All throughout last season, the 2016 NBA Draft class was critiqued for its lack of star power but lauded for its depth. Several players were thought to have value, but few could change the course of a franchise. But these rotation cogs matter. Just ask the Clippers, who seem to be a competent role player or two away from the conference finals every year. A few rookies will pop in 2016-17 that we may not have previously expected, and they can help their teams immensely.
Here are four under-the-radar guys who have a chance to make an immediate impact.
SF Taurean Prince, Atlanta Hawks
Atlanta’s wing depth could be problematic; Kyle Korver looks to be steadily declining, and Tim Hardaway Jr. isn’t the solution to anyone’s problems. If the Hawks are going to sniff 50 wins, Prince will need to bust out.
He’s capable of doing so. Prince projects as a modern NBA wing that can do just about everything — he’s 6-8 with a near 7-foot wingspan, and he can shoot threes (37.6 percent from beyond the arc at Baylor). He can also defend multiple positions. Prince was a four-year player in the Big 12, and his ceiling isn’t particularly high. But his floor certainly is. If Prince plays within himself, he has a chance to emerge as a key rotation player this season and a future starter for the Hawks.
C A.J. Hammons, Dallas Mavericks
Hammons fell to the second round in the draft due to his age (he turned 24 in August) and off-the-court concerns. But people also forget how much of a beast this guy was at Purdue.
His per-40 minute numbers as a senior: 24.3 points, 13.3 rebounds, 4.1 blocks. Hammons isn’t a great athlete, but he’s a good one; he’s not an elite rim protector, but he’s a stout one. At 7-0, 260 pounds, Hammons is no stiff — he should be able to hang with smaller players on switches better than most at his size, and he’s a very good interior defender.
Rick Carlisle has certainly done more with less. Hammons won’t get many minutes to start the season, but if the Mavericks encounter an injury, don’t be shocked if he comes in and provides them with a boost.
PG Dejounte Murray, San Antonio Spurs
In many ways, Murray is the anti-Spur. A lightning-quick slasher whose feel for the game leaves some to be desired, the Washington product has a lot of developing to do.
At the same time, Gregg Popovich is a pragmatist. As constructed, the Spurs can sleepwalk to 55 wins. But then what? The current starting lineup can’t hold a candle to the Warriors’ (that’s certainly nothing to be ashamed of), but it would be in San Antonio’s best interest to do anything it can to inject a spark.
Any team could use a 6-5 point guard that’s an explosive athlete and is a multi-dimensional scorer. Murray isn’t that player yet, but with some marinating, he could reach that level. Perhaps the Spurs will suffer through his growing pains early in an effort to reap the benefits down the road.
PG Isaiah Whitehead, Brooklyn Nets
This is more about fit than anything. Brooklyn doesn’t have much to hang its hat on, and Whitehead can get buckets. He has an NBA body and NBA skills on a team that desperately needs scoring.
Whitehead wasn’t terribly efficient in college, but he filled up the stat sheet and is savvy in the pick-and-roll. In his final season at Seton Hall, he averaged 18.2 points, 3.6 rebounds, 5.1 assists, 1.2 steals and 1.4 blocks (!) per game. It’s also worth mentioning that he shot 38 percent from the floor. Regardless, Whitehead is a solid candidate to assume the title of “good raw stats on a bad team” guy in Brooklyn.