Which NBA rookies intrigue me the most as the new season approaches?
[Ed. Note, Dec. 15, 2020: At the time of this writing, I was unaware that French guard Theo Maledon would be coming over to the States to make his NBA debut. With this knowledge, I would have placed Maledon third in these rankings. Facundo Campazzo would be moved to sixth, and every player after him would be moved down a slot. Nevertheless, I will leave the article as originally written. Enjoy!]
The 2020-21 NBA season is going to be a surreal one, but the annual infusion of new talent into the league is one facet of Association life that is holding form in these Unprecedented Times.
As training camp finally begins, there are numerous rookies across league rosters looking to get acclimated to the NBA as quickly as possible. No rookie symposium this year, no Summer League. Heck, no summer at all! Preseason is in nine days and Go Time is in two-and-a-half weeks.
But among the crop of new faces, which ones spark my interest the most? Today, I’m going to tell you about 21 rookies I’m excited about for the 2020-21 NBA campaign.
Now, to be clear, I’m cheering for every rookie to be successful and ultimately carve out a place in the NBA. However, the following players are gentlemen that have specifically resonated with me, be it through personal connection or entertainment value. I haven’t watched every rookie play, so if your favorite, very-fun-to-watch rookie isn’t on my list, don’t worry! If they’re truly dope, I’m sure they’ll catch my attention soon enough.
That said, is your favorite player on my list? Is he not? Let me know in the comments!
21. Anthony Edwards, Minnesota
We’ll start off the list with the No. 1 overall pick in the 2020 NBA Draft! I didn’t catch any full games of Georgia basketball during his lone year in Athens. However, I’m impressed by the fact that he’s a big-bodied playmaker. I’m a little worried about how consistent his jumper will be, and if being on the bench behind D’Angelo Russell (a more dynamic scorer) and Josh Okogie (a better defender) will somehow stunt his growth. But considering that expectations were low for this draft class anyway, I just hope that he’ll at least end up having an extended, impactful career.
20. Deni Avdija, Washington
I have a soft spot for EuroLeague players coming over to try their luck in the States. That will be very apparent later in this list. Avdija is one of those guys, having spent the last three seasons with Maccabi Tel Aviv. Deni has the tools to become a versatile wing, but he arrives in the Nation’s Capital still a little raw. I’m always rooting for the ceiling, so I hope he represents strong for the EuroLeague.
19. Chuma Okeke, Orlando
Chuma was drafted by the Magic in the 2019 NBA Draft. However, the organization chose to hold off a year on giving him his rookie deal so he could spend the year rehabbing an ACL injury he suffered in the 2019 NCAA Tournament. I’m hoping he is fully recovered so that he can make a major impact on an Orlando team that is stuck in neutral and just lost another forward for the season due to an ACL tear.
18. Greg Whittington, Denver
Our first two-way contract player is a player that has taken the long way to the NBA. Whittington went undrafted in 2015 and signed on with the Sioux Falls Skyforce of the Developmental League. In his first year in South Dakota he was a member of a team that went a D-League-record 40-10 and won the league championship. He also made stops in Australia, Japan, Israel, and Turkey before finally inking a two-way deal with Denver on November 24th. Whittington comes to the league with plenty of professional experience, but hopefully this deal will finally get him on a NBA court.
17. Markus Howard, Denver
Whittington’s two-way contract partner in Denver will be Markus Howard. Howard is a 5’11” four-year college player. That would normally repel NBA GMs from signing him. However, this diminutive veteran was the nation’s leading scorer last season, averaging 27.8 points per game in his senior year at Marquette. It’s worth taking a flyer, and I’m glad the Nuggets are giving him a chance. I hope he gets his call-up, and is the same walking bucket in the league that he was in the Big East.
16. RJ Hampton, Denver
Our third consecutive Nugget on this list. I promise that was a coincidence…
Forgoing college to play in Australia was going to be RJ’s thing, but then LaMelo came along a stole his whole bit! Jokes aside, I’m all for guys taking alternate paths to the league instead of going through the archaic, corrupt NCAA. If you aren’t actively seeking a degree, I don’t see why you need to sit through a year (moreso a semester) in the rigid college game just for a little exposure. I want Hampton to be a success story for bucking The System.
15. Killian Hayes, Detroit
Hayes is a Euro prospect a lot of people are high on. Kevin O’Connor of The Ringer has him No. 1 on his final Big Board in the 2020 Ringer NBA Draft Guide. James Edwards III of The Athletic is expecting him to start at point guard for the Pistons over Derrick Rose! I have also been thoroughly impressed with some of the highlights I’ve seen from him. He’s an exciting scorer and playmaker, and hopefully his skillset will translate well to the league. Rather he starts or not, I hope Hayes has a big year in Detroit.
14. Cole Anthony, Orlando
I’m excited for Cole Anthony because he entered the 2019-20 college season as the No. 2 player in his freshmen class. He came out of the year with decent numbers (18.5 points, 5.7 rebounds, 4.0 assists, 1.3 steals per game). However, he wasn’t dominant or impactful enough to right the ship for a North Carolina team that had an uncharacteristically bad season (14-19, 6-14 ACC). I’m rooting for Greg’s son to bounce back and wow NBA fans during his rookie campaign.
13. Anthony Gill, Washington
Another EuroLeaguer that I hope makes some noise in the league! I admittedly never checked for Gill when he was at Virginia, but he definitely caught my eye in his three years with Russian squad Khimki. We’ll see if this slick-shooting, solid rebounding forward (.572/.406/.772, 6.6 rebounds per 36 minutes in his EuroLeague career) can find a permanent home in the NBA.
12. Nico Mannion, Golden State
It’s our second two-way player, and our second son of an NBAer! Pace’s son Nico was all the rage in the high school mixtape circuit, and I liked the little bit I saw in his single season at Arizona. He’ll have to shore up his shooting (44.4 percent on two-pointers, 32.7 percent on threes), but I ultimately want him to become the next dazzling playmaker in The Bay. If he’s half as exciting in the league as he was in high school, we’re in for a good time. Of course, as a two-way, he’ll have to earn his call-up first to get on the floor.
11. Nate Hinton, Dallas
Our next guy is another two-way player, and he caught my eye during his two seasons at the University of Houston. The story with Hinton starts and ends with one word: MOTOR. This guy is capable of teleporting anywhere on the court that he’s needed. He was, by far, the best rebounding guard in the nation in 2020, corralling 8.7 per game (11.5 per 40 minutes) in 2019-20 despite standing just 6’5″. Josh Hart better watch his back!
Hinton was also a pest on defense, averaging 2.0 steals a game and securing the eighth-best defensive rating in his conference in 2020. He has the speed and vertical to get out in transition and throw it down, and shot just well enough from three (38.7 percent in 2020) to hit a timely spot-up bucket. With the right development, Hinton is going to surprise and amaze a lot of people.
10. Tyrese Haliburton, Sacramento
I’ll cop to not watching Iowa State last year, but people have been talking about how good Tyrese Haliburton is for awhile. After looking at his numbers, I’m definitely listening! In 2019-20, he averaged 15.2 points, 6.5 assists, 5.9 rebounds, and 2.5 steals per game on 63.1 percent true shooting. His numbers remind me Shake Milton‘s during his final year at SMU (18.0/4.4/4.7/1.4/60.6% in 2018), but better. And Milton’s numbers showed me back in 2018 that he could be a positive contribution. I can only imagine what Haliburton will do.
With Bogdan Bogdanovic off to Atlanta, Buddy Hield probably thought he was done fighting for the starting 2-guard role. But it looks like a new foe has appeared. I’m excited to see what Haliburton can do in Cali’s Capital.
9. Kenny Wooten, Houston
Wooten is entering his second season of professional ball, but he has yet to play a NBA game. He measures in at 6’8″ and 235 pounds. But make no mistake, this man will send your shot into next week! His 2.4 career blocks in college helped him earn Pac-12 All-Defensive Team honors in both his years at Oregon. Wooten’s 3.6 blocks per game with the Westchester Knicks last season put him on the 2020 G League All Defensive Team. Oh, and he’s also athletic enough to throw down a few fun slams along the way. Wooten’s size isn’t unique among forwards, but if this two-way player gets on a NBA court this season, you better watch out when he’s in the paint!
8. James Wiseman, Golden State
Wiseman was a bit of a Mystery Box with just three early-season college basketball games at Memphis to his name. However, that didn’t stop Golden State from taking him No. 2 overall in the draft. I honestly think he couldn’t have landed in a better place than San Francisco. The Warriors sorely need a big-body center like Wiseman, and they don’t even need him to be the focal point of the offense. Just catch some lobs and pocket passes, defend the paint adequately, and make some timely passes out of the post to shooters. He’ll do all of this while developing in the Dubs’ championship culture. I think James Wiseman is in good hands, and I hope he succeeds big time in The Bay.
7. Onyeka Okongwu, Atlanta
As a guy with an irrational affinity for the USC men’s basketball program (I blame it on the 2006 Rose Bowl and the beautiful Galen Center), I managed to take in some games during Onyeka Okongwu’s single season on Figueroa. Now, he joins a different red-and-gold program in Atlanta. I’m so excited for him to be catching lobs from Trae Young. He fits in perfectly with the types of bigs the Hawks want while also bringing some much-needed defensive versatility to the roster. He also just happens to end up on a team that had a big offseason and will be looking to make noise in the Eastern Conference playoff picture. I’m looking forward to a good year from Okongwu.
6. LaMelo Ball, Charlotte
We finally arrive at the most infamous name in the Class of 2020. Yes, I’m just as excited to see what LaMelo can do in the league as you are! He elite passing is undeniable, and I know that’s going to lead to some great highlights throughout the season. Now, I’m super-anxious about his shooting and defense — y’know, only the other most important parts of a player’s game! — but I’m also here for a good time. With a team like Charlotte, he should have a longer leash to experiment and make mistakes as he develops into a reliable NBA-caliber player. But I’m certain it will be plenty of fun to watch him develop.
5. Cassius Winston, Washington
Okay, we’re in the Top 5, and this selection is a little more personal than the others. Yes, Winston is a two-time Consensus All-American (2019 and 2020) and leaves Michigan State as one of the program’s best playmakers ever (if only he didn’t go to the same school as Magic Johnson!). Obviously, his accomplishments alone could have got him on his list.
However, Winston’s story hit’s a little closer to home. Cassius played most of his senior season while dealing with the loss of his brother. I’m sure was a very harrowing experience, and I hope his time on the court served as an oasis during his time of grieving.
Also, to my friends and I, he bears a strong resemblance to a friend of ours that unfortunately passed away in 2018. We noticed it early on in Winston’s career, and would give our friend a hard time about it every time Cassius did something amazing. But after his passing, seeing Winston dominate on the court took on a new meaning.
Now, after four years in East Lansing, Cassius is about to embark on a new chapter of his basketball career. And I know I’ll see a little bit of my old friend in him whenever he plays. So here’s hoping that his two-way deal with the Wizards ultimately propels him into a long, successful NBA career.
4. Paul Reed, Philadelphia
I was watching a random DePaul game (Yes, I also have an irrational affinity for DePaul, but that’s because they’re a local team) during the 2018-19 season featuring wiry double-double machine Paul Reed, when it hit me: “Oh, this guy is definitely a future NBA player”.
From there, I was always excited to watch him play, hoping he would have the opportunity to spread his wings and show the scouts what he could do. His range, his rebounding, his footwork, his defense (4.6 blocks and 1.9 steals per game last year)! The tools were there, though not always the motor. He would just need some time to develop once he got to the league.
Well, the 76ers are taking a flyer on Reed, drafting him and signing him to a two-way deal. I hope he gets the development he needs within this mercurial organization. If he does, Philly will discover a versatile gem of a forward.
3. Facundo Campazzo, Denver
This rookie is the most experienced on the list by far, and our final EuroLeaguer. Campazzo is a 5’11” point guard from Argentina that has spent the last six-and-a-half seasons playing professionally in Spain. Four-and-a-half of them were spent with legendary club Real Madrid, while two of them (2015 through 2017) were spent on loan with UCAM Murcia. Facundo is a dynamic passer, finishing top 5 in the EuroLeague in assists per game each of the last three seasons.
However, while I’m incredibly excited to see how that translates to the States, I do have my concerns. Campazzo’s size could be an impediment if he doesn’t use it to his advantage. He’s 29, so he might not have the quick burst that a younger man would have. His shot also isn’t very reliable. He ends his 2021 season with Madrid shooting a EuroLeague-career-low 27.5 percent from beyond the arc, and he shot 31.0 percent in EuroLeague play in 2019-20.
I want Campazzo to dazzle for however long he remains in the NBA, which is why he is so high on this list. But he could just as easily be another Euro guy that only has a short stay. I faced this disappointment before with Milos Teodosic. I hope things work out better this time.
2. Obi Toppin, New York
It’s the dunks for me. First and foremost. All the dunks. However, Obi also possessed some real versatility in his two seasons at Dayton. Along with his bounce, Toppin averaged 20.0 points and 7.5 rebounds per game in 2020 and shot 39.0 percent from three-point range. He also logged 1.2 blocks and 1.0 steals per game, but analysts do point out that his team defense needs a lot of work. Still, despite all the flash, it’s clear his isn’t one-dimensional.
Honestly, I wanted my Bulls to draft him. Instead, Toppin will get a chance to bring some excitement to Madison Square Garden for his hometown Knicks, and I’m super-happy for him. I can’t wait for all the highlights this year as well as his inevitable dunk contest appearances whenever all of…This…is over.
1. Patrick Williams, Chicago
No, the Bulls did not to select Obi Toppin in the draft. At No. 4 overall, they selected Patrick Williams out of Florida State. I’m perfectly okay with that.
For one, this draft was widely considered a crap-shoot outside of the Top 3, so the Bulls were well within their right to get whoever they thought was the best player for their needs. In Williams, the Bulls picked up a forward that can fill a number of roles depending on how he is developed. Admittedly, his counting stats from his one year at FSU don’t do him any favors, but analysts see he has the defensive and playmaking tools to eventually become a multi-talented wing.
And I’m willing to give new Executive Vice President of Basketball Operations Arturas Karnisovas some lee-way on his first draft selection with the organization. This guy arrives in Chicago after seven years with the Denver Nuggets. That team built their way to becoming a top team in the West. They were even led to the 2020 Western Conference Finals by draft picks Jamal Murray (No. 7, 2016) and Nikola Jokic (No. 41, 2014). I’m sure, somewhere along the way, this guy learned a thing or two about finding gems in the draft.
However, it’s probably going to take time for Patrick Williams to become a super-valuable player. But now that John Paxson is out of the way, I’m much more patient with the process. Frankly, I’m just ready for real basketball to return so that Williams — and the other 20 players on this list — can finally start their NBA journeys.