Amid injuries before the season (Ben Simmons), injuries during the season (Joel Embiid, Dragan Bender), poor production in general and a reduced role for some after contributing early (Domantas Sabonis, Pascal Siakam), the class of first-year players is at least mounting a collective finishing kick that could mean positive undertones to the end of 2016-17.
It’s all relative, of course, because life after the All-Star break and especially March, is upbeat in real time, not necessarily compared to past seasons or even staring into the next one that will include arrivals from a highly anticipated draft. But the group now down to single digits in remaining games, pending the playoffs for some, is offering encouraging developments at a time when encouraging is more than welcome.
Rookies are playing, for one thing. That was not the case as recently as the midpoint of the schedule, when only four were averaging at least 24 minutes. Seven had reached the benchmark last season, seven in 2014-15, five in 2013-14 and nine in 2012-13, the season Damian Lillard went all the way to 38.6 per game.
By the last days of the final full month of 2016-17, though, the number is up to six: Brandon Ingram, Malcolm Brogdon, Dario Saric, Yogi Ferrell, Embiid and Rodney McGruder. And, Brogdon, Ferrell and McGruder were doing it for teams either digging hard for the playoffs or, in the case of Ferrell’s Mavericks, holding realistic postseason hopes until recent days. Similarly, Jamal Murray and Jaylen Brown were in the rotation as well as their clubs faced the same pressures, while Sabonis and Andrew Harrison had decent roles.
Having anything close to a prominent role for a good team is high praise. That the production that could impact the top eight in each conference has mostly come from the second half of The Ladder and beyond, except Brogdon as a long-shot possibility for Rookie of the Year, has the added meaning of bringing depth to the rankings. What before had been Embiid, Saric, Brogdon followed by a drop off a steep cliff now includes the credibility of strong finishes by Buddy Hield, Ferrell, Murray, Ivica Zubac and others. Four through 10 is no longer choosing among the many bad options. There is actually a line of candidates to make the list.
Just in time.
To this week's rankings:
1. Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers
The 76ers said he will resume basketball activities in the summer after undergoing arthroscopic surgery on his left knee, which is not to be confused with Embiid playing in Salt Lake City and Las Vegas for summer league. He may still need to make an important appearance, out of uniform, to accept Rookie of the Year, though. Some voters continue to list him at the top of their ballot, while remaining open to a switch.
2. Dario Saric, Philadelphia 76ers
The 32 points and 10 rebounds Friday at Chicago marked his 10th double-double, moving Saric past Embiid for the class lead in a season when there is no such thing as a minor detail in the Rookie of the Year race. That was also part of the streak of 22 consecutive games of double-figure scoring, from Feb. 6 to March 24, trailing only Clarence Weatherspoon, 41 in a row in 1992-93, and Allen Iverson, 32 and also 26 in 1996-97, among first-year Sixers. Saric continues to track toward top-three finishes in several major categories – and continues to build momentum for ROY votes.
3. Malcolm Brogdon, Milwaukee Bucks
Saric may be dominating the spotlight among East rookies in March, but Brogdon is having a very good month as well, at 12.5 points and 49.3 percent from the field with an assist-to-turnover ratio of 3.00-1. It’s the same dependability with the ball Brogdon has shown all season, only now with every game a pressure situation with the Bucks in a nightly fight for playoff positioning. Just when it seemed he couldn’t play with more composure and play a bigger role, he has.
4. Marquese Chriss, Phoenix Suns
What would have been a season filled with positives anyway is looking even more encouraging with Chriss one of the many candidates for Rookie of the Month in the West. He reclaimed fourth place on the strength of the month that put him in contention to finish in the top five in the class in rebounding, steals and blocks, and with a chance to get there in scoring as well with a big finish. That’s in addition to tracking to the top 10 in several other categories.
5. Willy Hernangomez, New York Knicks
The race for first in the class in rebounding may go down to the final games. Outgoing No. 1 Joel Embiid will have fallen below the qualifying minimum by then, unable to reach 35 games or 400 boards and leaving behind the current leaderboard of Hernangomez at 6.7 per game and Saric at 6.4. Hernangomez is rebounding at a much better rate, except that Saric is playing about nine minutes more a night. Knicks coach Jeff Hornacek may decide the outcome.
6. Buddy Hield, Sacramento Kings
At 48.7 percent from the field in the 14 games of March – and, significantly, 15.1 points per game – Hield is pushing hard to break into the top 10 in the class in shooting, perhaps an important look to hopes for making first-team All-Rookie. Hield is thirteenth now with a 42-percent success rate for the season and still has a steep climb with the current No. 10, Chriss, at 44.0. Meanwhile, Hield is fourth in scoring, eleventh in rebounding and fifth in 3-point shooting.
7. Yogi Ferrell, Dallas Mavericks
The recent cooling trend is especially problematic for someone who already has the uphill climb of staying on the list with only 37 appearances, a small number as the calendar turns to April. Ferrell had been so good since joining the Mavericks, though, that he gets another week before facing a drop, especially while also 9.8 among rookies in scoring, third in 3-point percentage, second in assists, and third in steals while playing a major role for a team that only now has (probably) fallen out of the playoff hunt.
8. Jamal Murray, Denver Nuggets
He is within range of the top five in scoring, but the big selling point is that Murray is tied for fourth in fourth-quarter minutes among rookies as the Nuggets understand that every possession down the stretch could mean the difference between the playoffs and early vacation. Talk about an endorsement. Talk about a bigger endorsement: Murray is logging 20.4 minutes per game overall and 22.8 in March. His role is increasing as the games get bigger.
9. Jaylen Brown, Boston Celtics
Brown may have played 20 minutes or less in five of the last seven games, a trend that will continue to be tracked and may ultimately cost him at least one place, but he is still averaging 20.4 in a very important March for the Celtics. They are playing for home-court advantage throughout at least the Eastern Conference portion of the playoffs and relying on a 20 year old who would be a sophomore in college. That includes a little more than half – 6.6 minutes – of the fourth quarters. He is more dependable than ever with his shot, at 45.6 percent overall, No. 7 in the class, and 49.4 in the month.
10. Ivica Zubac, Los Angeles Lakers
One Laker out, one Laker in. The initial read was to make Zubac wait at least one more week, if not keep him off the list the entire season, because he has played only 37 games and did not even make the rotation for a bad team until late-January. But the numbers are too convincing: second in blocks, fourth in rebounding, third in shooting while also twelfth in points, putting the 32nd pick in position for several top-three finishes, with little the result of putting up big scoring on a bad team.
Dropped out: Brandon Ingram (10).
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