The 2020 NBA Draft class was said to be limited on talent.
It was projected to be a three-player draft. Nobody was said to have superstar potential. Teams outside of the lottery weren't expected to land anyone of any value.
When covering the draft last fall, I did write about how this class had a different type of potential with a number of players that had a future in the league as role players, but I can admit that I did not expect to see this many rookies making as much of an impact as they have already.
They told us our class was trash😂 https://t.co/DOw57Eg6F4- Tyrese Haliburton (@TyHaliburton22) May 6, 2021
When you look at the league standings and see the teams that are in the race for the NBA Playoffs or Play-In Tournament, there is a vast number of rookies that play significant minutes for their team.
I'm not talking about throwaway minutes, I'm talking about legitimate playing time that can impact the final result of a game. And judging by the playing time they're receiving in the regular season, it's hard to believe those minutes will completely tail off come playoff time.
While coaches do shorten their rotation once the postseason hits, it seems as though the majority of these first-year players will still make the cut.
Starting at the top of the Eastern Conference, the Philadelphia 76ers utilize No. 21 overall pick Tyrese Maxey for a jolt of offence off the bench. He's been making the most of his minutes lately, scoring in double figures in seven of his last nine games. To boot, he most recently dished out dished out a career-high seven assists in Philadelphia's blowout win over the Houston Rockets.
This is a player who went for 39 points in a game earlier this season, the most by a Sixers rookie since Allen Iverson. The 20-year-old may have some DNPs in the playoffs, but there will also be games where he sees valuable floor time for one of the top seeds in the East.
For the New York Knicks, No. 25 overall pick Immanuel Quickley could prove to be one of the most important X-factors to his team's playoff run. The Knicks' biggest question heading into the postseason is "who outside of Julius Randle and RJ Barrett will score to keep them in playoff games?" While Derrick Rose is certainly the first name that comes to mind, the 21-year-old rookie just might be the next.
Quickley has 21 games of 15 or more points this season - Tyrese Haliburton (22), LaMelo Ball (22) and Anthony Edwards (46) are the only first-year players with more - playing a key role off the bench in contributing to New York's newfound success, while looking like one of the biggest steals of the draft.
A foot injury prior to the draft derailed the start of No. 6 overall pick Onyeka Okongwu's rookie season, but the 20-year-old is coming into his own late in the year and looks like he could give the Atlanta Hawks some impactful minutes if needed. He just recently went for a career-high 14 points to go with seven boards, presenting himself as a backup centre option when Clint Capela needs a rest.
In Boston, two first-round picks are shining bright in Payton Pritchard and Aaron Nesmith, surely cracking the playoff rotation as primary backup options for the Celtics. While the No. 26 overall pick, Pritchard, has been a difference-maker all season with 20 games of double-digit points on 45.6 percent from the field and 42.4 percent from 3, their lottery pick (No. 14 overall) Nesmith has been a pleasant surprise as of late.
After receiving 26 DNPs in the first 60 games of his career and playing sparingly (12.7 minutes per game) when he did see the floor, Nesmith has provided a ton of energy for Boston's second unit over the last five games, averaging 10.8 points and 4.6 rebounds while shooting 60.0 percent from 3 in 23 minutes per contest.
No. 3 overall pick LaMelo Ball's influence speaks for itself. Without his Rookie of the Year-calibre contribution, the Charlotte Hornets may not be in the playoff picture in the first place. Averaging 19.0 points, 6.2 rebounds, 5.9 rebounds and 1.8 steals per game as a starter, Ball has shattered any and all expectations set for him. Looking like a superstar in the league, picking up right where he left off since returning from a fractured wrist, Ball will be the most impactful rookie we've seen in the postseason in a few years.
LaMelo did LaMelo things in his return.- NBA (@NBA) May 2, 2021
2 BLK@MELOD1P x #AllFly pic.twitter.com/FhagJs4u0X
When you get further down the Play-In Tournament range in the East, a player like No. 9 overall pick Deni Avdija was set to make his presence felt as a starter for the surging Washington Wizards before suffering a season-ending ankle injury.
No. 29 overall pick Malachi Flynn, the reigning Eastern Conference Rookie of the Month, has been crucial for the Toronto Raptors, stepping up in a big way whenever Kyle Lowry or Fred VanVleet have been absent. Averaging 12.7 points, 4.8 assists, 4.1 rebounds and 1.5 steals in the month of April, Flynn is set to provide the Raptors' backcourt with depth for years to come. No. 4 overall pick Patrick Williams has been a consistent two-way presence for the Chicago Bulls all year, starting in every game he's played in for his team, looking like a key cog to the franchise's future.
And while this year's rookie class isn't as prominent in the Western Conference playoff race, there are still a handful of guys that chip in for their team.
No. 18 overall pick Josh Green got a fair shot for the Dallas Mavericks at the start of the season but was squeezed out of the rotation shortly thereafter. Following a stretch of DNPs and spotty playing time, he has recently shown some flashes of being able to impact the game defensively for a team that could use a boost on that end of the floor.
No. 30 overall pick Desmond Bane and No. 35 overall pick Xavier Tillman Sr. have strengthened the depth of the Memphis Grizzlies all year long and will continue to do so in the postseason. Bane has quietly been one of the best 3-point shooters in the league this season, knocking down over 100 3s at a 44.8 percent clip. Tillman has taken a page out of the book of his Alma Mater's Draymond Green, doing a little bit of everything in a reserve big man role, averaging seven points, five boards, one assist and just under a steal and block per game during April.
In a similar light as Avdija, No. 2 overall pick James Wiseman would surely have a hand in the Golden State Warriors playoff run if not for a season-ending meniscus injury. No. 11 overall pick Devin Vassell's playing time is sporadic, but he's had his moments of two-way hope throughout the season for the San Antonio Spurs.
For those counting at home, that's 12 different players from the 2020 draft class that will play some role in their team's push to the postseason and beyond (14 if you count the two injured rookie starters).
And that's not even counting Rookie of the Year-candidates and potential franchise cornerstones like Anthony Edwards and Tyrese Haliburton, or other promising first-years like Cole Anthony, RJ Hampton, Isaac Okoro, Killian Hayes, Saddiq Bey, Isaiah Stewart, Jaden McDaniels and Kenyon Martin Jr.
All 10 of those aforementioned players have given their team's fan bases something to be excited about in the future this season.
That brings the tally up to 24 (!) different rookies that have shown legitimate promise from this year's "limited" draft class.
Does that mean all 24 of these players will continue on their current trajectory? Not necessarily. But it does show that the potential is there for a number of players from this draft class to be difference-makers in the years to come, more than we originally thought.
Maybe we were wrong about the 2020 NBA Draft class all along.
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