NBA Rookie Watch: Kendrick Nunn Is In The Thick Of The ROY Race

For a couple of weeks, it appeared as if Kendrick Nunn might fade away. The 24-year-old rookie began the season in strong fashion but, over a seven-game sample in late November and early December, Nunn cratered to the tune of 33.7 percent shooting and, given his uneven track record, there was reason for skepticism. Since then, however, the lead guard has rebounded quite nicely and, if not for Ja Morant, Nunn might be the leader in the clubhouse for Rookie of the Year honors.

It has to be noted that Nunn’s delayed NBA arrival featured a checkered stretch. He was dismissed from Illinois, where he began his college career, after a 2016 domestic violence arrest. From there, he landed at Oakland and was prolific in relative obscurity, finishing second in the country in scoring. However, Nunn went undrafted in 2018 and operated in the G League last season, though he technically maintained his rookie status by not appearing in any NBA action.

Given that unlikely background for a ROY candidate, not much was made of Nunn as even a “sleeper” this season, especially because he was on a non-guaranteed contract. Still, Nunn crashed the party with haste, operating alongside fellow rookie Tyler Herro in helping Miami’s backcourt maintain stability despite injuries to Justise Winslow and Goran Dragic.

After the slow start to December, Nunn is averaging 20.3 points, 4.1 assists, 3.6 rebounds in the last seven games, making 49 percent of his shots and 38 percent from beyond the arc. Efficiency is perhaps the biggest concern with Nunn but, for now, he is maintaining a respectable 54.5 percent true shooting and doing so while carrying a fairly substantial workload for a solid playoff team. He has scored 20 points or more on nine occasions, headlined by an efficient 36-point effort in a win over Atlanta on Dec. 10, and Nunn is proving to be a strong complement to star-level play from Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo.

It remains to be seen as to whether Nunn can maintain this level. At present, he brings (very) little else to the table aside from scoring and that is a profile that can be exploited as more “tape” becomes available. Still, Nunn is averaging 16.4 points per game for a good basketball team and, traditionally, that is more than enough to jump into the thick of the ROY race.

Where does Nunn stack up against his fellow rookies this week? Let’s find out.

Honorable Mentions

  • Jaxson Hayes – Hayes is actually second in the entire class in win shares. That stems from a ridiculous 65 percent true shooting, but it isn’t as if Hayes is the problem in New Orleans.
  • De’Andre Hunter – The No. 4 pick hasn’t been spectacular, nor has he been terrible. There is something to be said for a two-way player that can function in a rotation while taking very little off the table. That is what Hunter has been, even on a bad Atlanta team.
  • Kevin Porter Jr. – As noted last week, Porter Jr. is in the middle of a very nice run in December. It’ll be interesting to see how that continues.

10) R.J. Barrett

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Barrett is talented and his per-game numbers (13.9 points, 5.2 rebounds) look fine. His efficiency has been rough, though. Barrett has a 45.3 percent true shooting for the season and in December he is making only 33.8 percent of his field goal attempts. Improvement will come, but it’s an adventure right now.

9) Cameron Johnson

There isn’t much else happening for Johnson, but the shooting is real. He is converting 41 percent of his threes in December and, for the season, the rookie forward has a 59 percent true shooting on a team that is trying to win. The bar is low enough where that is plenty to land here.

8) Matisse Thybulle

It isn’t exactly a traditional ROY profile, but Thybulle is making people take notice. He easily leads the rookie class with 43 steals and he is top five in blocked shots. Considering Thybulle is barely within the top 20 rookies in minutes played, that is mind-blowing and his current offensive efficiency is encouraging. Is he going to shoot 40 percent from three? Probably not, but he just needs to make enough shots to keep the defense honest and be able to stay on the floor to harass opposing guards on the other end.

7) P.J. Washington

Washington has missed the last five games with a finger injury, but he shouldn’t be penalized too heavily. On a per-minute basis, few in this class have matched his two-way appeal and overall efficiency. The Kentucky product also scored in double figures on five straight occasions before suffering the injury.

6) Tyler Herro

For a while, it would’ve been easy to make that case that Herro, not Nunn, was Miami’s best ROY candidate. December changed that. Herro is shooting only 36.6 percent from the floor this month and, even with a couple of high-level showings, his efficiency has dropped precipitously. The good thing is that his sharp-shooting nature allows for a hasty comeback if he has a hot streak.

5) Eric Paschall

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Paschall recently missed two games and, in Golden State’s last contest, the former Villanova star suffered an apparent knee injury. Though details are sparse at this point, head coach Steve Kerr told the media that an MRI could be needed. If Paschall misses more time, his sleeper ROY status will take a major hit. Until we know for sure, though, Paschall lands here based on his productivity (15.4 points per game) and overall appeal.

4) Rui Hachimura

Like Washington, Hachimura is currently sidelined with injury and context can be difficult with that in mind. Still, he averaged 17 points and seven rebounds in the nine games before exiting and Hachimura shot 49 percent from the floor in those contests. The big questions are the same as they’ve always been. Can he defend? Can he (eventually) increase his efficiency with competent three-point shooting? We’ll see.

3) Kendrick Nunn

As noted above, Nunn has been quite good and he’ll get even more recognition because the Heat are (much) better than the Grizzlies. He isn’t as good as Morant, either right now or for the future, but Nunn has a ROY-worthy statistical profile at the moment

2) Brandon Clarke

There is no almost no way that Clarke would actually finish second if ROY voting happened today. That’s just now how this works. He should be the No. 2 guy right now, though, based on his combination of efficiency and productivity. Clarke is shooting a ridiculous 68 percent from the floor in December, averaging 15.8 points per game in six appearances. For the full-season, his per-36 minute stats (21.6 points, 9.8 rebounds) tell the story of how good he’s been, and at present, he is the clear leader in the full rookie class in terms of efficiency.

1) Ja Morant

Despite two of his shakier games of the season against Cleveland and Sacramento this week, Morant is still the comfortable favorite. Since returning from injury on Dec. 9, Morant is averaging 17.1 points and 7.1 assists on (very) good efficiency and, for the season, he still leads the rookie class in scoring and assists. The race isn’t over by any means but, if Morant simply maintains this pace, he’s the presumptive front-runner by a breezy margin.