The greatest rookie classes ever had one thing in common: extraordinary depth. The classes of 1984-85, 1996-97 and 2003-04 remain the only ones with a combined 50 All-Star appearances, each producing at least seven All-Stars.
Three-quarters of the way through the 2017-18 campaign, the current rookie class is flexing some serious depth of its own.
With just more than a month to go in the regular season, most of the rookie chatter down the stretch will revolve around the Rookie of the Year race between Ben Simmons and Donovan Mitchell. It's a refreshing competition between two budding stars equally worthy, unlike last season's underwhelming stretch run in which Malcolm Brogdon won ROY honors somewhat by default.
But while Simmons and Mitchell might take center stage, the high-level talent extends far beyond 1A and 1B. Lauri Markkanen has been as good of a rookie as Kristaps Porzingis;Lonzo Ball is already among the game's best passers; Jayson Tatum could become the first Celtics rookie to start all 82 since Larry Bird; Kyle Kuzma is scoring the most by a Lakers rookie since Magic Johnson; John Collins leads the Hawks in player efficiency rating and win shares; and Dennis Smith Jr. has more than a dozen 20-point games. Each of them -- along with European vet and NBA rookie Bogdan Bogdanovic -- is also posting a higher average game score (an overall box score stat rating single-game performance) than Brogdon did a year ago. That's before even getting to the likes of OG Anunoby, Jordan Bell and Cedi Osman, all of whom are playing major roles on championship contenders.
So just how deep is this group? And how does it stack up historically with some of the all-time great rookie classes?
Let's start with a disclaimer. There are admittedly some challenges with evaluating an entire rookie class 75 percent of the way through its debut season. Years down the line, nobody will point to first-year production as the true measuring stick for how a class turned out. For the most part, we don't judge the classes of 1984, 1996 and 2003 by what they did as rookies as much as we do for what they ultimately became. At this point, it's still anyone's guess as to how high the actual ceiling is for any of these players.
There are also some obvious pitfalls with simply picking the most productive of the bunch today and expecting greatness moving forward, as we've seen with the likes of Michael Carter-Williams and Tyreke Evans. Production at 20 doesn't always translate into trips to the All-Star Game at 27 and speeches in Springfield at 37.
All that being said, this group has exceeded expectations across the board as few have before them. And that's even with No. 1 overall pick Markelle Fultz enduring one of the most bizarre rookie campaigns possible (for what it's worth, our own Mike Schmitz -- who spends more time evaluating prospects than just about anyone -- still sees Fultz as a longtime All-Star lead guard.)
Considering that Brogdon is statistically the most underwhelming Rookie of the Year ever, the fact that nine of this season's rookies are outproducing him is not a ringing endorsement for the overall strength of the class upon first glance. What if instead we posited that those same nine players are also outproducing what we'd typically expect in Year 1 from the No. 2 overall pick?
Looking across the previous 20 drafts, players drafted in that slot produced an average game score of 7.8 in their rookie campaigns. Of course, teams aren't picking high-upside prospects for their immediate contributions, which somewhat explains why there isn't much difference in the production of the No. 2 and No. 6 overall picks. The most NBA-ready player isn't always one of the first off the board. And yet the fact that nine players -- including three taken outside of the lottery -- are producing at that level is remarkable.
As we did for the No. 2 overall pick, we can establish a baseline for each of the draft slots and then see how each rookie compares to the corresponding expected production. Of the 15 lottery picks (including Simmons, from the 2016 draft), nine of them are outperforming their expected baseline. That includes back-end lottery picks such as Bam Adebayo and Luke Kennard, the latter of whom Detroit took ahead of Mitchell and yet is still outperforming expectations thanks in part to a 41 percent stroke from downtown.
The list goes on and on. The two biggest overachievers relative to draft position -- even more so than Mitchell -- are Collins and Kuzma, who are delivering average game scores 3.7 times and 2.8 times their draft slots, respectively.
The top half of the class stacks up favorably to years past, as it boasts 10 players originally drafted in the top 15 who are outperforming their expected game scores, tied for the most by any class over the past 20 seasons and more than in either 1996-97 (seven) or 2003-04 (eight). In terms of immediate production by top-15 players, only the somewhat underrated classes of 2008-09 (Russell Westbrook, Derrick Rose, Kevin Love, etc.) and 1998-99 (Vince Carter, Paul Pierce, etc.) can match this season's crop among recent history. Through this lens, it can't quite compete with the vaunted class of '84 that had 13 of its top 15 rookies outperform expected value.
Looking ahead, the best bet for the 2017-18 rookie class to catch the top tier likely lies with the six pacesetters currently with double-figure average game scores: Simmons, Mitchell, Markkanen, Ball, Tatum and Kuzma. Only once over the past 35 seasons has there been a rookie class with more players producing on that level. The 1992-93 group started strong but resulted in only a trio of multiple-time All-Stars in Shaquille O'Neal, Alonzo Mourning and Latrell Sprewell.
The 2017-18 class also stands out in terms of on-court impact, with nine first-year players posting positive contributions according ESPN's real plus-minus, which measures effect on team performance while factoring in teammates, opponents and more variables. The strong 2015-16 rookie class had eight such players, and last season there were two (Joel Embiid and Brogdon).
As of now, this bunch is already ahead of both 1984-85 and 2003-04 and right alongside the group of 1996-97 in terms of quantity of high-level contributors. While the eventual superstars in 1984 and 2003 were apparent from day one, the 1996-97 class ultimately joined the ranks of the all-time elite with the development of Kobe Bryant, Ray Allen, Steve Nash and Jermaine O'Neal, none of whom made the All-Rookie first team.
There's no question that this current crop of rookies is as gifted and deep as any we've seen in recent history. It's now simply a matter of waiting.