As we enter the second half of the 2019-2020 NBA season, it’s time for an updated set of rookie rankings. Although Zion Williamson’s absence takes some of the sparkle from this class, there are other standouts carving out niches in the Association.
The Rookie of the Year race is starting to become clearer now that we have nearly half of the games already in the books. Some neophytes are thriving in optimal roles while others are struggling in dysfunctional situations. It’s too early to give up on any of them, even if their stats aren’t pretty right now, but we often can and should start to seriously note the leaders of the pack.
Early standouts often have a way of translating that success to highly productive careers overall, so let’s dive into some numbers and film clips on the top newcomers to illustrate how this rookie crop is faring.
On the radar: R.J. Barrett, F (New York Knicks); Rui Hachimura, F (Washington Wizards); De’Andre Hunter, G/F (Atlanta Hawks); Darius Garland, G (Cleveland Cavaliers); Coby White, G (Chicago Bulls)
HONORABLE MENTION: MICHAEL PORTER JR., DENVER NUGGETS — F
Per-game stats: 9.8 Min, 5.3 Pts, 2.8 Reb, 49.0% FG, 36.8% 3pt
Advanced Metrics: 57.4% True Shooting, 0.127 Win Shares/48 Min, -2.0 Box Plus/Minus, -9.5 Total Points Added
If Michael Porter Jr. keeps the torrid shooting, he’ll zoom up the rookie rankings in a heartbeat. His back injury and its complications derailed the start of his NBA career, and the Denver Nuggets have eased him into things so far this season. Lately, he’s received more opportunities to show why he was in the No. 1 pick conversation prior to his setbacks.
After scoring a career-high 19 points against the Sacramento Kings on Sunday, Porter uncorked 25 points on 11-of-12 shooting in just 23 minutes Thursday against the Indiana Pacers. He attacked the hoop decisively, collaborated smoothly with teammates and connected from three-point land a couple of times.
One of the questions I had about MPJ (before entering the league) was whether he’d be agile enough to create his own shot. So far, it looks like the tangible potential is there, and he’s lighter on his feet (and more fluid in his hips) than he was in college. Watch him obliterate this closeout and foil the second line of defense with tremendous mid-air control:
The next step for Porter is consistency. Can he create offense efficiently on a nightly basis?
HONORABLE MENTION: P.J. Washington, Charlotte Hornets — F
Per-game stats: 29.8 Min, 12.5 Pts, 5.2 Reb, 48.2% FG, 42.2% 3pt
Advanced Metrics: 57.9% TS, 0.079 WS/48 Min, -0.6 BPM, -11.3 TPA
P.J. Washington has continued in Charlotte the exponential growth we saw during his sophomore season at Kentucky. His ball-handling skills and shooting range are expanding, and he’s been quite efficient for a rookie. After missing a couple of weeks in mid-December with a fractured finger, he made a smooth return and was immediately productive.
He’s hitting 48.2 percent from the field and 42.2 percent from deep (on 109 three-point attempts). Those are terrific numbers for someone who attempted just 21 triples from the college arc two years ago. Washington has steady shot-prep footwork and a compact release, both of which are conducive to long-term consistency.
Washington’s effectiveness from the elbow and mid-post also translated well from college to the pros. He can convert plays as a scorer or passer from a variety of angles. One of my favorite plays he’s uncorked so far is this decisive drive with the left hand against Detroit:
It’s impressive that Washington caught the rock and used his off hand with no hesitation. He knew that a lefty drive would give him the best angle, and he was confident in his skill to execute it.
Washington also stands out as a respectable defender on a mostly-inept Hornets roster. He’s not an imposing rim protector deep in the paint, but he moves his feet pretty well away from the basket and shows a decent balance between aggression and discipline.
5. Tyler Herro, Miami Heat — F
Per-game stats: 28.6 Min, 13.7 Pts, 4.3 Reb, 42.0% FG, 38.6% 3pt
Advanced Metrics: 53.8% TS, 0.065 WS/48 Min, -0.44 BPM, -66.1 TPA
Tyler Herro’s impact and production wavered throughout December, and it might take some time before he’s a truly “every-night” cog for the Miami Heat. However, his strong moments are something special and he’s been a good “icing-on-the-cake” player whose contributions are sure nice to have when he’s got it going.
The young gunslinger pairs his silky shooting stroke and budding shot-creating skills with unsurpassed confidence. When he gets in a rhythm, he can connect from almost any spot on the court.
He’s an inconsistent finisher around the rim, however, shooting just 53.1 within three feet of the tin and 40.0 percent from three to 10 feet. That might be an uphill climb for him the rest of his career, given his short arms. However, he’s been extremely handy in the mid-range, shooting 46.5 percent between 10 and 16 feet.
Miami sporadically gets him quality space to attack via dribble hand-offs like this one:
Even if his overall efficiency doesn’t improve the rest of the year, he’s given Heat fans a lot to look forward to. It’s impressive that he’s a key rotational option on an upper-end Eastern Conference club.
4. Eric Paschall, GOLDEN STATE WARRIORS — F
Per-game stats: 27.9 Min, 14.3 Pts, 4.5 Reb, 48.9% FG, 30.3% 3pt
Advanced Metrics: 57.0% TS, 0.072 WS/48 Min, -3.3 BPM, -43.6 TPA
The Golden State Warriors’ latest second-round steal has been battling a hip injury, so he’s seen modest playing time lately. Eric Paschall averaged just 22.0 minutes per game in December (compared to 32.2 in November), but he improved as a playmaker and outside shooter.
He also went 38.9 percent from distance last month, thanks to a healthy share of in-rhythm catch-and-shoot jumpers. Meanwhile, his mid-range shooting has been shaky all season due to too many off-balance pull-up shots. In fact, he is shooting just 34.0 percent on two-point pull-ups so far.
His efforts as a secondary playmaker are only getting better, however. Paschall has superb timing and awareness when he attacks the bucket.
This drive-and-dish to Alen Smailagic exemplifies his patience and sharp sense for connecting with teammates:
Defensively, Paschall’s been much more effective on the perimeter than near the hoop. He’s solid when contesting jump-shooters, but he struggles to guard slashers and rim-divers. He doesn’t have great size to check bigger forwards, and his footwork and timing still need improvement.
Still, he’s gotten a high dose of minutes on such a banged-up Warriors team all year. That extra development time should come in handy when he can slot in next year as a pressure release valve with the starters or a bench scoring weapon.
3. Brandon Clarke, Memphis Grizzlies — F
Per-game stats: 21.5 Min, 13.0 Pts, 5.5 Reb, 64.5% FG, 45.7% 3pt
Advanced Metrics: 69.3% TS, 0.184 WS/48 Min, 2.7 BPM, 36.2 TPA
Although ball-handling skills weren’t his top attribute upon entering the draft, Brandon Clarke has flexed a diverse repertoire off the bounce. He has the polish to penalize defensive mistakes and capitalize on favorable matchups.
Watch him attack this closeout, spin to the middle and convert the basket with terrific touch against the Nuggets:
Blowing past a lumbering Nikola Jokic is one thing, but it’s the way Clarke foiled the second line of defense (Jerami Grant) that’s particularly impressive. That deft finish wasn’t a fluke, either. Clarke’s proven quite steady on mid-range floaters and short jumpers, hitting 54.3 percent between 3-10 feet and 63.2 between 10 and 16 feet.
Given his value as a rim-diver, multi-positional defender and part-time shot creator, Clarke is making a mockery of his draft slot (No. 21).
2. Kendrick Nunn, Miami Heat — G
Per-game stats: 30.7 Min, 16.0 Pts, 3.5 Ast, 44.7% FG, 35.0% 3pt
Advanced Metrics: 53.8% TS, 0.068 WS/48 Min, -2.2 BPM, -45.9 TPA
Kendrick Nunn remains toward the top of the rookie hierarchy due to his multifaceted impact in Erik Spoelstra’s offense. His shooting cooled off in December, yet he remained a key contributor for Miami by improving his playmaking.
He offers terrific backcourt lineup flexibility, often serving as the off-ball guard when sharing the floor with Goran Dragic. But Nunn also spends a bunch of time as the Heat’s primary ball-handler, keeping opponents on their toes with a great mix of drives, pull-up jumpers and smooth passing.
He dished nine dimes during Thursday’s triumph over the Toronto Raptors and possesses terrific timing, a quick release and accuracy as a passer. Watch him engage the majority of the Raptors defense, which enabled Meyers Leonard to cut for an easy deuce:
The game program might say “shooting guard,” but anyone who’s watched Nunn play knows that doesn’t encompass his value to the Heat.
1. Ja Morant, Memphis Grizzlies — G
Per-Game Stats: 29.3 Min, 17.4 Pts, 6.5 Ast, 46.6% FG, 39.7% 3pt
Advanced Metrics: 54.9% TS, 0.070 WS/48 Min, -1.6 BPM, -28.1 TPA
Ja Morant’s shooting was up-and-down throughout December, but the good heavily outweighs the bad for the Memphis Grizzlies’ young playmaker. Plus, he started the new year off with a robust 23 points on 8-of-13 shooting and seven assists Thursday against the Sacramento Kings.
Morant brings a combination of skill and explosiveness that’s uncommon in young guards. His aggressiveness and creativity continue to generate buckets for everyone on the floor. And while his acrobatic drives to the hoop garner headlines, he’s adept at less-flashy, nuanced plays as well. What’s more, he’s improving as ball-screen creator, displaying great patience when he snakes around screens.
The next step in Morant’s game is hitting floaters like this one with more regularity:
I’m not even looking at Memphis’ win-loss column this season. For now, it’s all about getting Morant, Clarke and Jaren Jackson Jr. to grow together while figuring out which peripheral pieces support them best.
Unless otherwise noted, all stats are from NBA.com and Basketball-Reference.com. Season stats accurate as of 1/2/20.
Dan is a TBW staff writer. After playing college ball at Franciscan University, he covered the NBA and NBA Draft for Bleacher Report for four years and the FRS Network for three years. He now co-hosts the Unlimited Range podcast and continues to campaign for Doris Burke’s promotion to lead analyst at ESPN. Follow him on Twitter: @DanO_Bball