The 2019-20 rookie class was never hailed for great depth beyond the top three picks. Ja Morant and Zion Williamson dominated the rookie conversation and lived up to the franchise-altering projections many laid out. A tier below them featured some surprise rookies, who proved to have far more value than many expected. Kendrick Nunn (undrafted), Brandon Clarke, Eric Paschall and Tyler Herro are few that come to mind. Outside of a few others not mentioned, nearly every one of these rookies either cracked the Rookie of the Year conversation at different points throughout the season, or were lauded for making a substantial impact on their respective teams.
Right below the second tier you’ll find the overlooked rookies. The players that, for varying reasons, still had a quality first year in the league, but didn’t receive that same level of attention. Oftentimes, some of them were not in the discussion for Rookie of the Year because they couldn’t rack up 15 or 20 points on a nightly occasion, and they didn’t make the flashy highlight plays that are worthy of going viral on social media. Instead, those newcomers got it done with defense, playmaking and other traits that don’t normally get the recognition that it deserves when playing a smaller role.
The only qualification for being an overlooked rookie is not being on the Rising Stars roster for All-Star Weekend. Other than that, these five underrated first-year players range from lottery picks to undrafted players.
Why he’s overlooked: Thybulle joined a win-now 76ers squad full of All-Star talent fighting for touches. There isn’t much room for a rookie to get the spotlight in Philly, even if he was the 20th overall pick in the draft. The former Washington product doesn’t have a lot of the flashy features that garner a rookie tons of attention. Most of what makes Thybulle such an essential player revolves around his defense.
Why he deserves attention: Through the first two months of the season, the former Washington product ranked third in the league in steals per 100 possessions (3.3), and created a formidable defensive trio when he shared the floor with Ben Simmons and Josh Richardson. Those three generate the most blocks per 100 possessions (2.9) when on the court together for the Sixers. Thybulle’s 7-foot wingspan and 6-5 frame allows him to cover a lot of ground to impact plays on defense:
The start of the season was better than anyone could’ve predicted for Thybulle, not just on defense but on offense too. Through the first two months, he was knocking down 3s at a 50.5 percent clip, making him invaluable on both ends of the floor. However, he’s hit that rookie wall recently. Since January, he’s gone ice cold from beyond the arc, shooting just 26.8 percent from deep. While that is an alarming dip, some of that is attributed to the amount of injuries the Sixers have gone through over the course of the season.
Thybulle’s at his best when Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons are dishing him the ball, and since both of those star players have been in and out of the lineup with injury, it has negatively impacted his play across the board. Even with his subpar play on offense, though, he’s still among the league’s best in generating steals and being extremely disruptive on the defensive side of the ball.
Why he’s overlooked: Davis was passed up by every team in the league during the 2019 draft. After going undrafted and dropping 21 points on the Nuggets in the Summer League, the Raptors gave him a contract. Little did they know how much they would need his services given the number of injuries the Raptors endured right out of the gate. Toronto is historically overlooked in the league — even after winning the title last year — so it’s fitting that Davis plays north of the border with a roster of players who are familiar with being underestimated.
Why he deserves attention: Davis’ role increased almost immediately after Kyle Lowry and Patrick McCaw went down, and he also filled in for Fred VanVleet and Norman Powell along the way. Most rookies wouldn’t be up to the the task of stepping into that situation, but Davis remained consistent when called upon. The combo guard out of Ole Miss ranks in the 78th percentile among spot-up shooters in the league per Synergy Sports, and is shooting 46.3 percent from the field and 39.6 percent from beyond the arc.
His strength allows him to finish through contact at the rim, resulting in a 66 percent finishing rate in the restricted area, and his size makes him a solid defender at both guard spots. Davis landed in the perfect situation in Toronto, where he’s not forced to take on too much and has a quality coach in Nick Nurse to bring the best out of him. While he’s primarily used as a spot-up shooter, he can also bring the ball up the floor and score off the dribble when needed. In typical Raptors fashion, they found another value player that no one else was looking at.
Why he’s overlooked: On draft night, former UNC teammate Coby White made Johnson’s name synonymous with the “wow bro” meme, when he was pleasantly shocked to find out he was drafted 11th overall. It was considered a head-scratching move then, and while Johnson isn’t exactly blowing anyone out of the water with his play, his 3-point shooting has proven to be his greatest asset on the floor.
Why he deserves attention: Among rookies shooting three or more 3-point attempts per game this season, Johnson is finding the bottom of the net at the highest clip (39.7 percent). He is the perfect complement for a player like Devin Booker. Someone who can space the floor, doesn’t need the ball in his hands to be effective on offense and can knock down shots when Booker is getting double teamed. His shooting form is already considered one of the best in the league, and in his final game before the season was suspended, the former Tar Heel popped off for 21 points. His quick release mixed with his size make his shot difficult to contest, even with a hand in his face.
The Suns went from being ranked 15th in points per possession in transition last season to No. 2 in the NBA at 1.187 points per possession. Some of that has to do with the addition of Johnson in the rotation. When Phoenix is in transition, Johnson always hustles to the other end of the floor to set up in the corner before the defense has time to react, and it often results in a made 3:
As Phoenix continues to find a group of players to build around Booker, Johnson’s play in his rookie season proved that he has some long term value for the Suns.
4. Kevin Porter Jr., Cleveland Cavaliers
Why he’s overlooked: Of the three draftees the Cavaliers walked away with in 2019, Porter was not the focal point, that was Darius Garland. He also joined a team that was holding onto two different paths with Kevin Love and Tristan Thompson representing the 2016 championship team, and young players like Collin Sexton and Garland shining a light into the rebuild the team was about to endure. There’s still a lot of question marks surrounding what the Cavs are going to look like a year from now, especially after the team traded for Andre Drummond in February, but either way there’s been minimal attention focused on Porter.
Why he deserves attention: The improvements he’s made in his rookie season have been eye-opening, and you can tell that as each month passes the game has slowed down for him. The moment the Cavaliers traded Jordan Clarkson to the Jazz is when Porter truly began to take a leap. February was his best month by far, as he was playing a season-high 27 minutes per game while averaging 13.5 points, 3.5 rebounds and 3.1 assists. While the Cavs already have two ball-dominant guards in Sexton and Garland, Porter’s court vision has been one of the most impressive aspects of his game.
He has a great knack for dishing it to bigs in the post, with a majority of his assists coming from him passing it off to open bigs in the post after the defense collapses on him. He’s limited his erratic drives into multiple defenders, and instead looks ahead to open players to make the smart play. Porter’s passing, though, is secondary to what’s made him a potential cornerstone for Cleveland.
Coming out of USC, Porter was touted for his hyper-athleticism and elite isolation play, and in his rookie season he’s lived up to that billing. He’s said before that he idolized James Harden growing up, so it’s no wonder he’s been able to break defenders down with his hesitation dribbles and crossovers. Whether Cleveland knew it or not when they traded for Porter on draft might, he might become the player with the highest ceiling on this team if he’s given the opportunity to grow and develop.
Why he’s overlooked: Martin was drafted in the second-round to a small-market team that has been floundering in the lottery for years, so no one was looking at Charlotte to have a lot of impact players. However, this season the Hornets had several surprise players, with P.J. Washington and Devonte Graham both making the Rising Stars Game. While Martin wasn’t chosen as a rising star in the game, his defensive play this season has made him a valuable asset for Charlotte.
Why he deserves attention: Martin is averaging 2.1 steals per 100 possessions, which ranks second among all rookies behind Thybulle. Aside from Terry Rozier, Martin is Charlotte’s best defender and is typically tasked with guarding the opposing team’s best player. While he’s not an elite defender yet, he’s been able to hold his own against scoring machines like James Harden and Trae Young. His quick feet and good mobility allows him to stay in front of smaller guards, and he shows no timidness for having to check some of the best players in the league.
His defense has been his strength, and while his 3-point shooting needs some significant improvement (23.4 percent), there are aspects to his offensive game that are worth mentioning, mainly his playmaking ability. The Hornets already have a quality playmaker in Devonte Graham, but since Martin’s struggled this season in finding his own shot, he’s made himself valuable in getting teammates insanely good looks:
Martin’s anticipation for knowing where his teammates are going to be is impressive for a rookie, and he’s perfected the drive-and-kick pass to teammates on the wing. He’s also established great chemistry with Charlotte’s bigs in the post for knowing where to give them the ball either on an alley-oop or posted up down low. He may not be putting up big numbers for the Hornets (5.5 PPG, 3.3 RPG, 2.0 APG), but his defense and playmaking is reason enough to make him part of the Hornets’ future.