Rookie Ladder (old archive)

Kia Rookie Ladder: Experience is key for 2016 rookie class

An older group of prospects has set the tone this season

Scott Howard-Cooper

This is the season when being considered one of the top rookies comes with an eye roll and a laugh track in some cases, when the newcomers are anything but and the debate is as old as the prospects.

Philadelphia rookie Joel Embiid was in the 2014 draft and is drawing an NBA paycheck for the third season, rookie Andrew Harrison practiced some with the Grizzlies in 2015-16 while officially redshirting in the D-League, and Malcolm Delaney joined the Hawks as a 27-year-old rookie after spending five seasons in Europe, which would be wild except that Jonathan Gibson arrived in Dallas as a 28-year-old rookie after six seasons everywhere from China to Israel and Italy to Iran.

It’s college careers, too, not just the overseas background that has become prominent among the best newcomers of 2016-17: While five of the top eight selections in June left school after one season – Ben Simmons, Brandon Ingram, Jaylen Brown, Jamal Murray and Marquese Chriss – and No. 10 Thon Maker jumped from high school in Canada, the list of best rookies is dominated by the older and more experienced players.

Only two one-and-dones are ranked, Murray and Ingram. Otherwise, it’s Embiid at 22 years old and after two seasons on NBA sidelines recuperating from foot injuries, teammate Dario Saric at 22, Malcolm Brogdon days past his 24th birthday and after four seasons at Virginia, just the start to the common theme that continues down The Ladder even as Delaney drops off and Gibson hasn’t quite joined the party. In an era when spending two years in college wrongly makes a prospect appear unwanted, the early trend in 2016-17 is that experience matters.

A lot, actually. Everyone except Murray and Ingram completed at least a sophomore season in college or played elsewhere professionally or, in the case of Embiid, didn’t play anywhere professionally. That has often triggered debate about rookie status, but the league has remained clear and consistent. Rookie standing begins with the first NBA game. (That can work the opposite as well. When Julius Randle fractured his right leg on opening night 2014-15, his rookie campaign had come and gone in 14 minutes, without the chance for an actual first year in 2015-16.)

Given the one-and-dones projected to flood the 2017 lottery, with the possibility that the first eight picks and maybe even the first 10 could be entering the NBA after freshmen seasons, the current look is probably an anomaly. And it took at least one unique situation – the rarity of a top prospect, Embiid, missing two seasons in a row after being drafted – to get here. But it doesn’t change the bottom line that age and experience are a benefit for the best of the current class.

1. Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers

Last week: 1

Welcome to the first sign of trouble. Embiid is shooting 39.2 percent in December, albeit just three appearances on his rationed role, and 40.5 percent his last five games. It will take several more weeks of slump to put his hold on the top spot at risk, but the clear Rookie of the Year favorite hasn’t made at least half his field goals since Nov. 21. He is still rebounding and blocking shots, though, and, in the especially promising news for the campaign, now gets six consecutive games before the next 76ers back-to-back will mandate sitting out.

2. Dario Saric, Philadelphia 76ers

Last week: 2

Saric has solidified his hold on second place by averaging 12.3 points and 5.7 rebounds while making 47.3 percent of his attempts the last six games. The shooting number is especially welcome for someone at just 39.6 for the season, even with the recent upward trend. The six outings in December also include three with at least seven rebounds without playing more than 27 minutes, helping him maintain second place in the class on the boards as well as second in scoring and fourth in minutes.

3. Malcolm Brogdon, Milwaukee Bucks

Last week: 3

Brogdon, like Saric, is enjoying his own shooting surge, at 47.1 percent and 65.4 behind the arc (on 2.6 attempts per) the last 10 games. That has pushed him ahead of Embiid for No. 1 in the class on three-pointers, after the Philadelphia center had the spot for much of the season, with Brogdon at 45.1 percent and Embiid 44.2. The 45.1 is also worth tenth place in the league, regardless of experience. Among rookies, Brogdon is seventh in scoring, seventh in shooting, fourth in assists and first in assist-to-turnover ratio.

4. Jamal Murray, Denver Nuggets

Last week: 4

While second and third have picked up the pace, Murray has cooled to 35.4 percent from the field the last 10 games while bouncing from good showing to bad to decent to bad to good. He is down to 38.7 for the season, eleventh in the class, and the impressive forward progress as Western Conference Rookie of the Month for October/ November is at least temporarily gone. But Murray is close behind Saric for second in scoring while also seventh in minutes, ninth in 3-point shooting, ninth in assists and tied for eleventh in rebounding.

5. Brandon Ingram, Los Angeles Lakers

Last week: 5

Not merely unable to capitalize on the opening Murray is creating for fourth place, Ingram is having trouble keeping his spot in the top five. He is shooting 28.6 percent the last five games and 32.6 the last 10, resulting in a drop to 35.4 overall. Ingram has also broken double digits in scoring just twice in the last 11 games despite getting big minutes and room to create. He is making a nice contribution on the boards while playing a lot on the wing, though, averaging 5.2 rebounds the same 11 outings, including seven in consecutive games within the last week.

6. Pascal Siakam, Toronto Raptors

Last week: 6

Murray and Ingram are giving him an opening to claim a spot in the top five and all the glory that goes with it. The question is whether Siakam can take advantage. Starting and averaging 18.9 minutes for a 17-7 team remains the biggest selling point, a level of dependability few rookies can match and enough to offset the lack of sparkle – 5.7 points, 3.7 rebounds – in his stat line. His game and his role are not built to fly up the charts. But Siakam is second in the class in shooting, tied for second in blocks, and fifth in rebounding in a season when consistency is hard to find.

7. Andrew Harrison, Memphis Grizzlies

Last week: 7

The conflict continues, now more than ever. Shooting 29.0 percent should mean instant disqualification. That’s permanent-banishment material. Except that Harrison is also first in assists, first in steals, first in minutes, second in assist-to-turnover ratio and eighth in scoring while defending as a big part of the Grizzlies’ wonderfully improbable start. If he starts hitting shots at anywhere close to a respectable rate, the starter during Mike Conley’s injury absence could crash the top five.

8. Isaiah Whitehead, Brooklyn Nets

Last week: N/R

The charge from the second round, 42nd overall, to starting point guard has reached all the way to where the Seton Hall product is second among rookies in assists, fifth in assist-to-turnover ratio, tenth in scoring, sixth in minutes, tenth in shooting and even tied for third in blocks at 6-foot-4. He was already among the best first-year players at his position and then came the first six games of December at 46 percent from the field. That is a big part of the campaign material for someone at 39.1 overall.

9. Domantas Sabonis, Oklahoma City Thunder

Last week: 9

He probably needed to make a stand to stay on The Ladder – certainly to hold his spot at nine – and got one. Sabonis is shooting 49.0 percent the last 10 games, nudging him to 44.9 overall, fifth best in the class. He is also third from behind the arc while relying on the three more than any rookie power forward or center besides Saric. Sabonis is also eighth in rebounding, eighth in steals, eighth in minutes, eleventh in scoring and tied for fourth in blocks. Own land in or very close to the top 10 in that many categories keeps a spot in the rankings, however tenuous.

10. Rodney McGruder, Miami Heat

Last week: 10

McGruder vs. Marquese Chriss (and several other candidates) for the final spot is close, and Chriss is trending in a good direction. But McGruder is second best among rookie guards in shooting, behind only Brogdon, eighth in the class regardless of position, and sixth in rebounding with one recent stretch of six, five and eight boards at 6-foot-4. McGruder has not only been starting for about three weeks, he has consistently been getting more than 30 minutes per game and sometimes in the high-30s. If he can capitalize and turn that into nights of big scoring, he can move up.

Dropped out: Malcolm Delaney (8)

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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