The 2015-16 NBA season is all but a month old and some of its newest members have already made some noise. New York Knicks forward, Kristaps Porzingis is proving his biggest critics wrong with each double-double and Jahlil Okafor, despite the off-court troubles, is leading all rookies in points, as we expected. But not everybody has gotten off to a good start. Some rooks are experiencing their growing pains very early and it’s only a matter of time before they figure it out and reap the benefits of praise that KP and Okafor have received thus far.
1. LA Lakers – D’Angelo Russell
*Photo via USA Today
When you’re a Top-5 pick, it’s expected that you are supposed to contribute to immediate success. Unfortunately for LA Lakers guard D’Angelo Russell, that success has been delayed for the most part. The former Buckeye has struggled adapting to the speed of the game and has had trouble guarding his counterparts on the perimeter. Because of the growing pains, Russell has also failed to log minutes late in games and has even prompted head coach, Byron Scott to state that they misjudged Kristaps Porzingis, paraphrasing. Even with his trials on the court, Russell has enjoyed some bright spots. Russell is averaging a 11 points, three assists and nearly five rebounds a game, scoring a career-high, 17 points against the Toronto Raptors, last month. Russell has the talent and the basketball IQ to figure out the NBA and it’s only a matter of time. I think playing with Kobe Bryant, currently on a farewell tour, has taken away from Russell’s game a little. It has to be hard playing besides someone who has won five championships doing it his way. Russell also has to share the ball with Jordan Clarkson, Lou Williams, Nick Young and Julius Randle, who all need the ball in their hands to be effective. There’s a lot on Russell’s shoulders these days. In Kobe’s departure, Lakers management is looking at Russell to be the next great guard to lead this franchise back to relevance and the fact that he understands that is half the battle. “I'm glad (Buss) has that trust in me, because I know I’m going to keep working," Russell said according to USAToday.com. "What happens with the hard work and the results is something I can’t control, so I’m just going to keep working and try to be the best I can be." In Kobe’s absence, I think we’ll all see what Russell is made of and even sooner, midway through the season.
2. Philadelphia 76ers – Jahlil Okafor
*Photo via Getty Images
You're probably wondering why Okafor is here especially when I mentioned him in the intro paragraph and there’s a reason why. While Okafor has flourished on-the-court, averaging 17.2 and eight rebounds a game, off-the-court has presented its own set of challenges for the former Blue Devil. Three weeks ago, Okafor was given two citations for speeding on the Ben Franklin Bridge. He was also held at gun-point outside of a Philadelphia nightclub and got into an altercation with hecklers outside of a Boston nightclub, the day before thanksgiving. Okafor is on that list because he has not excelled off-the-court and it’s not his fault. I would have a hard time smiling if my team was 1-18. I probably would snap at anyone throwing anything negative in my direction and I think Okafor has fallen victim to that. Okafor is losing more as a professional than he has in his entire life and it has taken a toll on him. There’s no denying Okafor’s talent but his behavior off-the-court has to change. In addition to the losses, the Sixers are absent of a veteran presence to help mentor Okafor and the other young men on that team and that can make a big difference.
3. Orlando Magic – Mario Hezonja
*Photo via USA Today
Prior to last June’s draft, Mario Hezonja told Bleacherreport.com that If he accepted an offer to play at Kentucky last season, that he would be the top pick in the NBA draft. And that’s how much Hezonja believes in his abilities. He’s confident and even a little crazy which can play to his advantage when the time is right. In the summer league, we saw that confidence spill out on the floor in the form of thunderous dunks and aggressively looking to score. If Hezonja had it his way he would probably start but that hasn’t been the case. Hezonja has had a hard time scoring in limited minutes, averaging 3.7 points a game, playing behind Evan Fournier, Tobias Harris, Aaron Gordon and Victor Oladipo and the Magic’s current state as a team doesn’t help his plea in earning more minutes. The Magic are actually above .500 at 11-9, and for a team that has lost at a consistent rate since Dwight Howard left in 2012, I’m sure the young group would like to continue its winning ways and that might not include Hezonja working out the kinks as a rookie. For someone who has idolized Kobe, Mario’s moment has not arrived yet. I just think Hezonja needs more minutes so he can learn on-the-go and try to develop some level of consistency on both ends of the floor. The talent and drive is there. A 20-year-old committed to playing on both ends is hard to find and Hezonja has the drive and determination to work and earn those minutes he needs to validate why he was the 5th overall pick last June.
4. Charlotte Hornets – Frank Kaminsky
*Photo via USA Today
The former Wisconsin Badger is averaging 4.8 points and 2.2 rebounds in 15 minutes. As a stretch four, Kaminsky can mix it up down low and has range that extends to the three-point line. He’s averaging nearly two three’s per-game, shooting 41 percent, and has only recorded two double-digit game thus far. Kaminsky knows there’s a learning curve and has expressed that adjusting to the league has been his biggest problem. “You just have so many old habits, me especially, that I have from college because I got accustomed to playing a certain way for four years,” Kaminsky told Foxsports.com. “I’m almost learning a lot of different things all at once. So it can be difficult but the coaches are there and there is a lot of people there to help you. I’m a visual learner. Once I see it and know what I’m doing, I can pick it up pretty quickly.” I think Kaminsky is an all-around player and a scorer from the post but it doesn’t help that Al Jefferson is one of the best in the league at exactly the same thing.
5. Brooklyn Nets – Chris McCullough
*Photo via USA Today
The Bronx native will red-shirt his rookie year in the NBA due to a torn-ACL he suffered suiting up for the Orangemen last year. Say what you want, but sitting out your rookie year, despite the roller-coaster ride it is, is something that I imagine he would want to experience. Unfortunately for McCullough, he has to wait until next season to make an impact.