One of the most exciting elements of any new NBA season is the arrival of highly anticipated rookies.
The 2015-16 class has a handful of them, and the race for Rookie of the Year honors boasts a wide range of legitimate contenders as well as a few dark horses. While there might not be an Anthony Davis or Andrew Wiggins in this bunch, you’ll still see a smattering of first-year players make their imprint on the league.
With training camp on the horizon, it’s time to dish out our preseason rookie rankings. Which rookies are poised to shine the brightest this season, based on projected roles, environments and skills? Who’s best suited to make a run at the coveted ROY hardware?
First Five Out: Kristaps Porzingis, Justin Anderson, Kelly Oubre, Devin Booker, Trey Lyles
10. Frank Kaminsky, Charlotte Hornets PF/C
Charlotte’s frontcourt corps is crowded with Al Jefferson, Spencer Hawes, Cody Zeller and Marvin Williams, but Frank Kaminsky has the chops to hang with them. Wisconsin’s polished stretch big can execute fluidly in almost any scenario, and he’s ready to make a skillful impact from Day 1.
No matter what lineup combination he’s placed with, Kaminsky will be able to post-up, spot-up or put the ball on the deck. Buzz City will have the luxury of using him as a combo-big man right away:
Steve Clifford tells us that he sees Frank Kaminsky playing the four or five position for them like the Celtics use Olynyk #Hornets
— SiriusXM NBA Radio (@SiriusXMNBA) August 17, 2015
9. Justise Winslow, Miami Heat SF
This ranking could change quickly if Justise Winslow earns a more prominent place on Miami’s playoff-hungry squad. If the Duke product shoots more crisply than he did during Summer League and demonstrates a creative in-between game, he could record enough stats to move into our top five.
For now, he’s projected to play behind Luol Deng at small forward, and backcourt scorers like Dwyane Wade, Gerald Green and Goran Dragic will carry the lion’s share of offense in the 1-3 positions. Winslow will have to settle for being a key supplementary piece off the bench who offers athletic energy on both ends:
Justise Winslow working on cleaning up jump shot this summer: He shot just 34 percent in Summer League. http://t.co/o4edWrP3jI
— Audley Stephenson (@TheAudman) September 4, 2015
8. Willie Cauley-Stein, Sacramento Kings PF/C
Willie Cauley-Stein‘s spot in our rookie hierarchy is based on the large role he’ll play in shoring up Sac-town’s defense.
The Kings scooped up Kentucky’s 7-foot pogo-stick in order to give DeMarcus Cousins help protecting the rim, and WCS has a good chance to be in the opening night starting lineup. Even though he won’t put up the gaudy offensive numbers that are usually required to contend for Rookie of the Year, he’ll still make a lot of noise in the rookie realm:
Willie Cauley-Stein had the most defensive win shares (3.4) in D-I this season. He held opponents to 22% FG pct in isolation. #NBADraft
— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) June 26, 2015
7. Mario Hezonja, Orlando Magic SF
But the Magic added Croatia’s Mario Hezonja in the draft for a reason, and that’s because he can flat-out shoot it from deep. Considering the Magic aren’t a title contender next year, I don’t expect them to bury his talent on the bench. They’re going to give him minutes to adjust to the NBA and electrify the crowd with his shooting and athletic slashes.
Orlando’s new coach, Scott Skiles, is a defensive-minded skipper. Let’s see if Hezonja can play up to his standards and earn a pivotal spot in the rotation:
Missed in Hezonja's spectacular dunks is the fact that adjusting to speed he needs to play on defense will be a major adjustment
— Ed Isaacson (@nbadraftblog) July 7, 2015
6. Myles Turner, Indiana Pacers PF/C
Myles Turner lands on our list because he’ll have an important role in Indy’s new-look frontcourt. The departure of Roy Hibbert and David West left voids in the rim-protecting and mid-range shooting departments, and Turner should contribute in both of those areas.
The Pacers’ cast of big men includes Ian Mahinmi, Jordan Hill and Lavoy Allen, all of whom are solid but not dynamic. Turner’s tremendous defensive instincts and soft shooting touch could outclass all of them as the season unfolds:
Vogel on @Original_Turner, "You see him dominate on the defensive end with his shot-blocking. … We're really high on him."
— Indiana Pacers (@Pacers) July 6, 2015
5. Stanley Johnson, Detroit Pistons SF
Armed with an NBA-ready body, budding versatility and a strong mentality, Arizona swingman Stanley Johnson could assume a considerable mantle for the Pistons in 2015-16.
The 6’6″ swingman is built from granite, but his skill set and two-way smarts are equally impressive. Johnson can handle the rock, shoot from the NBA arc (42 percent during Summer League) and crash the glass. He surprised his own coach with his knack for generating offense during Summer League:
Stan Van Gundy talking in Orlando about how Stanley Johnson has shot the ball off the dribble better than he anticipated
— Ethan J. Skolnick (@EthanJSkolnick) July 6, 2015
Johnson will be able to check 2s and 3s on defense, and he can switch onto 1s and 4s in certain situations. That kind of interchangeability will give him regular minutes in Motown’s rotation.
4. D’Angelo Russell, Los Angeles Lakers PG
Gifted with a cool demeanor and smooth skills at the point, D’Angelo Russell has a chance to grow into a lethal playmaker down the road. But don’t expect Ohio State’s one-and-done stud to have a Damian Lillard/Kyrie Irving type of rookie year.
For starters, Russell will be sharing minutes touches with dynamic sophomore Jordan Clarkson and some guy named Kobe Bryant. Secondly, Russell is still young. If his 38 percent shooting and five-plus turnovers per game at Summer League tells us anything, it’s that he needs time to adjust.
Nevertheless, we’ll see plenty of glimpses of his sweet-shooting and dime-dropping potential, and he’ll be one of the most fun rookies to watch:
Can't teach court vision like D'Angelo Russell's. Such a creative passer. #Lakers
— Zach Buckley (@ZachBuckleyNBA) July 16, 2015
3. Karl-Anthony Towns, Minnesota Timberwolves PF/C
Even though Karl-Anthony Towns was the No. 1 pick in the draft, he’s No. 3 on our rookie totem pole because he’s not quite as polished on the offensive end as Emmanuel Mudiay or Jahlil Okafor. The potential for versatility is there, but it’s not refined yet. He’ll struggle intermittently to consistently create as much offense as them:
At some point in about January, NBA teams are just going to start playing Karl Towns post game to the right handed hook every time.
— Sam Vecenie (@Sam_Vecenie) July 16, 2015
That’s not to say Towns won’t deliver a big impact this year. He’ll block a slew of shots, haul in a bushel of rebounds and knock down 75-80 percent of his free throws. Minnesota’s interior defense needs help right now, and while Towns is undisciplined and foul-prone at times, his presence and aggressiveness will change the dynamic of the frontcourt.
2. Emmanuel Mudiay, Denver Nuggets PG
With Ty Lawson shipped south to Houston, the Nuggets will give the offensive reins to Emmanuel Mudiay. He’ll immediately prove to be an electrifying playmaker, albeit one who will make a healthy share of youthful mistakes.
The 6’5″ Congo-born enigma is still learning the finer points of running a team, but his shifty handles and natural pick-and-roll talent will quickly emerge in Denver. Mudiay only played four games of Summer League ball, but his creativity shined in a pair of back-to-back eight-plus assist outings. When he turns the corner off screens or gets loose in transition, his vision and agility flourish:
1. Jahlil Okafor, Philadelphia 76ers C
Duke’s monstrous man in the middle tops our list because he’s primed to churn out abundant offense right away. Those who have watched Jahlil Okafor during college and Summer League can tell he’s not only physically ready to battle in the paint, but he’s also skilled enough to frustrate most defenders.
Joel Embiid is out for another year and Nerlens Noel‘s post game is still limited. Consequently, Okafor will consistently get touches in Philly’s half-court attack. His defense will be downright porous at times, but his substantial offensive role and polish lifts him atop the rookie heap to start the season:
Whether Okafor was the best pick at 3 or not, he's going to get a RIDICULOUS number of shots. He's good at making shots.
— Tim Faklis (@timfaklis) August 11, 2015