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October 31, 2011
Ranking Rookies
Past Performance vs. #NBARank

by Dan Feldman

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In the last five years, the NBA has bestowed end-of-season honors on Rudy Fernandez, Jamario Moon and Jorge Garbajosa. The league has also celebrated the 422nd, 450th and 456th best players in given years.*

*As measured by Wins Above Replacement Player. In order: Al Thornton, Jeff Green and Adam Morrison.

All six were members of an All-Rookie team, a bar lower than most realize. Being recognized as one of the NBA's 10 best rookies is slightly less difficult than actually being one of the NBA's 10 best rookies, but neither honor is a sure gateway to a fruitful NBA career. Rookies tend to be overrated because of their potential and low-cost contracts. Neither of those factors change their current ability, though.

So, you'll have to excuse me for initially disagreeing with Beckley Mason's conclusion: rookies were underrated in ESPN's #NBArank, a list designed to assess current ability, not value based on age and/or salary.

Turns out, I was dead wrong, and Beckley was absolutely right–as long as this rookie class mirrors, or comes close to, previous rookie classes.

Just two rookies cracked the top 250 of #NBArank, and only one made the top 150. Dating back to 1980, using WARP to rank players before this year, every rookie class has easily surpassed that threshold.

Top 150 is blue. 151-200 is orange. 201-250 is green.

Here's a fuller look at where rookies rank among NBA players in a given year, using #NBArank for 2012 and WARP for previous years.

Rookies are blue. Veterans are orange.

A couple caveats:

1. Knowing rookies perform better than the credit they were given in #NBArank is one thing, but knowing which rookies will outperform their rank is another. The project ranks individual players, not a draft class.

2. Rookies often improve as the season develops, so their WARP totals average early-season struggles and late-season success. ESPN asked voters to rank players based on their level right now, not in a few months.

Still, it's hard to look at these charts and not conclude rookies were massively underrated.

Many called the 2011 draft class one of the worst of all time. It would have to be–and then some–for rookies to be fairly rated in #NBArank. Even then, rookies would still probably be underrated by the ESPN project.

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Dan Feldman is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact Dan by clicking here or click here to see Dan's other articles.

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Premium Article What if They Played No... (10/31)
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Creating Shots (11/02)

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