51 Questions: Which rookies will impress? Which will disappoint?

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We continue PBT’s 2016-17 NBA preview series, 51 Questions. For the past few weeks, and through the start of the NBA season, we tackle 51 questions we cannot wait to see answered during the upcoming NBA season. Today:

Which rookies will impress? Which will disappoint?

There may be no trickier bit of NBA prognostication than predicting rookies — seeing what they did in college and Summer League is like predicting the results of a horse race after the first 100 yards. We don’t know what they can do when they settle in and get to run over a course of ground.

The PBT staff is going to give it a shot anyway. We are going to name the players we expect to impress us as rookies this season, then to disappoint us. First the good news:

Which rookies will impress?

Kurt Helin: Ben Simmons, Philadelphia 76ers. This is the obvious call — predicting the No. 1 pick will be good is boring. But after watching Simmons at Summer League I had to pick him here — he has a gift for seeing the floor and passing that only a few other NBA players possess (Ricky Rubio, LeBron James, etc.). His teammates will play hard alongside him because of that. Plus, Brett Brown and the Sixers are going to give Simmons the opportunity to play 30+ minutes a night and a chunk of that time as the defacto point guard. He’s going to get the opportunity. If you want a good darkhorse in the impressive rookies category, take Denzel Valentine with the Bulls, who was probably the most NBA-ready player in the draft and will get run behind Dwyane Wade.

Dan Feldman: Ben Simmons, Philadelphia 76ers.
I overthought it last year when picking Emmanuel Mudiay over Karl-Anthony Towns for Rookie of the Year. Simmons was the best player in the draft. The 76ers, without an impressive true point guard, will give him every opportunity to succeed as a point power forward.

Sean Highkin: Kris Dunn, Minnesota Timberwolves. Tom Thibodeau doesn’t usually give rookies a lot of playing time, but Dunn is a four-year college player who Thibodeau loved and targeted aggressively in his first draft as president of the Timberwolves. Dunn’s shooting ability and defensive mentality are a perfect fit for both Thibodeau’s well-established style and attitude, and for the roster he joins in Minnesota. He’s ready to contribute right away, and he could become the full-time starter at point guard if Ricky Rubio gets moved at some point.

Which will rookies disappoint?

Kurt Helin: Thon Maker, Milwaukee Bucks. Yes, I know Maker averaged 14.8 points, 9.8 rebounds, and 1.2 blocks per game at Summer League, and that included a 17 and 17 game (which I was at). I think it was a mirage. He may develop into a good player in a few years, but it is going to take time. A lot of time. What he has going for him is a good motor and a nice shooting touch when left open, but he’s going to find that the defenders in the NBA are longer, more athletic, and close out much faster than in Vegas in the Summer. He will not have the strength to battle and pull down a ton of rebounds yet, nor to establish good post position. On what should be a good Bucks team with Jabari Parker and Mirza Teletovic at the four, I’m not sure Maker gets much run. Maybe he develops into a good player (I’m far from sold on that outcome, either), but as a rookie he’s not going to impact the Bucks.

Dan FeldmanJaylen Brown, Boston Celtics. Brown will show flashes of elite play, but the gap between his athleticism and production was so wide at Cal. I doubt he’ll be ready to reliably contribute to the very-good Celtics, though his long-term potential remains high.

Sean Highkin: Joel Embiid, Philadephia 76ers. The hype around Embiid has never been higher, with a steady stream of impressive workout videos hitting Instagram and Sixers head coach Brett Brown calling him the “crown jewel” of their new defense. He’s one of three highly anticipated rookies expected to debut for the Sixers, with the other two being Ben Simmons and Dario Saric, and he’s seen as an integral part of the team’s future after three infamous years of losing. But it’s worth tempering these high expectations by remembering that Embiid hasn’t played basketball competitively against other people in almost three years, and even if his foot is healthy, it’s going to take some time for his conditioning to reach the point where he can take on the kind of workload the Sixers envisioned for him. If he can stay on the floor, he’s going to be very good eventually. It’s just not going to happen as quickly as fans are hoping.

Watch Kawhi Leonard score two clutch buckets, including game-winner, in his return

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Kawhi Leonard looked rusty in his return for the first 47 minutes Monday night: 5-of-13 shooting, 0-3 from beyond the arc.

But that final minute was special.

First, there was a great hustle play from Paul George — also making his return — that got the ball to Leonard to tie it up.

Then, after a stop, the Clippers got the switch they wanted, cleared out the side and let Leonard go to work on the game-winner.

Los Angeles picked up the 119-117 win on the road. Not exactly pretty, but for a team just starting to get healthy and build some chemistry, they showed resilience and got the win. Leonard finished with 16 points on 7-of-15 shooting, and George looked sharp on his way to 19 points on 8-of-15 from the floor. It was a balanced Clippers attack, which is what Tyronn Lue is trying to build.

Kelly Oubre Jr. scored 28 and P.J. Washington added 26 for the shorthanded Hornets.

James Harden returns to 76ers Monday night, is on minutes restriction

Minnesota Timberwolves v Philadelphia 76ers
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The 76ers were able to keep their heads above water. For 14 games, James Harden was out with a right foot tendon sprain — both Joel Embiid and Tyrese Maxey missed games in that stretch as well (Maxey remains out) — and Philadelphia went 8-6 with a +2.9 net rating and the best defense in the NBA over that stretch.

Monday night in Houston, Harden returns.

This wasn’t a surprise, nor is the fact Doc Rivers confirmed Harden will be on a minutes restriction at first.

Harden averaged 22 points, 10 assists and seven rebounds a game before his injury, and while his 3-point shooting percentage was down (33.3%) he was still efficient and finding his footing as more of a facilitator than scorer.

The 76ers are 12-11 on the season and sit in a three-way tie for fifth in the East (with the Pacers and Raptors). If Harden can spark the Philadephia offense there is plenty of time for them to climb into the top four, host a first-round playoff game and position themselves for a deep playoff run. But it starts with getting their starting guards healthy again.

Harden is ready to take that on.

Trae Young frustrated ‘private conversations get out to the public’ about missed game

Atlanta Hawks v Philadelphia 76ers
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Rumors and chatter of tension in Atlanta — about how Trae Young was adapting to playing with Dejonte Murray, and his pushback on coach Nate McMillan and his efforts to get the ball moving more — have been all over the league since the start of the season. Over the weekend, a little of that leaked out, with reports Young chose not to come to the arena Friday after McMillan gave him a choice of participating in shootaround or missing the game.

Young addressed the report and seemed more concerned that it got out than the report’s content.

“I mean, it was just a situation. I mean, we’re all grown men here and there’s sometimes we don’t always agree. And it’s unfortunate that private situations and private conversations get out to the public, but I guess that’s the world we live in now. Yeah, I’m just gonna just focus on basketball and focus on helping my team win. And that’s what I got to be focusing on…

“Like I said, it’s a private matter, again, made public, which is unfortunate. And if it was to stay private, it probably wouldn’t have been as big of a deal. But like I said, it’s unfortunate in my job, and my goal is to win championships. And that’s what I focus on.”

Young went through shootaround  Monday and is set to play against the Thunder.

Murray has been professional throughout this situation, saying he didn’t see anything at the shootaround Friday and backing Young and McMillan when asked.

Bringing in Murray was supposed to take some pressure off Young and spread the wealth more on offense, ideally allowing Young to be more efficient. Instead, Young’s usage rate is nearly identical to last season, he is shooting just 30.3% from 3 and his true shooting percentage has fallen below league average. The Hawks as a team make the fewest passes per game of any team in the league (stat via NBA.com). The Hawks’ offense is still a lot of Young, but it’s not as efficient as it has been in years past.

Atlanta is still 13-10 on the season, has a top-10 defense and sits fourth in the East — they are not struggling. But neither have they made the leap to become a team that could threaten Boston or Milwaukee atop the conference, and that’s what the Hawks expected.

There could be personnel moves coming in Atlanta — John Collins is available via trade, again — but if the Hawks can’t smooth out their internal, existing concerns (and get Collins and DeAndre Hunter healthy) other roster moves will be just cosmetic.

Nike, Kyrie Irving part ways, making him a sneaker free agent

Toronto Raptors v Brooklyn Nets
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Here’s the positive spin for Kyrie Irving: He will have the chance to remake his situation into something he’s more comfortable with during 2023. As a player, he will be an unrestricted free agent and can choose where he wants to play in coming seasons (how many teams are interested and for how many years will be interesting to see).

Irving also is a sneaker free agent — Nike has cut ties with him, reports Shams Charania of The Athletic.

Irving is happy with this.

The separation is not a surprise. Nike suspended its relationship with Irving after he Tweeted out support for an antisemitic film, did not apologize (at first), and was suspended by the Nets. Here was the company’s statement at that time:

“At Nike, we believe there is no place for hate speech and we condemn any form of antisemitism. To that end, we’ve made the decision to suspend our relationship with Kyrie Irving effective immediately and will no longer launch the Kyrie 8. We are deeply saddened and disappointed by the situation and its impact on everyone.”

Nike founder Phil Knight said it was likely the end of the company’s relationship with Irving.

That’s not a small thing by Nike, Irving has had a signature shoe line since 2014 and is reported to have a deal with Nike worth more than $10 million a season because his shoes are popular. However, his contract with the shoe giant was set to end in October 2023, and there had been reports Nike did not plan to extend that deal before this current controversy started.

Nike is already looking in a new direction, at Ja Morant.

Irving now has the chance to choose his new direction.