This seemed like a good week to do that. Because our Rookie Rankings run every Friday, this week’s cycle saw just two actual games played due to the extended All-Star break. And no rookies from our most recent rankings played in those games.
Yes, we knew the trading deadline also was this week. But we didn’t think that would impact our rankings of sophomores. I mean, what GM would be crazy enough to trade one of the top second-year players if he had one on his roster?
Well, Sam Hinkie would.
On Thursday, the GM of the Philadelphia 76ers traded point guard Michael Carter-Williams, who was not only his team’s best player but also the reigning Rookie of the Year.
Carter-Williams wasn’t the only second-year player traded Thursday, but he was the only one of significance. The other three – Justin Hamilton, Luigi Datome and Isaiah Canaan – have scored a combined 231 points this season, or about what Russell Westbrook scores in a week.
In a tweet, Carter-Williams admitted he was “shocked” by the trade, which left others raising their eyebrows as well. Just this week, the Sixers announced to their season ticket holders that the team slogan would be changing from “Together We Build” to “This Starts Now,” effective next season. Then Hinkie, the mad scientist, hit a complete reset at point guard, the one position where he appeared to be set for a while.
Carter-Williams was traded to the Milwaukee Bucks, who kicked the can down the road a couple of years as they dealt impending restricted free agent and borderline All-Star Brandon Knight to the Phoenix Suns. But the most intriguing element of Milwaukee’s move is that the Bucks now have two of the top sophomores in the NBA in Carter-Williams and forward Giannis Antetokounmpo.
The Bucks (30-23) already have doubled their win total from last season. They are going to the playoffs; the only question is where they will be seeded. The quantum leap they have made this season is primarily due to their underrated defense, which is third in defensive rating, fifth in opponent’s shooting and sixth in points per game allowed.
And that defense will get better with the addition of Carter-Williams, who was seventh in steals as a rookie and is just outside the top 20 this season.
Think about this: At the end of games, the Bucks can go with a lineup of the 6-7 Carter-Williams, 6-7 Jared Dudley, 6-7 Khris Middleton, the 6-11 Antetokounmpo and 6-11 John Henson. That group has some serious length and can switch defensively 1 through 5 while still being an effective offensive unit.
As sophomores go, you can argue the merits of Carter-Williams vs. Antetokounmpo, as we do below. But the Bucks don’t have to, because now they have both of them.
On to the rankings.
1. MICHAEL CARTER-WILLIAMS, G, MILWAUKEE: Detractors like to point to his 38 percent shooting and turnover rate. But MCW is averaging 15.0 points, 7.4 assists and 6.2 rebounds – Russell Westbrook is the only other player above the 15-7-6 threshold – and he has done it with a D-League team around him. This is about who is the best sophomore right now, not two years from now. And it’s Carter-Williams. LAST YEAR (SEASON END): 1
2. VICTOR OLADIPO, G, ORLANDO: He has rounded into form after starting the season with an injury that cost him 10 games. His scoring (16.6 ppg) and shooting (.443) are up considerably from his rookie season and he is developing the consistency you look for, having scored in double figures in every game since Christmas. His point guard days appear to be over, though. LAST YEAR: 2
3. GIANNIS ANTETOKOUNMPO, F, MILWAUKEE: He is the darling of the analytics faction, even though his 15.73 PER is barely above average. Coming off a Player of the Week award, the “Greek Freak” is starting to show the necessary consistency and certainly in the Most Improved Player conversation. Ultimately, he may become the best player in this draft. But he isn’t right now. LAST YEAR: NR
4. SHABAZZ MUHAMMAD, G, MINNESOTA: Another guy who should be in the MIP talk, primarily because of how lost he was as a rookie. Kevin Martin’s injury gave him the opportunity to show his wares until he got hurt himself. His 13.6 points is third among sophomores and his .486 overall shooting would be sixth among shooting guards if he qualified. He might get better now that Ricky Rubio is back. LAST YEAR: NR
5. MASON PLUMLEE, C, BROOKLYN: He is the reason why Brook Lopez’s name was in trade rumors for the last month, supplanting him as starting center and taking Kevin Garnett’s minutes at power forward. His 19.70 PER certainly is eye-catching but will be put to the test the rest of the way now that Garnett has been traded and there is an extreme sense of urgency to qualify for the postseason. LAST YEAR: 5
6. KELLY OLYNYK, F-C, BOSTON: He is never going to be a dominant defensive big and will almost always have to have one of those types alongside him. But Olynyk still manages 11.1 points and 5.4 rebounds in 24.5 minutes with a 16.03 PER. He also has uncommon ball skills for a big man and clearly can take his shot to the arc (35 percent career). Currently hurt but due back soon. LAST YEAR: 6
7. GORGUI DIENG, C, MINNESOTA: Another member of the Timberwolves who has taken advantage of the opportunity presented by an injury to a starter. Dieng is still learning – evidenced by his occasional goofball shot selection – but is averaging 9.5 points, 8.4 rebounds and 1.7 blocks in under 29 minutes with an 18.05 PER. No T-Wolf will benefit more from the arrival of Kevin Garnett. LAST YEAR: NR
8. TREY BURKE, G, UTAH: He was moved to the bench for no reason other than to accelerate the development of rookie guard Dante Exum, who looks utterly lost as a starter. Burke now has the task of providing offense for a weak bench unit, and his 37 percent shooting is alarming. But his 12.7 points and 4.7 assists in starter’s minutes illustrate that he is, at the very least, a long-term third guard. LAST YEAR: 3
9. BEN MCLEMORE, G, SACRAMENTO: Am I the only guy who thinks he is being woefully underutilized? McLemore is fourth on the Kings with 9.7 shots per game despite dramatic increases in his shooting overall (.376 to .444) and from the arc (.320 to .362). He needs to round out his game a bit, because his rebounds (3.0) and assists (1.5) should be better for a player with his size and skills. LAST YEAR: 7
10. RUDY GOBERT, C, UTAH: Another buddy of the advanced metrics set; one evaluation actually had The Stifle Tower as the best sophomore. Gobert has the showy PER of 21.67 and his 36-minute numbers of 11.3 points, 12.0 rebounds and 3.6 blocks definitely warrant attention. But he has played 36 minutes exactly twice in his career. Let’s see how he does now that Enes Kanter has been shipped out. LAST YEAR: NR
DROPOUTS: Tim Hardaway, G, New York (4); Pero Antic, C, Atlanta (8); Ryan Kelly, F, LA Lakers (9); Cody Zeller, C, Charlotte (10).
FIVE TO WATCH: Steven Adams, C, Oklahoma City; Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, G, Detroit; Robert Covington, G, Philadelphia; Tim Hardaway Jr., G, New York; Dennis Schroder, G, Atlanta.
Chris Bernucca is the managing editor of SheridanHoops.com. His columns appear Mondays, and his Rookie Rankings on Fridays. Follow him on Twitter.