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8 Rookies That Will Have an Immediate Impact
By: Jake Lofgren
Three years ago today was my first ever article for The ICT Zone. In that article, I gave eight NBA rookies that I felt would have an immediate impact despite not being drafted particularly early. That article definitely had some wins like Tyler Herro and Jordan Poole, who have both signed massive contracts since. Other players like PJ Washington, Brandon Clarke, and Matisse Thybulle have played valuable roles since joining the league. In the modern NBA, it appears each new draft class is better than the last. Most of this is down to the fact that many teams are looking for cheap, young talent. Whether it is because the organization is tanking and looking to reshape around young players or looking for players on rookie contracts that can contribute to a contender for cheap, the opportunity for rookie players is at an all-time high.
It is easy to look at Paulo Banchero, Keegan Murray, Jaden Ivey, and Bennedict Mathurin and expect big things since everyone already knows enough about them. Instead let's examine eight rookie players you should watch for immediately and will know for years to come.
1. Jalen Williams, Oklahoma City Thunder, Santa Clara, SG
Right now, the Thunder have one of the most unique and positionless rebuilds in the NBA. The Thunder love adding players comfortable with the ball in their hands: Josh Giddey, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Aleksej Pokusevski, and Chet Holmgren. Jalen Williams was an extremely efficient player in college while warranting a lot of the ball. His combination of length, efficiency, and ability to stretch the game in a number of ways will make him a very popular player in OKC's rotation. Get ready to know Jalen Williams.
2. Jalen Duren, Detroit Pistons, Memphis, C
Now, it could take a year or two for Duren to break out. I mean, he is still only 18 years old for another month. Although with the idea of Duren's athleticism as a big to match with Detroit's explosive new backcourt of Cade Cunningham and Jaden Ivey, it can be hard not to be excited about that. With the hype around Isaiah Stewart's ability to stretch the court, it is not crazy to think that Duren could be a great frontcourt partner for Stewart handling the majority of the rim-protecting responsibility. Duren is destined for easy touches with Cade/Ivey creating for him, so if he can add that elite defense, Detroit could be in for a star.
3. Mark Williams, Charlotte Hornets, Duke, C
This name is probably the most obvious one on the list. Mark Williams was a five-star prospect that has been destined for the NBA for a long time now. Williams was the ACC Defensive Player of the Year in college, racking up 2.8 blocks per game. If there was one team that has been crying out for a center for years now, it is the Charlotte Hornets. After years of being linked to Rudy Gobert or Andre Drummond trade talks, the Hornets should feel pretty confident they got their guy. The Hornets went through a rough offseason as they only seemed to get bad news. A few talented players got into legal trouble, and the team could suddenly be in for a year of tanking. In a year where Charlotte could struggle to win games, it wouldn't surprise me to see Mark Williams steal a bulk of minutes away from Mason Plumlee and Kai Jones.
4. Tari Eason, Houston Rockets, LSU, PF
If anyone watched the Summer League, you now know who Tari Eason is. The Summer League isn't always the best indicator of how a player will turn out, but in recent years it has started to become more and more reliable. The Houston Rockets are deep into this rebuild and have a roster full of talented young players. Tari Eason fell to the Rockets at pick 17, and he looks like a solid fit for their roster. Eason could slot in really nicely as the SF in a lineup with Jalen Green, Kevin Porter Jr., Jabari Smith, and Alperen Sengun. Eason shot 52-36-80 in college, so he shows great signs of being able to space the court, but his upside on defense is what could make him valuable immediately and what could make him special later on.
5. Malaki Branham, San Antonio Spurs, Ohio State, SG
The Spurs are another team heading in a new direction as they added three new 1st round players in the last draft. Take your pick on which one you think will be great, and knowing Popovich, it might be all of them. Jeremy Sochan was the 9th pick, so everyone is expecting him to be great. Instead, let's shift focus to Malaki Branham. Malaki only played one year at Ohio State, but he had extremely efficient shooting splits of 50-42-83. Those seem like the type of numbers to become a popular player in Popovich's eyes. Although knowing the Spurs, Devin Vassell and Keldon Johnson will run the show, and Branham will start to break out around year three. If we trust any place in the entire NBA to develop young talent, it is San Antonio.
6. Walker Kessler, Utah Jazz, Auburn, C
The Utah Jazz are the biggest contender in the outrageous tanking that will occur to get a chance at drafting Victor Wembanyama. After losing one of the best rim protectors in the league this offseason in Rudy Gobert, the Jazz will need someone to pick up the pieces. Walker Kessler will be exactly that person, as he averaged an outrageous 4.6 blocks per game in college. Kessler may not play serious minutes right away, but I expect him to be very similar to Mitchell Robinson. Robinson only played 20.6 minutes per game in his rookie year, but averaged 2.4 blocks per game. By the end of the season I expect Kessler to have a similar effect.
7. MarJon Beauchamp, Milwaukee Bucks, G League Ignite, SG/SF
As previously mentioned in the article, contending teams love finding rookies to play a smaller role because of how cheap those contracts are. The Bucks are very fortunate to already have two elite scorers on the roster in Giannis Antetokounmpo and Kris Middleton. But when the Bucks lost Middleton late into last year's playoffs, the rest of the Bucks roster really struggled to pick up the slack left behind. With scoring not being Jrue Holiday's best asset, the next guy up to add scoring from the wing positions is Grayson Allen. This gap means that the opportunity for Beauchamp to come in and add some valuable scoring to this lineup should be there. Beauchamp has all the attributes to be a positive player from the Bucks on both sides of the court, and the Bucks should be desperate enough to give him some serious minutes.
8. Kenny Lofton Jr., Memphis Grizzlies, Louisiana Tech, PF
Kenny Lofton is the only undrafted player to make this list, and his route to getting minutes is definitely a lot more unlikely than the others on the list. However, I think Lofton ended up in an ideal place with Memphis. Over the past few seasons, Memphis have gotten a lot of production from their own draft picks and other role players. For a team that finished as the second seed in the Western Conference last season, they found a way two add another two draft picks this year, and the notable signing of Kenny Lofton. The style of Lofton is definitely obscure, as Lofton is a 6-7 280 pound big man with a unique set of skills that can be somewhat comparable to Nikola Jokic. Memphis is a team with high expectations of success this season, but I have a hard time believing over a long 82 game season, they won't succumb to the temptation of seeing what Lofton can bring to the table.
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