The rosters are set for the Rising Stars Challenge, and perhaps the most exciting team to keep an eye on for the round-robin style tournament is the one selected by Hall of Fame guard Gary Payton. Each of the four Rising Stars coaches drafted their teams, and somehow Payton ended up with reigning Rookie of the Year LaMelo Ball, current Rookie of the Year contender Scottie Barnes, Ayo Dosunmu (who is having an impressive season with the Chicago Bulls), as well as fellow rookies Chris Duarte and Davion Mitchell. That team has the scoring with Ball and Duarte, the defense with Barnes and Mitchell and the overall excitement factor from top to bottom. If we’re picking teams to win the Rising Stars Challenge, that certainly would be where I place my bet. For a look at the rest of the Rising Stars rosters, we’ve got you covered with this tracker.
Let’s move on to this week’s rankings. Remember 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.
The last two weeks Mitchell has been on a tear, which just so happens to coincide with the fact that he’s been starting the last six games due to De’Aaron Fox’s ankle injury. He’s put up 15+ points in each of those starts, and came close to a double-double in a loss to the Golden State Warriors.
Though the Kings have gone just 2-4 during that stretch, it has given Sacramento an opportunity to see what a starting lineup featuring Mitchell would look like. Sacramento traded guards Tyrese Haliburton and Buddy Hield to the Pacers on Tuesday for big man Domantas Sabonis, which should open up even more opportunity for Mitchell.
Mitchell’s consistency has been one of the main issues this season, as his shooting efficiency has been all over the place. Just in this past week he went 3 of 5 from downtown against the Warriors, but that was sandwiched between a 2-for-8 game from deep and a 3-for-9 performance to end the week. Mitchell’s 3-point percentage this season (32 percent) ranks in the 32nd percentile amongst guards in the league, so he’ll need to become a more consistent shooter.
However, while Mitchell’s 3-point shooting needs some work, where he’s really excelled this season is in shots around the rim. Mitchell not only gets to the basket with relative ease, but more importantly he finishes at a high clip (61 percent) for a rookie. He’s got a quick first step that catches defenders on their heels, and when he turns the corner he’s incredibly quick going downhill. Mitchell’s strength and frame help him handle contact well down low, and as he advances in his career he’ll become even more creative as a finisher to protect his shot from getting blocked against bigger defenders.
After spotty minutes at the start of the season and being in and out of the rotation, Kuminga saw perhaps his most consistent week of minutes recently, and he made good use of the opportunity. The timing isn’t a coincidence, with Draymond Green still sidelined, and guys like Klay Thompson and Andrew Wiggins missing the occasional game here and there, Kuminga’s rise in minutes has come as a necessity. But it’s not as if he’s just out there taking up space, in fact it’s quite the opposite.
Kuminga’s traditional numbers were impressive this week, but he also finished the week a plus-14, the highest of any rookie on this list. That means he was impactful on the floor, outside of just putting up points and rebounding. He was setting great pin-down screens for Thompson against the Kings, was aggressive on defense and showed off some of his playmaking ability en route to 18 points.
The seventh overall pick in the 2021 NBA Draft said after the win against Sacramento that things are coming a bit easier to him now compared to the beginning of the season.
“I feel like I’m getting better,” Kuminga said. “Because at the beginning of the season, it was just too much thrown at me at the same time. Pin down, cut and go to the basket. It was just kind of too much, but now it’s getting a little easier. I still haven’t gotten everything yet, but I feel like I’m doing good for the most part.”
You can certainly see the progression with Kuminga, and while he does make a handful of rookie mistakes each night — which is to be expected — you can see that he has a better understanding of his role within this dynamic Warriors offense, and it’s resulting in some positive performances.
The Thunder started the week with a huge win over the Dallas Mavericks, in which Giddey had a 14-points, 10-assist, seven-rebound performance. With Shai Gilgeous-Alexander still sidelined, we’ve gotten to see what an offense centered around Giddey looks like, and it’s been a treat. The Australian guard is just always two or three steps ahead of the defense, and it results in great ball movement for the Thunder, like on this possession:
It’s like watching a pinball move around with how quick and sharp Giddey’s passes are. Mavericks guard Jalen Brunson didn’t even have time to find his man again before Giddey delivered a pocket pass to Aaron Wiggins for the knockdown 3-pointer. Oh then there’s this game-tying assist where Giddey takes advantage of Luka Doncic on defense to send the game to overtime:
After the game, Giddey said that wasn’t the designed play in that situation.
“We drew up a play and I kinda completely disregarded it,” Giddey said. “Kenrich (Williams) and I were looking at each other, we have a connection.”
You know the rookie’s good when he can just improvise in a high-pressure situation to deliver a perfect pass with the game on the line.
Green hasn’t been getting as much attention as some of his rookie counterparts this season in part because of the high-volume, low-efficiency stats he’s been putting up. But what better way for Green to navigate his first year in the league than having the green light to take whatever shot he wants. The efficiency should come with time, and we’ve seen flashes of it already this season, like in Houston’s big win over the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Green shot 46 percent from the field and 42 percent from deep on his way to a 21-point, five-assist, five-rebound performance. His athleticism results in some wild finishes at the rim, and his 3-point shooting seems to be taking shape. Green’s committed to competing in the Slam Dunk Contest during All-Star Weekend, and if his in-game dunks are any indication, then we should be in for a exciting evening with his participation.
The Pacers are having a bit of a fire sale after trading Caris LeVert to the Cavaliers and Sabonis to the Kings. As a result, we’ve been seeing some of the younger talent on Indiana’s team get more opportunity, and guys like Taylor are taking full advantage of that. Taylor had back-to-back 20-point performances this past week, and recorded an absurd 16 rebounds and 14 rebounds in the games, respectively. Taylor is an undrafted rookie who was just signed to a two-way contract with the Pacers back in December, and right now he’s showing what he’s capable of.
Honorable mentions: Tre Mann, Oklahoma City Thunder (16.3 points, 2.5 assists, 2.3 rebounds); Ziaire Williams, Memphis Grizzlies (16.0 points, 2.5 rebounds, 2.5 assists); Scottie Barnes, Toronto Raptors (15.8 points, 8.5 rebounds, 2.8 assists)