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Rondo trade gives Smart a fresh opportunity in Boston

Rookie Ladder: Week 9

POSTED: Dec 24, 2014 1:09 PM ET

By Scott Howard-Cooper

BY Scott Howard-Cooper

NBA.com

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Rajon Rondo's move to Dallas hasn't guaranteed Marcus Smart a starting role -- yet.

Bad health got in Marcus Smart's way more than Rajon Rondo did. As well, Smart's limitations as a shooter were more of a hindrance than a three-time All-Star at the same position was. And, lastly, typical rookie challenges -- albeit a rookie with advanced maturity and intangibles -- was an additional hurdle.

The Boston Celtics' trading Rondo to the Dallas Mavericks last Thursday is not an all-clear sign for Smart, in other words. Not only is it not an instant change of direction for the No. 6 pick, it is not, as was quickly proven, necessarily even a change in his role. Backup then, backup now.

Yet the deal was an unmistakable nudge toward the interesting for a Rookie of the Year race that has at least the potential of a fresh candidate. That's especially welcome in an early season when the rookie news too often was headliners on those dropping out because of injury. Now, the biggest name on the Boston depth chart at point guard is in Dallas and Smart has a clear path to a lot more minutes.

Marcus Smart Injury

Phil Pressey nabs the steal and in transition, Marcus Smart rolls his left ankle and would leave the game.

Smart did have a prominent role before, logging an average of 20.4 minutes his first five games, before being sidelined for 10 games with a sprained left ankle. And he did play 35 minutes in the third game back, with Rondo as the starter. This, however, is an official opening.

He just isn't being handed anything, that's all. In the first game after the trade, Friday against the Timberwolves, Evan Turner, and not Smart, got the start at the point (although they played the same amount, 26 minutes and 39 seconds). Smart was a starter on Sunday at Miami, and went 28 minutes, which tied for his second-most minutes this season. The game after that, Tuesday at Orlando, Jameer Nelson, part of the return package from the Mavericks, got the call alongside Avery Bradley. Smart played 17 minutes.

The Celtics obviously have some sorting out to do. Just as obvious, it will be a lot easier for Smart to get around Nelson or Turner than it would have been with another couple months of Rondo either leading up to the trade deadline or, hard as was to imagine, the rest of the season. Smart could end up with a featured role and could build a case to be included among the best of the rookies.

The best so far:

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

The way the competition is going, it will take at least one more week and possibly more for Parker to lose the top billing despite the season-ending knee injury. It may take him many, many weeks to finally drop from the top 10.

2. Andrew Wiggins, Minnesota Timberwolves (2)

Andrew Wiggins Scores 27 Points Against Cavs

Andrew Wiggins leads the Timberwolves in scoring with 27 points against the Cavaliers.

There are no free rides on the Ladder. Wiggins will have to take the top spot, not inherit it by attrition. Shooting 31.6 percent from the field and 10.6 points the five games before Tuesday's upswing of 27 points on nine-of-16 shooting is not seizing anything. The Timberwolves are doing their part by creating opportunities for Wiggins -- he is getting about three shots more per game than any other healthy rookie.

3. Nikola Mirotic, Chicago Bulls (4)

Mirotic's Big Night

Nikola Mirotic goes a perfect 6 for 6 from deep notching a career-high 27 points in a Bulls victory over the Grizzlies.

The reason Wiggins could drop a spot before he climbs a spot. Mirotic is consistently making at least one contribution most every game, whether shooting or, on the nights offense is a struggle, rebounding. That a championship hopeful can depend on a rookie for something -- anything -- is huge. Chicago's other first-rounder, Doug McDermott, is not close to returning while recovering from a torn cartilage in his right knee.

4. K.J. McDaniels, Philadelphia 76ers, (3)

McDaniels Gets Up

K.J. McDaniels rises to collect the offensive rebound and throws it right back down.

The defensive numbers continue to impress: No. 1 in the class in blocks, No. 5 in steals and containing his man better than most defenders with more experience. Good thing, too. McDaniels' offense is plummeting, at 33.8 percent from the field and 8.3 ppg in December. He is holding at No. 4 only thanks to the level of competition.

5. Nerlens Noel, Philadelphia 76ers (6)

Noel's Block Party

Nerlens Noel denies another Heat field goal attempt in the second quarter.

He is finally looking much more like the interior defensive presence originally projected, with a recent run of three consecutive games with multiple blocks for the first time. And the rebounding has picked up, to eight, nine, 12 and 10 boards in his last four outings. If he keeps it up, Noel could get into the top three soon.

6. Tarik Black, Houston Rockets (5)

Assist of the Night: James Harden

James Harden dishes the nice bounce pass to Tarik Black who finishes with the dunk.

One slight drop this week with the possibility of more to come if the greatly reduced role continues. The timing is the surprising part. Black played more early in the season as part of the ride from undrafted player to the rotation for a title hopeful than he is after putting up big rebounding numbers as the starter for the injured Dwight Howard. Black has gotten single-digit minutes in four of his last five games.

7. Bojan Bogdanovic, Brooklyn Nets (7)

About that move to the bench to get the Nets more offense and help Bogdanovic find his rhythm from early in the season: he shot 42.5 percent in 19 games as a starter and is at 39 percent in eight games as a reserve. His minutes, meanwhile, have gone from 30.3 to 14.4, respectively. At least the 3-point shooting has climbed from 32 percent to 44 with about the same number of attempts per outing.

8. Kostas Papanikolaou, Houston Rockets (8)

He is back after missing five games with a sprained knee. He just isn't back. Three games into the return, Papanikolaou is 2-for-12 from the field and has one more rebound (five) than fouls. This would be a particularly good time to find the stride -- the next three opponents are the Memphis Grizzlies, San Antonio Spurs and Washington Wizards.

9. Elfrid Payon, Orlando Magic (9)

Payton to Vucevic

Elfrid Payton bounces a pass between to defenders to Nikola Vucevic for the flush.

Payton returned to a starter's role Sunday against the Philadelphia 76ers. Victor Oladipo moved to shooting guard and Evan Fournier to the bench in the first look at the Payton-Oladipo backcourt as an opening lineup. Payton had consistently been in the 20s in minutes anyway. The real selling point is that he leads the class in assists and has an assist-to-turnover ratio of 2.25-1.

10. Shabazz Napier, Miami Heat (10)

Napier vs. Minnesota's Zach LaVine for the final spot, point guard vs. point guard. Based on the last couple weeks, it's not close. Napier has fallen from key reserve to the end of the bench while LaVine has been getting big minutes and pushing to No. 4 in rookie scoring. But on the entire season, Napier is still leading in fourth-quarter minutes while playing for a team with postseason aspirations, an important consideration, and leading all first-year guards in shooting. Napier clings to the bottom of the Ladder for another week.

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

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