The Whiteboard: 3 NBA rookies who weren’t supposed to be this good this fast

Golden State Warriors, The Whiteboard

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If you had spent much time reading scouting reports before the 2021 NBA Draft then you probably recognized the Golden State Warriors taking Jonathan Kuminga with the No. 7 pick as a play for the future. He was ranked in that range on the boards of many experts but he was consistently characterized as a long-term project.

The Ringer’s Kevin O’Connor described him as a “Tantalizing athlete who has raw skills that need years of seasoning, but has every tool a patient team would look for.”

After the pick was made Sports Illustrated’s Jeremy Woo focused on Kuminga’s future value, particularly as a trade asset, saying, “That’s not to say they made the incorrect choice, and Kuminga could also be a valuable piece of a future trade for a star talent that fits their timeline.”

ESPN’s Bobby Marks highlighted Kuminga’s potential, but also pegged Moses Moody, who the Warriors took with the No. 14 pick, as the more important piece for the present, saying, “Because Kuminga is more of a development project, expect the established Moody to see more playing time in 2021-22.”

I’m highlighting these quotes, not to call out the analysts who said them because it was absolutely the conventional wisdom at the time, but to highlight just how amazing it is that Kuminga has been this good, this fast.

It wouldn’t have been a surprise to see Kuminga spend a lot of time in the G League this season but he has appeared in 47 games for the Warriors, starting seven. Since Jan. 13 he has played in 19 straight games and averaged 21.5 minutes per game, establishing himself as a consistent and core piece of the rotation. And he has blossomed with those developmental minutes — averaging 15.3 points, 4.4 rebounds and 1.9 assists per game, shooting 60.3 percent from the field and 32.0 percent from beyond the arc over his last eight games.

Kuminga is still almost wholly in an ancillary role — 68 percent of his finished offensive possessions have been in transition, on cuts, spot-ups or putbacks. And using the NBA’s player tracking stats we can estimate that he’s only taken 52 shots all season (about one per game) that have come after three or more dribbles.

But, at 19 years old (he won’t turn 20 until just before next season), he’s already found a way to contribute with his energy and athleticism. He’s spent significant time defending players like LeBron James and DeDeRozan and shooting better than 60 percent inside the arc. He’s made progress on some of his messier habits — he has a positive assist to turnover ratio over his last eight games. And he’s also shown flashes of additional skills over that same stretch, averaging 4.3 drives per game, shooting 56.3 percent on those drives and drawing a foul on an extremely high 14.7 percent of them.

All that predraft analysis was true to some degree. Kuminga is still an incredibly raw prospect whose hypothetical ceiling is well off in the future. But his floor is much higher than most people thought and the Warriors have done an excellent job drawing it out and giving him opportunities to succeed much more quickly than anyone anticipated. But he isn’t the only rookie who has looked much better, much more quickly than expected.

Ayo Dosunmu, Chicago Bulls

Dosunmu was taken by the Chicago Bulls with the No. 38 pick and some draft heads were surprised to see him go that high with other talented guard prospects like Jared Butler and Sharife Cooper still on the board. For Forbes, Jason Patt highlighted Dosunmu’s presumably higher floor as the reason he made sense for the Bulls: “Dosunmu is good at a lot of things but not necessarily elite at anything when it comes to NBA skills. He’s a hard worker who should be able to able to make his mark defensively thanks to his size and length, and how his offense develops will determine just how good he is at the NBA level.”

If offense was the question mark for Dosunmu’s long-term NBA future, consider it answered. Plenty of opportunities have opened for him this season with all the injuries for the Bulls and he has taken advantage of every single one. On the season, Dosunmu is averaging 11.3 points, 4.3 assists, 3.9 rebounds and 1.0 steals per 36 minutes, shooting 59.0 percent inside the arc and 40.7 percent beyond it.

He’s been fantastic as a catch-and-shoot threat but has also been extremely impressive as a shot creator with the second unit, replicating his collegiate success in a way scouts weren’t quite sure would translate to the next level. He ranks in the 92nd percentile in scoring efficiency as a ball-handler in the pick-and-roll and has had no problem navigating the pass-shoot decision-making tree.

It wasn’t even guaranteed he’d be a consistent part of the rotation this season, with Coby White, Zach LaVine, Alex Caruso, DeMar DeRozan and Lonzo Ball all ahead of him. But Dosunmu has helped keep the Bulls afloat and could be even more valuable as the rest of the roster gets healthy around him.

Josh Giddey, Oklahoma City Thunder

Giddey was the second-youngest player available in the 2021 NBA Draft and while his skill and potential were tantalizing it was unclear how much of his production from the Australian NBL would translate immediately. It turns out the answer was, a lot.

Giddey has started all 53 games for the Oklahoma City Thunder, averaging 31.4 minutes per game and leading all rookies in assists and rebounds. He also ranks in the top six in totals steals and blocks among rookies. He has already racked up four triple-doubles, including an active streak of three-in-a-row, tied with Jason Kidd for the seventh-most by a rookie in NBA history. Picking up another two or three over the Thunder’s final 29 games would put him in Magic Johnson and Luka Doncic territory.

Giddey’s passing and creation ability have been so impressive that he’s largely shared primary creation duties with Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, in a partnership that has looked increasingly powerful.

His shooting is still very much a work in progress and it’s hard to measure his true impact on a team as bad as the Thunder. But he won’t turn 20 for another eight months and he’s already averaging 12.4 points, 7.8 rebounds and 6.4 assists per game.

Other NBA stories:

In a massive, in-depth feature from Aryanna Prasad, Pelicans center Willy Hernangomez credits his success to his family — his parents and siblings, his Spanish NBA mentors, and his New Orleans teammates.

This week on The Long Two, Ben Ladner looks at how the Dallas Mavericks have turned their season around with one of the NBA’s best defenses, and how Derrick White has given the Celtics exactly what they need.

It’s looking more and more likely that the Los Angeles Lakers miss the playoffs. But what happens if this actually comes to pass?

The Orlando Magic started the season with an unexpectedly frisky defense. You may be surprised to hear that has not held up.

The relationship between Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert doesn’t look right from the outside. But Donovan Mitchell keeps saying everything is fine. But is it really fine? Or is he the dog sitting at the table trying to convince himself as the house burns down around him?

Pick one word to describe the marriage of Kristaps Porzingis and the Washington Wizards. Jack Simone went with “desperation.”

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