Last November’s NBA Draft was one of the least heralded ones in recent history and came into the season with low expectations, but the ‘20-’21 rookie class proved the naysayers wrong and put up a quality showing in their freshman year.
Anthony Edwards, LaMelo Ball, and Tyrese Haliburton excelled in their rookie seasons and showed All-Star potential. Each took turns posting big games and highlights over the season, squashing the notion that this year’s batch of rookies lacked star potential.
'The 2020 NBA draft class is weak' takes have already aged so poorly. Time will tell if there are any true stars, but tons of talent showing up early.— Chase Hughes (@ChaseHughesNBCS) December 28, 2020
However, the season did not start off as expected for the No.1 overall pick Edwards. He came off the bench for the Minnesota Timberwolves’ first 17 games and averaged just 13 points on 35% field goal shooting which led to the re-emergence of the pre-draft questions about his commitment to basketball.
By late January though, he finally found himself in the starting line-up for the injury-riddled Wolves and put the doubts to rest. Edwards averaged 21.3 points on 43% shooting, 5.2 rebounds, and 3.3 assists over 55 games as a starter and planted himself firmly in the Rookie of the Year conversation.
He has a mature 6’4, 225 pound frame despite being just 19 years old and it has allowed him to attack the rim relentlessly for powerful dunks and breathtaking lay-ups. The “Ant-Man” has already scored 42 points on two occasions and also has two 30-point games to his name. Like most young players, his outside shot still needs work (32.9% from three this season). Once the shots start falling though, the runway to the basket will only clear up for the high-flying swingman.
Edwards’ main rival for Rookie of the Year honors is the Charlotte Hornets’ LaMelo Ball. By far the most talked about player coming into the draft, the 6’6 point guard exceeded expectations and immediately posted gaudy stat lines despite coming off the bench in December and January. His electrifying passes were a social media staple throughout the season and he transformed a languishing Hornets franchise into a League Pass favorite and up-and-coming team in the Eastern Conference.
The third pick in the draft had his first career triple double in just his tenth career game–an early January win against the Atlanta Hawks–where he tallied 22 points, 12 rebounds, and 11 assists. Later that month, he recorded 27 points, nine assists, and five rebounds and by the Hornets’ next game, head coach James Borrego permanently moved him into the starting line-up.
The Rookie of the Year trophy looked like it was Ball’s for the taking until he fractured his wrist in March and had to miss 21 games before coming back in May to finish the season on a high note. Ball finished the year with averages of 15.7 points, 5.9 rebounds, and 6.1 assists and looks like a foundational piece that the franchise can build around over the next decade.
Meanwhile on the west coast, Ball’s fellow rookie guard Tyrese Haliburton displayed a less flashy but equally effective brand of basketball with the Sacramento Kings. Haliburton’s name was all over the place in mock drafts coming off a solid sophomore season at Iowa State. He eventually fell to the Kings at the 12th pick despite being praised in some circles as the best guard in the draft.
He immediately made an impact in his professional debut and played down the stretch in an overtime win against the Denver Nuggets, showing his poise with a three pointer late in the fourth to give the Kings a five-point lead. Despite missing a potential game winner with a few seconds left in regulation, the fact that he was on the floor in that situation was indicative of the amount of confidence that head coach Luke Walton had in the rookie even in his first game.
Though Haliburton’s stat lines don’t jump off the page like those of Edwards and Ball, he was a stabilizing factor for the Kings and played with the poise of a multi-year veteran. He scored in double figures in 42 out of the 58 games he appeared in and found himself in the starting line-up on multiple occasions late in the season as the Kings succumbed to injuries.
Haliburton’s numbers as a starter and coming off the bench were relatively identical, but one of his signature moments of the season came in April in a 117-113 loss against Steph Curry and the Golden State Warriors.
Starting in place of DeAaron Fox, Haliburton was the primary playmaker for the Kings over the first three quarters before scoring 15 points in the fourth quarter on an array of floaters and lay-ups. Haliburton’s goal-tended lay-up put the Kings up by a point with less than two minutes to play, but that was their last basket of the evening and they eventually fell to the Warriors. Haliburton finished with 24 points on 50% shooting from the field together with eight assists while further establishing himself as a rising star in the NBA.
Fellow lottery picks Isaac Okoro, Patrick Williams, and Onyeka Okongwu also carved key roles for the Cleveland Cavaliers, Chicago Bulls, and Atlanta Hawks respectively, in their first year. Okoro and Williams showed off versatile games on the wing and proved to be the perfect players in the modern NBA. Okongwu, on the other hand, proved to be a capable rim runner and shot blocker as a back-up to Clint Capela.
Outside of the lottery, the Detroit Pistons’ pair of mid-first rounders Saddiq Bey and Isaac Stewart had strong showings for their rebuilding team. Bey showed promise as a floor spacer, shooting 38% on more than six three point attempts while Stewart led all rookies in Win Shares with 4.0 and averaged 12.7 points and 9.4 rebounds in the 14 games that he started. The Pistons’ lottery choice Killian Hayes, on the other hand, was slowed by a hip injury but showed flashes of brilliance upon returning to the court late in the season.
Elsewhere in the Eastern Conference, the Orlando Magic’s Cole Anthony and Immanuel Quickley of the New York Knicks had their fair share of show stealing moments over the season. The latter played a crucial role for the Knicks in their surprising run to a playoff berth. Quickley outperformed fellow rookie Obi Toppin, who was picked in the lottery and touted as a potential replacement for Julius Randle, but his campaign started off on the wrong foot with a calf injury and he was never able to establish himself in the rotation.
Toppin was not the only lottery pick who struggled on the court this season. James Wiseman was slow to adapt to the pace of the NBA game in his first year with the Golden State Warriors. The second pick in the draft still managed to average 11.5 points per game before his first year was abruptly cut short at just 39 games by a meniscus injury.
Despite the struggles of a few lottery picks, the overall stellar performance of this year’s rookie class was an unexpected yet pleasant surprise. Though not the most star-studded draft, quite a number of these rookies have already established themselves as capable NBA rotational pieces. It’s only a matter of time before we see them playing major roles on teams making deep playoff runs.
They told us our class was trash😂 https://t.co/DOw57Eg6F4— Tyrese Haliburton (@TyHaliburton22) May 6, 2021