Rookie Ladder (old archive)

Kia Rookie Ladder: Dragan Bender faces long to-do list in season No. 2

Phoenix's top pick from 2016 must recover from ankle injury, show improved game come 2017-18

The official timetable from the Phoenix Suns is that Dragan Bender will miss four to six weeks after arthroscopic surgery on his right ankle last Wednesday to remove a bone spur. It’s a setback because any experience is valuable for a rookie and Bender had consistently been reaching the high-teens to low-20s in minutes before getting hurt. Maybe he plays again in the final weeks, maybe he doesn’t.

The big picture, though, is that the 2016-17 season has gone about as expected. Even out of the spotlight with a minor role for the fourth pick, even as the second-best rookie forward on his own team (behind No. 8 selection Marquese Chriss). And that’s mostly Chriss’ fault — he has progressed faster than most front offices projected at Draft time.

Bender is averaging 3.2 points and 2.2 rebounds in 12.7 minutes while shooting 37.1 percent as another layer in an underwhelming rookie class, especially among 2016 lottery choices. But there’s also the important perspective he wasn’t supposed to be ready. He remains a valuable piece of Phoenix’s future, possibly getting another shot in Summer League, depending on the recovery from the ankle surgery, and then a 2017-18 when a lot will be expected.

To this week’s rankings:

(Note: There will be no Ladder next week during the All-Star break, when not enough games will have been played to warrant an update. That means the Rookie Ladder will officially return on March 1.)

1. Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers

Last week: No. 1

If Embiid does not play until after the All-Star break, the plan that seems increasingly likely, he will go nearly a full month without a game, from Jan. 27 against the Rockets to the Feb. 24 meeting with the Wizards. And the 28 minutes against Houston was after three consecutive misses, so the same return vs. Washington would also mean one Embiid appearance since Jan. 21.The new, post-break goal has suddenly become the same as the preseason goal: A healthy finish for Embiid is all it takes to make it a very good finish.

2. Malcolm Brogdon, Milwaukee Bucks

Last week: No. 2

Being efficient on offense – No. 6 in the class in shooting and No. 1 among non-centers and power forwards and No. 1 in assists– apparently isn’t enough, so Brogdon has decided to take the lead in steals as well. His 64 total steals are 19 more than the closest challenger while the average of 1.2 per game has also become a sizeable lead over the 1.0 of Troy Williams, who isn’t in the league anymore, and the 0.9 posted by both the Minnesota Timberwolves’ Kris Dunn and the Brooklyn Nets’ Caris LeVert. Brogdon has recorded multiple steals in four of the last seven outings.

3. Dario Saric, Philadelphia 76ers

Last week: No. 3

He is the reason Philly may keep the season-long hold on Eastern Conference Rookie of the Month even with dominator Embiid out of contention. Saric’s scoring tear has included 13, 20, 24, 19 and 18 points the last five games and moved him to 13.4 ppg in February, while shooting an improving 43 percent, and 39.4 overall. He has joined Embiid (20.2) as the only rookies averaging double digits in points, while also second in rebounding. The race for No. 2 on The Ladder has gotten very good.

4. Marquese Chriss, Phoenix Suns

Last week: No. 4

The latest development is Chriss as a shot blocker, with at least one in a recent stretch of five consecutive games despite not playing more than 24 minutes. That has moved him to fourth among rookies in blocks per game, no great praise in itself considering the lack of production in the category but more supporting evidence for Chriss as one of the best newcomers while he is also seventh in scoring, ninth in rebounding, 10th in shooting and seventh in steals.

5. Buddy Hield, New Orleans Pelicans

Last week: No. 5

Shooting 41.1 percent the first seven games of February brought much-needed stability, after the 37.3 of January and after he had dropped one spot last week. The positive lead-in to the All-Star break moved Hield to 39.1 percent for the season, out of the top 10, but at the same time he is fourth in 3-point accuracy after inching up by making 38.5 percent of his attempts behind the arc the last six games. A really good surge would give him the chance to join the Brogdon-Saric race for second place in the class in scoring.

6. Pascal Siakam, Toronto Raptors

Last week: No. 7

Not merely playing again, credibility bump enough in a season like this in the bottom five, Siakam was back to starting at power forward before being moved to a reserve role Sunday against the Pistons. He had six rebounds in 29 minutes against the Nets followed two games later, last Wednesday, by five rebounds and two blocks in 20 minutes at Minnesota. As always, he is making a solid contribution for a good team without splashy box scores, at fourth among rookies in defensive rating, third in shooting, second in blocks and tied for seventh in rebounding.

7. Willy Hernangomez, New York Knicks

Last week: No. 8

It would have been impossible to imagine a few weeks ago, but Hernangomez is one of the two best candidates, along with Saric, to replace Embiid as Rookie of the Month in the East. Hernangomez is at 11.4 points and 9.4 rebounds in just 22.8 minutes in February along with 56.1 percent from the field. It’s already a relevant conversation because the long All-Star break plus the short month means the Knicks and 76ers each have only four games left in the month. Those 22.8 minutes have improved his season-long average to 15.0, still just 19th in the class.

8. Andrew Harrison, Memphis Grizzlies

Last week: No. 6

Time to organize the search party again. Harrison disappeared from the rotation the first two weeks of January, played double-digit minutes nine games in a row to regain Ladder stability, and now has played two, two, two and zero minutes the last four outings. The latest rankings slide has already started as others around him play well, and obviously could continue if the people behind him continue to apply pressure. For now, just as before, the pro-Harrison camp has the big counter argument that he is second among rookies in assists, sixth in steals, fifth in defensive rating and sixth in minutes.

9. Caris LeVert, Brooklyn Nets

Last week: No. 9

Going from missing the first 20 games while recovering from a knee injury to pushing for a spot in the top 10 in the class in minutes by mid-February is a nice accomplishment and, more importantly, a positive sign for his health. It also comes with LeVert shooting 34 percent in his last 10 outings and 32.4 percent in February. That’s a temporary problem for now — he is ninth in field-goal percentage — but will become an issue if the slump carries into March.

10. Isaiah Whitehead, Brooklyn Nets

Last week: No. 10

He is close to moving into second place in assists among rookies in a battle with Harrison after recording at least four assists in five of his last nine games. Whitehead is also ninth in scoring and 11th in minutes. But with a few possibilities pressing for Ladder consideration, he will need either the assists to go up or the turnovers to go down, or both, to solidify a spot.

Dropped out: none.

Scott Howard-Cooper has covered the NBA since 1988. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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