The NBA playoffs aren’t usually a place for rookies. This year is different.
Rookies rarely get the chance to make NBA playoff history, but that’s exactly what happened in Game 3 of the second-round game between Golden State and Memphis.
When Jonathan Kuminga and Ziaire Williams spoke for the first council, it was only the second time in the 21st century that a rookie set had started on opposing teams in the conference semifinals or later. Kuminga scored 18 points in 18 minutes and Williams had 7 points in 30 minutes of work.
While the moment was a headliner, Williams and Kuminga were far from the only rookies to offer outsized contributions in the 2022 playoffs. Nine freshmen averaged at least 10 minutes per game in the first three rounds of this post-season.
|Trey Murphy 3||pelicans||17||6||20.0||5.2|
|Joseph Alvarado||pelicans||Not drafted||6||19.5||8.0|
Highly drafted rookies that teams rely heavily on rarely contribute to wins. Only 54 of the 220 rookies selected in the top 10 since the 2000 draft have started at least 60 games and played at least 30 minutes per game during the regular season. Of those, only nine made the playoffs. Similarly, rookies selected lower in the draft are usually less ready to help win basketball in their rookie years, and they also tend to join winning teams with more rotations. As a result, teams that rely on rookies — no matter where they’re drafted — often don’t make the playoffs, let alone succeed when they do. But that hasn’t quite been the case in the playoffs. Let’s look at each of the rookies who got minutes in their team’s rotation during these playoffs.
Jonathan Kuminga became the highest-drafted rookie to reach the Finals since 2004. The Warriors used Kuminga sparingly during the playoffs, but he still played a role. Kuminga started three games against the Memphis Grizzlies in the second round and scored 18 points in one and 17 in another, becoming the second youngest recruit in history with a double-digit playoff game. His role as an offensive punch provider was consistent in the regular season: Per Second Spectrum, he was Golden State’s second-best high-volume screener, scoring 1.009 points per chance, and he was even more effective in isolation and at the job.
The Warriors’ most effective screen in the playoffs was their other rookie, Moses Moody, who in some games against Dallas supplanted Kuminga in the rotation. With opponents hiding defenders on Moody, the Warriors used his screening to drag weaker defensive targets into the pick and roll.
The Toronto Raptors are no strangers to success, winning the championship in 2018-19 and following that up with a second-round trip in 2019-20. But they only went 27-45 playing away for the entire 2020-21 season, a season that team manager Masai Ujiri called “Tampa Tank Top.” But the reward for their labors was Scottie Barnes. He finished 11th in total minutes in the regular season, the sixth-most by any rookie in past 10 years. This level of reliance on a rookie rarely translates into a playoff appearance; since the 2000-01 season, only 37 other rookies have started as many games or more than Barnes, and only 14 have also reached the playoffs.
Barnes did more than just reach the playoffs, however. He recorded 15 points, 10 rebounds and eight assists in Toronto’s first game of the first round; only one other rookie in history has achieved those goals in his playoff debut. He recorded the 14th highest Box Plus/Minus in his playoff debut, just ahead of Michael Jordan. Barnes then missed two games with a sprained ankle, and Toronto lost both; he returned for Games 4 and 5, and Toronto won both. Although the Raptors eventually fell to the Philadelphia 76ers, Barnes’ isolation attack on one of the best defenders in Joel Embiid ended up being one of their best — albeit infrequent — offensive sources scoring 1.333 points per chance in a game that saw Toronto’s offense manage .881 overall.
The New Orleans Pelicans were a young and rising team entering the 2021-22 season, with only one player over 29. They added experience during the season to CJ McCollum and Larry Nance Jr., but they also relied on even more youngsters – the rookies Trey Murphy 3, Grass Jones and Joseph Alvarado. All three were essential to the team’s ascent to the playoffs.
New Orleans won two qualifying games to reach the playoffs, where they lost in six games to the No. 1 seeded Phoenix Suns. All three rookies have averaged more points and minutes over those eight games than in the regular season. While New Orleans won their games by a combined 5 points, they won minutes with Murphy on the ground by 65 points; Murphy claims the The highest differential on/off for 100 possessions during all playoffs, per glass cleaning.
While Jones titles won for his incredible defense as a rookie, Alvarado didn’t disappoint to that end either. He frustrated veteran playmaker Chris Paul with backcourt flights and forced eight second violations. Not to be outdone, Jones remains second in the playoff in opposing 3-point attempts even though he has played six fewer games than the leader. He finished the playoffs averaging 1.8 steals and 0.8 blocks per game, joining a list of seven recruits who reached those thresholds in the playoffs.
The Memphis Grizzlies entered the season with young talent, but Zaire Williams still managed to land a role as the youngest player on the the youngest playoff team. He was dominant around the rim in the regular season, finishing ninth in accuracy among players with 10 or more attempts.
The Denver Nuggets had playoff expectations at the start of the season, but injuries to established stars opened up opportunities for new contributors. Bones Hyland didn’t have a pivot point to start the season, earning as many “did not play coach’s decision” designations in the first four games as the rest of the year combined. He worked his way into the rotation and finished the season as one of the only 22 recruits still averaging 15 points, five rebounds and five assists per 36 minutes. He played at least 14 minutes in every playoff game for Denver and even had the team highest plus-minus in his lone playoff victory.
Chicago Bulls also saw veteran injuries open rookie minutes: Illinois product Go dosunmu. He completed sixth among rookies in minutes played and led the 28 rookies who played at least 800 minutes in effective field goal percentage. Even though he started the playoffs mostly out of rotation, he led bench players in minutes and points in Game 4 against the Milwaukee Bucks and started in Game 5.
It’s hard to point to any archetypal similarities among rookies who played rotational minutes in these playoffs. Some have been heavily used scorers (Kuminga and Hyland), while others have been underused defenders (Dosunmu, Jones and Alvarado). Some are shooting specialists (Murphy and Williams), while others prefer to shoot inside the arc (Barnes and Kuminga). Each position across the spectrum is shown off center. Even their draft positions vary. Barnes, Kuminga and Moody were lottery selections; Murphy and Hyland were later taken in the first round; Jones and Dosunmu were drafted in the second round; Alvarado was not drafted.
Additionally, the team contexts that enable their playoff successes seem scattered. The Warriors and Raptors had long stretches of playoff success, endured brief chars, and have since returned to the playoffs after adding young talent in the draft. The Nuggets and Bulls added rookies mid-draft to veteran cores, and injuries opened up opportunities. The young Grizzlies built on a playoff appearance last season and still managed to add some lottery talent to the mix. Despite already fielding six players 24 or younger, the Pelicans brought three rookies into the rotation and found themselves in the playoffs.
As a result, no player type or team situation can be used as a guide to future rookie success in the playoffs. Each situation is unique. It’s hard to say whether so many rookies with immediate impact speak to the diversity of talent in the 2021 draft or the fertile backgrounds that talent has joined. That 2021 draft success is so different across so many rookies and teams perhaps speaks most to the NBA itself, with so many young talents who have already proven themselves on the biggest stage. The nine rookies contributing to these playoffs have already made history, but they and the rest of their draft class are far from done.
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