NBA Rookie Ladder: Second Edition

A recurring note: This Rookie Ladder is essentially a running “rookie of the year” tab. Certain weeks were not, are not, and will not be weighed more heavily than others because they are more memorable or recent. Rather, each edition will provide an update on how the list of top-10 rookies stands on the season to date, one week at a time. Furthermore, neither age nor draft position will affect a player’s prospective standing here. As long as said player qualifies as a rookie, he can be as high or as low on this list as his play dictates. With that said, enjoy the first edition of HoopsCritic’s “NBA Rookie Ladder”, brought to you by The Committee (of one).

NBA Rookie Ladder

 

1. Karl-Anthony Towns PTS TRB AST STL BLK TOV TS% FG% 3P% FT% MPG NET RTG
15.3 9.3 1.0 0.7 2.2 2.1 57.9 53.2 43.8 80.7 28.1 -0.5

 

Almost two months into his rookie year, Karl-Anthony Towns has headed the Rookie Ladder for each of the first seven weeks of the season. And despite a recent four-in-five-game stretch in which the Kentucky product saw his minutes dwindle, Towns’s numbers have hardly hit a lull. The big man remains the most efficient double-digit scorer in his class and paces all of his peers in both rebounding and blocked shots, while ranking tops amongst rookies according to just about every single all-in-one metric known to the world of advanced statistics. Yet, despite filling up the stat sheet so amply, the most impressive aspect of his impact on the game remains absent from the box score: with Towns in front of them, opponents shoot 10% worse than normal within six feet of the basket and 5.9% worse on all shots within the arc.

2. Kristaps Porzingis PTS TRB AST STL BLK TOV TS% FG% 3P% FT% MPG NET RTG
14.2 8.7 0.9 0.7 1.8 1.9 54.3 45.4 34.9 84.5 27.4 +7.3

The only other double-digit scorer in this class getting his buckets even semi-efficiently, Kristaps has been a slightly lesser version of Karl Towns all across the board. The Latvian big man has done a little bit of everything for the Knicks so far, shooting, scoring, rebounding, and blocking shots effectively enough to leapfrog all other rookies on this list. His defense has been similarly impressive; while opponents have been able to score fairly well upon drawing him out to the perimeter, their effectiveness steadily declines the lesser the distance between Porzingis’s matchup and the basket. To date, opponents have shot anywhere from 8-10% worse than usual when engaging Porzingis within ten feet of the basket, a fact that’s helped keep the Knicks near league-average defensively, despite an otherwise uneven defensive perimeter. Ultimately, though, perhaps one stat describes Kristaps’s surprisingly fruitful impact more than any other: the rookie big’s superstar teammate, Carmelo Anthony, shoots just 31.4% from the field and 20% from behind the arc when Porzingis sits; with the rookie phenom on the court, however, those numbers volleyball up to 43.4% and 39.7%, respectively.

3. Jahlil Okafor PTS TRB AST STL BLK TOV TS% FG% 3P% FT% MPG NET RTG
16.9 7.9 1.3 0.3 1.5 2.9 48.0 44.9 0.0 67.1 32.7 -16.2

After a couple of weeks in which Okafor’s promise on the court took a back seat to his troubles off of it, the big man returned to the lineup after a two-game suspension with much of the same dilemma. While Jahlil does the bulk of his damage in the post, this Sixer team lacks the complementary ball-handlers and floor spacers to give the rookie big enough room to set up shop. As a result, the former Dukie’s post-ups take forever to diagram, often leaving him mere seconds to execute a successful move on what would otherwise often be an over-matched defender. This (what coach Brett Brown calls “butter”, an unavoidable situation in which the team essentially melts the clock in an effort to get the ball to Okafor), combined with the rookie’s troubles protecting the paint, have contributed to an already overborne Sixer team performing 16.2 points per 100 possessions worse with Okafor on the floor. Even still, Jahlil Okafor remains a supremely talented player with enough potential to grow with a team that genuinely has nowhere to go but up. The pending status of Kendall Marshall, both the Sixers’ best passer and the owner of what’s proven to be a vastly improved three-point shot in recent years, can’t hurt either.

4. Willie Cauley-Stein PTS TRB AST STL BLK TOV TS% FG% 3P% FT% MPG NET RTG
4.8 5.2 0.4 0.6 1.1 0.7 60.5 60.9 51.4 18.9 + 12.5

Slated to miss the next month-and-a-half after dislocating his right index finger less than a week ago, Cauley-Stein is bound to drop a few spots on this ladder in the near future. Prior to the ill-timed injury, though, the young big man, albeit in a limited role, was having a consistently positive influence on the Kings’ rotation. Boasting a team-best net rating of +12.5, Cauley-Stein made the bulk of his impact, on both sides of the court, near the rim. Blocking shots at a rate superior to any other player on the team, and often enough to place in the top 7.2% of all qualified players, the Kentucky product paired a tangible defensive impact with a knack for gathering loose boards and finishing around the basket. Ultimately, while his role was fundamentally (and deliberately) limited in nature, Cauley-Stein did what was reasonably expected of him just well enough to rank as one of the few rookies making a reliably positive impact for his team.

5. Nemanja Bjelica PTS TRB AST STL BLK TOV TS% FG% 3P% FT% MPG NET RTG
6.5 5.6 1.9 0.4 0.4 0.8 59.3 47.2 38.2 54.5 24.5 – 1.9

Despite forfeiting his status as the most efficient rookie managing at least five points per game to the unconscionably hot-shooting Devin Booker, Bjelica returned from a four-game absence without skipping a beat. Using up possessions at an astoundingly low rate (only Larry Nance and Willie Cauley-Stein, amongst qualified rookies, use less), Bjelica has managed to get his buckets extremely effectively. And while he shoots an absurd and undeniably regression-bound 77.3% near the rim, makes two of every three long two-point field goals he attempts, and shoots a respectable 38.3% from behind the arc, the 27-year-old Serb also ranks amongst the top quarter of his peers in both assist and rebound rate. All in all, Bjelica has been able to make a consistently measured and efficient impact on the floor for every minute he’s been out there, and should hover in this range of the ladder for the bulk of the year because of it.

6. Nikola Jokic PTS TRB AST STL BLK TOV TS% FG% 3P% FT% MPG NET RTG
7.6 5.0 0.8 0.7 0.5 1.0 58.0 53.5 42.9 70.3 16.8 + 4.0

While his minutes have fluctuated all throughout the year (for a variety of situational shortcomings that most would toss in the “rookie mistake” bucket), Nikola Jokic has been another rookie who’s made a generally positive impact regardless of the floor time he’s been granted. Active, though short of gifted, on the defensive end, Jokic has often been a breath of fresh air for a team that sports the likes of Kenneth Faried and JJ Hickson on the back line of its defense. In fact, Jokic has been just good enough to contribute to a 102.9 defensive rating for all Denver units with him on the floor, a mark 5.7 points per 100 possessions better than what the team manages when he sits. Even given all of this, however, the young Serb has raised eyebrows on the other end of the floor more than anything. Exhibiting an incredible knack for offensive boards (Nikola leads all rookies in offensive rebounding rate), paired with a good touch around the rim (no big man shots running floaters as frequently and as comfortably as Jokic does), the big man has been a valuable weapon for a Nugget offense prone to stagnation and otherwise marred by a lack of spacing.

7. TJ McConnell PTS TRB AST STL BLK TOV TS% FG% 3P% FT% MPG NET RTG
6.8 4.7 5.8 1.3 0.3 2.5 51.3 47.9 30.3 40.0 26.9 +0.8

Retaining his rookie lead on both points generated by assists and assist-to-turnover ratio, McConnell has been a heady figure capable of (at the very least) pacing an offense sorely lacking in any kind of “natural” point guard. In fact, the Sixer offense has been about 5.7 points per 100 possessions better with McConnell on the floor–whether that is after starting or coming off the bench—and, despite the defense tailing off at a similar rate when the point guard sees the floor, McConnell’s talents have been valuable to a team stock full of players whose (already limited) skill sets do not particularly excel via playmaking. Ultimately, however, McConnell’s ability to hit from beyond the arc will likely prove to be the defining factor in whether he sticks around as a rotational player for years to come, as he’s thus far proven too short and in-explosive to threaten defenses in any other consistent manner.

8. Rondae Hollis-Jefferson PTS TRB AST STL BLK TOV TS% FG% 3P% FT% MPG NET RTG
5.2 6.1 1.4 1.4 0.4 1.1 52.5 48.1 20.0 66.7 22.1 +5.4

Prior to being bitten by the injury bug, Hollis-Jefferson had been one of the few bright spots on an otherwise depressing Brooklyn Net team. Pacing all rookies in steals per game, per minute, and per turnover, the Arizona product had been a major pest for opposing wings and ball-handlers all season long. While he’s done little beyond rebounding (at a rate only three other rookies have been able to duplicate, in fact) and pestering opposing offenses at a markedly above-average level, Hollis-Jefferson’s defensive impact has been nothing short of crucial—enough so that the Nets have held opposing teams to 98.9 points per possession with him on the floor, and a team-worst 107.1 with him off.

9. Justise Winslow PTS TRB AST STL BLK TOV TS% FG% 3P% FT% MPG NET RTG
6.4 5.3 1.5 0.7 0.2 1.6 48.1 42.7 22.9 55.9 28.6 +8.2

Though the rookie swingman has left quite a bit to be desired offensively, he’s done the complete opposite via his performance on the defensive end of the floor. Twenty games into a season that’s seen him defend the likes of Lebron James, Kevin Durant, and Carmelo Anthony in a mere matter of days, Winslow’s held opposing players to 39.1% shooting from the field and just 27.9% from behind the arc. In doing so, the Duke product’s managed to step right into a veteran-laden team without once falling victim to his youth or inexperience. To date, the Miami Heat are a whopping 10 points per 100 possessions better with Winslow on the floor, and the rookie’s consistent and suffocating defensive impact has been nothing short of crucial for a team that otherwise employs two aging wings who’ll need to be paced and preserved all throughout the year at the off-guard positions.

10. D’Angelo Russell PTS TRB AST STL BLK TOV TS% FG% 3P% FT% MPG NET RTG
11.5 4.5 3.0 1.0 0.2 2.2 48.4 40.6 31.3 76.9 27.6 -12.7

After a recent demotion left Russell in uncharted waters about a quarter of the way into his rookie season, the promising point guard came off the bench to pour in a career-best 23 points against the Timberwolves on Wednesday night, 13 of which came in a pivotal fourth quarter that helped force overtime. Whether that game will prove to be the turning point in an otherwise tumultuous season for Russell remains to be seen, but Kobe Bryant’s recent willingness to let go of the reins and coax D’Angelo down the stretch is certainly promising. Admittedly, the team remains markedly worse when Russell is off the floor (something the aforementioned Bryant has had a fairly large hand in, granted), but, in a season in which the Lakers’ main objective should be to develop their young talent, the rookie point guard has more than enough time to progress at a reasonable and measured pace.

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