NBA
February 5, 2021
BY Isaiah Freedman

Ranking the 5 Biggest NBA Rookie Surprises So Far

With every NBA season comes a new batch of exciting rookies to scrutinize, and this year is no different.

Transitioning to the NBA is already a tall task, but with virtually no offseason or training camp, it'd be no surprise to see plenty of rookies crash and burn.

But that's what makes what these five rookies are doing so incredible. Despite not getting consistent playing time, these first-year players might not have been the Nos. 1 or 2 picks in the latest draft, but they have exceeded expectations so far.

Which rookie has been the biggest surprise so far? Let's start with No. 5. 

5. Payton Pritchard, Boston Celtics

Not many players, let alone rookies, are contenders to join the 50/40/90 club. In Payton Pritchard’s case, he’s one percentage point away from doing so, which is incredible. He’s been out a few games now with a knee injury, but the 23-year-old out of Oregon has proved he belongs.

Payton does not possess jaw-dropping athleticism, but he knows his limits. He’s made a difficult transition from college basketball star to role player on a strong Boston Celtics squad. Take a look at this beautiful footwork on a pump-fake, spin move:

After losing Gordon Hayward this offseason and dealing with injuries to Kemba Walker and now Marcus Smart, Boston has needed all the playmaking juice it can get. And when a team struggles with scoring — the Celtics rank as a middle of the pack squad in that area — one thing that can help rack up easy buckets is the transition game, where Pritchard has thrived by ranking in the 80th percentile.

After a big talent exodus over the past two years and three players who will be on near-max contracts next season, having a cheap, quality player in Pritchard is a coup for the Celtics.

The rookie also has a knack for finding open lanes in the defense for putback attempts, including a game-winner over the Miami Heat

4. Tyrese Maxey, Philadelphia 76ers

Tyrese Maxey represents another quality late first-round pick for a franchise that needed more playmaking and scoring. The one-and-done Kentucky star has carved out a role as a reliable spark off the bench for one of the Eastern Conference’s best squads. That’s not something many rookies can say. 

While Maxey has struggled with his long-range shot, he’s shooting a pristine 87% at the line, which bodes well for his future shooting splits. Right now, he’s displayed a knack for slicing into the teeth of the defense.

In what was Maxey’s defining game of the season, he showed his potential as an off-ball guard who can also take the reins on offense, dropping 39 points, seven rebounds, six assists and two steals on 54% shooting against the Nuggets earlier this season. It was a masterful display of what Maxey's already capable of and what he can turn into if he continues his development. 

The 76ers have Ben Simmons, Seth Curry and Shake Milton as primary ball-handlers, but they all have flaws in their games. Curry is more of a scorer than a facilitator, while Milton and Simmons need to work on their shooting. There is undeniably a chunk of space available for Maxey to contribute, and that’s exactly what he’s been doing.

Playing 19 minutes per game and scoring 9.6 points isn’t going to cause a frenzy, but doing it on a team with championship aspirations deserves tons of praise. It’s only up from here for Maxey.

3. LaMelo Ball, Charlotte Hornets

Since making headlines as a high school basketball star in Chino Hills, LaMelo Ball has had finally found a home in Charlotte where he’s flourishing as a sixth man behind Terry Rozier and Devonte’ Graham.

Even though he’s playing about 24 minutes per game, Ball is averaging 11.3 points, 6.1 rebounds and 5.9 assists along with 1.4 steals per game. He’s also seen his minutes increase lately because Rozier sustained an ankle injury. 

Ball is by no means an automatic savior. Like most rookies, when Ball's on the court the Hornets are still outscored by opponents, and he’s prone to comical shenanigans like tossing up prayers in the lane. But head coach James Borrego might have stumbled along a baby super trio in the process. When Ball shares the court with Rozier and Graham in small-ball lineups, the Hornets are outscoring opponents by over 17 points per 100 possessions. That’s nasty. 

What makes Ball a special prospect is his elite passion vision combined with his 6-foot-6 (and growing) frame, which is massive for a point guard. Just take a gander at this pocket Ball fits his pass into as a cutting Gordon Hayward is only open for a few milliseconds.

While Ball might not exactly be a huge surprise as he was the No. 3 pick in the latest NBA Draft, he's arguably been better than Anthony Edwards and James Wiseman while showing that he's already the superior Ball brother. 

2. Immanuel Quickley, New York Knicks

Long-suffering Knicks fans are rightfully going crazy over the Immanuel Quickley hysteria. The Kentucky product has injected energy into the Knicks' fanbase which is quickly rivaling that of Linsanity.

Quickley was drafted with the 25th pick, which has a small hit rate, but the guard has simply been phenomenal whenever coach Tom Thibodeau entrusts him to play. It appears Quickley is gaining the trust of his coach, too. He's earning more and more minutes as the year rages on. 

Over his last 10 games, Quickley is averaging 16.7 points, 3.1 rebounds and 3.5 assists in just 22 minutes per game. When he’s on the court, the Knicks are outscoring opponents by over seven points per 100 possessions, an insane number for a rookie.

Quickley’s defining characteristics are his efficient free-throw percentage (94%), and his patented push-shot floater, which is already one of the most unique shots in the league.

His ability to attack a defense is rare for such a young player. While he’s had trouble getting to the rim, he’s converting floaters at a ridiculous rate. And when he doesn’t burrow his way into the paint, he can rely on a quality off-the-dribble 3-point shot.

In transition, Quickley ranks in the 82nd percentile, producing 1.38 points per possession. Watching Quickley slice up defenses with ease right now, it’s crazy to believe that he was mostly playing off the ball at Kentucky. How was a dude who is currently producing 1.05 points per possession as a ball-handler in pick-and-roll situations (82nd percentile) not put in that situation in college?

But the past is the past, and Quickley has already proven his worth. He’s recently been the cause of veterans Elfrid Payton and Austin Rivers seeing their minutes dwindle, and he’s been finishing games. 

If Quickley keeps this up, he could be in the running for Rookie of The Year.

1. Tyrese Haliburton, Sacramento Kings

Ever since he inexplicably fell to 12th during draft night, Tyrese Haliburton has been proving the doubters wrong. The Iowa State star has been a much-needed spark for a Kings team that desperately needs playmaking outside of De’Aaron Fox.

Every time he walks onto the court, Haliburton oozes the potential of a star in the making, because he already looks like a seasoned veteran out there. In 28 minutes per game, he’s averaging 10.8 points, 3.8 rebounds, 5.3 assists and 1.1 steals on fantastic 46/40/83 shooting splits.

His veteran poise shows up in every game, whether it be singlehandedly commandeering the offense, tossing sophisticated passes, reading passing lanes like Jimmy Butler or this fantastic hesitation move:

The Kings are getting outscored by opponents when Haliburton is the game, but that’s not entirely his fault considering the Kings aren’t exactly setting the world on fire. What is promising is that when Sacramento replaces Haliburton with the struggling Marvin Bagley, the lineup of him surrounded by Buddy Hield, Harrison Barnes, Richaun Holmes and Fox is blowing the roof off of teams by 20 points per 100 possessions.

That number is not a small sample size, either. In fact, it’s the team’s second-most-used lineup all season. Watching rookies step into the league and immediately look like they belong is a rare occurrence. Not only does Haliburton belong, but he’s also thriving. He ranks in the 83rd percentile in transition, producing 1.39 points per possession.

Not much has gone right for the Kings these past few years, but drafting Haliburton is a great way to turn their fortunes around.

Photo: Getty Images