2020 Media Week

Rookies face quick turnaround as they begin NBA careers

With no NBA Summer League and just over a month between the Draft and opening night, the rookie class of 2020 has a timing challenge to overcome.

Steve Aschburner

Steve Aschburner

No. 1 overall pick Anthony Edwards will be expected to contribute right away in Minnesota.

Clip three months out of your preparation time for anything, and it’s probably going to mess you up. Go ahead, try it: Planning a wedding?  Studying for a major exam? Navigating a pregnancy?

You could get the shakes just thinking about the stress levels being dialed up. And that’s what the NBA’s Class of 2020 faces, now that they’ve been thrust into their initial veteran training camps.

Normally by this point — less than three weeks since they heard their names called by commissioner Adam Silver and deputy commish Mark Tatum — the league’s crop of rookies would be in or headed to Las Vegas. NBA Summer League would have them competing with a bunch of other newcomers, second- or third-year guys and lots of hopefuls in games that mean nothing, all of them expected to make mistakes away from the NBA’s biggest stages and hottest spotlights.

Now? It’s showtime, or very nearly so.

Think about the 2019 Draft, when that year’s prized prospects had 15 days after being selected to begin play in Vegas. They had 124 days or more (nearly 18 weeks!) between the night they found out where and for whom they’d be working and that first regular season game.

This year, from Draft till reporting for camp, they had all of 13 days. By Opening Night on Dec. 22, their prep time – no summer league, no early conditioning or strength work – will max out at 34 days.

“Just think, on the first day of camp, our rookies probably won’t know the other players on the team,” said Philadelphia 76ers coach Doc Rivers, heading into the weekend. “That’s insane. And I guarantee you, they [the vets] won’t know them. Dwight Howard, Joel [Embiid], they’re going to come in, ‘Who is this guy?’ ‘My name is [Tyrese] Maxey…’ It’s going to be that type of scene.”

Losing those extra 90 days from what typically is the biggest adjustment period of an NBA player’s career can’t be good. Granted, the 2020 rookies won’t know what they missed but that doesn’t mean everyone else — teammates, coaches, execs who chose them and fans — won’t have to dial down their expectations. Probably.

Bulls rookie Patrick Williams earned his top-5 selection as a Florida State super-sub.

“It depends on your expectations,” said Arturas Karnisovas, the Chicago Bulls’ new executive vice president of basketball operations. “It’s a crash course right now.”

The Bulls’ prize rookie, Patrick Williams, was selected No. 4 overall despite not starting a game at Florida State. That doesn’t mean he’s “two years away from being two years away,” to quote ESPN draft maven Fran Fraschilla’s memorable line about Toronto’s 2014 reach for Brazilian teenager Bruno Caboclo at No. 20.

But Williams and his peers near the top of the lottery might be a few months away from being a few months away, given the pandemic-influenced timeline.

“It’s a crash course right now,” Karnisovas said.

Rookies typically face expectations in sync with their Draft position, which puts Minnesota’s Anthony Edwards front and center for how much he can do, and how soon, to get the Timberwolves off the Northwest Division’s floor. The No. 1 overall pick already had a sweat going Sunday from a 30-minute pre-practice workout when he did his first Zoom media session, and did not flinch at the steep learning curve.

No. 1 overall pick Anthony Edwards says he’s “ready to star” in whatever role the Timberwolves have in store.

With the Wolves holding their first team practice for 2020-21, Edwards said he already had gained knowledge defensively from individual work with assistant coach David Vanterpool.

“I’m a quick learner,” said the 6-foot-5 wing out of Georgia. “So I feel like I can take part in learning things very fast and on the go. I feel like it’s important that I pay attention and be a sponge.”

Ryan Saunders, the Wolves coach, has a better feel for what Edwards is facing. Besides, his late father Flip, who coached 1,246 games for three teams in 17 NBA seasons, had a favorite saying: “You give players as much responsibility as they can handle.”

And for this Class of 2020, instead of “hurry up and wait”, they’re having to “wait and hurry up”. Draftees whose college season ended back in March have had little or no opportunity to play 5-on-5 at all, never mind working out with their new employers.

Said Saunders: “Anytime you go from the high school level to the college level, the college level to the pro level, the pace of the game, the speed of the game changes. We want to do our job as a staff not to overload these players, especially after a longer hiatus. But also do our jobs to push these guys.

“That’s what we’re going to do with Anthony. He knows where we stand, he knows what we expect out of him. … We’ll continue to monitor in terms of not only information overload but also physical overload.”

Wolves coach Ryan Saunders is navigating a compressed training camp schedule as he incorporates new talent.

Edwards’ teammate Karl-Anthony Towns is the last No. 1 selection (2015) to earn the Kia Rookie of the Year award the following spring. He’s also one of three in the last 10 ROY winners to have done so as a one-and-done lottery pick, joining Andrew Wiggins (’14) and Kyrie Irving (’11).

The other seven have had more experience, more time and more seasoning than nearly any of this year’s rookies. Portland’s Damian Lillard, the 2012 ROY, spent four years in college. Michael Carter-Williams logged two, Malcolm Brogdon four and Ja Morant two. Dallas’ Luka Doncic, who won in 2019, began playing professionally for Real Madrid at age 16 in 2015.

Then there’s Blake Griffin and Ben Simmons, No. 1 picks who turned injury layoffs into extended prep work to win the award 22 months after they were drafted. Similar situations delayed the official rookie seasons of Joel Embiid and Denver’s Michael Porter Jr. And nearly so for New Orleans’ Zion Williamson, though his rookie status ended with the 24 games he played in 2019-20.

“Michael Porter has not played 82 games,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said last week. “When I think about what Michael did in the Orlando bubble in the seeding games and then followed by a really spectacular rookie performance in the playoffs, I think his future is extremely bright.”

One year off, followed by the virus shutdown, meant that Porter’s best work came 26 months after he was drafted in June 2019. So Malone, with a deep roster heavy with veterans, has modest hopes this season for Denver’s top rookies Zeke Nnaji and R.J. Hampton.

Washington forward Rui Hachimura arrived as the No. 9 pick last season and felt he had his hands full on a normal rookie schedule.

Wizards rookie Rui Hachimura showed explosive potential coming out of Gonzaga.

“This schedule is crazy to me,” Hachimura said. “I can’t even imagine if I was in this situation. There’s no way I could be ready for it. … It’s gonna be tough. You just need to be extra patient.

“For those guys, even me, I think we should more ask questions. If you don’t know anything, ask the coaches about anything. I think that’s going to be the key.”

Cleveland coach J.B. Bickerstaff thinks the short runway into 2020-21 will favor rookies who won’t be lugging many scoring or ball duties. The same goes for newcomers who are especially good at rebounding, or defense. “The guys whose impact comes from scoring or being more ball-dominant, I think it will take them a little longer … to catch a rhythm,” he said.

James Wiseman, picked No. 2 overall by Golden State, was projected to provide quick help as a rim protector and glass cleaner. But the Warriors are going to go slow even with the 7-foot-1 center, who’s still 19.

The Warriors are likely to ease No. 2 pick James Wiseman into the rotation, according to Steve Kerr.

“James has a lot to catch up on,” coach Steve Kerr told reporters in a Zoom session last week. “But James’ potential athletically is so dramatic that he’ll have a chance to step in and help us because he’s so athletic and dynamic.

“But there’s a ton to learn and he doesn’t have the value of a summer league and a summer of workouts. I’m excited for James, but also want to preach caution for everybody not to expect too much too soon. He played three college games.”

One good thing about this tightened schedule is that the notorious rookie wall might wind up delayed as well. Instead of smacking into it in February or March, the splat for so many might come in the spring.

There’s also something to be said for the mileage teams can get out of their rookies on sheer adrenaline, confidence and exuberance. Camp and preseason games may whoosh by, without too much grinding and humbling, after which their NBA careers finally will be underway.

“You don’t wait,” Rivers said. “You get going. So we’re gonna throw these guys right in from the first. In some ways, that may be good. They don’t overthink. Some will struggle. I think for the rookies this year, the mental toughness factor will be gigantic.”

Chris Paul, the Suns’ new veteran point guard, will have at least seven Phoenix teammates 10 years younger than him, including No. 10 pick Jalen Smith out of Maryland.

“Some times it’s nice to have a young team because they don’t know nothing else but to hoop, and to play hard,” Paul said. “They’re not thinking about what can happen here or what can happen there. They’re just on a roll.”

An unusually fresh roll this year.

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Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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