It hardly is the silver lining anyone was looking for as the NBA tried to beat back and dodge as best it could the surging number of positive virus tests and resulting absences in its ranks.
But the sweeping need for sheer manpower to fill vacated rotation spots has opened opportunities for a bunch of rookies who otherwise might have continued their first-year development sitting and watching.
What the virus boom has meant to G Leaguers and retired NBA veterans in terms of suddenly, if temporarily, available roster spots, it has served to boost game experience and reps for newcomers who heretofore didn’t rank among the Class of 2021’s elite.
Consider: Since Dec. 7, when virus absences started rippling through the league, nine of the Top 20 rookies in minutes logged have been newbies who otherwise haven’t sniffed a run on the Kia Rookie Ladder. Tighten that filter to Dec. 14 and 12 of the 20 new guys playing the heaviest minutes were non-factors in these rankings.
For rookies, opportunity rules. Ladder regulars such as Toronto’s Scottie Barnes, Cleveland’s Evan Mobley, Detroit’s Cade Cunningham and Oklahoma City’s Josh Giddey are four of what’s been a pretty steady Top 6 here. But lesser heralded names such as Brooklyn’s Cam Thomas, David Duke Jr. and Kessler Edwards; OKC’s Aaron Wiggins; Miami’s Omer Yurtseven; Houston’s Josh Christopher, Orlando’s Hassani Gravett, and others have popped up frequently in box scores.
If we break down the season so far into 10 weeks, a significant number of rookies have gotten a disproportionate number of their minutes in just the three weeks since Dec. 7. Through games of Monday, that included New York’s Quentin Grimes (69 of 144 minutes, 48%), the Clippers’ Brandon Boston Jr. (192 of 313, 61%), San Antonio’s Jock Landale (91 of 112, 81%), Wiggins (103 of 232, 44%), Thomas (187 of 358, 52%), Edwards (115 of 127, 91%), Duke (136 of 136, 100%), Yurtseven (163 of 263, 62%), Gravett (124 of 124, 100%) and Christopher (251 of 363, 69%).
That’s compared to a 70%/30% distribution we would have expected to see.
Primarily due to small sample sizes, none of the rookie-come-latelys have yet to grab a Ladder rung. But that could be coming, with about 60% of the regular season still to be played.
Just since Dec. 14, five of the aforementioned “mid” bloomers have averaged double figures in scoring, three have averaged at least 7.0 rebounds and two have chipped in 3.0 or more assists when they’ve played.
Several have drawn praise for their performances from coaches grateful to have more than just warm bodies on their roster.
Landale, for instance, had a slow start to 2021-22 thanks to a concussion and early protocols hiatus. But after he contributed 13 points, eight rebounds and three assists in 15 minutes against the Lakers last week, coach Gregg Popovich said: “He knows how to play.”
After Christopher had 10 points, four boards, seven assists, as well as a pair of 3-pointers against Detroit Dec. 18, Rockets coach Stephen Silas made it clear that wouldn’t be the rookie’s last start and even would look at him at point guard.
And when the Nets were ravaged by protocol absences, Duke and Edwards came through with double-doubles in an overtime victory against Toronto Dec. 14. Thomas averaged 12 points and four rebounds in a six-game December stretch before testing positive, while doubling his minutes from the season’s first seven weeks.
The way some of these rookies have responded when pressed into action bodes well for a Class of 2021 already considered deeper than usual.
The Top 5 this week on the 2020-21 Kia Rookie Ladder:
(All stats through Monday, Dec. 27)
1. Franz Wagner, Orlando Magic
If showing up truly is 90% of life, then the Orlando Magic’s rookie wing continues to pace the Class of 2021. Wagner scored more points last week (58) than the other Top 4 rookies on this Ladder combined and nearly matched them in total minutes – and that’s without counting his big night Tuesday vs. the Bucks (career-best 38 points). He has been this rookie crop’s iron man with 35 appearances and has logged 1,100+ minutes before any of the others has reached 1,000. He fills a real position of need for the Magic, with lead roles at both ends. With only Thursday’s rematch vs. Milwaukee to go in December, Wagner’s 19.5/5.3/3.3 in 13 games should serve him well in East Rookie of the Month consideration.
2. Scottie Barnes, Toronto Raptors
With postponements and his own stint in the Health and Safety Protocols, Barnes hasn’t played since Dec. 18. He still tops the Raptors in double-doubles (5) but his stats have been stuck with the layoff. Games, practices and individual development all have gotten stalled, not ideal for first-year guys. But based on his early-season play, Barnes probably will do better than most at slipping quickly back into rhythm.
3. Evan Mobley, Cleveland Cavaliers
Mobley returned from the league’s protocols after the Ladder’s weekly Monday’s stats cutoff. But it’s worth noting he had 22 points on 9-of-12 shooting with seven boards but was a minus-8 in Cleveland’s loss in New Orleans Tuesday. Now the challenge is how well he plugs holes left by other missing Cavs in their absences. He tops all rookies with 46 blocks and ranks sixth in the NBA with 1.8 bpg.
4. Cade Cunningham, Detroit Pistons
Hardly seems right, slipping a rung when other Ladder denizens didn’t play at all. But Wagner was special and Barnes and Mobley are back or nearly so. And then it was Cunningham’s turn, after just one appearance last week, to get shelved for the same reason. His skills are obvious but consistency remains a goal, and he is bedeviled by turnovers and fouls. He has 11 games of 2+ steals and 35 total steals in his first 25 games, second in Detroit history only to Grant Hill’s 50 in 25.
5. Josh Giddey, Oklahoma City Thunder
Giddey’s performance in his most recent game before entering the virus protocols wasn’t just quirky, it was historic: 10 rebounds, 10 assists, zero points. A scoreless double-double reportedly is something that happened only once before in NBA annals, back in 1971 when Cincinnati’s Norm Van Lier went for 13 assists and 11 boards without scoring in the Royals’ 34-point drubbing of the Los Angeles Lakers. Giddey’s club beat New Orleans, its fourth victory in five games. He shot 0-of-8 and didn’t attempt a free throw.
— OKC THUNDER (@okcthunder) December 27, 2021
The Next 5:
6. Chris Duarte, Indiana Pacers
Passed latest defensive tests vs. Bulls’ LaVine, DeRozan.
7. Alperen Sengun, Houston Rockets
Minutes debate affected by fouls (15 games of 4+).
8. Herb Jones, New Orleans Pelicans
King of 2021 2nd round, topping class in minutes, points, win shares.
9. Jeremiah Robinson-Earl, Oklahoma City Thunder
Shot 42.1% 3FG in Thunder’s recent 4-1 stretch.
10. Jalen Green, Houston Rockets
Rockets were 8-7 without him, 2-18 with him.
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