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NBA Rookie Of The Year Watch: Parker on top

Basketball Insiders takes a look at which rookies have made a strong early impression this season.

Jesse Blancarte

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It is just week two of the NBA season, but that doesn’t mean it’s too early to look at which rookies are standing out and making an early case for the Rookie of the Year award. The 2014 draft class has been lauded as one of the deepest classes in recent memory and unlike past seasons, there are several legitimate candidates to win the award. However, not every notable rookie is part of the 2014 draft class. There are some overseas players, like Nikola Mirotic and Kostas Papanikolaou, who came over to the NBA this season, and are likely to have a big impact for their teams. In addition, Philadelphia 76ers center Nerlens Noel missed all of last season, which technically makes him a rookie this season.

With such a small sample size to analyze at this point, we will consider things like which players are showing an NBA-ready skill-set, earning significant playing time, and showing an ability to be a difference-maker for their team, in addition to per game statistics.

Here are 10 rookies that have made an early impression so far this season.

1. Jabari Parker, Milwaukee Bucks:

Jabari Parker was picked with the second overall pick in this year’s draft by the Milwaukee Bucks. Many analysts consider Parker to be the favorite to win Rookie of the Year because of his elite scoring ability.

So far, Parker has struggled shooting the ball, but he physically looks ready to compete on a nightly basis against opposing power forwards. Parker is very quick, which makes it difficult for bigger power forwards to stay between him and the basket.

Through four games, Parker is averaging 10.5 points and seven rebounds while shooting 36.7 percent from the field. He has two double-doubles so far, but failed to log an assist in both of those games. The good news for Parker is it looks like Bucks head coach Jason Kidd is going to give him a lot of playing time. The early returns are overall positive, and will be even better once Parker starts knocking down his shots at a higher percentage.

2. Nerlens Noel, Philadelphia 76ers:

During his one season at Kentucky, Nerlens Noel tore the ACL in his left knee. Despite the injury, Noel declared for the 2013 NBA Draft and was selected sixth overall by the New Orleans Pelicans, but was subsequently traded, along with a 2014 first round pick, to the Philadelphia 76ers in exchange for point guard Jrue Holiday and the draft rights to Pierre Jackson. Despite occasional reports that Noel could make his NBA debut in the 2013-14 season, he ended up missing the entire year while he recovered from his knee injury.

Fortunately, Noel is now healthy and made his NBA debut last Wednesday. In four games, Noel has averaged eight points, 6.5 rebounds, 2.5 assists, two steals and two blocks. His best performance so far came against the Milwaukee Bucks, where he scored 14 points, grabbed 10 rebounds and blocked three shots. But Noel’s best singular moment, so far, came against the Houston Rockets when he emphatically denied James Harden at the rim.

Like almost all rookies, Noel has been inconsistent so far, but he looks like the athletic rim protector he was projected to be coming out of college. Sixers coach Brett Brown, who worked extensively with Noel to rebuild his shooting stroke, has given Noel big minutes, and that is not likely to change throughout the season. Noel is a key piece to the rebuilding 76ers’ future and will get as much time and experience as he can handle this season.

3. Elfrid Payton, Orlando Magic:

Elfrid Payton played for three seasons at Louisiana–Lafayette. In his time there, Payton established himself as a talented prospect and strong defensive player. After averaging 19.2 points, 5.9 assists, six rebounds, and 2.3 steals per game in his junior season, Payton declared for the 2014 NBA Draft where he was selected 10th overall by the Orlando Magic.

Through four games, Payton has averaged 7.8 points, 7.5 assists and 4.3 rebounds per game. So far Payton has been hesitant to shoot the ball beyond mid-range (he has not attempted a three-pointer so far), but he is impacting games in other ways. His defense has been solid overall and his vision, and passing have been better than expected.

Payton is the point guard of the future in Orlando and like Noel, he is going to get as much time as he can handle this season.

4. Nikola Mirotic, Chicago Bulls:

Nikola Mirotic was drafted 23rd overall by the Houston Rockets in the 2011 NBA Draft. He was then traded to the Minnesota Timberwolves and then traded to the Chicago Bulls. After years of playing in the Euroleague, Mirotic agreed to a three-year, $16.6 million contract with the Bulls this offseason.

So far Mirotic has looked solid on offense, hitting 45.5 percent of his attempted three-pointers. Through four games, Mirotic has averaged 6.3 points, 5.3 rebounds and 1.5 assists. He has yet to play more than 30 minutes in any game, but is adding spacing for the Bulls when he is on the floor.

Unfortunately for Mirotic, his minutes will likely fluctuate with Pau Gasol playing 35.5 minutes per game, and Taj Gibson playing 29.7 minutes per game. However, it’s possible that Mirotic keeps knocking down shots and forces head coach Tom Thibodeau to give him significant playing time.

5. Andrew Wiggins, Minnesota Timberwolves:

By this point, you probably already know who Andrew Wiggins is. He’s the kid who as a prospect was compared to LeBron James, had an up-and-down single season at Kansas, was drafted first overall in this year’s draft by the Cleveland Cavaliers, and then traded to the Minnesota Timberwolves so that James could team up with Kevin Love in Cleveland. The expectations are high for Wiggins, but everyone understands that he is a work in progress.

Wiggins has yet to reach double-digits in points in any one game, but he has shown skill and attention defensively. However, against the Chicago Bulls on Saturday, Wiggins learned the hard way that sometimes you can be overaggressive on defense. Wiggins was guarding Jimmy Butler with 2.9 seconds left, and his team up 105-104. Wiggins bit on Butler’s pump-fake and fouled him, sending Butler to the free throw line. Butler made both free throws and won the game for the Bulls.

Through three games, Wiggins has averaged 7.3 points, 4.3 rebounds, 1.7 steals and has shot 37.5 percent from the field. It’s clear when watching Wiggins why he was drafted first overall. He has the size, athleticism and skill to be an elite two-way player, but is still very raw and inconsistent. The good news for Wiggins is that head coach Flip Saunders has increased his minutes each game, which hopefully will continue moving forward.

6. Marcus Smart, Boston Celtics:

Marcus Smart, picked sixth overall by the Boston Celtics, played two seasons at Oklahoma State University and is considered to be one of the most NBA-ready players in this year’s rookie class.

Smart has already proven in just three games that he can matchup defensively against NBA point guards. With Rajon Rondo and Avery Bradley also on the roster, the Celtics boast a stifling defensive backcourt, though there are rumors that Rondo may be traded at some point this season. If he is, Smart will get the opportunity to start at point guard, and make his case for Rookie of the Year.

In three games, Smart has averaged 6.3 points, three rebounds, two assists, 1.7 steals, and has shot 14.3 percent from beyond-the-arc. Smart has shown good court vision and passing skills, however, like in college, Smart continues to put up a high number of jump-shots despite his inconsistent shooting. Smart is at his best when he is in transition or taking the ball to the basket and creating for others, so hopefully he reduces the number of three-pointers he takes moving forward and starts attacking the rim more.

Smart should be in the Rookie of the Year race all season, and if Rondo is traded, he could become the favorite to win the award.

7. Kostas Papanikolaou, Houston Rockets:

Kostas Papanikolaou was selected 48th overall in the 2012 NBA Draft by the New York Knicks. He was traded to the Portland Trailblazers, who then included him in a trade to the Houston Rockets in exchange for Thomas Robinson.

In five games, Papanikolaou has averaged six points, four rebounds, 3.6 assists, and 1.2 steals per game while shooting 34.8 percent from beyond-the-arc, and has already established himself as an important part of Houston’s rotation. He can handle the ball well, is a good passer, a capable shooter and can play both forward positions.

His overall shooting from the field has been poor, but as long as he continues to do a little bit of everything, and knock down open three-pointers, he should gain recognition as one of this season’s most productive rookies.

8. K.J. McDaniels, Philadelphia 76ers:

K.J. McDaniels was drafted 32nd overall in this year’s draft after playing three years at Clemson. McDaniels notably would not agree to a proposed deal from the 76ers that was guaranteed for the first two seasons, and non-guaranteed for years three and four. Instead, McDaniels agreed to a one-year, non-guaranteed tender that will make him an unrestricted free agent after this season.

McDaniels bet on himself, and in the first few games of the season, it looks as though it was a good bet. In four games, McDaniels has averaged nine points, 1.8 rebounds, one assist, and 1.3 blocks per game while shooting 54.5 percent from three-point range. McDaniels is not registering many assists or rebounds, but his ability to block shots seems to have carried over to the NBA effectively.

McDaniels looks like he can contribute right away, but like other rookies, has seen only limited playing time so far. But if he can keep performing at this level, he should get more minutes and a nice pay-raise next season.

9. Aaron Gordon, Orlando Magic:

Aaron Gordon was selected fourth overall in this year’s NBA Draft by the Orlando Magic after playing one season at Arizona.

Gordon is mostly known as a raw athlete with major upside. He impressed in his NBA debut, putting up 11 points, three rebounds, one steal and one block while shooting five-of-eight from the field. However, since his debut, Gordon’s minutes have been reduced, and his ability to make an impact has diminished.

Gordon will struggle at times this season as he works through adjusting and refining his shooting-stroke. He will also struggle to find consistent playing time with forwards like Tobias Harris, Channing Frye, Andrew Nicholson and Moe Harkless on the roster.

Through four games, Gordon is averaging 5.3 points, 2.5 rebounds and 0.5 assist per game.

10. Dante Exum, Utah Jazz:

Dante Exum was selected with the fifth overall pick by the Utah Jazz. Like Gordon, Exum is just 19 years old and very raw. Through four games, Exum is averaging six points, 0.8 rebounds and 1.5 assists per game. He has shot the ball well from beyond-the-arc (36.4 percent) and has been relatively effective on the defensive side of the ball so far.

Exum may end up being one of the best players from this draft, but he has a long way to go. In the meantime, knocking down three-pointers, moving the ball effectively and not making too many rookie-type mistakes will earn him playing time. So far, Exum is yet to play more than 20 minutes in any single game.

Jesse Blancarte is a Deputy Editor for Basketball Insiders. He is also an Attorney and a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

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NBA Daily: Three-Point Champion is Just a Regular Joe

Joe Harris had his league-wide coming out at All-Star weekend when he shocked fans across the globe in upsetting three-point shootout favorite-Steph Curry.

Drew Maresca

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Joe Harris’ fortunes and those of the Brooklyn Nets appear to be traveling on the same trajectory. Harris’ personality and approach embody the softer side of the Brooklyn Nets’ team persona: he is loyal, hardworking and humble. And while Jared Dudley and DeMarre Carroll provide veteran leadership and Spencer Dinwiddie and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson offer personality, Harris provides a grounded approachability.

No one would blame him, though, if he develops a small ego. After all, Harris just received his formal introduction to the world, having won the NBA’s three-point championship last weekend in Charlotte, North Carolina. It’s hard to deny that his star is rising.

And yet, Harris seems unaware that his status is rising.

“To be honest, I am solid in my role. That’s what I’m about,” Harris told Basketball Insiders before the Nets’ January 25 game against the Knicks. “I’m pretty realistic with where I view myself as a player. And I have the self-awareness to realize that I’m not a star player in this league by any means. I mean, I’m good in my role and I’m trying to take that to another level and be as complete as I can in my niche role that I have.”

While Harris’ comments could be misinterpreted as a humble brag, they shouldn’t be. He is simply a hard-working player who perhaps doesn’t quite realize everything he adds to his team. But let’s be clear, Harris’ presence absolutely improves the Nets’ play.

Harris boasts the second-best three-point percentage in the NBA (.471) through the first four months of the season; he trails only Victor Olapido and J.J. Reddick for top three-point percentage of all 48 players who have at least 10 “clutch” attempts from long-range and he’s ranked tenth in points per clutch possession (1.379).

He helps space the floor for teammates D’Angelo Russell and Spencer Dinwiddie, who take advantage of his long-range acumen by attacking an often less congested pathway to the hoop — and drives account for 53.4 percent of the Nets’ points (third in the entire league).

It is no surprise then that the Nets are currently in sixth place in the Eastern Conference.

“At the end of the day we’re just trying to go play good basketball.” Harris said. “The wins are a byproduct of that. It’s about staying locked into this process and how it’s gotten us here regardless of who is on the court.”

Harris’ dedication to the team and its process is becoming more unique each year as players hop from franchise to franchise more frequently than ever before. While Harris only joined the Nets in 2016, he was immediately seen as a key player by the Nets’ leadership, albeit one on a minimum deal – according to Kyle Wagner of the Daily News, Coach Kenny Atkinson saw a lot of Kyler Korver in his game and GM Sean Marks wanted him to study Danny Green.

And while Harris’ 2018-19 stats reflect similar production to the career highs of both of Korver and Green (13.2 points per game with an effective field goal percentage of .622 for Harris versus 14.4 points with an eFG% of .518 for Korver and 11.7 points with an eFG% of .566 for Green), at only 27 years old, he should only continue to improve.

A lot has changed in the two and a half seasons since Harris signed a free agent deal with the Nets, but one thing that hasn’t changed is his character.

“We had various deals that were shorter for more (money),” Harris said. “And some were longer and roughly the same, but this is where I wanted to be and I’m happy it ended up working out.”

Harris ultimately signed a two-year deal for approximately $16 million, which can be viewed as both cashing in, given where he was only two years ago (out of the league), and betting on himself, considering the short-term nature of the contract and his relative youth.

And what’s more, Harris will probably go down as a value signing for the Nets considering his versatility. After all, he is not merely a one-dimensional shooter. In fact, he is actually shooting slightly better than 60 percent on 3.2 attempts per game from the restricted area – which is better than All-Star teammate D’Angelo Russell (53 percent on 2.8 attempts). Further, Harris shoots a fair amount of his three-point attempts above the break, which is to say that he does not rely heavily on the shorter corner threes – which tend to be a more efficient means of scoring (1.16 vs. 1.05 points per possession league-wide from 1998-2018) as they are typically a spot where specialist players lurk awaiting an opening look.

The question is, how much more can we expect to see from Harris in the future? If you ask him, he’d probably undersell you on his ceiling and allude to steady progress that ultimately looks similar to what he’s done recently. But the only thing similar about Harris’ career production is that it has steadily improved – and that’s partially due to his process-oriented approach.

“We talked about it in the midst of the losing streak,” Harris said. “What are you going to change, what are you going to do (when you’re in a slump)? Not that we were going to do the exact same thing, but we felt like we were very process oriented. We felt like we were right there. Our whole thing was about being deliberate and doing it as consistently as possible.”

Harris sees the validity in repeating what works. And he’s figured that out, partially with the help of his teammates. Harris clearly values veteran input and team chemistry.

“You look at our team right now and we have really good veteran presences with Jared and DeMarre and Ed (Davis),” Harris said. “That’s the voice from the leadership standpoint. I’m learning from them just like DLo is. And all the other guys in the locker room are. They’re the guiding presence of what it is to be a professional and they keep everything even keel. They don’t go too low when things are tough, and they don’t let us get too high when things are going well.”

Harris is clearly a little uncomfortable taking credit for his team’s success, and he shies away from the spotlight a bit. He seems to prefer anonymity. But Harris should probably get used to the attention he’s received this season because it will only increase as his profile continues to rise as we enter the 2019 NBA Playoffs.

“He’s not just a shooter,” Atkinson told NBA.com last April. “He’s worked on his drive game, he’s worked on his finishing game. I think he’s worked on his defense. So just a complete player who fits how we want to play. He’s one of our most competitive players. Not a surprise watching, from the first day we had him, how locked in he was, how hungry he was. On top of it, he’s a top, top-ranked human being.”

So expect to see more of Joe Harris this April and beyond, but don’t be surprised by his humility. It’s one aspect about him that won’t change.

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NBA Daily: Danuel House Optimistic About Future

David Yapkowitz speaks to Danuel House about life as a two-way player for the Houston Rockets & what he hopes comes out of his time in the G League with the Rio Grande Valley Vipers.

David Yapkowitz

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Opportunity is everything in the NBA. Last season’s implementation of two-way contracts gave a lot more players potential opportunities in the league that may not have been previously available.

One player who has used two-way contracts to showcase himself and really prove that he belongs in the NBA is Danuel House Jr.

House actually began his career two years ago as an undrafted rookie with the Washington Wizards. However, he suffered a wrist injury only about a month into the 2016-17 season.

He was subsequently cut by the Wizards and used the summer to heal up before joining the Houston Rockets for training camp prior to the start of last season. He ended up being one of the final cuts in camp, and he joined the Rockets’ G League affiliate, the Rio Grande Valley Vipers.

His strong play earned him a two-way contract with the Phoenix Suns after only two months of G League play. This year, he rejoined the Vipers, only to earn another two-way contract with the Rockets. Having had some experience now with a two-way, it’s something that House sees as being beneficial.

“It’s got its good perks and its bad perks. But then the NBA is just trying to open more doors for more guys to be seen and have an opportunity,” House told Basketball Insiders. “I think it’s a good idea, it’s gonna work the kinks out so it can be more beneficial to the players. It’s still new and it’s still trending and working itself through the NBA.”

This season has been a bit of a whirlwind for House. He initially joined the Golden State Warriors for training camp, only to have them cut him before the start of the season. After spending about a month with the Vipers, the Rockets called him up, only to cut him and then eventually re-sign him to a two-way deal.

Due to injuries in the Rockets lineup, House saw meaningful minutes right away, even being placed in Houston’s starting lineup. He had some solid performances down the stretch of last season with the Suns, but this season he really looked the part of a legitimate NBA rotation player.

When a player signs a two-way deal, they are allotted a maximum of 45 days of NBA service, meaning that the rest of the time they must remain in the G League. If a player exceeds the 45-day limit, they must be sent back down to the G League unless they’re able to reach an agreement on a standard contract with the NBA team.

Because of the Rockets’ necessity of House in the rotation, he used up his NBA days last month. He and the Rockets were unable to agree on a contract, so he returned to the G League with the Vipers. While there haven’t been many updates as of late, he’s still hopeful that something can work out with the Rockets.

“Hopefully I can go back to Houston and compete for a title. There’s nothing like learning from James [Harden] and Chris Paul, Gerald Green, Eric Gordon and those guys,” House told Basketball Insiders. “And now with the additions of [Iman] Shumpert and Kenneth Faried, I’m just excited to hopefully get something done so I can be out there and competing with those guys.”

Initially, House wasn’t playing with the Vipers upon returning to the team. But he made his return to the court a few weeks ago on Feb 8. In that game, House shook off some initial rust and ended up having a solid performance including hitting the game-winning free-throws.

In the past, the G League was often times seen as a punishment for NBA players. The league didn’t have that great of a reputation, but over the past few years that image has started to change. The competition has gotten a lot stronger, and according to House, there are plenty of guys who are that close to making it to the NBA.

“The competition here is real. There’s a lot of dudes out here that got a lot of talent that they can showcase. They just want their one opportunity, their one chance that I was so fortunate and blessed with,” House told Basketball Insiders. “I know not to come out here and take it for granted, that’s why I’m playing hard and of course still trying to be a student of the game and learn.”

Recently, during a media availability session, Rockets star and perennial MVP candidate James Harden expressed hope that the Rockets and House could work something out. Harden told reporters that they all know how good House is and what he brings to the team.

In 25 games for the Rockets this season – including 12 starts – House put up nine points per game while shooting 45.8 percent from the field and 39 percent from the three-point line. He’s in the mold of a three-and-D type player, but he also moves well without the ball on cuts to the rim and can attack the basket as well.

“My role was to play defense and make the right read,” House told Basketball Insiders. “Shoot when I’m open, drive, attack the rack, and run the floor. Of course, defend and rebound and make good reads. It was easy.”

As it stands, the Rockets have 12 players on their roster, and a pair of two-way deals for House and Vincent Edwards. House is not eligible to rejoin the Rockets until the G League season concludes. Even then, he won’t be eligible to play in the playoffs as per two-way deal restrictions.

The Rockets will need to add at least two players to get up to the league-mandated 14 players on the roster. House would appear to be a good candidate for one of those spots, but that remains to be seen. But regardless of whether or not it works out in Houston, House is confident that he’s done enough to prove he belongs in the NBA.

“It gave me the utmost confidence, but my hard work, my passion, and my faith in the man upstairs gave me the ability. I asked him to guide me through the journey and he’s been taking care of me,” House told Basketball Insiders. “I’m so grateful that the opportunities and I used my ability to perform and do something I love to take care of my family.”

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Insiders Podcast

PODCAST: Checking In On Clippers & Lakers, East Arms Race, Warriors’ Challengers

Basketball Insiders Deputy Editor Jesse Blancarte and Writer James Blancarte evaluate the L.A. teams after the trade deadline, break down the Eastern Conference contenders, and look for the Warriors’ biggest challengers.

Basketball Insiders

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Basketball Insiders Deputy Editor Jesse Blancarte and Writer James Blancarte evaluate the L.A. teams after the trade deadline, break down the Eastern Conference contenders, and look for the Warriors’ biggest challengers.

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