Zion Who? The NBA’s Rookie of the Year Candidates Through October

The first calendar month of the young NBA season has come and gone, in a manner of speaking, as even though the season started just nine days ago, it’s still “the end of October.”

And with a four- or five-game sample size, we’re still very much in wild overreaction territory but certain narratives are coming together about who in the NBA’s 2019-20 rookie class is truly “NBA ready” and who, at best, needs some seasoning in the G-League (looking at you, Goga Bitadze, after that massive egg you laid in nine minutes against Brooklyn Wednesday night for the Pacers) and at worst flat-out can’t play at all.

On this spooky Halloween edition of the analysis section, we’re going to drag a zombie up out of its grave and feed it the brains of Basketball Reference.

That’s right, we’re relying on PER as part of the calculation here.

Why use an outmoded stat like PER to evaluate rookies? Simple. Because the Rookie of the Year vote inevitably rests way too heavily on counting stats, and of all the advanced metrics, PER is the one that behaves most like a ROY voter would in rewarding high-usage-rate players who put up gaudy fantasy stats.

It’s not the only thing we’ll look at later this season, but with the sample still way too small to make VORP or WS/48 reliable measures, PER is the best we’ve got.

Limiting this to players who have played at least 80 minutes so far, let’s check out the top 5 PER guys:

Kendrick Nunn, Miami Heat

Nunn is a first-year NBA player, but he spent time in the G-League last year after failing to make the Warriors as an undrafted free agent.

That G-League experience is a pretty good demonstration of just what the NBA’s minor league can do in terms of letting a player develop his talents, as Nunn has come out like a house of fire, putting up a class-best 18.3 PER to go with 21.0 points per game on an eye-popping 48.6 percent from the field and 44.0 percent from the 3-point arc.

The early returns suggest he can’t guard anyone, but show me a scoring guard who was an elite NBA defender after four games in the league. Besides Michael Jordan.

Nunn is, as Dan Patrick used to say on SportsCenter, en fuego, and it’s fitting for a team called the Heat.

Eric Paschall, Golden State Warriors

Paschall is the proud owner of an 18.0 PER as he’s gotten himself some run with the badly depleted 5-time NBA Finalists in the last five years.

Through four games, the power forward has scored 13.0 points a game on 63.6 percent shooting, showed deft touch from the free throw line (10-of-11, or 90.9 percent), and finished 80 percent of his shots so far inside three feet.

He’s even got a plus-18.3 on-off Net Rating split on a Warriors team that has otherwise stunk out the joint so far this season, starting 1-3.

Is it too early to say this could be lightning striking twice in the second round of the draft for Golden State and that Paschall is the next Draymond Green?

Of course it is, but I just said it anyway.

Rui Hachimura, Washington Wizards

Hachimura’s 17.3 PER and 18.0 points and 7.0 rebounds per game so far show that anyone who doubted his NBA readiness around draft time stands to look mighty foolish as the season goes on.

His 3-point shooting (3-of-11) has been an early weakness, but hitting 50 percent of his field goals overall and 77.8 percent within three feet of the rim shows there’s more than one way to score efficiently in the NBA.

At just 6’8”, he’s not quite the freak of nature that is Giannis Antetokounmpo, but those are Giannis-like numbers close to the rim.

The Wizards are 1-3 after losing an absolute barn burner by just a single point, 159-158, against the Houston Rockets. They could just as easily be 2-2, and if that keeps up, we may be talking about Hachimura at least tangentially come playoff time should the East prove weaker than even its own usual poor caliber.

Brandon Clarke, Memphis Grizzlies

The Grizzlies are seemingly stacked with young talent this season. Besides a certain guy we’ll get to in a minute (spoiler alert), there’s Clarke, acquired on draft day from the Oklahoma City Thunder after going 21st overall.

Combine that with Jaren Jackson Jr. and a bunch of raw talent who may get a chance to prove themselves after either disappointing rookie years (De’Anthony Melton) or being hot garbage in Phoenix (Josh Jackson) and you have a recipe for the kids getting lots of run.

Clarke has made the most of that run in Memphis, putting up a solid 10.5 points and 5.0 rebounds off the bench while hitting 52.8 percent of his shots, good for a PER of 17.2, fourth among rookies with at least 80 minutes so far.

But the real talk of the town is Clarke’s teammate…

Ja Morant, Memphis Grizzlies

Morant may be 5th in rookie PER (16.1), but he’s shown already that he’s first in basketball IQ, making some brilliant passes you’d expect from a canny veteran, especially in the Grizz’s lone win this season, a one-point squeaker against the Brooklyn Nets that Morant deserves a lot of credit for “winning it by himself” (an absurdity in a team sport like basketball but someone needs to make the one critical play that separates victory from defeat in a 1-point game and that was Morant on that night.)

In that game, he had 30 points and nine assists on 13-of-22 (59.1 percent), the sort of see-you-at-breakfast night that only a rare few players have in only their third game as a pro.

If it were my ballot, I’d make Morant the October 2019 Rookie of the Month, but if you want to stan for any of the other four guys on this list, I’d hardly raise a voice in protest.

Zion Williamson may be injured and the Pelicans may look utterly lost without him…but there are plenty of rookies taking up the banner and using this opportunity to make their own Rookie of the Year case.

We may be talking about the 2019 draft in reverential tones for years to come like we did about 1984 and 2003.