5 under-the-radar NBA rookies to watch

5 under-the-radar NBA rookies to watch

The 2023 rookie class is one of the best to enter the league in a long time. Victor Wembanyama, Scoot Henderson, and even a now-healthy Chet Holmgren are all expected to play major roles from the jump and be lead contenders in what’s shaping up to be a fascinating battle for Rookie of the Year.

But this year’s crop of newbies also carries a handful of players poised to make an immediate impact despite not being as freakishly gifted as Wembanyama or as incredibly athletic as Henderson. With that in mind, here are our under-the-radar rookies to watch this season.

Jaime Jaquez Jr., Miami Heat

Jamie Squire / Getty Images Sport / Getty

2022-23 stats with UCLA

GP
FG%
3PT%
FT%
REB
AST
PTS

37
48.1
31.7
77.0
8.2
2.4
17.8

Jaquez has risen from UCLA role player to college superstar to projected second-rounder to near lottery pick, and he’s now a key piece of an NBA finalist as a rookie. That’s quite the ascension, and there may not be a better rookie-franchise fit. The team’s failed quest for Damian Lillard and loss of valuable starters Gabe Vincent and Max Strus have put the onus on Jaquez to be effective from the jump.

Early signs indicate Jaquez is up for the task. He played a team-high-tying 23 minutes in the Heat’s first preseason game, tallying 13 points, seven rebounds, and two assists. Though he may not rank in the top 10 rookies in scoring this season, there probably won’t be 10 first-year players who provide more value toward winning than Jaquez. Don’t be stunned if he finds his way onto the All-Rookie second team.

Ben Sheppard, Indiana Pacers

Alex Bierens de Haan / Getty Images Sport / Getty

2022-23 stats with Belmont

GP
FG%
3PT%
FT%
REB
AST
PTS

32
47.5
41.5
68.4
5.2
2.9
18.8

Last year was a successful start for the Pacers’ first two draft picks, with Bennedict Mathurin and Andrew Nembhard both among just seven rookies who registered over 2,000 regular-season minutes. While much of the same is to be expected from No. 8 pick Jarace Walker, don’t sleep on the possibility of Sheppard making a serious impact after being selected 26th.

At 22, Sheppard is one of the oldest rookies in the class. He’s a deadly 3-point shooter and a capable defender, the perfect complementary piece on the wing next to the exciting backcourt of Mathurin and Tyrese Haliburton. Couple that with the potential trade of Buddy Hield after extension talks failed, and Sheppard should have a role. Case in point, he’s averaged 13 points, 3.5 rebounds, and 3.5 assists per game across his first two preseason contests, adding six threes to his tally.

Julian Strawther, Denver Nuggets

Zach Beeker / National Basketball Association / Getty

2022-23 stats with Gonzaga

GP
FG%
3PT%
FT%
REB
AST
PTS

37
46.9
40.8
77.6
6.2
1.3
15.2

Strawther has been lighting it up early in the preseason, making many wonder why he wasn’t classified among the top shooters in his class from the get-go. The No. 29 pick scored 36 points in just 40 total minutes, making 8-of-15 threes in the process. He’s shown some on-ball chops along with a gravitational pull when spotting up. Of course, the latter is a major dividend when playing with two-time MVP Nikola Jokic.

Strawther’s early success should come as no surprise to those who watch him on some elite Gonzaga squads. He steps up in big moments and is never afraid of the spotlight, as evidenced by his gusty game-winner for the Zags in the 2023 NCAA Tournament. While he isn’t much of a playmaker or defender, having a confident and capable sniper such as Strawther on the reigning champions could look like a steal come playoff time.

Andre Jackson Jr., Milwaukee Bucks

Stacy Revere / Getty Images Sport / Getty

2022-23 stats with UConn

GP
FG%
3PT%
FT%
REB
AST
PTS

36
43.2
28.1
64.6
6.2
4.7
6.7

Jackson’s preseason scoring average of six points per game is identical to his three-year college numbers and slightly eclipses his Summer League mark of 5.4. Yet the No. 36 pick figures to earn time in the rotation for a team on the short list of true championship contenders. Jackson is largely a non-shooter, but his defensive versatility, eye-popping athleticism, and excellent feel for the game make him a great Swiss Army knife in Milwaukee.

After all, it doesn’t take much effort to find Jackson contributing toward winning in this role. He was just the sixth-leading scorer at UConn last season yet was arguably the Huskies’ most indispensable player en route to a dominant March Madness run. While traditional logic says Jackson playing alongside a predominantly inside scorer in Giannis Antetokounmpo could mess up the offensive spacing, the wing may be too valuable to be left out of the rotation from Day 1.

Vasilije Micic, Oklahoma City Thunder
Sasha Vezenkov, Sacramento Kings

Lachlan Cunningham / Getty Images Sport / Getty

Micic’s 2022-23 EuroLeague stats with Anadolu Efes Istanbul

GP
FG%
3PT%
FT%
REB
AST
PTS

31
43.5
35.7
87.0
3.2
5.4
16.0

Vezenkov’s 2022-23 EuroLeague stats with Olympiacos Piraeus

GP
FG%
3PT%
FT%
REB
AST
PTS

40
53.6
37.8
87.9
6.9
1.9
17.6

We’re cheating with the final spot and choosing the two EuroLeague superstars testing their talents in the NBA. Finding success after transitioning from the world’s second-best league to the best is no guarantee, but both Vezenkov and Micic bring specific offensive skills to the table that could significantly help their clubs.

Micic is a dynamo with the ball in his hands and a well-rounded point guard who has both elite passing chops and a smooth perimeter jumper. He also possesses above-average size at 6-foot-5. On one of the younger teams in the NBA, the 29-year-old’s role as the backup point guard behind All-NBA superstar Shai Gilgeous-Alexander should help provide the Thunder with stability and productivity.

Meanwhile, Vezenkov is a microwave scorer with a unique offensive repertoire of off-balanced threes and crafty left-handed finishes. His athleticism and defensive ability leave much to be desired, but adding a top-tier scorer around the dynamic duo of De’Aaron Fox and Domantas Sabonis for 15 minutes a game is a tantalizing prospect for coach Mike Brown. It should come as no surprise that Vezenkov dropped 12 points in 11 minutes during his first-ever NBA action.

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