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Sixers' Noel is our top rookie because of what he overcame

No rookies in 2014-15 faced the hurdles Philly's big man did

POSTED: Apr 15, 2015 12:39 PM ET

By Scott Howard-Cooper

BY Scott Howard-Cooper

NBA.com

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Noel For Kia Rookie Of The Year

NBA.com's Scott Howard Cooper says Philly's Nerlens Noel is the best of the NBA's rookies this season.

The difference is, this Kia Rookie of the Year chase has been about Nerlens Noel against everyone, not just his fellow rookies. Andrew Wiggins spent 2014-15 being compared to other first-year players and Nikola Mirotic spent months locked in internal minutes combat with the rest of the Chicago front-court depth chart.

That perspective alone is why Noel deserves Rookie of the Year, because he has faced the burden no one else in the class did. Because he earned it, actually, as the 76ers center played beyond his experience to push into the top 10 of the league in two prominent statistical categories.

Wiggins: No. 1 among rookies in scoring. (Plus No. 4 among all players in minutes.)

Noel: Entering Wednesday, he was No. 8 in the league in blocks and No. 9 in steals. (Plus, No. 4 in defensive plus-minus, No. 9 in defensive win shares, along with the possibility of finishing first among rookies in rebounds, blocks and steals.)

Wiggins is having a good offensive season for a rookie. Noel is about to join David Robinson as the only newcomers to average at least 1.50 steals and 1.50 blocks in a rare combination of speed with size and inside power. Noel is so being measured against everyone that the comparisons include past players.

While all indications are that Wiggins will win the media vote for the award, maybe easily, Noel is the only one among the four primary candidates -- Elfrid Payton, Mirotic, Wiggins, Noel -- who played his way beyond the class. His being in the Top 10 overall in two tried categories and first in three rookie columns is a resumè that should not be overlooked.

The final ranking from the Rookie Ladder:

1. Nerlens Noel, Philadelphia 76ers (Last week: 1)

A very quiet end to the season -- missing the last two-plus games and possibly the finale because of a sprained ankle -- does nothing to temper the success story. Going from sitting out all 2013-14 while recovering from surgery on the left knee to zero games out because of the knee, and averaging 30.8 minutes, would have been accomplishment enough. But Noel, though laboring on offense, also played at a very high level on defense. He did so sometimes at power forward and sometimes as an undersized center (230 pounds) and mostly as a 20-year-old, before having another birthday last Friday. Now imagine Noel when he has more muscle and more experience.

2. Andrew Wiggins, Minnesota Timberwolves (2)

At the very least, his first steps as a pro were confirmation the Timberwolves got the best possible return for Kevin Love. Wiggins is a cornerstone talent who will finish around 17 points a game, even while struggling with his shot the first two full months and havin problems with free throws. Improving in that area alone going forward will add two or three points a game because he will get to the line. The defensive numbers were not good, but the potential is still there after a season of Minnesota usually putting him on the best opposing wing player.

3. Elfrid Payton, Orlando Magic (3)

Kia Nominee: Elfrid Payton

The Magic's Elfrid Payton is a nominee for the Kia Eastern Conference Rookie of the Month.

Payton should finish in the top 15 of the league in assist-to-turnover ratio, thanks to a great closing argument to the season, and defended. If he is the fourth-best newcomer, a very possible outcome in the media vote for Rookie of the Year, this class had a lot more depth than most people acknowledged. Shooting, from the field and the line, is still a pressing problem, just as it was the concern among front offices before the Draft. But Payton has arguably been the most consistent rookie on both sides of the ball, all the way to a ridiculous assist-to-turnover ratio of 5.1-1 the first seven games of April, with one to go, and 3.3-1 the last 15 outings.

4. Nikola Mirotic, Chicago Bulls (4)

Kia Rookie of the Month: Nikola Mirotic

The Buls' Nikola Mirotic is the Eastern Conference Kia Rookie of the Month.

Mirotic was a major contributor to a playoff push with a clutch March as Chicago withstood the absences of Jimmy Butler and Derrick Rose, and that in itself is a sign of a good season for a rookie. No newcomer has had a bigger impact on games that matter, an intangible that should mean something to ROY voters. But Mirotic loses his grip on the very top of the Ladder because of undependable shooting despite that being billed as a strong point -- he may finish at less than 35 percent from the field for the third time in the last four months.

5. Jordan Clarkson, Los Angeles Lakers (5)

Clarkson's Career-high

Jordan Clarkson records a career-high 30 points in the Lakers' tough loss the Thunder.

Coach Byron Scott on Monday: "Jordan Clarkson is obviously the brightest spot we've had this season." So what that it's the Lakers in a 2014-15 that disintegrated in their hands. For a rookie's development to be the highlight for any team is a bold endorsement. The backstory -- Clarkson was the No. 46 pick, Clarkson charging from spot duty in November and December to deserving a place on the All-Rookie first team -- is a nice touch, too. This would have been a good showing, even for a lottery pick.

6. Jusuf Nurkic, Denver Nuggets (6)

Kia Nominee: Jusuf Nurkic

The Nuggets' Jusuf Nurkic is a nominee for the Kia Western Conference Rookie of the Month.

Few newcomers can match Nurkic's roller-coaster ride. He started off stuck deep on the bench behind veteran centers. Then came a very good run in the middle of the season while taking over as the starter. Lastly, there was an ankle injury, a problem with fouls and a minutes squeeze at the end of 2014-15 courtesy interim coach Melvin Hunt. But nothing erases Nurkic at No. 3 in defensive real plus-minus, behind only Andrew Bogut and DeMarcus Cousins. That plus finishing second to Noel among rookies in rebounding is enough to keep a spot around the middle of the Ladder despite a serious fade down the stretch.

7. Marcus Smart, Boston Celtics (7)

Kia Rookie of the Month: Marcus Smart

Marcus Smart is the Kia Eastern Conference Rookie of the Month in February.

Give the Celtics this much: They made a commitment to Smart on Draft night with the sixth pick and didn't waver. His February and March was one long shooting slump, his assist-to-turnover ratio was less than 2-1 in March and April, every outcome was important for a team fighting for the playoffs, and yet look who was fourth among rookies in fourth-quarter minutes heading into Tuesday's games. While struggling on offense, Smart has been solid on defense for a player of any experience and good for a rookie. He may finish in the top five in the class in assists, steals and minutes plus the top 10 in scoring.

8. Langston Galloway, New York Knicks (Not Ranked)

Kia Nominee: Langston Galloway

The Knicks' Langston Galloway is a nominee for the Kia Eastern Conference Rookie of the Month.

Galloway took the long way, going undrafted out of St. Joseph's, getting waived by the Knicks in October, playing for their NBA D-League affiliate, coming back to New York with a pair of 10-day contracts before signing in January for the rest of the season. And then time had to pass to reach the qualifying minimums and prove he was having more than a good start. When he got to the NBA, though, the opportunity was not wasted. The same undrafted point guard was second among rookies in scoring and minutes, fourth in assists, seventh in 3-point shooting and 10th in rebounds entering the season's final night.

9. Bojan Bogdanovic, Brooklyn Nets (9)

Kia Awards: Bojan Bogdanovic

Brooklyn's Bojan Bogdanovic is a nominee for December's Kia Eastern Conference Rookie of the Month.

He has followed the 50.4 percent from the field in March with 48.7 the first eight games of April, including a scorching 48.5 percent on 3-pointers with 4.1 attempts per, with bonus points for doing it as part of a playoff chase. Bogdanovic will finish first or second among rookie guards in shooting, pending the outcome of a tight race with Clarkson, and in the top 10 of the class in scoring and 3-point percentage. His confidence and his play wobbled around midseason, but the finish re-established the second-round pick from 2011 as one of the best, and most dependable, newcomers.

10. Zach LaVine, Minnesota Timberwolves (8)

Inside Stuff: Zach LaVine

After Zach LaVine's thunderous victory in the Sprite Slam Dunk contest over All-Star weekend, he gives insight into how he sees the floor, in a special 'Court Vision'.

Winning the Slam Dunk Contest at All-Star weekend matters for marketing, individually and for the team, but his shooting the last two months matters, period. Hitting 42.6 percent of the 3-pointers in March and making 48.3 overall in April entering Wednesday's finale is a good way to head into summer. Amid continued uncertainty about whether he will end up as a true point guard or a combo guard, the late surge is a reminder of his potential off the ball. LaVine will finish in the top 10 in five categories among rookies and could be in the top five in assists, scoring and free-throw percentage.

Dropped out: Tarik Black (10).

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

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.