-Luka Dončić, Dallas Mavericks – The Slovenian has been by far the best rookie to start the season, but his rise is assumed. He leads all qualified rookies in points, minutes shown glimpses of his impressive intangibles as well as his numbers being solid all around, and both will develop immensely as the years pass by.
-Kyle Kuzma, Los Angeles Lakers – It was expected Brandon Ingram would be LeBron’s second guy in L.A., but right now that guy is Kuzma who is averaging 18.5 points a game and 4.9 rebounds a game while looking comfortable shooting the three, as well as 20+ points in four separate games.
-Gary Harris, Denver Nuggets – Harris has emerged as Denver’s third, at times second, best player and a consistent go-to scoring option. In his fifth year he’s averaging 17.1 PPG, 4.6 higher than his career average, as well as having five 20+ point games so far.
Caris Levert, Brooklyn Nets
It is on the very day that I write this, crediting Caris Levert’s meteoric rise in the NBA this season that the guard goes down with a gruesome ankle injury. Levert was on track to be a contender for most improved player of the season and possibly an All-Star selection if he could continue to elevate his numbers. The good news is he’s expected to return, but the bad is it’s not for a while yet, but it nonetheless feels necessary to place him on this list.
The Brooklyn Nets are in a weird and relatively quiet positon until the 2019 NBA Draft and free agency period. A season that needs to show improvement and a blueprint for the future, their season so far has certainly had some bright spots, with a handful of players showing off their necessity to remain in the team long-term.
Levert has been at the center of their successes, averaging 19 points a game off an average of 31 minutes a game, shooting the ball at a respectable 48 per cent for the year which all came prior to the Nets loss to the Wolves which saw Levert go down with his injury. He’s dropped 20+ points on seven occasions, as well as hitting a game-winning shot on the road against the currently 9-4 Nuggets.
Levert’s improvement has translated to the Nets, who have a 6-8 record overall, against the likes of Golden State, Detroit (twice), Denver, Philadelphia, New Orleans and Indiana – all playoff heavyweight/caliber sides.
De’Aaron Fox, Sacramento Kings
Any hype that surrounded De’Aaron Fox when he was drafted was overshadowed by the glamour that surrounded Lonzo Ball, and for the majority of his rookie year he failed to fire on the level many hoped. But now a season into his professional career, Fox is showing glimpses of how dominant he can be on the court.
Fox’s numbers have risen from his rookie season, averaging 18.7 (+7.1) points and 7.1 (+2.7) assists through 12 games, shooting an impressive 50.8 (+9.6) per cent from the field – a high number for a second year player on an average team. He achieved a 31-point, 15-assist, 10-rebound triple double against the Hawks on the road, a team who have shown positive signs to start the season. He has an impressive physique and a great burst of speed in his game, which have strengthened since he entered the league. As well as that, Fox’s per minute numbers sit higher than Jayson Tatum and Donovan Mitchell, the two men objectively better than him who came out of the same draft class a year ago.
The most important part is the Kings record, which sits at 8-6 so far. Granted it’s only good enough for the eight seed right now, but it’s certainly an improvement given the Kings mediocrity in the West for well over a decade now.
Along with Fox the future looks even brighter with rookie Marvin Bagley III, center Willie Cauley-Stein and guard Buddy Hield all posting strong numbers so far as well, and all being 25 years of age or under.
Nikola Jokić, Denver Nuggets
Nikola Jokić has been on the fringe of the All-Star conversation for a year or so now, but the Serbian big man is likely to overcome that hump after a promising start to the season, where he has been the best center in the Western conference along with Anthony Davis of the Pelicans.
Jokić’s game has developed to a point where now he is an offensive swiss-army knife, with the ability to shoot the ball from all spots on the floor as well as being an extremely gifted passer of the ball. His numbers have in turn been impressive, averaging 17.8 points off 53.4 per cent shooting and 10.3 boards through his first 13 games first seven games of the season, which included what people have dubbed a ‘perfect’ triple double with 35 points, 11 rebounds and 11 assists without missing one shot from the field.
Amongst this the Nuggets have started the season 9-4 and sit third in the competitive Western conference, with many (including myself) tipping them to break their five-year playoff drought.
Oddly, Jokić struggled through a three game stretch, that saw him average a mere 6.3 PPG while Nuggets went unbeaten. By contrast the Nuggets have dropped three games since, but Jokić has posted 20.3 points, 11.3 boards, highlighted by a 37-point, 21-board performance against the Nets. This culminates in the suggestion Jokić’s numbers fail to impact the team as positively as they ideally should.
Nevertheless for now Jokić is moulding into one of the more dominant big-men in the league, and likely to hold that title for a long time.
Zach LaVine, Chicago Bulls
Zach LaVine entered the league rather quietly; a middle first-round pick of the 2014 draft, and was unfortunately taken by the Timberwolves who have struggled to escape their image of mediocrity. It hasn’t been until he arrived in Chicago that his minutes numbers rose.
Zach LaVine was in a difficult personal position prior to the 2018-19 season, as he needed to prove to Chicago they made the right choice investing so much cap space into him. So far though, he’s proving that choice to be a good one. He’s been on a scoring tear averaging 27.2 points a game so far, highlighted by a 41-point performance against the Knicks. He has scored 30+ points on four separate occasions, while scoring at least 20 points in all games this season. All scoring is coming of a solid 46 per cent shooting from the field, while also having a respectable number of rebounds for a 6 ft. 5 points guard at 5.2 per game.
The Bulls roster is mainly made up of young and promising talent mixed in with role players, so LaVine, who is arguably their go-to guy, has minimal help. A 4-10 record for Chicago is therefore no surprise, but their four wins are certainly due to LaVine’s impressive start so far.
The number in Chicago’s wins column should rise when Lauri Markkanen returns form injury, and the likes of Jabari Parker and Wendell Carter Jr. find their feet. A playoff spot for the Bulls and an All-Star selection for LaVine are both certainly on the cards.
Trae Young, Atlanta Hawks
It may not be fair to put a rookie on this list, but Trae Young has no doubt had a tremendous start to the season given the skepticism that surrounded him since entering the league.
Young was a mirror of Steph Curry in the first half of College basketball a season ago, and then it all went sour for him. In the NBA and part of a trade that saw him go to the Hawks, Young has put up impressive numbers which has gone against the grain of what we all expected.
Young’s strong numbers have propelled the Hawks to three wins in their opening 13 games. Not something to gloat about in any way, but certainly something to take positives from as the Hawks have the worst team in the league on paper and a rookie head coach.
The lowest number of points Young has mustered is 11, and has scored 20 or more on four occasions. On top of that he leads all rookies in assists, with 7.8 per game, as well as having a staggering 12.4 assist per 48 minutes average, a significant advantage over all other rookies. By the eye test Young has been stroking the ball from deep nicely, as well as working the ball inside at times and showing off his versatile game on the offensive side.
Young’s workload for the future is aided with the likes of center John Collins and forward Taurean Prince likely to consistently post strong numbers. All together it paints a promising future for the Hawks, with young as their centerpiece.