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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.

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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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