First Impressions: 10 NBA Rookies Who Will Surprise Us All (And 5 Who Will Fail)

This summer has produced one of the craziest offseasons in NBA history and all the player movement and free agent acquisitions have every basketball fan eager for this season to start. Super teams sprouted up left and right in the Western Conference and somehow the league's best teams (the Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers) got better. Additionally what fans are pumped about are the young stars that were just drafted to some of the premiere franchises in the NBA. The Boston Celtics, Los Angeles Lakers, and Philadelphia 76ers all drafted players that they hope will be cornerstones for their franchises for many years to come.

The 2017 NBA draft class is star studded and might go down as one of the best drafts in recent memory. Everyone knows the talent of the two transcendent point guards at the top of the draft, Markelle Fultz and Lonzo Ball. However, this rookie class is deep with talent from top to bottom and has many players that can come in and contribute right away. This list is based on what these players have done from their time in college and what they did in summer league. Some of the players on this list are surprises due to being taken way too late in the draft and others are on the list because they can help their teams take a major step forward as a starter this season. Most players on the list were lottery picks but some were late first to early 2nd round picks that will look like steals when the season is over.

These are 10 NBA rookies who will surprise us all (and 5 who will fail)!

15 Surprise: Kyle Kuzma (Los Angeles Lakers)

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Kuzma showed potential to possibly be a solid NBA player at the University of Utah, but no one was expecting the numbers that he put up in Summer League. He had the most surprising Summer League out of any player and even took home the award for Summer League Championship MVP. His chemistry with fellow first round draft pick Lonzo Ball was evident the moment they stepped on the court together and the two have already shown they can run the fast break with spectacular full court passes. What makes him special however is his ability to defend multiple positions on the defensive side of the floor,  and at 6’9” he moves his feet well and is the prototypical modern day forward in the NBA. On offence, he will project to be stretch four if he can consistently hit 3 pointers. He wasn’t that great of a 3 pointer shooter in college, but shot well in summer league from NBA range going 24 of 50 on threes. He will push Larry Nance Jr. for minutes on a Los Angeles Lakers team that will be struggling to find wins in a difficult Western Conference.

14 Surprise: Caleb Swanigan (Portland Trail Blazers)

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Caleb Swanigan will step in right away and become a double double machine for the Trail Blazers next season. With the lack of strength in the front court and great guard play over the last few seasons the Blazers got a steal in Swanigan as the 26th pick in the draft. Swanigan’s dominance was on full display last season where he averaged a double double with 14 points and a little over 10 rebounds a game. He continued that with solid play in Summer League and his 7’3” inch wingspan should make up for his lack of height at 6’9”. Offensively, Swanigan can step outside and hit a 15 foot jump shot consistently and will help with the Blazers' subpar rebounding significantly. Recently Damian Lillard sent out a tweet that he would like to see Swanigan win rookie of the year. That might be lofty expectations but he certainly has a chance if his teams best player is already that confident in him.

13 Fail: Justin Jackson (Sacramento Kings)

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Jackson was a stand out for North Carolina during their last two NCAA tournaments and was the leader of a team that helped avenge their loss in the title game the year before by winning the National Title in 2017. That national exposure may have lead him to be drafted too high and set unreasonable expectations for someone who projects to be more of a role player at the next level. Jackson probably has the lowest ceiling of any lottery pick and might not ever be more than just a rotational player for the kings. Where Jackson has the chance to excel will be on the defensive side of the ball. He has prototypical NBA size for a wing player at 6’8 with a 6’11 wingspan. Jackson's first season in Sacramento might not be a giant failure, but most fans would expect more from someone drafted in the first round.

12 Surprise: Jonathan Isaac (Orlando Magic)

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The Orlando Magic have been searching for the face of their franchise ever since Dwight Howard was traded away to the Lakers in 2012. They may have found just that face when they drafted the Jonathan Isaac, a one and done prospect out of Florida State. Isaac is a talented player with the ball in his hands and at 6’11” has a long slender frame similar to that of a young Kevin Durant. His mixture of size and speed is what could help Isaac step in and defend multiple positions right away, which is a key in modern switch-happy defensive schemes. In today's NBA the ability to get out and switch on a pick and roll is vital to defensive success and Isaac has the length and instincts to be a great pick and roll defender. Isaac has room for growth and improvement on the offensive side of the ball, but for his size he already has a pretty solid handle and jump shot.

11 Surprise: Donovan Mitchell (Utah Jazz)

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With Gordon Hayward departing this offseason he left a giant hole for the Utah Jazz to replace, a hole that combo guard Donavan Mitchell will help fill and should flourish in right away. Mitchell looked like a monster on both ends of the floor in Summer League and the Jazz will need production from him on both ends early on in his career. His spot on this list is mainly justified by how spectacular he looked compared to his peers in summer league. One game in summer league, Mitchell exploded for 37 points and had an unreal 8 steals on the defensive end as well. Mitchell is very strong, athletic, and can finish at the rim; those are qualities that will provide some highlights throughout the season. With the Jazz figuring to take a step back in a crowded Western Conference, Mitchell should see plenty of opportunities for playing time and will turn a few heads this season when given the chance.

10 Fail: Lauri Markkanen (Chicago Bulls)

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Markkannen could wind up being the next version of Dirk Nowitzki but he could also become a bust like Dario Milicic. He has the offensive repertoire and jump shot to become an impact player at the next level on that end of the court. However what is going to slow down Markkanen in his rookie season will be his defence. He is too weak to guard his natural power forward position and too slow too guard anyone out on the perimeter so he will be a liability early on in his career. He showed signs of becoming somewhat of a rim protector at Arizona using his 7’0 height, but would sometimes disappear on that side of the court. He also has to take time to adjust his outside shot to the NBA 3 point line. He was one of the worst shooters out of anyone in Summer League shooting less than 30% and he is going to have to improve on that if he wants to help the Bulls win games.

9 Surprise: Jayson Tatum (Boston Celtics)

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Tatum might not be a surprise to most fans due to his lofty draft status, but the kid can score the basket and he will make an impact doing that next season. He can get to spots on the floor on the offensive end where he can be successful and he just looks smooth with the ball in his hands. The Celtics lacked perimeter scoring last season, but their roster is almost entirely new. Taking that into consideration, it is hard to tell how much Tatum will play this season, likely sitting behind Jaylen Brown and Gordon Hayward to start the campaign. If he gets major minutes, look for Tatum to make the most of them by being efficient scoring baskets and should shoot the ball well from 3 during his first season in green and white. Best-case scenario Tatum turns into the second coming of the truth (Paul Peirce) in Boston and he helps them win the East for the first time since 2010.

8 Surprise: De'Aaron Fox (Sacramento Kings)

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Speed kills and DeArron fox is by far the fastest player in this year’s rookie class with the ball in his hands. After his breakout performance in the NCAA tournament against Lonzo Ball and beating UCLA where he dropped 39 points he became a household name. With the lack of talent at guard on the Kings roster he is going to be expected to carry a lot of the workload offensively, so he could be one of the top rookie scorers this season. Buddy Hield and Fox could possibly become a solid backcourt in the future, mirroring the success of a similar duo in Washington John Wall and Bradley Beal. Defensively, Fox has the size and quickness to be able to defend most point guards in the NBA, but like any rookie he will likely struggle with adjusting to the complexities and nuances of the game on both ends of the floor. The only thing holding Fox back is his jump shot and if he figures that out the sky is the limit.

7 Fail: Frank Ntilinka (New York Knicks)

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Who is Frank Ntilinka? The French sensation played one year overseas instead of playing in college. He could end up like Brandon Jennings who went overseas for a year and came in and had a terrific rookie season, or he could be like Emmanuel Mudiay who did the same thing and struggled for his first year in the NBA. Phil Jackson has a history of making good picks on foreign born players (Kristaps Porzingis comes to mind) but he is no longer calling the shots in New York. The jury is out on if the new Knicks management is as high on Ntilinka as Jackson was, so he might not see as much playing time as might have if Phil stayed. Either way he is definitely going to have to make plays for New York with the lack of playmakers and the departure of Carmelo Anthony. Ntilinka will be someone fans will look too for production on offence and they might have to end up looking somewhere else. He is more of a defence-first player with the size and versatility to succeed on that end on the next level, but he will have to work on his scoring to become a player that would warrant a top ten selection.

6 Surprise: Josh Jackson (Phoenix Suns)

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Josh Jackson will step in day one and be the best defender on the Phoenix Suns, and that is not knocking anyone currently on their roster it just speaks to what Jackson can do on that side of the ball. He put his physicality and defence prowess on display in his one season at Kansas and looked like a man amongst boys in this year’s summer league. Offensively, Jackson could have trouble with his jump shot early on and is not a major three-point threat. However, he has a solid handle and he can finish at the rim with the best of them so he will not have issues scoring the ball in his rookie season. He also does not lack confidence he told Vice Sports in a recent video that two time MVP Stephen Curry is “small and unathletic.” Jackson might want to slow his roll a little bit, but expect him to help the Suns make a major improvement this season.

5 Surprise: Markelle Fultz (Philadelphia 76ers)

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Many people expect Markelle Fultz to have a terrific rookie season and that is why he was the number one pick in the draft. But what will surprise fans this year is when the rookie leads the 76ers in scoring. He clearly has all the offensive tools to accomplish this and will have plenty of opportunities as well. He can finish at the rim, has a really nice handle, and can hit jumpers from anywhere on the court. Look for Fultz to help the 76ers take a major leap next season and lead all rookies in scoring. Defensively, there just aren’t many point guards that block shots like Markelle Fultz and it is because he stands at a solid 6’4”, has a 6’9” wingspan, and can jump out of the gym. He could struggle to stay with the quicker point guards in the league, but that is not what the 76ers drafted Fultz number one overall for. Ben Simmons should be the one to take the playmaking duties early on, so expect Fults to shoot the lights out in his rookie year and he could average over 20 points per game as a rookie.

4 Fail: Luke Kennard (Orlando Magic)

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This guy can flat out shoot the basketball, but that might be all he will be able to do at the next level. With his lack of quickness and elite athleticism, his ability to defend will be challenged at the next level immediately. Can you picture Kennard guarding the likes of Klay Thompson, James Harden, or even Demar Derozan next season? Those are the types of guards Kennard will have to defend on a nightly basis in the NBA. He will most likely project to be a J.J. Reddick type of player in the NBA being able to come off screens and shoot the 3. He will struggle at first adjusting to the size and speed of the league, but he will have a long and serviceable career because he can hit threes on a consistent basis. Orlando coach Stan Van Gundy has said Kennard should compete for a spot in the rotation in his rookie year, and “it will be hard to keep Luke off the floor.” If he is telling the truth, that could spell trouble for the Magic defensively.

3 Surprise: Lonzo Ball (Los Angeles Lakers)

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Showtime will be back in LA this season and the reason will be Lonzo Ball pushing the ball up court any chance he gets. Ball's ability to make his teammates better and his leadership were on full display in his one season as a UCLA Bruin taking them from 15-17 the year before his arrival to 31-4 the next. His passing and court vision should help him transition into being an above average everyday NBA point guard. His shot is what is going to surprise fans this season, it looked a bit shaky early on in summer league and his first preseason game, also his shooting form is awkward to say the least. Yet Lonzo could easily make the most 3s out of any rookie this season after shooting over 40% from 3 in college. On defence it might be difficult for Ball to be quick enough laterally to keep up with guards like Russell Westbrook or John Wall, yet at 6’6 he has solid size and shouldn’t get overpowered by many point guards once he fills out his frame. Ball could also challenge for the league lead in assists and would be the first rookie to do that since Oscar Robertson did it in 1960.

2 Surprise: Dennis Smith Jr. (Dallas Mavericks)

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It was a surprise to most fans this year when Smith Jr. was voted most likely to win rookie of the year by  this year’s rookie class. It will also be a surprise to many when he takes home the award at the end of the season for the Dallas Mavericks for real. Smith should start for the Mavericks right away and be their number one playmaker on offence. Having this much opportunity to score and distribute will inflate his rookie numbers and will make him the front-runner for the award. The only thing Smith Jr. could have problems with is his effort and ability on the defensive side of the ball. Conversely, his explosiveness at the rim is what will separate him early on from the other members of this rookie class. His ability to get to the rim and finish with authority at the point guard position is reminiscent of a young Derrick Rose and should turn a few heads next season.

1 Fail: Zach Collins (Portland Trail Blazers)

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Collins didn't even start on his high school basketball team until his senior season and didn’t start at all during his first year at Gonzaga. He sat behind a solid senior leader in Przemek Karnowski, but he did contribute in many ways for them last season on their run to the final four. However, his limited game experience makes him a risky pick at number 10 overall. Caleb Swanigan the other Trailblazers first round pick could easily push Collins for a spot in the Blazers rotation and Collins has already suffered a concussion this offseason. He maybe a risky pick but being able to run the floor at 7’0” is rare in the NBA. He only averaged 10 points per game for the Zags last season, so it’s hard to imagine him lighting the league on fire scoring wise. It should be interesting to see how Collins will adjust to the NBA next season, if he can get on the court. 

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