Which team has the best rookie duo this season?
Coming out of the draft, you had to like the Chicago Bulls, who traded into the lottery to grab Doug McDermott and finally signed Nikola Mirotic. But while Mirotic has been a pretty steady contributor, McBuckets might need a new nickname – like McD-League.
The Boston Celtics, Charlotte Hornets and Orlando Magic each had two first-round picks that looked like they might be able to crack the rotation. But James Young has been sent to the D-League by the Celtics, Noah Vonleh suffered an injury and is behind the curve for the Hornets, and Aaron Gordon unfortunately broke his foot for the Magic.
The Houston Rockets? Now there’s an interesting situation because they have three rookies contributing, none of whom were first-round picks. Until a recent knee injury, Greek forward Kostas Papanikolaou had been a key bench player with his solid all-around game. Undrafted free agent center Tarik Black has done a nice job of holding the fort in Dwight Howard’s absence. Even second-round pick Nick Johnson got into the act with a game-winning bucket vs. Minnesota a week ago. And that doesn’t even include first-round pick Clint Capela.
Through the first month of the season, the best duo appeared to be in Philadelphia, where second-round pick K.J. McDaniels has had his freakish athleticism on display for the entire season and actually has outplayed 2013 first-round pick Nerlens Noel, who has been solid if unspectacular.
But right now, the team with the best rookie duo is the Minnesota Timberwolves with 19-year-olds Andrew Wiggins and Zach LaVine.
Wiggins is no surprise. The top overall pick was ticketed to play and perform from the get, even if he had remained in Cleveland. The trade to Minnesota simply loosened the reins, and Wiggins now seems entrenched as the small forward for the Timberwolves through the rest of the decade.
LaVine is a surprise, however. The 13th overall pick was not expected to play very much this season, at least at the NBA level. GM Flip Saunders made sure of that when late in free agency, he signed veteran Mo Williams to back up starting point guard Ricky Rubio.
LaVine started the season anchored to the bench, playing just 13 minutes in the first five games with three DNPs. But Rubio went down with ankle injury and Williams is now sidelined with back spasms, making the spindly kid from UCLA the only option at the point for Saunders.
With Williams out the last four games, LaVine has averaged 38.5 minutes and 14.5 points, 6.8 assists and 4.3 rebounds. He has shot 22-of-52 from the field – making 3-of-10 from the arc – and 13-of-14 from the line. That stretch has included a season-high six rebounds vs. Houston and a season-high 10 assists vs. San Antonio.
It also included Minnesota’s first win in December, a 90-82 home victory over Portland on Wednesday in which Wiggins had 23 points and 10 rebounds and knocked down three jumpers in the fourth quarter to fend off a rally by the Blazers.
Afterward, Saunders said, “The baby Wolves grew up a little bit.”
Obviously, there’s still a lot of growing up to do. LaVine leads all rookies with 2.3 turnovers per game and Wiggins is third with 2.2. Both players are shooting below 42 percent overall. LaVine is shooting 25 percent from the arc and Wiggins is just 65 percent from the line, numbers in need of refinement.
But six weeks into a season of development, Saunders and the Wolves have to be happy with their rookie duo, who look like they have capably plugged two rotation spots for the foreseeable future.
On to the rankings.
1. JABARI PARKER, F, MILWAUKEE: Three straight double-digit games at an average of 14.7 points on 20-of-34 shooting allows him to retain the top spot for another week, althought the gap is closing. His rebounding has slipped a bit, and you would expect more than 2.8 free throws per game for someone with his strength and athleticism. But his 49 percent shooting as a starter for a competitive team cannot be ignored. LAST WEEK: 1
2. ANDREW WIGGINS, F, MINNESOTA: Here’s why analytics aren’t the be-all and end-all. Some smartypants produces this search which shows Wiggins is worst among rookies in wins produced. The next night, Wiggins drills three fourth-quarter jumpers to produce a win. His 23 vs. Portland followed 21 vs. Golden State, making him the first rook this season with consecutive 20-point games. LAST WEEK: 2
3. K.J. MCDANIELS, F, PHILADELPHIA: The only other rookie besides the top two picks scoring in double figures, although he managed just six points in Philly’s win at Detroit. McDaniels’ shooting has come hurtling back to earth at 29 percent overall and 17 percent from the arc in his last five games. But he ramins the rookie leader with 1.52 blocks per game, holding off his teammate. LAST WEEK: 3
4. ZACH LAVINE, G, MINNESOTA: He has scored in double figures in six of his last nine games. Toss out his 11-minute donut at Portland on Nov. 30 and he is averaging 13.0 points, 3.0 rebounds and 4.6 assists in 32 minutes. He also is shooting 47 percent (45-of-95) during that span. Ricky Rubio is still more than three weeks away, so LaVine has plenty of time to keep learning on the job. LAST WEEK: 10
5. NIKOLA MIROTIC, F, CHICAGO: He had a stretch of four double-digit scoring games ended by an eight-minute donut in a loss to searing-hot Golden State but bounced back with 10 and six boards vs. Brooklyn. Believe it or not, Mirotic has become a bit of a barometer for the Bulls. Chicago is 6-2 when the Montenegro native scores in double figures, including 5-1 in the last six. LAST WEEK: 4
6. NERLENS NOEL, F-C, PHILADELPHIA: He collected his third double-double of the season with 11 points and 10 boards in a loss to Oklahoma City, then totaled nine and eight in the win over Detroit. And hey! He’s making free throws, knocking down 8-of-12 in three games. Noel continues to contribute and seems to be getting a better feel for things, but we’d like to see a breakout game. LAST WEEK: 8
7. KOSTAS PAPANIKOLAOU, F, HOUSTON: He went for 10 points and six boards in the win over Minnesota but has sat out the last three games with a knee injury and is likely to miss at least another week, which would knock him out of the table altogether. We make a big deal about the “Rookie Wall” and how it impacts college kids, but they don’t play three games in four nights in Europe, either. LAST WEEK: 6
8. ELFRID PAYTON, G, ORLANDO: He continues to provide solid playmaking off the bench for a Magic team playing slightly above expectations, averaging nearly five assists in three games last week. Payton’s 12 points in a loss to Washington was his first double-digit scoring effort since Nov. 26. And the 47 percent free-throw shooter actually went 2-of-2 from the line at Sacramento. LAST WEEK: 9
9. BOJAN BOGDANOVIC, F, BROOKLYN: His inconsistency is becoming consistent. Here are his scoring averages and shooting numbers over the last four weeks of our rankings: 13.7 points on 15-of-32 shooting; 3.7 points on 2-of-17 shooting; 12.3 points on 16-of-33 shooting; and this week, 2.3 points on 3-of-15 shooting. Even worse for BoBo is he is giving away minutes to Alan Anderson. LAST WEEK: 5
10. MARCUS SMART, G, BOSTON: His return from injury was tentative at best, with just 13 minutes, two points and a DNP over three games. But he erupted for his best game of the season in the overtime loss to Washington, collecting 23 points (with four 3-pointers) and five assists while keeping Rajon Rondo on the bench. We need to see more games like that from the lottery pick. LAST WEEK: NR
DROPOUTS: Shabazz Napier, G, Miami (7).
FIVE TO WATCH: Tarik Black, C, Houston; Jerami Grant, F, Philadelphia; Rodney Hood, G, Utah; Nick Johnson, F, Houston; Nik Stauskas, G, Sacramento.