Marjanovic is a rookie center on the San Antonio Spurs and not part of their rotation. While other rookie big men such as Karl-Anthony Towns, Kristaps Porzingis and Jahlil Okafor have dominated the headlines this season, Marjanovic has played almost exclusively during garbage time while also collecting 17 DNPs.
But the giant from Serbia got a chance to be more than a cheerleader this week when Tim Duncan was rested for one game and missed two more with knee soreness. In three games – all wins – he averaged 11.3 points, 7.7 rebounds and 2.0 blocks while shooting 10-of-16 from the floor and 14-of-16 from the line.
In Monday’s 101-95 win over Minnesota, he more than held his own against Towns, who is considered the front-runner for Rookie of the Year. Marjanovic scored 17 points on 7-of-7 shooting, and the fans went nuts.
“He’s just so big,” Timberwolves coach Sam Mitchell said. “I felt like our guys were physical. We boxed out, but he’s just so big. I thought we did the best job we could.”
Duncan is expected to return to the lineup Saturday, which means Marjanovic will likely be bumped from the rotation. But the Spurs are looking to limit the 39-year-old Duncan’s minutes until the playoffs, and now they know they have another big man who can help in that regard.
Marjanovic is one of a handful of rookies who began the season on the bench but recently became rotation playersprimarily through an injury to a teammate. Here’s a look at the ones making the most of their opportunity.
Larry Nance Jr. F, LA Lakers: When the season began, the son of the former Slam Dunk champion was on the bench while fellow rookie D’Angelo and de facto rookie Julius Randle started. Now Nance starts while the two lottery picks come off the bench. Since mid-December, Nance is averaging 8.5 points and 5.8 rebounds in 22.4 minutes over eight games, including a 17-11 double-double vs. Memphis. Long-term, he could develop into a rotation player.
Kelly Oubre, F, Washington: The Wizards have had plenty of injuries this season, vaulting Oubre from a garbage time player into the rotation. He is averaging 8.9 points and 4.5 boards while shooting 25-of-53 overall and 13-of-25 from the arc in eight games, helping Washington stay afloat in the East with a 4-4 mark during that stretch. It will be interesting to see how Oubre is used by coach Randy Wittman once Bradley Beal, Nene and Alan Anderson get healthy again.
Devin Booker, G, Phoenix: The youngest player in the NBA, the 19-year-old Booker saw some minutes early in the season and actually made 17 of his first 23 3-pointers, a clip that not even Stephen Curry has matched this season. With Eric Bledsoe out for the season with a knee injury, Booker is now starting and has averaged 12.5 points on 50 percent shooting in his last four games. With Phoenix floundering, Booker should stay a starter.
Trey Lyles, F, Utah: Lyles saw limited minutes through November, but injuries to center Rudy Gobert and forward Derrick Favors have moved him into the starting lineup. He is having trouble finding his footing, averaging just 4.1 points and 4.9 boards in 20.9 minutes in December while shooting just 37 percent from the field. He did make 5-of-10 threes, however, and his length and versatility could keep him in the rotation once Gobert and Favors return.
Cameron Payne, G, Oklahoma City: When the Thunder took the point guard from Murray State with the 14th overall pick, it looked like Murray would spend much of his rookie season in the D-League, buried behind All-Star Russell Westbrook and veteran backup D.J. Augustin. And Payne did play just 64 minutes in OKC’s first 30 games. But in the last week, Payne appears to have moved past Augustin in the rotation; over the last three games, he is averaging 9.7 points and 3.0 assists while shooting 10-of-17 overall and 5-of-7 from the arc.
Frank Kaminsky, F-C, Charlotte: The lottery pick has been part of the rotation since the start of the season, playing in all but one game. But his minutes increased during Al Jefferson’s five-game drug suspension and likely will remain in the 25-30 range as Jefferson sits out the next six weeks recovering from knee surgery. In his last five games, Kaminsky is averaging 14.2 points and 5.4 rebounds in just under 26 minutes. He also is 7-of-23 from the arc while attempting 27 free throws.
On to the rankings, where we have another change at the top.
1. KARL-ANTHONY TOWNS, C, MINNESOTA: He hasn’t been the headline maker that Kristaps Porzingis and Jahlil Okafor have been at times, but no rookie has been more consistent than Towns, who is 13th in rebounds (9.4) and seventh in field-goal percentage (.540). In his matchup with Porzingis on Dec. 16, he went for 25 points and 10 boards and has had three more 25-10 games since, plus 24 and 10 vs. Brook Lopez and Brooklyn. In fact, the only team that has shown it can keep Towns under control is defensive-minded San Antonio, which limited him to meager double-doubles in a pair of games. There’s plenty of season left, but the award looks like his to lose. LAST RANKING: 2
2. KRISTAPS PORZINGIS, F-C, NEW YORK: When he managed 10 points in Tuesday’s win over Detroit, it marked the first time Porzingis had scored in double figures in consecutive games since a run of nine in a row ended Dec. 7. And that is why he surrenders the top spot to Towns, who has been more consistent (and more productive, to be truthful). But his production (13.2 points, 8.0 rebounds, 2.0 blocks) has been nothing short of remarkable, given the glare of the New York media, along with the fact that several of his veteran teammates are not contributing their fair share. LAST RANKING: 1
3. JAHLIL OKAFOR, C, PHILADELPHIA: He is holding steady here, but only because no one behind him has made any serious headway. The truth is that he has fallen further behind Towns and Porzingis since our last rankings, even though he still leads all rookies with 17.3 points per game. He also has been experiencing some knee soreness which forced him to miss two games, one of which the 76ers managed to win, which somewhat diminishes his value. It seems like he should shoot better than 45 percent, although the addition of Ish Smith may help with that. LAST RANKING: 3
4. D’ANGELO RUSSELL, G, LA LAKERS: Starting to come along really well. He scored in double digits eight times in October and November but had 13 such efforts in December, when he averaged 13.2 points. However, his shooting and playmaking still leave something to be desired. Russell shot just 40 percent overall and 32 percent from the arc in December and averaged more rebounds (3.7) than assists (3.6). The Lakers already have plenty of guys who want to shoot the ball. Russell should make it his mission to find them and improve his floor leadership. LAST RANKING: 4
5. NIKOLA JOKIC, C, DENVER: With teammate Emmanuel Mudiay sidelined by a sprained ankle, Jokic replaces him in the rankings. A 2014 second-round pick who spent last season in Europe, Jokic is averaging 9.1 points and 5.5 rebounds in just 18.8 minutes while shooting 54 percent from the field. The Serb went for 22 points – one off his season high – last week vs. San Antonio and has scored in double figures in six of his last seven games. His situation bears watching, however, because Jusuf Nurkic – last season’s surprise big man – will be returning soon. LAST RANKING: NR
DROPOUTS: Emmanuel Mudiay, G, Denver (5).
FIVE TO WATCH: Richaun Holmes, F, Philadelphia; R.J. Hunter, G, Boston; Stanley Johnson, F, Detroit; Jonathan Simmons, G, San Antonio; Justise Winslow, F, Miami.
Chris Bernucca is the managing editor of SheridanHoops.com. His columns appear Mondays, and his Rookie Rankings on Fridays. Follow him on Twitter.