NBA Rookie Stock Watch: Can Anyone Challenge Michael Carter-Williams?

Grant HughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistJanuary 12, 2014

NBA Rookie Stock Watch: Can Anyone Challenge Michael Carter-Williams?

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    It's been nearly six weeks since we last took stock of the NBA's top rookies, and there have been some serious changes since that late November checkup.

    Not at the top, of course. All season long, there's been one first-year stud standing head and shoulders above the rest. But elsewhere on the list, there's been a lot of movement—not to mention a whole bunch of brand-new additions to the top 10.

    We're getting near the halfway point of the 2013-14 season, which means rotations are starting to solidify. As such, a few of the young players who populated earlier editions of these rankings have seen their roles dwindle.

    In some cases, they've disappeared entirely.

    Meanwhile, other rookies have seized opportunities, forcing their way into rotations and even a few starting lineups.

    As a refresher, these rankings look at a combination of season-long performance and recent play, with a little extra emphasis on the latter.

    Got it? Good. Here we go.

     

    *Statistics courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com unless otherwise indicated.

    **Statistics accurate through games played Jan. 12.

10. Kelly Olynyk, F, Boston Celtics

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    2013-14 Statistics: 6.5 points, 4.4 rebounds, 1.5 assists, 0.4 steals, 0.4 blocks, 10.7 PER

    Previous Ranking: 4

    Stock: Down

     

    I think any reasonable discussion about Kelly Olynyk has to begin with the bizarre (but also pretty hilarious) distance-control issues he had on a couple of shots against the Los Angeles Clippers on Jan. 8.

    In one instance, Olynyk drove the lane and lofted a floater from about eight feet that sailed all the way over the backboard! It'd be nice to pretend he was concerned with Clippers center DeAndre Jordan's superhuman leaping ability, but Jordan wasn't even on the floor.

    Only the mighty Ryan Hollins stood between Olynyk's floater and the rim. It was weird.

    On the Boston Celtics' next possession, Olynyk left a straight-on three-pointer about two feet short, just nicking the bottom of the net as it flew under the rim. 

    Embarrassing misses aside, Olynyk's stock has taken a hit in this edition because he's simply not shooting the ball well enough to compensate for his nearly nonexistent defensive contributions. At present, he's barely hovering above 40 percent from the field and 30 percent from long range. For a guy who looked like such a promising shooter over the summer, those accuracy rates are a little disappointing.

    Still, Olynyk remains part of head coach Brad Stevens' rotation. He'll continue to get a chance to improve as the Celtics, losers of eight in a row, give more time to their developing players.

9. Steven Adams, C, Oklahoma City Thunder

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    2013-14 Statistics: 4.0 points, 4.5 rebounds, 0.8 assists, 0.5 steals, 0.8 blocks, 13.2 PER

    Previous Ranking: 7

    Stock: Down

     

    Steven Adams' minutes per game have declined in each successive month of the NBA season, a testament to the Oklahoma City Thunder's increasing use of small-ball lineups and the rookie center's somewhat limited skill set.

    Adams is a bruiser who rebounds well and can block a shot, but his offensive game leaves a lot to be desired at this stage of his career. With the Thunder looking for more scoring help without Russell Westbrook, it's often difficult to slot Adams and his minimal offensive game at center.

    Nonetheless, he's been a high-efficiency player, hitting 49 percent of his shots, including 56 percent in January.

    More than anything, though, Adams is an adept irritant.

    Milwaukee Bucks big man Larry Sanders became the latest opponent to take a shot at the first-year center when he threw an elbow at Adams' head during a scrum under the basket on Jan. 11. The rookie has a real knack for ticking off opposing bigs with extremely physical play, and Sanders' elbow resulted in an ejection.

    Adams' skills may one day progress to the point where they'll allow him to log major minutes. Until then, he's still valuable as an extremely physical presence down low.

8. Pero Antic, C, Atlanta Hawks

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    2013-14 Statistics: 5.0 points, 2.9 rebounds, 1.0 assists, 0.2 steals, 0.3 blocks, 11.3 PER

    Previous Ranking: Unranked

    Stock: Up

     

    To be totally honest, Pero Antic's one-legged, game-tying three-point bomb in the Atlanta Hawks' 118-116 overtime win over the Charlotte Bobcats would have been enough to earn him a position on this list. After all, it's not every day you see a bulky 7-footer firing in off-balance triples in crunch time.

    Then again, Antic isn't your everyday big man.

    The 31-year-old Macedonian rookie is suddenly starting for the Hawks as a result of Al Horford's season-ending pectoral injury, and he's making the most of his opportunity by nailing 37 percent of his three-point tries.

    Antic is primarily a perimeter shooter, and his offensive style actually fits nicely with the Hawks' new three-happy approach this year. Per NBA.com, Atlanta ranks fourth in the league in three-point attempts per game. In just over 14 minutes per contest this season, Antic has averaged 2.6 attempts on his own.

    The Hawks desperately miss Horford, but Antic provides a new dimension and immense amounts of offensive spacing. His ability to stretch the defense was critical to an impressive 10-point win over the Indiana Pacers on Jan. 8.

    As long as he's seeing minutes, Antic will continue to fire off threes, making opposing bigs uncomfortable and helping the Hawks survive without their best player.

7. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, SG, Detroit Pistons

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    2013-14 Statistics: 7.3 points, 2.3 rebounds, 0.9 assists, 1.0 steals, 0.1 blocks, 9.4 PER

    Previous Ranking: 8

    Stock: Up

     

    Apparently, all it takes to motivate Kentavious Caldwell-Pope is a trip to the bench.

    Detroit Pistons head coach Maurice Cheeks left both Caldwell-Pope and Josh Smith on the pine to start the second half of a Dec. 28 contest against the Washington Wizards, and KCP has come to life since that demotion.

    He dropped 17 points against those same Wizards on Dec. 30 and has scored in double figures in four of his past six games. In hindsight, we should have seen this coming.

    After his benching, Caldwell-Pope told David Mayo of MLive.com: "I never know, coming out of the game, why I'm coming out of the game. So just to come out and be benched, it is what it is. I'm still going to play hard if I get in."

    True to his word, KCP has put forth serious effort since his brief exclusion from the rotation. If he keeps it up, he's got a chance to climb even higher in these rankings.

6. Ben McLemore, SG, Sacramento Kings

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    2013-14 Statistics: 8.0 points, 2.9 rebounds, 1.0 assists, 0.5 steals, 0.2 blocks, 7.3 PER

    Previous Ranking: 5

    Stock: Down

     

    Thanks to the sheer volume of his overall contributions this season, Ben McLemore slips just one spot here. But rest assured, if his recent performance was the only determining factor, he wouldn't even have a position among the top 10.

    McLemore has been awful of late, averaging just 3.2 points per game in his past five contests while losing his starting job in the process.

    The Sacramento Kings' collection of trigger-happy chuckers is partly responsible for the rookie's slide, and head coach Mike Malone said as much, per James Ham of NBA.com:

    Right now, we plan on using the same lineup, but my biggest concern with Ben (McLemore), is that I want to put him in a position to have success.  And right now, maybe him starting, he’s been struggling and with three volume shooters in that starting lineup, he’s not getting very many touches.

    On the year, McLemore has scored the fifth-most points and made the second-most total three-pointers among rookies. But he's losing his grip on minutes and hasn't shown the kind of growth the Kings were hoping they'd see.

    The raw talent is undeniable, but McLemore's recent swoon shows that Sacramento isn't an ideal environment for rookies to develop.

5. Tim Hardaway Jr., SG, New York Knicks

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    2013-14 Statistics: 8.3 points, 1.3 rebounds, 0.9 assists, 0.5 steals, 0.2 blocks, 15.0 PER

    Previous Ranking: Unranked

    Stock: Up

     

    Lately, it seems like Tim Hardaway Jr. has been getting more ink in trade discussions than anything else. He's been at least loosely connected to potential deals for Kyle Lowry and Andre Miller as the New York Knicks look for answers to their backcourt problems.

    That's too bad, because Hardaway has been a pleasant surprise on the court this season.

    He was absolutely phenomenal in the month of December, averaging 11.7 points per game on 48.5 percent shooting from the field and 46.2 percent from beyond the arc. Unfortunately, as the Knicks have trimmed the rotation during their January surge, Hardaway has seen his minutes dwindle.

    Nonetheless, he's still the best pure shooter of any rookie, and his athleticism leads to the occasional highlight-reel jam. Assuming J.R. Smith's antics result in a decreasing role eventually, Hardaway stands to benefit.

    Minutes and rotation spots tend to come and go for rookies, especially on teams struggling to find a rhythm. I'm guessing that as the Knicks stabilize over the next month or so, Hardaway will gradually work his way back into a more consistent spot.

    For now, he's got a comfortable hold on the No. 5 position.

4. Giannis Antetokounmpo, F, Milwaukee Bucks

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    2013-14 Statistics: 6.7 points, 4.7 rebounds, 1.6 assists, 0.6 steals, 0.8 blocks, 12.8 PER

    Previous Ranking: Unranked

    Stock: Up

     

    These rankings don't take raw potential into account, but if they did Giannis Antetokounmpo would be vying for the No. 1 spot.

    The Greek Freak logged 38 minutes in a 101-85 loss to the Thunder on Jan. 11, and while the rookie's 13 points, 11 rebounds, five assists, two steals and two blocks should have left him feeling pretty good about his performance, it was the postgame praise from Kevin Durant that he'll probably never forget.

    According to Charles F. Gardner of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Durant said:

    (Antetokounmpo) played hard. He gave up his body for his team. I'd go to war with a guy like that any night. He's going to be a treat to watch. He's going to keep getting better and gaining experience. That's the best thing for him, just to start him and let him play. He's going to be really good.

    You don't have to watch Antetokounmpo for long before realizing Durant's not just being polite. The rookie moves around the floor like a guard, handling the ball expertly and showing a natural grasp for the game. At just 19 years old (and still growing), there's no telling how good he'll eventually be.

    The shot-making skills aren't there yet, but in terms of body type and natural gifts, Antetokounmpo already bears a striking resemblance to Durant. The sky's the limit for this kid.

3. Trey Burke, PG, Utah Jazz

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    2013-14 Statistics: 13.3 points, 3.3 rebounds, 5.3 assists, 0.8 steals, 0.1 blocks, 14.6 PER

    Previous Ranking: 10

    Stock: Up

     

    Trey Burke barely cracked the top 10 in the most recent edition of Rookie Stock Watch, but that was only because he'd logged just three games at the time of publication.

    With a much larger sample on which to judge the rookie point guard, we now know he's one of the league's very best first-year talents. In fact, even though he checks in at No. 3 here, what we're really looking at is 2a.

    He's been that good so far.

    With Burke on the court, the Utah Jazz post an offensive rating of 103.4 points per 100 possessions, per NBA.com. That's nothing to brag about, but when Burke sits, that number plummets to 95.1. Essentially, the Jazz can't score without their rookie running the show.

    A natural leader with surprising poise for a rookie, Burke appears ready to take on the difficult challenge of manning the point for a franchise that has had more than its share of elite floor generals. Nobody's saying Burke is going to be as franchise-altering as John Stockton or Deron Williams, but he's certainly conducting himself admirably to this point.

2. Victor Oladipo, G, Orlando Magic

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    2013-14 Statistics: 13.2 points, 4.2 rebounds, 3.6 assists, 1.5 steals, 0.7 blocks, 12.8 PER

    Previous Ranking: 2

    Stock: Steady

     

    Thrust into a a new position with almost no time to learn the ropes, Victor Oladipo has taken plenty of lumps with the Orlando Magic this year. And while the rookie's ball-handling duties have diminished somewhat since the early part of the season, he's still dribbling into trouble pretty frequently.

    Fortunately, he's been responding well to failure all season long.

    After a particularly ugly stretch on Jan. 11 that included a turnover and ensuing posterization at the hands of Denver Nuggets forward Kenneth Faried, Oladipo bounced right back—just like he has all year. On the next possession, the rookie drove hard into the middle, drew a foul on Faried and finished through contact.

    Per Josh Robbins of the Orlando Sentinel

    The entire sequence—specifically, how Oladipo followed a careless play with a superb, gritty play—exemplifies his attitude. He keeps fighting, even when the Magic trail by double digits, even with his team mired in what now is a seven-game losing streak.

    That kind of resiliency is going to serve Oladipo well as the year rolls on. The Magic aren't going anywhere, and as the losses mount, it'll be key for the rookie to keep using this season as an ongoing learning experience.

    Everything we've seen from him to this point indicates Oladipo's in no danger of getting discouraged.

1. Michael Carter-Williams, PG, Philadelphia 76ers

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    2013-14 Statistics: 17.5 points, 5.8 rebounds, 7.0 assists, 2.7 steals, 0.7 blocks, 18.5 PER

    Previous Ranking: 1

    Stock: Steady

     

    I mean, if we just look at the numbers, there's not really much more to say.

    Michael Carter-Williams is having a statistically dominant rookie season. Part of the immense distance between him and the field has to do with the general lack of quality in this year's rookie class. In addition, the Philadelphia 76ers' fast pace has a way of inflating statistics.

    But forget all that stuff. Who cares about weak competition or a fast pace? There's just no getting around how much better Carter-Williams has been than every other first-year player.

    MCW leads the league in steals, and only two rookies in NBA history—Oscar Robertson and Magic Johnson—have finished their first years with scoring, rebounding and assist averages that match Carter-Williams' current numbers, per Basketball-Reference.com.

    The shooting percentages have begun to dip, partially validating much of the pre-draft criticism the point guard faced coming out of Syracuse. But Carter-Williams' overall impact on Philadelphia has been undeniable.

    Consider this: In the 11 games MCW has missed due to injury this season, the Sixers have lost 10 times. With him in the lineup, they're a respectable 11-15.

    The other rookies on this list are still trying to find their way in the league, but Carter-Williams is already established as his team's leader and most important player. Until something drastic happens, he'll stay firmly fixed in the No. 1 spot here.