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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 profile picture
Updated 10 months ago on
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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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