Rookies are a wildly inconsistent bunch. Believe it or not, it takes time for young adults (regardless of how talented they are) to get acclimated to playing against the best athletes in the world.
And it’s because of this inherent learning curve that makes it unwise to analyze a player’s rookie year based on their full-season averages.
If you aren’t going to take it from me, listen to what Dr. Stephen Shea, author of “Basketball Analytics: Spatial Tracking,” had to say about the subject: “College players are inconsistent. Their production can vary wildly from one game to the next. This is especially true for freshmen, and it is often after the freshman season that the most elite prospects enter the draft…The moral is that consistency is not something we should expect from even the very best of prospects. It is something that players gain with experience; it is something they can be taught.”
So, if inconsistency from young players is to be expected, and consistency is something that can be taught, then it follows that the thing we should be focusing on when projecting a rookie’s long-term outlook is how said rookie looks at their best. The idea behind this is that if we can teach a player to be consistent, then we might as well get the players that we can teach to be consistently great rather than the ones who will only be consistently average or good.
So the bottom line here is that, when it comes to mapping out a player’s career trajectory based on their rookie season, it is best to focus on their peak moments rather than the entire body of work.
How do we measure a rookie’s peak moments?
With this understanding established, we now need to create a method for measuring those peak moments/flashes we are talking about. Picking a player’s best games can be a bit subjective, depending on what you value most from said player. So, to avoid arbitrary decision-making and keep things simple and objective, we will define a player’s peak moments/flashes as their ten best Game Score outputs of their rookie season.
For those unaware, Game Score is not quite literally the number of points a player scored throughout the course of a game. It is a metric created by John Hollinger (former Vice President of Basketball Operations for the Memphis Grizzlies) that measures the totality of a player’s overall performance in a single game. It is basically the single-game version of his popular Player Efficiency Rating (PER) statistic.
It is worth noting that this metric is not without its flaws. It focuses strictly on variables captured by the standard box score, so that means that it tends to favor offense over defense (as we will see in a moment with how it views the peaks of defensive specialists like Dyson Daniels and Christian Braun).
Also, like PER, Game Score does tend to overvalue big men, as the metric rewards a ton of points to players with high field goal percentages (something bigs who hang around the rim a lot usually have) that collect a ton of rebounds (once again, a common characteristic of big men).
Lastly, Game Score favors players who get more minutes, so if your rookie is one who plays sparingly (like Dalen Terry), then the metric will likely be pretty low on them.
For this exercise, we took the average of each rookie’s ten best Game Score outputs (to qualify, the rookie must have played in at least 25 games this season). Based on this calculation, here are the players who ended up in the top ten (remember, the higher the score, the better):
(Sidenote: for those looking for the full list of rookies we ranked with this method, you can find that list by scrolling all the way to the bottom of this post).
There’s some interesting stuff to unpack here. First off, Jalen Williams, despite being an “older” rookie (he’s almost 22 years old), sits at the top of this list – even ahead of the frontrunner for Rookie of the Year, the first overall pick, Paolo Banchero.
Another result to take note of here is that Bennedict Mathurin and Keegan Murray, the players who are currently fourth and fifth in odds to win rookie of the year, respectively, sit in the back end of this top ten.
One name that is missing from the top ten list altogether that might shock some folks is that of Portland Trail Blazers slasher Shaedon Sharpe, who currently ranks 15th in this exercise (out of 39 eligible rookies).
As for the shortcomings of relying solely on Game Score for our assessment, you see the added boost it gives big men like Jabari Smith Jr. (tied for fourth) and Jalen Duren (sixth). You also notice the penalty it gives to defensive specialists like Braun (21st) and Daniels (22nd) and low-minute players like Terry (38th).
Why does this matter?
Generally speaking, in any given draft class, you can usually expect that around eight to twelve of the players end up blossoming into top-100 players in the league during their prime (while this doesn’t sound all that enticing on its face, keep in mind that championship teams are made up of these kinds of players).
Tying that trend back to the data we’ve pulled up here, if your team’s rookie finds themselves in that top eight to twelve mix (or at least close to it) in our peak moments/flashes rankings, that’s a solid indicator that they will one day blossom into a top-100 player in the NBA (or at the very least, a much better one than relying on full-season averages).
And given how inexact the science that is pre-draft evaluation is these days, drafting a future top-100 player in the league should be considered a big win for any organization.