All eyes will be on the 2019 draft class after the 2018 class produced talents like Luka Doncic, Trae Young, and Deandre Ayton, among others. Even more so, the 2019 class includes Zion Williamson, either the most hyped rookie since LeBron James in 2003. The top five NBA rookie projections are difficult to come up with. As good as Williamson should be, however, several more potential stars are in the fold.
Projecting 2019-20’s top five rookies
5. Brandon Clarke, Memphis Grizzlies
Brandon Clarke was the 21st rookie selected in the draft, chosen by the Memphis Grizzlies, but immediately silenced his doubters during the Summer League. The forward out of Gonzaga used his elite athleticism and drive to become a double-double machine and complete menace on both sides of the floor.
The Grizzlies will prioritize Jaren Jackson, this season, but Clarke should still see plenty of minutes on the floor. Jonas Valanciunas is also in the Grizzlies’ plans, but a project focusing on development to speed the rebuild will allow Clarke to continue where he left off.
4. RJ Barrett, New York Knicks
RJ Barrett will be entering next season with plenty of hype as the draft’s third overall pick, and rightfully so. The New York Knicks, however, had somewhat of a mess of an offseason, signed several players who could take away time on the floor for Barrett. Veteran shooting guards like Wayne Ellington and Reggie Bullock are now in the fold alongside Allonzo Trier, while Kevin Knox, Marcus Morris, and Bobby Portis could all demand minutes at small forward.
The former Duke Blue Devil has the tools to succeed. He’s coming off a season where he averaged about 23 points, eight rebounds, and four assists per game while splitting touches with other lottery picks in Williamson and Cam Reddish. The Knicks will just have to figure out how to split time with everybody.
3. Darius Garland, Cleveland Cavaliers
The Cleveland Cavaliers are a team desperate for talent. Kevin Love is still considered a star, but he can’t seem to stay healthy, while Collin Sexton can be exciting, but doesn’t seem to be the most efficient player. Darius Garland should step into a situation where he’ll see a lot of the ball and have the freedom to improve his game and dictate the offense.
The knock-on Garland is that he was injured after just five games while at Vanderbilt. Although true, Garland flashed impeccable talent that was enough to justify a top-five draft selection. The talent, opportunity, and time is all there for him. Garland should regularly score in double-figures and provide plenty of assists to ignite some hope again in Cleveland. His role in currently one of the league’s biggest rebuilds will make him more than just one of the top five rookies.
2. Ja Morant, Memphis Grizzlies
In any other year, Ja Morant would have been a seemingly unanimous number one pick. The point guard averaged about 25 points, 10 assists, and six rebounds per game for Murray State, and lead them to both regular season and postseason success. Even though he played outside the traditional “Power Five” conferences in college, Morant still managed to dominate March Madness. The Morant hype was and is alive and well.
The Grizzlies are rebuilding, and are doing so quite nicely. They do, however, play in a stacked Western Conference, so they might concede early to the fact that their playoff chances are low. If they do this, they should immediately give the keys to the team to their exciting prospects, like Morant, and just watch them develop. Morant should score often like Garland, but with more talent around him, dish out double-digit assists quite regularly. He’s in serious contention for Rookie of the Year honors.
1. Zion Williamson, New Orleans Pelicans
There hasn’t been a rookie with expectations this high for years. Williamson completely dominated the college basketball world, looking like he was ready for the NBA right out of high school. His hops, athleticism, strength, and weight make him look like a seasoned veteran out on the court, one already capable of taking the top defenders to the hole, and simply superior to the other top five rookies.
Williamson is also a perfect situation to succeed. The New Orleans Pelicans lost Anthony Davis to the Los Angeles Lakers, but have built a playoff-contending team shortly after. Jrue Holiday and Lonzo Ball will continuously provide Williamson with the ball on offense, and complement him very well defensively. Brandon Ingram is a strong scorer off the wing, while attention drawn to Williamson will leave a sharpshooter like J.J. Redick open on the three-point line. Lastly, the Pelicans picked up Derrick Favors to be Williamson’s front-court partner, easing the defensive load. Don’t just expect Rookie of the Year-like numbers, but potential All-Star worthy numbers.
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