The last time we ran this rookie report, there were a few surprises (Greg Stiemsma anyone?) but in the end, the No. 1 pick in last June’s draft was right where he should’ve been: at the top of this class. To say he’s keeping the status quo would be an understatement: In the past few weeks, Kyrie Irving has stepped up his game even more, already hitting the 20-plus point mark in six games this month.
After that, the class has been surprises all around. From Iman Shumpert becoming a household name in New York City to Ricky Rubio becoming one of the best playmakers in the league to even Chandler Parsons cracking a rotation, this rookie class doesn’t bring much star power. But they do have a lot of guys capable of playing roles on winning teams.
In the second edition of the rookie report, here are the league’s 10 best first-year players.
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10. Tristan Thompson
Vol. 1: No. 7
If Thompson were getting more run in Cleveland, there’s no doubt he would be higher on this list. Just check the numbers. He averages 16.0 points, 9.9 rebounds and 2.1 blocks per 36 minutes on the floor. Despite playing only at an average of 18.3 minutes per night, he still puts up solid defensive numbers (5.1 rebounds and 1.1 blocks). As Thompson adjusts to the NBA game, we should see him improve upon his 48 percent field-goal percentage. The only dragon left to slay is Thompson’s horrendous 40 percent free-throw percentage. The Cavs currently sit at three games below .500, and as they fall farther from the playoff hunt, expect Thompson to see more time.
9. Chandler Parsons
Vol. 1: unranked
In one of the odder moves I saw this summer, Chandler Parsons was traded twice on draft day. Selected 38th overall, the Houston Rockets traded Parsons to Minnesota in a deal centered around Jonny Flynn and Brad Miller. In that same move, the Wolves moved Parsons back to the Rockets for cash. After playing in France during the lockout, he has now settled into the starting small forward spot in Houston, thanks in part to the struggles of Chase Budinger. Regardless of how he assumed the position, Parsons has been taking full advantage of his opportunity. Over his last nine games, he’s averaging 7.5 points, 6.5 boards and 1.6 steals. While the statistics aren’t eye-popping, Parsons is a fundamental, do-it-all player thriving on defense and on the backboards. He could very well wind up being the steal of the second round.
8. Iman Shumpert
Vol. 1: unranked
Anyone who watched the Knicks and Grizzlies nationally televised game last week probably thinks that Shumpert is nothing more than a selfish jock, but since that 5-for-20 shooting performance, he’s been a little more hesitant on the trigger and beginning to look more for his teammates. Regardless of what he does on offense, the kid can defend. His 2.6 steals per game are good enough for second in the league and until Baron Davis returns, Shumpert will have all the playing time he needs to keep improving his game. His current averages are 12.3 points, 3.5 rebounds and 3.6 assists. He makes up for his 38 percent shooting by hitting nearly 92 percent from the charity stripe.
7. Markieff Morris
Vol. 1: No. 5
Talk about bad luck. Just as Markieff Morris was emerging as the Suns’ newest big man threat and Alvin Gentry informed him he would make his first career start at Madison Square Garden, Morris came down with the flu. He lasted only five minutes, which was enough time to pick up a couple of personal fouls and be sentenced to the pine the rest of the way. Despite that unfortunate night, Morris has been playing relatively well. He only averages 7.7 points and 5.0 rebounds, but his ability to step outside and knock down the trey, as well as his willingness to bang down low and rebound make him one of the more versatile players to come from the 2011 Draft class thus far.
6. Kawhi Leonard
Vol. 1: No. 9
Kawhi Leonard is yet another rookie that recently cracked a starting rotation. While the injured Manu Ginobili racks up DNPs, Leonard has been holding down the fort by averaging 7.8 points, 5.6 boards and 1.2 steals per game. His outside game could still use a little work (he shoots only 27 percent from three), but at 6-7 he is a tremendous rebounder for his position. Leonard is not afraid to get his hands dirty and he represents youth that the Spurs haven’t really had since Tony Parker and Manu were late draft steals. Expect Leonard to see a lot of run even when Ginobili returns in late February.
5. Brandon Knight
Vol. 1: No. 8
Thanks to some injuries to the Pistons backcourt earlier in the season, Brandon Knight has had the opportunity for some extra burn and has responded well to it. The guard from Kentucky averaged 14 points per game last week and is shooting an efficient 39 percent from three and 89 percent from the line. His next step as a viable starting point in this league is to improve his playmaking. Knight’s a nice young player, but what he isn’t right now is someone who can get others shots. His assist rate is even lower than Shumpert’s (18.6 to 17.8) and we all know the Iman loves to shoot the rock.
4. Kemba Walker
Vol. 1: No. 6
It’s been a tougher adjustment to the pros than most thought it would have been for Kemba, but he is finally starting to come around. After the former Husky was first off the bench for 12 games, Paul Silas has been using a smaller backcourt with Kemba starting at the two next to D.J. Augustin. Over that span of five games, Walker has averaged 14.4 points, 4.8 rebounds and 4.2 assists to go along with 2.0 steals and 1.4 treys a night. There’s still plenty of work to be done for Kemba to dominate games the way he did in college, but look for him and fellow rookie teammate Bismack Biyombo to progress equally in the second half of the season.
3. MarShon Brooks
Vol. 1: No. 2
How MarShon Brooks slipped to the No. 25 pick is beyond me. It can be argued that he had the most NBA-ready jumper heading into the draft and he’s been showing it off to stick it to all the teams who passed on him. Brooks is averaging 15.4 points on the season and 17.2 with six boards over the last week. He’s been raining threes (1.2 per game) and shooting 47 percent from the field. With Deron Williams struggling to find his groove for most of the season, Brooks has literally been the only bright spot on the struggling New Jersey Nets.
2. Ricky Rubio
Vol. 1: No. 3
If nothing else, at least Ricky Rubio has become one of the most exciting players to watch. I’ll put it this way: He’s the only reason I’ll be attending a Nets-Wolves game in a few weeks. Rubio’s shots aren’t dropping like they were at the beginning of the year, but like most rookies, his J will improve with age. At only 21 years old, Rubio is averaging 8.3 assists (and the highest assist rate among all rookies) and 2.4 steals. More importantly, he’s helped bring a virtually unwatchable franchise to the forefront of younger up-and-coming teams. Touted as the next Steve Nash, look for the Spaniard to keep wowing audiences and silencing critics.
1. Kyrie Irving
Vol. 1: No. 1
All throughout the draft process, Kyrie caught Chris Paul comparisons and only 15 games into his career, he looks even further along than CP3 did at that time. The rookie has been playing hotter than anyone in his class over the past two weeks, averaging 20.2 points on incredibly smart shots, boasting an amazing triple-slash shooting percentages of 50/43/80 on the season. With handles as quick as anyone in the NBA, Irving is quickly becoming a budding star and easing the minds of Cavs fans still bitter about LeBron.
Did we get it right? Who’s been this year’s most impressive rookie so far?
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