Rookie Ladder: With Zion out, surprises take top spots

NBA.com Global on Nov 01, 2019 02:25 PM
Rookie Ladder: With Zion out, surprises take top spots
Miami Heat guard Kendrick Nunn (25) congratulates forward Justise Winslow (20) after a basket during the second half of the team's NBA basketball game against the Memphis Grizzlies on Wednesday, Oct. 23, 2019, in Miami. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)

By Drew Packham, NBA.com

With one injury, everything changed.

When news came down that No. 1 pick Zion Williamson would miss 6-8 weeks with a torn meniscus in his right knee, the Kia Rookie of the Year race was officially up for grabs.

Williamson, the No. 1 pick who was dominating the preseason and was a clear favorite to win Kia ROY, will miss anywhere from 20-30 games based off the initial timetable. The Pelicans are being cautious with their prized big man, meaning the door is wide open for other rookies to take advantage.

So that begs the question: Can Williamson miss 25-30% of the season and still return to claim the top prize?

If what we’ve seen so far from the rest of this rookie class is any indication, Zion will have his work cut out for him when he gets back on the court.

Here’s how the race looks after the first week.

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1. Kendrick Nunn, Miami Heat

The biggest surprise of the first week has been Kendrick Melvin Nunn, who spent last season in the G League after going undrafted in 2018. The Heat clearly saw something in Nunn, signing the guard to a deal in April, although he wouldn’t see action until Opening Night this season. Nunn burst onto the scene, scoring 24 (one shy of the Heat rookie debut record) in Miami’s 120-101 win over the Grizzlies and hasn’t slowed down since, despite Jimmy Butler’s return to the lineup. "I've never seen him look like he's under stress or pressure," Spoelstra said of Nunn, who leads all rookies in scoring (21.0 ppg) while shooting 48.6% from the floor. "He's an experienced older young player." For now, the starting job seems to be Nunn’s. Whether he keeps up this hot start will be something to watch, but he’s already winning over fans and his underdog story will only help his case.

2. P.J. Washington, Charlotte Hornets

The No. 12 pick didn’t take long to make his case for playing time in Charlotte. While GM Mitch Kupchak previously suggested the Kentucky product would spend time in the G League, Washington wasn’t having it. Washington scored 27 points and hit 7 3s in the opener, setting an NBA record for a debut. And he hasn’t showed many signs of slowing. Through five games as a starter, he’s averaging 15.8 points and 7.0 rebounds (tied for 1st among rookies) while shooting 54.7% from the field and 52.0% on 3s.

3. RJ Barrett, New York Knicks

The No. 3 pick has looked like a star, starting all five games and proving he’s one of the best shooters in this rookie class. Through five games, Barrett is averaging 18.2 points and 6.4 rebounds while shooting 47.4% from the field and 42.1% from beyond the arc. Barrett’s only issue so far is one that plagued him at Duke: He’s just 11-for-27 (40.7%) from the free-throw line. Coach David Fizdale is experimenting with Barrett at the point, with mixed results so far.

4. Ja Morant, Memphis Grizzlies

Morant has had his ups and downs, but he certainly had a signature moment in one of his first big tests. Squaring off against Kyrie Irving, Morant scored 30 points (17 in the 4th) and sealed the win with a block on Irving before setting up the game-winning 3 as the Grizzlies beat the Nets 134-133 in OT. Morant is averaging 17.5 points and 5.0 assists through four games, but he’ll have to cut down on his 5.0 turnovers per game. Still, Morant’s flashes of brilliance in a big matchup earn him a top 5 spot on the first Ladder.

5. Rui Hachimura, Washington Wizards

Hachimura is winning over fans and teammates alike with his early play. The No. 9 pick has started all four games for the 1-3 Wizards, averaging 18.0 points and 7.0 rebounds (tied for 1st among rookies) on 46.9% shooting. Coach Scott Brooks is giving the former Gonzaga forward free rein, so he should be a regular on the Ladder. “He's going to be special in this league. I think he has the potential to be a star," Isaiah Thomas said of his teammate. "I always tell him he reminds me of Kawhi Leonard when he first came into the league; big body, big hands, midrange game, he knows the game really well."

Just missed the cut:

Coby White, Chicago Bulls

White started the season hot, scoring 17 and 25 in the first two games, but hasn’t reached double-digits since, shooting 8-for-31 in the Bulls’ next three games. Still, White has proven to be a capable change-of-pace off the bench and could climb with more playing time.

Tyler Herro, Miami Heat

Herro has been a key piece to the Heat’s 3-1 start to the season, averaging 16.3 points and 6.3 rebounds while shooting 45.8% from the field (36.8 on 3s). The No. 13 pick, who was tabbed “best shooter” by his fellow rookies, scored 29 points (exploding for 19 in the 2nd quarter) in Miami’s 112-97 win over the Hawks.

DeAndre Hunter, Atlanta Hawks

Hunter has started all four games for the Hawks, averaging 9.5 points and 4.3 rebounds in 26.4 minutes per game. This team is clearly built around Trae Young and John Collins at this point, but Hunter is sliding right into his role and his numbers should only rise as he gains experience.

Matisse Thybulle, Philadelphia 76ers

Thybulle’s numbers on offense won’t wow you, but the No. 20 pick out of Washington makes his money on the defensive end. Through four games, Thybulle has 12 steals (leading all NBA players) and 6 blocks, both tops among rookies. He’s had multiple steals in all four games (setting a Sixers rookie record) and two or more blocks in three of the four, even more impressive considering he’s only seeing about 20 minutes per game.

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(All stats through Thursday, Oct. 31, PHL time)

Send any questions or comments to my email or find me on Twitter @drewpackham.

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