Kia Rookie Ladder

Kia Rookie Ladder: Bad games not keeping Zion Williamson down for long

Ranking of top five rookies in the NBA

Zion Williamson is learning how to pick his spots.

On Tuesday night, in his first showdown with Kia MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo, Williamson scored 20 points, but was just 5-for-19 from the field in one of his worst shooting nights of his young career.

”We put a lot of guys, a lot of different looks to him,” Antetokounmpo said. ”Just tried to make him guess, just tried to make it tough as possible. You know he’s going to try to go left, try to overpower whoever’s guarding him, try to go finish strong, and guys behind have got to be active.”

Williamson, who missed all 3-point attempts, admitted he became flustered by the defense the East-leading Bucks threw at him.

”It was very physical,” Williamson said. ”It was one of those nights where I couldn’t get my second-jump layup to fall. It was very frustrating, but my teammates were in my ear, telling me to keep going.”

Antetokounmpo left impressed by the No. 1 pick, though.

“He’ll be a really good player for a lot of years to come,” Antetokounmpo said. “He’s out there helping the team; he’s competing as hard as possible. He’s just gotta stay healthy, and he’s gonna have a bright future.”

Two nights later, Williamson proved he can learn from his off nights.

Playing in the house Michael Jordan built (Zion admitted he was in awe seeing the banners in the rafters), Williamson took all 11 shots within three feet of the rim, hitting nine, to finish with 21 points in the Pelicans’ 125-119 win over the Bulls.

Williamson was dominant in the paint, scoring on a variety of backdowns and post-up moves, capping off his night with a thunderous alley-oop in the win that wasn’t as close as the final score would indicate.

While the Bulls’ defense isn’t as stout as the Bucks’, Williamson’s ability to adapt and take his game inside shows just why Giannis and everyone sees such a bright future in the No. 1 pick.

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1. Ja Morant, Memphis Grizzlies

Last week: No. 1

After a 121-107 win over Dallas on Wednesday, Morant has the Grizzlies above .500 for the first time this season and securely 8th in the West (2.5 games ahead of Portland). Morant scored 21 points on 10-for-12 shooting and lived up to the pregame hype from Dallas coach Rick Carlisle. “I haven’t seen this kind of athleticism in a point guard since Westbrook when he came into the league,” Carlisle said before the matchup. “He’s got an exhilarating vibe when he steps on to a basketball court. … Dynamic is not even the word. He’s beyond that.”

2. Zion Williamson, New Orleans Pelicans

Last week: No. 3

Williamson was the best rookie scorer this week, averaging 21.7 points and he’s now scored 20-plus in four straight games (the longest stretch by a rookie this season). While Williamson won’t catch Morant unless the Grizzlies guard gets hit by injury, he’s definitely establishing himself as the most game-changing rookie of this class. The Pelicans are currently 5.5 games out of 8th and likely won’t be able to make up that much ground, but Williamson is sure to make things interesting after the All-Star break.

3. Kendrick Nunn, Miami Heat

Last week: No. 5

Nunn has been a mainstay in the top 5 most of the season, but slipped to fifth last week after missing three games with a sore Achilles tendon. In three games since his return, though, he’s slowly coming back into form, averaging 9.3 points while helping Miami win two of three. Nunn did take home some more hardware this week, too, earning his third straight Eastern Conference Rookie of the Month for his play in January. Nunn finished the month averaging 16.8 points, 2.8 rebounds and 3.5 assists while shooting 50.7% from the field. Nunn has a stranglehold on the honors, having received the honor for both November and December. Many of my readers squabbled with my dropping him to fifth (below Zion, which didn’t sit well), but readers should remember extra weight is given for recent play, so a guy missing a full week is likely going to drop in the rankings.

4. Michael Porter, Jr., Denver Nuggets

Last week: No. 2

Porter Jr. has missed the Nuggets’ last last three games after injuring his right ankle in Friday’s 127-115 victory over the Bucks. It’s too bad, too, because the No. 14 pick from 2018 was on a roll with back-to-back double-doubles. He’s become a key piece to the Nuggets’ rotation (the team made it clear he wasn’t available at the trade deadline), having scored in double-digits in nine of his last 10 games, and coach Mike Malone doesn’t expect the ankle sprain to be a long-term injury.

5. Darius Garland, Cleveland Cavaliers

Last week: Not ranked

The Cavs have a pair of guards showing out lately, but Garland gets the nod for the Top 5 this week. The No. 5 pick is finding his stroke, going 9-for-19 from beyond the arc in his last three games. More impressive, though, is his willingness to distribute the ball, averaging 5.8 assists in his last four games (while scoring 14.3 ppg), a number that might only improve with the addition of Andre Drummond, whom the Cavs landed from Detroit at the deadline.

Just missed the cut:

Terence Davis, Toronto Raptors

Last 4 games (4-0 record): 11.8 ppg, 62.1% FG, 58.8% 3FG, Career-high 31 points (12-15 FG, 6-7 3FG) in Raptors’ 129-102 win over Bulls

Kevin Porter Jr., Cleveland Cavaliers

Last 4 games (0-4 record): 14.3 ppg, 2.5 rpg, 2.3 apg, 47.5% FG, 42.1% 3FG|

Tyler Herro, Miami Heat

Last 4 games (2-2 record): 12.5 ppg, 1.5 rpg, 44.4% FG, 50.0% 3FG

DeAndre Hunter, Atlanta Hawks

Last 2 games (2-0 record): 13.5 ppg, 3.5 rpg, 3.0 apg, 52.6% FG, 50% 3FG

Brandon Clarke, Memphis Grizzlies

Last 2 games (2-0 record): 11.0 ppg, 5.5 rpg, 1.0 bpg, 52.9% FG, missed 2 games with hip soreness

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(All stats through Thursday, Feb. 6)

Send any questions or comments to my email or find me on Twitter @drewpackham .

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