This year’s top five picks— Minnesota’s Karl-Anthony Towns, the Lakers’ D’Angelo Russell, Philadelphia’s Jahlil Okafor, New York’s Kristaps Porzingis and Orlando’s Mario Hezonja— are making a larger early impact than any top-five group in at least a half decade.
A detailed statistical analysis of top five picks over the last five years shows that over the first two months of their rookie seasons, this year’s rookie class has performed the best.
Combining basic and some advanced stats, we averaged the numbers from the top five for each of the last five draft classes. This is what we came up with.
This year’s draft class boasts the highest per-game averages in points, rebounds, blocks, true shooting percentage, effective field goal percentage and usage rating.
“I think the top five picks this season really got into a good opportunity to get out there and play,” said Knicks forward Derrick Williams, the second pick in the 2011 draft.
“The top five picks are doing a really good job of trying to understand the game and trying to get used to their systems,” Chicago forward Tony Snell told SheridanHoops.
Let’s see the 2015 class’ individual numbers:
As you can imagine, Towns, Porzingis and Okafor are having tremendous starts to their rookie seasons. Even Russell, as Williams noted, has been playing better of late. That trio is benefiting from playing for teams that were bad a season ago, getting immediate opportunities that rookies in years past may not have been afforded, as Chicago forward Taj Gibson told SheridanHoops.
“One thing about Porzingis is he’s got veteran leadership, so he’s learning,” Gibson said. “You got Towns who’s learning from KG [Kevin Garnett]. Okafor, they need some vets so he could learn a little more, but he’s playing well.”
Towns’ teammate, Kevin Martin, called the top overall pick a franchise player, but had his own take on the Porzingis phenomenon.
“Porzingis is going to be a special player also,” Martin told SheridanHoops. “He’s a rare breed of height and athleticism and being able to shoot.”
The 2014 draft class of Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker, Joel Embiid, Aaron Gordon and Dante Exum sustained a slew of early injuries, limiting their impact. In the following chart, we substituted Philadelphia’s Nerlens Noel, a 2013 pick who played his first season in 2014-2015, for teammate Embiid.
Parker tore his ACL on Dec. 15 for Milwaukee and Gordon broke his foot just 11 games into his career for Orlando.
“You go from being a big fish in a little pond to a just another-sized fish,” Gordon told SheridanHoops, referring to his transition from college to the pros. “It’s really fun because the level of competition rises and so it just brings the best out of you and forces it to come out.”
Gordon said that his growth wasn’t necessarily stunted because he got hurt early on. Rather, it was just the path he ended up taking. Gordon said that he was helped by watching a lot from the sidelines and soaking in the different nuances of the game.
This rookie class ended up having the lowest usage rate, with the quintet not getting the same opportunities as this season to impact a large percentage of a team’s offensive possessions. It only got worse for the draft class of 2013, whose top five were Anthony Bennett, Victor Oladipo, Otto Porter, Cody Zeller and Alex Len.
The 2013 class was brought down by Bennett’s abysmally disappointing rookie season, as you could imagine. Porter missed the season’s first 18 games with a hip flexor and Len only played four games before the start of the calendar year.
Oladipo played pretty well for Orlando despite being shifted between both guard positions during his rookie campaign.
“That was a long time ago,” Oladipo told SheridanHoops, referring to his first two months as a pro. “It was different, something I had to get used to. I hadn’t visited every city yet. I played against people you watched growing up. So it was kind of a crazy experience. I was kinda all over the place.”
In terms of scoring and on-court opportunity, the 2012 draft class top five of Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Bradley Beal, Dion Waiters and Thomas Robinson comes closest to having the kind of immediate impact that this year’s class is having.
Davis missed 13 of his first 19 games as a pro because of a concussion and a stress reaction to his ankle, limiting him over his first two months. Waiters was inactive for eight games that December, and Robinson’s early struggles overshadowed strong starts from Kidd-Gilchrist and Beal. Also keep in mind that the sixth pick that year was Damian Lillard, the eventual Rookie of the Year.
The 2011 draft class – Kyrie Irving, Derrick Williams, Enes Kanter, Tristan Thompson and Jonas Valanciunas – had its own set of challenges. The NBA lockout shortened the season to 66 games and delayed the start of their careers until the end of December. Valanciunas didn’t come into the league until the 2012-2013 season, so the stats shown here are for that season.
Irving came out and played great right away but didn’t get a whole lot of help from his draft class teammates. Over the weekend, Williams told SheridanHoops about what his first two months were like.
Asked why this year’s draft class is outperforming other ones, Williams got a bit philosophical.
“It’s just different classes, you know? Sometimes different classes flow into it a little differently,” he said. “Some players are NBA ready at 20 years old, 19 years old, some players are NBA ready at 26, 27 years old. You never know.”
While the numbers suggest that this year’s draft class is doing remarkably well compared to year’s past, Gibson isn’t buying it.
“Just like every year, they try to hype them,” Gibson said. “They’re just young guys, but they’ve got a lot of talent. Every year is the same thing. It’s always a bunch of young guys coming in with a lot of talent, they hype them up and hope they can play even better. Usual stuff.”
But this year, as the numbers suggest, the 2015 draft class may finally be the one that goes beyond the hype and produce two or three superstar players out of the first five picks.
Shlomo Sprung is a national columnist for SheridanHoops who focuses on analytics, profiles and features. He is also the web editor of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. A 2011 graduate of Columbia University’s Journalism School, he has previously worked for the New York Knicks, The Sporting News, Business Insider and other publications. You should follow him on Twitter.