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Bottom of pack hits rough patch, but it's no rookie wall

Several players have been impacted by a tough stretch, but, like in years past, there is still plenty of time to turn it around

POSTED: Dec 23, 2015 9:07 AM ET

By Scott Howard-Cooper

BY Scott Howard-Cooper


The on-court minutes of Sixers point guard T.J. McConnell have drastically been cut recently.

There's a good race at the top. The bottom, however, has suddenly, and hopefully briefly, dropped out of the Top 10 ranking of first-year players just in time to wrongly fuel talk of a rookie wall.

Put it this way: People are having trouble passing Rondae Hollis-Jefferson while he stands still. Justise Winslow is slumping, Nemanja Bjelica is in free fall and T.J. McConnell is getting a lot of unwanted rest. This is not a shining moment for the rookie class.

It's early, though. A year ago, healthy Jabari Parker, K.J. McDaniels and Andrew Wiggins comprised the top three, while Nikola Mirotic, Nerlens Noel and Elfrid Payton were ranked but grinding through slow starts. Things changed. As many players developed as went under from the schedule and/or being scouted. The list looked a lot better at the end, with several strong finishes and the overall encouraging sign that any class with Payton as the fourth-best rookie is pretty deep.

The same could happen this time, a statement that comes as Myles Turner nears his return from injury in Indiana and likewise Willie Cauley-Stein in Sacramento. Not to mention Golden State first-round pick Kevon Looney probably debuting in January as part of stretches in the D-League. But in the moment: Ugh.

That the collective struggles have kicked in around the 30-game mark, close to the length of a college season, will make it easy to attribute the problem to the rookie wall. It's a nice fallback, just not necessarily true. Payton was terrific handling the ball the final month of 2014-15, not falling face first over the finish line, just as Zach LaVine, Mirotic and Bojan Bogdanovic had some of the best shooting moments in March and April. The same with T.J. Warren and Rodney Hood playing their best at the end, albeit in seasons shortened by injury.

This is a bad time. It just doesn't have to be an indicator of the entire season.

To the rankings:

1. Karl-Anthony Towns, Minnesota Timberwolves (Last week: 1)

Kia Awards: Karl-Anthony Towns

The Timberwolves' Karl-Anthony Towns is a nominee for the Kia Western Conference Player of the Month in December.

Towns was unfazed by the stretch of five games in seven nights that included two trips to New York, and also unfazed by the increasingly loud footsteps from a New York resident making a move on the top spot. KAT He shot 54.5 percent in the five, including making three of five three-pointers, as part of the surge to 57.9 percent from the field the last 10. (All stats heading into Tuesday's schedule.) He has has broken 50 in each of the 10, with some range, to climb to No. 7 in the league.

2. Kristaps Porzingis, New York Knicks (2)

Kia Awards: Kristaps Porzingis

Knicks rookie Kristaps Porzingis is a nominee for the Kia Eastern Conference Rookie of the Month in December.

The Knicks record for blocks in a season by a rookie is 103, by Patrick Ewing in 1985-86. Porzingis, continuing to defy expectations on that side of the ball, is more than halfway there (60) with 65 percent of the season remaining. But his shooting has gone bad again -- the No. 4 pick is 20 of 69 (29 percent) the last seven games, dropping him to 42.4 percent overall.

3. Jahlil Okafor, Philadelphia 76ers (3)

Kia Awards: Jahlil Okafor

The Sixers' Jahlil Okafor is a nominee for the Kia Eastern Conference Rookie of the Month in December.

Making just 3 of 11 shots Sunday at Cleveland was ugly, but it was also immediately after 9 of 17, 7 of 12 and 9 of 17 in three games as a much-needed return to solid ground on offense. Okafor had been sloshing around the 11 games before that, regularly in the 40s and even the 30s in percentage. Now comes the test of a second six-game trip in about a month, starting Wednesday in Milwaukee before heading West.

4. Justise Winslow, Miami Heat (4)

Winslow Over Ilyasova

Justise Winslow takes it coast-to-coast and punches it in over Ersan Ilyasova.

Winslow could have made a move on the vulnerable Okafor for No. 3, only to fall to 34.9 percent from the field the first 10 games of the month and 24 percent on 3s with 2.5 shots per outing behind the arc. His minutes are also dipping, from 29.8 in November to 25.4 in December, including less than 20 in two of the last four appearances. But the small forward is defending, on the perimeter and especially inside, and so he is still making a big contribution to a winning team.

5. Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets (8)

Assist of the Night: Nikola Jokic

Nikola Jokic throws the nice assist to Randy Foye for the layup.

Climbing three spots in a week is a back-handed compliment, based on the absence of better options to complete the top five than Jokic on a hot streak. He has been good, though, at first in the class in shooting, sixth in rebounding, sixth in scoring, sixth in steals and 10th in blocks. Plus, the minutes are returning. After dropping into the teens, the backup center is now consistently in the 20s.

6. Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Brooklyn Nets (6)

Maybe he'll hang out a while. While Hollis-Jefferson would ordinarily be drifting down the list while sidelined by the fractured right ankle that is expected to keep him out until around the All-Star break, he has still been better on the season as a whole than most despite literally doing nothing since Dec. 6. Besides, he is still first in the class in steals, fourth in rebounding, eighth in minutes, tied for ninth in assists and tied for ninth in blocks while shooting 48.1 percent.

7. D'Angelo Russell, Los Angeles Lakers (9)

Kia Awards: D'Angelo Russell

Lakers rookie D'Angelo Russell is a nominee for the Kia Western Conference Rookie of the Month in December.

He is doing better at taking care of the ball, with 29 assists against 14 turnovers the last five games to bring his season-long assist-to-turnover ratio to 1.55-1, second-best among rookies. That's an important step forward after the struggles in that area of the first quarter of the season. The 37.5 percent from the field the same five games, and 29.4 behind the arc, is not. Russell is back below 40 percent overall for the season.

8. Nemanja Bjelica, Minnesota Timberwolves (5)

This is more than a slump. This is Bjelica not hitting shots all month (34.4 percent overall in December, 22.2 percent on 3s) and essentially not playing (12.8 minutes, with four in a row at 10 or less) while averaging almost as many fouls (2.4) as points (2.5). Bjelica recovered from the bruised knee that sidelined him in November, returned to a prominent reserve role, and now has disappeared again without being hurt.

9. T.J. McConnell, Philadelphia 76ers (7)

McConnell Beats the Buzzer

Jerami Grant misses the half-court shot but T.J. McConnell hustles for the rebound and scores the layup to beat the buzzer

Kendall Marshall's return is quickly taking a toll. McConnell lost his job as the No. 1 point guard and then lost a lot of minutes, all the way down to 12, 22, 17, 14 and 15 in the last five. Although he shot the ball well last week in limited opportunities and continues to rebound for his position, McConnell has had more than four assists just once in the past eight appearances and lost the rookie lead in the category to injured Emmanuel Mudiay. Maintaining a clear lead for No. 1 in assist-to-turnover ratio, thanks to a very good start, helps the resumé.

10. Frank Kaminsky, Charlotte Hornets (not ranked)

It's close to pick 'em at this point. Devin Booker got his chance last week and couldn't handle the pressure of life on The Ladder, with one DNP-CD, another game of 13 minutes, and one of five from the field when he got 18 minutes. Kaminsky gets his turn over several possibilities -- Stanley Johnson, Richaun Holmes, Jonathan Simmons charging fast but still at only 13.6 minutes while playing in about half the Spurs' games -- because Kaminsky is on an upward trajectory on offense while also defending. The Hornets have rewarded him with 24.2 minutes the last 10 games, a big jump from his earlier role.

Dropped out: Booker (10).

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

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