Rookies, more than any other type of NBA player, elicit a great range of emotions from fans, scouts, GMs, and coaches alike. If one strings together a succession of good games, everyone calls him the next big thing. A string of bad games? He’s a bust and his GM is a moron for drafting him. This season, to help you figure out who are the gems and busts, geniuses and morons, I will be ranking rookies every week. Rankings are determined by performances up to the Sunday preceding the post; for example these rankings are based on performances up until January 1.
1. Ricky Rubio
Before Rubio played a game, he went from the Catalan Jason Kidd to a huge bust. However, as soon as he stepped on an NBA court this season, Rubio showed why the Timberwolves were willing to wait two years for him to make his way to Minnesota. Rubio was advertised as a floor general who could make every single one of his teammates better, and so far he has been able to do just that. Look at his on-court/off-court numbers from the NBA.com StatsCube:
The Timberwolves score 10.5 more points per 100 possessions when Rubio is on the floor. Rubio also creates better scoring opportunities for his teammates, and the team’s higher shooting statistics when he’s on the court reflect that. But anyone who watched Rubio play in the 2008 Olympics probably expected his court vision and passing talent to shine on the NBA level. The surprise has been Rubio’s success as a scorer. Rubio’s true shooting percentage of 72.3 is second highest among rookies who’ve played more than 15 total minutes this season. How has Rubio been able to get his offense going? Well, for one, he has used his passing ability to create opportunities for himself.
Here, Rubio has the ball at the top of the key and Kevin Love is getting in position to set a screen for him. Rubio uses the screen and attacks while Love pops out to create space for a pick-and-pop jumper.
In pick-and-pop situations, the defense typically tries to hedge hard at the point guard with high hands to make the pass back to the screener difficult. However, the Mavericks’ defender is so worried about Rubio’s ability to get the ball to Love that he immediately retreats to Love. This allows Rubio to penetrate right into the middle of the lane.
With Jason Terry trailing Rubio after going over the screen and Love’s defender face-guarding Love, Rubio finds himself in a two-on-one situation with Vince Carter as the lone defender. Rubio wants to make Carter commit to defending the ball or the drop pass to
Anthony Randolph Derrick Williams on the baseline. Rubio looks toward Randolph Williams, and that look is enough to make Carter retreat to his man.
The result is an open lane to the rim for Rubio, where he finishes with a finger roll. Rubio is shooting 58.3 percent in pick-and-roll situations, and that number is largely due to the fact that Rubio’s teammates are shooting 42.9 percent when he passes to them in pick and rolls (which he does two-thirds of the time when he uses ball screens). Rubio’s passing is such a threat that all he needs to do is look at a teammate to make defenders react. They’re so focused on stopping Rubio’s passing that they’re giving him open lanes and open looks, and so far Rubio has been able to make them pay.
2. Norris Cole
If we started these rankings after the NBA’s opening weekend, Norris Cole would have found himself at the top. After a few more games, Cole dropped to second, but that doesn’t mean he has played poorly since his 20-point game against the Boston Celtics. With teammates Shane Battier and Mario Chalmers struggling, Cole’s versatility has been a real help to a Miami Heat team that struggled to find offense outside of their Big Three last season. Cole isn’t just a spot-up shooter, and he isn’t just a ball handler. He does a little bit of everything, and his possession breakdown according to Synergy Sports shows that.
|Play Type||% of Possessions||FG%||PPP|
|PNR – BH||26.2%||50%||0.882|
Maybe the most impressive attribute of Cole’s game is his ability to read how the defense plays him and decide how to counter it. This early in the season, we’re forced to use a small sample size, but right now Cole is making the correct decision more often than not, and that leads to open shots for the Cleveland State alum.
On this play, the Heat are running a pick and roll with LeBron James as the ball handler and with Norris Cole on the weak-side wing. As James uses the screen, Cole’s defender cheats to the middle to help on James.
James sees Rubio, Cole’s defender on this play, shading to the middle and kicks out to Cole. From this position, Cole must evaluate a number of different factors. He’s trying to see how far away Rubio is and if Rubio is closing out on him. In this case, Rubio lunges to steal James’ pass instead of running to close out on Cole’s jumper.
Rubio’s decision gives Cole time to catch the ball and rise for a shot, knowing that his defender won’t be there to contest it. Cole knocks down the jumper.
On this possession, James has the ball at the elbow and Cole’s defender, Keyon Dooling, leaves him to double James. Rajon Rondo rotates to close out on Cole if he receives the ball.
James does pass to Cole, and when Cole makes the catch he sees Rondo sprinting at him to close out on the jumper. Instead of taking a shot right off the catch, Cole sees that Rondo is out of control and pump fakes at him. Rondo flies by, and Cole has space to step in.
Cole takes one dribble after the fake, then pulls up for an open jumper, which he drains. As someone who will receive a lot of passes from James, Chris Bosh, and Dwyane Wade, reading the defense in these spot-up situations might be the most important skill for the Heat’s fourth option.
3. MarShon Brooks
The scouting report on Brooks coming out of college was that he was a volume scorer, and scouts questioned if Brooks’ isolation scoring ability could translate to the NBA. Five games into the season, Brooks doesn’t seem to be having much trouble adjusting. He is posting a PPP of 1.176 in isolation situations, which puts him in the top 7 percent of all NBA players.
Brooks is very comfortable with his right hand, and what has impressed me most about him is that he takes the ball from the dribble into his shot very quickly. That quick release prevents bigger defenders from bothering his shot. As the season goes on, it will be interesting to see what happens when teams start to overplay his right hand. Is his release just as quick coming from the left? Can he develop a counter move from that right side? Brooks’ ability to adjust will determine whether he remains near the top of these rankings.
4. Brandon Knight
With so many dynamic ball handlers in the NBA, pick and rolls have become a staple in most teams’ playbooks. Most teams’ goal in defending the pick and roll is to stop the play without committing a third defender. To do this, the point guard must get through screens. This is something Brandon Knight has done well early in his career. Right now, when Knight defends the ball handler in pick-and-roll situations, he forces turnovers 25 percent of the time. Much of that has to do with Knight’s length, but it also has to do with his effort on defense.
When most point guards get hit with a screen, they have a tendency to “get stuck” or run straight into the screener, not getting over the screen and relying on the hedge defender to keep the ball handler out of the lane. This usually doesn’t work, because it means a big man is trying to defend a guard. So far, Knight doesn’t get stuck on screens. He fights over them and stays with his man, which allows his hedging teammate to recover to his original defensive assignment. Knight’s hard-nosed pick-and-roll defense helps the Pistons guard ball screens without committing a third defender.
5. Kyrie Irving
Despite leading all rookies in scoring with 13.3 points per game, Irving lands fifth in these rankings. The reason? Efficiency. To get those 13.3 points, Irving takes 12.8 shots per game. In addition to all those shots, Irving is struggling to take care of the basketball. He turns it over 18 percent of the time in half-court possessions. This really hurts Irving in pick-and-roll situations. He commits turnovers on 14.8 percent of his ball screens. This happens because Irving has been picking up his dribble too soon. Usually, a point guard uses a screens to get into the lane, where he can create his own shot or force a third defender to commit and then pass to an open man. So far this season, Irving has been picking up the basketball behind the 3-point line on many of his ball screens.
On each of these possessions, Irving comes off a ball screen and picks up his dribble outside the 3-point line. Every time, it led to a turnover. Irving isn’t getting that third defender to commit, and it allows more defenders to get hands on the basketball. The one-hand passes, as seen in the bottom two screenshots, don’t help either. Irving should improve with more experience. He went from using ball screens just 20.5 percent of the time at Duke to using them 40.6 percent of the time with Cleveland, and some growing pains should be expected.
6. Markieff Morris
Lost in the dreariness that is the Phoenix Suns is the fact that they have Markieff Morris, a young big man who has a chance to be a productive player. Morris has been impressive so far when creating his own scoring opportunities, especially in the post. As of Sunday, Morris’ PPP of 1.25 on posting-up situations was good enough to put him in the top 6 percent of all NBA players. He has also shown an ability to knock down open jumpers (Morris is shooting 50 percent on spot-ups). The Suns have one of the league’s oldest rosters, but in Morris they may have found a young big whom they rely on in the post.
7. Tristan Thompson
Thompson is putting up similar numbers to Morris, but he’s relying more on his teammates to create for him. Morris’ most used category is posting up. Thompson’s most used play type is cutting to the basket off his teammates’ penetration, which accounts for close to 25 percent of his possessions. Until he shows that he can create for himself, Thompson stays below Morris.
8. Jimmer Fredette
Fredette, like Irving, is putting up numbers very inefficiently. In fact, he averages more shots per game than points (9.2 vs. 8.8). Fredette’s struggles have less to do with his ability and more to do with how the Sacramento Kings use him. Fredette is a great shooter, but the Kings have tried to turn him into a pick-and-roll ball handler. He has used ball screens on 34.5 percent of his possessions this season, and on those possessions Fredette has shot 37.5 percent while committing turnovers more than 20 percent of the time. Before the draft, scouts worried that Fredette couldn’t yet handle the ball at an NBA level, yet for some reason the Kings are relying on him to do it and do it well. So far, he’s struggling.
9. Jeremy Pargo
Because Mike Conley is injured, Pargo has played extra minutes, and he’s done well. When isolated, Pargo shoots 60 percent, using his quickness to get into the lane and create scoring opportunities. However, he turns the ball over 16.8 percent of the time, which is way too much for a point guard.
10. Kemba Walker
Walker’s PPP of 0.885 puts him in the 50th percentile among all NBA players. That sounds decent, but it’s actually quite an achievement when you consider how poorly Walker uses ball screens. His pick-and-roll PPP of 0.462 is in the bottom 10 percent of NBA players, and Walker shoots only 11.1 percent in these situations. Some of them have been open shots that just didn’t fall, but until that number rises, Walker will find himself at the bottom of this top 10.
The Rest: Derrick Williams, Jon
Leur Leuer, & Iman Shumpert
Previously by Sebastian Pruiti:
Cuban & Lamar or Tyson & Melo?
James Harden’s Path to NBA Stardom
How Chris Paul will change the Clippers’ offense
A breakdown of Eric Gordon’s path to superstardom
Chris Paul and the Lakers: What could have been
How John Wall can become a Star in his Second NBA season
The Pros and Cons of Kentucky’s Anthony Davis
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