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NBA Rookie Of The Year Watch – 3/27/18

With only a few weeks remaining in the 2017-18 season, a check-in on this strong rookie class is long overdue.

Ben Nadeau

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Two fantastic rookies have entered the proverbial ring and only one can emerge victorious at season’s end — but will it be Ben Simmons or Donovan Mitchell? The last time Basketball Insiders weighed in on the Rookie of the Year race, it was just over a month ago — so what has changed since then? Honestly, both everything and nothing. Do you prefer the 6-foot-10 point forward nearly averaging a triple-double or the high-scoring, high-flying guard that finishes games like a five-time All-Star? There is truly no wrong answer.

Although the top two contenders for the award are signed, sealed and delivered, earning an honorable mention is nothing to scoff at either. From playing considerably large roles on playoff-bound teams to filling up the box score, this rookie class has emerged as one of the strongest in recent memory. With that in mind, let’s check in on some of the league’s most impressive youngsters heading into the final few weeks of their inaugural seasons.

6. Lauri Markkanen, Chicago Bulls

With the Bulls’ season all but over, it’s been understandably easy to forget about Markkanen and his pitch-perfect style of play at times. The Finnish 7-footer has been consistently stellar since October, however, averaging 14.8 points and 7.6 rebounds over 61 games and contributing those numbers from day one. From his long-range forte, Markkanen is tallying two three-pointers per contest, which ranks just him ahead of the perennially great Kristaps Porzingis (1.9), Khris Middleton (1.8) and LeBron James (1.8).

Furthermore, Markkanen’s statistically solid resume ranks him 4th in scoring, 2nd in rebounding and 2nd in three-point makes per game for all rookies. Alongside Kris Dunn and Zach LaVine, the Bulls have certainly acquired some intriguing pieces to build around — but Markkanen is undoubtedly the crown jewel. It’s been a turbulent season for Chicago, so Markkanen’s name has unsurprisingly fizzled from the conversation, but he absolutely looks like a franchise cornerstone and a force for years to come.

5. Josh Jackson, Phoenix Suns

As of late, Josh Jackson is scorching hot and everybody is more than happy to watch him smolder.

With the Suns currently leading the race to the bottom, Jackson has been officially unleashed. Through the first half of the season, Jackson scored 15 or more points on just five occasions. But since the calendar flipped to the new year, Jackson has reached that mark in 23 of the Suns’ last 33 games. While he’s not even close to the shooter Devin Booker currently is — Jackson still just shoots 26 percent from three-point range — the 21-year-old forward has bloomed with purpose. Last week, Jackson dropped 36 points, six rebounds, four assists and two steals on 60.9 percent shooting against Golden State, often using his hyper-athleticism to exploit a battered Warriors side.

In March alone, Jackson has averaged 15.2 points, 5.1 rebounds and 1.5 steals on 44 percent shooting. Beyond his burgeoning offensive skills, Jackson is often long enough to defend most guards, but athletic enough to bang in the paint with those bigger and stronger than him. All in all, things have started to slow down for the high-energy prospect and Phoenix has reaped the benefits. Should the Suns land a blue-chip rookie like Luka Doncic or Marvin Bagley in the upcoming draft, things could finally take off for this slumping franchise.

Either way, Jackson will be at the forefront of Phoenix’s future indefinitely.

4. Kyle Kuzma, Los Angeles Lakers

While Kyle Kuzma certainly went through a mid-season rough patch, the talented scorer has still been a major asset to an overachieving Los Angeles outfit.

Averaging 15.8 points and 6.2 rebounds, Kuzma has logged important minutes alongside Julius Randle, Brook Lopez and, until February, Larry Nance Jr., in a crowded backcourt. And since the latter was moved to the Cleveland Cavaliers, Kuzma’s playing time has skyrocketed even higher. Kuzma has reached the 20-point plateau in half of Los Angeles’ games this month and he looks like he’ll finish the season the same way he started it.

On an individually strong Lakers roster, Kuzma ranks 3rd in scoring, 4th in rebounding and 4th in three-point percentage — an impressive showing for the former No. 27 overall selection. Before the season began, the Lakers were expected to find themselves at home in the conference basement once again. Instead, Los Angeles is currently closer to the eighth seed (10 GB) than they are from the league-worst Phoenix Suns (14 GB) — this achievement falls squarely on the early development of Kuzma.

While Kuzma deserves plenty of rookie praise, he won’t win the biggest prize — but that’s perfectly fine. He’ll have to settle for a likely berth on the NBA All-Rookie Team — oh well!

3. Jayson Tatum, Boston Celtics

The early season injury to Gordon Hayward obviously thrust Jayson Tatum into the spotlight back in October, but the Celtics haven’t stopped leaning on their impressive rookie since — and rightfully so. Through 11 games in March, Tatum has averaged 16.1 points and 6.1 rebounds on 50 percent from the floor. With Kyrie Irving and Marcus Smart both sustaining major injuries since the All-Star break, a heavy load has been asked of Tatum — and, more or less, he’s delivered. Tatum has played in all 74 games this season and the just-turned 20-year-old has helped keep Boston locked-in to the conference’s second-best record.

Although he’s no longer making half of his three-point attempts, 42.5 percent is still a considerable asset for this determined Celtics squad. That remarkable conversion rate ranks Tatum at No. 13 in three-point percentage league-wide, just narrowly ahead of All-Stars like Stephen Curry (42.3), Karl-Anthony Towns (42.7) and veteran teammate Al Horford (42.9) — not bad for a rookie, huh?

T-1. Donovan Mitchell, Utah Jazz

Lately, the fiery debate between Donovan Mitchell or Ben Simmons for the No. 1 rookie slot has only gotten stronger. While Simmons is still likely the frontrunner, it would be simply unwise to dismiss Mitchell’s monster performances along the way. Mitchell has scored 20 or more points in six straight contests, a streak exists within a crucial 11-2 stretch that has kept the Jazz alive in the cutthroat postseason chase. Capped off by an electric 35-point effort — albeit in a four-point loss to the forever-tough San Antonio Spurs — Mitchell has continued to lay serious claim to Simmons’ crown.

Mitchell currently sports a 28.8 percent usage rate, good for 23rd across the entire NBA and ahead of both John Wall and Kemba Walker. For a rookie, that’s nearly unheard of. Naturally, much has been made about Mitchell’s shooting percentages, but it’s also hard to argue with the win-loss column too much. Since Rudy Gobert returned from a month-long PCL injury in mid-January, Utah owns a record of 24-6 — you can thank Mitchell for that as well.

The polarizing differences between the two top rookies have made for a compelling race down the stretch, but particularly so now that Mitchell has the Jazz within striking distance of the playoffs. Mitchell’s 20.3 points per game lead all rookies and he undeniably has a strong case for taking home this award.

T-1. Ben Simmons, Philadelphia 76ers

In the other corner, of course, is Ben Simmons, the do-it-all point forward that is a triple-double threat every night. Simmons has tallied 16 points, 7.9 rebounds, 8.1 assists and 1.7 steals per game on an extra-efficient 53.8 from the floor. Although he’ll have to improve on his range this offseason — 77.8 percent of his shots have come within 0-10 feet — it’s been wildly entertaining to watch Simmons let the game come to him. His 10 triple-doubles only trail LeBron James (16) and Russell Westbrook (23), the latter of whom just won MVP last year for averaging one over an entire season.

As a 21-year-old, Simmons has come pretty close to that mark himself.

And as Basketball Insiders’ Dennis Chambers pointed out during a deeper discussion last month, history is also very much on Simmons’ side: “Just six players have finished a season averaging at least 16 points, seven rebounds, and seven assists per game while shooting 50 percent from the field: LeBron James, Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, Oscar Robertson, and Wilt Chamberlain.”

For rookies, Simmons is 2nd in points, 1st in rebounds, 1st in assists and 1st in steals — if that’s not Rookie of the Year worthy, what is? With Simmons leading the way, the 76ers have gone 10-3 and risen from postseason pests to potential owners of home-court advantage in the first round. Simmons will likely terrorize the NBA for years to come — that much seems evidently clear already — but he’ll have to hold off Mitchell’s strong chase to close the season out.

And this may seem like a total cop-out — but why not both?

The dual-winning selection has only happened three times in NBA history: Dave Cowens and Geoff Petrie split the honors back in 1970-71; Grant Hill and Jason Kidd did so in 1994-95; and, finally, Elton Brand and Steve Francis in 1999-00. You’d be hard-pressed to find any fans — casual or crazed — that can’t appreciate the artistic abilities of both Mitchell and Simmons, no matter how difficult this looming decision may seem.

Either way, whatever happens over these final two weeks, this rookie class is shaping up to be one of the finest versions yet.

Ben Nadeau is a Seattle-based writer in his third year with Basketball Insiders. For five seasons, he covered the Brooklyn Nets for The Brooklyn Game.

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Where Can Dallas Go From Here?

The Dallas Mavericks have had a bad season, what can they do to turn it around?

Zach Dupont

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The Dallas Mavericks struck gold in 2018 when they secured Slovenian superstar Luka Doncic in the NBA Draft.

Fast forward to 2021 and Doncic has already emerged as one of the best players in the NBA and a borderline perennial MVP candidate. This season, Doncic is averaging 28.5 points, 9.0 assists and 8.4 rebounds per game and was just named as a starter in the All-Star Game for the second time in a row. But Doncic’s success isn’t leading the Mavericks to wins as Dallas holds a mediocre 17-16 record and currently sits 9th in the Western Conference.

Outside of Doncic, the Mavericks lack the scoring needed to push them over the top. Kristaps Porzingis is Dallas’ second-leading scorer, averaging 20.5 points per game, but he has had trouble staying healthy, playing in only 17 games. Porzingis hasn’t been shooting the ball consistently either, shooting only 35 percent from three-point range so far.

Dallas, as a team, needs help with their outside shooting. The Mavericks are 23rd in the NBA in three-point shooting percentage, hitting 35.3 percent of their outside shots on the season. This problem is exacerbated by the fact that Dallas shoots the ninth most three-pointer per game at 37.1 three-point attempts – wilder, ranking ninth in three-pointers attempted rate, 42.7 percent of Dallas’ shots come from beyond the arc.

The defense has also been a thorn in the Mavericks’ side this year. At one point, Porzingis was one of the more dynamic shot blockers and interior defenders in the league, but this season he has taken a step back. Dallas rocks the fifth-worst defensive rating in the NBA of 114.4, only beating out the Washington Wizards, New Orleans Pelicans, Portland Trailblazers and Sacramento Kings. Having the fifth-worst defense isn’t good enough if the Mavericks are serious about competing this year.

One player that might help Dallas in both areas is a former player, current Sacramento Kings’ wing Harrison Barnes. Barnes has had a very productive season in Sacramento, averaging 16.1 points per game on 48.9 field goal percentage and 40 percent from three. At 6-foot-8 and 225 lbs, Barnes has the size to defend elite wing players, often doing a modest job for a very bad defensive. Barnes also is capable of operating as a secondary ball-handler with some limited playmaking abilities that could help diversify the Mavericks’ offense.   

Another player rumored to be on the market is Charlotte Hornets guard Terry Rozier. The Hornets have a log jam at the guard position between Rozier, LaMelo Ball and Devonte’ Graham, and Rozier could be a nice fit alongside Doncic in the backcourt. Rozier would immediately improve the Mavericks’ three-point shooting as Scary Terry is knocking down 44.5 percent of his deep hoists. Another benefit of bringing in Rozier is his ability to act as a primary ball-handler, alongside Doncic that would take the pressure off to create a basket every time down the floor. Rozier’s defense does leave a lot to be desired, but he works hard on that end and averages 1.3 steals per game.

Further, two big men known to be on the trade block are Atlanta Hawks forward John Collins and Cleveland Cavaliers center Andre Drummond. In his fourth season, Collins has taken another step forward on both ends of the court, averaging 17.4 points on an ultra-efficient 62.2 true shooting percentage. Collins has also improved as a defender since he first entered the league and is now making a much more positive impact on defense.

This improvement is evident by his defensive rating of 111.7, more than two whole points lower than the Hawks’ team defensive rating of 113.8, per NBA.com. Collins does have some drawbacks though, chief among them is that he’ll hit restricted free agency this offseason in time for a massive payday.

Drummond has sat out since the Cavaliers started looking for a partner, and Dallas presents an exciting option for the 27-year-old center. Drummond is a monster on the glass, averaging 13.5 rebounds per game this season – a number that is actually the lowest he’s put up since 2014-15. For Drummond to fit on this team and help them win games, he’d have to cut back his scoring attempts dramatically.

Drummond’s 17.5 points per game look nice, but when paired with a 50 percent true shooting, it’s much less appealing. However, the potential rim protection and rebounding may be worth the risk of his lackluster offensive numbers – best of all, the asking price should be low too.

A roadblock to acquiring anyone for Dallas is their lack of assets to give back in a trade. The Mavericks don’t own their 2021 or 2023 first-round draft picks, which leaves them only able to trade a first-round pick at the earliest for 2025. Dallas isn’t loaded with prospects to ship away either. Any of the 2020 draft picks would provide some value, but not enough to get a deal done for a significant difference-maker.

Dallas has their generational talent, but they need to build a roster around him if they expect to succeed and lock down a potential-laden future together.

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Anthony Edwards Showing Promising Progression

Anthony Edwards has been a highlight reel every single night but his poor shooting has gotten a lot of attention as well. Chad Smith details why there should be no cause for concern regarding the future of the top overall draft pick.

Chad Smith

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There is a lot of pressure that comes with being selected number one overall in the NBA Draft. This is especially true in today’s game, where the top pick is expected to have an immediate impact. Often times when a player is the top pick, they are instantly the most talented player on their team, or at least have the most potential.

This was not the case for Anthony Edwards and the Minnesota Timberwolves.

Karl-Anthony Towns is still the face of the franchise. And, as many highlight plays and rim-destroying dunks that Edwards provides, he is still a raw talent with a lot to learn. To his credit, Edwards not only is well aware of and acknowledges that fact, but has the work ethic and maturity needed to fulfill his potential.

The former Georgia Bulldog is still just 19-years-old, but he has the physical tools to do what a lot of players in the league cannot. He does an excellent job of leveraging his size, speed and quickness to get wherever he wants to on the floor. His rebounding and defense have already improved just 35 games into the season. The glaring weakness in his game is shooting efficiency, which every scouting report on him around the league has written in all caps with red ink.

Edwards is shooting 37 percent overall from the floor, 31 percent from beyond the arc and 80 percent from the free-throw line. The latter indicates that he has the touch but the accuracy just isn’t there from long range. On average, Edwards takes 14 shot attempts per game and six of them are of the three-point variety. Nearly half of his shot attempts come from the three-point line because he is typically wide open, which plays right into the hands of the defense.

Once Edwards gets a grasp of how the game is played and what the defense is trying to do to him, a light will go off in his head. The old saying goes “take what the defense gives you” but it is also important to recognize your own strengths and weaknesses. Based on his work ethic and desire to improve his game, it is only a matter of time before he figures it out.

The numbers show that Edwards is already evolving in other areas of the game. After blocking just two total shots in the month of January, the rookie recorded 12 blocks in February. His 3.2 rebounds per game in January rose to 5.1 last month and his assist average went from 1.9 to 3.3 per game.

Minnesota owns the worst record in the league, but help is on the way. The Timberwolves fired head coach Ryan Saunders after their 7-24 start to the season. Minutes after the news broke, the team already had their new man: Chris Finch, one of the NBA’s top assistant coaches for quite some time. More importantly, Finch has a long history with Gersson Rosas and a solid track record of molding talented young players.

Finch worked with a young Nikola Jokic when he was with the Denver Nuggets and helped develop Anthony Davis when he worked for the New Orleans Pelicans. He joined the Toronto Raptors coaching staff this season and molded Chris Boucher into one of the top candidates for the Most Improved Player Award; it wouldn’t be the first time he pushed a player into the award, either, as he helped Brandon Ingram win the award during the 2019-20 season.

One other notable thing that Finch did while in New Orleans is fix Lonzo Ball’s jump shot. He started with the mechanics. Instead of Ball bringing the ball up from the side of his hip, Finch was able to get him to bring it up in the middle of his body. He also worked with the young guard on his shot selection, both of which have paid large dividends this season.

There will be plenty of tools for Finch to incorporate into his plans to resurrect one of the league’s worst offenses. Along with Towns and Edwards, the Timberwolves have been getting fantastic production from Malik Beasley, who just received a 12-game suspension. Ricky Rubio has been filling in nicely as former All-Star D’Angelo Russell is out with a knee injury. Jarred Vanderbilt, Jarrett Culver, Josh Okogie and rookie Jaden McDaniels are all part of the young nucleus that Finch inherits as well.

Before the coaching change, the Timberwolves scored just 1.15 points per possession on cuts and 0.86 points per possession off of screen plays, per Cleaning The Glass. Both of these ranked bottom five in the league. Finch loves to incorporate off-ball screens and cuts to the basket so this should give them a nice boost, especially with excellent cutters like Edwards and Okogie.

Despite the typical rookie efficiency issues, Edwards has been contributing in other ways. Using his elite athleticism to get to the rim provides Minnesota a multitude of positive outcomes. Edwards can either finish at the rim, create space for others to get open shots, or get fouled and collect points at the free-throw line, being the excellent free-throw shooter that he is.

It is easy to see that Edwards has the desire to win; he cares about winning and the team’s success overall. After their game against the Raptors, all anyone wanted to talk about was his incredible dunk over Yuta Watanabe. Edwards didn’t miss a beat though. “I don’t care about the dunk,” he said. “I couldn’t make shots.” Edwards did not dwell on the moment either, leaving the podium and heading back out onto the court to get more shots up.

There is a long history of guys in this league that have struggled with efficiency, then became decent or above-average shooters. It’s all about hard work, dedication, and repetition. Edwards has all of the ingredients needed to improve that part of his game. That is just one piece of the puzzle in Minnesota but one that could finally steer this franchise in the right direction.

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NBA Most Valuable Player Watch – March 1

With the All-Star break on the horizon, Tristan Tucker updates the MVP ladder, with two former MVP winners picking up steam in recent weeks.

Tristan Tucker

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In a typical year, it’s rare to see more than two players in serious contention for the MVP award midway through the season. But, as everyone knows all too well, this is no normal NBA season, with three players alternating between the top three spots on what seems like a daily basis.

With the All-Star break nearly here, it’s time to take a look at how the MVP race is shaping up at the halfway point of the season.

1. Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers (Previous: 1)

Embiid is at the top of his game right now, averaging 31.5 points, 13.2 rebounds and 4.7 assists per game in the time since Basketball Insiders’ last ladder update. In that span, Embiid is shooting 47.2 percent from downtown, with a 50-point performance against the Chicago Bulls and a 42-point performance against the Cleveland Cavaliers.

Even more impressive, the 76ers are outscoring opponents by 18.8 points when Embiid is on the floor, which ranks in the 100th percentile of the NBA. That kind of production is literally unmatched, which should give Embiid a clear edge in the MVP race.

Philadelphia is a far more up-and-down team now than they were to begin the year, but Embiid’s continued growth has the 76ers with legitimate title hopes just five years removed from a 10-72 season.

2. Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets (Previous: 3)

In the last two weeks, Jokic embarked on an amazing stretch, averaging 27.3 points, 8.9 rebounds, 7.9 assists and 2.1 steals per game while shooting 56.7 percent from the floor and 55.2 percent from deep. While the Nuggets are still searching for answers to their season, Jokic is doing everything in his power to keep them in the playoff picture.

If Jokic’s play this year was combined with Denver’s 2019-20 record, there’s little doubt that he would be leading the MVP race. However, a lack of consistency (with some embarrassing losses to the Washington Wizards and the injury-riddled Atlanta Hawks) has kept Jokic from outright claiming the top spot.

3. LeBron James, Los Angeles Lakers (Previous: 2)

James’ case for MVP has stagnated over the last two weeks, with the Lakers losing four-straight in that span. It’s hurt his case, but that isn’t to say that his on-court production hasn’t been ridiculously impressive, averaging 25.4 points, 8.6 rebounds and 7.3 assists per game in the last two weeks.

The Lakers are 14.5 points better when James is on the court and it’s evident to see that “The King” is keeping the Lakers afloat in spite of an injury to co-star Anthony Davis. That being said, James is going to need to cut back on games like those played during the team’s four-game losing streak; he committed eight turnovers against Washington and was a minus-20 against the Utah Jazz.

4. Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors (Previous: 6)

Curry had an incredible February, especially closer to the beginning of the month. On the month, Curry averaged 32.1 points per game while shooting 41.9 percent on 12.8 attempts from three per game. That kind of production is reminiscent of his play in 2016, when he was unanimously awarded MVP.

Curry’s February numbers would have looked even more impressive if it weren’t for mediocre showings against the Miami HEAT, Indiana Pacers and Lakers. But the fact that Curry missed 30 threes combined in those games and still finished shooting better than nearly everyone else in the league is a testament to just how rare of a talent Curry is.

5. Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers (Previous: Not Ranked)

With injuries to CJ McCollum and Jusuf Nurkic, it seemed as if the already struggling Portland Trail Blazers were doomed to fade out of the playoff picture. Despite four straight losses, Lillard is carrying Portland with all of his might to a potential postseason berth, with the Blazers sitting at 18-14.

Over the span of two weeks, Lillard’s been on another planet, averaging 32.2 points and 10.8 assists per game while averaging 13 threes and making 37.2 percent of them. Take a second to think of the names that are starting next to Lillard: Gary Trent Jr., Enes Kanter, Robert Covington and Derrick Jones Jr. Trent and Kanter are playing well, but it’s hard to believe that that lineup is currently the sixth seed in the Western Conference.

6. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks (Previous: NR)

The competition at the bottom of the ladder is getting tighter with each passing week, with Kawhi Leonard and Luka Doncic each making promising cases while the HEAT’s Jimmy Butler has been a triple-double machine. But the selection here, at least this week, is Giannis Antetokounmpo, fresh off a game against the Los Angeles Clippers in which he put up 36 points, 14 rebounds and 5 assists.

In the last six games, the Bucks have put together a five-game win streak, with Antetokounmpo averaging 33.6 points, 13 rebounds, 6.4 assists, 1.7 steals and 1.7 blocks per game. “The Greek Freak’s” per game numbers have soared as Milwaukee’s overall success has grown, with his numbers inching closer to that of his MVP seasons. His success was even recognized around the league, with Antetokounmpo most recently named Eastern Conference Player of the Week.

While Antetokounmpo has a lot of work to do to make up lost ground in the MVP race, the Bucks’ recent play should have him among the top vote-getters despite some likely voter fatigue.

The period after the All-Star break is when teams buckle down and commit to playoff runs, separating the pretenders from the contenders. The feeling here is that the same will happen with the MVP race and that one true leader of the pack will soon emerge. Be sure to stay tuned to Basketball Insiders for the next MVP ladder!

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