The Phoenix Suns face a difficult challenge next season in trying to give meaningful playing time to three rookies. But with the readiness of Tyler Ulis and the upside of Marquese Chriss and Dragan Bender, all three rookies should expect to see a lot of time on the court this season.
It’s not uncommon for NBA teams to find good minutes for two rookies in a season, but playing three rookies at once is a lot more difficult.
And I’m not talking about 10-day D-League call-ups that begin after January 10. The Suns played a ton of rookies last year as they dealt with a myriad of injuries.
I am talking about an intentional roster composition of three or more rookies intended to play a significant rotation role from opening night.
The Atlanta Hawks (Taurean Prince and DeAndre Bembry), Brooklyn Nets (Caris LeVert and Isaiah Whitehead), Los Angeles Lakers (Ivica Zubac and Brandon Ingram), Milwaukee Bucks (Thon Maker and Malcolm Brogdon), Sacramento Kings (Malachi Richardson and Skal Labissiere) all have good-looking pairs of rookies to throw out there. Even the Spurs and Thunder might play multiple rookies. The Spurs will play Dejounte Murray and some middle-aged Euro rookie we’ve never heard of. The Thunder will play Domantas Sabonis and rookie import Alex Abrines.
But how many teams will play three or more rookies besides the Suns?
The Celtics have a boat load of potential rookies, topped by Jaylen Brown, but the big question is how many they can possibly play as they push for a top seed in the East.
The Denver Nuggets might have three or four rookies getting minutes next season, including Jamal Murray, Juancho Hernangomez and Malik Beasley all taken in the top 19 picks, though Murray is the only one with a sure-fire role out of the gate.
The Sixers have a huge potential to play three of the league’s best rookies this year in Ben Simmons, Dario Saric and (if healthy) Joel Embiid.
Seems like a tall task to play three rookies in the same season, especially if your vision is that they all have a significant role all season long. But at least three if not four teams will play three or more rookies at once this season.
Let’s see how teams have played their rookies in prior years.
Last year, a whopping 21 of 30 NBA teams played at least two rookies in November and December.
The Heat, in particular, should be applauded for finding a gem in second-rounder Josh Richardson to go along with Justice Winslow. Both rookies grew into larger roles during the playoff push while other contenders limited rookie minutes as the pressure increased.
For the third year in a row, the Jazz found roles for two rookies amid a very young team, giving good minutes to Trey Lyles and Raul Neto all season long.
The Wolves gave significant minutes to three rookies in the opening two months last year: Nemandja Bjelica, Tyus Jones and Karl-Anthony Towns, though Jones faded out of playing time as the season progressed.
The Sixers played three rookies as well, giving good minutes to Richaun Holmes, T.J. McConnell and Jalil Okafor. Even Christian Wood played 8 minutes per game.
The Lakers gave significant minutes to four rookies last year: Marcelo Huertas, Larry Nance Jr., Anthony Brown and DeAngelo Russell. Anthony Brown only played 29 games though, due to injury.
Of note, the Wolves, Sixers and Lakers qualified for three of the worst five records in the league, along with the Suns and Nets.
The year before, 19 of the 30 teams played at least two rookies in the opening two months of the season, including the Suns with T.J. Warren and Tyler Ennis.
Ten of those 19 teams kept it up, playing at least two rookies more than 10 minutes per game over 40+ games all season long.
Only four of those teams played two or more rookies in 55+ games.
The Nuggets got great contributions from two rookies that year: Jusuf Kurkic (62 games) and Gary Harris (55 games).
The Wolves, in particular, gave a ton of minutes to two rookies: Zach LaVine and Andrew Wiggins. LaVine got almost 25 minutes per game over 77 games while Wiggins received more than 36 minutes per game over all 82 games.
The Sixers were well into their tankapalooza, playing a half dozen rookies at different points of the season, including three rookies (Jerami Grant, Jakarr Sampson and Nerlens Noel) getting into at least 65 of the 82 games. If you count K.J. McDaniels, who was traded in February from Philly to the Rockets, that makes four Sixers rookies appearing in 62+ games that year.
The Jazz charged into the playoffs partially on the back of playing four rookies a lot of minutes as well. Dante Exum appeared in all 82 games while Joe Ingles got into 79. They each played 21-22 minutes per night. You could include Rodney Hood (50 games) and Elijah Millsap (47 games) as significant rookies as well, though they didn’t play nearly as much as Exum and Ingles.
While the Suns have a somewhat daunting task of finding roles for three rookies who look ready to play meaningful minutes next season, I have shown you a handful of examples of teams who successfully navigated those waters.
The Jazz and Wolves, in particular, appear to have incorporated rookies into already-young rosters boasting good second- and third-year players as well. Utah, in particular, has had three seasons in a row of finding and playing multiple rookies at once. The 2013 draft produced Rudy Gobert and Trey Burke.
If the Suns can approximate the good-times feelings coming out of Minny and Salt Lake around their young guns, they will have done exactly what the brain trust envisions.