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Cheap Seats: Top Five Rookies

A look at the top five rookies in the NBA during the 2013-14 season. Basketball Insiders’ interns give their thoughts.

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Every season, we welcome in a new group of interns and typically their work is done primarily behind the scenes. But now that the current group has been around for awhile, we’re giving them a platform to voice their thoughts on the NBA. Each week, Basketball Insiders’ interns Jesse Blancarte, Cody Taylor and John Zitzler will discuss a topic related to the league in Cheap Seats.

This week, the interns discuss the top five rookies of the 2013-14 NBA season.

John Zitzler:

1. Michael Carter-Williams

Carter-Williams burst onto the scene in his first game as pro, scoring 22 points, dishing out 12 assists, grabbing seven boards and adding nine steals in an incredible win over the defending champion Miami HEAT. The 11th player selected in the 2013 NBA draft has proved any doubters wrong with his play this season. He showed the ability to contribute in the number of different ways, among rookies it’s hard to argue any player did more. He led all rookies in scoring (16.6), assists (6.3), steals (1.9) and rebounding (6.2) on per game basis.

The big knock on Carter-Williams is that he played on the lowly Sixers, who were awful for the majority of the season and especially bad in the second half of year. He was drafted into a tough situation and it’s hard to imagine any rookie racking up the wins with the supporting cast of the Sixers. Carter-Williams, despite the lack of solid complementary players, managed to consistently produce all season long. His shooting numbers aren’t spectacular, 40.5% from the field and only 26.4% from three, but luckily for him his only real competition for Rookie of Year, Victor Oladipo, hasn’t been lights out shooting the ball either. His strong production throughout the season and his ability to impact the game in a number of ways has made Carter-Williams the leader of the pack in the 2013-14 NBA Rookie of the Year race.

2. Victor Oladipo

Outside of Carter-Williams, Oladipo is the only other rookie that should be in consideration for Rookie of the Year. Oladipo started just over half of the Magic’s games this season (44 starts), spending time as both the primary ball-handler and as a wing playing off the ball. As a starter, he averaged 14.7 points, 4.6 rebounds and 4.5 assists. The problem for Oladipo was his inconsistent shooting from the outside. In games he started, Oladipo only shot 29.3% on 140 attempts or just over three attempts per game. Despite his poor shooting, Oladipo was a big contributor for the Magic both off the bench and as a starter. His explosive athleticism added a new dimension to the team and allowed him to consistently attack the paint to score or create for others. He had a very strong rookie season, but in the end his production falls just short of Carter-Williams who gets the nod for the number one spot.

3. Trey Burke

Burke, like Carter-Williams, was thrown right into the fire, starting in 68 of the 70 games he played and playing the second most minutes per game as rookie (32.3) only behind Carter-Williams. Burke was second among rookies in both assists and total three point shots made, though his shooting from three was not good (33%). Most impressive for Burke was his ability to protect the ball, averaging 1.9 turnovers per game, much better than Oladipo (3.2) and Carter-Williams (3.5). His ability to handle the ball and create for teammates without turning the ball over is obviously very important for a point guard and Burke has shown that he is more than capable. He was able to average 12.8 points per night but unfortunately he was taking over 14 shots a game to get those 12.8 points. Burke only shot 38% from the field, which is something he clearly must improve on. The Jazz still must be very happy with what they have seen from Burke in his rookie year.

4. Mason Plumlee

When Brook Lopez went out for the season, the Nets figured to be in trouble up front. However, they found a gem in the draft in Mason Plumlee, who has done nice job at least partially filling the void left by Lopez. Plumee has been a strong presence off the bench for the Nets this season, providing depth. He has played his way into an increased role since All-Star break and has done a nice job stepping up, averaging 9.1 points and six rebounds in just under 22 minutes a game. His ability to finish around the rim has been a major strength, shooting 65.9% from the field. Even more impressive, Plumlee leads all rookies in PER at 19. It certainly looks like the Nets landed a nice piece late in the first round as Plumlee should be a more than serviceable big for years to come.

5. Tim Hardaway Jr.

Hardaway stood out in a frustrating year for the Knicks and had some really nice games. He immediately became a very legitimate threat from three, one that every night needed to be accounted for. Hardaway shot 36.3% from downtown which placed him in the upper echelon of rookies. When he got hot Hardaway was able knock down threes with ease. In three games, he hit five triples and even knocked down six in a late January game against the Cavs. Hardaway’s ability shoot made him one of the top rookies in terms of scoring the ball (10.2 ppg), finishing fourth in that category. Hardaway gives the Knicks another scoring option off the bench and will likely see an increased role next season depending on how things shake out in NY.

Cody Taylor:

1. Victor Oladipo

Heading into the season, many predicted Oladipo would take home the Rookie of the Year award. While Oladipo’s stats don’t match up to Carter-Williams’ stats, the situations Oladipo and Carter-Williams play in are much different. In Philadelphia, Carter-Williams is the guy the offense revolves around. In Orlando, Oladipo is one player among many that can produce for the Magic, thus Oladipo’s touches are less than Carter-Williams’.

The Magic also have Jameer Nelson and Arron Afflalo handling the ball on many possessions, which limits Oladipo’s chances to put up bigger numbers. However, the Magic experimented this season with Oladipo playing point guard versus his natural two-guard position. The experiment started off shaky as expected, but there were some encouraging signs from Oladipo as the season progressed. As a result, Oladipo averaged 13.8 points, 4.1 assists, 4.1 rebounds and 1.6 steals per game and shot almost 42% from the field and 32.7% from three-point range.

With Oladipo playing point guard, the Magic benefit by having a quick player drive to the rim and get an easy shot or by drawing a foul. Oladipo’s moves at the rim are still a work in progress, but the Magic have to like what they see.

The Magic aren’t sure if he’ll continue to play point guard next season, but have said what they do in June’s draft will likely effect where Oladipo plays.

2. Michael Carter-Williams

Carter-Williams has been the lone bright spot for the Philadelphia 76ers this season, even if 76ers owner Joshua Harris says otherwise. Carter-Williams led all rookies in points (16.7), assists (6.3), rebounds (6.2) and steals (1.9) per game and was the only rookie to start in every game that he played in. Carter-Williams joins Oscar Robertson and Magic Johnson as the only rookies in history to average at least 16 points, six rebounds and six assists for an entire season.

Once the 76ers start filling out their roster with talented players, Carter-Williams will only stand to improve. He’ll also have the benefit of the summer to work on his shooting, where he only made 40.5% of his shots from the field and converted only 26% of his three-point attempts.

3. Tim Hardaway Jr.

When evaluating the Knicks’ roster, Hardaway is a player that stands out from the rest. Being drafted with the 24th selection, he may go down as one of the best steals in the draft. Hardaway has even outplayed fellow Knicks guards J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert at times. He averaged 10.2 points in 81 games for the Knicks and shot 43% from the field, including 36% from three-point range. Hardaway has proven to be a player the Knicks can benefit from. The Knicks are trying to keep Carmelo Anthony long term, and Hardaway and Anthony can form a solid foundation for the team moving forward. The way Hardaway has been able to contribute in his rookie season makes players like Smith and Shumpert expendable if the Knicks need trade pieces.

4. Mason Plumlee

The first stat that pops out about Plumlee is that he leads all of the rookies in shooting percentage, player efficiency and dunks, but that’s largely in part to Nets head coach Jason Kidd’s rule for him: shoot only in the paint. Plumlee will not win the award, but he probably isn’t too concerned with it anyway. He is where Oladipo, Carter-Williams and Hardaway won’t be for another couple of seasons: the playoffs.

Plumlee is averaging 7.4 points and 4.4 rebounds for the Nets, who have been one of the hottest teams in the league in the New Year. As Kevin Garnett said a couple of weeks ago, Plumlee “busts his ass every day.” Plumlee understands his role, and for a rookie, that is beneficial to him and the team. He is a player that looking ahead in five seasons could be one of the best players from this draft class. He will have the benefit of working with Garnett until he retires, and have a great chance to be part of the future for the Nets.

5. Steven Adams

Steven Adams is a player that could join Plumlee in five seasons from now that could serve as a standout from this class. The Thunder picked him likely based off of what he’ll turn into, versus where he’s at now. Adams has shown his upside this season in a game back at the beginning of the season against the Detroit Pistons. On November 11, the seven-foot Adams had 17 points on 7-of-10 shooting, 10 rebounds and three blocks against Pistons bigs Andre Drummond, Greg Monroe and Josh Smith. Drummond is widely considered one of the best young centers in the game today. While Adams hasn’t had that production on a consistent basis, the tools are there to develop. He will have his chance to become a starter in Oklahoma City and will stand to benefit by playing with the Thunder’s starting players.

Jesse Blancarte:

This year’s class of rookies will not go down as one of the best of all-time, to say the least. However, there were some standout players that deserve recognition. In evaluating these players, one must consider what each player did this season, and what type of potential impact they will have for their team moving forward.

1.     Michael Carter-Williams

In a season where the Philadelphia decided to tank, there were very few bright spots for the team. The brightest however was certainly Carter-Williams. Selected with the 11th pick in the draft, Carter-Williams started his career with a bang. In his NBA debut against the Miami HEAT, Carter-Williams scored 22 points, and contributed 12 assists, seven rebounds and nine steals in 36 minutes as the Sixers upset the HEAT, 114-110.

While the opening night fireworks faded after just three games, and the team tied the league record for losses in a row, Carter-Williams continued to display his diverse skill-set. In 70 games played this season, Carter-Williams averaged 16.7 points, 6.3 assists, 6.2 rebounds and 1.9 steals. These are historically good numbers for a rookie. Carter-Williams, Oscar Robertson and Magic Johnson are the only three players to average at least 16 points, six rebounds and six assists in their rookie seasons. However, Carter-Williams will have to improve his outside shooting, as he made just 26.4 percent of his shots from beyond the arc.

Moving forward, Carter-Williams is the 76ers’ answer at point guard, and will be coupled with Nerlens Noel as the franchise cornerstones. The 76ers will also likely have a top-three pick in the upcoming draft, which will be added to the young core. Whoever the 76ers add, it will be Carter-Williams who will lead the 76ers into the next era of its franchise, which 76er fans should be very excited about.

2.     Victor Oladipo

If Carter-Williams is number one, then Oladipo is a close second. In 80 games played this season, Oladipo, picked second in the draft, logged 13.8 points, 4.1 assists, 4.1 rebounds and 1.6 steals per game. While Oladipo’s stats are not as good as Carter-Williams’, it should be noted that Oladipo spent the entire season playing both point guard and shooting guard. Orlando Magic coach Jacque Vaughn said Oladipo was simply a “guard,” but believes that the experience he gained from this year will help Oladipo long-term.

Dwyane Wade, who played point guard in his rookie season, told NBA.com, “I love the way that his game has progressed… I could tell the frustration (of playing point guard) on him when we played them once. He was out there on the court trying to figure it out and I went through the same thing…That made me a better player and it taught me to read the game a lot better. Even though I couldn’t wait to move to (shooting guard) it made me read things better and it helped my play-making skills.’’ Regarding Wade’s comments, Oladipo said, “He tells me (about playing point guard) all of the time. I just have to be patient like he always tells me. I’m just trying to be patient, make the right plays and the right reads.’’ If the Magic select a point guard with their lottery pick in the upcoming draft, then Oladipo can move to shooting guard long-term like Wade did after his rookie season.

Oladipo may not be the long-term answer at point guard for the Magic, but in a lot of ways he is like Wade. He can handle the ball, make plays for others and score in a variety of ways. Carter-Williams arguably had a better rookie season, but no one’s future is brighter than Oladipo’s.

3. Trey Burke

The Utah Jazz, like the 76ers and Magic, went through a losing season as part of a long-term rebuild. Part of that rebuild included trading for Trey Burke, who was selected with the ninth pick by the Minnesota Timberwolves. The Jazz sent the Wolves the 14th and 21st picks, which were used on Shabazz Muhammad and Gorgui Dieng.

In his rookie season Burke has established himself as a long-term answer at point guard for the Jazz. Burke averaged 12.8 points, three rebounds and 5.7 assists this season. These stats aren’t quite as good as Carter-Williams’ and Oladipo’s, but they aren’t too far off either. Burke, like most rookies, was inconsistent at times, but had won Rookie of the Month for April, averaging 15.6 points and nine assists.

Burke isn’t far behind Carter-Williams and Oladipo and will compete with them for years to come.

4. Gorgui Dieng

The Minnesota Timberwolves arguably had the most disappointing season of any team in the league, as they were the best team to not make the postseason, besides the Phoenix Suns. When Nikola Pekovic went down with an Achilles injury, the Wolves turned to rookie Gorgui Dieng to fill the void. Dieng was a pleasant surprise. On March 20, Dieng chipped in 22 points, 21 rebounds, four assists and made 10-of-11 from the free throw line. Four days later, Dieng scored 15 points, 15 rebounds, two assists and a block. These are just two examples of Dieng’s strong contributions this season. If Dieng had gotten an opportunity to contribute sooner, he very well could have been ranked higher on this list, maybe even competing for Rookie of the Year.

The best part about Dieng’s emergence is that he offers rim protection to a team that ranks last in the league at guarding against shots at the rim. Additionally, if the Wolves lose Kevin Love, they may look to move Pekovic and his large contract and rebuild. Dieng could fill that void, and be a major piece moving forward.

5. Giannis Antetokounmpo

Antetokounmpo did not have a huge statistical season. In fact, there are other rookies who put up better numbers that arguably deserve to be included on this list on that basis. But this list encompasses each rookie’s performance this season and the impact he is going to have on his franchise moving forward. Antetokounmpo, selected with the 15th pick in the draft, was an absolute steal and may be the franchise player in Milwaukee moving forward.

Antetokounmpo averaged 6.8 points, 4.4 rebounds and 1.9 assists in his rookie season. These numbers are underwhelming, but Antetokounmpo is just 19 years old, and is the definition of raw. He has only been playing basketball for a few years, but has shown that his potential is limitless. His frame is extraordinarily long and draws comparisons to superstar Kevin Durant. If Antetokounmpo can further develop his jumpshot and ball handling skills, he may be one of the top players in the league for many years to come.

Evaluating players is always a subjective endeavor and there is always room to debate. Leave a comment below and let us know who you makes your top-five list.  

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