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NBA Rookie Of The Year Watch: Wiggins On Top After Parker Injury

With Jabari Parker out, there’s a new No. 1 in the rookie rankings.

Jesse Blancarte

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Before this season started, many NBA analysts and fans believed this year’s class of rookies was one of the most talented in the last decade. Unfortunately, many of the most heralded rookies have been sidelined for extended periods of the season, while others have suffered season-ending injuries.The most recent rookie to suffer a significant injury is Jabari Parker, who tore his ACL on December 15 in a game against the Phoenix Suns.

Parker has been at the top of these rankings all season, and was showing gradual improvement in his game until the injury. Parker is the second top rookie to suffer a season-ending injury. Los Angeles Lakers forward Julius Randle suffered a broken leg in his NBA debut against the Houston Rockets back in October.

With Parker out for the season, Andrew Wiggins takes over the top spot by default. There are no clear challengers to Wiggins at this point, but there are some new faces in this week’s ranking, including Wiggins’ teammate Zach LaVine.

Now let’s take a look at who else made the top 10 this week:

10.  Dante Exum, Utah Jazz:

Exum continues to receive limited playing time (17.5 minutes per game in December), which stifles his nightly impact. However, through 12 games played in December, Exum has shot 47.8 percent from the field and 46.2 percent from beyond-the-arc, which are significant improvements over his season averages.

Exum’s ability to knock down shots from deep is encouraging, especially considering the concerns surrounding his shooting mechanics entering this season. And though he doesn’t average many assists per game, Exum has proven to be a skilled and willing passer that is always looking to setup his teammates.

Exum also gets credit for staying within his role and not forcing the issue. He plays within the Jazz’ offense and rarely tries to do too much. However, we would like to see him be more aggressive as a scorer and play-maker at some point.

Unfortunately Exum’s limited playing time, among a few other things, keep him at the end of the top 10 for now.

9.  Kostas Papanikolaou, Houston Rockets:

Kostas Papanikolaou recently missed a few games with a knee injury, but is now healthy and has played in the Rockets’ last three games. However, Papanikolaou is playing less minutes per game than he did earlier in the season, which has caused him to slip in the rankings.

Papanikolaou’s shooting has been shaky all season, but his ability to impact games in other ways, including with his passing and rebounding, is what has kept him in the Rookie of the Year race. But over his last three games, Papanikolaou has failed to impress, scoring eight points, and grabbing just five rebounds collectively.

Papanikolaou will quickly fall out of the top 10 completely if he is unable to offset his poor shooting with his passing and rebounding like he did earlier in the season.

8.  Jusuf Nurkic, Denver Nuggets:

Jusuf Nurkic jumps into the top 10 for the first time this season after receiving an increase in playing time in December.

In his last eight games, Nurkic is still averaging 15 minutes of playing time. But in those 15 minutes, Nurkic is grabbing 5.4 rebounds. That is good for a 20.2 rebound percentage, which is ninth best in the league (among players that have played 15 games or more this season).

With a huge frame, surprising mobility and an ability to grab rebounds at a high rate, Nurkic has the potential to shoot up the rankings. However, that’s assuming his minutes continue to increase moving forward.

7.  Zach LaVine, Minnesota Timberwolves:

With Ricky Rubio sidelined with a severe ankle injury, Minnesota Timberwolves head coach Flip Saunders has turned to Zach LaVine to fill in at point guard.

This month, LaVine is averaging 10.4 points, 4.5 assists, 2.8 rebounds, and 1.2 steals, but is shooting just 38.2 percent from the field and 26.9 percent from beyond-the-arc. LaVine is only 19 years old and is more of a combo guard than a pure point guard, so we expected this sort of inefficiency and inconsistency. In his last four games, LaVine has failed to hit double-digits in scoring, but has tallied a decent number of assists.

LaVine’s shot selection is questionable at best, but he has the skill to catch fire every so often. His last breakout performance was against the San Antonio Spurs earlier this month, where he scored 22 points and logged 10 assists.

LaVine has the talent to be a really good NBA player, and his ability to run the point guard position at such a young age, and with just one year of college experience is encouraging.

6.  Elfrid Payton, Orlando Magic:

Elfrid Payton’s offensive game is still a work in progress (to say the least), but he has put together some decent offensive performances recently. Over his last four games, Payton has shot over 50 percent from the field three times, but missed all seven of his field goal attempts against the Philadelphia 76ers on Sunday.

Payton may not be an offensive weapon at this point, but his defensive intensity continues to impress and his ability to set up teammates for shots is encouraging. In December, Payton is averaging 5.4 assists and just 2.1 turnovers per game. These aren’t Chris Paul numbers, but his turnover rate has declined each month.

5.  Bojan Bogdanovic, Brooklyn Nets:

Bojan Bogdanovic has seen a reduction in his minutes recently (just 12 minutes per game over his last four), which has limited his ability to impact games. The reduction in playing time is understandable, however, considering how streaky Bogdanovic’s shooting has been this season.

When he isn’t connecting on his three-point attempts, Bogdanovic adds little value to the Nets. He doesn’t grab many rebounds (2.6), dish out many assists (0.7) and isn’t a lockdown defender (though he is serviceable).

Bogdanovic’s last four outings are representative of his rookie season so far. Against the Miami HEAT and Toronto Raptors collectively, Bogdanovic scored three points and made just one of his four three-point attempts. Then on Sunday, against the Detroit Pistons, Bogdanovic hit three of his four three-point attempts and contributed 14 points in just 14 minutes. But then he followed up that performance with just five points against the Nuggets and shot just one of four from beyond-the-arc.

Bogdanovic is capable of having a big offensive performance every so often, but he often follows those nights up with duds.

4.  Nerlens Noel, Philadelphia 76ers:

In the month of December, Noel is averaging 7.9 points, 7.6 rebounds, 1.8 assists, 1.7 steals and 1.7 blocks per game.

In his last four games, Noel has scored in double-figures twice, though he scored just one point against the Miami HEAT on Tuesday. Noel’s best recent performance came against the Boston Celtics last Monday, where Noel scored 19 points, grabbed eight rebounds, tallied four assists, three steals and blocked two shots in 29 minutes of action. Unfortunately, these types of performances only occur sporadically for Noel, who has been streaky in his rookie season.

So far this season, Noel has been active on the defensive side of the ball, as was expected of him. He is first among all rookies in steals per game (1.6) and second in blocks (1.5). Also, Noel is holding opponents to a respectable 47.1 percent shooting at the rim (on 8.2 opponent shots at the rim per game), which matches up favorably to noted rim protectors like Andre Drummond, Anthony Davis and Marc Gasol. However, Noel’s offensive game lacks polish and he is struggling to finish at the rim (55.2 percent within five feet on the season).

Noel isn’t a two-way player yet, but has plenty of room to improve moving forward. For now, he holds onto fourth place with his mobility and impact the defensive side of the ball.

3.  Nikola Mirotic, Chicago Bulls:

Nikola Mirotic has played in 28 games so far, but is only averaging 18.5 minutes per game this season. However, Mirotic is having an impact in his limited playing time, averaging 10.7 points, 5.8 rebounds and 1.2 assists while hitting 41.7 percent from beyond-the-arc in December.

Mirotic has had some impressive performances recently, scoring in double-digits in three of his last four outings. His best performance came last Friday against the Memphis Grizzlies, where Mirotic scored 27 points, grabbed eight rebounds and hit all six of his three-point attempts.

Mirotic’s biggest contribution to the Bulls comes from his shooting, which has been on recently. Over his last four games, Mirotic has hit ten of his last 16 three-point attempts, and shot less than 50 percent from the field just once (40 percent against the Wizards on Tuesday). Mirotic may not put up highlight plays like Andrew Wiggins, but he is arguably having the most significant impact of any rookie on a playoff team this season.

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

K.J. McDaniels has had a standout rookie season so far, which is a result of his outstanding work ethic and determination to be a great player. However, he has struggled shooting the ball in the month of December (33.8 percent from the field, 17.9 percent from beyond-the-arc), and he recently admitted that he may have hit the rookie wall.

McDaniels has only scored in double figures once over his last five games, and has made just two of his last ten three-point attempts. McDaniels wasn’t a great shooter in college, so it’s not surprising that his percentages have dipped recently, but we give McDaniels credit for contributing in other ways. In December, McDaniels is averaging 4.8 rebounds, 1.4 assists, 1.2 steals, and 2.1 blocks per game. He is currently eleventh in the league in blocks per game (1.6) and is currently ahead of players like Marc Gasol, Tyson Chandler, Joakim Noah, Larry Sanders, and Al Horford, which is pretty remarkable considering he plays shooting guard and small forward.

Still, McDaniels needs to find his jump shot before he can challenge Andrew Wiggns for the top spot. But considering his work ethic, it would not be surprising to see his shooting stabilize soon.

1.  Andrew Wiggins, Minnesota Timberwolves:

With the season ending injury to Jabari Parker, Andrew Wiggins now stands alone at the top of the rookie rankings. Wiggins leads all rookies in scoring (12.6 points per game), and continues to impress with his three-point shooting (41.7 percent on the season).

Wiggins hit a rough patch recently, failing to score in double-digits in three straight games. However, Wiggins exploded for 27 points, and connected on all three of his shots from beyond-the-arc against the Cleveland Cavaliers on Tuesday night. Wiggins didn’t contribute much aside from scoring against the team that drafted him first overall and subsequently traded him for Kevin Love, but it was an impressive offensive performance nonetheless.

Wiggins is in control of the top spot for now with no other rookie currently challenging him for the top spot.

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 PM: The Wizards Are “More Than Ready” For A Big Year

Washington Wizards shooting guard Bradley Beal says his team is “more than ready” for the start of the NBA season.

Buddy Grizzard

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With several teams in the Eastern Conference taking a step back, the Washington Wizards will be one of the beneficiaries due to roster continuity. Shooting guard Bradley Beal, one of several key Wizards signed to a long-term contract, said the team is “more than ready” for the season and has large expectations.

“This is going to be a big year for us,” said Beal after a Monday practice. “We’re healthy. There’s no excuse for us [not to] get off to a good start.”

Beal added that, while health is a key for the entire roster, it’s especially important for him after struggling with injuries in the past.

“It’s really a confidence booster, realizing my potential, what I can be, the type of player I can be when I had a healthy season,” said Beal of last year’s campaign. “That’s probably what I was more proud of than anything, playing 70-plus games and then playing in the playoffs every game.”

In Basketball Insiders’ season preview for the Wizards, we noted that Beal was Washington’s most efficient ball handler in the pick and roll last season. Beal said that creating for teammates is something he’s worked on in the offseason and will continue to be a point of emphasis.

“That was great for me and the strides I made throughout the year, working on my ball handling, working on creating for other guys and getting my own shot,” said Beal. “Those are the primary things I’m focused on … being able to create better, getting guys easier shots than before, getting more assists and improve everywhere.”

Wizards coach Scott Brooks said after Friday’s preseason finale in New York that he’s been encouraged by the ball movement he has seen since the start of camp.

“I thought a lot of good things happened in training camp,” said Brooks. “The ball movement was outstanding. Guys were sacrificing for one another on the offensive end.”

One thing that should help the ball movement of the second unit is the arrival of backup point guard Tim Frazier, who missed most of the preseason due to a strained groin. Frazier had nine assists and no turnovers in his preseason debut against the Miami HEAT.

“I feel very comfortable with Tim,” said Brooks. “He finds corner threes, which we like.”

Beal added that one area he hopes to improve, both individually and as a team, is rebounding.

“I think I only had like three rebounds [per game] last year,” said Beal. “I obviously love scoring the ball. That’s something I never worry about. I want to continue to fill up the stat sheet a little bit more and contribute to the game in different areas. I think rebounding was something that hurt us a little bit last year.”

The Wizards host the Philadelphia 76ers to open the season Wednesday, and Brooks said it will take a team effort to defend emerging star Joel Embiid.

“He’s a problem,” said Brooks after Sunday’s practice. “His athleticism is off the charts. We’re going to have to do a good job of staying in front of him. You’re talking about a guy that can put the ball on the floor, that can get to spaces and spots that normally a 6-10 guy doesn’t.”

With a revamped bench, roster continuity and good health entering the season, the Wizards look like a team that could challenge the Cavaliers, Celtics and Raptors for supremacy in the East. Beal certainly seems to think so.

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NBA Opening Night Storylines

Hours before the 2017-18 season gets set to tip off, here are some storylines to follow for Tuesday’s games.

Dennis Chambers

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The long summer is over. We finally made it. NBA opening night is upon us.

Rejoice, hoop heads.

Because the NBA is a perfect concoction of chaos at all times, Tuesday’s opening night slate has some can’t-miss built in headlines that the entire league is going to be glued to.

With a new year set to begin, everyone is on the same page. Whether that page includes the likes of Kevin Durant and Steph Curry or Doug McDermott and Tim Hardaway Jr. is a different story. But still, Tuesday marks day one for all teams and as it stands they’re all equal.

As we get set to sit down and dissect these opening game matchups on Tuesday, let’s highlight the most intriguing storylines that will be followed for the rest of the season. There’s nothing like watching a story grown in the NBA from its inception, right?

Boston Celtics vs. Cleveland Cavaliers — 8 p.m. ET (TNT)

This is the game we’ve all been waiting for since late June, when Kyrie Irving let it be known to Cavs owner Dan Gilbert that he wanted out from under LeBron’s shadow.

Three years of NBA Finals appearances, the greatest comeback in basketball history, and a ring to show for was all Irving wanted to walk away from. For him, he felt it was his time to shine.

And because the NBA is the perfect mix of beautiful insanity, it would only make sense that Irving would get dealt to the very team that is jostling for position to unseat the Cavs and King James.

The Irving-led Boston Celtics will have to wait a grand total of one second in the new NBA season to begin their matchup with their point guards old teammates and the team that stands in between them a Finals appearance. With Gordon Hayward and Irving together for the first time against meaningful competition, there’s no better way than to check their fit from the jump than by challenging the conference champions in their building.

But Irving’s homecoming isn’t the only storyline heading into the first game of the season. There are some changes on Cleveland’s end as well.

While the main return for Irving — Isaiah Thomas — won’t be suiting up for the Cavs anytime soon due to injury, there are still plenty of new faces to keep an eye on Tuesday night. First and foremost, Flash is in town. After having his contract bought out by the Chicago Bulls, Dwyane Wade joined forces with his buddy in The Land in hopes of recapturing some of the magic that led them to two championships in South Beach.

By teaming up once again, James and Wade provide some of the best chemistry in the league. Yes, Wade isn’t the player he once was when he and James were winning rings. But something is to be said for knowing exactly where someone will be on the court at all times, and that’s the trait exactly that Wade and James share.

Along with Wade, James and the Cavs are hoping to get some type of resurgence from Derrick Rose and Jeff Green off of the bench. Once Thomas returns to the court for Cleveland, this is arguably the deepest team James has ever been around in Cleveland.

Even with Irving and Hayward on board, Boston will be relying on some role players of their own — namely Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. The back-to-back third overall picks will occupy most of the time at the forward spots opposite of Hayward. As the season moves on, the development of both of these wings will be crucial to how dangerous the Celtics can be past their two star players.

Tuesday night will be must-see television at Quicken Loans Arena. New eras for the Eastern Conference heavyweights are about to begin.

And as James told ESPN’s Rachel Nichols, “The Kid” will be just fine.

Houston Rockets vs. Golden State Warriors — 10:30 p.m. ET (TNT)

On the Western side of the basketball landscape Tuesday night, the potential conference finals matchup will see its first act when the revamped Rockets head to the Bay Area.

Last season at this time, the basketball world was bracing for what the Warriors would look like after adding Kevin Durant to a 73-win team. And as expected, they dominated. Not even LeBron James could put a stop to them, managing just one win in their finals bout.

This year brings in more of the same questions. Can anyone stop the Warriors? Will Golden State just steamroll their way to another championship, effectively sucking the fun of competition out of the entire league?

Well, a few teams this offseason did their best to try and combat that narrative. One of them being the Rockets, who they added perennial all-star point guard Chris Paul to their backcourt.

Putting Paul in the same backcourt as superstar James Harden has the potential to create some of the biggest headaches for opposing teams. The constant ball movement and open looks the two star guards can provide are nearly endless.

While the league swoons over the Warriors’ ability to hit shots from well beyond the arc, it should be noted that it was Houston last year that led the NBA in three-point shooting, not Golden State. It’s certainly not wise to try and go toe-to-toe with the Warriors at their own game, but if there’s ever a team equipped to do it, it’s Houston. Tuesday night will provide a nice preview look at how things in the Western Conference could shake out in the coming months.

Aside from the barrage of scoring that will take place in this matchup, what would a big game be for the Warriors without a little Draymond Green trash talk?

After Rockets head coach Mike D’Antoni told ESPN that, “You’re not gonna stop them. It’s just not gonna happen. They’re not gonna stop us, either,” Green clapped back with a comment of his own, as he always does.

“I don’t know how serious they take defense with that comment,” Green said. “But they added some good defensive players.”

It’s true, the Rockets aren’t considered a defensive stalwart by any means. Last season, Houston was 26th in points allowed, compared to second in points scored. Green may be onto something when it comes to questioning how serious his opponents take defense.

That being said, last year’s Rockets didn’t feature Paul. Even at the age of 32, Paul is still one of the league’s best on-ball defenders. And no matter his age, he’ll always possess that competitive fire he’s been known for over the last 12 years.

Going up against the Warriors at Oracle is usually nothing short of impossible, but if there’s going to be a team to challenge their supremacy this season, we’ll get a good look at how they stack up on night one.

With all of this in mind, let’s not forget that the world’s best league is finally back in action. Give yourself a pat on the back, you made it. Now, go enjoy some basketball.

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NBA AM: Is It Smart To Bet On Yourself In This Market?

Many extension-eligible players opted to bet on themselves and a questionable free agent marketplace next summer.

Steve Kyler

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No Big Surprises On Draft Extensions

The big news yesterday wasn’t a new extension for a 2014 first round draft pick, it was the news that the San Antonio Spurs reached a three-year, $72 million extension with veteran LaMarcus Aldridge.

The news was surprising for a couple of reasons. The biggest being the Spurs had shopped Aldridge in trade scenarios this offseason under the idea that he was a problematic fit for the Spurs.

Ultimately, Aldridge and the Spurs ended up in the same place on his deal. The Spurs were not going to be big free agent players and locking Aldridge in now gives them some security as well as trade leverage later. In Aldridge’s case, his camp saw the marketplace this past summer and all of the mouths that need to be fed in July and realized he wasn’t likely getting more money on the open market come free agency.

One of the things the Spurs found out was that trading a player with a player option is not an easy task as teams that would give up value want to know what comes next, either way. Over the past few years, player options have become almost toxic in trade, mainly because there are two classes of trade partners, one that wants the ending contract and a player for a stretch run in the postseason and teams that want the player for next season. The options make valuing the player sticky at best.

In doing a deal for Aldridge, the Spurs basically lock him into their roster for this season but give themselves a trade chip next summer, if they need it. This was smart for both sides. The Spurs locked in the player and the trade asset, Aldridge locked in money he likely wouldn’t have gotten in the open market.

For those players drafted in the first round of the 2014 NBA Draft, yesterday closed the window on the “Early Extension Period.” While there were talks all the way to the wire on several players, the bulk of the deals that didn’t get done didn’t get close enough to seal the deal.

The Boston Celtics and Marcus Smart frequently talked about an extension, and his camp labeled the talks as getting “close” but ultimately, future luxury tax concerns killed a possible deal before the extension deadline, meaning Smart will hit free agency in July.

The Celtics will have a couple of months to see if Smart continues to evolve before they have to make decisions, and they now know what a deal would take for Smart to sign outright. Given the Celtics tax concerns, there is a window for a team with cap space to poach him in July if they come with the right kind of offer sheet. While the Celtics can obtain the right to match Smart with a $6.53 million qualifying offer, the tax issues won’t go away without a cap dump of a trade. Equally, the Celtics roster is loaded with point guards, so the C’s have the luxury of seeing what unfolds in the next three months before the February 8 trade deadline.

The Orlando Magic and their pair of 2014 draftees, Aaron Gordon and Elfird Payton, talked about extensions, mostly out of courtesy. The Magic would have done deals if it favored the team, but the new front office in Orlando has been open and honest that they are still very much in evaluation mode on the roster and were not going to pay a premium at this point.

The Magic’s reluctance to do a deal wasn’t about valuing either player as both are said to have been very good so far, this preseason. The Magic don’t have a clear-cut direction yet and inking a long-term deal with either would have been counter to their goal of flexibility. Equally, the Magic also know that both players are unlikely to get huge free agent offers unless they blossom this season, which would make matching an easier decision after seeing how they play this season.

Neither player entered the process expecting to reach a deal, so there is no ill-will about not getting an extension. Both players have said publicly and privately they knew they had to earn their next deal and came into camp with that mindset.

The Utah Jazz and guard Rodney Hood engaged on an extension most of the summer. The Jazz are very committed to Hood, but would not commit to a deal at this point for a bunch of reasons, the biggest being they don’t really know what the team is yet. Hood is going to get a big opportunity this year, and the Jazz want to see if he can handle the increased load and stay healthy. Injuries have ravaged the Jazz lately, and they were reluctant to lock in a big number to a player that hasn’t been durable.

Of the bunch, Hood is the most likely to get a deal without the restricted free agent offer sheet process next summer—the Jazz may simply pony up and pay him if he can fill the void they hope he can for the team.

The Milwaukee Bucks and injured forward Jabari Parker did talk about an extension despite him having torn his ACL for the second time. The Bucks looked at the idea of locking Parker in at a value, but ultimately, neither side got close enough for it to be realistic. Parker is expected to return to action sometime in February, meaning he may log enough games for a big deal in July to be realistic, especially if the Bucks are as good as they project to be this year and land home court in the postseason.

The big hurdle for all of the players that did not get an extension is that the free agent marketplace in July does not project to be as robust as it was even last year. A number of agents urged their clients to take the security of money on the table this summer, and many players opted to bet on themselves, which always sounds like a great idea until the reality of restricted free agency sets in.

Nerlens Noel and JaMychal Green were both causalities of a shrinking marketplace this past summer. It will be interesting to see if some of the players that got close this week get less in the open market in July.

More Twitter: Make sure you are following all of our guys on Twitter to ensure you are getting the very latest from our team: @stevekylerNBA, @MikeAScotto, @LangGreene, @EricPincus, @joelbrigham, @TommyBeer, @MokeHamilton@jblancartenba, @Ben_Dowsett, @SpinDavies, @BuddyGrizzard, @JamesB_NBA, @DennisChambers_ and @Ben__Nadeau.

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