Kia Rookie Ladder

Kia Rookie Ladder: An eye-catching start for Zion Williamson

Ranking of top five rookies in the NBA

Zion Williamson’s debut was worth the wait.

And if you blinked, you might have missed his coming-out party. In a stretch of just over three minutes, the No. 1 pick from the 2019 draft electrified the Smoothie King Center, scoring 17 straight points while hitting 6-of-8 shots, going 4-for-4 on 3-pointers and nearly willing the Pelicans to a win.

Forget Rookie of the Year; New Orleans fans were raining down “M-V-P!” chants on their superstar.

“It was everything I dreamed of, except the losing part,” Williamson said after playing 18 memorable minutes in the 121-117 loss to the Spurs. “Just the energy the crowd brought, the energy the city brought, it was electric and I’m just grateful that they did that. So it was a dream come true to finally get out there, but at the end of the day I did want to win, so we’ve got to look to the next game.”

What started as a forgettable debut turned quickly into something magical, and in an instant it became clear that Zion is something special.

“There’s just a really, really high ceiling he can reach,” coach Alvin Gentry said afterward.

Where Williamson goes from here is uncertain, but if Wednesday night was any indication, the Pelicans are must-see viewing from here on out. Just don’t stop watching — you might miss something special.

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1. Ja Morant, Memphis Grizzlies

Last week: No. 1

On the night Zion burst on to the scene, the ROY leader in the clubhouse was having the worst game of his young career. Morant was held to two points — the lowest-scoring game of his young career — and five assists on just 1-for-5 shooting in 23 minutes. The Grizzlies were shut down by the Celtics, who built a 38-point lead and cruised to a 119-95 win in Boston. Morant started the week with 16 and eight assists in the Grizzlies’ seventh straight win, but went 6-for-19 in two losses to close out the week. With Kendrick Nunn putting up big numbers and Zion capturing the nation’s imagination, Morant can’t just assume he’s got ROY locked up.

2. Kendrick Nunn, Miami Heat

Last week: No. 2

Nunn keeps his spot after another exceptional week. In four games, Nunn averaged 19.8 ppg, 4.0 rpg and 3.3 apg while shooting 50% overall (and 10-for-22 on 3-pointers). The Heat went 3-1 with a pair of overtime wins and Nunn said he never lost confidence despite struggling with his shot earlier in the month. “[I’m] not deferring any,” Nunn said earlier this week. “That’s not what I like to do or what my job is on the team. They want me to play to my strengths and be aggressive every time I’m on the floor. If that’s 1 minute or 20 minutes, every time I’m on the floor it’s to be aggressive so I’m sticking with that.”

3. Michael Porter, Jr., Denver Nuggets

Last week: Not ranked

Before missing Wednesday’s loss to the Rockets with tightness in his back, Porter Jr. was on the best stretch of his season. Porter scored in double digits in each of his last five games, averaging 16.0 ppg, 8.8 rpg and shooting 55.8% overall and 52.6% on 3-pointers. Porter caught everyone’s attention Monday, putting up 20 points and 14 rebounds in a 107-100 win over the Wolves, his second double-double in four days. “He’s impacting the game at such a high level. He’s growing up in front of our eyes,” Nuggets coach Mike Malone said.

4. Matisse Thybulle, Philadelphia 76ers

Last week: Not ranked

There’s a lot that’s not perfect about Thybulle’s game, but what he brings to the Sixers goes far beyond the box score. If you look only at offensive statistics, you might wonder why Thybulle gets such a high spot — 7.0 ppg on 10-for-31 shooting in four games this week (and 5-for-22 on 3-pointers). But Thybulle is giving the Sixers so much more in his 30-plus minutes per game (they’re 17-2 when be plays 20-plus minutes). In those same four games, Thybulle wreaked havoc on defense, tallying nine steals and four blocks. “I just think about what it’s like for the other team,” Thybulle said after getting four steals in a big win over the Nets. “I feel like it’s intimidating to see our length and moreso our hustle; we lay our hearts out on the court on the defensive end just to make life hard for the other teams.”

5. Eric Paschall, Golden State Warriors

Last week: Not ranked

Remember Eric Paschall? He was a regular early in the season as he burst onto the scene for the banged-up Warriors. Well, after a stretch in mid-December that saw his production dip as he dealt with hip injuries, Paschall has started putting up big numbers again over the last two weeks. He’s scored in double digits in seven straight and nine of 11 games in January, averaging 17.3 ppg and 7.8 rpg in four games this week, highlighted by a 20-point, nine-rebound showing in a win over the Magic, then 22 and 13 in an OT loss in Portland. Paschall credits his resurgence to his December in which he missed a week of action and saw his playing time dip. “I feel those injuries were kind of a blessing in disguise in terms of my body and getting the proper rest I needed,” Paschall said. “Your rookie year is probably your longest year because right after college you’re going to pre-draft workouts, flying across the country for a workout, maybe have a back-to-back workout. Right after that, you go into training camp for summer league. Right after that, you go into training camp. So, you don’t really get a lot of time off. That was really good for me in terms of my body and having time to recover.”

Just missed the cut:

Cam Reddish, Atlanta Hawks

Last 4 games (2-2 record): 13.0 ppg, 5.5 rpg, 1.5 apg, 1.8 spg, 42.2 FG%, 47.4 3FG%

Zion Williamson, New Orleans Pelicans

One game (0-1 record): 22 pts, 7 reb, 3 ast, 8-11 FG, 4-4 3FG, 17 straight points in 4th quarter

Jarrett Culver, Minnesota Timberwolves

Last 4 games: 11.8 ppg, 2.8 rpg, 1.3 bpg, 37.5% FG, 38.1% 3FG

Terence Davis, Toronto Raptors

Last 4 games (4-0 record): 8.8 ppg, 4.5 rpg, 2.8 apg, 48.3% FG, 50% 3FG

Tyler Herro, Miami Heat

Last 3 games (2-1 record): 10.3 ppg, 45.5% FG, 69.2% 3FG

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(All stats through Wednesday, Jan. 22)

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

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