Kia Rookie Ladder

Kia Rookie Ladder: Ja Morant may be putting chase out of reach

Ranking of top five rookies in the NBA

Drew Packham, NBA.com

Things are about to get a lot more interesting for everyone following this rookie class, as we finally have a date in sight for the long-awaited debut of Zion Williamson.

The Pelicans announced Wednesday that the No. 1 pick is expected to play his first regular-season game on Jan. 22 as the Pelicans host the Spurs. Williamson, who has missed the Pelicans’ first 41 games while recovering from arthroscopic surgery on his right knee, will be must-see TV from here on out.

But after missing what will be more than half of the season, is there enough time for Williamson to make a serious run at Kia Rookie of the Year?

Probably not, especially considering what Ja Morant is doing in Memphis. Morant has been brilliant, helping the Grizzlies become one of the feel-good stories of the season while averaging 18 points and 6.9 assists per game. Morant has dazzled as he’s turned Memphis into a playoff contender while displaying a maturity and confidence unmatched by any other rookie.

Tuesday night, Morant had one of his most memorable moments, going toe-to-toe with NBA scoring leader James Harden and sparking Memphis past Houston 121-110 to extend its winning streak to six straight. Morant scored 26 points with eight assists and missed just one shot in one of the biggest games of his young career.

“The doubters said I couldn’t shoot,” Morant told NBA TV’s Dennis Scott afterward. “I’m proving them wrong.”

Indeed, Morant continues to prove he is more than just a slasher (more than half of his shots are at the rim), hitting from beyond the arc at a 40.7% clip. On Tuesday, the Rockets sagged off Morant, and the point guard made them pay, hitting 3 of 4 3-point attempts.

It was a coming-out party for Morant on NBA TV, but while fans will have plenty of opportunities to check out Zion and the Pelicans on national TV (eight more after his debut), Morant and the Grizzlies have just two more appearances all season.

Monday you can catch Morant’s Grizzlies (ironically against the Pelicans) in a notable Martin Luther King Jr. Day game (5 p.m. ET, TNT), then again Feb. 24 in a showdown with the Clippers.

Zion will draw the headlines (and casual TV viewers), but Morant remains the real rookie to catch — on NBA League Pass and in the chase for Kia Rookie of the Year.

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1. Ja Morant, Memphis Grizzlies

Last week: No. 1

As mentioned, Morant missed just one of his 11 attempts vs. Houston, becoming the first rookie in NBA history to score at least 25 points while handing out eight or more assists and shooting 90% or better from the field. In three games this week, Morant hit at a 58.1% clip and knocked down 50% of his 3-pointers (4-for-8) while averaging 19.7 points and 10.7 assists.

2. Kendrick Nunn, Miami Heat

Last week: Not ranked

After falling out of the Top 5 last week, Nunn returns after another big-time performance. Nunn scored 33 points on 13-for-18 shooting Wednesday to lead Miami to a 106-100 win over the Spurs and help the Heat climb back to 2nd in the East. Nunn was 8-for-8 in the first half (an NBA record for an undrafted rookie) and hit 5 of 7 3-pointers in 31 minutes. It marked Nunn’s fifth straight game scoring in double-digits and capped off a week in which he averaged 21 ppg on 62.8% shooting (43.8% on 3s).

3. Sekou Doumbouya, Detroit Pistons

Last week: No. 3

After making a splash into the Ladder last week, Doumbouya kept it up this week, averaging 15 ppg on 62.2% shooting. He capped off his week with possibly his best game yet, scoring a team-high 24 points to help the Pistons surprise the Celtics. He finished 10-for-13 and became the 2nd youngest player (19 years, 23 days) in NBA history to score 24-plus points on 75% shooting or better in a game. The other? Kobe Bryant, who did it in April of 1997. “I’m in awe of the way he’s not scared of match-ups,” said Pistons guard Derrick Rose. “He don’t care. That’s what the league’s about. No boys allowed.”

4. Jarrett Culver, Minnesota Timberwolves

Last week: No. 2

Culver continues to show his growth, finishing the week with a 17-point showing in a 104-99 loss to the Pacers. The No. 6 pick was 8-for-13 from the field (1-for-2 on 3s) while leading Minnesota in scoring for the 2nd time in the last five games. “He’s definitely been a bright spot through some of these tough endings for us,” coach Ryan Saunders said Wednesday. “His future is bright. The way he’s been getting his looks on the offensive end. I think he’s been aggressive getting to the basket and then on the defensive end I think he’s shown a lot of growth too.”

5. RJ Barrett, New York Knicks

Last week: Not ranked

Barrett put up decent numbers this week, and climbs back into the top 5, just edging out Cleveland’s Darius Garland (who had a great week himself). In three games, the No. 3 pick averaged 20.3 ppg, 7.3 rpg and nearly 1.7 spg while shooting 45% overall and 7-for-14 on 3-pointers. Barrett was instrumental in the Knicks’ surprising 124-121 win against Miami on Jan. 12, scoring 23 points on 7-for-10 shooting. Knicks interim coach Mike Miller likes the progress he’s seeing from the young guard. “I see him growing,’’ Miller said. “Everything he’s doing is trending upward. His energy, defense, everything is trending upward. I don’t see (a rookie wall) at all. He’s very unique with his approach, with his stamina, how he prepares for each game. He’s very mature with his approach.’’

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Just missed the cut:

Darius Garland, Cleveland Cavaliers

Last 4 games (2-2 record): 16.0 ppg, 7.3 apg, 1.7 spg, 44.4% FG, 27.3% 3FG

PJ Washington, Charlotte Hornets

Last 4 games (0-4 record): 11.3 ppg, 5.0 rpg, 2.5 apg, 45.5% FG, 53.8% 3FG

Brandon Clarke, Memphis Grizzlies

Last 3 games (3-0 record): 11.0 ppg, 9.0 rpg, 2.7 apg, 1.0 bpg, 52.4% FG

Jaxson Hayes, New Orleans Pelicans

Last 3 games (2-1 record): 14.0 ppg, 4.0 rpg, 1.0 bpg, 68.6% FG

Michael Porter, Jr., Denver Nuggets

Last 2 games (2-0 record): 16.0 ppg, 6.0 rpg, 1.5 spg, 1.0 bpg, 61.9% FG, 50% 3FG

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(All stats through Wednesday, Jan. 15)

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

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