In what most assuredly is an unconventional season for NBA rookies, we’ll do our best to keep this Kia Rookie Ladder as reliable and traditional as possible.
Never before in league history have a bunch of eager young prospects had to get off the court prematurely and sit around for months while dealing with COVID-19 concerns and the widespread virus shutdowns.
Never before have they had to wait until November to hear their names called in the Draft, and then only in remote fashion. It was nice to see them gathered with family and friends, all of their reactions caught on video at the moment of selection. Still, walking onto that stage at Barclays Center to shake the commissioner’s hand is what they dreamed about, not parking on their couch.
And never before has a class of rookies been thrown almost immediately into the fray of veterans training camp, preseason games and actual NBA duty, all coming in a rush of barely a month. What typically is a relatively leisurely (and challenging enough) runway to a rookie’s season — workouts in his new town, the baptism of the Las Vegas Summer League, two more months to adjust to professional life both on and off the court, followed by a month of camp and preseason — got scrunched into 34 days, Vegas scrapped entirely.
And yet …
Big dark cloud, meet undeniable silver lining: The Class of 2020 generally seems not at all fazed or set back by the wait-and-hurry-up circumstances of their pro plunges. Players picked near the top have shown their skills. And save for a few (such as Killian Hayes, Obi Toppin, Jalen Smith) who have been sidelined by injuries or virus protocols, no one has undercut the scouting reports that got them their gigs.
This especially is worth noting when you consider the view of this year’s rookie class before they were drafted, that they’re role players and projects but not necessarily a consensus No. 1 guaranteed star.
Some of the most exciting players and memorable performances in this herky-jerky, masked-up and mostly vacant-seat season have come from the new guys. So without further ado, here is our first installment of our weekly rankings.
The Top 5 this week in the 2020-21 Kia Rookie Ladder:
(All stats through Tuesday, Jan. 12)
1. LaMelo Ball, Charlotte Hornets
Season stats: 12.4 ppg, 7.0 rpg, 6.0 apgLaMelo Ball made history as the youngest player ever to log a triple-double.
One of the best things anyone can say about a rookie is that he’s affecting his team’s ability to win. Look, lots of first-year players make mistakes that can cost a game here or there, and many don’t log enough minutes to get credit or blame either way. But Ball has had a positive impact on the Hornets’ 6-5 start, a clear step up from last season’s 23-42 mark. The 6-foot-8 point guard leads Charlotte in rebounding and player efficiency rating (19.5). He ranks right behind starter Devonte’ Graham (6.5) in assists and grabbed attention by becoming the youngest player in NBA history to post a triple-double (22 points, 12 rebounds, 11 assists against Atlanta last weekend). And while his flashy passing earns him spots on the highlight reels, it’s his rebounding — instinctively blocking out bigger players and timing his leaps — that has been a consistent asset. The sense in Charlotte is that Ball is contributing plays of substance even when they’re not stylish.
"I've been doing this ever since I was 3."
— NBA (@NBA) January 10, 2021
2. James Wiseman, Golden State Warriors
Season stats: 10.9 ppg, 6.1 rpg, 1.5 bpgCheck out some of James Wiseman’s best plays this season.
Nothing against Ball, but there were reasons Charlotte was talked about as considering a trade up to snag Wiseman. And if given the chance, would swap their rooks right now. Despite playing only three games in college and being off a competitive court for about a year, Wiseman has stepped into a serious operation in Golden State and provided instant value. The glimpses of greatness are getting more frequent, whether he’s facing, backing toward the basket or protecting the rim at a pace of 1.5 blocks nightly. There are league execs who will tell you already that, while Ball might wind up as this year’s Rookie of the Year, the guy they’d rather have five years from now is Wiseman.
3. Tyrese Haliburton, Sacramento Kings
Season stats: 12.1 ppg, 2.7 rpg, 5.3 apgTyrese Haliburton is already coming up clutch for the Kings.
Haliburton showed up, fresh out of Iowa State, publicly talking about his goal to be this season’s Rookie of the Year. That would make him tops among the Class of 2020, but the 6-foot-5 point guard already ranks among the best of Sacramento’s bundle of young talent. His passing ability has delighted the Kings’ coaches — his assists average is closer to Ball’s than any other rookies are close to them. He fits nicely with De’Aaron Fox and Buddy Hield. And his 50% accuracy from the arc is eye-popping — he’s taking nearly 60% of his shots from 3-point range and hitting half of them.
4. Anthony Edwards, Minnesota Timberwolves
Season stats: 13.6 ppg, 2.9 rpg, 2.0 apg
Though hardly a consensus pick at No. 1 in the Draft, Edwards has shown much of the potential that got him to that perch. He’s giving the Timberwolves some of what they need, as in scoring punch (he leads his classmates in that category) and visions of greatness based on his explosiveness and athletic ability. Other things the Wolves crave? Not so much. Edwards’ shooting is shaky, he’s not using his ability to attack the rim to also earn trips to the foul line and there’s not much to note defensively. Maybe we should factor in that Minnesota hasn’t started him yet.
— Minnesota Timberwolves (@Timberwolves) January 8, 2021
5. Patrick Williams, Chicago Bulls
Season stats: 10.3 ppg, 3.5 rpg, 1.0 apg
The deeper we get into the season, the more folks will point this out: Williams came off the bench for all 29 games he played at Florida State, yet has started every game he’s played as a pro. Part of that is optics — the Bulls needed to demonstrate quickly what they liked so much about a freshman reserve to make him the No. 4 pick. But a bigger part is Williams’ versatility, his capacity to plug on a bad team a variety of notable holes. He’s a 3-and-D natural, it seems: Williams’ 3-point shooting has been toasty (45.8%), and even LeBron James complimented his defensive work. In another era, the 6-foot-8 forward might have been dismissed as a “’tweener,” but today he’s one of those position-less players GMs covet.
We got a special kid in Patrick Williams.
17 points | 6-9 FG | 3-5 3FG | 2 steals pic.twitter.com/sxIoFPjrSg
— Chicago Bulls (@chicagobulls) January 11, 2021
The Next Five:
6. Tyrese Maxey, Philadelphia 76ers
Season stats: 10.5 ppg, 2.5 rpg, 2.2 apg
Seizing opportunity — the way Maxey did scoring 39 points against Denver for a thin Sixers’ roster — is essential for rookies.
7. Payton Pritchard, Boston Celtics
Season stats: 8.6 ppg, 2.4 rpg, 3.1 apg
Pretty high rung for the lowest Draft selection (No. 26) on our ladder, but hitting game-winners (Jan. 6 vs. Miami) will do that
8. Deni Avdija, Washington Wizards
Season stats: 7.0 ppg, 4.0 rpg, 2.2 apg
Fitting in like an established player at age 20.
9. Cole Anthony, Orlando Magic
Season stats: 9.5 ppg, 4.2 rpg, 3.1 apg
Markelle Fultz’s injury means more minutes, more challenges.
10. Saddiq Bey, Detroit Pistons
Season stats: 10.6 ppg, 4.7 rpg, 0.9 apg
Rebounder and deep threat sharing Detroit newbie spotlight with Isaiah Stewart.
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