Tuesday marks the tip-off of the 2017-2018 NBA season, as fans and commentators are eagerly anticipating which of the top rookies can make the smoothest transition to the pro game.
Some players, such as Sacramento Kings point guard De’Aaron Fox, drafted fifth overall out of Kentucky, will be tasked with becoming the face of an organization that lacks a franchise player. Others, such as the Boston Celtics’ Jayson Tatum, drafted third overall out of Duke, will be able to slide into a more complementary role alongside established stars such as Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward.
For this list, we looked at the first-year players who have a chance to make the most significant contributions on the court for the upcoming NBA season.
Kyle Kuzma, small forward, Los Angeles Lakers
In any sport, particularly the NBA, it’s important to take what happens in the preseason with a huge grain of salt. With that in mind, it’s hard to ignore the early returns of a player who was drafted 27th overall, and who only shot a hair above 32 percent from beyond the arc at Utah. Fellow Lakers rookie Lonzo Ball couldn’t even remember playing against him in college.
Considering Kuzma shot 51 percent from the field and averaged 17 points per game in six preseason contests, it’s unlikely he’s going to be forgotten anytime soon. The Lakers have a bit of a logjam in their frontcourt, so it will be worth watching just exactly how much time this potential late-round steal gets. But if Kuzma can carry some semblance of his preseason performance into his rookie season, the Lakers might have found a perfect role player to play alongside their franchise point guard.
Frank Ntilikina, point guard, New York Knicks
Leave it to the Knicks, and Phil Jackson to take arguably the biggest gamble in the draft. Guards from Europe have always faced scrutiny, and there are a number of unknowns with this Belgian native. His weight (170 pounds) made scouts concerned whether he could handle banging with more physical guards on both ends of the floor. It’s also fair to wonder about the level of competition he faced as a member of the SIG Strasbourg club in France.
The upside, though, is tantalizing. At 6-foot-6 and with a 7-foot wingspan, Ntilikina has the length that is an excellent fit for where the NBA is going at the point guard position. His age (19), work ethic and strong shooting foundation, which was on full display at the FIBA U18 European Championships in Turkey last December, make him an ideal partner for the Knicks’ other budding European superstar, Kristaps Porzingis.
Dennis Smith Jr., point guard, Dallas Mavericks
Executives around the league have called the former NC State Wolfpack point guard the best value pick of the draft. He’s also an early favorite to win rookie of the year honors. If you watch his highlights from a road win at Duke in Cameron Indoor Stadium, it’s easy to see why.
Smith’s athleticism and scoring ability were also on display throughout Summer League action in Las Vegas. Questions about his effort in his one year of college, as well as his slightly troubling injury history and defensive limitations are legitimate.
But the Mavericks are thin on talent, and he’ll be handed the keys to drive this offense from Day One. For a team that could struggle to make the playoffs, watching Smith develop alongside a superstar veteran in Dirk Nowitzki and an above average wing scorer in Harrison Barnes should be entertaining.
De’Aaron Fox, point guard, Sacramento Kings
This was a point guard-heavy draft and Fox might have been the most polished prospect of a talented bunch. Maybe the best example of Fox’s standing came during the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament, where he eviscerated Lonzo Ball on defense, scoring 39 points in Kentucky’s Sweet 16 victory. He also played under head coach John Calipari, who knows a thing or two about spotting pro talent, during his only year in Lexington.
On the court, the first thing that stands out is the balance between his height (6-5) and his speed. Seriously, look at this.
He struggled to shoot 3s at Kentucky (just under 25 percent) and because his only legitimate scoring partner is second-year guard Buddy Hield, Fox is going to face plenty of pressure on the defensive end. Still, like Smith Jr. and Ntilikina, he’s going to have every opportunity to thrive in what has become a point guard’s league.
Lonzo Ball, point guard, Los Angeles Lakers
The second Laker on this list, and for good reason. You might already be sick of hearing about him because he plays for the Lakers, spent his one year in college at UCLA and has an absolutely insufferable dad. But, it’s hard to deny that plenty of eyes will be on Lonzo Ball from the start of his first season in the NBA.
While Smith Jr. can score, Ntilikina can shoot and Fox can take the ball end-to-end, no member of this rookie class can distribute the basketball quite like Ball. If you need proof, prepare to get lost down the rabbit hole that is his assist highlight reel. Even in the Summer League, his games took on a carnival-like atmosphere.
His jumper is ugly, and there will be some struggles for the second overall pick. Even in the short-term, his immense talent, coupled with an up-and-coming coach on the league’s marquee franchise, will make him must-see television.