Dime’s Rookie Report: The 10 Best Freshmen In The NBA

I tell people all the time that I didn’t really pay much attention to college basketball last year. March Madness killed me. I hadn’t watched most teams play for longer than one half during the season, and for once I felt like one of those office chicks who were too stupid basketball-wise to do anything other than guess on colors and mascots and hope for the best. Some of it was work – the NBA took up all of my time. But most of it came down to one thing: I didn’t care about that draft class.

Let’s be honest, the NBA Draft might be the best night of the whole year. But this summer, it sucked because the group of players sucked. Sorry, it’s true, at least compared to next year. Comparing the 2011 NBA Draft Class with 2012 will be the difference between real Mexican food and that trash at Taco Bell.

I don’t want to bash anyone too much. In fact, there’s already been a few times this year where rookies have stepped up, probably none more memorable than Norris Cole swagger-jacking all of New England on national TV. And while I think players like Derrick Williams (definitely) and Jimmer Fredette (possibly) could become big-time soon, as of right now they don’t even make this list.

Hopefully, I’ll find the devotion to keep this thing up weekly throughout the season. For now, here’s our first rookie report on the top 10 freshmen in the NBA this season.


10. Greg Stiemsma
Who? Yeah, that’s what I said the first time I saw the George Christopher dude from Bored to Death rocking the green. Maybe part of the reason he doesn’t play like a rookie is because he’s 26 years old. The old man fits in perfectly in Boston for obvious reasons outside of his skin color. Last night, I watched him take out Rashard Lewis like a bowling ball on one of the first possessions of the game. It pissed Flip Saunders out so much the ol’ ball coach got tossed because of it.

Stiemsma isn’t the best rookie, but he has the best story. As ESPN Boston writes, when the big man passed up an open shot in practice in Boston, Doc Rivers stopped the scrimmage, and made him repeat the phrase “”My name is Greg Stiemsma and I’m a shooter” over and over again to his laughing teammates.

As perhaps the best defensive big man in this rookie class (That’s not a joke), if Stiemsma keeps dropping 13/7/2 lines like he did in his first career start last night, he won’t be unknown for long.

9. Kawhi Leonard
You could talk me into putting Jeremy Pargo here, but I’d rather not reward the Grizzlies for turning into a limping version of Winnie the Pooh, because in the third quarter of their destruction in Chicago, I felt like I was watching a D-League team with a very up-and-down Pargo holding the keys. That performance from Memphis was so bad, I wouldn’t have been surprised if even Chicago fans left.

Leonard is averaging 5.8 points and 5.4 rebounds in barely 18 minutes a night, and while he’s probably registered as a blip on maybe two percent of all fantasy leagues out there, the dude has quietly been decent during his time on the floor. With gigantic hands and a massive wingspan, Leonard could outrebound Chewbacca. His rebound rate is third among all rookies, and quite honestly, he might turn out to be the best rebounder amongst this entire rookie class. Popovich, give him more minutes…

8. Brandon Knight
Detroit should schedule Kyrie Irving 82 times a year. Brandon Knight seems to get up for him. Earlier this year, Knight dropped 23 and six against the No. 1 pick; In his four other games, he’s combined for 33 points and nine assists. While he hasn’t been spectacular at any point outside of roasting our new cover boy, Knight’s J is too smooth. When certain cats shoot, even if they hit a shot, you can tell by the way the rim rips if they really are knockdown shooters. Knight took a step-back 26-foot three late in that game against Cleveland, and once that net was ripping, I was in love with his shot.

It’s still going to take time to sort out that mess in Detroit – they have no great players to weed out the bad ones… just a bunch of guards who are all pretty equal – but Knight is proving he’s a keeper.

7. Tristan Thompson
Thompson is in the top 10 in rookie PER (18.9) but yet you haven’t even noticed him this year have you? I remember seeing Thompson play in high school in the Springfield Hoophall Classic, and a good friend of mine in the industry needed to speak with him after the game. He had watched/worked the game and still had to have me point out which cat was Thompson afterwards. For someone so versatile and athletic, and for such a personable kid with a great name (Tristan Thompson just screams All-Star doesn’t it?), he’s better at doing backup vocals than stringing a jam from the front. Even in college, at least to me, he felt like an afterthought at Texas. I was always busy watching some other team play.

All this is funny to everyone outside of Cleveland. I can’t blame them if they’re mad no one realizes Thompson is giving nine points, over four rebounds and almost two blocks a game on 64 percent shooting. Want more? If the Cavs wanted to limit their flopping for once (Andy Varejao) or if they wanted to release Antawn Jamison from basketball purgatory, and started giving Thompson 36 minutes a night, he’d probably put up lines like this: 17 points, eight rebounds and three blocks.

6. Kemba Walker
If we’re talking rookies that I’d feel comfortable putting on a billboard, singing “Jingle Bells” on one of those awful Christmas arenas ads where everyone looks like they’d rather be doing anything other than actually celebrating Christmas, or most importantly, hitting the “F— YOU!” killer shot in the fourth quarter, I’m taking Kemba every time. He has a history of it… and he plays with a smile all the while.

Walker isn’t shooting the ball efficiently right now – just 39 percent from the floor, only 27 from three – but he’s putting up 11.5 points, 3.0 rebounds and 3.5 dimes a night. Three times he’s already dropped at least 13 points. He also made Michael Jordan giggle. That definitely counts for something.

The main reason why I’m sticking Kemba above Knight for now? I know Walker is a point guard. Knight? I wasn’t completely sold in college and still have a few questions. Would you take 3.5 assists coupled with 1.3 turnovers a night? Or three assists with 2.8 turnovers? That to me is the difference between the two right now.

5. Markieff Morris
In 20 minutes a night, Morris has played like perhaps Phoenix’s best interior big man. Of course, that’s like asking which apple tastes the best in a batch of leftover rotten ones, but it’s a start. The Suns have the look of a team ready to slide off a mountain, but Morris actually has the highest PER (22.24) on the team. Better than Marcin Gortat. Better than Grant Hill. Better than even Steve Nash.

While he’s only middle of the pack in rebounding amongst frontcourt draftees, Morris is finishing inside and has hit six threes already. Still, you know it sucks to be a Suns fans right now when one of your only bright spots is a rookie coming off the bench, averaging nine and five.

4. Norris Cole
If you can make the starter at your spot crap his spandex enough to turn the ball over on four straight possessions playing with three of the best players in the world, you’re doing something right. Luckily for Mario Chalmers, Cole doesn’t want his spot. He’s perfectly content coming off the bench. The Heat should be too. He’s already ramped up the pace of the second unit, and dropped a 20 piece on Boston’s heads. Defensively, the little bee is way more disruptive than any other rookie guard.

Cole’s true shooting percentage of 55 dwarfs a few other rookie guards: Irving (47 percent), Pargo (43 percent), Walker (49 percent) and Jimmer (46 percent). And while he hasn’t been spectacular rebounding (He’s probably worse right now than a dead guy) or creating shots, he doesn’t need to be with that juggernaut in South Beach. For what the Heat want from him – ball-hugging defense, perimeter sniping and a non-stop Energizer motor – Cole’s been perfect.

3. Ricky Rubio
Just a few short games into his career, is this kid already a star? I don’t mean it like people gameplan for him or that he could go off for a night and make Minnesota fans forget they haven’t been relevant since KG. Rubio is already playing every fourth quarter, he’s already one of the best passers in the league (Seriously, he might be the best in the whole league at his one-handed bounce passes. Even Steve Nash might be taking notes.) and he’s turned Minnesota into must-see TV.

While Rubio still shoots like a 5-4 high school chick, how can you blame him if he’s able to continue shooting it at 52/50/83? Six and a half assists in only 27 minutes would catch you flak if your name is Russell Westbrook and you consistently shoot pull-up 17-footers that even Monta Ellis would turn down. But if you’re a rookie, if your name is Rubio and if you look all adorable and cuddly, you’re getting praise.

By the end of the year, I suspect Rick Adelman will put back on his genius cap and get Rubio’s minutes up to 35 a night. Once that happens, expect a lot more lines like the one we got from Rubio in Minnesota’s win over Dallas: 14 and seven.

Remember back when everyone thought this dude would suck?

2. MarShon Brooks
He’s second in PER among rookies at 25.11, and has been one of the few bright spots in a terrible start to New Jersey’s season. Twice already, he’s scored 21 points. You might not believe this, but he could be the Nets best offensive player so far. The only one scoring more often is Deron Williams, and he does so while shooting 36 percent. Besides, once Brooks starts getting more minutes as the season goes down the drain, he’ll be one of those late-season fantasy MVPs, averaging 20-plus when we hit March.

Take one look at Brooks and you can see why New Jersey is so enamored with him. It’s not even only his acumen as a scorer – he’s already dropping nearly 14 points a game in only 22 minutes, and has the midrange game of someone seven years older. It’s his body. 6-5, he’s ridiculously, stupidly, long (A 7-1 WINGSPAN!) and seems fluid enough in his movements to not only continue to get better as a scorer but also to become a decent defender.

1. Kyrie Irving
There’s a reason the No. 1 pick from last summer is on the cover of our newest issue. He’s only four games into his career, but Irving has already taken over the mess left in the wake of The Decision and led Cleveland to a 2-2 record. The 6-2 rook might only be 11th among rookies in John Hollinger’s PER, but his usage rate is already an astounding 27.9. That’s a higher number than Monta Ellis, Derrick Rose and even Dwyane Wade. It’s also the highest among rookies.

At 13.3 points, 4.0 rebounds and 5.5 assists a night, there isn’t much more you can ask out of Irving through his first week as a pro. He is struggling to finish at the rim (only 45 percent there so far), and missed what could’ve been a game-winning layup on Friday against Indiana. But he’s already made the transition to the deeper pro shot, and is hitting the three at 36 percent.

In a class of role players, small guys and specialists, Irving has had the keys to a franchise since opening night. Pressure can cause even the most mature rookies to crack. Irving deals with that every night.

The haters are already circling, which is never totally a bad thing. Haters mean you’re doing something right. Perhaps Irving never becomes a multiple-time All-Star like many have speculated, but in a rookie class where we are talking about people like Jon Leuer and Josh Harrellson, he sticks out above the rest.

Thanks to John Hollinger, basketball-reference.com and hoopdata.com for many of these numbers…

Did we get it right? Who’s been this year’s most impressive rookie so far?

Follow Sean on Twitter at @SEANesweeney.

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