drafted first round, 23rd overall by Utah, then traded to Oklahoma City)
As much as Bazley moved around as a prep standout, he really could not have picked a better landing spot in the NBA than Oklahoma City when it comes to getting a shot at playing early. With Russell Westbrook (Houston) and Paul George (Los Angeles Clippers) gone, the 6-9 Bazley will get a legit shot in camp at making a case to play this season. Having spent last year working out on his own while interning at New Balance, Bazley is one of the wildest of wild cards in this year’s rookie class. He has wing-man skills with the potential slide over and play some power forward, which would create matchup problems for opponents. But before we go too far down that rabbit hole, he must first shake off the rust of having not played against legit competition in a year. Still, considering where he was selected and the huge opening to play immediately, Bazley will have every opportunity to make a splash in the NBA from Day 1.
Brandon Clarke, F, Memphis Grizzlies
(Drafted first round, 21st overall by Oklahoma City, then traded to Memphis)
The versatility stands out when you talk about Clarke. Considered an undersized power forward in college at 6-8, Clarke opened the eyes of many with a strong showing in summer league that included four double-doubles and him being named the league’s MVP. If the Grizzlies are to surprise most and have a playoff-contending season, look for Clarke’s play to be part of that success.
Carsen Edwards, G, Celtics
(Drafted second round, 33rd overall by Philadelphia, then traded to Boston)
He put on a shooting clinic most of this summer in Las Vegas with the Celtics’ summer league squad, reminding us all that his strength at Purdue - getting buckets - appears to be a translatable talent in the NBA. He doesn’t have ideal size at 6-1, but he’s not nearly as much of a defensive liability as one might think. Edwards spends a ton of time in the weight room and it shows not only in his ability to withstand a lot of the banging blows that bigger defenders try to deliver, but also in his ability to keep players in front of him and do a better job at that end of the floor than most expect. In addition to having above-average upper body strength, Edwards also has a 6-6 wingspan which allows him to contest shots in a way that few guards his size are capable of doing. But with Edwards, his shot-making will ultimately be what gets him on the floor this season.
Mfiondu Kabengele, C, Los Angeles Clippers
(Drafted first round, 27th overall by Brooklyn, then traded to LAC)
Mfiondu Kabengele (pronounced Fi-On-DU Cab-Egg-Nale) comes to the NBA having already shown his potential as a high-end role player after leading Florida State in scoring last season despite coming off the bench in every game. A chiseled 6-11, 250 pounds, the nephew of NBA legend Dikembe Mutombo has ideal size, strength and shooting touch at the rim for today’s NBA. And unlike most first-round picks, Kabengele won’t have to adjust to not being the star of the team. It's a role he's used to. His rebounding potential, defensive instincts and overall court awareness will allow him to contribute quickly as a complementary player to Kawhi Leonard and Paul George.