The Raw Rookie Class

Dateline: 04/10/97

This year's NBA rookie class really should be in class, not playing in the NBA. OK, OK, OK, what value does Shakespeare have to boys that make millions by Duncan on Othella? Absolutely nothing, but much ado should be made about the fact that the rookies of the past few seasons have been raw and aren't improving themselves or their teams very much.

Nearly all of the top rookies this year -- Shareef Abdur-Rahim, Ray Allen, Kobe Bryant, Marcus Camby, Allen Iverson, Kerry Kittles, Stephon Marbury, and Antoine Walker -- all except for Kittles joined the NBA without completing their college eligibility. All of them, except Kittles, have played like it. For instance, something very typical of rookies is to commit a lot of turnovers. All of them have done so, except for Kittles. As a percentage of the possessions they used, these are the number of turnovers they committed:

Player TO/Poss
Abdur-Rahim Shareef 0.16
Allen Ray 0.15
Bryant Kobe 0.21
Camby Marcus 0.15
Iverson Allen 0.19
Kittles Kerry 0.11
Marbury Stephon 0.18
Walker Antoine 0.16

Even though it is typical for rookies to commit a lot of turnovers, these numbers are concerning because of the recent trend showing young players not improving. An easy example is last year's Rookie of the Year winner, Damon Stoudamire. He has not improved in a single area this season, unless you count his 1% improvement in free throw shooting. A second example is Jerry Stackhouse, who has also improved in no area but free throws -- by a whole 2%. How about Joe Smith, whose bread and butter in college was crashing the offensive boards, but whose second year in the NBA has shown an enormous drop in offensive rebounds. And then there is Chris Webber, whose dynamic inside game on a good Warriors team as a rookie has turned into all too many three pointers on a mediocre Bullets team. He actually had his best season as a rookie.

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On the other hand, there are players that have improved, like Grant Hill, Penny Hardaway, and, uh, Shaquille O'Neal? Jason Kidd has continued to get worse with every season, though it looks like he will actually shoot better than 40% this season. When Glenn Robinson entered the league, he was producing about 99 points per 100 possessions, bad for a veteran but ordinary for a rookie; this year, Robinson is producing 101 points per 100 possessions. Allen Houston: He has improved, hasn't he? That's why he got such a whopping contract last year, right? Oh yeah, he improved. He was a pitiful rookie, though, producing a score for his team 44% of the time. Now he produces a score 46% of the time.

So many guys are leaving school early to improve in the NBA and to pay their dues while they are still young. This rationale makes some sense until you look at the Benoit Benjamin's, the Harold Miner's, the Yinka Dare's, and the Luther Wright's. These guys paid their dues, earned some money, and hopefully learned to accept their relative unpreparedness for the big leagues. Miner, in particular, had a short career because he wasn't tall enough to stick around the league as a seven foot stiff. In college, he was nicknamed "Pocket Jordan". If you call him that now, he won't take too kindly to it.

Some of this year's rookie crop will also disappear without a headline, possibly even some of the better ones listed here:

Floor Off. Def. Net Net Net
Player Pct. Rtg. Rtg. Win% W L
Abdur-Rahim Shareef 0.500 97.4 108.9 0.137 1.7 10.6
Allen Ray 0.478 104.8 108.3 0.370 3.3 5.7
Bryant Kobe 0.445 97.8 102.9 0.302 1.2 2.8
Camby Marcus 0.525 102.7 102.1 0.526 4.1 3.7
Iverson Allen 0.481 101.1 109.4 0.215 2.7 9.9
Kittles Kerry 0.507 112.7 108.3 0.659 6.0 3.1
Marbury Stephon 0.489 103.9 108.8 0.317 2.8 6.0
Walker Antoine 0.463 92.3 106.8 0.082 1.0 11.0

These are the guys who have earned some public acclaim this year. All but Allen and Bryant have been chosen as Rookie of the Year by someone prominent. Only Camby and Kittles, who both produced more points per 100 possessions than they allowed, appeared to be better than 0.500 players. Only Camby and Kittles scored on more than 50.4% of their possessions (their floor percentages were greater than 0.504), the league average. On that basis, one of these two should win this year's Rookie of the Year Award.

If the award does not necessarily reward this season's performance but somehow looks ahead at the future, then everything is up in the air. No one can predict the future. I made clear a couple weeks ago that I thought Iverson would ultimately be great. In many ways, this is a personal bias, having seen Iverson a lot through college and having called him, "easily the best player available in the draft" last year. But there is more evidence now. Of all the guys in the above table, Iverson is the only one who has made significant improvements in his game since mid-season.

That's impressive and becoming increasingly rare.

Post Script

The article, Bridge to the 21st Century discusses the diminishing returns given by rookies over the past several seasons. They used to improve their teams by an average of several percentage points a year. Last year, the top ten picks improved their teams one percent. As a follow-up, I note that this year's top ten picks improved their teams by one-half of one percent.