NBA Draft

Who Is This Year’s Mitchell Robinson?

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Last year, I wrote a prediction piece foreshadowing non-lottery rookies who I thought would break out. My top pick for this exhaustive exercise was none other than Mitchell Robinson. Call it dumb luck, call it telepathic, or call it blind arrogance, but watching this prophecy come to fruition made me feel like the Rasputin of rookies. I was a clairvoyant, but my crystal ball was far from impeccable. You see, two of my other selections to have respectable rookie seasons were Grayson Allen and De’Anthony Melton, both of whom struggled to crack bench units at times last year.

Prophesizing rookie success is an imperfect science (though calling it science is probably hyperbolic). The sample size of play against pro-competition is next to nonexistent, and Summer League is a trapdoor for “prisoner of the moment” takes. Evaluating a rookie solely off of his play against G-leaguers without coaching schemes in place is a recipe for outlandish takes.

How then, should one go about forecasting rookie success? Some would argue a formulaic approach is the best method, but the analytical path is imperfect as you are caught in the web of evaluating metrics against sub-NBA level talent. Instead, choose to look in the rearview at traits that have historically allowed rookies to succeed: opportunity and a translatable/tangible skill set. Opportunity alone is rarely enough, as an underdeveloped rookie fails to deliver consistent play–regardless of how often he sees the floor. Players like Josh Jackson and Frank Ntilikina, for example, elicited the classic adages of “raw athleticism” and “serious potential”, but failed to meet expectations and were quickly dubbed “projects” in order to provide hope for a fanbase to compensate for the lack of on-court production.

Meanwhile, rooks like Landry Shamet entered situations where opportunity was abundant, and then utilized a developed craft to cement themselves as key rotation pieces.

It is at the crossroads of opportunity and tangible skills where rookie impact most often presents itself.

Note: In order for a player to be an eligible “sleeper” in my eyes, they have to be taken outside of the lottery (Sorry Tyler Herro). As easy as it would be to prophesize strong rookie seasons for Ja Morant and Coby White, the purpose of this exercise is to deliver calculated predictions of players who seemingly slipped through the cracks, in the same way Mitchell Robinson and Landry Shamet did last year.

1. Brandon Clarke, Grizzlies

Brandon Clarke put together one of the most statistically dominant seasons of the decade at Gonzaga and built on this success in Vegas, earning Summer League MVP honors while leading the Grizzlies to a summer league championship. Clarke is a posterchild for advanced stats junkies (he led college basketball in defensive efficiency last year and led Vegas SL in PER), but no statistic can convey the awe-inspiring bounce he plays with on both ends of the floor. He uses this verticality methodically, in unison with his impressive defensive instincts and hyper-switchability, to envelop opposing forwards in the paint.

A menace in the pick-n-roll, don’t be surprised if Ja Morant and Clarke develop an instantaneous rookie connection in both transition and the half-court. Though his offensive game will likely be limited to the paint (where he is incredibly efficient), it wouldn’t be shocking to see Clarke expand his game towards the perimeter, where he shot 56% from deep in Summer League.

After resigning Jonas Valanciunas to a 3-year deal, the Grizzly could find themselves in quite the conundrum this year if Clarke’s transition to the league goes as smooth as I anticipate. The task of balancing the minutes of two superb frontcourt players in Jaren Jackson Jr. and Valanciunas with a talent like Clarke is not easy, especially on a rebuilding team. Regardless of how Memphis chooses to balance this trio’s minutes, Clarke’s transition into a hyper-efficient NBA player seems inevitable.

2. Carsen Edwards, Celtics

If Carsen Edwards’ March Madness performance wasn’t enough to make you a believer, the third quarter of his preseason game against Cleveland probably converted you. Edwards hit 8 three-pointers in one-quarter of basketball, four of which came from 30+ feet. In one of the most electrifying preseason performances (yes, this is oxymoronic) in recent memory, Edwards ignited a fire both on the court and on NBA Twitter.

Edwards is the paradigm of the underdog– an undersized, second-rounder with a pitbull attitude and microwave scoring ability. It’s only appropriate then, that Edwards apprentices another underdog in Kemba Walker, whose path to the NBA was eerily similar to Edwards (6’1″ guard who stayed three years in college and made a historic run in the NCAA Tournament). With an amalgam of combo-moves and a relentlessly green light from anywhere on the floor, these microwave performances off the bench could begin to stack up.

3. Jordan Poole, Warriors 

The Warriors’ bench is shaping up to be the land of misfit toys. With the absence of Klay Thompson, the door will be wide open for Poole to step in and contribute from day one, and after an outstanding preseason, it looks like he will do just that. Poole played in an offensive system at Michigan that was stagnant at times, but his proclivity for generating transition offense was on full display in both Summer League and preseason.

Despite just a week of training camp under his belt, Poole already seems to have a firm grasp on the Warriors’ motion offense, which flawlessly complements his offensive game. His ability as a spot-up/catch-and-shoot marksman should fit seamlessly into an offensive unit designed to set up open looks for Klay and Steph. Very few rookies have the luxury of playing increased minutes for a team bound for the postseason. The success of Poole, especially in an expanded role, will be predicated on his ability to be a marksman on catch-and-shoot situations.

4. Nickeil Alexander-Walker, Pelicans

The only thing preventing NAW from securing a higher spot on this list is the apparent depth of New Orleans. With a backcourt containing Jrue Holiday, Lonzo Ball, and JJ Redick, opportunities for Nickeil could be few and far between. But considering what we’ve seen in the preseason, it’s going to become increasingly difficult to keep NAW off the court.

“Nickeil is a bucket,” said Zion. “Let’s just put that on the record. Nickeil Alexander-Walker is a bucket. He facilitates the game very well and I feel like he always makes the right play and he puts the team before himself.” Zion is far from NAW’s only fan though. It appears all of New Orleans is falling in love with Walker after his rendition of Vanessa Carlton’s “A Thousand Miles” during a rookie karaoke hazing session.

But his skills on the mic don’t come close to matching his arsenal of skills on the court. NAW not only led NBA Preseason in ppg for players under 19 mpg, but did so shooting 46.7% from behind the arc. He thrived in key moments, being called off the bench by Gentry to close out games, most notably a 23 point comeback win over the Bulls. And his playmaking has been consistently spectacular, using an extraterrestrial wingspan and what appears to be ambidexterity to find an array of passing angles.

Zion loves him. New Orleans loves him. The only question that remains is: will the guard rotations love him?

5. Matisse Thybulle, Sixers

This kid might be a pickpocketing savant. After setting steal records at Washington, Thybulle averaged over 4.9 steals per 36 minutes in the preseason to go along with 2.6 blocks per contest. But even if you dismiss the statistics as the result of unserious exhibition play, Thybulle passes the eye test with flying colors. His defensive instincts are exceptional– he reads the floor rapidly and methodically, breaking up plays before they even develop. His ability to navigate screens, both on ball and off ball, is seldom seen for a rookie.

These instincts, in unison with a 7-foot wingspan, not only force errant passes but deter an offense from making passes altogether. His aggressiveness can get him out of position from time to time, but on a second unit that could be lacking firepower, Thybulle is going to have free reign to practice his ball-hawking thievery.

There’s a learning curve that exists with every rookie, but Thybulle minimizes this curve with his savvy imitation of a 6-year vet. If he can provide competent shooting and handling as part of a still limited offensive game, Thybulle should have no problem securing a top wing spot on a shallow Sixers rotation.

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About Logan Collien

From Madison, WI Twitter: @lcollien

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