Rookies to keep an eye on this season

When it comes to rookies, they’re all worth watching. There’s so much anticipation, so much hope, so much unknown that we’re all left flipping through NBA League Pass to catch every moment from the promising newcomers.

And with Zion Williamson, a landscape-changing force taking over the Pelicans, expectations are at an all-time high. Can anyone keep up with what we expect will be monster numbers from the No. 1 pick in New Orleans?

Every year, there are players who rise above the rookie class, so who will be this year’s surprise? Last year, many thought Deandre Ayton would run away as top rookie, but Kia Rookie of the Year Luka Doncic and No. 5 pick Trae Young turned it into a virtual two-man race.

This year should provide plenty of intrigue, so here are 10 rookies to watch this season. Get your popcorn ready and be sure to follow the Kia Rookie Ladder, where I’ll be breaking down the rookie class on a weekly basis.

Zion Williamson, New Orleans Pelicans

All eyes will be on Williamson, the No. 1 overall pick who has been handed the reins in New Orleans. He is ready to produce and will be given every opportunity to do so. Jrue Holiday and Lonzo Ball have the experience, but this is Zion’s team. He should easily put up double-double type numbers and plenty of 20-point, 10-rebound games. Doing all that would likely bag him Kia Rookie of the Year honors. Williamson is by far the favorite to win that award, and fans will get plenty of chances to watch his pursuit, as the Pelicans play 30 games on national TV (ninth-most in the NBA).

Ja Morant, Memphis Grizzlies

Like Zion, the Grizzlies have nothing to lose by handing over the keys to their prized rookie. Morant, taken No. 2 overall in 2019, will take over for Mike Conley to lead a young, athletic roster. Morant can do it all: create his own shot, distribute for others and score from beyond the arc. With Jaren Jackson Jr. a likely breakout candidate in his second season, Morant will have a big man to feed and should put up big assist numbers and lead all rookies in that category.

RJ Barrett, New York Knicks

Coach David Fizdale says Barrett will be handled much like Kevin Knox was last season, meaning nothing will be handed to him. Still, it would be a shock if Barrett wasn’t a regular starter sooner rather than later. Barrett is the Knicks’ future, and he has all the skills to be successful right away. He can score at an elite level and has the size and athleticism to defend on the other end. The Knicks will struggle to get wins, but fans at Madison Square Garden should get a good look at their future.

Matisse Thybulle, Philadelphia 76ers

The Sixers will be on national TV 35 times this season, which means you’ll have plenty of opportunity to catch the No. 20 pick. The fact that Thybulle is a defense-first reserve means he should find playing time right away. Already teammates are praising the 22 year old’s defensive prowess — Ben Simmons said he “hates” going against Thybulle — so if defense is your thing, this is the rookie to watch. Offensively, the Washington product won’t be asked to do much, but he can still score on the break and knock down the outside shot when needed.

Darius Garland, Cleveland Cavaliers

Last season, the Cavs let their lottery pick, Collin Sexton, run the show and grow through a 19-win season. This season, the No. 5 pick Garland enters the scene with similar expectations and an even higher ceiling. Sexton finished by averaging 16.7 points, but struggled to find his shot and took his lumps, especially early in the season. Garland gives the Cavs an outside threat who can also get to the rim and finish with his speed on the break. That gives Sexton his backcourt mate of the future and should allow him to be able to put up big numbers. The Cavs are only on national TV three times this season, so NBA League Pass will be a must to see Garland.

OTHERS TO WATCH

Rui Hachimura, Washington Wizards
The No. 9 pick should see plenty of playing time for the Wizards, who are thin at power forward. The first Japanese-born first-round pick, Hachimura has incredible length and athleticism, can run the pick-and-roll or step out and hit the outside shot.

Michael Porter Jr., Denver Nuggets
The Nuggets took Porter Jr. with the No. 14 pick in the 2018 Draft, then shut him down last season to get healthy, making 2019-20 his official rookie campaign. Porter Jr. was once considered a potential Top 3 pick, and fans will finally get a chance to see why. At 6-foot-10, Porter has the size to shoot over defenders, but whether he cracks the rotation on a deep, contending squad will depend on his health — something that’s been an issue since high school.

Tyler Herro, Miami Heat
In today’s NBA, 3-point shooters stand out. And so far, Herro is separating himself from the pack with his ability to knock down outside shots. Sure, we’ve only seen him in NBA Summer League and early preseason action, but all signs point to Herro pushing Dion Waiters for playing time on the wing.

Brandon Clarke, Memphis Grizzlies
Memphis is in a full-on youth movement, so Clarke should see plenty of playing time in the frontcourt alongside Jackson Jr. Clarke will battle center Jonas Valanciunas for minutes, but the No. 21 pick has the size and athleticism to become a double-digit rebounder while letting Jackson protect the rim.

Coby White, Chicago Bulls
Chicago still has Kris Dunn and brought in Tomas Satoransky to run the point, but the No. 7 pick out of North Carolina should see plenty of action off the bench. Coach Jim Boylen has been impressed with White, saying he could play either guard spot. Doing so would bode well for his chances to stick in the rotation.

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