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The NBA draft is an inexact science. Just ask the 12 executives who passed up the opportunity to select Donovan Mitchell last summer.
Those teams might not all be feeling buyer’s remorse, but most are assuredly regretting overlooking the fifth rookie to clear 1,600 points since 2000-01.
The 2018-19 rookie class likely won’t have a surprise on par with Mitchell, but it could have another unexpected top-three finisher in the Rookie of the Year race. At least one non-top-10 pick has done so in each of the last five seasons.
The following five rookies are the likeliest prospects to blaze that path based on their opportunity, skills and projected production.
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Miles Bridges was made for the Charlotte Hornets.
After consecutive 36-win disappointments, they needed some excitement to get them buzzing again. However, they didn’t have money to spend on major upside this offseason, and they couldn’t afford too much risk with Kemba Walker’s upcoming venture into 2019 free agency awaiting them.
Bridges offered the ideal blend of safety and potential. While a second season at Michigan State might have failed to raise his profile, it established him as a lottery-level talent with an NBA-friendly game.
“He’s a powerfully built 20-year-old (6’7″ and 225 pounds) with elite athletic ability and a consistent three-point shot (career 37.5 percent from three on 5.5 attempts per game),” Jonathan Tjarks of The Ringer wrote. “He won’t look out of place on an NBA court next season, and his skill set translates perfectly to the way the game is played these days.”
The Hornets don’t have an obvious opening in their starting lineup, but neither Marvin Williams nor Michael Kidd-Gilchrist should be locks for the first five since they haven’t proved to be difference-makers. Bridges might be. His limited creativity would be negated when playing alongside Walker and Nicolas Batum, both of whom could make good use of Bridges’ explosiveness and outside stroke.
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It feels like forever since we’ve seen Harry Giles in action, mainly because it has almost been that long. Knee issues kept him off the floor all of last season—meaning he’s a redshirt rookie in the NBA’s eyes—and they limited him to only 300 minutes over 26 appearances during his lone year at Duke.
ACL tears in 2013 and 2015 also abbreviated his high school career, but he sat atop the 2016 ESPN 100 regardless, above the likes Jayson Tatum, Lonzo Ball and Markelle Fultz.
A healthy Harry Giles—which he’s reportedly been for a while—is a problem. He’s explosive around the rim and skilled away from it. It isn’t uncommon to hear Giles likened to former do-it-all Sacramento Kings star Chris Webber, the 1993-94 Rookie of the Year and a five-time All-Star. Listen to the practice reports coming out of Sacramento, and you’d think Giles was destined to follow the same path.
“He can shoot, he can drive, he can pass, he can play defense, he can move without the ball well, he can dunk, he can do everything really,” Bogdan Bogdanovic said, per Blake Ellington of Sactown Royalty. “He’s so versatile and impressive. … He’s like [a] better version of Draymond Green, I’d say, because I think he’s stronger, he’s more athletic than Draymond.”
Unless the Kings handle Giles with kid gloves, he should have a great opportunity to post big numbers. The frontcourt might be crowded, but only No. 2 pick Marvin Bagley III can rival Giles’ ceiling, and it’s in Sacramento’s best interest to find out if those two can coexist longterm.
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What do Patrick Beverley, Avery Bradley, Lou Williams, Danilo Gallinari, Tobias Harris and Luc Mbah a Moute have in common? Two things: potentially significant roles for the 2018-19 Los Angeles Clippers and career assists averages below 3.5 per game.
As was the case with last summer’s Utah Jazz, shot creation is a need for the Clippers. That substantially boosts the stock of Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, who paced the 2017-18 Kentucky Wildcats in assists by nearly 100 and led the summer-league Clippers in the same category despite only playing four of the six games. Before leaving Sin City, the 20-year-old was already threatening to launch up the depth chart.
“Gilgeous-Alexander looks like he’s the best all-around guard on the roster, and the buzz around Summer League is that the Clippers will hand him the keys on day one if he’s ready,” Blake Murphy reported for Dime magazine.
If Gilgeous-Alexander can shoot—he attempted only 57 threes at Kentucky, but made 23—the Clippers won’t have a better two-way option. That’s important, because it means he wouldn’t have to wait for them to pull the plug on the season to get his chance. They need both his on-ball savvy and defensive length, and his advanced basketball IQ will be imperative for making sense of this roster.
It’s possible to imagine Gilgeous-Alexander’s distributing becoming as important to L.A.’s offense as Mitchell’s scoring is to Utah’s attack. And if the Clippers can be surprisingly competitive with a freshman floor general at the wheel, Rookie of the Year voters will notice.
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Kevin Huerter is a three-point assassin. Between his 138 threes at a 39.4 percent clip over two seasons at Maryland and absurd marksmanship at the combine, he effectively shot his way into the Association.
While a number of sharpshooters have passed through the NBA, Huerter is most commonly likened to Klay Thompson. Maybe that’s due to both standing 6’7″, or Thompson getting as much buzz as any modern sniping specialist. The fact Atlanta Hawks general manager Travis Schlenk came from Golden State and seems to be building a knockoff Splash Bros. with Huerter and Trae Young only deepens the link.
Huerter isn’t Thompson—the former might be more advanced at his age. Huerter hit loftier season highs in field-goal percentage (50.3 to 43.6), three-point percentage (41.7 to 41.2) and true shooting percentage (64.0 to 57.4) even though Thompson’s college career lasted a year longer. Huerter also leaves school as a better playmaker (career 3.0 assists to 2.6) with tighter handles and superior vision.
“He can put the ball on the floor and create for others,” Schlenk said of Huerter, per Tim Bontemps of the Washington Post. “He can make shots, but also dribble and pass, which makes you harder to defend and what we’re trying to build.”
Huerter arrives in Atlanta with fewer obstacles than Thompson encountered in Golden State. While Thompson was trapped behind then-leading scorer Monta Ellis, Huerter is listed behind only Kent Bazemore, a player whose name keeps buzzing in trade talks. Thompson, a fellow non-top-10 pick, made the All-Rookie first team in 2011-12, meaning it’d be fair for Huerter to aim even higher.
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Back surgery effectively erased Michael Porter Jr.’s only season of college hoops. A subsequent procedure this summer came without a timetable attached, casting a potential cloud over his rookie campaign.
But the former top prospect has since offered a reason to be optimistic.
“I finally feel, like good,” Porter told ESPN.com’s Chris Forsberg. “I don’t have a date but I’m hoping to be back for the beginning of the year. Gotta heal up, but I feel great.”
If Porter’s body cooperates, he could be on the verge of a monster debut. While some rookies might struggle to crack the rotation of a 46-win team, Porter’s skills seem to fit perfectly with the Denver Nuggets.
For all the good this offense did last season (sixth in scoring and efficiency), it could use a reliable No. 1 scorer. Nikola Jokic and Paul Millsap look most comfortable passing, Gary Harris is a complementary piece, Jamal Murray can be streaky and Will Barton might be best controlling a second-team offense. Only the 55-loss Chicago Bulls fared worse on isolations than Denver did in 2017-18.
If a rookie is going to lead a playoff team in points this coming season, it will be Porter. He’s a walking mismatch as a 6’10”, three-level scorer. The Nuggets might be too cautious for his stats to run wild, but he has the skills to pace the rookie class in points.
Zach Buckley covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @ZachBuckleyNBA.