NBA Rookie Watch: All the Stars We’re Going to Know and Love This Year

As the NBA season draws near, Grantland’s NBA staff will be asking and attempting to answer a series of 20 pressing questions facing players, teams, and coaches.

Since before the NBA draft, we’ve known that this year’s rookie class wasn’t going to be like most others. There’s more talent than ever, bigger personalities, and more fun across the board.

As the year unfolds, we’re going to keep track of all these kids for you. Their triumphs, their failures, their social media adventures. Once every month, we’ll have Rookie Watch, a wildly subjective rundown of the best this class has to offer. It will be only loosely based in basketball, but that’s OK, because these rookies give us so much more than basketball.

Let’s get to it. Here are your preseason rankings.

10. Mitch McGary

Juliet Litman: Sure, Mitch McGary has a broken foot that will keep him sidelined for a few weeks, but life is off to a great start for him in Oklahoma City.

I’m assuming MMG already has a nickname all of his teammates use, so Serge Ibaka doesn’t know his real name. Steven Adams may not have known McGary’s name either, which is why he relied on the generic term of endearment. That must be it, right? I’m also assuming neither watched any of the highlights from the rookie photo shoot, because if they had, they’d surely know the rook’s name after this somersault dunk:

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You can just feel it. McGary is going to be the glue guy for Oklahoma City this year. He looked promising in summer league, especially after a prolonged absence from competition because of back surgery early this year. So maybe he’ll even contribute once he gets healthy! I’m already hoping Kevin Durant wins MVP again despite missing six to eight weeks, just so we can find out what superlative he’d give the young fella. McGary is already a skilled cheerleader, and he doesn’t apologize to anyone, especially not for smoking a little weed. Just don’t get caught.

9. Nerlens Noel

nerlens

Sharp: Does he count as a rookie? The NBA’s counting him as a rookie. Let’s go ahead and count him as a rookie. Nerlens Noel has several things working in his favor this season:

  • The flattop has had a year to grow and mature, and it’s looking better than ever.
  • Last month, he gathered an NBA TV camera crew and re-created the Rocky run through the streets of Philadelphia.
  • One-man wedding crasher.
  • He’s still younger than half the people on this list.
  • He inspired this T-shirt, which Chris Ryan purchased immediately.
  • He’s got a chance to lead all rookies in blocks and rebounds, and he’ll have plenty of chances to score, too. Somebody has to in Philadelphia.
  • He’s got the third-best odds (11/2) to win Rookie of the Year.

The only reason he’s not higher on the list is that nobody’s good enough to make Sixers games bearable this year. Also, because we forgot the NBA is counting him as a rookie, so I added him at the last minute. There’s definitely room for him to rise over the next few months.

8. T.J. Warren

Sharp: It’s always tricky to tell which rookies will have the chance to play real minutes, especially on good teams. That’s why it’s tough to predict future greatness. But if he gets to play, T.J. Warren’s going to be awesome this year. This is probably the most purely basketball-related entry on this list.

You may remember him as the best player on a horrible NC State team, but you’ll eventually know him as a Caron Butler/Paul Pierce–type wing who does nothing but score. Over the summer, Kirk Goldsberry blacked out and compared him to Bernard King, and I couldn’t even disagree.

Warren can finish inside, his midrange game is already better than 85 percent of wings around the league, and he has a mix of strength and pure athleticism that will make him a tough matchup for the next decade. Phoenix isn’t the greatest spot for him, because he doesn’t shoot 3s (yet?), but it’s all good. Life finds a way, and so will Warren.

7. Zach LaVine

Litman: Zach LaVine will spend this season, and perhaps the entirety of his rookie contract, overcompensating for his “fuck me” moment from draft night. (Why didn’t he say it as he dropped his head down to the table so that no cameras or humans would see?) Prepare yourself for an emotional roller coaster with this kid.

His 2014 apology tour began with the ostentatious dunks.

There was no cheaper way for him to win over a few basketball heads than by putting on a show in Seattle. It’s a deprived fan base with an incentive to root for their hometown kid. If you give them some impressive, shiny moves, maybe everyone will forget about your gaffe. He’s not just a brat. He’s a brat who dunks!

It’s a solid strategy, and he has already taken it a step further by borrowing from the Kobe Bryant playbook. He has recently selected a nickname for himself and Andrew Wiggins. They’d like to be known as the Bounce Brothers. LaVine really wants you to know that he dunks.

At first, this aggressive brand management makes Minnesota’s young guy appear like a potential problem who will probably languish in the extreme winters of Minneapolis. But if you scan through his social media, you realize he’s actually just a huge loser. And that’s when you start loving LaVine. Oh! All that showmanship is just the behavior of a freakishly gifted athlete who is suddenly rich and the center of attention! LaVine doesn’t know any better. We should all be comforted by the conspicuous presence of his parents and sister in many of his photos. He relocated with his family in tow, and I have faith they’ll keep him on the right path — even if it includes a lot of dunks.

His try-hard approach to informal basketball workouts permeates all facets of his life. LaVine recently had the opportunity to meet his favorite baseball player, Mike Trout. Look at the outfit he wore for the occassion:

zachlavine

Is he trying to look European? Did he go shopping in a Goodwill filled exclusively with reject items of Premier League players? This is a terrible outfit! LaVine is profoundly uncool. Let’s process his new celebrity along with him.

6. Marcus Smart

Sharp: Everyone in Boston is pretty excited about Marcus Smart, because the rise of Marcus Smart is truly the only thing that could possibly be exciting with the Celtics this year. Anyone who reads about everything he overcame to get this far would have trouble betting against him now. Plus, Rajon Rondo’s out for at least the first month of the season, so Smart will have plenty of opportunities to shine early on. Maybe he belongs higher on this list.

But then: Are we sure he’s actually good? If he can’t shoot from outside, and he’s not all that quick, and the strength he used in college isn’t so overpowering in the pros … it could be a rough transition. This horrible Celtics team is either the perfect platform for Smart to prove skeptics (me) wrong and make a run at Rookie of the Year, or Smart will struggle and the Celtics will be unwatchable.

Anyway, I wrote all of that, and then I checked Smart’s Instagram, and it turns out he’s already insulating himself from all the doubters. If he starts slow the next few months, remember the Rolls-Royce.

MarcusSmart

5. Noah Vonleh

Litman: The rookies were asked to complete a questionnaire about each other, answering questions like “Which rookie will have the best career?” and “Which rookie is being most overlooked?” Noah Vonleh was not a top vote-getter in any category. Therefore, I am immediately shooting him to the top of the “most overlooked” category. Do these young guys even know what a good rapper he is? He won rookie karaoke.

More than just a good rapper, he’s clearly got a good spirit. A photobomber with flow deserves your attention.

ay25q

Also, on draft night, he botched a sponsored tweet by including an iMessage notification from one of Indiana’s football recruits in his screengrab. It was a strong start that I’m surprised wasn’t some kind of NCAA violation. Vonleh doesn’t care, though. Did you see that GIF? He’s here to have a good time.

4. Jabari Parker

Sharp: What if Carmelo Anthony had played his entire career as a stretch 4? What if Milwaukee was on the brink of losing its team and then got saved by a 6-foot-11 point guard from Greece and a Mormon from the South Side of Chicago? What if Jabari Parker plays 15 years for the Bucks and then runs for president one day? Don’t rule it out. He’s that smooth. He’s that likable. He’s already got the perfect campaign logo. The season hasn’t even started yet, and he’s already giving the people game-winning dunks.

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There’s a lot to be excited about here. And this is when I should probably pick him for Rookie of the Year. He’s the favorite in Vegas at 5/2. Everyone should pick him for Rookie of the Year. But right now it’s time to look at the Rihanna to his Beyoncé …

3. Andrew Wiggins

Sharp: For the last 12 months, there’s been nothing but hate for Andrew Wiggins. It started slow the first few months at Kansas — why isn’t he dominating? — and by the time we got to the NBA draft, the hate had calcified into consensus — he’ll never be dominant. There is only one appropriate response to all the Wiggins haters out there:

His game is much better suited to the NBA than to college basketball and Bill Self’s offense. Stop worrying about ballhandling. You know who else had questions about their ballhandling as rookies? Tracy McGrady and Kobe Bryant. Give it a few years before we nitpick the top-five credentials with Wiggins. The form on his jumper is perfect, he’s athletic enough to get all kinds of garbage points around the rim right away, and he’ll also get endless looks in transition running with Ricky Rubio (and then dunking someone’s face off).

Wiggins survived the awkward misery of those six weeks with Cleveland, and now he’s in Minnesota throwing out the first pitch at Twins games, soaking in the excitement he deserved all along. I wrote about this in depth in the second half of this piece over the summer, but Minnesota is a better place for him than Cleveland would’ve been. Basically, the biggest question mark with Wiggins is whether he will take over games. In Cleveland, he’d never have to. In Minnesota, he’ll have that opportunity almost from Day 1. It’ll bring out the best in him.

Go ahead. Keep hating. The bandwagon is mostly empty right now, and that’s fine, because Wiggins is winning Rookie of the Year, and in six months everyone will pretend like they’ve loved him all along.

2. Aaron Gordon

Litman: Aaron Gordon just turned 19 on September 16. He lives in his own apartment in Orlando. He tweets at girls to get their attention. He relishes the fact that Sunday night is no longer a school night. He has a custom matte black Jaguar. He can’t shoot, but he can dunk. He can DUNK.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i0CY7n7cekI

Does it matter that Gordon has no discernible jump shot when he can do things like that? Or like this? We’ve already nominated him as one of the players most likely to get catfished this season, but I hope that one doesn’t come true, because he’s so full of enthusiasm. This week, he had to stop himself from overly celebrating a preseason victory:

“I was so excited,” he said Wednesday after the Magic returned from Miami. “I had to compose myself a little bit because it was preseason. But, man, I was thrilled that we could go into overtime and have a chance to win.”

In fact, he’s enthusiastic about almost everything, including sushi plates: “We also got a pool table, bar stools and sushi plates. It’s going to be hot!” That’s him telling Slam about his new apartment, and although Orlando is quite warm, I think he was referring to the vibe of his place. I want success for Gordon, because he wants it for himself.

#OMIGOD.

aarongordon

1. Nik Stauskas

Litman: When we look back on the storied career of Nik Stauskas, King in the North, Steward of Central California, where will his story begin? Will it be the time Steph Curry challenged him to a 3-point shooting contest in his backyard only to have the NCAA call it off? Will the tale begin with the widely circulated photo that demonstrated just how much muscle he added at Michigan? Will we watch a video of his goofy celebratory handshake with his dad on draft night? Will we talk about when he openly declared that he’s a target in the NBA because he’s white? Will we remind future generations that he was caught taking a photo of his stacks of cash? There’s so much to choose from. Stauskas is already a rich text.

Sharp: Everything the rest of the Internet feels about Joel Embiid’s Twitter account is how I feel about Stauskas’s Twitter account:

There could be no other preseason no. 1. For trash-talking potential, 3 goggles history, the white-guy chip on his shoulder, and his inspiring battle for free speech in the Far East.

Litman: Plenty of players make controversial statements, but most wait for their careers to get going. What Stauskas said last week — “I understand that I’m a rookie and I’m white, so people are going to attack me at all times” — is almost less important than that he said it. After his comments circulated, he followed up by saying he was surprised by the attention.

I believe he was surprised, because honesty has become a hallmark of his pre-NBA persona. When everyone else is rapping their favorite rap lyrics, Stauskas stays true to his Canadian roots and sings some Justin Bieber. When everyone else is playing it cool, he takes a selfie with the Shanghai skyline in the background. He lacks the self-awareness to hold back his true self, which is going to make his adjustment to NBA life riveting.

Sharp: Will this dominance hold up? Probably not. He’s in Sacramento, in a murderous conference, so it will be an uphill battle to stay in the spotlight. But I’m not giving up just yet. Win or lose, he and Boogie Cousins are already the best odd couple in the NBA. Plus, Stauskas has been proving doubters wrong his whole life. He saved Michigan last year, and now it’s time to save Sacramento.

Litman: The most promising facet of Stauskas’s game is not just that he’s a great shooter, but that in his two years at Michigan he vastly improved across the board. In Year 1, all he had was his outside shooting. In Year 2, without Trey Burke, he developed some ballhandling skills and the ability to drive and create his own shot. He doesn’t have LaVine or Gordon’s athleticism, but there’s real hope for him!

Sharp: One day we’re going to look back on all this Stauskas love and look really smart or really dumb. Either way, no regrets.

Filed Under: 2014-15 NBA Preview, NBA, Nik Stauskas, Aaron Gordon, Zach LaVine, Andrew Wiggins, TJ Warren, Jabari Parker, Marcus Smart, Nerlens Noel, Mitch McGary, Noah Vonleh, Rookie Watch, NBA 20 Questions