The 2013 draft and subsequent free agency madness has shifted the attention of NBA fans towards new young players and acquisitions. But it’s important not to forget about the crop of young players that was the talk of the league just a year ago. It’s more fun to project the unknown in this year’s rookie crop, but it’s more substantive taking a look at what already happened with last year’s bunch.
Players’ stars can fade pretty fast in the NBA. One 2012 top five pick was already traded twice in his first year in the association. Another top 10 pick had what was deemed by some to be the worst season of all time. Several other first-rounders were traded, are about to be traded, or were simply rendered expendable. But there were some rookies who played well too, and they should be acknowledged. Here’s a look back at the rookie class of 2012.
One quick note: efficiency metrics are rarely kind to rookies. Even the best newbies can struggle with their shot selection and decision-making at NBA speeds, which results in a lot of turnovers. Pick and roll defense at the highest level is hard to grasp, and no one adequately picks up team defensive strategies as a rookie. As a point of reference, both LeBron James and Kevin Durant posted negative nERDs as rookies.
Of last year’s top 10 draft picks, only two had positive nERD scores: Anthony Davis and Andre Drummond. (nERD is our efficiency metric that evaluates how teams fare both offensively and defensively when a given player is on the floor, while factoring in usage rate and some other stuff. It also represents how many games above .500 a team would be with that player, plus four completely league average players; LeBron has a nERD of 27, so you’d expect him plus completely league average teammates to go about 54-28.)
Davis, the number one overall pick who entered the league with plenty of hype, posted a 4.84. Drummond, who slid to the ninth pick amid questions surrounding his motor and work ethic, put up a 4.18. Both saw their games and minutes played limited due to injury.
But both had extremely solid years. Davis battled a variety of nagging injuries, but his per-36 minute numbers were excellent: 16.9 points, 10.2 rebounds, 2.2 blocks and 1.2 steals. Assuming he stays healthy and gets a minutes bump next season, that’s basically his floor. He also compares pretty favorable to Kevin Garnett as a young player. KG’s age 19 season per-36 numbers: 13.1 points, 7.9 rebounds, 2.1 blocks and 1.4 steals. Oh, and Davis shot a better percentage as well.
Drummond was the revelation of this rookie class, and most observers agree that he would go second if everyone got a magical do-over on that draft. Per 82games.com, Drummond was the most valuable Piston last year, even in limited minutes, with a +4.1 net production differential. Detroit had exactly three five-man units that played 50 or more minutes with a positive +/-; Drummond was in two of them. And Drummond showed flashes of massive potential on the defensive end: he posted a 99 defensive rating (points allowed per 100 possessions), per basketball-reference.com. For reference, Defensive Player of the Year Marc Gasol had a 98 D-rating.
It should be noted that undrafted rookies Pablo Prigioni and Chris Copeland both posted positive nERD scores for the Knicks. Jonas Valanciunas put up a positive nERD for Toronto, but he was a high draft pick in the 2011 class.
Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, last year’s actual number two pick, came into the league with questions about his shooting. Those, uh, well they didn’t go away. MKG shot 45.8 percent on the year, which isn’t actually terrible for a wing player. But that number is inflated by all the layups he made. Kidd-Gilchrist shot just 31 percent on shots 10-19 feet from the basket, according to the NBA's stats database. Oh, and he attempted just nine three-pointers all year. Not good.
All of that resulted in a -4.29 nERD for MKG last year. If a wing player is going to shoot that poorly in the NBA, he needs to do a whole lot of other things well. Like Andre Iguodala-level well. Kidd-Gilchrist isn’t there yet, although he is working on his broken shot mechanics. Charlotte knew they were drafting a bit of a project player last year, but if they want to take that step forward toward mediocrity, MKG needs to make a big leap.
The Cavs, as they have been wont to do recently, reached a little bit in drafting Dion Waiters at number 4. Waiters promptly but up a -5.57 nERD, which fueled the team’s critics. But Waiter’s numbers were actually hamstrung by an incredibly poor start to the season. Check out his splits: before the All-Star break, Waiters shot 39.6 percent; after the break, the number climbed all the way up to 45.8 percent. He showed glimpses in the second half that he could be a serviceable NBA scorer.
But his three-point shooting is still a big problem. For the year he shot just 31 percent from beyond the arc, and he didn’t improve as the year went on. (Just 23 percent in April! That’s Monta Ellis territory!) NBA two guards have to be able to shoot threes; it’s just part of the job description. It’s even more important to be able to shoot from outside when playing with Kyrie Irving, whose wizardry off the bounce and in the pick and roll will open up jumpers for his wing teammates. Like MKG, Waiters has a whole lot of work to do on his jumper.
It almost feels bad piling on Austin Rivers at this point. Rivers was second-to-dead-last in PER last season at 5.95, and he played way more minutes than any of the other guys near the bottom. He put up a ghastly -8.50 nERD, worst among the rookies, and once of the 10 or so worst nERDs since we started keeping track in 2000. He was so bad that many around the league see him as a sunk cost after just one year in the league. That’s a disaster for a top ten pick.
At the risk of belaboring the point, Rivers really didn’t do anything well last year. He shot just 37 percent overall, and somehow 54.6 percent on free throws. His assist-to-turnover ratio was just 1.71. The fact that his three point percentage, 32.6 percent and only a couple percentage points below league average, was his high point indicates just how frustrating of a season he had. It’s almost tough to project him – there’s basically no way he could be that bad again, right? It’ll be interesting to see if Rivers can recover and turn himself into a serviceable rotation player.