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The Best Rookies of the NBA Season

In the final edition of Rookie Rankings, we pick the top 10 first-year players of 2012

It’s the final week of the NBA regular season, which makes this the final week of Rookie Rankings. Instead of ranking the top-10 rookies of the past seven days, we’ll be looking at the best first-year players of the season. Think of it as the world’s longest Rookie of the Year ballot.

A note on this rookie class: There are three really good point guards and they each do different things well. Ricky Rubio is a pure point who can make the flashy pass, Kyrie Irving is the scorer who can get his whenever he wants, and Isaiah Thomas is the guy who can do everything well, but nothing spectacularly. So who will be the best point guard out of these three? It all comes down to which player does the best job of addressing his weaknesses. Also, this rookie class was deep, and limiting this final honor roll to 10 was difficult. Now, on to the rankings, where we will examine each rookie’s biggest strength and weakness.

1. Kyrie Irving

Irving’s biggest strength is his ability to score off the dribble in one-on-one situations. He shoots 49.2 percent and scores 1.026 points per possession (PPP) in isolations, placing him in the top 5 percent of all NBA players. Irving loves to go to his left hand, but even when he does, he brings the ball back to his right to finish the play. This has been throwing off defenders and allowing Irving to get shots off at the rim.

In these clips, Irving drives to the left and finishes with his right hand while avoiding shot blockers. This style of finishing is rare in the NBA, and it definitely fooled defenses this year. It will be interesting to see how defenders guard him next season now that they know how he finishes. They’ll start playing his right hand at all situations, and that will force Irving to adjust.

As for his weakness, Irving struggles on defense, especially against isolations. He allowed a PPP of 0.988 in these situations, bad enough to be in the bottom 11 percent of all NBA players. His problem is that he commits fouls on 15.6 percent of the isolation plays he defends, and this gives up free points.

Why does Irving foul so much? He’s often in bad position. When his man drives, Irving ends up on his hip and reaches for the ball. For someone so quick on offense, it’s strange to see Irving move so slowly and get beat on defense. When Irving crouches into a defensive stance, he struggles to get out of it quickly and stay in front of his man.

2. Ricky Rubio

While Irving is far and away the rookie of the year, Rubio kept the competition close until a knee injury ended his season in March. Rubio is at his best when running the pick-and-roll and creating for his teammates.

What makes Rubio a great passer is that he takes what the defense gives him. Yes, he makes flashy passes that sometimes get him in trouble, but even when he does that he’s usually making the correct decision on whom he should pass to. If the defense takes away the roll, Rubio will find a cutter or someone spotting up on the perimeter. If the defense shows hard against the ball screen and leaves the roll man open, Rubio will find him. It’s rare to see a rookie with such refined decision-making abilities.

Like a lot of pass-first point guards, Rubio isn’t the greatest shooter. He converts a respectable 42 percent of his spot-up attempts, but he’s significantly worse off the dribble. According to Synergy Sports, Rubio shoots 31.1 percent on dribble jumpers. His numbers dip so much in these situations because Rubio is a set shooter. In catch-and-shoot situations, he can set his feet and and knock down shots. Off the dribble, however, his form is completely different.

Look at the difference in Rubio’s lower body when he shoots pull-up shots. He jumps higher and shoots with more arc than when he spots up. How can he improve? Rubio must either practice the dribble jumper until it feels as natural as his set shot or he has to alter his pull-up shots to make them more similar to his catch-and-shoot form. Once either of those alternatives begins to happen, he’ll start knocking down more shots off the dribble.

3. Isaiah Thomas

Unlike Rubio and Irving, who led the Rookie Rankings from the beginning of the season and never dropped out of the 1 and 2 slots except for injury, Thomas didn’t get his opportunity to shine until later in the season. Once he did, however, he showed why he deserved to be drafted a lot higher than 60th. Right now, Thomas is a brilliant scorer in pick-and-roll situations. He’s so good because he mixes up his moves when he uses ball screens. According to Synergy Sports, Thomas shoots jumpers 51.3 percent of the time when using screens, he attacks the rim 28.3 percent of the time, and he drives away from the screen 14.2 percent of the time. In all three of these situations, Thomas posts PPP numbers that rank no lower than the league’s 85th percentile.

The fact that Thomas can attack in so many different ways not only makes him tough to defend, but it also makes his job easier. While a player with a weak shot might try to drive too often or a player who can’t beat his man might look to pull up for an outside shot, Thomas’s well-rounded skills allow him to make the easiest play in most situations. If the defense gives him the shot, he’ll take it. If they play him tight, Thomas can use his nifty hesitation move and get to the basket. If they overplay him against the screen, he can reject the screen and drive in the other direction. You can’t game-plan against a guy who takes whatever you give him in the pick-and-roll.

Thomas may be a very efficient scorer, but he could be even better if he learns to commit fewer turnovers. In the half-court, Thomas loses the ball on 14.2 percent of his possessions, according to Synergy Sports. We examined this last week; Thomas hangs on to the basketball too much and often picks up his dribble in bad spots.

If Thomas doesn’t have a passing lane or the space to create his own offense, he tends to pick up his dribble. At 5-foot-9, once Thomas picks up his dribble he takes away his quickness, which is his biggest strength. Once he’s neutralized his own threat, defenders don’t need to help against Thomas. They return to their men, take away passing lanes and force Thomas into throwing risky passes that lead to turnovers. If Thomas can keep his dribble alive more often, he’ll limit his turnovers.

4. Iman Shumpert

Iman Shumpert, the man whom Mike Woodson refuses to call by name, has impressed Knicks fans with his one-on-one defense. Shumpert is already one of the better isolation defenders in the NBA. According to Synergy Sports, opposing players have tried to isolate against him 111 times and they have scored just 77 points. Even more impressive is the fact that Shumpert forces turnovers 24.3 percent of the time when he defends isolation possessions.

Yes, Shumpert does a great job of staying in front of ball handlers and he’s long enough to bother shots, but his quick hands turn good defense into great defense. He has stripped the likes of Dwyane Wade and Derrick Rose this season, forcing turnovers and perhaps making them think twice about trying to get shots off against Shumpert.

For some reason, however, the Knicks love using Shumpert as a ball handler in pick-and-roll situations. So far this season, he’s played that role 156 times, which makes up 23.1 percent of his total possessions. Of those 156 pick-and-roll plays, Shumpert has scored just 85 points, and his PPP of 0.545 places him in the bottom 12 percent of all NBA players.

Unlike Rubio and Thomas, who make great decisions in the pick-and-roll, Shumpert doesn’t have the same feel for the game, and he tends to force things when he uses ball screens. That leads to turnovers and bad shots. Maybe he’ll improve someday, but in the meantime the Knicks might want to get Shumpert scoring off more cuts to the basket and other plays that will allow him to take advantage of his quickness and strength.

5. Klay Thompson

Klay Thompson’s shooting ability separates him from the rest of the rookie class. According to Synergy Sports, Thompson posts 1.133 points per possession in spot-up situations, which puts him in the top 10 percent of all NBA players. Thompson creates open shots with his movement off the basketball. According to Synergy, 57.3 percent of his catch-and-shoot attempts are unguarded, which means that he’s doing a stellar job of losing his defender and getting open.

Thompson’s movement is subtle, but it’s enough to create open shots. The second his man turns his head, Thompson slides and repositions to create passing lanes and get open looks.

Thompson may be great at scoring off of catch-and-shoot opportunities, but he sure can’t defend other shooters. In spot-up situations, Thompson allows 1.043 points per possession, which puts him in the bottom 25 percent of all NBA players. When he defends spot-up attempts, Thompson makes the same mistake that so many of his defenders make against him: He ball watches. By getting sucked into the action around the ball, Thompson lets his man get away from him. Then, when the ball is passed to his man, Thompson can’t close out effectively and gives up open jumpers.

On this possession, the offense has dribble penetration, but a Golden State big man rotates to protect the rim. Despite that, Thompson drops all the way into the paint to help stop the drive. That results in a kick-out pass to Thompson’s man, who is spotting up for a wide-open 3-pointer.

6. Kenneth Faried

Faried is a tremendous rebounder, but he might have an even bigger strength on offense. He has shown a knack for putting the ball in the basket when posting up his man. Although he’s had only 52 post-up possessions this season, Faried has put up a PPP of 0.942 in those opportunities, and that places him in the top 15 percent of all NBA players. When Faried seals his man and gets the ball deep in the post, he can use his pet move — a right-handed baby hook — and be successful. Yes, 52 possessions is a small sample size, but based on video of Faried in the post, he seems to have the potential to become a reliable scorer on the block.

That said, Faried still struggles on defense. His biggest problem is when he has to defend off the basketball in help situations. When Faried acts as the helper big against pick-and-roll plays, offenses score 0.919 points per possession, and against spot-up situations, Faried the helper allows 1.114 PPP. Both numbers are in the bottom quarter of the league. Faried has problems recognizing when to help and when he should contest shots. He’s most comfortable in the paint, and when he has to step outside and play defense he tends to get lost and make mistakes.

7. Chandler Parsons

Chandler Parsons is another player who was drafted late but who was productive as soon as he stepped on an NBA court. He was best when defending isolation possessions. According to Synergy Sports, Parsons held opponents to 26 percent shooting and a PPP of 0.648 in one-on-one situations, placing him in the top 20 percent of all NBA players. The key to Parsons’s defensive game is his length. His long arms allow him to back off quicker offensive players and contain their dribble penetration while still being able to contest their shots.

Parsons also has the potential to be a very versatile offensive player. I say potential because he struggles in some situations, especially as the ball handler in pick-and-roll plays. Parsons just doesn’t have a feel for the pick-and-roll game yet, and he commits turnovers 25 percent of the time in these situations. As he becomes more comfortable as a ball handler and learns to read defenses, he should improve.

8. Kawhi Leonard

The San Antonio Spurs believe in Leonard. They traded a very good player, George Hill, for his draft rights, and Leonard has exceeded expectations on offense. Touted as Bruce Bowen 2.0, the Spurs’ next great perimeter stopper, Leonard actually played more like what the Spurs hoped they would get out of Richard Jefferson when they acquired him in 2009. Leonard was at his best this season when he was moving without the ball and putting himself in position to catch the ball and finish quickly. On plays labeled as “cuts” by Synergy Sports, Leonard posted a PPP of 1.351, which places him in the 83rd percentile among NBA players.

But although Leonard has the physical tools to be a top-notch defender, he’s still learning how to translate them into actual good defense. Leonard struggles to defend pick-and-roll and isolation plays; in both situations, his PPP allowed ranks in the bottom third of the league. Yet Leonard also forces turnovers 16.3 percent of the time against ball screens and 14.4 percent of the time against isolation plays. That’s very good. The problem is that when he isn’t forcing turnovers, Leonard is often giving up easy baskets. Leonard loves to gamble. Forcing turnovers is good, but I think that if he tried to steal the ball less often and just focused on stopping his man, Leonard’s defensive stats would improve. He must learn to pick his spots when going for steals.

9. Markieff Morris

For a while, Morris was one of the most efficient spot-up shooters in the NBA. That performance predictably dropped, but Morris is still a very good scorer in catch-and-shoot situations. According to Synergy Sports, he posts 1.021 points per possession on spot-up jumpers, which places him in the NBA’s 71st percentile. Playing with Steve Nash no doubt helps Morris make the most of his open looks, but Morris also does good job of setting up his shot with a variety of moves. He can hit the jumper right off the catch if his defender plays off him, but he can also making a nice head fake and drive. That ability to mix things up keeps defenders guessing and allows Morris to have success.

Morris’s biggest weakness is defending the post. On offense, his comfort level on the perimeter gives him an advantage over big men who like to stay in the paint, but when Morris plays defense, those same big men punish him. When he defends the post, Morris allows opposing players to shoot 60.7 percent and he gives up 1.117 points per possession. That puts him among the bottom 7 percent of all NBA players. Morris struggles because he doesn’t have the strength to push offensive players out of the post, and once they make the catch, he doesn’t have the size to bother their shots.

10. MarShon Brooks

Brooks was a high-volume scorer in college, and the New Jersey Nets hoped his scoring ability would translate to the NBA. It most certainly did. In isolation situations, Brooks posts 0.874 points per possession, which puts him in the top 19 percent of all NBA players. He has a nice awkwardness in his offensive game, which is full of hesitation dribbles and pull-up jump shots. The fact that he can finish at the NBA level is a good sign for Brooks and the Nets.

Unfortunately, Brooks can’t guard isolation situations nearly as well as he can score in them. He allows a PPP of 0.964 against one-on-one offense, and that puts him in the bottom 14 percent of all NBA players. Brooks seems like a lazy defender. He never really gets low in a defensive stance and he reaches in too much instead of moving his feet to stay in front of his man. If Brooks can work as hard on defense as he does on offense, he can become a good defender.

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