2019-20 NBA Preseason Top Rookies: Zion Shuts Down Doubts And Criticisms
Zion Williamson – New Orleans Pelicans
We may as well further pump up the Zion Williamson hype. The highly-regarded rookie, arguably one of the most hyped college athletes in history, showed that he has more than what it takes to be a superstar in the NBA. The only downside of his preseason performance is that he sustained a minor knee injury that would keep him out of the Pelicans’ season opener. But other than that, it was an almost perfect prelude for Zion’s rookie season.
Mike Lynch of The Ringer recently wrote a column on Williamson’s historic preseason, even emphasizing that the Duke standout had a more productive scoring performance than the rookie version of Kevin Durant.
“Williamson is averaging 23.3 points per game. League-wide NBA preseason statistics have been publicly available only since the 2005-06 season, but since then, no rookie has averaged 20 PPG in the preseason. Kevin Durant came the closest when he averaged 18.8 PPG in 2007-08.”
Despite the superior athleticism and elite mobility that Zion possessed even before he was drafted, a lot of people still had doubts if he can translate his scoring to the pro ranks. He is yet to develop a consistent shot from three-point territory, and he doesn’t have a signature move on the perimeter that he can go to. But there’s no doubting the fact that the rookie has his own unique ways on being effective on that end. Off-ball scoring is an area that is often overlooked today because of the isolation-heavy sets that superstar scorers immerse themselves into. Yet, that is an area where Zion already thrives.
The 285-pound forward already knows where to position himself for easy scoring opportunities around the paint. We are always enamored with perimeter players putting on the crossover moves and finishing creatively at the rim. But basketball shouldn’t always be that difficult. What Zion is doing also requires high basketball IQ, an awareness of the opposing team’s defense schemes, and solid chemistry with his teammates.
But even more than the 19-year old’s obvious excellent skill set and strong physique, Williamson has also displayed the fearlessness and willingness to go toe-to-toe with the league’s proven rim-protectors (insert Utah Jazz star center Rudy Gobert). Pelicans’ young budding star Brandon Ingram sees that confidence brimming in the rookie’s veins, per Andrew Lopez of the ESPN.
"I love it. I love it. He's strong enough to do it and he has the confidence to do it. That's something we need from a guy with that talent right there. You can't teach that. The confidence in him to go out here and go against those guys every night is big, even in preseason."
Although he will be going through a minor setback with his recovery from a knee injury, Zion should be able to replicate what he did in the preseason. Despite all the talent and scoring that surround him in the Pelicans roster, the first overall pick should still be the favourite to win the Rookie of the Year plum this season.
Tyler Herro – Miami Heat
The Herro ball is working out just fine for the Heat. After losing long-tenured, legendary shooting guard Dwyane Wade to retirement, Miami was blessed with a young gunner to help fill the void that Wade left. Of course, he’s not as great as Wade was even when the three-time NBA champion was still a rookie. But Herro’s unique offensive skill set and brimming potential could be a top attraction for South Beach fans to come and watch the post-Wade version of the Heat.
Despite the glaring weaknesses he has on the defensive end, Herro still emerged as the preseason’s second-best rookie behind Zion. He racked up 20-point games one after the other, and he did it with a shooting efficiency not common among rookie perimeter players. Herro’s quickly-developing play has caught the eyes of proven All-Stars, most notably his teammate, Jimmy Butler. Butler is not an easy person to please (just ask Karl Anthony-Towns), but the Heat’s newest superstar knows that Herro is already a special player, per The Athletic’s Shandel Richardson.
“He don’t give a damn about what I think (of him). I have that quality, too. A lot of people don’t, but he has it. He’s comfortable in his own skin. He’s not worried about what anybody says. He’s confident because he works on his game. He listens. He asks all the right questions. At 19, (if) you’ve already got that mindset, you can only get better, especially in this organization. He’s going to be special for a very long time.”
Moreover, Herro has the platform ready for him to log in heavy minutes in his debut season in the league. Butler will start in the small forward position, while defensive ace Justise Winslow will transition to the point guard role. With the departure of Josh Richardson and the suspension of Dion Waiters, a starting spot for the shooting guard has suddenly opened up. Waiters’ relationship with Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra has been on the rocks recently, so there’s a possibility that the flamboyant combo guard will demand a trade soon.
That puts Herro as arguably the next in line to claim that starting guard spot. Putting him in a line-up that includes Winslow, Butler and Bam Adebayo should help cover for the rookie’s defensive weaknesses. One thing’s sure is that the Heat direly need a solid perimeter threat to complement the playmaking of Winslow and Butler. Herro could definitely fill in for that shooting void.
Ja Morant – Memphis Grizzlies
We never doubted Morant’s overflowing talent and potential. But people weren’t sure if the skinny, 6-foot-3 point guard can already make a definitive impact in his rookie year. Like Zion, Morant has silenced those doubts. Although his measly three-point shooting still needs a lot of improvement, he has been using his elite athleticism and dribble-drive creativity to be effective. He has also racked up 7.3 rebounds in the preseason, an excellent indicator that Morant is ready to do it all for the young Grizzlies squad.
Newly-installed Grizzlies head coach Taylor Jenkins already sees the talent in his prized rookie point guard. Jenkins told David Cobb of the Memphis Commercial Appeal that he wants Morant to have more freedom and space in his team’s schemes on offense.
"I want him to be aggressive as a scorer at all times. I think with our offense, the pace we play with and the space that we play with, he organically will find those spots.
I think it’s just an ongoing learning process with him, where I don’t want him to stop and take his foot off the gas pedal. He’s so gifted at finding seams and getting inside the defense, I don’t want to take that away from him."
As the season progresses, we should also expect a great improvement in Morant’s maturity and decision-making. With low expectations placed on the rebuilding Grizzlies, Morant has the perfect platform to work on his growing pains and learn the ropes of NBA basketball.
Coby White – Chicago Bulls
Coming into the league, many knew that White is a high-energy guard who could provide the valuable intangibles for his team. A poor shooting efficiency during the Summer League gave us a taste that White is not ready to take on heavy minutes even with a young Bulls squad. But the 6-foot-5 combo guard absolutely showed out in the preseason, not just with his energy but also with his unique offensive skill set.
During the preseason, White crossed out those Summer League scoring inefficiency by averaging 19.2 points and a stellar 43% clip from beyond the arc. He highlighted his impressive preseason performance with a 29-point outing against Trae Young and the Atlanta Hawks.
Bulls head coach Jim Boylen says that it’s only natural that White has bounced back from his forgettable Summer League stint, per Joe Cowley of the Chicago Sun-Times.
‘‘I never brought it up to him one time. He works, and I think when you work, good things happen for you. I think he was frustrated with [the Summer League], but I didn’t have to talk to him. He knows he’s a better shooter than that. Sometimes a poor Summer League can be a positive thing for you, and he’s turned that into a positive things.’’
White should be the Bulls’ sixth man this season. The Bulls coaching staff have been firm about installing recently-acquired playmaker Tomas Satoransky as their starting point guard. He will be battling fourth-year guard Kris Dunn for minutes in the second unit. But if White maintains his shooting efficiency and continues hounding opponents on the defensive end, Boylen should find it easy giving more exposure to his rookie gunner.
RJ Barrett – New York Knicks
Missing out on Zion may have been a blessing in disguise for the rebuilding Knicks. Zion has been hounded by knee injuries in recent months, and that could turn out to be a red flag in the long run. On the other hand, Barrett is quickly establishing his name in the league, providing an all-around presence for his team, especially on offense. The 6-foot-7 lefty forward averaged a solid stat line of 15.8 points, 6.8 boards and 3.3 assists in the preseason. He has always been a playmaking scorer before entering the league, and he is continuing that trend with the Knicks.
Also, Barrett has showed an excellent display of attitude and character. In an interview with Marc Berman of the New York Post, the former Duke standout is keeping it low-key by playing down his impressive preseason performance.
“I mean preseason, it counts for nothing. So tomorrow is where the real evaluation begins. I’ve been here for a while, getting used to it but now it’s like real. It’s real. As soon as I run out on the court, I’m going to feel a different type of vibe and different tension. I’m going to go out on the court and have fun with it.’’
Barrett and the retooled Knicks will open their 2019-20 campaign against LaMarcus Aldridge and the veteran San Antonio Spurs. Barrett is expected to slide into the starting small forward position, forming an intriguing combo with power forward Julius Randle.