A week from tonight, the NBA's top rookies (minus Kevin Love) will battle the league's most promising second-year players in the annual rookie challenge. They will do so having put together one of the most impressive first-half performances for a rookie class in recent memory.
I had not considered the play of the 2008-09 rookies in historical terms until last week, when my chat on Baseball Prospectus offered a question asking, "Are we looking at the best draft class since 2003?" That's the perfect genesis for a column, so I made note of the idea. That it was a worthwhile topic was confirmed earlier this week, when ESPN.com's David Thorpe declared in his weekly rookie rankings that, "this class could very well produce more starters--and more All-Stars--than any class in memory, even the celebrated class of 2003."
So I ran the numbers, and the magnitude of what I found surprised even me. This is the most thorough treatment I've ever given rookie crops, dating back to 1979-80, and generally it confirms the notion that today's younger rookies aren't having the same impact as their '80s and even early '90s peers--though this fact is probably somewhat overstated. I looked at two primary statistics: the combined WARP for all rookies and the minutes played by rookies per team (to account for the fact that the NBA has expanded from 22 teams to 30 over the span we're using). Check out a graph of both numbers season-by-season:
By either metric, this year's group of rookies is indeed a special one. Their WARP total of 54.0 (projected to a full 82-game schedule) would be one of the best in modern NBA history and is the highest mark since the 1999-2000 season. To find a rookie crop getting more minutes than this year's you have to go all the way back to 1993-94.
What is remarkable is that this strong effort comes on the heels of consecutive weak rookie classes. That the 2006-07 rookies would struggle is understandable, as the 2006 NBA Draft was heavily limited by the newly-instituted age limit (which inspired many talented fringe prospects to jump into the deep 2005 Draft). Last year's rookies have to be considered a disappointment, even given they lost their No. 1 overall pick (Portland's Greg Oden) to this year's rookie class because he underwent microfracture knee surgery before the season started.
Still, the last two years were not especially memorable in their lack of contributions. The dubious honor of worst group of modern rookies goes to the 2000-01 class, a year in which a second-round pick who spent his first three seasons out of college playing overseas (Golden State's Marc Jackson) nearly won Rookie of the Year. That 2000 Draft inspired a feature in The Macrophenomenal Pro Basketball Almanac entitled "A Legacy of Ruin and Evil," which seems appropriate or even an understatement for a group that couldn't even muster being above replacement level as a whole.
Two of the worst rookie crops came much earlier, in 1987-88 and 1990-91 respectively. That's a worthwhile reminder that the talk of underdeveloped rookies sometimes goes too far. In general, today's rookies aren't significantly worse on a per-minute basis than their predecessors. More noteworthy is the decades-long trend toward rookies playing fewer minutes, which suggests less faith in these younger players.
Returning to the topic of the 2008-09 rookies, assuming they continue at their current pace--a conservative projection, given that for all the talk of the "rookie wall" players generally improve over the course of their debut seasons--they will join five other rookie crops in combining for more than 50 Wins Above Replacement Player. Let's take a closer look at these six seasons by comparing rookies' per-minute performance as well as the production offered by the top five and top ten rookies as well as the top player overall.
Year WARP Win% Min/Tm Top5 Top10 Best
1993 57.6 .470 2204 52.0 65.2 19.3
1982 55.9 .468 2663 35.9 51.8 10.5
1980 54.8 .471 2412 51.1 70.5 14.9
2000 54.4 .474 1577 42.8 56.2 12.6
2009 54.0 .461 1928 29.8 49.0 6.8
1994 53.7 .466 2127 41.5 57.8 13.8
Remember this is strictly performance in players' rookie seasons, which is why two of the most celebrated NBA draft classes (1985, featuring four future Hall of Famers led by Michael Jordan, and the 2003 crop led by LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Carmelo Anthony) do not appear on this list. That's not to say we're lacking in star power; the fearsome pairing of Shaquille O'Neal and Alonzo Mourning led 1992-93 to the top of the list, while the 1979-80 rookies featured eternally-linked Larry Bird and Magic Johnson.
The best group of rookies on a per-minute basis, the 1999-00 crop, certainly came as a surprise to me. Co-Rookies of the Year Elton Brand and Steve Francis both shined, while that season featured impressive rookie depth. With the exception of the 1981-82 group (led by Buck Williams), these classes generally featured at least one rookie who made a huge immediate impact...until this year. The leader in rookie WARP is the aforementioned Love, but he has not been nearly as valuable as the top rookies from most seasons.
What this chart confirms, then, is the observation that depth is what makes this year's rookie crop stand out. Indeed, ranking the rookie crops by most value produced outside either the top five or the top ten, 2008-09 comes out on top. With nearly half the season left to play, 16 rookies have been worth at least one Win Above Replacement Player this season. That's more than reached that marker over the entire course of the last two seasons (14 both years). Looking at playing time tells a similar story. Seven rookies are averaging at least 30 minutes per game, up from two a year ago and just one in 2006-07.
What accounts for the remarkable depth of this year's rookie class? I'm not sure there's an easy answer. Certainly, the rookies have benefited from Oden's presence (he rates as tied for the third most valuable rookie by WARP) as well as the late arrivals of Spaniards Rudy Fernandez and Marc Gasol, both drafted in 2007. Mostly, however, I think it's just an accident of history.
Last June's draft featured a large group of young players who were ready to contribute immediately like one-and-done selections Love, Derrick Rose, O.J. Mayo and Eric Gordon. They were complemented by a number of three- or four-year players who went in the mid- to late- first round--or even into the second round in the cases of Mario Chalmers and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute--and have entered the NBA as polished products. There were relatively few projects in this class, and even from that group some (notably DeAndre Jordan and JaVale McGee) have emerged as productive players.
Whatever the explanation, if any, enjoy this year's group of rookies in the Rookie Challenge and throughout the remainder of the season. We may not see a crop like this again any time soon.
Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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