Rookie Ladder: Team success can weigh heavy in RotY chase
Denver Nuggets guard Jamal Murray, left, passes around Los Angeles Lakers center Tarik Black in the second half of an NBA basketball game, in Denver. The Nuggets won 129-101. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)
By Scott Howard-Cooper, NBA.com
Jaylen Brown already rode the Boston Celtics’ wave into the rankings. Yogi Ferrell was on anyway but gets an extra boost from his Dallas Mavericks. Rodney McGruder and Jamal Murray are back on the list in part because of the Miami Heat and the Denver Nuggets, respectively. So obviously, team success matters to The Ladder autocracy.
Not that itmatters entirely, otherwise players from the Philadelphia 76ers wouldn’t hold the No. 1 and 2 spots for the third week in a row and the New York Knicks, Phoenix Suns and Sacramento Kings wouldn’t be so strongly represented. But, as has been the case for several seasons, bonus points go to the first-year players with key roles on good teams, clubs that are either comfortably into the playoffs and clearly in win-now mode or close enough to a postseason spot to understand that every outcome matters. The teams, in short, that can’t afford to consistently play rookies as an investment in the future.
So, Brown, Ferrell, McGruder and Murray, with an asterisk for Malcolm Brogdon because the Milwaukee Bucks fit the description. But Brogdon would be near the top of the rankings, anyway, based on performance alone. And double-asterisk for teammate Thon Maker, who has been starting regularly, only not playing regularly. Rarely breaking 12 minutes means he receives no consideration.
Others could be impacted in the future, most notably Andrew Harrison now that he is back in the Memphis Grizzlies’ rotation and recently started a couple games. There is no sign from Toronto of a similar resurgence from another former Ladder regular, Raptors center Pascal Siakam, but he could get the same benefits if it did happen in a season that, like Harrison, includes several commendable contributions. Patrick McCaw can’t offer any big numbers on behalf of his candidacy, but his 14.4 minutes and 10 starts for the 53-14 Warriors -- an actual role rather than just grabbing the garbage-time minutes that wash ashore -- counts for something.
There are few stronger endorsements than a coach who needs to win now relying on an inexperienced player. When it begins to happen regularly and the newcomer continues to produce in a sign he can handle the moment, it becomes a layer to consider when rating the best rookies, even if the rookie does not have the shiny stats compared to others.
To this week's rankings:
1. Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers [NR]
Why he is still No. 1: Embiid was so much better than everyone else when he did play. He lapped the field, maybe more than once. There is no metric to decide how long he can stay in the lead without stepping on the court, only the subjective that one rookie generated All-Star consideration and one rookie through the first three quarters of the season played like he wasn’t a rookie. Embiid may eventually fall from the top. Just not yet.
2. Dario Saric, Philadelphia 76ers [NR]
Why he is still No. 2: If Embiid has produced for about half the season – 31 games – the same could be said for Saric in a different way. Even with the great run since around the All-Star break, he’s still at 12.4 points, 6.3 rebounds and shooting 41.4 percent. He didn’t shoot better than 40 percent two months in a row until February-March. Saric can still get to No. 1, but only by continuing to play well. The good news is, he has enough time left to dislodge teammate Embiid.
3. Malcolm Brogdon, Milwaukee Bucks 
Fifteen points and eight assists in 32 minutes while making three of five behind the arc Monday (Tuesday, PHL time) at Memphis was a very encouraging medical update after he missed the previous two games with a back injury. A healthy Brogdon would be an important asset down the stretch as the Bucks try to hold on to a playoff spot. But it is increasingly difficult to keep him in the conversation with Saric as threats to Embiid at No. 1. Brogdon needs a big surge, and soon.
4. Willy Hernangomez, New York Knicks 
Hernangomez crashing the top five would have been hard, maybe impossible, to imagine as recently as early-February. But no one saw this coming either: He is averaging 6.5 rebounds in 17.0 minutes, or 18.4 per 48 minutes, far ahead of the 14.8 of Embiid and 10th in the league. Hernangomez does one thing, but he does it very well while continuing to show he should have had a bigger role much earlier in the season. Plus, he is first among rookies in shooting and fifth in blocks.
5. Marquese Chriss, Phoenix Suns 
Few big games, but a lot of solid ones. His shooting continues to improve, to 55.1 percent the last 10 outings and 44.2 for the season, while taking, and making, three-pointers. Chriss is doing a good job of finding his spots instead of falling into the trap of trying to out-athlete opponents. In addition to being ninth in the class in field-goal percentage, he is eighth in scoring, sixth in rebounding, fourth in blocks and tied for seventh in steals. Very solid.
6. Buddy Hield, Sacramento Kings 
Like Chriss, Hield drops a spot despite playing well. Blame Hernangomez, not either of the two Pacific Division rookies. Hield has a chance for top-five finishes in points and three-point percentage, along with top 10 in rebounding despite mostly playing guard, after posting 14.2 points and 55.1-percent shooting the last 10 games. Climbing a couple spots and into the top 10 in field-goal percentage would be a nice addition after the previous months of slumps.
7. Yogi Ferrell, Dallas Mavericks 
While Brogdon is still holding him off for the class lead in assists, Ferrell moved into a tie for third in scoring after averaging 12.3 points the first seven games of March. He’s also at 33 assists against eight turnovers for the month while shooting 44.6 percent, the kind of efficiency the Mavericks need as they play with little room for error in trying to make the postseason. Ferrell is in line for another Ladder upgrade.
8. Jaylen Brown, Boston Celtics 
Brown is back in a reserve role after consecutive starts, but with the same prominent spot at 26 and 22 minutes the last two outings. He is still just 18th among rookies in minutes, but the 16.9 per game, and 17 starts, comes with the additional credibility of a first-year player in the rotation for a team with the second-best record in the Eastern Conference. That alone could keep him on The Ladder until the end, depending on production from others in the second half of the rankings. Being sixth in the class in field goal percentage and eighth in 3-point percentage helps too.
9. Rodney McGruder, Miami Heat [NR]
He was ranked for three weeks early in the season, lost contact with the lead pack by shooting 34.8 percent in December and 38.2 in January, and now returns on the strength of a starting job for a playoff contender. Fifty starts and 25.4 minutes per outing means a lot more against that backdrop. And, his perimeter game has improved enough to where McGruder is ninth in three-point percentage, while also tied for 13th in rebounding and tied for ninth in steals. It’s not a firm Ladder spot, but it is a spot.
10. Jamal Murray, Denver Nuggets [NR]
It’s not just that he is getting important minutes for a team that needs wins to hold a playoff spot, although that does mean a lot. Murray has been one of the best rookies since the All-Star break, at 12.8 points while shooting 46.3 percent overall and 41.7 behind the arc the last 10 games. That moved him to sixth in the class in scoring and 10th in three-point percentage. The improved shooting is especially important after months of trouble in that area.
Dropped out: Isaiah Whitehead (9), Brandon Ingram (10)
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