It is All-Star week in the NBA and, even with regular season action still to come, the attention of the basketball world is looking ahead to Chicago. With that in mind, the Rising Stars Challenge kicks off the weekend’s festivities with a bevy of intriguing young talent on display.
This year, the Friday night extravaganza is headlined by Luka Doncic, Trae Young and Zion Williamson, presenting as much present-day firepower as any Rising Stars game in recent memory. Quite obviously, Young (who is also starting on Sunday) and Williamson were almost born to put on a show in this event, with Young as one of the world’s best passers (and a ridiculous shooter from 30-plus feet) and Williamson as a must-watch power dunker. It seems possible that Doncic, the best current player of the bunch, won’t be able to play due to an ongoing injury but, even if he doesn’t, there is plenty to dissect.
In this space each week, we dive into the 2019-20 rookie crop, and the group is well-represented here. Miami’s backcourt duo of Kendrick Nunn and Tyler Herro should be fun to watch, with Nunn handling the ball and Herro acting as one of the best shooters involved. In addition, Brandon Clarke is a potential highlight machine as a play-finisher for Team World, and R.J. Barrett has the potential to fill it up as a scorer in this format.
Finally, Ja Morant has what it takes to keep up with Williamson and Young from a production and highlight perspective. Morant has been drawing rave reviews from wire to wire this season and, with his off-the-charts athleticism combined with his ability to play with skill and reckless abandon, magic could be made.
Can you imagine Young and Morant on the floor with Zion Williamson (!) as their primary pick-and-roll partner? That’s in play, as Team USA will be the significant favorites due to their star power. It is a safe bet to assume that words will be written about the potentially “non-competitive” environment on Friday evening in Chicago but, well, that isn’t really what this game is about. The highlights will be generated, many points will be scored and fun should be had by all.
Now, let’s take a glance at this week’s edition of rookie watch.
- Darius Garland – After a documented uptick in efficiency, Garland has regressed a bit. The top-five pick is shooting just 34.1 percent from the floor in the last 12 games.
- De’Andre Hunter – The Hawks aren’t very good, but that opens up opportunities for Hunter and teammate Cam Reddish. In fact, Hunter leads the entire rookie class in total minutes played, and he has been scoring more efficiently in recent days.
- Michael Porter Jr. – Porter hasn’t played yet in February as he battles an ankle issue. His numbers were lights-out before the injury, though, and he should be on the radar.
- Mattise Thybulle – In addition to a comfortable lead in steals, Thybulle is third in the rookie class in blocked shots. That is insane when remembering he’s a wing that is averaging about 20 minutes per game.
10) Kevin Porter Jr.
After a three-week injury absence, Porter Jr. has been lights-out for the Cavaliers since late January. In the last seven games, the former USC standout is averaging 25.3 minutes per contest and producing at a high level. Porter Jr. is averaging 14.9 points per game on 50 percent from the floor and 45 percent from three, flashing a lot of the talent that Cleveland targeted in packaging picks to acquire him at the 2019 draft.
9) Rui Hachimura
Hachimura missed 23 games in a row with injury and, for many, that likely removed from the central conversation about this rookie crop. Since returning, the talented forward is averaging 13.3 points and 8.3 rebounds per game. In short, he’s picked up right where he left off as a productive player that has work to do in other areas.
8) P.J. Washington
It’s been a bit of a rough patch for Washington, with 36.4 percent shooting (and 0 of 12 from three) in his last five appearances. There isn’t much to worry about, but it explains his drop this week.
7) Tyler Herro
Herro has been banged up recently, missing two different stints with injury and playing sparingly at times on either side of those breaks. His season-long numbers, headlined by 39 percent from three-point range, are impressive. That’s what keeps him here.
6) Kendrick Nunn
Like Herro, Nunn recently missed time and, since returning, the numbers haven’t been good. In five games, the point guard is averaging a respectable 10.6 points per contest, but Nunn is shooting 32.3 percent from the floor and 29.6 percent from three. He relies heavily on his scoring production to make a dent, so a dip in efficiency matters.
5) Eric Paschall
The Warriors aren’t very good, but that isn’t on Paschall. He’s been relatively productive and efficient since the calendar flipped to 2020, and there are plenty of flashes. It would be fair to say that the top four on this list have been markedly better, but the line has to be drawn somewhere.
4) Terence Davis
We’ve been trumpeting the virtues of Davis throughout the season, highlighting his efficient production and high-end impact for a playoff team. In the last four games, though, Davis has jumped a level in terms of his numbers. The wing is averaging 19.8 points and 5.8 rebounds per game during that run, with the Raptors seemingly unable to lose a basketball game. Davis is very good.
3) Brandon Clarke
It’s hardly ever flashy, but Clarke continues to chug along. He contributes to winning. He’s efficient. He’s obscenely productive on a per-minute basis. What is there to say?
2) Zion Williamson
It’s only been eight games, but all Zion has done is essentially operate at an All-NBA efficiency level. Williamson is averaging 19.8 points and 7.5 rebounds per game in only 26.9 minutes, shooting 57 percent from the floor and 44 percent from three. His PER (22.5) and true shooting (61%) are off the charts and the Pelicans making a playoff push won’t do anything to distract everyone from how good the rookie has already been.
1) Ja Morant
Morant has been truly unbelievable this season. He’s the centerpiece of a team currently sitting in the No. 8 spot in the West and, during a recent push from the Grizzlies, he’s been the best player on the floor. Morant is averaging 18.0 points and 7.3 assists during a 7-2 stretch for Memphis, with 53.9 percent shooting to boot. If he continues to play at this level and avoids injury, the party is over for the ROY race.