Kia Rookie Ladder

Kia Rookie Ladder: A healthy Ja Morant still hard to top

Ranking of top five rookies in the NBA

Ja Morant is back, and that means one thing — he regains his top spot on the Kia Rookie Ladder.

After missing four games with a sore back, Morant returned Monday with 26 points in a dominant performance in Golden State in which he took over once again down the stretch. The No. 2 pick scored 13 in the fourth quarter, capped off by a crowd-silencing dunk with a minute left to help seal the Grizzlies’ 110-102 victory.

“There’s a lot of trust with the ball in his hands to make the right play,” coach Taylor Jenkins said. “He had a couple assists late that we needed. Big moments for him, and it’s awesome to see so early in his career.”

While Morant returns to the top spot, he didn’t regain it without a serious challenger.

Miami’s Kendrick Nunn did his thing in the Heat’s come-from-behind OT win against Atlanta on Tuesday, scoring a career-high 36 points on 14-for-26 shooting (3-for-10 on 3s). He also added six rebounds and four assists to help Miami win its third straight.

Nunn continues to be Morant’s most serious threat in the Kia Rookie of the Year race as he’s playing a major role on one of the East’s true contenders. Morant is dazzling and drawing headlines with his highlight-reel drives, but Nunn is quietly leading one of the league’s biggest surprises, helping Miami climb to second in the Eastern Conference.

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1. Ja Morant, Memphis Grizzlies

Last week: No. 4

While Morant shined in his return to the court, he admitted afterward he was still thinking about the injury that resulted from him crashing into a cameraman on the baseline. “It’s tough because I know I just have to do more controlled jumps now,” Morant told Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports. “But at the same time, I’m just trying not to think about it and still try to play my game. It’s just a tough situation all the way around, honestly.” Morant clearly isn’t too afraid of going strong, though, as he put the finishing touches on the Suns with a monster poster dunk over Aron Baynes that led virtually every highlight reel Wednesday night.

2. Kendrick Nunn, Miami Heat

Last week: No. 2

Nunn’s 36 points against Atlanta were the most by a rookie this season, topping the 34 Eric Paschall put up Nov. 4. He also found his way into the record books alongside teammate Duncan Robinson, who had a career night (34 points, 10 3-pointers) vs. Atlanta. The 70 points combined was the most in NBA history by a pair of undrafted teammates. “All the work you see,” Nunn said, “we have put all the effort behind closed doors.”

3. Rui Hachimura, Washington Wizards

Last week: No. 3

Hachimura had another solid week, averaging 19 ppg and 8.0 rpg in four games. His breakout game came in the Wizards’ surprising 119-113 win over the Sixers last Thursday. Hachimura scored 27 points and grabbed seven rebounds. He’s scored in double-digits in seven straight and capped his week off with the second double-double of his career, grabbing 12 rebounds to go with 18 points in Tuesday’s 114-107 loss to the Hornets.

4. Tyler Herro, Miami Heat

Last week: Not ranked

Immediately after I bumped Herro from last week’s Ladder (in my defense, he had 15 points in a three-game span), the sharpshooter busted out. Herro scored 22 with seven rebounds in a win over the Wizards, then followed that up with an epic 27-point night in a win over the Bulls. Herro was the Heat’s hero, scoring 16 of Miami’s final 18 to seal the win. Herro hit the game-tying 3 in regulation, then knocked down three more in OT to seal the win and prove just how much his teammates trust him. ”If your max player (Jimmy Butler) trusts you at that point in the game — and Jimmy was looking for him — that says all you need to know,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. ”That trust has been earned within our walls. Jimmy has seen what this kid does in those situations.” Of course, Herro had the first scoreless game of his career, missing all six shots (including four 3s) two nights later in 23 minutes of a win over Atlanta. Thus is the life of a teenage rookie.

5. PJ Washington, Charlotte Hornets

Last week: Not ranked

Washington had a solid week, averaging 15.5 points on 43.9% shooting (39.1% on 3-pointers) as Chalotte went 2-2. Washington remains one of the Hornets’ mainstays, earning praise from coach James Borrego after he was able to get to the free-throw line 13 times Sunday, which helped lead to a 20-point outing. “He’s earning respect out there — he’s aggressive and putting pressure on officials to make calls,” Borrego said. “We’ve got to continue to have him more aggressive in (the lane). He has a knack for that. The combination for him — the 3-point line and the interior — is a really nice combination.”

Just missed the cut

Matisse Thybulle, Philadelphia 76ers: Thybulle was big in each of the Sixers’ past two wins, scoring a career-high 20 (5-for-8 from beyond the arc) with three steals in a 110-104 win over the Raptors, then putting up 13 (on 3-for-4 3-point shooting) in Philly’s 97-92 win over Denver. If Thybulle can continue to shoot like this from beyond the arc, he’ll continue to see big minutes. His defense is second to none among rookies.

R.J. Barrett, New York Knicks: Barrett has scored in double-digits in two of his last five games, averaging 10 ppg while shooting 30.9% and 29.4% on 3-pointers. He finished the week with a 22-point, 10-rebound game in the Knicks’ OT win over Golden State, but it’s not enough to keep him in the Top 5.

DeAndre Hunter, Atlanta Hawks: Hunter scored a career-high 28 points in Atlanta’s overtime loss to the Heat on Tuesday, going 11-for-17 from the field and hitting five of 10 3s. He followed that up a night later with six points in 24 minutes, but he’s proving he has the ability for breakout games, especially when his 3s are falling.

Eric Paschall, Golden State Warriors: Paschall slips out of the Top 5 as he’s dealing with a hip injury. Paschall has back-to-back five-point games and almost didn’t play Wednesday night. He did end up starting despite being listed as questionable, but played just 16 minutes. The Warriors will likely play it safe with Paschall (31.5 mpg), who is one Golden State’s most reliable players this season.

Kevin Porter Jr., Cleveland Cavaliers: Porter Jr. gets a tip of the hat this week for going toe-to-toe with Houston’s James Harden. The NBA’s leading scorer finished with 55 on Wednesday, but Porter Jr. scored a career-high 24 (16 in the 4th), going 6-for-9 on 3-pointers while not flinching when tasked with guarding Harden. Over his past five games, the No. 30 pick has averaged 12.8 ppg on 53.2% shooting (52.4% on 3-pointers).

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(All stats through Wednesday, Dec. 11)

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