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How Effective are Rookies in the NBA?

Rookie contracts can be the most valuable contracts in the league. Obviously a player of Anthony Davis‘s ability making a little over $7 million (the fifth-highest on his team, if Eric Gordon picks up his option) is incredible value, but it’s just as prevalent in other situations.

Nobody would say that Andre Drummond is a better player than Dwight Howard at this point in their careers, but considering Drummond makes only 15 percent of what Howard makes and produces a considerably higher percentage on the court of Howard’s value, it’s not ludicrous to say that one would rather having Drummond than Howard all things considered.

The difference, however, between Drummond and one of the top bigs in the upcoming draft is Drummond will be an incredibly productive player this season while Jahlil Okafor, Karl Anthony-Towns and my personal favorite, Willie Cauley-Stein, will probably be average, at best.

I don’t mean to disparage these particular prospects – they’ll probably have very productive and lengthy careers – but the truth is most rookies aren’t productive players during their rookie season.

Win Shares isn’t the stat that tells the entire story of how well a player played during a particular season (no statistic does this effectively), but it’s a good enough place to start. For reference, .100 WS/48 is the “average” player in the NBA and .200 WS/48 is usually the “star” level. Stephen Curry led the league this season at .288 WS/48 and Marcus Thornton amassed a WS/48 of .104 (about league average).

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The chart above shows either the first or second draft pick in each draft since 2000 (whichever player turned out to have a better career), and shows some of the inconsistencies with expecting one player to turn the franchise around. The most wins that a team has had with one of the players is 43 (Yao Ming, Rockets), and he also happened to have the highest WS/48 at .176, but the next two rookies with the highest WS/48 combined for 60 wins (Anthony Davis and Blake Griffin). Meanwhile, players who have turned out to be some of the best in the league started out well below average (LeBron James 0.078, John Wall 0.041 and Kevin Durant 0.040).

Expecting a rookie to immediately contribute is a faulty practice. A rookie drafted in the first round usually follows one of two paths. Either the young player will go to a struggling team and help the team improve from “really bad” to “not quite as bad,” or he’s picked by a team with a better record and struggles to find significant playing time in his first year.

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Of the 28 rookies listed above, most of the players followed a similar logic. Some were drafted to a miserable team and put up respectable seasons with few wins (Chris Paul, Carlos Boozer, Griffin and Howard, among others). Those players who made the playoffs usually weren’t significant factors in the playoffs (Jamario Moon, James Harden and Richard Jefferson all played around 20 minutes per game in the playoffs). And then there were the exceptions to the rule.

In a four-game series against the Milwaukee Bucks, Mike Miller averaged 12 points, almost five rebounds and two assists in 28 minutes per game for the Orlando Magic, Al Horford averaged 12.5 points, 10.5 rebounds and almost four assists in 40 minutes per game for the Atlanta Hawks in a seven-game series against the Boston Celtics, and Amar’e Stoudemire averaged 14 points and eight rebounds in 34 minutes per game for the Suns in a six-game series against the Spurs.

More recently, only 10 rookies have made the playoffs, played in more than one game and played meaningful minutes in the past two seasons. Of those rookies, only Steven Adams (0.099 WS/48, 18 minutes per game), Troy Daniels (0.209 WS/48, 17 minutes per game) and Clint Capela (0.216, 8 minutes per game) contributed average production as calculated by Win Shares.

Rookies who could shoot in college (or show the potential to shoot) are often thought of as possible immediate contributors in the NBA. Ben McLemore‘s shooting stroke was compared to Ray Allen‘s more times than I can count, and Nik Stauskas was supposed to take some of his minutes this past season as a “pure shooter.” However, shooting is one of the skills that rookies struggle the most with. Since 2000, only 29 rookies (an average of about two per season) have been able to maintain a three-point percentage greater than 35 percent (league average this year) while attempting at least three attempts per game, per Basketball-Reference.com.

Counting on rookies to impact a franchise during his first year is a dangerous practice. Andrew Wiggins won Rookie of the Year this season, but the first half of the season left a lot to be desired. Even LeBron James struggled his rookie season, posting a 0.078 WS/48 during his first year.

The players that’ll be drafted on June 25 will more than likely follow one of the two paths I described above, and for teams that are drafting unusually high in the draft – Miami, Indiana and Oklahoma City – the players won’t have the time and allotted minutes to learn from their unavoidable mistakes.

To the fans of the Timberwolves, Lakers, Knicks and all others that are expecting an immediate impact from one of the players at the top of the draft, just remember this post and have some patience.

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