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Ja Morant And the Most Impressive NBA Rookies So Far – Sports Illustrated

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Lottery picks in the 2019 NBA draft class have struggled throughout the first-quarter of the season. But Ja Morant and a few others have caught our eye.

Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

We’re still a week away from Christmas Day basketball and No. 1 pick Zion Williamson has yet to a play in a regular season game. A number of other lottery picks have struggled, and it appears that the early returns on the 2019 NBA draft have resulted in a lack of top-heavy talent. That being said, despite some of the top selections struggling out of the gate, here’s a look at a number of rookies who have recently caught our eye from a draft deeper than many expected.

Ja Morant — Memphis Grizzlies 

Flip on a Grizzlies game and it becomes almost immediately obvious how fearless the 20-year-guard from Murray State really is. Morant is already averaging more than 17 drives per game, a number just below players like James Harden, DeMar Derozan and Russell Westbrook. He’s shooting just below 47% on those attacks and still needs to improve his passing when he does go to the rim, but the young guard has flashed his breathtaking speed and made key plays for Memphis throughout the first quarter of the NBA season.

He’s one of the few top picks playing up to his billing.

Brandon Clarke — Memphis Grizzlies 

Unlike Morant, Clarke wasn’t expected to come in and produce as consistently as he has. He’s averaging just over 21 minutes per contest, but is second in the NBA in true-shooting percentage among players who have played at least ten games. That number is indicative of just how efficient and effective Clarke has been on offense and his activity on both ends has made him more than just a dunker.

The 23-year-old from Gonzaga might not ever be an all-star, but it’s clear he can contribute to an NBA roster—more 25-point games like the one he had this weekend against the Wizards might change that prognostication.

Entering Tuesday night, the Grizzlies have only ten wins, but the young pieces are starting to take shape. Plus, Clarke already has one of the best posters of the whole year.

Rui Hachimura — Washington Wizards 

Hachimura met his college teammate Clarke on Saturday in Washington’s 128-111 loss to Memphis. “Him and me were kind of rivals but good friends,” Hachimura told reporters. “We always compete.” The Gonzaga rookie that was taken in the lottery has started every game for the Wizards and has come on of a late.

Hachimura left Monday night’s game against the Pistons just before halftime with a groin contusion, an injury he suffered after teammate Isaac Bonga accidentally kicked him. But heading into Monday night, Hachimura was riding an eight-game streak with at least ten points. In that span, he was averaging more than 18 points per game.

He’s fourth overall in rookie scoring and taking more than 12 shots per game. He also tops the NBA among rookie rebounding. His defense, however, leaves a lot to be desired and he’s struggled to defend quicker perimeter players.

P.J. Washington — Charlotte Hornets 

Washington fractured the pinky finger on his right hand in the fourth quarter of Charlotte’s win over the Bulls on Friday night. But up to that point, the Kentucky product had been one of the most impactful rookies in the 2019 class. He entered Friday night averaging only 12.3 points and 5.3 rebounds per game, but he’s scoring effectively in the paint and shooting well from beyond the arc.

After having surgery in New York on Monday, Washington is expected to miss a handful of games, but the Hornets are hanging around in the Eastern Conference playoff picture. Washington’s consistent production when on the court is one reason why.

R.J. Barrett — New York Knicks

Barrett stole a number of headlines at the start of the season thanks to scoring performances of 21, 16, 26 and 19 in his first four games. After a hot start, however, he’s cooled off of late.

He erupted for a career-high against the Hawks on Tuesday night but scored single-digit point totals in five of New York’s last seven games prior to that. The Duke product admitted that he had got away from playing his game, but interim head coach Mike Miller recently reiterated his confidence in the young wing saying, “as long as RJ is RJ, we can compete.”

Barrett’s usage rate is higher than players like Jaylen Brown, Gordon Hayward and Domantis Sabonis, all players who have played at All-Star levels this season. The big difference between the young Knick and that group however is how efficient and effective he’s been with those chances.

Tyler Herro and Kendrick Nunn — Miami Heat 

It’s hard to separate Miami’s young wings as they’ve both been integral in the Heat’s stellar first quarter of the season. Nunn is a true difference maker on both ends. He’s averaging 16 points with a top-75 usage rate. On defense, his defensive win share is better than any other rookie playing significant minutes. Herro is averaging 14 points per game on 37.6% shooting from three, but he’s proven to be more than just a spot-up shooter. Plus, if two productive rookies weren’t enough, the Heat are also getting good spot production of out of Chris Silva, who SI’s Rohan Nadkarni noted “gobbles up offensive rebounds like a Hungry Hungry Hippo.”

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