What a strange time to be an NBA rookie. The global pandemic wiped out the NCAA tournament, prompted a virtual combine, pushed back the draft nearly five months, and canceled summer league. Most rookies entered the preseason without playing in a competitive game since March.
In spite of the circumstances, there were a number of rookies who put together eye-opening performances in the preseason. Is this a small sample size aberration for what was widely considered a below average draft class? Or is this class going to be better than most people thought? While that question will take years to answer, it will be fun watching the rookies get thrown into the fire against the best players in the world only about a month after draft day.
Here are the nine rookies who impressed us the most during the preseason. We’ll check in on this rookie class again later in the year.
9. Theo Maledon, G, Thunder
In our first 2020 NBA mock draft, published the day after the 2019 draft, we had Maledon projected as the No. 3 overall pick. Instead, he ended up sliding all the way to the fourth pick of the second round on draft night after an injury-plagued year with ASVEL Lyon-Villeurbanne. In the preseason, he looked like the player we thought he might be at the very start of the draft process. Maledon popped off for 20 points on 7-of-14 shooting from the field in his preseason debut, then scored 11 points against the Bulls in his final preseason game. His three-point shot looked good (he made 4-of-9 attempts from deep), and his length is going to be an asset defensively. OKC is in developmental mode, and Maledon and first round pick Aleksej Pokuševski (who also had several flashes of brilliance this preseason) both look to be a big part of the franchise’s future.
8. Deni Avdija, F, Wizards
Avdija was projected as a top-five pick for months before slipping to No. 9 on draft night, where the Wizards were happy to scoop him up. Considered a ‘jack of all trades’ prospect, Avdija flashed his unique versatility for a 6’9 forward in the preseason. He went off for 15 points on 6-of-6 shooting in his debut, but it’s his ability to play in transition, find open spaces as a cutter, and hit teammates with passes that helps him standout. The spotlight will be on his shooting. Through four preseason games, he hit 5-of-11 three-pointers (45.5 percent) but only 2-of-5 free throws.
7. Tyrese Maxey, G, 76ers
Maxey somehow fell to No. 21 on draft night as teams questioned his three-point shooting and facilitating skills. It’s very possible he looks like the steal of the draft for Philadelphia a few years from now. The 6’2 guard is a terrific scorer off the bounce, using body-contorting finishes around the rim and floaters when he can’t get all the way there to stockpile points. He’s going to be an instant-impact change-of-pace guard for the Sixers this year who can provide a rim-attacking complement to Ben Simmons (or James Harden) or give the offense some juice on the second unit.
6. Malachi Flynn, G, Raptors
The Raptors selecting Flynn at No. 29 instantly seemed like a beautiful marriage between player and team. Flynn’s four preseason games only confirmed the suspicion. The 6’1 guard looked great in the pick-and-roll, hit 7-of-17 shots from three-point range (41.2 percent), and provided physical point of attack defense. Head coach Nick Nurse has already praised his poise and competitive mindset, which is just part of the reason why he feels like a particularly good fit for Toronto scheme and development system. Don’t be surprised if he’s a legitimate contributor off the bench as the rookie.
5. Isaac Okoro, F, Cavaliers
The Cavs were the worst defensive team in the NBA each of the last two years, so selecting Okoro — the best defensive prospect in the draft — with the No. 5 pick made perfect sense. While the 6’6 forward was impressive as ever on that end during the preseason, it’s his offense that looked shockingly ahead of schedule. Okoro’s biggest weakness coming out of Auburn was his outside shooting ability, but he sank 5-of-11 (45.5 percent) shots from deep during Cleveland’s four-game run. If that shooting ability translates to the regular season, the Cavs will have themselves a foundational two-way wing and one of the very best players from this draft class.
4. Patrick Williams, F, Bulls
The Bulls provided the biggest surprise of draft night by calling Patrick Williams’ name at No. 4 overall. While he didn’t start a game at Florida State, Williams did flash impressive rim protection skills on defense and spot-up shooting on offense while being the youngest American player in the draft. What’s been surprising about his preseason debut with the Bulls is how comfortable he’s looked with the ball in his hands. Williams tightened his ball handling and looked fluid flowing into pull-up jumpers. Arturas Karnisovas’ first pick with Chicago is looking like a good one.
3. LaMelo Ball, G, Hornets
It’s hard to take your eyes off LaMelo Ball. Now officially listed as a 6’8 point guard, Ball plays with an unmatched creative flair, often seeing plays before they develop and throwing passes few others would even attempt. It was on full display in the preseason. Ball tossed perfect alley-oops to Miles Bridges, hit threes when defenses went under the screen, and whipped his signature full court passes for easy buckets. Ball will struggle to score efficiently (he shot 26 percent from the field, but he’s already reinvigorated a stagnant Hornets franchise with his vision, pace, and youthful energy. Even if the Hornets don’t win much, Ball’s highlights will be must-see every night. It’s still hard to be believe two teams passed on him.
2. Cole Anthony, G, Magic
Anthony entered North Carolina as a consensus top-three recruit and projected top pick (by us, at least) but an inefficient and injury-plagued freshman year pushed him down to the Orlando Magic at No. 14 on draft night. In four preseason games, Anthony looked more like the blue chip recruit than the struggling freshman we saw with the Tar Heels. Anthony hit 8-of-17 attempts from three (47.1 percent) and looked explosive going to the basket. His shooting is going to be so much more dangerous than it was in college, and that makes him a wonderful complement to Markelle Fultz in the Orlando backcourt.
1. Devin Vassell, F, Spurs
It’s been nice to see Devin Vassell put up some points in areas that are not C&S situations, so I decided to put together his non-C&S makes from yesterday vs Houston. Some nice attacks off the catch and he attempted a couple of floaters yesterday as well pic.twitter.com/tmPMUhvZFu
— Zach Milner (@ZachMilner13) December 18, 2020
Vassell already feels like a perfect Spurs player. The 6’6 wing lived up to his reputation as the best pure 3-and-D prospect in the class during the preseason, hitting 5-of-10 shots from behind the arc and grabbing nine steals in only three games. Aside from great team defense and efficiency on spot-up opportunities, Vassell also flashed a little dribble pull-up game. He’s going to look like a tremendous value as the No. 11 pick in the draft.