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

The NBA’s best freshmen no longer need to study for midterms. Their quizzes come every day, in practices or in games with this year’s go-go-go schedule.

Their salaries are better than their scholarships, sure, but as rookies the learning curve is mastered slower than going from Math 100 into Advanced Statistics.

That’s why this time of year is one of the most interesting of any to watch the rookies play. In college life, as many of these guys were in last year, this is the peak of the year. Well, welcome to the league, where you’ve still got a month after the NCAA championships — and that’s if you’re watching the playoffs on the couch.

They’ve passed the trade deadline and have seen the business side of the NBA. Some of their teammates are gone. Maybe their coach, too. And after all their hard work, all they get to hear is about a deep draft class coming up and how March Madness will bump up their stock.

These 10 rookies, however, have taken all that the rookie season has thrown at them and succeeded better than the rest. With Ricky Rubio now out for the season, we decided to leave him out of this. Despite his recent struggles, Youtubio had been playing like one of the 10 best rooks in the league. But we want to concentrate on who’s doing it presently. Now in our fourth “Rookie Report” of the season, we rate them. Again.

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Vol. III: No. 8
Maybe you know him as the guy who helped out Chase Budinger in this year’s dunk contest, but Parson’s has quietly been given a lot more responsibility than that this year. Getting 26 minutes a night and 37 starts, Parsons has been one of Houston’s top-five best players all year because of his range. He’s more comfortable from long range, but at 6-9 can work inside, causing matchup problems. Throwing down on the NBA’s best shot blocker, Serge Ibaka, earlier this week needs no comment on his growing inside-outside game.

So the toolkit is there, but now it’s about how it expands. The Rockets can probably be filed under “first-round out” in the playoffs, but I can’t wait to see how a sneaker freak like Parsons – seriously, we asked him about it at All-Star Weekend. Dude is a Jordan fiend – improves from this year into the next.

Vol. III: No. 9
There was a special moment last Monday when the NBA’s only two Mexican-born players met on the court. Ayon faced up against Eduardo Najera, and then it was cool, and then everyone thought about how much better Ayon is right now. Not just against Najera — against his peers. On a team in chaos like New Orleans, he should get more minutes than just 21 per after putting up a 17.34 PER (third among rookies), 4.7 points and 6.5 points.

I like his game because it scales with his playing time. Give him more minutes and he gets more for you. Thursday night in 37 minutes, he had 16 points and nine boards. Given 20-29 minutes, he’d be averaging 7.1 points and 5.0 boards a game, but given 30-39, those increase to 9.8 points and 8.4 rebounds. The Hornets are a mess, but Ayon’s one of the few in that organization who isn’t.

Vol. III: unranked
I got to watch Isaiah play often at Washington being on the West Coast, and I think I see why Kings fans like him so much: He reminds them of them. I mean, you don’t see Thomas and think he can be as good a scorer as he can be (10.0 points) or as efficiently (fourth in both rookie PER and estimated wins added), much like the NBA looked at Sac-town last year and though, uh uh, no way.

The Kings have been assured a new stadium and I’d like to see Thomas get the chance to be in tandem with Tyreke Evans when it’s opened. He’s done what you want as a rookie by keeping his mistakes low at 1.6 turnovers a game, while he’s actually shooting better than his college average (44/39/85 shooting averages). Plus, have you watched the trailer for the documentary made about him, “Mr. Irrelevant”? Amid his other stats, he’s one of the easiest rooks to root for.

Vol. III: No. 5
It’s March and we’re talking Kemba, so resist the urge to get wistful for his jaw-dropping four weeks on opponents last year. Sitting third in assists by rookies (4.0 per game) and fourth in points (12.1 a night), Walker has shown he can still get his own shot against the pros. The players are better here and his supporting cast is worse, much worse, than in college (at least relative to the competition). But I like his lack of turnovers (1.8 per game, nearly a turnover less than Brandon Knight) and his willingness to go to the boards (3.5 a game).

A concern is he’s stalled since the All-Star break. His points and assists are down and his minutes have decreased by seven a game. The “it’s a long season” excuse works for some rooks but not Walker after what we saw him do last spring. The next phase of his season will be interesting to watch.

Vol. III: No. 3
What you need to know about him is he’s going to score. Averaging 13.7 points and more than 11 attempts per game, both second-most among rookies, Brooks is reaping what his early season burst earned. He put up 14 points in just 22 minutes in the season’s first month, but now he’s getting about 30 as the Nets try to figure out what life without Deron Williams will be like (you know it’ll happen).

When he gets more than 30 minutes a night, though, it’s typically been a good bet. He gets 16.3 points per game with that type of PT. We’ll have to see if that can correct his troubling scoring trend that has seen his average points fall each month, down to 11.9 now.

Vol. III: No. 4
It’s probably hindsight to look at Leonard now and think, “Popovich‘s type of player.” The former Aztec fits so well into the Spurs’ system already it’s scary. It’s like when Danny DeVito showed up in season two of “It’s Always Sunny” and you wondered how the show was so good (like the Spurs last season) without him. Leonard even got injured right before the All-Star Weekend, so he didn’t have to expend any more energy than usual.

He’s getting 7.6 points and 5.0 boards a game and shooting 48 percent in 24 minutes. That’s not even taking into account his steady defense that you can see is getting used to playing against bigger forwards. Sliding into one of the most ready-made situations for winning of any rookie should be noted, but he hasn’t been a rookie turd in the Spurs’ punchbowl with 2.9 estimated wins added, third-most against rookies.

Part of the reason why we rated San Antonio’s swap of Richard Jefferson for Stephen Jackson so high wasn’t just because of the future financial savings or the fact that it finally rids them of the struggling Jefferson. It was an “A” trade because now it’ll open more room for Leonard, who’s been infinitely more effective this year than his older former teammate.

Vol. III: unranked
He wasn’t exactly giving people reason to cheer Minnesota’s investment in him in the first half of the season but he’s figuring it out, folks. Being part of the Wolves’ bench brigade with Michael Beasley is appealing for D-Will, who’s putting up 8.7 points and 4.9 boards per game in just over 20 minutes a night. In fact, his best games of the season have come post-All-Star Weekend: 27 and five with zero turnovers against the Clips on Feb. 28, as well as two double-doubles and another near-miss in three straight games starting March 5.

He needs to figure out his free-throwing shooting – 65 percent – this offseason, but his 45 percent from the field is what you can expect from a swing player at forward who sometimes spends too much time behind the arc doing a Kevin Love impression.

Vol. III: unranked
I’ve loved watching Faried play since writing about him last year at Morehead State, when his game tapes from the Ohio Valley Conference could have been sold after each game as rebounding clinic DVDs. In the pros he’s shown the efficiency of a Toyota Prius with the motor of a hot rod. He works best when given burn in shorter bursts, but statistically, he’s possibly the most valuable person on the floor when he’s out there.

According to John Hollinger of ESPN.com, Faried has the ninth-highest PER of any player at 23.64 (the league average is at 15). Needless to say he owns the highest of any rookie with nine points and a rookie-best 7.3 board average. And doesn’t every coach tell his rookie, don’t f*#$ up? Well George Karl must love this: Faried’s turnover percentage ranks 63rd lowest out of 73 rookies. Plays hard, boards harder, barely turns it over, if he was asked to bring your concessions to your courtside seat, he’d do that too.

Vol. III: No. 5
Once the domain of Ricky Rubio, the No. 2 spot is again headed by a guard, and this time it’s also from up north. Unlike Rubio, Knight plays on a team you don’t want to watch and that’s going to overrate any “sleeper talk about him.” He’s been having big nights all season, it’s just few are watching as he gets 3.7 assists (fourth among rookies), 12.5 points (third among rookies) and 3.3 boards.

What stands out is that he’s been so productive playing alongside Rodney Stuckey, a good player who nonetheless needs to be holding the ball to be as effective as possible. There was offseason turmoil brewing with Stuckey’s contract in December but the Pistons ultimately stuck with him. If Knight had been a year into the league doing things like Wednesday — 10 points, 11 assists, five rebounds, zero turnovers — I’m not sure Detroit goes the same direction.

Vol. III: No. 1
The No. 1 pick’s play is stunning. The second-best rookie PER, the best rookie points per game at 18.6, second-best rookie assists at 5.6 (now best among current players with Rubio’s absence for the rest of the year) and his estimated wins added (6.2) actually doubles the second-best rookie. Consider that he’s doing this while being given really the only green light (and the heaviest expectations) of any peer in his draft class this season, and it cuts to the heart of the matter: In a league now run by guards, Irving is the latest greatest.

You can’t say all that without giving a nod to his turnovers, including his seven while dropping 28 on Milwaukee last Wednesday. I’d go back to what the consensus was with arguing away Jeremy Lin‘s turnover stats, which is playmakers need to be given the freedom to make mistakes. That’s not the same thing as not caring about his errors, but both Derrick Rose (2.5 TO’s per game) and Chris Paul (2.5) as rookies were in the same position. They will go down as the highlights go up, and wins will follow.

Did I get this list right?

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