Welcome back to another season of the Rookie Ladder.
If you’re like me, there’s nothing you love more than watching the first-year players find their way in the NBA.
This will be my 11th season covering the rookies (first for SI.com, now here) and it has yet to grow old. The beauty of covering rookies is that every season provides something that will surprise you. There are so many storylines, so many angles to keep an eye on. Players break out. Players flop. Players live up to expectations. Players fail to live up to expectations. Players have incredible performances. Players have awful performances.
But yet, night in and night out, across virtually every arena, there’s something intriguing and exciting to watch. Each week, in this space, I’ll do my best to highlight the Top 5 rookies (and another five just missing the cut) and rank them on the Ladder according to their standing on the season. Last year, the Ladder was primarily a video released each week with my Top 5 rookies, but this season I’ll be able to write a little more and dig deeper into the ups and downs of the rookie class.
So, with all that said, here’s the inaugural Rookie Ladder for the 2018-19 season. (All stats through Wednesday, Oct. 31)
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1. Luka Doncic, Dallas Mavericks
Through the first week, Doncic has been the most consistently entertaining rookie and it’s difficult to pick one aspect of his game to feature. Do you like step-back 3-pointers? Check. Do you dig floaters in the lane? You’ll see several a game. How about court vision and slick passes? He’s got it. The thing with Doncic is he looks so comfortable being the Mavs’ leader, and the season is just two weeks old. He’s already the team’s leading scorer (19.6 ppg, first among rookies) and put up 31 points and eight rebounds in a tough 113-108 OT loss in San Antonio on Monday.
The only knock on Doncic so far are the turnovers (4.0 against 4.4 apg), but that should improve as he acclimates to his teammates and the style of play in the NBA. If you haven’t tuned in to a Mavs game, now’s the time. Doncic is must-see TV and earns the top rung to start the season.
2. Deandre Ayton, Phoenix Suns
The No. 1 overall pick has lived up to the hype early in the season, averaging a double-double (16.9 ppg, 10 rpg) while giving Phoenix the dominating inside presence it has long desired. Devin Booker is dealing with a sore hamstring, but when the pair has been on the floor together, they’ve been a tough duo to defend. Drop down on the massive Ayton? He’ll kick it to Booker or his other shooters. Defend Booker on the perimeter? He’ll drop it in to get Ayton going inside.
“He’s going to be a force down there the whole season,” Booker said. “I feel like teams are going to have to figure out what they want to do.” Ayton is shooting at a 61.6-percent clip (85.7 pct. on free throws) and he’s fourth among rookies in assists (3.3 apg), so it’s clear he’s comfortable passing out of the post. He’s going to be in the Kia Rookie of the Year chatter all season and while he may not be as exciting as Doncic and Young, his efficiency and dominance should give him a great shot at claiming the award.
3. Trae Young, Atlanta Hawks
The No. 5 pick has been hit-or-miss in the early going, but his big games have been impressive. In the Hawks’ third game of the season, Young erupted for 35 points and 11 assists, while going 6-for-14 from 3-point land in a 131-117 loss to the Grizzlies. He’s only the third rookie since 2000 to top 35 and 10. The other two? LeBron James and Stephen Curry.
But Young followed that outburst with a stretch of three games in which he was 11-for-37, going 2-for-15 from beyond the arc. This is likely what we’re going to see from Young throughout this season -- briliant performances followed by typical rookie struggles. Still, it’s clear Young can play. He leads all rookies in assists (6.6 per game) and he’s not turning the ball over at a terrible rate (3.0 per game). The Hawks are Young’s team, so he’ll have every opportunity to shine, which should keep him high on the Ladder all season.
4. Marvin Bagley III, Sacramento Kings
At 5-3, the Kings are one of the early surprises of the season, and Bagley has been a big reason for their success. Working with the second unit, Bagley has been key as Sacramento has looked to push the tempo. While Bagley was more of a typical post-up player at Duke, he’s best when running the floor and finishing in transition. The Kings are winning, and Bagley is putting up decent numbers in just 23.3 minutes per game. Among rookies, he’s currently fourth in scoring (12.4 ppg) and second in rebounding (7.1 rpg), while shooting 53.4 percent overall and 5-for-9 from 3-point land.
His most notable performance came Oct. 23 in a 126-112 loss to the Nuggets in which he finished with 20 points, nine rebounds and five blocks in 32 minutes. Bagley could see his minutes increase as he improves, but he’s making the most of his minutes so far, which should keep him high on the Ladder.
5. Josh Okogie, Minnesota Timberwolves
Okogie is one of the season’s early surprises as he’s made the most of his opportunity in Minnesota. After not seeing the floor in the Wolves’ first two games, Okogie got his chance when Jimmy Butler rested a game, then saw heavy action with Andrew Wiggins out with a quad contusion. In six games, the No. 20 pick out of Georgia Tech is averaging 9.8 points (8th among rookies) and 5.3 rebounds (sixth). More notably, he leads rookies in steals per game (1.7), which will certainly endear him to coach Tom Thibodeau.
“You just like him,” Thibodeau said after Okogie scored 17 to help the Wolves beat the Lakers 124-120 on Monday. “You just like his energy, and he makes things happen.” He’s struggling from the floor (38.3 percent), but his energy and defense could make him hard to bench once Wiggins returns. For now, though, he’s earned his rung on the Ladder.
Just missed the cut:
Jaren Jackson, Memphis Grizzlies
Through six games, Jackson is averaging 11.5 points (6th among rookies), 5.2 rebounds (7th) and 1.0 blocks (4th) in 22.7 minutes. Scored in double-digits in the first four games, but has just 10 points in last two games while seeing playing time dip due to foul trouble.
Mo Bamba, Orlando Magic
Fifth in rebounding (5.4 rpg) and leads rookies in blocks at 2.0 per game (ninth among all players). Also managing to put up almost two 3s a night (at a 38.5 percent clip) while seeing around 20 minutes of action.
Wendell Carter, Jr., Chicago Bulls
Fourth in rebounding (6.3 rpg) in just over 25 minutes per game. Field goal percentage down for a big man (43.6 percent) but he’s scored in double-digits in last three games.
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, LA Clippers
Has been solid as Clippers’ backup. His ability to get to the rim and defend has earned him a spot in the rotation and even crunch-time minutes. Averaging 8.4 points and 3.6 assists (4th), while picking up a steal per game.
Collin Sexton, Cleveland Cavaliers
Has scored in double-digits in his last four games, averaging 14.3 points in that span. His ability to get to the line (nine times in each of last two games) may be his best feature. His career-best 17 points helped Cleveland get its first win Tuesday night, and it will be interesting to see how his role changes under interim coach Larry Drew.
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