Evaluating Rookies in Preseason Play
Welcome back folks, where this week I attempt the most ambitious crossover in the history of sportswriting. That’s right, this blog will cover two different sports. But don’t click off the webpage! I promise my takes are not as unhinged as the premise of this piece.
Anyways, enough with the shenanigans. It is true that I have rarely written about multiple sports in one blog, but the timing of the sports world made this too good an opportunity to pass up. As we enter the dog days of summer, two new leagues have sprung up to grab the interest of baseball fans whose teams are 28 games out of first (cough cough Rangers). The NBA Summer League is in full swing, and the NFL Preseason got kicked off (haha) this week. One thing you will see plenty of in each of these events is rookies. For many fans (including myself), rookies are among the most intriguing of athletes: so much promise, yet so many unknowns. And as a naturally-curious species, we are always dying to find out whether our team just drafted a future MVP or if we should take to Twitter to declare he’s a bust.
One guy who a lot of people had their eye on today was Justin Fields, the top draft choice of the Chicago Bears. Billed as the quarterback of the future, football fans are inevitably eager to see what he brings to the table. Well, watching his first ever action as a pro, residents of the Windy City may have been elated: a passing touchdown, a scramble for a score, and plenty more exciting plays. Based on this game alone, viewers might think to themselves “Wow, Fields looked great out there! Definitely lives up to the high pick and is going to be a stud in this league.” And while that may end up being true, a statement like that is really baseless. The preseason of the NFL allows us to watch a ton of guys go out and compete, but we have to take the results with a grain of salt. Sure, Fields did just about everything right today and looked every bit a top pick in the Draft, but we have to remember his playing time came against mostly second and third stringers on defense. Not to say these guys are untalented, but it’s nothing compared to the level of defense Fields would see if he was starting in a regular season game. Because of this, we can’t simply look at his raw numbers and declare whether or not he’s amazing; it’s his underlying tendencies that require studying to see what type of player he will really be. Instead of focusing on how many yards he threw for, look at his poise and presence in the pocket. Rather than drool over his amazing scrambles, pay attention to how he responds to pressure in his face. Tendencies like these are what really make a player and are consistent from game to game, not reliant on the quality of the opponent. If Fields (or any rookie quarterback for that matter) can prove he’s tough mentally and physically, can lead a team, and is accurate with his passes, then we know he’ll be successful in the NFL because that’s what it takes.
Moving to the Summer League (finally), it’s more of the same. My favorite NBA team the Golden State Warriors had two lottery selections in this year’s Draft and took Jonathan Kuminga (a super raw high ceiling forward) plus Moses Moody (a 3 and D wing). I am very interested to see how they will fit in the NBA and if they were worth the high selections, so I have watched them play in Las Vegas. For both guys so far, the numbers look great: they are scoring a lot and on efficient shooting as well. But, as you should know by now, numbers aren’t everything, especially in the Summer League. While there are no restrictions on who can suit up, the league is mostly comprised of rookies, second-year players looking to develop, and guys who have seen little to no NBA action. Once again, these are some of the best basketball players in the world, but they are nothing compared to the actual NBA. So scoring is great, but what we should really key in on is the small things and details in a player’s game. Is this guy engaged on defense, does he hustle after the ball, can he keep his handle when being pressured, what type of shots can he make or what type does he struggle with? As with the notes I mentioned on Fields, these are things that are all dependent on the player. If a guy hustles, he hustles. Playing against other NBA players won’t change or diminish that. If a guy can't shoot off the dribble, then he can’t shoot off the dribble, regardless of who is defending him.
So, 800 words later, what am I really trying to say? When it comes to evaluating rookies in preseason play, just remember who they’re going up against. Don’t get lost in stats that are either crazy good or bad; really pay attention to the individual and how they carry themselves and how they respond to different situations in real time. Many of these guys will turn into solid professional players, and some will even be studs. But plenty of others won’t even make it in their league, and if you really focus those guys won’t be surprises when they flame out. In two sports where it takes the absolute best of the best to compete, players need to be near perfect in everything they do, and any potential red flags will only get exacerbated in regular season play. With all that being said, go out and dominate my rookie players! Make our generation proud! (oh and go Trey Lance)