By Norm Elrod
(CBSDFW/CBS Local) — The 2018 NBA rookie class is already making its presence felt on the court and in the headlines. Every one of the best rookies so far — Luka Doncic, Trae Young, Wendell Carter Jr., Deandre Ayton, and Jaren Jackson Jr. — is logging lots of minutes for losing teams. These teams are playing out hopeless seasons with an eye toward the 2019 NBA Draft, when the process will start again.
Potential team leaders and contributors show up in every NBA draft, and teams with little chance of making a playoff run have every incentive to play for the next lottery and another pick. The hope, of course, is to land a rookie talent who can help lead the team back to relevance or at least be another piece in the puzzle.
A draft pick’s rookie season is a team’s first chance to evaluate their talent at the top level. Here’s a look at the best five NBA rookies so far.
Doncic landed in a good situation with the Dallas Mavericks (20-23). The Mavericks were ready to give him minutes, and NBA legend Dirk Nowitzki, who also transitioned from high-level basketball in Europe to the NBA at a young age, is wrapping up his playing career with the team. The young guard has played at a high level from the moment he stepped on the court, averaging 20.2 points, 6.7 rebounds and five assists. He has also proved to be a clutch go-to player. And while he didn’t come through Sunday down the stretch against the Golden State Warriors, he still impressed their various all-stars. The consensus is that Doncic doesn’t play like a rookie, and will likely be an all-star sooner than later.
Trae Young and Luka Doncic will forever be compared. Young, who the Atlanta Hawks (13-30) traded Doncic to get, started off his NBA career a little more slowly. This was no surprise, given he played just one year in college. His passing has always been sharp, but now his three-point shooting seems to be rounding into form too. His abysmal early season from beyond the arc (22.6%), has been a little more respectable since (35.5%). The book is still out on the point guard, though his 15.8 points and 7.1 assists have certainly helped lift the lowly Hawks a little.
Wendell Carter Jr.
The Chicago Bulls (10-33) are a mess, but Wendell Carter Jr. seems to be figuring things out after a lackluster December. His month began with the firing of head coach Fred Hoiberg, who was replaced by Jim Boylen, whose draconian coaching tactics nearly led to team mutiny. The seas have calmed a little in Chicago, as the Bulls sail toward another lottery pick. And Carter’s production has picked up, including a 22-point, six-rebound showing against the Portland Trail Blazers last week. The center/power forward out of Duke is part of a lineup filled with young talent that routinely gets run out of the building by the NBA’s better teams. Early-game foul trouble sometimes limits his minutes and his production, but Carter continues to improve and find more consistency.
The top pick in the 2018 NBA Draft has been a bright spot in another dismal Phoenix Suns (11-33) season. The Suns have missed the NBA Playoffs for eight straight seasons, and they’re working on the ninth. But now Devin Booker has a little help. Averaging a solid 16.6 points and 10.7 rebounds, Ayton looks to be another productive player who can match up with the NBA’s big men at both ends of the court. While his offensive production has been consistent all season, his defense continues to improve.
Jaren Jackson Jr.
Jaren Jackson Jr. of the Memphis Grizzlies (19-24) is yet another NBA rookie trying to find a little consistency in his game. And he has recently, scoring at least 12 points per game and shooting 55.3% over the last five games. But his season has been marred by foul trouble. The Michigan State product leads the League in fouls per game (3.9), which limits his minutes. Recent scoring outbursts suggest that his numbers will improve if/when he figures out how to stay on the court. With the Grizzlies sitting just ahead of the Suns at the bottom of the West, though only five games below .500, he’ll probably get that chance.