By Zachary Junda
Did the NBA season really end six weeks ago? It hasn’t felt like it considering how the league’s still been a major part of the news cycle the past few weeks. Since San Antonio dismembered Miami we’ve had a draft, LeBron return to Cleveland, wrapped up the Summer League and saw the Lakers hire a new coach. All the while, Kevin Love, God help us all, still lingers on the trading block. The NBA’s becoming more and more like the NFL in this sense: there really is no offseason.
Don’t look now but we’re actually within shouting distance of NBA training camps. Training camp’s that time of year where journeymen scrubs try to earn a pay check and rookies hope to prove that their Summer League performances can justify playing time.
NBA players on rookie contracts are fascinating commodities. If a team has a budding superstar playing for cheap for another season or two, they’ll try and surround him with assets that can help nurture him and the team’s future. Conversely, if a guy playing on his rookie deal hasn’t performed as expected, he’ll need a breakout season sooner than later or risk not getting big money on the coveted second contract.
It’s those players that are the focus of this piece. I wanted to see if I could build a team of players still signed under their rookie contracts and field a competitive roster. This isn’t a #HOTSPORTZTAKES “teams should draft smarter” piece because how exactly does a team draft “smarter?” Carefully. Obviously. But seriously, picking players is too much of a crapshoot for teams to actually be better or worse than others. Oklahoma City drafting Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden in consecutive years was dumb luck. The Seahawks won a Super Bowl after hitting the jackpot by taking Russell Wilson 75th overall in 2012 and Richard Sherman 154th in 2011. I know there’s scouting and evaluating how a player fits to a certain team’s scheme and blah blah blah, but even the best player personnel departments miss on guys, and the crappy ones will eventually trip over themselves and stumble upon a franchise changer.
It’s better to be lucky than good right? With that in mind, here is my All-Rookie Contract team.
Point Guard: Damian Lillard
What he’s done: Two seasons…one All-Star appearance (2014)…3rd Team All-NBA (2014)…Rookie of the Year (2013)…1st Team All-Rookie…Rookie of the Month six times…averaging 19.9 points, 3.3 rebounds, 6.0 assists…46/38/86 career shooter …one playoff appearance (11 games) averaging 22.9 points, 4.3 rebounds and 5.6 assists on 44/39/89 percent shooting.
Why I want him: If you are good enough to beat out Anthony Davis for Rookie of the Year that probably means something. Lillard is a hyper competitive freak as evidence by him participating in all five events at this past All-Star weekend. Part of me thinks he did it because this was one of his first chances to show the entire world what he could do. Think about it, playing in Portland might as well be playing on the moon. The only people catching Blazers games are people on the west coast and insomniacs. Personally I don’t think I saw a single Portland game this season except for their playoff series against the Rockets. Lillard’s played with a chip on his shoulder. He’s playing in a small market city like Portland and he played college ball at Weber State. Do you know where Weber State is? Because I don’t. And remember at 24 he’s considered “old” for entering his third NBA season. Lillard’s also super durable; he hasn’t missed a game in his first two seasons and he ranked first and seventh in the league in minutes played each year. The most compelling reason I have as to why I want Lillard he doesn’t shy away from the big stage. He went bananas in the first round of his very first playoffs throwing up a 26/6/7 line on 47/49/88 percent shooting and he topped it off with his ice-cold, SHUT IT DOWN LET’S GO HOME shot to eliminate Houston. Three years ago I had no idea who Damian Lillard was. Now I know him as the best young point guard in basketball.
Quick tangent: 24 is old for a guy two years into his career? How great is basketball? The only things on this earth that are considered old at 24 are NBA players still fresh out of college and dogs. Here’s hoping Lillard won’t have to go to a big farm up north one day.
Shooting Guard: Klay Thompson
What he’s done: Three seasons…1st Team All-Rookie (2012)…averaging 16.0 points, 3.1 rebounds and 2.2 assists…44/41/83 percent shooter…two playoff appearances (19 games) averaging 15.6 points, 4.2 rebounds and 2.5 assists on 43/40/80 percent shooting…ranked 3rd in 2013 (211) and 2nd in 2014 (223) in Three-Point Field Goals made…his 41.7 percent from three ranked 9th in the NBA in 2014….his career 41 percent from three currently ranks 17th All-Time.
Why I want him: Look I get it, Stephen Curry’s the better Warrior but don’t shortchange Thompson. The underrated Splash Brother, Thompson is one of the best sharp shooters in the league and quietly a great defender. He may not have the offensive numbers Curry has, but doesn’t that have something to do with Curry taking 124 more shots and 80 more threes than Thompson? If a guy like Klay Thompson can be found anywhere, why is Golden State not willing to include him in a trade for Kevin Love? Know who the Warriors ask to guard their opponent’s best perimeter player? Thompson. He guards the Tony Parkers, the Chris Pauls, the James Hardens of the world and he does so effectively. Thompson’s a versatile defender who can guard three positions. His skillset can lead to some great small-ball lineups for this team. Imagine a lineup of Lillard at the point guard, Victor Oladipo coming off the bench at the two-guard spot, Thompson at the three, Kawhi Leonard at the four and Anthony Davis at center. You can win games with that kind of lineup. Durability isn’t an area of concern with Thompson either: in three years he’s missed all of one game. Stephen Curry may be the best player on the Warriors, but don’t forget to give Klay Thompson his due.
Small Forward: Kawhi Leonard
What he’s done: Three seasons…two Finals appearances, one championship, one Finals MVP (2014)…2nd Team All-Defense (2014)…1st Team All-Rookie (2012)…averaging 10.9 points, 5.8 rebounds…51/38/80 percent shooter…three playoff appearances (58 games) averaging 13 points and 7 rebounds on 52/42/70 shooting…in 2014 ranked 7th in Defensive Rating (98.2), 10th in Steals per Game (1.7), 3rd in Steal Percentage (3.0) and 7th in Effective Field Goal Percentage (57.6 percent).
Why I want him: Leonard is the definition of the future. Whatever you want to call “the system” in San Antonio, he’s the future of it. He’s like Bruce Wayne being the top student at the League of Shadows. His 2014 Finals MVP Performance asserted himself as the next great Spur. He might be one of the best two-way players in the league already. The irony is, Leonard’s numbers aren’t all that impressive. Al least not on the surface. He hasn’t been selected to an All-Star team yet, the highest postseason accolade he’s received is second team All-Defense; even his Finals MVP numbers seem fairly modest (18 points and 7 rebounds). But when you consider he shot 61 percent from the floor, 58 from three and 78 from the free throw line in that series then it makes sense. Has it helped that he’s had the fortune to play with the best power forward ever, two of the best international players ever and been coached by the one of the four greatest coaches in league history? Absolutely it has, but you still have to make something of it. And Leonard has made himself into the next great Spur. And by “next great Spur,” I mean the next great player in San Antonio that nobody truly appreciates how great he is for the next 15 years because said player plays in San Antonio.
Power Forward: Anthony Davis
What he’s done: two seasons…one All-Star (2014)…member of the 2012 Gold Medal winning Olympic team…1st team All-Rookie (2013)…averaging 17.3 points, 9.1 rebounds and 2.3 blocks…51.8 percent shooter from the field, 77.7 percent from the free throw line…in 2014 led the league in Blocks per Game (2.3) and Block Percentage (6.7 percent), was third in Total Blocks (189), 10th in Rebounds per Game (10.0) and fourth in Player Efficiency Rating (26.5).
Why I want him: Anthony Davis is the next best player in the world. Right now he’s at worst the third best player in the league. Seriously, right now, how many players would you take ahead of Davis after LeBron James and Kevin Durant? Look at the leap Davis made between his first and second seasons:
2012-2013: 64 games (60 starts), 13.5 points, 8.2 rebounds, 1.8 blocks and a PER rating of 21.7
2013-2014: 67 games (66 starts), 20.8 points, 10.0 rebounds, 2.3 blocks and a PER rating of 26.5
In one year, Davis went from a solid frontcourt guy to averaging a double-double and leading the league in blocks. He just turned 21 four months ago and hasn’t played a full season’s worth of games yet. So if he’s averaging Tim Duncan numbers now, what’s he going to average at his peak? Does 27 and 14 with three or four blocks a game sound unrealistic? At his very worst, Davis is a poor man’s Tim Duncan; at his best he’s Hakeem Olajuwon reincarnated. Davis had this insane eight game stretch in March where he average 32.3 points, 13.5 rebounds and 2.5 blocks, peaking with a 40-21-3 outburst against the Celtics. Remember this was the point in time when the Pelicans roster was derailed by injury. So for those eight games, in which the Pelicans went 6-2, opponents knew that Davis was the guy to key in on but they still couldn’t stop him. The biggest question for Davis is where does he go in his third season? To me he has to do two things: play in at least 75 games and make the playoffs. Consider this, LeBron’s Cavs went from winning 35 games his rookie season to 50 and a playoff appearance his third. Durant’s Supersonics/Thunder won 20 games and then also made the playoffs with 50 wins in year three. In Davis’ two seasons, New Orleans has won 27 games and then upped it to 34 this past season. Can Davis get the Pelicans 16 more wins and/or make the postseason this upcoming season? He’s got the talent to do that. There’s no question about that.
Center: Nikola Vucevic
What he’s done: three seasons…averaging 11.4 points and 9.7 rebounds…career 50 percent shooter from the floor and 70.4 percent from the free throw line…in 2013 was second in the league Rebounds per Game (11.4), fifth in Offensive Rebounds and third in Total Rebounds…in 2014 was fourth in Defensive Rebounds, 10th in Defensive Rebounding Percentage and seventh in Total Rebounding Percent.*
*Note: Vucevic has only played in exactly one playoff game back when he was with Philadelphia in 2011. In that one game he only scored a single point and recorded one rebound in three minutes of action.
Why I want him: Well…I guess…uhh…because I need a center? There isn’t an absolute must have center still on a rookie contract in the league right now. Vucevic’s one of the best by default here and I don’t even feel good about taking him. This is like trying to decide between seeing an Adam Sandler movie or a Melissa McCarthy movie. I’ve got that “do I have to?” reluctance. But look at those rebounding numbers he’s put up the past two seasons on A) two bad Orlando teams in 2012-2013 and 2013-2014 and B) an unhealthy 2013-2014 season where he missed 25 games.
2012-2013: 77 games, 11.9 rebounds
2013-2014: 57 games, 11.0 rebounds
Now he’s looking a whole lot more appealing right? If picking a center who gobbles up rebounds like Hungry-Hungry Hippos is considered settling then you’re in a good spot. Vucevic is also sneaky good offensively. Did you know he’s a career 43 percent shooter from 10-16 feet, and also hits 41 percent from 16 feet to the three point line? And in the 57 games he played in this past season, Vucevic was averaging 14 and 11 on 51 percent shooting. Look at that, now we’ve got a center I can totally sell you on without having to use alcohol as an aid. Vucevic isn’t exactly a physical specimen though. He’s not the most athletic guy in the league and doesn’t play above the rim. Defensively he’s not a rim protector as evidence by his career average of 0.9 Blocks per Game. But with Anthony Davis and Kawhi Leonard playing alongside him in the front court, and Klay Thompson roaming the perimeter, doesn’t that offset Vucevic as a liability? I say it does. Nikola Vucevic isn’t one of the premier centers in the NBA by any stretch of the imagination. But he’s definitely one of the best centers that are still playing under their rookie contract.
- Bradley Beal (sixth man): a high scoring two-guard that can bring immediate offense off the bench.
- Michael Carter-Williams: last year’s Rookie of the Year winner and one of two guys you’d take voluntarily from the 2013 Draft.
- Victor Oladipo: the other guy from the 2013 Draft you’d take by your own free will. A little to be desired offensively, but already one of the better perimeter defenders in the game. He’s got a little Tony Allen 2.0 in him.
- Giannis Anteokunmpo: the Greek Freak can really fill up the stat sheet. On a Per 36 Minute average last season he put up 10 points, 6 rebounds, 3 assists, a steal and a block and he’s only 19-years-old.
- Jared Sullinger: averaged 13 and 8, ranked 8th in the league in Offensive Rebounding and did it all on a bad Celtics team.
- Kenneth Faried: love the energy, love the dreads and I love the Manimal nickname.
- Andre Drummond: a 6’10” center that averaged 13 points and 13 rebounds. He was second in the league in Total Rebounds (first offensively, fifth defensively). The only reason he isn’t a starter is that his shooting percentages are NSFW. He shoots 36 percent from 3-10 feet, 13 percent from 10-16 feet and is a 40 percent shooter from the free throw line. Plus he may have leaked those rather scandalous pictures of Jennette McCurdy in March after the two broke up because she said he’s a bad kisser. So…yeah.