Most NBA players struggle to find consistent minutes during their rookie seasons. Adapting to the speed and talent of the league is not easy.
Every season, however, a few rookies figure out the NBA game quicker than their counterparts. Here are five players who fit that category this season:
Jarace Walker, Indiana Pacers: Talk about an easy pick. With the eighth pick in the 2023 NBA Draft, Indiana added the best player available and the player who fits its roster perfectly. The 6-foot-8 former University of Houston power forward should be a menace immediately.
He posted the fifth-best defensive rating in college basketball last season as well as the fourth-most blocks and eighth-best rebound percentage in the American Athletic Conference. Walker will stay on the floor because of what he brings defensively. If he can knock down shots as he showed in Indiana’s first preseason game, he’ll make it impossible for Rick Carlisle to take him off the floor. (Walker shot 34.7% from deep last season at Houston.)
Gradey Dick, Toronto Raptors: Toronto fans might faint when they see a shooter as adept as Dick, a 6-foot-8 small forward/shooting guard. The Raptors desperately need his elite shooting ability, especially with the departure of Fred VanVleet. Toronto has only three players (O.G. Anunoby, Gary Trent Jr., Pascal Siakam) who made more than one three-pointer per game last season.
Dick made 82 three-pointers in his one season at Kansas, good enough for second in the Big 12. Those threes came in a variety of ways. Dick can shoot off the catch, but he can create a shot for himself, too. His ball-handling isn’t elite on drives, but he has enough creativity to find space for himself — and any space is enough space for him to fire up a shot. Dick could open things for Toronto’s offense immensely.
Dereck Lively II, Dallas Mavericks: The 7-foot-1 Duke product is the only player on the Dallas roster taller than 6-foot-10, and his size will be vital for a Mavericks team that finished third-to-last in blocks per game last season.
Lively was drafted solely for that rim protection. He averaged just over five points and five rebounds per game at Duke, but he still finished eighth in the country in blocks despite playing just over 20 minutes a game. With Luka Doncic and Kyrie Irving next to him, he won’t be asked to do much of anything on offense, and if his defense can translate, Lively will be an important piece in Dallas.
Cam Whitmore, Houston Rockets: After Dillon Brooks, Houston doesn’t really have another wing who will eat up minutes, so Whitmore could quickly become the Rockets’ second-unit offensive horse.
With Amen Thompson flanking him, Whitmore is going to find himself open far more than he did at Villanova. At 6-foot-7 and 230 pounds, he looks like the big, athletic wing NBA teams crave. He’s a little erratic and will need to rein in his shot selection, but expect multiple “wow” moments from Whitmore.
Sasha Vezenkov, Sacramento Kings: This may be a bit of a cop-out considering Vezenkov is 28 and has been playing professional basketball for a decade, but the 6-foot-9 power forward is a rookie in the NBA. Last year’s EuroLeague MVP is going to be a key part of Sacramento’s plans from the get-go. Vezenkov brings movement shooting (career 39.5% 3PT shooter in Europe) and experience against high-level pros.
Stylistically, the NBA might be a change of pace for Vezenkov, but he certainly won’t be intimidated by the competitiveness of the league or the pressure-filled moments. He dominated the EuroLeague Finals last season, averaging 29 points, nine rebounds and four assists for Greek power Olympiacos.