Saturday, January 22, 2022

NBA Rookie Rankings: Scottie Barnes, Franz Wagner have big weeks; Herb Jones impresses on defense

The NBA is experiencing a COVID-19 outbreak that has impacted nearly every team in the league within the past two weeks. The league has postponed a total of seven games in December, with several stars like Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kevin Durant and James Harden all sidelined in health and safety protocols. Among rookies, Evan Mobley, Ayo Dosunmu and Davion Mitchell have all entered protocols. The number of players out across the league has resulted in some first-year guys who don’t normally see much action getting their number called, and we’ve seen some promising performances from that group.

Moving on to this week’s rankings, remember that these will reflect a rookie’s performance on a week-to-week basis only, and not the collective season. These are not Rookie of the Year standings. With that straightened out, here is a look at the top-performing rookies around the league. 

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Barnes had a pretty cool start to his week, when he became the youngest Raptors player since Tracy McGrady to record a 20-point, 10-rebound, five-assist game when he finished with 23 points, 12 rebounds and five assists against the Brooklyn Nets. He kept that momentum going in a win over a Golden State Warriors team without its key players, finishing that game a plus-26. 

What’s been really exciting to watch is Barnes’ development as a scorer off the bounce. It’s not something he’s doing often this season, as most of his points come in transition, but when he is given the chance to take a defender one-on-one, he’s showing some flashes.

That’s an aspect of Barnes’ game that if he really focuses on it and improves even further, he’s going to be even more versatile on offense. 

Looking at Wagner’s boxscores from this past week, you might think that the game in which he put up 27 points was his most impressive performance. But it was actually the 14-point, 11-rebound, six-assist outing he had in a win over a depleted Brooklyn Nets team that stands out even more. Yes, he struggled mightily in shooting the ball that night (4 of 14 from the field), but while his shot wasn’t falling he was impacting the game in other ways for the Magic. His six assists were a team-high, and tied his career-high, showing that Wagner can be a playmaker for his teammates as well.  

Though Cunningham only put up four points in Detroit’s win over the Miami Heat this past week, his scoring wasn’t indicative of how well he played in that game. The No. 1 overall pick assisted on 10 of Saddiq Bey’s 26 points, as the rookie did a great job of getting the ball to Bey at the right time and in the perfect position to rack up points. It’s Cunningham’s ability to not just score, but facilitate the ball, grab rebounds and play above average defense that make him so special. He’s been showcasing all those facets of his game over the past month, and has pushed himself further into the Rookie of the Year conversation because of it. 

Here’s a wild number that jumps out from Giddey’s performance last week: he grabbed 18 rebounds in Oklahoma City’s win over the Clippers. No, that’s not a typo, and to make it even crazier he finished with a double-double, but not with points, with 10 assists to go with that ridiculous number of rebounds. 

To be honest, Giddey putting up great assists and rebounding numbers while not racking up a ton of points has been par for the course this season for him. In fact, he’s struggling heavily shooting the ball, specifically from 3-point territory where he’s shooting at a lowly 19 percent clip over the month of December on 3.5 attempts a game. Giddey’s a phenomenal facilitator, and his court vision is already leaps and bounds where it should be for a rookie, but he also needs to become a more consistent threat when he’s shooting the ball, whether it’s from long range or inside the arc, where he’s shooting just 39 percent in December.

OK so the Pelicans‘ season has been disappointing to say the least, mainly because of Zion Williamson’s consistently delayed timeline for a debut this season. But while that situation is still murky in New Orleans, what’s been one of the brighter — if not the brightest — spots of this season for the Pelicans has been Jones’ play. All season long he’s been a tenacious defender, and although he’s being used as a small-ball center in New Orleans, he’s mostly out on the wing defending guards, where he’s doing an incredible job. 

His length makes it difficult for guards to get past him with ease, and his lateral quickness doesn’t make it easy on guys looking to get downhill to the rim. The list of All-Stars he’s been tasked with guarding this season — Luka Doncic, Paul George, James Harden — shows that the Pelicans already see how strong of a defender he is this early in his career, and he’s only going to get better. 

Duarte’s shooting has been in flux over the past few weeks, but he’s remained an important piece in the Pacers rotation. He’s continued to show promise on the defensive side of the ball, and though he doesn’t have the ball in his hands enough to show of his ability as a playmaker in that regard, he’s still making an impact as a solid cutter, and spot-up shooter. If the Pacers do decide to break up their roster and focus more on young guys like Duarte, we could see more of his playmaking abilities later on in the season.   

The Rockets are one of the few teams in the league that hasn’t been impacted by the league’s recent COVID-19 outbreak this season, but they have dealt with injuries to key players like Kevin Porter Jr. and No. 2 overall pick Jalen Green. In their absence, guys like Christopher are seeing more consistent minutes, and he’s making the most out of it with his high-flying athleticism and 3-point shooting. 

Duke didn’t see any action until Dec. 8, but with Brooklyn dealing with the league’s worst COVID-19 outbreak with 10 guys currently sidelined, he’s not only seeing more minutes, but has started in the Nets’ last three games. Most recently he put up 18 points and a whopping 14 rebounds in a loss against the Magic. Keep in mind he’s a 6-foot-5 guard, so the fact that he’s out here grabbing that many boards is just absurd, regardless of the opponent. It was also the second game last week where he put up over 10 rebounds, after he finished with 13 boards against the Toronto Raptors. As Brooklyn gets healthier we may see less of Duke, but he’s certainly earned a chance at getting some significant minutes as a bench player going forward.  

Sengun dropped a career-high 19 points and 11 rebounds against the Cavaliers this past week, to go along with five assists and and two steals to cap off a strong performance. He’s become one of the most impactful players for the Rockets this season, as Houston scores 10.5 points more when he’s on the floor compared to when he’s on the bench. 

Edwards, like Duke, has seen more minutes due to Brooklyn’s depleted roster, and this week he racked up a double-double (17 points, 10 rebounds) in the Nets’ win over the Raptors. Even earlier in the season when he would get put in the game for 10 minutes, he would still make sure that he was making a positive impact, and now that he’s temporarily getting starter-level minutes, we’re seeing just how much he’s capable of with a bigger opportunity. 

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