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NBA Rookie Watch: Christmas Sweaters, Angry Moms, and Stress Fractures

It’s been a month, and the most promising rookie class in years is struggling. There’s no instant superstar, no dominant scorer. There have been frustrating injuries, and lots of losses. On the other hand, we’ve seen the youngsters bond with superstars, purchase new cars, and embarrass James Harden. The NBA has many rites of passage, and the rookies are experiencing them all.

It’s been a month, and the most promising rookie class in years is struggling. There’s no instant superstar, no dominant scorer. There have been frustrating injuries and lots of losses. On the other hand, we’ve seen the youngsters bond with superstars, purchase new cars, and embarrass James Harden. The NBA has many rites of passage, and the rookies are experiencing them all.

We ran down 10 of our favorite rookies in October. Now it’s time to check in with the top 10 after our first full month of games.

Without further ado …

10. Elfrid Payton, Magic

Andrew Sharp: He was the toughest omission when we did this a month ago, but it’s impossible to keep Elfrid Payton off now. Whenever he’s on the court, he makes Magic games exciting. It doesn’t matter what the score is. Watching Payton buzzing all over the court is worth it, regardless. Think of this like a car commercial.


VOICE: “You’ve seen distributors, team leaders. You’ve seen that little guy who careens around the floor at 120 miles per hour, only barely controlling his limbs. We’re talking about defense that drives other teams insane. Why is he pressing 80 feet from the basket? Nobody knows, but it never stops being entertaining. Some guys just treat every possession like a kamikaze mission. You know who we’re talking about.


“But what if someone could build a better Patrick Beverley?”



That’s Elfrid Payton. The Magic are building a better Beverley — bigger, and potentially a lot more skilled, and with hair that looks like it was drawn on in MS Paint. Also, cult hero status aside, Beverley is someone who’s easy to hate. No matter how obnoxious Payton’s defense gets, it’s impossible to root against anyone named Elfrid.

His jumper’s not there yet, and he’s had an inconsistent first month that cost him a starting spot, but when you look at the long-term picture with the Magic, he’ll be as crucial as anyone. But that’s the future. For now, this Magic team is an up-and-down mess that either looks ridiculously promising or completely lost on any given night. A lot like Elfrid Payton. Enjoy this ride. And speaking of rides …

9. Zach LaVine, Timberwolves

Juliet Litman: Zach LaVine got a new car.

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This may be the first time in the history of the Lexus company that one of its automobiles looks like a standard midsize rental. I’m not expecting LaVine to hire Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar cinematographer to shoot this video, but it’s not possible to make this car look less cool. I hope the vehicle has a solid sound system so he can drown out quotes like these from soon-to-be-traded Corey Brewer: “It’s hard to go on a 13-day road trip and you lose your point guard the second game and now you’ve got a bunch of 19-year-olds playing.”

8. Jusuf Nurkic, Nuggets

Sharp: This is another omission from the first list. Sure, this spot could have gone to Nerlens Noel, but the Sixers are unwatchable, and last week a basketball writer chatted me to say, “I’m not sure if Nerlens Noel knows how to dribble.” So let’s hold off on celebrating him for a few months. Besides, this is all a perfect excuse to share my hot take based on nothing more than a gut feeling: Five years from now, Jusuf Nurkic will be more valuable than Nerlens Noel. For now, he’s checking out the Denver Zoo.


Just give it time. The big men are coming back from the dead, and Nurkic will be right in the middle of it. He’s only getting about nine minutes per game for the Nuggets, but that’s OK. Denver is the black hole of the NBA this year. Hope gets swallowed as a rule. The less Nurkic plays for this team, the better. We can all just gawk at his preseason numbers and dream about the future.

“He brings the pain, offensively and defensively,” Nuggets coach Brian Shaw told one reporter before the year started. In the next breath, that article told us Nurkic’s father weighs 450 pounds. Also, Nurkic has been nicknamed the Balkan Bear. Are you on the bandwagon yet?

More from the Denver Post:

Is there anything the Balkan Bear can’t do? I asked Nurkic if he can indeed dance. With perhaps something lost in translation, he seemed a bit perplexed by my question, repeating he would not dance with me, although he would be happy to show off his dance moves with a woman. Nurkic added one more caveat: No rap. “I like my music. Balkan music,” he said.

If anything, no. 8 is too low.

7. K.J. McDaniels, Sixers

Sharp: One Sixer who hasn’t been unwatchable? K.J. McDaniels. Fresh off getting lowballed by Sam Hinkie this summer and opting for an unprecedented one-year deal, McDaniels has burst out of the gates as maybe the most intriguing rookie in the league. Put it this way: He may not be good enough to save the Sixers, but he’s good enough to make us wish he could play for a real NBA team.

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He’s also given us our first Rookie Mom story line of the season, when Mrs. McDaniels reached out to a Sixers blogger — also my former roommate in L.A.  to vent about the state of affairs in Philadelphia.


McDaniels’s mom is just full of facts.


Sing it in the streets, and feel it in your heart: Free K.J. McDaniels.

6. Kostas Papanikolaou, Rockets

Litman: We’ve already covered this concept, but the Houston Rockets are not a fun team. One exception, though, is Greek rookie Kostas Papanikolaou. He mainly contributes shooting off the bench, and every time he hits a 3, the announcers are gifted with the ability to punctuate a big shot by emphasizing his last name. Papa Nikolaou!


Like Giannis Antetokounmpo last year, Papanikolaou is blogging about his first season in the NBA. There haven’t been any smoothie revelations yet, but he may be Patrick Beverley’s biggest fan: “Off course I had the chance to catch up with Pat (Beverley). The minute he saw me he started talking trash in Greek! I feel fortunate that I will have my old teammates, like Pat, Josh (Powell) and Joey (Dorsey). It will help me adjust faster.” Has anyone ever spoken about Beverley with such fondness before?

He’s already drinking the Moreyball Kool-aid, too: “Imagine that there is a machine that passes the ball, like a cannon, that gives you the chance to shoot by yourself without having someone to rebound the ball for you. I have access 24/7 and I can go to shoot any time I feel like.” He doesn’t say if the machine prevents you from practicing long 2s, but we can only assume.

5. Joe Harris, Cavs

Sharp: One of the most common questions of the NBA’s first month: “Who the fuck is Joe Harris?” When we were putting together this list, I got an email that asked, “Should we include the rookie from Cleveland? Ed Harris?” Also, watch the Cavs this month and you might find yourself wondering, Hold up, is that a fu manchu?


Harris was the ACC tournament MVP last season and a second-round pick for Cleveland in June. Now, thanks to an injury to Matthew Dellavedova, and Dion Waiters just being himself, Harris has inherited a major role on the most scrutinized team in the league. The other night, David Blatt played him 19 consecutive minutes to finish the game.

The Cavs lost, but still. He got turned to a pile of ash by John Wall a few nights later, but still. What matters is that Joe/Ed Harris is playing a much bigger role than anyone expected. He can shoot, and that Wall play notwithstanding, he’s been solid on D for a team that desperately needs it.

And again, he’s taking all the newfound fame in stride and growing stupid facial hair. And he’s reaching out to his heroes.


All of this only enhances his cult hero status among Cavs fans who will love anyone who’s not Waiters. Whatever happens with the Cavs this year, there is a 100 percent chance Harris is a god in Cleveland for the next few years.

4. Aaron Gordon, Magic

Litman: Aaron Gordon is out indefinitely after surgery for a stress fracture in his foot. But do you know what “indefinite” means?


It means that you should not underestimate Aaron Gordon. This dude has already found his inner Phil Jackson.


This is the attitude that landed Gordon on our rookie radar during the preseason. He believes in himself, and he’s out here spreading his own gospel. Until he’s ready to play again, we have a lot to look forward to. He’ll be motivating his teammates from the sideline, watching BASEketball, and, if we’re lucky, getting into some very mild trouble.

3. Andrew Wiggins, Timberwolves

Sharp: Here’s a sequence from a Rockets-Wolves game on ESPN a few weeks ago. Andrew Wiggins slices through the lane and draws a foul. He sinks both free throws to give him 13 points early in the third quarter. It’s a four-point game. Wiggins and the Wolves are hanging tough.

Doug Collins breaks in: “See, now he’s gotta get greedy. He’s gotta want more tonight. He’s having a good game. Fight through this, finish strong. Build on this. This is what good young players have to do. Don’t be satisfied. You played a good 30 minutes, finish this game strong. Stamp it.”

As he finishes this pep talk, Wiggins picks up his fourth foul on James Harden and heads straight to the bench. When he returns in the fourth quarter, the Wolves are down 16.

It’s been that kind of month for Wiggins. We’ve seen flashes of what’s possible, but he hasn’t quite put it all together for real. He hasn’t stamped it. That probably won’t happen this year. The question is whether the flashes are impressive enough to make him this year’s best rookie regardless. The other night he had 29 points against the Kings, his jumper has looked great, and as he learns to get to the line more, he could be pretty unstoppable over the next few years. For now, he’s already torturing James Harden like a seasoned pro.

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He’s still my rookie of the year pick, and he’s still better than most fans realize. Team Wiggins for life.

2. Jabari Parker, Bucks

Litman: I didn’t want to like Jabari Parker. All the excitement around him made him less fun to root for. But then he dresses up like a Blues Brother on Halloween and hands out candy in Whitefish Bay, Wisconsin, and I’ve got no choice but to get onboard with the Parker cause.

Parker is down for just about anything. The Bucks took over a movie theater in Milwaukee during the preseason, demonstrating they are clearly a squad with chemistry. Parker was out front taking tickets. We probably shouldn’t read too much into the video below (except to confirm that the Bucks are very PR and social media savvy), but it’s hard not to see him as the forward-facing young guy. His star may even eclipse Giannis’s as he keeps smiling his way through all of these pranks.

Parker diffentiates himself from the rest of the rookies by performing to the level that was expected while also navigating with ease the celebrity that comes with being an NBA player. He’s already a professional, not just a rookie.

1. Nik Stauskas, Kings

Litman: Our guy Nik has done some things to shake our faith in him. Namely, not playing basketball well. Mike Malone keeps giving him quality minutes only to have Stauskas struggle from the field and look completely overwhelmed. While these rookie power rankings don’t necessarily weigh on-court performance too heavily, Nik is shooting just 13-of-43 in his NBA career, and he’s an obvious defensive liability. Yet a King will always find a way to win.


If you haven’t looked at Sacramento’s ugly Christmas sweater photo shoot yet, stop what you’re doing and peruse immediately. There’s a lot to love: Boogie and a bull, Jason Thompson and Ray McCallum posing in front of a giant picture of Ben McLemore’s face, Rudy Gay seemingly forgetting what he’s wearing and treating this like any other shoot. But nothing is better than the family photo of Stauskas, McLemore, McCallum, and Thompson.


McLemore and McCallum have gone with a classic yearbook photo pose, which is basically like playing it straight. And even if Thompson looks a little deranged here, he’s got nothing on Stauskas, whose eyes are reminiscent of Taylor Swift’s in the “Blank Space” video. He looks like he just exited a cruel psychology experiment in which he was deprived of sleep for 48 hours and he stopped by for this photo shoot before going home to crash. Everything Stauskas does comes with a strong dose of earnestness, which is why he remains on top here, a disaster on defense, and perhaps a public safety risk.