After a week off owing to a trip to Reno, Nevada, for the NBA D-League Showcase, the Rookie Rankings are back. Not too surprisingly, this list has been turned upside down as rookies continue to earn and define their roles in this young NBA season. In fact, only three rookies held their spots, while another three made the list for the first time.
1. Ricky Rubio
Since the start of the season, Rubio has been knocking down shots. As long as he does that, he will stick around at the top of the rankings. Rubio is such a talented playmaker that he becomes almost impossible to defend when his shot is falling. Rubio’s true shooting percentage of 55.7 is significantly higher than the point guard average of 52.1 percent, and one reason why is that Rubio takes smart shots. In catch-and-shoot situations, 84.6 percent of Rubio’s shots are unguarded, according to Synergy Sports. This isn’t because the Minnesota coaching staff is drawing up plays to get him open; Rubio is just an excellent decision maker who finds shots within the flow of the game. In pick-and-roll situations, Rubio is shooting 52 percent on pull-up jumpers. This means defenders have to guard him closely when he comes off ball screens, and this often opens up passing lanes for Rubio. His scoring has also allowed Minnesota to lean on Rubio late in games, just like they did against Memphis earlier this season.
Trailing by four points with 20.9 seconds to play, the Timberwolves need quick shots and multiple possessions. They get Rubio the ball about five feet outside the 3-point line and have Anthony Tolliver and Kevin Love set a staggered ball screen at the top of the key.
Rubio uses the screens and his defender tries to go under both picks. This gives Rubio plenty of space as he comes off the second screen.
Left wide open, Rubio rises for the 3-point shot. He knocks it down and cuts the Grizzlies’ lead to one point. This set was so effective that Minnesota came right back and ran it again after Memphis hit two free throws to extend their lead to three.
With 12.6 seconds left, the Timberwolves set the same staggered ball screen, with Tolliver setting the first pick and Love setting the second one as Rubio dribbles around both of them.
Since Rubio hit a 3 on the last possession, Mike Conley sticks with Rubio this time as he comes off the screens. Despite the ball pressure, Rubio finds Love cutting to the basket.
Love misses his first shot in the paint, but gets his own rebound and scores on the second attempt. Rubio doesn’t get an assist on this play, but he created this opportunity for Love. Here is a look at those plays in real time:
We know that Rubio can use his playmaking skills to create his own scoring opportunities. Right now, however, his hot shooting also allows him to set up his teammates with assists. The dual threats of Rubio’s scoring and passing put an enormous amount of pressure on defenses, who are forced to pick their poison. If they pressure Rubio, he will find an open teammate. If they play off him and try to keep him from creating, he can find his own shot and make it.
2. Kyrie Irving
In the first edition of the rookie rankings, Irving came in fifth because he was turning over the ball at a high rate, especially on pick and rolls. Irving is taking better care of the ball now. Two weeks ago, he was committing turnovers on 14.8 percent of his pick-and-roll plays. That number has dropped to 11.8 percent, and Irving’s improvement has really helped his efficiency. Besides taking better care of the ball, Irving has also improved in pick-and-roll situations by attacking the lane more often. At the beginning of the season, Irving had a tendency to pick up his dribble on the perimeter in pick-and-roll plays, but he has corrected that error and Irving now seems determined to penetrate when he comes off ball screens. This aggressive play has made him a better scorer and playmaker.
In past situations, Irving would pick up the basketball outside the 3-point line and look for a teammate. Here, Irving keeps his dribble alive and snakes into the paint, where he can dish to an open teammate or get an easier shot.
Irving has also started to drive away from ball screens more often. According to Synergy Sports, Irving has gone away from the screen in 9.5 percent of his pick-and-roll plays. And he’s been successful doing so, posting 1.5 points per possession and shooting 85.7 percent.
Driving away from screens keeps defenders off balance. Dwyane Wade is the master of this. As Irving has become more effective at using screens, he has been getting into the paint more often. Defenses have noticed, and they are starting to anticipate his penetration off screens by cheating an extra half step in that direction to defend him. This gives Irving an opportunity to reject the screen, go away from it, and attack an open lane.
3. MarShon Brooks
When Brooks ranked third two weeks ago, I noted that defenses would begin overplaying his right hand and make Brooks a less efficient isolation scorer. Well, it happened. Brooks’ efficiency in isolations has declined from 1.176 to 0.982 points per possession. He fell from the 93rd percentile among NBA players to the 79th percentile. So why is Brooks still ranked third? Because he has added the pick-and-roll to his game. Brooks looks for his own shot when he uses ball screens, and he has been successful so far, posting a PPP of 1.077 in these situations. That puts him in the top 17 percent of NBA players. Brooks’ efficiency comes from his ability to get to the free throw line. He draws shooting fouls on 23.1 percent of his pick-and-roll possessions.
Brooks is an interesting pick-and-roll player. He doesn’t come off of screens sharply, like most point guards do when their defenders get stuck on screens and they look to penetrate. When Brooks uses a screen, it’s as if he’s still in isolation mode. He comes off the screen softly, allows his defender to go under the pick, and then uses that space to create his own offense. Since Brooks isn’t looking to attack the basket off the screen, defenders would rather go under the screen and stay in front of Brooks, rather than force a defensive rotation. But Brooks loves to create in space, and once his defender gets under those screens, Brooks uses the extra space to attack him off the dribble and get to the lane.
4. Markieff Morris
Markieff Morris rises two spots because of his offensive efficiency. Yes, it is still early in the season and sample sizes are small, but as of Sunday, Morris has the highest PPP (1.625) among all NBA players in spot-up shooting situations. And his post play might be even more impressive, since scouts questioned whether he’d be successful with his back to the basket in the pros. Morris’ 1.167 points per possession on post-up plays is in the top 4 percent of all NBA players, and he shoots 65 percent when he receives the ball on the block. Morris gets 69.6 percent of his post touches on the right block, where he has a pet move that has been effective so far in his career. He turns to the middle, but instead of looking for a lefty jump hook, Morris shoots a right-handed turnaround jumper. To get the shot off, he brings the basketball across his body and in front of the defense, which isn’t the best fundamental play, but it’s been working.
Few post players do this as consistently as Morris. Dirk Nowitzki does it, but his length makes the shot impossible to block. Morris is big, but he doesn’t have Dirk’s length, and with Morris bringing the ball across his body, this move seems defendable. Right now, the awkwardness of the move may be working to Morris’ advantage, but once teams pick up on this quirk, it will be interesting to see if he can develop a countermove. If he doesn’t, his development as a post threat may stop dead in its tracks.
5. Jon Leuer
Thanks to his strong and consistent play, Jon Leuer, the 40th pick in last year’s NBA draft, has been the fifth-best rookie this season. Leuer’s success is largely a result of his spot-up shooting, something that Leuer does on a quarter of his offensive possessions. As of Sunday, Leuer’s 1.286 PPP in spot-up situations placed him in the top 10 percent of all NBA players. Leuer has been feasting on opportunities as the third player in pick-and-roll situations. Leuer isn’t the big man setting screens; he’s the forward spotting up outside of the pick-and-roll, ready to catch and shoot when his man shades over to help. In these situations, Leuer is shooting 71.4 percent, and he’s really making the defense pay for leaving him.
It’s evident in these clips that Leuer does much more than just stand around and wait for open shots. He moves without the ball, relocating when his man leaves to help on another play, and that movement puts Leuer in even better catch-and-shoot situations.
6. Iman Shumpert
Knicks fans might like to see Iman Shumpert higher than sixth, but playing out of position at point guard has led him to struggle at times this season. Shumpert is being asked to play outside of his comfort zone, and the numbers prove it. According to 82games.com, Shumpert has posted a PER of 2.2 as a point guard and 25.6 as a shooting guard. Right now, Shumpert is playing 25 percent of the Knicks’ point guard minutes and 14 percent of their shooting guard minutes. On pick-and-rolls, Shumpert shoots just 24.1 percent from the field and commits turnovers 23.1 percent of the time. His PPP when using ball screens is 0.462, in the bottom 7 percent of NBA players. Those aren’t point guard numbers, but Shumpert still deserves a ranking because of the talent he’s displayed and the fact that he has performed so well during his short time as a shooting guard. When cutting off the basketball — like a shooting guard would — Shumpert is posting a PPP of 1.200 and shooting 66.7 percent. If the Knicks give him more minutes at shooting guard and Shumpert keeps these numbers up, he could rise into the top three of these rankings. If he continues to play most of his minutes at point guard, he might drop off the list completely.
7. Brandon Knight
Brandon Knight dropped from fourth to seventh in these rankings because he is still developing as an NBA-level decision maker. As of Sunday, Knight was turning the ball over on 22.1 percent of his offensive possessions, according to Synergy Sports. Most of these turnovers have come at the worst possible time. Knight has the ball in transition on 17.1 percent of his offensive possessions, and he has been way too careless on those plays. Knight commits turnovers on 38.7 percent of his transition possessions. He also gives the ball away 13.5 percent of the time in pick-and-roll situations. If Knight can learn to take care of the ball, he should be able to work his way back up the rankings.
8. Norris Cole
Cole’s drop from second to eighth in these rankings was the biggest of any rookie. With all the attention defenses pay to LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh, Cole should get plenty of open looks, but his spot-up shooting numbers have fallen. After shooting 40 percent with a PPP of 0.800 two weeks ago, Cole is now shooting 30.6 percent in spot-up situations and his PPP has declined to 0.694. Cole is supposed to be that fourth man who knocks down shots when the Big Three kick the ball out to him. With Cole shooting poorly, his value, and thus his ranking, drops.
9. Tristan Thompson
It’s becoming more and more clear that Tristan Thompson struggles to score on the block. Right now, Thompson doesn’t have a go-to move, and that hurts his production in the post. As of Sunday, Thompson has been trying to play a face-up game. On 58.3 percent of his post touches, he turns and faces the basket. But Thompson has only shot 30 percent on those moves. He needs to become more skilled with the basketball to score in face-up situations. Thompson lacks a reliable arsenal of fakes and dribble moves to create separation from his defenders. This forces him to finish in traffic, and he’s just not ready to do that yet.
10. Kawhi Leonard
Leonard is performing like the player San Antonio hoped Richard Jefferson would become. He converts 42.4 percent of his spot-up shooting attempts with an above-average PPP of 1. Leonard also posts above-average PPPs in transition and on the offensive glass. The most impressive area of Leonard’s play has been his movement without the ball. Leonard shoots 72.7 percent when cutting and his PPP of 1.500 in those situations places him in the top 7 percent of all NBA players. Leonard doesn’t have exquisite offensive skills, but if he can remain active and move effectively without the ball, he can be a threat. Combine that with his effort and skill on the defensive end and you have a typical Spur.
The Rest: Jimmer Fredette, Kemba Walker, Derrick Williams
Previously by Sebastian Pruiti:
Amar’e Stoudemire’s Early-Season Struggles
NBA Rookie Rankings, Week 1
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
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