By Kevin O’Connor, The Ringer
A group of first-year players sure to become fan base favorites
They’re the rookies every NBA fan base falls in love with. They’re the beacon of hope or the garbage-time superstar — sometimes they’re both. They scrap. They hustle. They get buckets. They’re the players that fans demand coaches give more minutes to. They’re the local heroes: guys who show flashes over the season that only the most ardent followers will appreciate.
Until, in some cases, the playoffs. That’s what happened with two of last year’s local heroes: Miami’s Josh Richardson and Toronto’s Norman Powell, both second-round draft picks. Under the pressure of the playoffs, they shone brighter than ever, and in Powell’s case, even flew like Superman in important moments.
Here are five rookies who will make their fans swoon this season:
The Throwback: DeAndre’ Bembry, Hawks
DeAndre Bembry might be mistaken as an ABA time traveler. He’ll become the first player in league history to wear the no. 95, but he chose the number for a more personal reason than that: ’95 is the year his brother Adrian Potts was born. Potts was killed less than two weeks before the NBA draft, and wearing 95 is Bembry’s way of honoring him. Bembry can ball, too. As a 6-foot-6 playmaker, he takes advantage of mismatches on offense and plays versatile defense much like Evan Turner or Andre Iguodala.
Bembry was a star at St. Joseph’s because of his advanced feel for the game. He made great progress as a playmaker during his junior year. He carried that over to summer league, showing patience when probing pick-and-rolls, and accuracy hitting the bullseye on his passes. He still needs to learn how to properly use his body to shimmy into crevices while splitting screens, but he tightened his handle each year of his collegiate career, so a history of progress is there.
The Hawks traded Jeff Teague, promoted Dennis Schröder to starter, and added Jarrett Jack to run their bench. However, in January, Jack tore his ACL, an injury that usually prevents players from returning to their normal level of play for at least 1–2 years. Jack will turn 33 this season, and in the past two years his “normal” wasn’t that hot, to put it lightly. In two years with the Nets, Jack had a 45.4 eFG% and a 28.2 3-point percentage. His 2.1 assist–turnover ratio was solid considering the situation. If he’s any worse than he was in Brooklyn, then it might be only a matter of time before Mike Budenholzer hands the keys to Bembry to run the show off the bench.
Bembry has some work to do, too. He fell to 21st in the first round because of his lack of a reliable outside jumper. He shot just 31.2 percent from 3 in college, and he wasn’t any better in the summer league, missing 10 of his 14 attempts. Bembry needs to revise his mechanics to be effective. He told me at the combine that he knows he needs to work on maintaining his balance and keeping his elbow straight, but it’s more than that. He dips the ball down to his left hip, and sometimes, he releases on the way down. The results aren’t all that bad, though. He shot 35.4 percent on more than 270 catch-and-shoot jumpers in college, so his shot isn’t shattered-glass broken.
Fortunately for Bembry, he landed on a team that knows how to develop shooters. The Atlanta Splash Shooting School has a handful of honor roll graduates, including Kent Bazemore, DeMarre Carroll, Mike Scott, and Paul Millsap — all of whom have experienced tremendous growth since Mike Budenholzer brought his Spursian voodoo to town in 2013.
The Archetype: Patrick McCaw, Warriors
If Alfred Hitchcock were alive, his next film would cover one of the NBA draft’s greatest mysteries: How did Patrick McCaw slip all the way to the 38th pick? You could hear the groans from war rooms across the league when the Warriors got him. One agent texted me minutes later, labeling McCaw the “steal of the summer.” On a team that has four max-contract-caliber stars, McCaw is ready to contribute, despite being a rookie, on a contract will pay him $543,471 this year.
McCaw is perfectly calibrated to excel in Golden State. He can run the point or play off of the ball. He’s 6-foot-7, so he’s a mismatch on offense, and versatile on defense. With a skillset like that, he could eventually replace Shaun Livingston. McCaw separates himself in one key area though: shooting. Livingston is a nonfactor from long-range, whereas McCaw is a knockdown 3-point off-the-catch shooter.
That’ll eventually make McCaw a better fit alongside Golden State’s cornerstones, which is important because the Warriors won’t be able to keep everyone next summer. Drafting McCaw will make letting go of Livingston — and maybe even Andre Iguodala — a whole lot easier when money needs to be spent on Kevin Durant and Steph Curry.
Not a lot of rookies are capable of defending like McCaw. At a lean 180 pounds with twig legs, he might be overpowered by some of the NBA’s larger wing defenders, but it won’t matter if he’s not defending them. The Warriors can use him against guards, where his bulk isn’t a problem, and his length can be used to induce headaches for ball handlers.
McCaw’s hands are so fast he could make a living as a magician. Most ball hawks enter the league having had free rein in college to roam defensively. But McCaw is different because he operated within the team concept at UNLV, and has continued the practice this summer with the Warriors. That will make Steve Kerr happy, because defensive breakdowns resulting from unnecessary risks are a big no-no for all players, never mind a rookie on a short leash.
It’s tough to find that type of versatility anywhere in the draft and yet McCaw landed in the Warriors’ lap in the second round. Golden State doesn’t have as much depth this year, so expect him to play early — and if one or two injuries occur, he might play a lot. As if Warriors fans didn’t already have enough to fall in love with.
The Bat Signal: Caris LeVert, Nets
“How can you move faster than possible, fight longer than possible, without the most powerful impulse of the spirit: the fear of death?” a blind prisoner, probably R.C. Buford, asked when Sean Marks was offered the Nets GM position, knowing that Marks would have to climb out of a deep, complex pit like the one Bruce Wayne scaled in The Dark Knight Rises.
“I do fear death. I fear dying in here while my city burns, and there’s no one there to save it,” Marks responded, as he accepted the responsibility of saving Brooklyn.
The Nets are devoid of future draft picks and talented young prospects, so Marks was aggressive in adding a first-round pick in a deep 2016 class; he dealt Thaddeus Young to the Pacers for the no. 20 pick (and a future second-rounder), where Caris LeVert was selected.
LeVert would have been a lottery pick if it weren’t for the fact he’s had three surgeries on his left foot and finished his last two collegiate seasons in a walking boot. As long as he stays healthy, he’s going to give Nets fans hope for the future. He’s a 6-foot-7 wing who stroked 3s in college at a 40.1 percent clip, can run the pick-and-roll, and has the passing accuracy of a star quarterback. Players who excel in all those areas, like Klay Thompson and Wesley Matthews, are in high demand in today’s positionless league.
Across the board, LeVert doesn’t have many notable weaknesses other than his thin frame … and that left foot. The third surgery was a bit different for LeVert, since his doctor happened to be the Nets team doctor, Martin O’Malley. All indications are LeVert’s foot will heal perfectly fine, but there is a chance for reinjury because of the biomechanics of how his foot strikes the ground. As human-movement science gains prominence in sports, LeVert could be trained to change how his foot lands, similar to the adjustments Myles Turner made to his gait.
If LeVert stays healthy, he could be the steal of the draft. Nets fans have a rookie to feel optimistic about, and also a leader in Marks, who is clearly willing to take leaps of faith across seemingly impossible ledges to help the organization escape from impending doom. If Marks succeeds, the borough of Brooklyn might start calling him Batman.
The Young Vet: Malcolm Brogdon, Bucks
The Bucks are building a system where almost every player on the court can make plays for others. Giannis Antetokounmpo is a near-7-foot point guard. Michael Carter-Williams’s size, despite all his faults, makes him a tough matchup. Now Milwaukee can add Malcolm Brogdon to that list after hitting the jackpot in the second round with a 23-year-old who can immediately compete. Brogdon said before the draft he wanted to play for a team with a “strong defensive reputation,” which won’t happen in Milwaukee (the Bucks had the ninth-worst defensive rating last season), but he can help lay the groundwork. Virginia had the fifth-best defensive rating in the nation last season largely due to Brogdon’s hard-nosed, versatile play.
On offense, Brogdon isn’t engineered to be a go-to scoring type, and he gets that. “I’m not gonna be one of the lead guys, so I need to learn how to be effective and efficient with my minutes,” Brogdon said at the NBA combine in May. “I pride myself on being the older guy. I’m not a rookie that has to learn a lot. I’m a rookie that can step into a role, be told to do one thing, and get it done.”
Brogdon will adapt quickly because of his elite feel for the game. When he’s playing off the ball, he has a sense for filling space or cutting at just the perfect time to create an easy passing lane. Most of his production came with the ball in his hands, though. At Virginia, he developed into a savvy pick-and-roll playmaker who could deliver every pass in the book with accuracy. He’ll need to make progress as a shooter though due to his slow, clunky mechanics.
Khris Middleton is a fixture as the Bucks’ starting shooting guard and Matthew Dellavedova is locked up, but the rest of the backcourt is in flux. MCW could be on the block. Jason Terry might be out of gas. Rashad Vaughn and Tyler Ennis are one-dimensional players in a multidimensional league. The situation is ripe for Brogdon to carve out a spot because of his handle, vision, and versatility.
The Little Guy: Tyler Ulis, Suns
Kentucky is the NBA farm system for the Suns. Phoenix has five guards who played for the Wildcats: Eric Bledsoe, Brandon Knight, Devin Booker, Archie Goodwin, and now Tyler Ulis. It sounds crazy, but John Calipari probably knows more about that group than Suns head coach Earl Watson does. With all of that depth, along with the addition of Leandro Barbosa, Ulis might not receive many opportunities early on. That’s OK, though. Ulis will likely start the year tearing up the D-League with the Northern Arizona Suns. There’s not another guard more exciting than him at that level. He’s a scrappy defender who earned the SEC Defensive Player of the Year award, and is a knockdown shooter and masterful leader on and off the floor.
“I’ve coached a lot of great leaders and great [point guards] in all my years of coaching. Tyler Ulis is the best floor general that I’ve ever coached,” Calipari said in a series of tweets in April, before gifting Ulis his Coach of the Year award just a few weeks later. “What I loved is he grew into that position. You couldn’t speed him up and you couldn’t slow him down unless he wanted to do one of those things. Tyler coached the team this season as much as I did, and I’m proud to say that.”
Ulis is an underdog. For all his positive traits, his size is the reason why he wasn’t selected until 34th. If he had Kris Dunn’s body, he would’ve been the no. 1 pick in most drafts. But he’s doesn’t. Ulis is 5-foot-9 and 150 pounds; not a lot of guys make it far at that size. Ulis’s thin frame won’t support more than another 10–15 pounds of muscle, either. Players that small rarely last long with the high level of athleticism in the NBA, and the game’s physicality will take its toll on his body, requiring him to spend endless hours in the trainer’s room receiving treatment and recovering.
All this is to say that Ulis will be an easy player to root for to find success. He’s a winner, a leader, and it’s contagious. Even as a rookie, he could make an impact with his presence. But he could eventually get playing time, too, despite the logjam at guard. The Suns could run into the same “Too Many Cooks” problem they had a few years ago when they dealt Goran Dragic and Isaiah Thomas. If history repeats itself, don’t be surprised if you see Brandon Knight involved in trade rumors. Eventually, Ulis will vault into a consistent role.