Collin Sexton and De’Aaron Fox: Don’t Judge A Rook By His Cover

Collin Sexton and De’Aaron Fox had two of the worst rookie seasons it’s possible to imagine NBA players having, especially if they’re lottery picks and potential franchise cornerstones in Cleveland and Sacramento, respectively.

Indeed, Sexton’s rookie year was so awful—under Basketball Reference’s revised version of VORP, Sexton had the seventh-worst rookie season in the 3-point era, and it was second-worst behind only fellow 2018 draftee Kevin Knox—that to instantly call him a bust would be an entirely understandable reaction.

Fox’s rookie year in 2017-18 wasn’t much better—he ranks 45th in the 3-point era for worst VORP by a rookie—and yet his sophomore season was so good, with 2.3 VORP, that not only did he veer back into positive territory but he even presented a plausible statistical case for selection as a 2019 All-Star just a year after being one of the worst rookies ever.

Sexton wasn’t quite that good in Year 2—he had just a 0.1 VORP, and it’s still debatable whether he’s ever going to be a quality NBA player—but at least he didn’t put up negative Win Shares like he did in his first season.

Sexton also had the unfortunate distinction of having the atrocious Darius Garland—whose own rookie season ranks as 8th-worst, meaning the Cavs were playing a backcourt of two of the top ten worst rookies of the last 40 years on the floor at the same time—as a teammate.

Speaking of Knox, who still ranks as the third-worst rookie since 1979-80, he still has a career mark with negative Win Shares and posted a minus-0.7 VORP in Year 2 with the Knicks. Knox is legit awful, but we’ll get back to him a bit later. Just keep him in mind as we go.

Fox provides a good example of the career trajectory of a rookie who is thrown to the wolves in his first season on a bad team and understandably performs terribly.

His minus-0.6 Win Shares and minus-1.1 VORP portended an awful career that may have ended with the Kings not even picking up his team option, but then Sacramento got him Buddy Hield as a backcourt mate, improved under coach Dave Joerger from 27 wins to 39 in the competitive Western Conference, and…well, OK, then they fired Joerger, hired Luke Walton, and regressed all the way to 12th place in the West in 2020, but you can’t blame Fox for Vlade Divac‘s incompetent leadership in the front office.

Fox regressed slightly to 1.6 VORP, but for a still-young point guard learning a new system in an unstable franchise situation? May he be signed by a team that isn’t trash when he’s a restricted free agent.

Likewise, for Sexton to improve so significantly that he’s…well, not good exactly, but not complete garbage despite playing for a Dumpster fire franchise in Cleveland? There’s potential there. We’re seeing a guy with NBA talent starting to emerge despite rather than because of his coaching and the team that’s put around him.

It remains to be seen whether Garland, who was similarly atrocious as a rookie, manages to put it together and become something better than a guy who would be a scrub in the G-League; if he does, Cleveland might actually have a path back to relevance.

The point here is, as the punny headline indicates, “don’t judge a rook by his cover.” In today’s NBA, there is a tendency for bad teams, knowing they won’t be instantly great, to get their lottery picks a bunch of reps out on the floor because if a guy barfs out a historically bad season while he’s learning on the job to be an NBA player, the accumulated losses just increase the odds that the team will get another blue-chip prospect in the draft lottery the following year.

It is, in essence, the refined version of the old Process in Philadelphia. Accumulate assets while stinking out the joint on the floor and count on experience to smooth out the career trajectory of the guys you’re “teaching how to lose”, as the conventional wisdom would put it.

Unless you’re the Knicks.

Because the flip side of “don’t judge a rook by his cover” is “if a guy is trash in Year 1 and trash in Year 2, he’s probably not a very good NBA player and you should probably consider not wasting your money on picking up his team option on his rookie-scale contract.”

Knox was historically awful in Year 1. His minus-2.0 VORP is tied with Anthony Avent and Larry Demic for the worst VORP by any rookie since 1979. Indeed, minus-2.0 is tied for the third-worst season period by any player of any experience level, behind Michael Olowokandi‘s sophomore season in 1999-2000 and Avent’s fourth year in the league (1995-96 with the Vancouver Grizzlies after the Orlando Magic sensibly left his can’t-play-for-beans self open in the expansion draft.)

Avent didn’t play another NBA game until in just 44 minutes in Utah on a 10-day contract in 1999, he managed to be so bad that he put up a measurable negative in both Win Shares and VORP (minus-0.1 in each case. In five games. In 44 minutes. Astounding.)

Finally, he played 44 games for the same 1999-2000 Clippers team that Olowokandi was pooping out awful performances on night in and night out and contributed minus-0.5 Win Shares and minus-0.5 VORP before mercifully never playing another NBA game again.

Why do I bring this up, besides a fun “where are they now” for guys that suck?

Because Sexton and Fox are point guards. Knox and Avent are forwards. Point guard is a hard position to learn in professional basketball and especially in the modern game the “floor general” has responsibilities far more complex than the pick-and-roll-heavy point guard play from the heyday of Magic Johnson, John Stockton, and even a young 2005 Chris Paul.

It takes time for even a great point guard to mature into a quality player. Stephen Curry didn’t crack 5 VORP until his fourth year in the league, and he didn’t make his first All-Star team until Year 5.

Meanwhile, forwards (and centers; see Olowokandi’s career track for an example) find their role a lot more quickly. Basketball is simpler in the front court. Not “simple” per se, but a whole lot less complex than the point guard position.

Knox is on minus-0.017 WS/48 and minus-2.7 VORP in 140 NBA games and 3,324 minutes played. The Knicks should know by now that they drafted an absolute dog with the ninth pick in 2018 and cut their losses.

So when it comes to point guards, we’ve learned in recent years that throwing them into the fire from the first game of their first season in the league is a great way not only to see what a team has but also to ensure that a player will develop and be forged by that fire into a much better player.

This is true whether a player is initially terrible—Sexton and Fox—or even if a player is a future Hall of Famer like Steph Curry.

But forwards? If a guy is trash as a rookie in the frontcourt, and he’s not much better in his second year, the lessons of Kevin Knox and Anthony Avent and Mike Olowokandi teach us that it’s a lot wiser for a team to cut bait and not even pick that guy up for the Year 3 option, much less let him get all the way to restricted free agency.

It’s a safe bet that Sexton will continue to improve in Year 3. It’s just as safe a bet that Kevin Knox will suck.

And both bets teach us about the best way to evaluate NBA rookies based on the position they play and the minutes they’re given.