Rookie Ladder: Young refuses to let up in tight race

NBA.com Global on Mar 29, 2019 07:40 AM
Rookie Ladder: Young refuses to let up in tight race
ATLANTA, GA - JANUARY 21: Trae Young #11 of the Atlanta Hawks passes the ball against the Orlando Magic on January 21, 2019 at State Farm Arena in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Garrett Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images)

By Sekou Smith, NBA.com

When I gave Trae Young the top rung on the Kia Rookie Ladder back on March 7 (March 8, PHL time), I fully expected Luka Doncic to retake the top rung. But Young hasn’t shown any signs of slowing, making it difficult to give back the top spot to Doncic.

And that’s not to say Doncic hasn’t been doing his part -- he’s been great. Over the past two weeks, he’s had three triple-doubles, averaging 23.5 points, 10.3 rebounds and 8.3 assists per game. The downside is his three-point shooting has taken a serious hit, as he’s shot just 18.3 percent from there (9-for-49) in his last six games. The argument for Doncic has always been he’s been consistent all season, whereas Young started slow, but has gained steam after finding his shot. If that’s the argument, then equal weight should possibly be given to Doncic’s shooting struggles down the stretch.

Young, meanwhile, continues to put up monster numbers, averaging 25.8 ppg and 9.2 apg over his last six games, helping the Hawks go 3-3 with wins against the Utah Jazz, Philadelphia 76ers and New Orleans Pelicans. He has four straight double-doubles while shooting at a 49.1 percent clip (37 percent on three-pointers) over the last two weeks. His play was good enough to earn him Eastern Conference Player of the Week honors, the first rookie to grab the award this season.

With just two weeks to go, the final stretch could go far in determining the Kia Rookie of the Year. If Young keeps up his impressive 30-10 pace with solid shooting numbers while Doncic fades, will it be enough to overcome his poor November, which saw him average 14 ppg on 35 percent shooting (19.8 percent on three-pointers)? Or will Doncic finish strong and complete one of the most impressive rookie campaigns we’ve seen in years?

It could end up being a tight vote (I’ll have more on that next week as I look back at other close ROY races), so you’d be wise to get NBA League Pass if you haven’t already to catch these rookies’ final eight games.

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1. Trae Young, Atlanta Hawks

Last week: No. 1

How’s this for rare air? Young had his sixth 30-point, 10-assist game in New Orleans (33 points, 12 assists), which moved him past Michael Jordan and Stephen Curry for second most by a rookie in NBA history. Only Oscar Robertson had more (25). "I'm feeling good, and my teammates honestly make me look good, too," said Young, who was selected as the East's Player of the Week after his recent run of sterling performances. "I'm just having fun. That's the main thing. The ball is moving, shots are falling and it's fun."

2. Luka Doncic, Dallas Mavericks

Last week: No. 2

For all the talk about Rookie of the Year, Luka doesn’t seem too worried. “For me, the Rookie of the Year of course is important, but there’s a lot more things going on,” Doncic told the Dallas Morning News. “It’s a long season here in the NBA. A lot of talking about that, and I’m just not interested in it.” This week, Doncic notched his seventh triple-double of the season, tying him with Magic Johnson for third-most by a rookie (and most for a player under 21). His most impressive came against the defending champion Warriors, when he had 23 points, 11 rebounds and 10 assists in a surprising 35-point rout in Oakland. Hall of Fame point guard Steve Nash couldn’t help but gush about Doncic this week. “He’s phenomenal. Just an incredible basketball player. …He’s an incredibly unique player, historically, already, at a young age,” he said. “As far as his uniqueness and accuracy and ability to make plays off the dribble with his size? We just don’t see that. Especially at his age.”

3. Marvin Bagley III, Sacramento Kings

Last week: Not ranked

Bagley returned to the Kings’ lineup March 14 (Mar. 15, PHL time) after missing two weeks with a left knee sprain and didn’t miss a beat. In eight games, Bagley averaged 19.4 ppg and 7.8 rpg in 25.8 mpg. The Kings’ playoff hopes are fading, but coach Dave Joerger didn’t hesitate when asked about Bagley’s status among this class. “I’ve got the Rookie of the Year on my roster. … His level of talent pushes coaches to make sure we’re on point and challenging him every day. He’s just been a joy to coach.”

4. Collin Sexton, Cleveland Cavaliers

Last week: Not ranked

Sexton has been putting up monster scoring numbers since the All-Star break and especially over the last two weeks. The point guard scored at least 20 in eight straight games (the streak ended Monday, PHL time, in Milwaukee), and he’s seen the bump thanks to shot selection. Sexton has focused less on mid-range jumpers and instead looked more for the three-ball, taking 5.6 per game since the All-Star break (compared to 2.7 before). Overall, he’s shooting at a 48.1 percent clip since the break, knocking down 44.8 percent of his three-pointers. “He’s really starting to turn a corner, he’s really starting to figure it out,” coach Larry Drew said. “I want him to continue to learn, to learn how to play the position, to learn how to be a leader, to learn how to get his teammates involved. Just continue to learn the game. He’s the only player on our team that hasn’t missed a game. He’s a warrior.”

5. Deandre Ayton, Phoenix Suns

Last week: No. 3

Over the last two weeks, Ayton tallied double-doubles in four of his seven games, averaging 16 ppg and 9.6 rpg. He could have had another, but he garnered his first ejection of his young career after picking up two technicals in New Orleans (the second while arguing from the bench) on March 16 (Mar. 17, PHL time). Coach Igor Kokoskov called Ayton’s reaction “inappropriate” while Ayton said he didn’t even realize he’d been ejected as he complained to teammates on the bench. “I guess I was a little too loud in complaining to them.”

Just missed the cut

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, LA Clippers

The Clippers have won six straight and clinched a playoff spot Tuesday (Wednesday, PHL time), and Gilgeous-Alexander has been front and center. The point guard has averaged 14 ppg and 6.2 apg while shooting 48.4 percent overall (and 40 percent on three-pointers). He’s been steady running the offense and a staunch defender, both of which are big reasons the Clippers are back in the postseason.

Miles Bridges, Charlotte Hornets

The Hornets are fighting for the playoff lives, and Bridges has been a key contributor as a starting forward. In seven games over the past two weeks, Bridges has averaged 9.9 ppg, 6.9 rpg and 1.6 spg as Charlotte has inched closer to the final playoff spot in the East.

Frank Jackson, New Orleans Pelicans

With Jrue Holiday being shut down for the season, it’s Jackson’s show down the stretch. Over his past six games, the point guard averaged 17 points on 41.9 percent shooting (37.5 percent on three-pointers), but he’s not putting up huge numbers otherwise (2.7 rpg and 2.7 apg).

Landry Shamet, LA Clippers

Shamet falls out of the top 5, but deserves some love for helping the Clippers win six straight and clinch a playoff spot. He left Sunday’s (Monday, PHL time) win against the Knicks with an ankle injury and missed Tuesday’s win in Minnesota. Coach Doc Rivers says he’ll likely miss “a couple games,” which should have him ready for the playoffs.

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(All stats through March 28, PHL time)

Sekou Smith is a veteran NBA reporter and NBA TV analyst. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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