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Rookie Bigs Enjoying Smoother NBA Transition Than Guards

Brett Davis/USA TODAY Sports

It’s a great year to be a rookie big man in the NBA.

Nearly every frontcourt prospect from the 2015 draft lottery has gotten off to a strong start and delivered a positive impact in the rotation. They’re attacking the rim, protecting the paint and, for the most part, outshining their backcourt counterparts.

The league utilizes and values guards and versatile wings more than ever. But when it comes to first-year players, there’s still ample opportunity for talented post players to excel in the right situation.

In fact, this year’s crop of towers illustrates how it’s often easier for young bigs to make a smoother initial transition to the Association than guards. While we’ve seen some highly productive playmakers jump out of the gate in recent years (think Kyrie Irving, Damian Lillard, Michael Carter-Williams), the 2015 class features a slew of power forwards and centers who are enjoying more productivity and efficiency than the top backcourt prospects.

For starters, Minnesota Timberwolves prize Karl-Anthony Towns is proving why he was plucked first in June’s draft.

We knew he had potent two-way potential, but hardly anyone anticipated such a polished, multifaceted impact so early in his career. The 6’11” Kentucky product has churned out a mix of aggressive drives and post-ups, along with a fluid mid-range jumper. Meanwhile, Towns has changed the complexion of Minny’s defense by gobbling up rebounds and blanketing the rim with his length. It was on full display during the Wolves’ road triumph over the Atlanta Hawks:

The result is a rock-solid 15.5 points and 10.0 rebounds per game, a 21.9 player efficiency rating and a defensive field goal percentage of 36.4. That last number is particularly impressive, because opponents are shooting 47.1 percent against the rest of the league.

Although Minnesota isn’t an elite squad, their personnel and playing style has proved conducive to Towns’s success. Ricky Rubio is a high-level table setter, and Andrew Wiggins leads a promising cast of wings to take the scoring pressure off Towns.

Meanwhile, on the East Coast, a couple of behemoths are relishing their roles on rebuilding clubs.

No. 3 overall pick Jahlil Okafor is feasting off his featured scoring role with the Philadelphia 76ers. The franchise is still waiting patiently for Joel Embiid to suit up, so Okafor is by far the best shot-creating option on the team right now.

Coach Brett Brown has afforded the big fella plenty of chances to unleash his power, polished footwork and shooting touch. Consequently, Okafor is posting 19.9 points per game, including 5.3 trips to the free throw line. Those are numbers you rarely see from a 19-year-old. His rebounding and defensive execution have a long way to go, but overall, he’s making a comfortable transition to the NBA.

Elsewhere in the Atlantic Division, Kristaps Porzingis has lit up the Big Apple while exceeding expectations for the New York Knicks.

Prior to the draft, I questioned the Latvian prodigy’s potential fit in the Triangle offense. But he’s jelled in the Bockers’ system much better than anticipated, and he’s also played tougher and grabbed more rebounds than projected.

Porzingis’s early line is impressive: 12.3 points per game, 8.6 rebounds, a 19.7 PER and a stingy 40.8 percent defensive field goal percentage. Ethan Norof of FanRagSports.com noted how Porzingis has become a key weapon much sooner than expected:

Nobody projected Porzingis to make this impact by the end of the year, let alone its start…Making his presence felt at both ends of the floor, Porzingis is a matchup nightmare for almost anyone he faces. Capable of playing both inside and out, there isn’t an area of the court that the lengthy Latvian can’t reach.

Several other rookie big men have tipped off their careers with efficient, positive contributions in varying roles. Willie Cauley-Stein, Frank Kaminsky and Myles Turner all have PER’s of at least 14. Outside the lottery, Bobby Portis, Montrezl Harrell, Richaun Holmes and 2010 draftee Nemanja Bjelica have all been promising. The only outlier is Trey Lyles, who’s been woefully inefficient during his small stints with the Utah Jazz.

A look at the stats of the 2015 top 10 picks shows that the “little” guys are enduring a bigger struggle so far:

It’s still ridiculously early in the season, so these stats don’t serve as a long-term indictment of the backcourt players. There’s tons of talent and upside in D’Angelo Russell, Mario Hezonja and Emmanuel Mudiay, and wings Stanley Johnson and Justise Winslow pass the eye test on both ends of the floor. Mudiay has stood out as a lethal asset, and his 18-point, five-assist effort Monday night is fresh evidence.

Rather, the stats are an illustration of how difficult it is to consistently make a positive impact as a young guard or swingman in today’s NBA.

If someone like Mudiay is asked to quarterback a mediocre team’s offense at age 19, we shouldn’t be shocked by a steady flow of mistakes (5.8 turnovers per 36 minutes). There are so many different things a point guard is asked to do, including seeing the whole floor, dictating pace, distributing to the right guy at the right time and taking smart shots.

Some of these young playmakers are simply in less-than-ideal situations. In his Pattern of Basketball blog, Jonathan Tjarks explained Russell’s quandary with the Los Angeles Lakers:

I feel bad for Russell because he’s kind of walked into a worst-case scenario in terms of utilizing his skill-set. He’s a spread pick-and-roll guy all the way…He’s playing next to two ball-dominant guys on the perimeter with a front-court that doesn’t have anyone who can stretch out the defense. He only gets so much time with the ball in his hands and he doesn’t have a lot of room to operate and he doesn’t have the versatility to impact the game as a role player…

The point is that for several of the top guard/wing prospects in the draft, their circumstances and responsibilities have been a bit trickier than those of the bigs.

It’s not that the frontcourt stars haven’t earned their stats. They’re excelling in those roles because they’re talented and smart. But in the early going, it helps to have length and less playmaking responsibilities.

Don’t give up on the 2015 guards. With experience and the right environment, most of them should find their niche in the league. In the meantime, let’s enjoy what looks like a special class of big men.

All statistics accurate as of Nov. 10, gathered from Basketball-Reference.com and NBA.com.

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