- Players such as Ben Simmons, Joel Embiid, and Blake Griffin excelled after missing their entire rookie seasons with injuries.
- We asked around the NBA if it would be beneficial for more players to sit out their rookie years to develop.
- Players, coaches, and executives all said that not only are Simmons, Embiid, and Griffin the exceptions, the most important thing for rookies is to get playing time and experience.
- Handling rookies’ playing time is a balancing act between letting them make mistakes and pulling them aside to let them learn.
What if NBA rookies didn’t play their rookie season at all?
Unusual circumstances have produced two of the best rookies in back-to-back years. Last year, it was Joel Embiid who, after two injury-riddled seasons, made his NBA debut with the Philadelphia 76ers and dominated. This year, Ben Simmons, who missed his rookie season with a foot injury, debuted with the 76ers and has looked strong, athletic, polished, and, well, unlike most NBA rookies.
Before them, Blake Griffin missed his rookie season with the Los Angeles Clippers with a knee injury, only to average 22 points, 12 rebounds, and nearly 4 assists a game en route to a Rookie of the Year award.
Alas, the NBA world isn’t convinced that the 76ers and Clippers before have stumbled upon a new way of developing young players. Griffin, Embiid, and Simmons were all injured, but the NBA world doesn’t seem to think letting players sit out a year to develop both physically and mentally would do anyone much good.
Some inquiring across all levels of the NBA resulted in an almost unanimous answer: Those guys – Simmons, Embiid, Griffin – are the exception.
“I think you just named some of the most extreme cases,” New York Knicks forward Michael Beasley said, laughing.
“You’re talking about three top-three picks, highly touted players, highly successful college players expected to be dominant when they played,” Milwaukee Bucks GM Jon Horst said.
“They’re clearly sort of earmarked as elite-level talent,” 76ers guard J.J. Redick said. “Most NBA players, having to sit out a year and then just jump right back in, you’re not going see the sort of results that these guys have had after sitting out.”
There’s no better teacher than the game
Nearly everyone agreed that there’s a key ingredient to rookies improving.
“The more experience you get, the better,” Beasley said. “Being out there, there’s no other teacher in the game itself.”
Los Angeles Lakers rookie forward Kyle Kuzma said he’s felt himself improve from game to game. Ditto for Brooklyn Nets rookie center Jarrett Allen, who said on-court experience “trumps everything.”
“Probably the best thing to do is play,” said Orlando Magic assistant coach Jay Hernandez, who works in player development.
“You automatically do get better in those situations because you get to see what the travel is, kind of get a feel for the 82-game season, the ebbs and flows of everything from winning streaks to losing streaks, how coaches handle things, the terminology that’s involved, dealing with the training staff, being a professional, learning and being around other guys, and just seeing the game.”
There is a tight-rope for teams to walk. Some rookies aren’t ready to play right away and need time to learn. Coaches’ instincts can sometimes be to pull a rookie and bench them if they’re struggling or making mistakes. The leeway those players have and their team situation can be the most important factor.
“I think also the best way to learn sometimes is to actually get out there and play and work through your mistakes, if you have that kind of leeway,” Memphis Grizzlies guard Mike Conley said. “A lot of rookies don’t have that kind of freedom to go out there and make mistakes and not get pulled out of the game.”
Playing the right way
Horst said it’s not just about playing minutes, but doing so with a purpose, in a system, and, hopefully, a winning culture.
“I think that having it done in an environment that drives winning habits [is important],” Horst said. “So, having systems and cultures in place where guys learn to play the right way, play winning basketball, play team basketball, play with effort and communication and things like that.
“So there’s a difference between being thrown out there – ‘Hey, just go play ball’ – and a difference between being out there to go play minutes that are meaningful minutes, whether that’s contributing to a winning team or just playing in the right way.”
The Bucks are a case study in rookie development. Giannis Antetokounmpo played big minutes right away, despite being perceived as raw, and he played well, but the Bucks went just 15-67 that year. Antetokounmpo got important minutes, but his development was gradual before exploding into an All-Star during the 2016-17 season.
Meanwhile, Horst pointed to Malcolm Brogdon and Thon Maker, two Bucks rookies last year, who he said benefited from having to earn minutes on a team that made the playoffs. Brogdon eventually won Rookie of the Year over Embiid, whose technical rookie season was cut short with a knee injury.
Redick also noted the importance of game experience and being in a system that teaches players to play “the right way.” And with that experience comes adjustment.
“As you have success, the rest of the league inevitably adjusts to you, and they play you differently,” Redick said. “And so your first couple passes through, say, as you’re playing Utah for the second time, or Milwaukee for the first time and then Milwaukee for the third time, you’re seeing all these different coverages.
“You’re getting guarded differently, maybe in the case of Joel you’re getting doubled differently. And you have to make those adjustments game to game, and I see those guys doing it and doing it well.”
But in the cases of Embiid and Simmons, Redick’s teammates, Redick said there’s an intangible quality to their success.
“I think there’s, on both their parts, a willingness to get better. They both want to be superstar players, and so because of that, and because both of them are smart players, they’re sort of making adjustments in real time whether that’s within a game or game to game.”
If rookies get better with experience, why do some players still sit?
“The rookie wall, to me, is a real thing,” Redick said. “There are certain times throughout the season where it’s hard to muster that energy that you have on game one or a game after three days rest.”
The 82-game season is a slog, and not just for rookies. Every player goes through cold spells, entire months where their games are erratic and inaccurate. While there’s a physical learning curve to all of it, the biggest hurdle may be mentally.
“The biggest challenge for young players in this league is consistency,” Nets head coach Kenny Atkinson told reporters before a January game. “And that’s why the great players in this league, that’s what they do, they do it night in and night out.”
To Hernandez, there’s value in those times when rookies aren’t just playing for the sake of playing.
“Sometimes you take that pressure off and say, ‘OK, we’re going get you in there, but you’re going to get a chance to sit and see all these situations come up. See plays develop, near the coaches,'” Hernandez said.
“Sometimes you see guys that play no matter what and sometimes you can get caught up in the fact that there’s no accountability. So then the rookies themselves, they put themselves in a bad way where they try to work through mistakes.”
Would players want to sit out for entire seasons in hopes of further developing their games? The NBA world seemed pretty united on that front, too.
“Everybody wants to play,” Kuzma said. “It’s not like rookies are just sitting out, like, as a redshirt, just because.”
“You’re not going to take a year off from life, you’re not going to come back the same age or number,” said Beasley. “Essentially, you lose years, playing years, in your career.”
“There is no substitute for game experience,” Redick said.
There is no foolproof, broad-strokes plan for developing rookies. The 76ers, who tanked to draft the best players possible, may have succeeded in their plan, because it’s clear that Simmons and Embiid stand out amongst other rookies. For the rest of the NBA, the process remains a balancing act.
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