Originally published in SLAM #153
by Abe Schwadron / @abe_squad
In a relatively weak NBA rookie class, these are the five players poised to make the biggest impact this season:
Kyrie Irving, Cleveland Cavaliers
Irving showed enough glimpses of greatness in his limited time at Duke to earn the No. 1 spot in the ’11 Draft. His 17.5 points per game and 52 percent field-goal shooting might not translate right away at the pro level, but he’ll be given the keys to the franchise in Cleveland, and his feel for the game should have him handing out assists in bunches right away. The 6-2 Irving has sick handles and the vision to put the ball where it needs to go, whether in traffic or out in transition. The frontrunner for Rookie of the Year has the skill set, the opportunity and the upside to prove the Cavs made the right call.
Brandon Knight, Detroit Pistons
Detroit snagged Knight with the No. 8 pick in the Draft, two years after BK became just the third high school junior to win Gatorade National Basketball Player of the Year. The others? LeBron James and Greg Oden. Knight’s ability to play either guard spot, his crunch time confidence and his long arms on a 6-3 frame should have him in the Pistons’ starting lineup by season’s end. And when his opportunity comes, don’t expect him to waste any time. He follows Tyreke Evans, Derrick Rose and John Wall in a long line of John Calipari-coached NBA point guards.
Iman Shumpert, New York Knicks
Predictably, Knicks fans booed when Shumpert’s name was called on Draft night. But he’s been one of the summer’s hardest workers and has impressed fans and fellow pros alike with his crazy hops. Shump won’t lead rookies in scoring or assists, but he can help New York with his defensive versatility and his ability to finish above the rim. The 6-5 former Yellow Jacket should contribute up and down the stat sheet even in limited minutes, and he could prove to be the steal of this Draft class.
Kemba Walker, Charlotte Bobcats
Walker led UConn to the NCAA National Championship on the strength of 23 ppg, breaking a handful of ankles along the way. The 6-1 guard is a nightmare in pick-and-roll situations—too fast for a hedge, too shifty for a switch. NBA defenders will quickly learn to stay away from Kemba’s crossover, and his mid-range game is equally as deadly. With the Bobcats, the opportunity is there for Walker to fill it up, and with Michael Jordan available for some friendly advice, he should be in the ROY discussion all season long.
Derrick Williams, Minnesota Timberwolves
Athletes like this year’s SLAM Rookie Diarist typically don’t have trouble taking their talents to the next level. The added bonus of playing alongside Kevin Love, who will shoulder most of the rebounding load, should make Williams a stud from game one in Minnesota’s frontcourt. The Pac-10 Player of the Year last season averaged 19.5 and 8 at Arizona but really got the attention of NBA GMs with his tomahawk dunks during the NCAA Tourney. He’ll be ready to finish on the break from game one. The rest will come.