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Papanikolaou, Harris playing crucial roles for winners

Rookie Ladder: Week 5

POSTED: Nov 26, 2014 10:08 AM ET

By Scott Howard-Cooper

BY Scott Howard-Cooper

NBA.com

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Kostas Papanikolaou has gotten more of an opportunity to contribute in Houston.

Joe Harris of the Cavaliers is averaging three points a game. Three. A shooting guard, he is shooting 32.4 percent overall and 30.8 from behind the arc. He has 10 assists in 154 minutes -- and 10 turnovers.

But talk about an impressive start.

Kostas Papanikolaou, a player the Rockets envision as a stretch four, a big who will do well enough on offense to play small forward and hurt opposing power forwards with his range, is shooting 31.9 percent. He's not stretching anything except the size of Kevin McHale's ulcer.

But what a nice opening four weeks.

Welcome to the contradiction, to the dilemma, to the debate. Harris especially and Papanikolaou as well would not come close to ranking among the best rookies, except for the very important fact that tips the scales back in their favor: They are playing, sometimes a lot, and playing in important stretches for good teams in win-now mode, among the best statements possible of how well a newcomer is handling himself.

The Cavaliers are a team of veterans, a team of championship aspirations. Harris, the No. 33 pick, is closing games. He is averaging 8.1 minutes in fourth quarters, trailing only the 8.7 of Miami's Shabazz Napier. (All stats heading into Tuesday's schedule.) Given the foul start in Cleveland, those aren't garbage-time minutes either.

It's David Blatt searching for anything that works, a new coach sorting through a new lineup. But it's also Harris having shown the Cavs something, enough to neutralize the bad numbers. If not, no amount of searching would find him at the end of the bench.

Now it is the bad news as well as the good news. The surprisingly extensive playing time pushed him to the verge of being ranked among the top 10 rookies, except that his case is built entirely on minutes and the minutes are shrinking. Immediately after five games in a row of at least 19, the last three Harris appearances have been nine, 16 and 10 minutes.

Papanikolaou has a similar situation -- 31.9 percent should be grounds for Ladder banishment. But 25.3 minutes off the bench for a team off to a good start, when every outcome is important in what figures to be a rush-hour traffic jam near the top of the Western Conference standings come April, is an underlined endorsement of how much the Rockets feel they can already count on him.

That's a large enough role that it goes beyond McHale trying out different lineups to counter injuries. That's also a high profile that continues, enough to get Papanikolaou a spot on the Ladder despite the miserable accuracy, and because he is more than a shooter. Or non-shooter.

How much teams with playoff aspirations trust a rookie says a lot, just as it is a strong endorsement for Napier in Miami. Probably not coincidentally, Harris played four seasons at Virginia and Napier four at Connecticut while Papanikolaou arrived as a 24 year old with extensive experience in Europe. That experience matters. These minutes matter, enough for Napier and Papanikolaou in the rookie rankings now and maybe for Harris in the future.

1. Jabari Parker, Milwaukee Bucks (Last week's ranking: 1)

Parker Facial Slam And One

Jabari Parker throws down the one-handed slam and draws the foul off the feed from Giannis Antetokounmpo on the fast break.

Two weeks after inheriting the top spot by default, as Nerlens Noel faltered and no one else played their way to No. 1, Parker solidified his standing with a run of productive games on offense and the boards. Tying it all together on a regular basis still needs to come, and probably will. But for this rookie class at this stage of the season, starting to consistently put up numbers, any numbers, is a foundation to build on.

2. Andrew Wiggins, Minnesota Timberwolves (2)

Wiggins Gets A Career-High 29

Andrew Wiggins scores 29 points (on 9-for-22 shooting) and grabs 5 rebounds in a tough loss to the Kings.

Yes, he immediately stepped into the void created when Minnesota leading scorer Kevin Martin suffered a wrist injury, getting 14 points in 33 minutes against the Spurs and 29 points in 41 minutes against the Kings within about 24 hours. But Wiggins has made at least 40 percent of his shots just once in the last four outings, Friday against San Antonio as he went 9-of-22 (40.9 percent) while adding five rebounds and four steals. At 12.5 points overall, he has passed Parker (11.6) for the rookie scoring lead.

3. Bojan Bogdanovic, Brooklyn Nets (3)

Kia Awards: Bojan Bogdanovic

The Nets' Bojan Bogdanovic is a nominee for the Kia Eastern Conference Rookie of the Month.

He doesn't have to go outside to feel the Arctic blast of winter. Bogdanovic just went two games and 48 minutes without a field goal, managing only three free throws at OKC and two at San Antonio on consecutive nights. Even with the recent big night of making 8-of-11 attempts against Miami, Bogdanovic is still 15 of 44 (34.1 percent) the last five games. That makes him vulnerable if someone from outside the top three makes a run.

4. Nerlens Noel, Philadelphia 76ers (5)

Noel Block

Nerlens Noel stuffs Brandon Bass at the rim.

Seventeen points and 12 rebounds at New York, 12 points while making 6-of-7 shots and adding three steals and two blocks against Portland, eight boards against Boston -- that's a decent bounce-back. The surprise is that the sign of stability, after injury and choppy play, would come on offense, with Noel at 62.1 percent over four games and not all the baskets coming in the restricted area. But he needs to be more dependable with rebounds.

5. Dante Exum, Utah Jazz (6)

Extra Stuff: Exum

Utah Jazz Dante Exum says the NBA life is going well and the players' pranks are not all that bad.

The Jazz have been particularly pleased with his defense, an important progress report since he hit the NBA with the potential to be very good on that side of the ball. The recent development of note is the distributing, with Exum at two turnovers the last 67 minutes over four games. That pushed his assist-to-turnover ratio to 2.79-1, top 20 in the league regardless of experience. It's not enough to erase the sight of 39.4 percent from the field, but it helps.

6. K.J. McDaniels, Philadelphia 76ers (4)

Block of the Night: K.J. McDaniels

K.J. McDaniels doesn't give up on the play and chases down Steve Blake for the block.

Portland's Steve Blake doesn't need to be reminded that McDaniels can posterize with defense, but the No. 32 pick remains near the top of the class in ways other than highlights. McDaniels is second in blocks -- at 6-feet-6 -- among players with at least seven appearances, fourth in scoring, sixth in shooting and 3-point shooting, eighth in minutes and ninth in assists. He doesn't show up in a lot of big ways in the box score, but keeps showing up in a lot of ways.

7. Tarik Black, Houston Rockets (10)

Dwight Howard sits last Wednesday against the Lakers because of a strained right knee, and Black fills in with nine rebounds in 35 minutes. Howard misses Saturday versus the Mavericks, and Black gets seven boards in 14 minutes. Monday against the Knicks, no D12, and Black adds another five in 17 minutes. Black is third among rookies in the category despite playing 16 minutes a game and he is averaging 10.9 per 36 minutes.

8. Shabazz Napier, Miami Heat (not ranked)

Napier's Handles

Shabazz Napier shows off his handles and whips an unsuccessful pass to Chris Andersen.

There was no head-to-head comparison that knocked Orlando's Elfrid Payton out of the top 10 in a Loser Leaves Ladder cage match of backup point guards from Florida. Napier surged into the rankings on his own power by hitting shots to earn big minutes. At 53.5 percent and 11.3 points the last six games, he's up to 46.6 percent overall, including 41 percent on 3s. He may need to either maintain that pace or improve the assist-to-turnover ratio to hold the spot.

9. Kostas Papanikolaou, Houston Rockets (not ranked)

Kia Awards: Kostas Papanikolaou

Kostas Papanikolaou is a nominee for the Kia Western Conference Rookie of the Month.

The one drawback -- 31.9 percent -- is big. Big enough to singlehandedly knock him from the list if the number does not increase. But he is a positive in enough other areas that getting Papanikolaou's rights from the Trail Blazers in 2013 for Thomas Robinson may become so much more for Houston than dumping Robinson's contract. The No. 48 pick by the Knicks in 2012 has a good feel for the game, can pass and is fourth among rookies in rebounding.

10. Nikola Mirotic, Chicago Bulls (not ranked)

Mirotic and fellow Bulls rookie Doug McDermott could ride the minutes roller coaster all season in the crowded Chicago front court, maybe even week-to-week. Mirotic has turned his sudden windfall of playing time -- from 27 minutes in five games to 99 the next four -- into a productive stretch that is enough to edge out Payton and McDermott for the final spot.

Dropped out: McDermott (7), Payton (8), Aaron Gordon (9).

Scott Howard-Cooper has covered the NBA since 1988. You can e-mail him here and follow him on Twitter.

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