Rookie Ladder (old archive)

Kia Rookie Ladder: Grizzlies' youngsters get pushed into spotlight

Can Wade Baldwin IV, Andrew Harrison keep Memphis afloat while Mike Conley mends?

They didn’t need the news Tuesday — the head-shaking, hand-wringing news — to find interesting. The Memphis Grizzlies and their rookies passed interesting a long time ago, mostly in a good way, as June and reason to be pleased with the Draft merged into the early season of production from rookies Wade Baldwin IV and Andrew Harrison (and fellow rookies Troy Williams and Deyonta Davis offering occasional reminders of their presence).

But Tuesday came anyway with an announcement full of exasperation: point guard Mike Conley, the Grizzlies emotional leader and a central figure to their 11-7 start, will be sidelined at least six weeks with a back injury. The Grindhouse isn’t supposed to include teeth grinding.

Maybe the Grizzlies add experience through a trade, free agency or the NBA D-League. But for now, much of the load will fall to Baldwin and Harrison until further notice. (The real fun starts Dec. 8 with a run through the point-guard gauntlet of the Trail Portland Trail Blazers and Damian Lillard, the Golden State Warriors and Stephen Curry and a back-to-back with the Cleveland Cavaliers and Kyrie Irving, all within seven days.) Baldwin was the backup to open the season, but Harrison replaced him, creating little dependability for a team thinking playoffs.

Baldwin was a solid choice as the No. 17 pick in the 2016 Draft, a point guard for a team that needed depth there even before Conley re-signed in the offseason. The power forward Davis, in the lottery conversation according to several teams, was a good value find as the No. 31 pick. Undrafted Williams, a small forward, signed in July. Harrison was a second-round pick in 2015 who spent last season with Iowa of the D-League.

Come late-November, as injuries and personal absences became all too common, suddenly Harrison is leading all rookies in minutes per game with 25.8, Baldwin is at 15.6, and Williams at 12.8, but 20, 35 and 31 the last three. Davis is logging just 7.7, last on the team yet enough to be second among all rookies in blocks in what has been a weak class with the quarter mark approaching.

Memphis took one first-round pick, two second-rounders and a free agent and turned them into valuable depth for a team on a 50-win pace under new coach David Fizdale.

Three of the four rookies, all except Davis, have already started and two could be in the opening lineup Wednesday in Toronto (7:30 p.m. ET, NBA LEAGUE PASS) – Williams and Harrison are down as the backcourt to face Lowry and DeMar DeRozan, although the preliminary listing could change before tipoff. The group that had been interesting now becomes critical.

To the ranking:

1. Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers

Last week: No. 1

No matter how well he plays and no matter how healthy he looks, the plan remains to cap Embiid at 24 minutes until around Christmas while also barring him from back-to-backs. That’s approximately three more weeks of this restriction, before the possibility of the next with more breathing room. Someone from among the pack back in the dust needs to make a big move soon to have much of a chance to catch the leader, in other words. For now, he will be the easy winner for Rookie of the Month in the East for November and the small slice of October.

2. Dario Saric, Philadelphia 76ers

Last week: No. 2

The Philly stranglehold on the rankings is in jeopardy with Saric backsliding at the same time the rest of the top five is either surging or playing more consistently. He has shot 25 percent or better in just one of his last five games as his minutes are also being cut. Once regularly in the highs-20s/low-30s, he has played 17, 22, 22, 20 and 24 minutes in the five. Saric is on notice with his rebounds and accuracy down and his turnovers up.

3. Malcolm Brodgon, Milwaukee Bucks

Last week: No. 3

His shooting touch is back, an important development after a five-of-25 slump from Nov. 16-21. The recovery includes making seven of 12 3-pointers the last five outings, pushing Brogdon to ninth in the class in 3-point percentage. He is also 12 of 20 overall the last three games, a nice bounceback that goes with the additional efficiency of being fourth in assist-to-turnover ratio and sixth in assists while playing many of his 20.4 minutes off the ball.

4. Jamal Murray, Denver Nuggets

Last week: No. 10

Murray rode unusual circumstances — a two-week hot streak while almost no rookies are playing well, creating the opening — to the unusually large jump from 10th to fourth. The same guy who couldn’t make a shot early, dragging him from No. 5 in the season-opening Ladder to No. 10 in the first live ranking to out of the rankings altogether, has found his shot. Murry is at 45 percent overall and 47.4 percent behind the arc the last 11 games and 48.4 and 51.9, respectively, the last five. That gets him to 39.9 percent from the field, a bad number in general but 12th in this class and second among guards.

5. Brandon Ingram, Los Angeles Lakers

Last week: No. 5

Julius Randle’s hip injury and the decision by coach Luke Walton to go small with Luol Deng as the replacement power forward moved Ingram into the starting lineup for the first time. That was the headline moment. Beyond that, though, Ingram is also in a span of making a positive impact in almost every game. He made at least half his shots three outings in a row and then, when the No. 2 pick went cold from the field, had nine rebounds and two steals against Golden State followed by eight rebounds against Atlanta.

6. Malcolm Delaney, Atlanta Hawks

Last week: No. 4

He played a season-low 13 minutes Friday at Utah followed by a new season low of 12 minutes two nights later against the Lakers in Los Angeles, before the slight increase to 15 minutes Monday at Golden State. The irony is that the smaller role has come at the same time his shooting, a problem the first five weeks, has improved, at 43.3 percent the last five games and 38.2 overall. Delaney also remains one of the best distributors in the class, second in assists and third in assist-to-turnover ratio.

7. Pascal Siakam, Toronto Raptors

Last week: No. 7

Siakam vs. Oklahoma City’s Domantas Sabonis is a good race: both are power forwards, both have international backgrounds and attended college in the United States, and both are starters for winning teams. Sabonis has an edge in scoring and has shown 3-point range, while Siakiam gets the edge based on being in the top five in three categories – rebounding, shooting and blocks — while holding a big PER lead. It’s close to a pick-‘em.

8. Domantas Sabonis, Oklahoma City Thunder (6)

Last week: No. 6

Sabonis has gone from 35.7 percent behind the arc last season at Gonzaga to 44.9 percent about a quarter into his rookie campaign, and on 2.6 attempts per game, a decent rate. That includes making six of his last eight tries, putting the No. 11 pick in a solid third place among rookies and keeping him in position to catch first-place Embiid in a battle of big men with range. Sabonis is 11th in overall field-goal percentage among rookies.

9. Andrew Harrison, Memphis Grizzlies

Last week: Not ranked

Dreadful shooting — 27.1 percent — would ordinarily keep him off the list. Far off. But: first in assists, second in assist-to-turnover ratio, third in steals, first in minutes, sixth in blocks and 15th in defensive rating. The winning Grizzlies were already relying on him in a big way before the Conley injury, most recently playing Harrison at least 24 minutes in nine consecutive games. That includes 42 and 35 in consecutive outings.

10. Rodney McGruder, Miami Heat

Last week: Not ranked

The Kansas State product has gone from undrafted in 2013 to getting cut in camp by the Thunder (2013) and the Celtics (2014) to third among rookies in shooting, sixth in 3-point shooting, sixth in scoring and even ninth in rebounding. He is at 48.9 percent from the field the last six games to move to 45.9 for the season, much better than any other first-year guard, and has reached double digits in scoring the last four. The three outings since moving into the starting lineup have resulted in 32, 34 and 38 minutes.

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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