There’s an international rookie from the Barcelona pipeline making waves this season.
No, not Luka Doncic (although he’s not doing too shabby himself).
The other foreign phenom is doing his work in Brooklyn – Rodions Kurucs.
Kurucs, whom the Nets grabbed with the No. 40 pick in the 2018 Draft, has burst onto the scene, becoming a key contributor as resurgent Brooklyn has won nine of its last 10.
Kurucs saw his playing time spike after Allen Crabbe went down with a knee injury, and he’s made the most of his opportunity. Since becoming the starter, the 6-foot-9 Latvian has averaged 12.9 points and 6.0 rebounds in 29.2 minutes over seven games. His energy and defensive effort has won over coach Kenny Atkinson.
“He’s just confirming, it doesn’t seem like this is a flash in the pan,” Atkinson said. “This is sustainable to me.”
With Crabbe close to returning, Atkinson has a decision to make, but the team’s winning ways will make it hard to remove Kurucs from the starting lineup.
Kurucs grabbed his first career double-double in Sunday’s 111-103 win over the Suns, then tallied another one Wednesday night in Brooklyn’s 132-132 win over Charlotte in double-OT, notching 13 points, 12 rebounds, three assists and three steals.
“I’m just playing basketball. I was hungry. I didn’t play for years; Now I’m enjoying it,” said the 20-year-old Kurucs, the youngest foreign-born player to ever start for the Nets. “I think also the thing I wasn’t playing in Barcelona it helped me mentally to prepare myself to be together, work harder and someday come back, I just kept working on my game and that’s it.”
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1. Luka Doncic, Dallas Mavericks
Last week: 1st
Doncic had some memorable moments over the past week: First, he dazzled with a career-high 32 points last Thursday in a loss to the Clippers. Then, he put up 23 points, 11 rebounds, nine assists and hit one of the craziest shots at the buzzer to force OT in Portland (the Mavs would eventually lose 121-118). To close out the week, Doncic just missed a triple-double with 21 points, nine rebounds and 10 assists to help the Mavs end a six-game losing streak. Doncic also hit the game-clinching free throws with 30 seconds left to seal the win. Ayton is nipping at his heels with some monster games, but Doncic is the Mavs’ everything right now, and he’s not letting up.
2. Deandre Ayton, Phoenix Suns
Last week: 2nd
Ayton is so close to taking over the top rung from Doncic. (If you ask his coach, Igor Kokoskov, it’s no contest for Rookie of the Year, which is saying something since the Suns coach managed Doncic on the Slovenian national team.) After jumping last week back to the second rung, Ayton is putting up monster numbers to give Doncic a run at the No. 1 spot. Check out some of the Suns big man’s numbers: Over his last three games, Ayton is averaging 20.0 points, 15.7 rebounds and 2.3 blocks while shooting 68.3 percent from the field. He’s grabbed double-digit rebounds in six straight and nine of his last 10 games. What’s most important, though, are the three shots he’s blocked in each of the last two games. “You’re seeing him put games together,” Suns veteran Jamal Crawford said. “Not just games, but quarters together. He’s doing it every single night. That’s a sign of going from good to great.”
3. Kevin Knox, New York Knicks
Last week: 3rd
The Knicks are mired in a five-game losing streak, but Knox has emerged as the team’s best player. Knox says the game is “starting to slow down,” and it shows in his numbers. In December he’s averaging 17.9 points and 6.1 rebounds thanks to a stretch in which he’s scored 20-plus in his last three games and five of his last eight. Knox credits his ability to hit his floater in the lane for his recent success. “It’s been really consistent the last few games,” Knox told Newsday. “So I’ve just been able to do that without going in the paint to the bigs. The bigs in this game are really good at walling up and not fouling, so being able to go to a floater [and use my] really good touch around the basket [works].”
4. Jaren Jackson Jr., Memphis Grizzlies
Last week: Not ranked
Jackson rejoins the Top 5 after a monumental performance against the Lakers. Jackson scored 27 points, including a game-clinching 3-pointer in the final minute – over LeBron James, no less – to help Memphis snap a five-game losing streak. L.A. had no answer for Jackson, who also grabbed nine rebounds in the 107-99 win. It was the kind of performance that shows just how good Jackson can become. Over his last four games, Jackson is averaging 16.5 points, 5.5 rebounds and 1.8 blocks while shooting 52.9 percent from the field, 44.4 pct. on 3s. ''With that size, length and speed, he's a tough matchup -- period,'' coach J.B. Bickerstaff said after the win in L.A. ''He's coming into his own still, trying to figure all of this stuff out that's going on, but the skill set is unique.''
5. Rodions Kurucs, Brooklyn Nets
Last week: Not ranked
Over his last three games, the Latvian has put up numbers on par with the top rookies. He’s averaged 17.7 points, 8.3 rebounds, 1.3 steals and 1.0 block while seeing 35.4 minutes per game. He’s been incredibly efficient, as well, shooting 54.3 percent from the field and 55.6 percent on 3s. If you haven’t had a chance to catch a Nets game, they’re playing an energetic, fun style of basketball and Kurucs seems to always be in the mix when the Nets need a big bucket or rebound. There’s no way Atkinson can keep him off the floor once Allen Crabbe returns considering the impact he’s had in the last few weeks.
Just missed the cut:
Trae Young, Atlanta Hawks
The Hawks point guard had a decent week shooting, scoring 14.7 points on 41.2 percent shooting (40.0 pct on 3s). He also put up 8.3 assists per game as the Hawks went 2-1, picking up wins in New York and Detroit before falling at home to the Pacers.
Collin Sexton, Cleveland Cavaliers
Sexton drops out of the Top 5 for the first time since Nov. 29 after struggling from the field. Teams are starting to figure out how to defend Sexton, and his numbers have dipped. After averaging 16.1 ppg on 45.0 percent shooting in November (48.1 pct on 3s), Sexton’s numbers dipped to 15.4 ppg while shooting 41.2 percent, 33.3 on 3s.
Wendell Carter Jr., Chicago Bulls
The Bulls’ big man fell off the chart last week, but jumps back in as other rookies have faltered. Carter averaged 9.0 points, 8.0 rebounds and helped the Bulls go 2-1 this week, picking up wins over the Magic and Cavs. He’s only seeing about 20-25 minutes per night, but it’s clear to see the talent is there. With increased time and maturation, Carter could become a big-time big man.
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, LA Clippers
Gilgeous-Alexander has literally been up-and-down over his past 12 games, going from scoring in double digits to single digits every other game. It’s quite odd, really. This week, SGA had 14 points and six assists in a win over the Nuggets, then disappeared against the Warriors with three points and two assists. Wednesday, the Clippers rookie put up 13 points on 6-for-11 shooting to help LA hold off a Kings rally.
Landry Shamet, Philadelphia 76ers
After jumping into the Top 5 with some clutch performances, the Sixers’ sharpshooter takes a tumble after a quiet week in which he scored eight points over two games, going 1-for-6 from 3-point range.
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(All stats through Wednesday, Dec. 26)
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