When we think of basketball players who make their teammates better, it’s most common to consider these concepts offensively. An elite passer makes the game easier for teammates by setting them up for easy shots, a knockdown shooter makes creating those lanes easier by providing spacing and a gravity-inducing roll man can do much of the same in different ways.
The theme isn’t unlike many within the game: It’s much easier to describe and quantify offensively, but the true representation of this sort of player might come on the other end. As it turns out, several of the top candidates for Defensive Player of the Year are fantastic embodiments.
Before we get to the three-man ballot, a nod to one name who isn’t appearing this year, but might represent this theme just as well as anyone.
Just like LeBron James hasn’t vacated the title of world’s best player despite an MVP campaign that feels increasingly unlikely, Kawhi Leonard hasn’t given up the crown of “best perimeter defender alive” despite the possibility that he won’t three-peat for DPOY. His exclusion from the final triumvirate here is as much a nod to what each of these three have done as it is a knock on Leonard’s season.
The Spurs’ defensive performances with Kawhi on and off the court have been covered ad nauseam all year long, and with reason. They’re just curious. San Antonio doesn’t appear to have many other elite-level defenders on paper, which makes the fact that they’re nearly 10 points per-100-possessions better defensively when Leonard sits on the bench – roughly the difference between a league average unit and one of the stingiest defenses in history – extremely intriguing.
There’s a ton of noise in these numbers generally, leading many to speculate that they should be ignored in Leonard’s case given all we know about him. They’re also the polar opposite of several of the top candidates this year, plus a complete reversal from every other season Kawhi has posted in San Antonio outside his rookie year, leading to the other side of the argument leaning heavily on these team figures as a case against him.
A crazy thought: Maybe it’s some of both, and it’s possible to note the departures from the norm without simply assuming the guy forgot how to play defense at age 25. Awards have a way of polarizing things, and even Kawhi hasn’t been spared.
Through this lens, he falls just short of a spot on the podium. Leonard’s Defensive Real Plus-Minus figure has dropped right along with his on/off court numbers, and while there’s noise here too, there’s less. Something different is certainly happening.
It could trace back to the way Leonard is being matched up with opposing stars, or the way some teams have effectively begun ignoring him – willingly relegating star players to the corner and effectively running the offense four-on-four just so Kawhi can’t screw things up too much. It definitely relates to the three-point percentages the Spurs allow while he plays, which could be chalked up heavily to variance (38 percent while he plays, 29 percent while he sits – at least some of that is pure randomness).
It could have a lot to do with his increased burden offensively, now one of the largest in the league. Most of these things are helping the team overall, even if they aren’t helping Leonard’s individual defensive value through our tracking methods.
Those are very good potential reasons for some of what we’ve seen. Do they absolve him from a value-added standpoint, though? No, at least not entirely. Even if we presume he’s at fault for absolutely none of the team’s superior performance without him on the court, it’s still the case.
This can all be true without us somehow assuming he’s now a subpar defender; it’s a simple reality of the incomplete defensive metrics we have available, and it’s also part of the beauty of basketball. Rest easy, Spurs fans.
3. Andre Roberson, Oklahoma City Thunder
If you’ve invested yourself deeply in one of recent memory’s most divisive MVP races, chances are you’ve heard a bit about Russell Westbrook and stat-padding. With rebounds in particular, the thinking goes, the Thunder play a wholly unique style that allows Russ to swoop in for a bunch of uncontested boards, especially after missed free throws, while his big men focus solely on making sure there’s no one there to compete with him on the glass.
How the resulting impact on Westbrook’s rebounding figures warps an MVP debate already supercharged by human obsession with round numbers is a question for another time, but there’s a more practical team element here too. Russ is among the league’s premier transition players, and getting the ball in his hands as quickly as possible after opponent misses lets him maximize his skills here. Teammates like Steven Adams and Enes Kanter are sacrificing in part for the good of the team.
Here’s the thing: Their individual sacrifice might not be the most significant on the team. That title could easily go to Andre Roberson.
As this pen recently noted in the link above, there might not be a more impressive part of Westbrook’s campaign than his raw physical accomplishment. Only seeding-induced rest will keep him from starting all 82 games this year, with a league record usage rate and a physical burden that possibly no one has ever accomplished before him. Frankly, Russ matching an arbitrary statistical record first set by a guy who didn’t even finish second in MVP voting that season should carry much less weight than this.
Roberson helps make it all possible, often in ways you’d never notice. He’s been on the court for about 80 percent of Westbrook’s minutes on the year, minutes where Russ hasn’t spent a single intentional possession guarding the opponent’s top ball-handler – Roberson takes the task every time. Opponents get fewer layups and threes when he plays with Westbrook than when Westbrook plays alone, and they shoot a lower percentage from everywhere. Most important during these minutes is what Russ isn’t doing: Defending a high-intensity matchup.
Combine Roberson’s defensive prowess and Westbrook’s insane ability to create shots for himself down the stretch with zero help, and you’ve actually arrived at the Thunder’s clutch time strategy.
It’s quite the opposite of most teams, who typically bank on increased energy levels to carry their defense and often put many of their best scorers on the floor to make sure they can get a bucket when it counts. Thunder coach Billy Donovan usually puts a defensive-minded group around Russ instead, led by Roberson, and focuses them as a defensive shutdown unit while Westbrook does his thing with the ball. OKC is the league’s second best per-possession team in the clutch as a result, and their defense in these minutes is also second. Roberson deserves the lion’s share of credit for keeping this roster in the league’s top 10 defensively.
This is a whole new kind of team catalyst, one we’re very unaccustomed to seeing. Some of the gritty details of Roberson’s defensive game were outlined in this space back in February, and not much has changed. He’s still a sneakily great off-ball defender who constantly finds little ways to make things easier on teammates, and he still suppresses opposing field goal percentages by some of the highest amounts in the league among volume wing defenders.
His versatility has been huge, as has his preparation and study of the little details that make him a great defender. There’s no type of lead ball-handler he can’t deal with at an elite level, and he’ll more than hold his own against the kinds of bigger power forwards he used to bang with every game in high school. Some of the best guys in the league on the block have gone at him this season, and have shot an unholy 36 percent, per Synergy Sports.
Whether Roberson is a “better” perimeter defender than Leonard isn’t the question here; whether he’s impacted his team in bigger ways defensively is, and there’s a real case for it this year.
2. Draymond Green, Golden State Warriors
1. Rudy Gobert, Utah Jazz
If listing these guys as 1a and 1b didn’t feel so tacky, that’s how this would look. Hell, if the entire North American sports world wasn’t angrily against the ideas of ties, we’d have entertained that designation as well.
These two swapped places on this list at least a dozen times in the last few weeks, and you can switch them in your mind all you want with no complaints. They’ve had two of the most impactful defensive seasons in recent memory, and have done so in completely different ways. You can list all the of stats, the records and the eye test stuff, and it’s still really hard to find objective factors that separate them by a wide enough margin.
By the raw numbers, Gobert gets the small edge. His Defensive Real Plus-Minus figure leads the league by a not-insignificant margin. He’s about a full point per-100-possessions more “valuable” than Green defensively by this metric, which accounts for teammate and opponent context among other factors, and roughly twice as impactful as any player outside the top 15. Gobert’s figure here would be the highest in the metric’s short history since their calculation methods changed after their first year in public circulation.
The Stifle Tower (the only acceptable nickname in this space, thank you very much) leads the league in defensive win shares, and while Green holds the edge in defensive box plus/minus, Utah has seen a larger negative defensive effect when Gobert hits the bench than when Green does so for the Warriors.
All those numbers have at least some degree of noise involved, and this debate deserves more.
Both these guys are more than the foundation of their teams’ defense; they’re almost synonymous with them. There isn’t a single other player in the league more vital to his team’s basic defensive identity than these two, and there’s a case to be made there hasn’t been one in several years.
Green has been part of a similar debate in this space during each of the last two years (he’d have taken Leonard’s first DPOY title if this pen was the only one voting), and the only thing that’s changed this year is his surroundings. Draymond has even less defensive help than he used to after the departures of guys like Andrew Bogut and Festus Ezeli, plus a lengthy injury to Kevin Durant that meant more defensively than many would assume.
It hasn’t mattered much. Green is still humming (yelling?) along as the driving force that makes the league’s most unique defense possible. The switching fad that’s blown up around the NBA the last few years is due more to him than any other single player, and the Warriors can do it in ways virtually no one else can simply because he’s on their team.
Within the course of a few minutes, Draymond can do this to an athletic or crafty ball-handler:
And then do this to a guy who’s five inches taller and nearly 40 pounds heavier than him in the post:
The list of stuff he does at an elite level is longer than any other defender in the league. He’s the vocal captain of one of the NBA’s smartest defenses; DeAndre Jordan gets a ton of credit in Los Angeles for the way he’s learned opposing play calls and will shut them down in live time, but Green does much of the same for a team that’s way more active on D. Telegraphed actions are suicide against this defense while Draymond is on the floor, and he’s a master at using that extra beat while a team sets up an attack to quickly switch out of a negative matchup.
The Warriors’ tempo is a big factor in their continued success, and Green drives the train here as well. The Dubs dominate the transition game on both sides when he plays. They score nearly double their opponents’ per-possession fast break points during these minutes, a gap that shrinks to almost zero when he sits. Green gets credit on both sides: His ability to push the ball himself following rebounds and turnovers (often of his own creation) juices their attack, and he’s often the first guy back contesting looks the other way.
Curiously, factors that have become something of a calling card for each guy might actually point in the other direction. Gobert has become synonymous with interior defense and rim protection, and with damn good reason, but did you realize the two are giving up identical percentages at the rim?
This is a bit misleading, of course. Gobert challenges a significantly greater number of shots, and that matters a lot. They’re also very different types of shots, on balance.
If you view the numbers only as a plus for Draymond and not a knock on Rudy, though, you’re on the right track. Green might be the most underrated rim protector in the game, and is on the short list for the best in history at his size or shorter. Look at him almost casually get into position to contest against Clint Capela – is there any doubt about what’s about to happen here?
Man, Green probably spent that time in the air thinking about which diss he could yell at Capela after they landed to deliver maximum impact without getting himself T’d up.
On the flip side of that reputational coin, Gobert has had a much more pronounced effect on non-interior elements of defense than his profile would suggest. Green is the prototypical versatile defender, and much of his popular case is the effect he has on every area of the offense – interior, perimeter and everything in between. Most label it a significant edge over Gobert, and in some ways it certainly is.
All this stuff is connected, though. And while numbers here can be noisy, they actually suggest that Gobert’s presence has perhaps meant more to Utah’s non-interior defense than Green’s has to Golden State’s, even if Green is “directly” involved more often.
As we illustrated in this space a few months back, Gobert is a wild card in the NBA’s defensive deck. He allows the Jazz to cover the pick-and-roll, by far the league’s most popular basic play type, in a unique way: With only two guys, and extremely limited help defense. The Warriors’ three-point percentage allowed actually goes up when Draymond plays, as do their per-possession attempts allowed, often a more telling factor. The Jazz, though, see both areas decline marginally with Gobert on the floor.
This could be noise in Green’s case, but it almost certainly isn’t for Gobert. The idea that Rudy doesn’t affect three-point shooting has always been silly – the Jazz allow the second-fewest per-possession three-point attempts in the league and the fewest from the high-value corners, and his impact inside is a huge reason for that.
Have you ever stopped to consider the percentage of threes that result directly from a driver forcing help, scrambling the defense and kicking out to an open shooter? That happens a lot less when you rarely have to bring the help, and that only happens when you have a giant like Gobert who can credibly cover a ball-handler and a roll man at the same time, with zero assistance.
Old-school folks like to talk a lot about plays that “don’t show up on the stat sheet.” In today’s day and age, they get the chance less and less often; advanced video and tracking software makes it tougher and tougher to find an important play within an NBA game that can’t be quantified in any way whatsoever.
Gobert has these folks covered, and his talent here lies in a skill that many stat nerds would kill for in the publicly available SportVU data set: Not rim protection, but rim deterrence. Guys are ready to take that ball hard to the rack… and then Gobert enters their line of sight.
Ball-handlers who should know better find themselves aborting drives at the worst times, and Gobert’s savvier teammates know it’s coming.
“He does such a good job protecting the rim that it allows us to do some other things defensively,” said Jazz coach Quin Snyder. Over time, pushing guys in Gobert’s direction has simply become part of the defense, rather than a bailout. “So it is baked in with what we’re doing.”
Oh, that whole switching thing? He can do that, too, at least for those rare possessions where the Jazz need it out of him.
“The thing that I’m aware of as much as anything is Rudy being able to come out on the floor better,” said Snyder. “That’s another type of ‘deterrence.’”
One more time, loudly and for the record: There isn’t a bad choice here. Both guys drive and define their defenses in incredible ways we’ve rarely seen in recent years. One might be more versatile, and the other might have more raw impact – but even those conclusions are based on incomplete pictures.
Green seems far more likely to take home the actual hardware, but both deserve a spot in our memory for their incredible defensive seasons.
NBA Daily: Washington’s Positionless Rebuild
Drew Maresca explains why the Washington Wizards’ are closer to legitimacy than you might think
Upon first glance, the Washington Wizards look like an absolute train wreck. They traded away a lottery-protected 2023 first-round pick to swap out John Wall for Russell Westbrook – whose contract will haunt them through the end of 2022-23 – and they are on the verge of chasing away their 27-year-old, thirty-point per game scoring guard, Bradley Beal. So insert your “Washington can’t get their stuff together” comment here while you can, because the opportunity won’t be here for long.
Before getting too far ahead of ourselves, it’s worth acknowledging that the Wizards have, in fact, botched the opportunity to build a winner around Beal thus far. But, when John Wall opted to have heal surgery and subsequently ruptured his Achilles, the door shut on that option, anyway.
There is an obvious silver lining – Beal is signed through the end of next season with a player option for 2022-23. Given what the Milwaukee Bucks gave up for Jrue Holiday last offseason, one could assume that the Wizards would get more than enough to jump-start a rebuild in exchange for Beal.
But a look closer at Washington’s roster would reveal they’ve quietly laid a foundation for the future. Specifically, the Wizards’ last two lottery picks, Rui Hachimura and Deni Avdija, embody position-less basketball, as versatile, highly skilled players who can be plugged into almost any lineup. Both were recently named to the Rising Star challenge — although it won’t be played due to inherent limitations in the arrangement of the 2021 All-Star Weekend, NBA coaches clearly agree. Sure, there’s international appeal given Hachimura’s Japanese background and Avdija’s Israeli heritage, which one could surmise was a major motivator in naming one or both to the team, but coaches aren’t known for playing politics.
So let’s take a closer look at the young Wizards hoping to lead Washington into the future.
Avdija is a top-flight, Israeli prospect who played on for EuroLeauge’s storied Maccabi Tel Aviv – alongside former pros Amare Stoudemire and Omri Casspi – as a teenager for the past two seasons. He entered the NBA as a highly-touted playmaker, capable of playing and defending multiple positions. Somewhat surprisingly, Avdija fell to the Wizards with the ninth pick in the 2020 NBA Draft, as he was rated as the fourth-best prospect by the Wizards’ front office prior to the draft, according to sources.
The comparisons between Avdija and Luka Doncic were inevitable, as both are big, point forward types with a flair for the dramatic. That put obvious pressure on the young forward and, while he’s struggled for much of his rookie season – Avdija is averaging just 6.0 points, 4.6 rebounds and 1.3 assists per game while connecting on 35.6% of his three-point attempts – his ceiling is obviously sky-high. He’s shown flashes of his greatness, like in a game in early March in which he recorded 10 points, 7 rebounds; or an early January game in which he collected 20 points, 5 rebounds and 5 assists.
Further, no one should be discouraged by Avdija’s struggles. First, he shot just 27.7% on three-point attempts last season in the EuroLeague – so his three-point percentage this season should come as a huge relief. Further, Avdija is averaging just 21.4 minutes per game, often deferring to Beal and Westbrook (and, to a lesser degree, Hachimura and Thomas Bryant). So, as much as everyone wanted him to be the next Doncic, the opportunity simply hasn’t been there.
But the potential is.
Wizards coach Scott Brooks explained some of what’s went wrong for Avdija’s thus far: “It’s normal to have some good moments and some tough moments. Every player, every single player in this league. I’m sure Michael [Jordan] had a couple of bad games in his rookie year. Every player. Russell [Westbrook], I coached him his rookie year. He’s had a handful.”
“Deni’s gonna be a good player,” Brooks continued. “For all the rookies in the league, it’s never happened where you had no Summer League, really no training camp and then with the safety protocol, he missed three weeks in the middle of the season. That’s hard to overcome.”
To Brooks’ point, the lack of preparation has definitely made the transition for Avdija even harder. What’s more, it’s not just Avdija who’s struggled; Obi Toppin (New York) and Devin Vassell (San Antonio), two of the more refined prospects, have also struggled to get carve out a consistent role.
Further, Avdija isn’t the first lanky foreigner who needed more than a third of a season to acclimate to the NBA; Dirk Nowitzki averaged just 8.2 points in 20.4 minutes per game as a rookie; Manu Ginobili averaged just 7.6 points in 20.7 minutes per game; Danilo Gallinari averaged just 6.1 points in 14.6 minutes per game. The list goes on.
Once he gets an actual opportunity, Avdija’s bandwagon should fill up quickly.
If Avdija is Washington’s future facilitator, then Hachimura is its finisher. And, while questions plague Avdija’s performance, Hachimura is being praised for his.
To be fair, Hachimura is farther along in his development, with one NBA season already under his belt (and three years at Gonzaga). Hachimura, already 23, is a bit more refined and it shows in his output: 13.2 points, 5.9 rebounds and 1.8 assists this season.
That said, a closer look at Hachimura’s play shows room for improvement – with a below league-average 12.9 PER and a 29.2% three-point percentage serving as his most glaring weaknesses. But, like with Avdija, the upside is clear as day. We’re talking about a second-year player who scored 15 or more points 11 times so far this season – just 26 games. He’s strong, polished and bouncier than advertised prior to the 2019 draft.
Further, a closer examination of his shooting numbers reveals that while his three-point shooting clearly needs work, his mid-range game is spot on. Hachimura is connecting on 41.2% of his shots from between 16 feet and the three-point arc – better than noted midrange expert Carmelo Anthony (37%) and just hair behind All-Star forward Jayson Tatum (42.9%).
But Hachimura’s offensive abilities have been known for what feels like forever, partially due to the ridiculously long 2019-20 season. What’s surprising, though, is how he’s continued to improve on the defensive end – so much so, in fact, that Brooks specifically called out his defensive development after a recent game.
But no one should be that surprised. Hachimura’s combination of speed and strength, along with his high motor, is tailor-made for defensive success. And, again, like Avdija, the 6-foot-8 Hachimura’s versatility is his major selling point. He boasts size, dexterity, touch and handle. And, while his skill set has become far more common in the NBA, plug-and-play guys of Hachimura’s build are still relatively rare. And, most importantly, they allow teams to get creative in roster construction, enabling the addition of players whose deficiencies could be covered up by players like Hachimura.
Ultimately, neither Avdija nor Hachimura is a guarantee. Both possess serious upside and could grow into perennial All-Stars, but neither is a sure thing. Their attitudes and approaches will be a major determining factor in their success, or lack thereof.
The Wizards could look very different as soon as next season. But, as of now, Washington looks ready to tackle its rebuild — and, between these two, they may already have a headstart.
Blink and you might just miss their entire rebuild.
NBA Daily: Three Teams Failing Expectations
Expectations were extremely high for three teams entering this season. A variety of factors have derailed their trajectory but there may still be time to address their issues and turn their seasons around.
Every offseason presents the opportunity for organizations to revamp their rosters in hopes of improving their team for the upcoming season. Between the NBA Draft and the free agency period, executives are busy around the clock. The flurry of phone calls and internal discussions among management is key to molding the future.
But the league found itself in an unfamiliar position this past year with the delayed season, the playoffs in the Orlando “bubble” and a shortened offseason that went by in the blink of an eye. The first preseason game tipped off exactly two months after the final game of the NBA Finals. The turnaround was quick and complicated for everyone involved.
That said, several teams were able to capitalize on the abbreviated turnaround. The Phoenix Suns knocked it out of the park with the Chris Paul trade and signing of Jae Crowder. The Charlotte Hornets nailed the draft and free agency, as Michael Jordan landed both Gordon Hayward and LaMelo Ball. The New York Knicks found success in the draft with Immanuel Quickley and Obi Toppin. The Brooklyn Nets added excellent role players in Bruce Brown and Jeff Green while re-signing Joe Harris, who has been worth every penny.
Some teams appeared as though they had hit a home run, only to see the ball being caught at the warning track. The hype and buzz surrounding these teams were well warranted at the time, but things just haven’t panned out for a variety of reasons. With the All-Star break finally here, these three teams would welcome the idea of hitting the “undo” button on their offseason moves.
The Raptors find themselves sitting two games under .500 entering the All-Star break. While they are certainly not out of contention, they are a far cry from where most people thought they would be at this point. It began with a rocky start to the season, where they dug themselves a massive hole with a 2-8 record.
The crux of their struggles came with their frontcourt issues. Both Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka took the Kawhi Leonard route from Toronto to Los Angeles in the offseason. Losing one of their big men hurt, but losing both of them was crippling. The signings of Aron Baynes and Alex Len looked okay on paper, but the fit could not have been worse. Toronto currently ranks dead last in rebounding as a team.
Toronto ended up waiving Len, while Baynes has seen his role reduced even more. Fortunately, the emergence of Chris Boucher and Norman Powell has helped the Raptors turn their season around. Draft picks Malachi Flynn and Jalen Harris haven’t had a major impact, but Pascal Siakam finally snapped out of his bubble fog and Kyle Lowry is healthy once again as well.
One good thing that the Raptors were able to do in the offseason was retain their sensational guard Fred VanVleet. Toronto has seemingly turned things around over the past few weeks and, considering they are playing all of their home games 1,400 miles away from their arena, they are positioned for a much better second half of the season.
Last season, the Mavericks boasted the best offense in the entire league, led by MVP-candidate Luka Doncic. The goal for them in the offseason was to acquire a defensive presence that could get this team more balanced. It appeared as though they addressed that when they traded Seth Curry to Philadelphia for Josh Richardson. Unfortunately, that has not been the case early on.
Dallas was also looking for an upgrade at the center position, but they missed out. They ended up having to settle for bringing back Willie Cauley-Stein on a two-year deal for $8.2 million. As a team, the Mavericks rank 24th in rebounding. James Johnson has been a solid addition, but he alone was not nearly enough to upgrade their porous defense.
Kristaps Porzingis has been quite inconsistent this season, so it is difficult to know what they are going to get from him every night. He is nowhere near the defensive presence that he was during his time in New York. Richardson is the guy that Dallas has been waiting on to provide outstanding perimeter defense, but he too has been unable to piece it together on a nightly basis.
The Mavericks did not find anything in the draft and it seems as though, once again, Doncic is having to do everything for this team in order for them to have success. His 36.2 percent usage rate is the highest in the league and that doesn’t appear to be going down anytime soon. If you are going to give the keys to the entire offense to someone, he is a good choice but Dallas struck out in terms of giving their franchise player more help this season.
No team had won the offseason quite like the Hawks. The organization was able to surround its franchise player with truckloads of talent in free agency. They added elite shooters like Bogdan Bogdanovic and Danilo Gallinari. They added key defensive guards in Kris Dunn and two-time champion Rajon Rondo. They even scored more talent in the draft, taking Onyeka Okongwu with the sixth overall pick.
Atlanta lost no players of significant value, either, as general manager Travis Schlenk added to his already loaded young nucleus of Trae Young, John Collins, Clint Capela, Cam Reddish, De’Andre Hunter and Kevin Huerter. The problem here is that there are just too many overlapping pieces.
The veterans that were brought in either haven’t been able to get on the floor or are taking up valuable minutes for the younger players, potentially stunting their growth. The workload has been spread thanks to their depth as they deal with all of the injuries but there is no chemistry on the floor. In a season where practice time is near non-existent, that is a real problem.
Kevin Huerter on Lloyd Pierce: “Obviously, our problems extend a lot further than Lloyd, so in a lot of ways, he was the one that kind of took the hit for it.”
Huerter says he sent Lloyd a text thanking him for his time in Atlanta.
— Sarah K. Spencer (@sarah_k_spence) March 3, 2021
The Hawks hit the All-Star break in 11th place in the Eastern Conference with a disappointing 16-20 record. The game is being played in their backyard, yet they don’t even have a player to represent them. And, in recent days, it’s gotten even worse; the team officially fired head coach Lloyd Pierce on Monday, with Nate McMillan set to take over as interim coach.
Atlanta has played 36 games this season. Their nine best players have missed a combined 143 games. Not including Dunn, who hasn’t played all season, that number is still well over 100 games missed. This locker room is a mixed bag of players that lack leadership and desperately need guidance. Pierce wasn’t the answer and Vince Carter isn’t walking through those doors anytime soon.
NBA Rookie of the Year Watch – March 5
Two rookies have pulled away from the rest of the pack in the hunt for the Rookie of the Year award. Tristan Tucker breaks down how the rookie pyramid is shaping up halfway through the season.
The All-Star break is nearly upon the NBA, and the Rising Stars rosters were just announced with several rookies leading the charge. Two players have pulled away by a significant margin in recent weeks, with several first-year players making impacts on winning teams. Let’s take a look at how the rookie ladder has changed over the last two weeks.
1. LaMelo Ball, Charlotte Hornets (Previous: 1)
February was kind to the Eastern Conference Rookie of the Month, who’s ascended to another level of stardom in the NBA in just his first season. The rookie is averaging 20.1 points, 6.7 assists, 6.2 rebounds and 1.7 steals per game during that span. Since Basketball Insiders’ last update to the rookie ladder, Ball put up a stretch of five 20-plus point games, including a 30-point showing against the Portland Trail Blazers and a 24-point, 12-assist game in Charlotte’s wild win over the Sacramento Kings.
WILD sequence at the end of Hornets-Kings as Malik Monk wins it with an and-one 😳pic.twitter.com/FNEhgdRVr0
— ClutchPoints (@ClutchPointsApp) March 1, 2021
One of the concerns surrounding Ball when he entered the league was his ability to knock down jump shots at an effective rate. The 6-foot-6 point guard has shattered those concerns with his recent play and knocked down 40.7 percent of his attempts from downtown in just under seven tries per game.
When Charlotte parted ways with Kemba Walker in the summer of 2019, it would’ve been far-fetched to imagine that the Hornets would be stacked at the point guard position in just two years. However, with Ball and Terry Rozier, the Hornets are looking at a legitimate shot at the postseason.
2. Tyrese Haliburton, Sacramento Kings (Previous: 2)
Together with Ball, Haliburton has all but cemented this Rookie of the Year race as a two-party contest. It gets harder to not give Haliburton the top nod with each passing week; the rookie out of Iowa State is completely dominating off the bench for the Kings. Though he’s missed the last three games for Sacramento, Haliburton is averaging 17.4 points, 6 assists and 2.4 steals per game while shooting a very impressive 47.9/39.4/85.7 line in five games over the last two weeks.
Haliburton’s excellence extends beyond his scoring, as the Kings are 1.5 points better when Haliburton is on the floor. Furthermore, the 6-foot-5 guard boasts an assist percentage of 24.6, which ranks in the 97th percentile of all NBA players and a 1.33 assist to usage clip, which ranks in the 100th percentile.
The Kings have to feel good about their young core in spite of their record, especially with Haliburton earning Western Conference Rookie of the Month honors and a spot on the Rising Stars roster.
— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) February 24, 2021
3. Immanuel Quickley, New York Knicks (Previous: 5)
Before the season, nobody would’ve guessed that the Knicks would be the fifth seed at the halfway point of the season. Head coach Tom Thibodeau and improved veteran play from All-Star Julius Randle and others have sparked the franchise’s turnaround. No player, however, is more synonymous with that spark of energy than Quickley.
Since the last ladder update, Quickley is averaging 13.5 points on a staggering 48.4 percent clip from deep. When the team acquired Derrick Rose, Quickley’s playing time was in the air, but the rookie’s resilience and determination have kept him in the lineup as he continued to exceed expectations.
4. Saddiq Bey, Detroit Pistons (Previous: 6)
Bey’s placement here should be representative of the overall fantastic job the Detroit Pistons have done with all of their young pieces. Bey is obviously playing great — more on that later — but other draftees Isaiah Stewart and Saben Lee are playing phenomenally as well. Then there’s the case of resurgences in Josh Jackson — averaging a career-high 13.5 points per game — and Dennis Smith Jr., who was just acquired and posted a triple-double in a blowout win.
— SLAM (@SLAMonline) March 4, 2021
But, in a year that many thought would be a throwaway for the Pistons, especially with seventh overall pick Killian Hayes sidelined, Bey and the rest of the young corps along with Jerami Grant and company have stepped up and delivered exciting basketball to Detroit.
Over the last two weeks, Bey is averaging 11.7 points and 5 rebounds per game while shooting an impressive 37 percent from deep on just under eight attempts per game. If Hayes pans out, the 2020 NBA Draft is shaping up to be a turning point for the Pistons.
5. Anthony Edwards, Minnesota Timberwolves (Previous: 3)
If Edwards could hit shots at even a 45 percent clip, there’s little doubt that he would be running away with the scoring title of all rookies and perhaps the Rookie of the Year award itself. However, it continues to be a hindrance, as Edwards is shooting a horrid 32.8 percent from the field and 25.4 percent from 3 in the last two weeks.
It’s unfortunate that the shooting is so inconsistent, as he’s put together a string of four 19-plus points per game contests and several highlight-reel plays across the span of the last two weeks.
ANTHONY EDWARDS…DUNK OF THE YEAR. 😳😳😳
— Hoop Central (@TheHoopCentral) February 20, 2021
The last two weeks brought a lot of turmoil to light for the Timberwolves, with the team undergoing a head-coaching change, bringing in Chris Finch from the Toronto Raptors to replace Ryan Saunders. But that’s not all, as Ricky Rubio recently voiced displeasure with the team’s performance and D’Angelo Russell and Malik Beasley continue to be out.
With all the drama surrounding Minnesota, it’s hard to envision any rookie seeing much success there. The fact that Edwards is able to put these high-scoring performances together at all is telling of how special a talent he can be.
6. Jae’Sean Tate, Houston Rockets (Previous: 4)
Tate’s on-court production has dipped slightly in conjunction with the Houston Rockets’ losing streak, but the hyper-athletic forward is still giving it his all on a nightly basis. Look no further than the fact that the team is parting ways with DeMarcus Cousins for proof that Houston believes in Tate as a member of its future.
Houston plays better when Tate is on the floor, per Cleaning the Glass. And with that comes rejuvenated energy from all points on the court. When Tate is on, the team’s offensive rebounding percentage increases by 8.1 percent, which ranks in the 98th percentile of the entire NBA.
Even though the Rockets are in a slump, Tate is averaging 9.8 points and 6.2 rebounds per game on 47.9 percent shooting from the field. Most recently, he enjoyed a double-double in James Harden’s return to Houston.
Honorable Mention: Isaac Okoro, Cleveland Cavaliers (Not Ranked)
Okoro gets his first rookie ladder nod after the Cleveland Cavaliers saw a fantastic stretch in which the team won four straight games. During that span of time, Okoro averaged 10.1 points, 3.7 rebounds and 1.3 steals while seeing season-best shooting figures of 49.1 percent from the floor and 41.4 percent from three.
The 6-foot-5 forward out of Auburn has played the second-most minutes of any rookie and has started in every game for the Cavs, a promising start to Okoro’s career. Okoro is also playing strong defense for a Cleveland team that desperately needs good defenders and his stock could rise as the weeks go on.
With a multitude of highlight-reel dunks, passes and plays in just the last two weeks, several rookies are making big impacts on teams in a year where young depth is crucial. While Ball and Haliburton are currently leading the race, don’t sleep on James Wiseman to make a resurgence, as he scored 14, 11 and 16 points, respectively, in his first three games since returning from injury. Be sure to check back with Basketball Insiders for the next rookie ladder to see how tight this competition gets!