While the NBA world anxiously awaits Zion Williamson’s regular season debut sometime in mid to late December, several other rookies are already making an impact. And, since Zion isn’t likely to play more than 50 games this season, he’ll need to put up some big numbers to have a chance to win the Rookie of the Year award.
Bulls’ fans were chanting “Coby, Coby” during the rookie guard’s 23-point 4th quarter explosion Tuesday night against the Knicks that included a franchise-record 7 3-point makes. Meanwhile, No. 2 overall pick Ja Morant carried the Grizzlies to a win in Charlotte on Wednesday, weaving his way through three defenders to score the winning basket in the closing seconds.
It may come as blasphemy to Bulls’ fans, but Morant is looking like a young Derrick Rose through his first 10 professional games. The lightning-quick, 6-foot-3 point guard leads all rookies in scoring, averaging 18.3 points while shooting 48.3% from the field and 44.4% from the 3-point line. He’s also dishing out 5.8 assists and grabbing 3.3 rebounds for a rebuilding Memphis team.
For those of you who followed my draft reports last season, it’s no secret I’m very high on the former Murray St. star, but he has even exceeded my expectations through an admittedly small 10 game sample size. Morant’s physical skills are off the charts, but it’s his poise under pressure, and willingness to accept the responsibility of having the ball in his hands late in close games that really stands out.
Morant’s ability to change direction is mid-air is what reminds me most of Rose. On his winning basket against the Hornets, Morant patiently ran down the shot clock to use up just about all of the time remaining, blew past the initial defender, and then accelerated through and over two help defenders to lay the ball in with his off-hand. It’s a play we saw from Rose so many times in his pre-knee injury seasons.
But it’s not just Morant making a big impression early. Zion’s college teammate, R.J. Barrett leads all 1st-year players with an average of 35 minutes a game. He’s also putting up an impressive stat line of right around 16 points, 5.8 rebounds and 4.1 assists per game.
The Miami duo of Tyler Herro and Chicago native Kendrick Nunn has played a big part in the Heat’s impressive start. Nunn scored more points in his first five games than any undrafted player in NBA history and currently ranks 2nd among all rookies in scoring, while Herro has picked up where he left off in Summer League, averaging 13.1 points a game, shooting 37.2% from the 3-point line.
Former Gonzaga forward Rui Hachimura is taking advantage of his chance to start for the rebuilding Wizards, averaging 14.4 points and 5.9 rebounds while shooting just under 52% from the field.
Probably the most surprising rookie performance so far comes from 2nd round pick Eric Paschall, who’s been force-fed minutes because of the devastating injury situation with the Warriors. The former Villanova national champ has responded big time, scoring 15.5 points a game on 51.9% shooting.
The Bulls got an up-close and personal look at Charlotte rookie forward P.J. Washington on opening night when the former Kentucky star rained down 7 3-pointers in a come from behind win for the home team. Washington has slowed down a bit, but he’s still averaging 12.7 points and 5.9 rebounds on 49% shooting from the field and 46.2% from 3 point range.
Hachimura’s college teammate, high-flying Brandon Clarke, has teamed up with Morant to give Memphis fans hope for an exciting future. The -foot-8 Clarke is coming off the bench, for now, averaging 11.9 points and 6.5 rebounds, shooting 61.5% from the field.
Lottery picks De’Andre Hunter, Darius Garland, and Jarrett Culver are playing significant minutes for their teams, while Cam Reddish, Jaxson Hayes, and Cam Johnson have found it a little tougher to get extended run.
This leads us back to Coby White, who has already become a fan favorite at the United Center. White burst on to the scene in his 2nd NBA game, scoring 25 points to lead the Bulls to a come from behind win in Memphis, but then he slumped a bit with his outside shooting, failing to reach double-figures in his next 5 games.
Still, his teammates and coaches never lost faith in the 19-year-old rookie, urging him to stay aggressive and keep shooting. That resulted in Tuesday’s unforgettable performance at the United Center, White taking over the game in the 4th quarter with his college coach Roy Williams in the crowd to enjoy the show.
White followed that up with a 26 point performance in Milwaukee on Thursday, 19 of them coming in an electric 1st half that included five more 3-pointers. White finished 6-for-13 from beyond the arc against the Bucks, setting an NBA record for most 3-pointers made by a rookie in consecutive games with 13.
The Bulls drafted White with the 7th overall pick hoping that he will develop into a long-time starter at point guard. But for now, his role is to come off the bench and spark the team with quick scoring bursts, much like former Bulls Jamal Crawford, Nate Robinson, and Ben Gordon. At 6-foot-5, White has the size to play both guard spots and his outside shooting ability makes him a great fit in the team’s fast-paced offense.
The plan, for now, remains to keep Tomas Satoransky as the starting point guard, but White’s minutes will continue to grow if he continues his hot shooting. Jim Boylen went with a four-guard lineup for much of the 2nd half in Milwaukee, with White playing 35 of a possible 48 minutes.
Clearly, the Bulls are thrilled with their precocious young guard who looks like a candidate for the NBA’s all-rookie team.
It’s still very early in the season, but coaches, executives, media and fans are talking up the potential of this exciting 2019-‘20 rookie class, and we still haven’t seen Zion in a regular season game!
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