One of the most exciting facets of the 2015-16 season is how well the rookie class is performing. Several much-hyped players have either lived up to, or exceeded, expectations. Karl-Anthony Towns already looks like a beast, while Jahlil Okafor is putting up 20 a night (yes, it’s on the one-win Sixers, but still). Meanwhile, Kristaps Porzingis might be the most exciting rookie of all, with his thrilling put-back dunks. After the draft (where Porzingis was booed after being selected by the Knicks), the general consensus was that the Latvian could be an incredible player, but he would need plenty of time to develop. However, while he’s far from reaching his full potential, he’s already in the starting lineup and wreaking havoc on a nightly basis. The point is, the 2015 class looks pretty good so far. This leaves us with an essential question: Could it actually be better than the ballyhooed 2014 class?
The hype surrounding the 2014 class admittedly seemed to vary a lot. At one moment, we were hearing that Andrew Wiggins was going to be the next LeBron or Durant, and we should all get as psyched as possible. After his somewhat underwhelming (though, really, still pretty good) lone season at Kansas, we were told to temper our expectations and to prepare ourselves for the possibility that he might end up being more of a Rudy Gay-type player. Still, the overwhelming narrative was that the ’14 class was packed to the brim with potential superstars.
We all know what happened next; the class of 14-15 was a terrible disappointment in its inaugural year, though admittedly for reasons that extended beyond the players themselves and had more to do with kismet than anything. We lost Joel Embiid before the season even started. We lost Julius Randle after 14 minutes. Jabari Parker’s season would also end prematurely, and injuries kept Aaron Gordon from much of his inaugural campaign. As for those who did play full seasons, Nik Stauskas earned the immortal nickname “Sauce Castillo,” but failed to be anywhere near the lights-out shooter we hoped he might be. Meanwhile, Dante Exum looked tentative and nervous as he faced NBA defenses for the first time. It wasn’t all bad, Wiggins would win Rookie of the Year, and Marcus Smart is already a great defender, but in general, this class fell far short of its massive expectations in year one.
Now, let’s be clear, it’s way too early to say who the better class will ultimately be, but there’s always room to speculate. What could prove to be the deciding factor in which class wins out is how the players who either got hurt or struggled as rookies last season are able to develop. Julius Randle has already displayed a strong game this season, and is one of the lone bright spots on a dismal Lakers team. Aaron Gordon is still putting it all together, but he’ll occasionally rip off the type of mind-blowing dunk that reminds you why he’s such an enticing prospect.
Dante Exum went down for the year with a torn ACL, and he could really go either way. On one hand, he may have the same difficulties coming back from the injury that befell several other players. On the other hand, it’s equally possible that by sitting on the bench for a year, and absorbing the American game, he could return with superior instincts, morphing into the player Jazz fans have dreamed about since he was drafted. The 2014 class could prove to be a simple case of delayed gratification, ultimately becoming one of the all-time best. It could also be defined by several players who never reached their full potential.
Meanwhile, the class of 2015 has rushed ahead of expectations. Towns and Okafor already seem like sure bets, and the possibility of what Porzingis will be in his prime may be the single most enticing question facing this year’s rookies. The best case scenario is that both drafts turn out be to be among the best ever, giving us a generation’s worth of star players to argue and debate about. The class of 2015 in on pace to be a considerably better debut than the class of 2014, but the latter group has a ton of potential, and could easily catch up. The real winners could prove to be the NBA fans who get to watch these guys for the next two decades.