Dime’s Rookie Report: The 10 Best Freshmen In The NBA, Vol. III

We’re now a month and a half into the season, and it’s been more unpredictable than a Lil’ Wayne album. Sure, we have our juggernauts (Miami, Chicago, I guess OKC) and our basement-dwellers (Charlotte gets their own spot). But in the middle, it’s a wreck. Portland looks like the best team in the West at home, but then goes on the road and can’t do anything. Denver started off 14-5. Then lost seven of eight. Even old reliables like the Celtics have continuously sputtered and stopped. Already this season, they’ve had winning streaks of four, four again and five, and losing streaks of three and five.

It’s the same plot with the rookies. At the top, Kyrie Irving and Ricky Rubio are still going strong. But after that, it’s a diehard’s/blogger’s fantasy. Gustavo Ayon. Jon Leuer. Nikola Vucevic. Lavoy Allen. Alec Burks. They’re all in the top 10 in rookie PER. How many of those names could you put a face to right now, let alone at the start of the season?

We’ve had two rookie reports so far, and while some of the names have changed, the ones leading the way haven’t. It’s no different this time.

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Vol. II: unranked
It’s been a minute since we last heard from Cole. He had his “Simba” moment against Boston early in the year, and since then, he’s drifted to the background. Just the other night against Atlanta, Cole took 11 shots and routinely broke down plays to go for his own. Not even J. Cole was winning a Grammy, dude. Relax. You’re playing with two of the best players in the world. Cleveland State is proud enough.

His PER is only 10.24, 26th among all rookies. But he’s carved a role on perhaps the best team in the league, and has already proven he has rookie Sam Cassell-lite potential. If it comes down to rating Cole against say, Klay Thompson, I’ll take the kid performing in the bright lights.

If he was shooting better than 36 percent in February, I might even rate him higher. But for now, he’ll have to wait a little longer before he takes Mario Chalmers‘ job.

Vol. II: unranked
I tried to steer clear of the rookies getting baby burn. Too many players get a swift paint job done by overvaluing PER. The truth is Ayon was barely averaging double-digit minutes until a week ago. But I’m showing him love for two reasons: First, because the Hornets can use any good news they can get outside of Chris Kaman exchanging the hunting gear for a spot in the low post. That ship is sinking quicker than Titanic. And second, Ayon is No. 2 in the entire rookie class in PER at 19.22. Sure some of his minutes haven’t been during key moments, but when he’s been out there (15.3 minutes a night in 21 games), he’s been ones of the best rookies.

“If I said three or four things about our team in our language, Trevor and Jack know exactly what I’m talking about,” Monty Williams told the New York Times when the team initially signed their secret weapon. “He may look at me like, ‘O.K., Coach.’ I think it’s going to take a while to start to pick up basketball N.B.A. language.”

Adjusting hasn’t been a problem for Ayon. In fact, it’s taken everyone else a little longer than normal to figure him out. Just last night in New Orleans’ six-point win over Utah, Ayon was destroying Paul Millsap (he missed one shot, and had 13, nine and three blocks). If I can argue Millsap for All-Star appreciation, I can show Ayon more love than he’ll get on Valentine’s Day.

Vol. II: No. 9
When you’re 27 games into a career and you already have a calling card, it spells out future success and a long career quite nicely. Parsons’ tip dunks have taken on a life of their own. It’s his answer to Robert Duvall in To Kill A Mockingbird. With a memorable debut, he’s looking like a role player forever, and with his energy, versatility and defense, he fits in perfectly for a Houston team no one seems to care about.

Parsons is only averaging 6.8 points and 4.7 rebounds, and you could easily argue Derrick Williams has been better, if not completely underwhelming based on his expectations, but Parsons has come from nowhere (No. 38 overall pick) to average just under two blocks and steals combined a night. He’ll never be a top three player on a playoff team – just check out his usage rate (14.5), lower than any other rookie in the top 20 in PER other than Ayon, Kawhi Leonard, Lavoy Allen and Josh Harrellson – but he can fill a role.

Vol. II: No. 7
Lost in the Linsanity is that Shumpert, who went weeks without being able to make a shot, is back playing with the swagger we saw in summer league. He’s had three straight double-figure scoring nights, culminating in a 20-point, four-steal game against the T’Wolves on Saturday. Jeremy Lin hysteria has reached such Salem Witch Trial-levels that we’ve almost forgotten how over-the-top New Yorkers were with Shumpert to start the year. God how I miss those days. That was even worse. At one point last month, Shumpert scored in double figures in eight out of nine games. Impressive. But he was getting more love than Kate Upton‘s new swimsuit cover. He’s promising, but still shooting only 39 percent (28 percent from deep) with a 10.62 PER. If he hadn’t missed a few games, I’d put him neck and neck with Brandon Knight.

By the end of the year, when the Lin frenzy dies down, when the ‘Melo hate fades, New York fans will return to their awkward praise of Shumpert, and he’ll start getting touted as a future something once again.

Vol. II: No. 5
No rookie has probably been released and signed as often in fantasy as Knight. He’s had four games of at least 20 points this year and five games with at least six dimes. Flip the pillow over and you’ll see he’s also had three nights in the past two weeks where he dropped either two points or nothing at all. It seems even the rookie can’t overcome what Detroit has turned into: a carousal of talent, but mercurial and dented, that rotates the leading contestants almost every night.

I had someone ask me on Twitter earlier this season about how much faith I’d put in Knight as a cornerstone for the future. I’m definitely taking Greg Monroe. But Knight still hasn’t convinced me yet. He’ll be a 15-18 point-a-night scorer for a long time, but are the point guard instincts there? Despite his improvement over the past month, he’s still just No. 12 in assist rate in this class, and is only averaging 3.4 dimes a night. Get back to me at the end of the year.

Vol. II: No. 4
Less than a year after completing one of the most improbable college runs ever, and topping it off by winning an NCAA ring, Walker finds himself stuck on one of the only NBA teams ever where the 68-year-old coach is probably still good enough to start. Last night, we caught Paul Silas leaning back on the bench, on the edge of falling asleep, and that was in a game that was close! There’s no way the Bobcats even reach 10 victories this season, and in the past two weeks as they’ve succombed to a 3-25 record, it’s been so bad in Carolina that we’ve even forgotten the Wizards have players setting futility records for shooting (Jordan Crawford) and running the wrong way on the court (JaVale McGee). Charlotte’s lost 15 games in a row, and during that time failed to reach 90 points in every game but two.

Meanwhile, Walker has had his downs – he’s shooting 32 percent from the floor during February – but at least he’s done enough to give the city a glimmer of hope. He’s scored at least 16 on four nights this month.

Vol. II: No. 6
Perhaps my favorite rookie of all. Leonard has the instincts to play power forward, and the athleticism to play off the wings. I compared his length and hand size to Chewbacca early this season. Ask Scottie Pippen (or, I guess, Scotty Pippen) what that’ll do for someone. He first gained fame early in the season for the way he attacked the glass; Outside of this rookie class’ big men, he’s still No. 2 among rebounding rate (11.9), just barely trailing Derrick Williams. And in estimated wins added, he’s No. 5 in this class. Leonard’s numbers could drop with Manu Ginobili set to come back, but more than likely, he’ll still be on the court when it counts.

For now, Popovich is giving him just under 24 minutes a night, and has started him for barely half the season. Next year, if anyone will be ready to make a huge jump, it’ll be Leonard.

Vol. II: 3
After missing some time with a fractured toe, Brooks has played in the last two games. And despite looking like a shell of himself – a combined 14 points on 4-for-17 shooting – he’s been perhaps the biggest surprise of this rookie class. Since he went down a few weeks back, New Jersey’s offense has been lacking a little punch, and not even Deron Williams playing as aggressively as ever could change that.

At 100.4, their offensive efficiency is still exactly average (they’re No. 15) for an NBA team. With a PER of 17.27, and a surprisingly well-rounded offensive game – seeing rookies who can hit pull-ups off the dribble and floaters in the lane is more astounding than Kobe passing late in a game – Brooks looks like a potential 20-point a night scorer down the road. The only problem is, more than likely, if New Jersey wants to trade for Dwight Howard, Brooks will be off to see Micky Mouse.

Vol. II: No. 2
In Smack a few days back, we pointed out a play from Rubio that probably had Minnesota fans ready to call Rubio the best thing since Fargo. He faked a behind-the-back pass that had Jordan Farmar as confused as a fish out of water, and then made one of the craziest one-handed bounce passes look completely routine. Rubio found Wes Johnson at a weird angle, somehow spinning the ball just past Farmar’s legs. Unreal (Amazingly, it wasn’t even the most incredible part of the play. That was Wes Johnson actually making a shot.).

The Spanish Magician’s efficiency has tailed off a little as the season has progressed – he’s now shooting under 38 percent and his PER has dropped to 16.22… AND he’s had all of his momentum stolen by Jeremy Lin. But still, 10.9 points, 4.4 rebounds, 8.7 assists and 2.4 steals a game is nothing to scoff at. If I had to compare Rubio’s rookie year so far, I’d compare it to Young Jeezy‘s debut: Let’s Get It: Thug Motivation 101. Full of highlights…memorable songs that I can still spit off memory…swag unlimited…and while it wasn’t necessarily a classic, it takes you to a time and place whenever it gets play.

Vol. II: No. 1
Forget Eli Manning. Irving is the master of clutch. He’s the basketball-playing version of the opposite of Stan Van Gundy. Here’s the only stat I need to prove how great Cleveland’s new king is: their record is 10-16, and they’re about a gazillion times more competitive than we expected. Sure, before he hurt his wrist (and will now apparently miss a month), Anderson Varejao was playing like a cross between Charles Barkley and Jaguar Paw from Apocalypto, but Irving has already won three or four games for the Cavs. His spin move is smoother than John Legend. His “clutch gene” has Skip salivating.

Over the weekend, I chatted up Cleveland sports with a good friend who had the horrific luck of being born in Ohio. I had to feel for him just listening. He mentioned our top 5 LeBron James dunk post and how “Everyone looked so happy and excited” back then. It’s true. Check out those old videos. It was a show. Well, if Irving improves at all in the next few seasons like I think he can – he’s already averaging 18 points and 5.1 assists on a rookie-best 21.62 PER – the Cavs will be smiling and celebrating again.

Did I get it right?

Follow Sean on Twitter at @SEANesweeney.

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