NBA rookies becoming legit superstars upon entering the league is a rarity. Most rookies are, in fact, net negatives for their teams. Rarely do rookie resemble the superstars they are projected to be immediately upon entering the league. It's a testament to the skill level of the NBA and the real superstar qualities of the players who do, in fact, make the leap and are instantaneously productive.
Karl-Anthony Towns (excluding last night) and Kristaps Porzingis are to date playing at a value level far and above what most rookies, even number one picks and some all time greats, have as rookies. It should not be an expectation.
Jahlil Okafor has the raw statistics to compete with Towns and Porzingis: his 18 points and 8 rebounds per game stack up nicely. Per basketball-reference, other than rebounding the lines appear similar.
His more advanced statistics are not as friendly, however. Also from basketball-reference:
Okafor also ranks 403rd out of 409 NBA players in ESPN's RPM statistic, which attempts to measure a player's overall impact. The Sixers perform better overall when Okafor sits on the bench by a significant margin. These are all facts as of today.
This shouldn't be taken as a shot at Okafor or his star potential. Towns and Porzingis' skills translated to NBA production quickly. Okafor's strengths are primary in offensive shot creation and have not translated as quickly. But that's okay! Not every great player came out like gangbusters early in their careers.
And judging young players' performance less than a month into their rookie seasons is just not wise.
One recent example of unfortunate-in-retrospect accelerated judgment is Andrew Wiggins. Wiggins, last season's rookie of the year, has a statistically bad year and struggled with efficiency at the start of the year due to a questionable fit of shot selection. His overall value was much lower than other rookie of the year contenders Nerlens Noel and Nikola Mirotic. And his production one third of the way through the season was historically bad, as Neil Paine wrote for FiveThirtyEight almost a year ago.
In no measurable area of the game, save for long-distance shooting and (maybe) defense, is (Wiggins) anywhere near as polished as (LeBron) James was at the same age a decade ago.
In fact, Wiggins has been one of the worst players in basketball this season — period. Among players logging as many minutes as he has, nobody has a lower Statistical Plus/Minus (SPM) or Box Plus/Minus (BPM) or fewer Win Shares per 48 minutes. And only Channing Frye has a lower Player Efficiency Rating. ESPN's Real Plus/Minus is slightly kinder to Wiggins, but not by much.
Maybe it's time to forget James as the potential ceiling for Wiggins and to simply wonder what the best-case scenario is for a player who starts off his career this badly.
The only mistake Neil made was writing about the future projections of rookies, which in and of itself is a fool's errand. The stats supported his argument.
But player development is an odd process. The adjustments a 19-year-old uber-athlete needs to make to play against grown men are part of the growing process. Simple adjustments like the locations of shots taken and wehrhelped Wiggins become a more effective scorer as the season moved along, and now he looks the part of the can't-miss prospect more than ever. How players are coached and used early in their careers can and probably will deffer wildly from their future calling cards.
Projections are easier for veterans. It's hard to teach an old dog new tricks. Rookies and other young players tend to do things that surprise you.
Another historical example: Kevin Durant. Durant's first two years were statistical oddities, volume scoring from a perimeter position on a bad team without terrible efficiency. But his team's plus/minus numbers relative to his playing time were not kind to Durant, who gave up as much defensively as he provided on offense.
Back in 2009, the NBA's statistical revolution was in its infancy. The new en vogue NBA stats were things like net on/off ratings and PER. These types of statistics were thrilling then, because it changed our understanding of basketball, though nobody really knew how to use them effectively.
At the time, TrueHoop was leading the charge on new statistics and discussed Kevin Durant with Wayne Winston, at the time a special adviser to the Dallas Mavericks. Winston experimented with adjusted plus/minus statistics and rated Durant (at the time averaging a relatively efficient 25 points per game) as a negative player. And he maybe went a little bit overboard in a discussion with Henry Abbott.
Knowing that just about any NBA general manager would trade his own children for a prospect of Durant's caliber, I asked Winston if he'd advise his team to accept if the Mavericks were (in some alternate universe) offered Durant for free. "I'd say probably not," he replied. "I would not sign the guy. It's simply not inevitable that he'll make mid-career strides. Some guys do. But many don't, and he'd have to improve a lot to help a team."
And when I relayed Winston's comment to one of the NBA's most respected talent evaluators, his response was simply: "He's crazy."
Over the next few years, one of them will be proved wrong.
Winston was the one proven wrong, in my humble opinion. Making snap judgments about young players early in their careers, especially ones with a skill combination never seen before, should be advised against. Jahlil Okafor has plenty of room, and time, for improvement on both ends of the floor.