Making an impression as an NBA rookie is a tall task. The game gets considerably more complicated when you make the jump from college to the pros, and most first-year players — even if they’re talented — flounder for a while as they try to grasp the intricacies of NBA playbooks and psyches.
But that doesn’t mean it’s impossible to wow the roundball world in a debut season. Magic Johnson, for instance, was the Finals MVP as he led his Los Angeles Lakers to a title alongside Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as a rookie. And the San Antonio Spurs’ still-active legend Tim Duncan arrived to the NBA as his team’s best player in 1997-98. It was only one season later that he led his team to their first of many championships as they defeated the New York Knicks in the 1999 NBA Finals.
We’re not going to hold the new crop of NBA first-timers up to the lofty standards set by Duncan, Magic, and the rest of the game’s greatest players. That would just be unfair. But there is plenty to be excited about in 2014-15’s new collection of stars.
5. Nikola Mirotic
Chicago Bulls fans have been twiddling their thumbs over this guy for years. Acquired in a 2011 trade after he was drafted by the Minnesota Timberwolves, Mirotic has seen his myth only grow in the years he spent playing through contracts in the Spanish League, where he was the 2013 MVP.
Mirotic finally signed with the Bulls this summer, a full three years after they got their man, and through limited time on the floor, Mirotic has made good on a lot of the hype. The 6’10” forward is shockingly mobile for his size, a deadly shooter, and incredibly clever and quick with his hands. Although his game is rough, raw, and sloppy in the expected fashion of a rookie, there appear to be very few NBA skills he doesn’t have.
“Niko,” as he prefers to be called, is not going to garner any rookie awards. The Bulls have perhaps the deepest backcourt in the league, and it will be hard for Mirotic to find minutes behind Joakim Noah, Pau Gasol, and Taj Gibson. But if he were on a team without such an embarrassment of big man riches, he’d be in the running for Rookie of the Year honors.
4. Andrew Wiggins
It’s going to take Andrew Wiggins a while to outgrow the story that started his NBA career. Initially drafted No. 1 overall by the Cleveland Cavaliers, Wiggins was subsequently traded to Minnesota in a deal that assembled the sport’s next juggernaut by moving Kevin Love over to Ohio, alongside LeBron James.
But “Maple Jordan,” as the Canada native is fondly called, has the hops and coordination to eventually turn into one of the most devastating perimeter athletes around. Moments like this terrific block of superstar James Harden remind us of what Wiggins might become:
Wiggins doesn’t yet have the confidence, fluidity, or knowledge needed to more regularly stand up to players of Harden’s stature. In time, he could. But for now, one thing we can be sure of is that the ‘Wolves' young stud is liable to explode for can’t-miss highlight clips any night you watch him.
3. Jabari Parker
Widely touted as the most NBA-ready prospect of his class, Jabari Parker is helping to restore life to the basketball community in Milwaukee. The Duke University alum and Chicago native (he played at Simeon Academy, the same school that brought up Derrick Rose) was a first-team All American in the NCAA last year, and the consensus high school player of the year as a senior.
The peak of Parker’s upside has him looking like the next Carmelo Anthony; A beefy, creative, sweet-shooting wingman who’s an offense unto himself. Parker can get buckets with the best of them. So while he’s only averaging 10.6 points per game through ten Bucks contests, you can comfortably expect that number to rise as coach Jason Kidd figures out how to best use his 19-year-old star.
2. Marcus Smart
When it comes to defense, Marcus Smart already looks like he’s got years and years of experience under his belt. A ravenous, lockdown guard, Smart is all over the floor for his Boston Celtics, chasing ball-handlers like a bad dream that doesn’t end.
His awareness and energy have even occasionally translated to the other side of the ball in the early going, like when he made this shrewd, dazzling behind-the-back pass in an eye-catching performance against the Dallas Mavericks:
Smart’s already got the moxie and aggression of a veteran. It’s only a matter of time until he has the rest of the picture complete, and he’s one of the most fearsome guards in the game.
1. Elfrid Payton
Elfrid Payton is the undisputed champion of hairstyles in his class. What’s even more enticing than Payton’s ‘do, though, is how it’s an emblem of his unchained playing style. Payton is a hard-charging, physical point guard with speed to spare and incredible vision for the floor.
Like Smart, Payton is also a relentless pest as a defender, often approaching wrestling tactics in his coverage. His infectious energy is unlearned for now, but Payton’s already looked like a fierce leader for his young Orlando Magic team, and like a player who can spark his team into great performances down the road. Watch these highlights of Elfrid’s November 7 outing against Minnesota for a preview of one of the NBA’s most watchable point guards:
— John Wilmes