NBA Rookie Stock Watch: Is Michael Carter-Williams the Runaway Favorite?

Grant HughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistMarch 23, 2014

NBA Rookie Stock Watch: Is Michael Carter-Williams the Runaway Favorite?

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    Rick Bowmer/Associated Press

    With under a month remaining in the 2013-14 regular season, it's time we revisited the NBA Rookie Stock Watch.

    Adam Fromal last handled ranking duties back on March 1, which means we've gone quite a while since checking the ticker. Since that time, Giannis Antetokounmpo crashed into the wall, Tim Hardaway Jr. has been exposed and Trey Burke has quietly shaken up the top three spots.

    Remember, we're looking at a combination of season-long performance and recent play, with extra emphasis on the latter. The NBA is a "what have you done for me lately?" league, so it's only fair we add special weight to the last few weeks.

    As such, we're drawing a distinction between games played before and after March 1. You'll see the players' splits in each slide, which should provide context for the jumps (or dives) in their stocks.

    The season is winding down, which means guys like Burke and Victor Oladipo are running out of time to make up ground on perennial rookie leader Michael Carter-Williams. Let's see how they (and the rest of the league's first-year talents) have fared in the latest edition of Rookie Stock Watch.

Honorable Mention: Giannis Antetokounmpo

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    Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

    Team: Milwaukee Bucks

    Position:  SG/SF

    2013-14 Per-Game Stats: 6.9 points, 4.4 rebounds, 2.0 assists, 0.8 steals, 0.8 blocks

    Per-Game Stats Since Last Stock Watch: 5.3 points, 3.6 rebounds, 2.4 assists, 0.5 steals, 0.6 blocks

     

    The Greek Freak is worn out, which is probably why his numbers have taken a hit in recent weeks.

    The counting stats don't look too bad compared to his season-long numbers, but when you also take into account Giannis Antetokounmpo's wretched shooting since March 2, it's pretty clear he's suffering from a case of tired legs.

    Since the last edition of these rankings, Antetokounmpo has hit just 29.8 percent of his shots from the field and 22.7 percent from long distance, per NBA.com. So while it's tempting to leave him in the top 10 on the strength of his limitless potential and occasional highlight plays, the truth is that he's been pretty awful of late.

    Playing out the string on a horrid Milwaukee Bucks club certainly doesn't make it any easier on him, either.

    Going forward, Antetokounmpo is still probably one of the top two or three rookies in terms of career ceiling. But he's exhausted and is crashing into the rookie wall right now.

     

    Verdict: Stock Down

10. Nate Wolters

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    Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sport

    Team: Milwaukee Bucks

    Position: PG

    2013-14 Per-Game Stats: 7.2 points, 2.6 rebounds, 3.2 assists, 0.6 steals, 0.3 blocks

    Per-Game Stats Since Last Stock Watch: 8.8 points, 3.1 rebounds, 2.7 assists, 0.3 steals, 0.0 blocks

     

    Nate Wolters' broken hand is probably painful, but at least the rookie point guard doesn't have to bear the pain of suiting up for the woeful Bucks again this season.

    Per Charles F. Gardner of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, head coach Larry Drew said Wolters' season is over—thanks to a broken hand sustained against the Golden State Warriors on March 19:

    "When he went back into the game, he tried to grab a ball and he just couldn't do it. He did a heck of a job (this season). He's got a lot to be proud of and a lot to build on."

    Frankly, the point guard got out at a good time. He'd been knocking down threes at a season-best rate (56.3 percent since March 2) and trimmed down on his turnovers. The losses were just going to keep coming, so it's probably best if Wolters takes a few months to recover, processes the horror of playing for the Bucks this year and looks ahead to a bigger role in 2014-15.

    He ends the season at No. 10 here, which is a step up from missing the cut in our last edition of the rankings. Unfortunately, Wolters won't have a chance to improve on his position.

     

    Verdict: Stock Up and Down

9. Cody Zeller

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    NELL REDMOND/Associated Press

    Team: Charlotte Bobcats

    Position: PF

    2013-14 Per-Game Stats: 5.5 points, 4.3 rebounds, 1.1 assists, 0.5 steals, 0.5 blocks

    Per-Game Stats Since Last Stock Watch: 6.8 points, 5.4 rebounds, 1.2 assists, 0.4 steals, 0.8 blocks

     

    Even if consistent production isn't Cody Zeller's forte, his effort level has remained reliably high since the All-Star break. The numbers will come eventually, but until they do, the Charlotte Bobcats will happily take the version of Zeller who plays with aggression and purpose.

    He's been less timid of late, and his statistical uptick since the last Stock Watch shows some of that growth.

    A big man like Zeller—especially one who came into the league with reviews touting his sneaky athleticism and skill around the rim—has to shoot better than 40 percent from the field. But that's something that should come with time.

    As Zeller continues to settle into his role, he'll be fine as long as he maintains the more confident approach he's adopted lately.

     

    Verdict: Stock Steady

8. Pero Antic

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    Dave Tulis/Associated Press

    Team: Atlanta Hawks

    Position: C

    2013-14 Per-Game Stats: 7.1 points, 3.9 rebounds, 1.2 assists, 0.3 steals, 0.3 blocks

    Per-Game Stats Since Last Stock Watch: 10.9 points, 5.3 rebounds, 1.6 assists, 0.7 steals, 0.1 blocks

     

    If you're a big man whose primary asset is an ability to stretch the floor, an 0-of-5 effort from long distance isn't going to cut it.

    That's what Pero Antic gave the Atlanta Hawks in their March 23 loss to the Toronto Raptors.

    Antic's isolated inaccuracy aside, he's been excellent for the Hawks of late. His rebounding has improved, he's scoring effectively in a bigger role and his ability to pull centers away from the lane helps Atlanta's guards get into the paint more easily.

    The 31-year-old Macedonian doesn't have much upside at this point, but he's done enough this year to stick around as a rotation player. In this crop of rookies, that's more than enough to rank in the top 10.

     

    Verdict: Stock Up

7. Tim Hardaway Jr.

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    Matt Slocum/Associated Press

    Team: New York Knicks

    Position: SG/SF

    2013-14 Per-Game Stats: 10.0 points, 1.6 rebounds, 0.8 assists, 0.5 steals, 0.1 blocks

    Per-Game Stats Since Last Stock Watch: 11.3 points, 1.6 rebounds, 0.7 assists, 0.7 steals, 0.1 blocks

     

    It's difficult to look at Tim Hardaway Jr.'s big scoring nights over the past couple of weeks without raising an eyebrow or two. He pumped in 28 points in a win over the Philadelphia 76ers on March 10, then followed it up with 42 points over his next two contests.

    But shooting isn't everything: Hardaway is an absolutely atrocious defender, prone to basic rotation failures and at least one face-palm-worthy instance of cluelessness per game. He goes weeks at a time without registering an assist, and despite serious athleticism and good height (6'6"), his season high in rebounds is five.

    He's a specialist at this stage of his career, a one-dimensional wing who doesn't contribute in any way unless his shot is falling.

    Still, he's been effective (if inconsistent) during the New York Knicks' eight-game winning streak. If not for a couple of upward movers, he might have cracked the top five.

     

    Verdict: Stock Down

6. Ryan Kelly

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    Danny Moloshok/Associated Press

    Team: Los Angeles Lakers

    Position: PF

    2013-14 Per-Game Stats: 7.6 points, 5.0 rebounds, 1.5 assists, 0.5 steals, 0.4 blocks

    Per-Game Stats Since Last Stock Watch: 10.2 points, 4.9 rebounds, 2.1 assists, 1.0 steals, 1.0 blocks

     

    Ryan Kelly is nowhere near a finished product, but he's got a handful of useful NBA skills that should help him stick around in the league for a few years. And before anyone assumes that's a backhanded compliment, keep in mind that Kelly's place in the NBA was far from guaranteed earlier this season.

    Per Ben Bolch of the Los Angeles Times

    A late second-round pick out of Duke in last year's draft, the 6-foot-11 power forward wasn't even assured of making the Lakers' roster. The rookie didn't have a full preseason to prove himself because he was still recovering from surgery to repair a screw that was first inserted in his right foot to stabilize a broken bone in March 2012.

    Kelly has been a pleasant surprise this year, flashing a 36.6 percent stroke from long range, decent shot-blocking totals in just 20.7 minutes per game and better-than-expected defensive activity.

    Bigs who can spread the floor are always in demand, even if they can't do anything besides shoot. The 6'11" Kelly can knock down shots and contribute in a couple of other areas. Just for comparison's sake, he's been more accurate than Hardaway Jr. from the outside while averaging more assists and rebounds in fewer minutes per game.

     

    Verdict: Stock Up

5. Mason Plumlee

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    Evan Vucci/Associated Press

    Team: Brooklyn Nets

    Position: C

    2013-14 Per-Game Stats: 6.8 points, 3.9 rebounds, 0.5 assists, 0.7 steals, 0.7 blocks

    Per-Game Stats Since Last Stock Watch: 8.6 points, 5.5 rebounds, 1.1 assists, 1.1 steals, 0.6 blocks

     

    Brook Lopez has been done since December, and Kevin Garnett's back has kept him out of the lineup for 11 games in a row. Fortunately for the Brooklyn Nets, Mason Plumlee has been fantastic lately.

    He dropped 18 points and five rebounds on the Boston Celtics on March 21, an effort that followed up an 11-point, seven-rebound effort on March 19 against the Charlotte Bobcats. Look further back, and you'll see 14 points and 11 rebounds against the Phoenix Suns on March 17.

    All of those games were Nets wins, and per Stefan Bondy of the New York Daily News: "Plumlee has made it easy to forget the absence of Garnett and Brook Lopez, as ridiculous as that sounds."

    The big man still relies on dunks for most of his points, but he can run the floor, clean the glass and has the size to defend the rim effectively.

    The Nets have been one of the league's best teams since Jan. 1, and Plumlee's ability to fill in for his more heralded teammates is a big reason why.

     

    Verdict: Stock Up

4. Kelly Olynyk

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    Elise Amendola/Associated Press

    Team: Boston Celtics

    Position: PF/C

    2013-14 Per-Game Stats: 7.6 points, 5.0 rebounds, 1.5 assists, 0.5 steals, 0.4 blocks

    Per-Game Stats Since Last Stock Watch: 10.4 points, 6.0 rebounds, 0.9 assists, 0.6 steals, 0.4 blocks

     

    Things are really starting to come together for Boston Celtics rookie Kelly Olynyk. Since the last edition of these rankings, he's upped his scoring and rebounding numbers while hitting 50 percent of his shots from the field and 42.1 percent from beyond the arc, per NBA.com.

    Better still, he's showing real growth as a defender.

    Per Chris Forsberg of ESPN, even big moments and big stars have failed to faze him:

    Rookie Kelly Olynyk already had a bit of pep in his step after his offensive exploits helped the Boston Celtics rally from a 15-point deficit, and it was a one-possession game when Dirk Nowitzki caught the ball on the right wing late in the third quarter on Monday night. Olynyk put himself in Nowitzki's pocket and forced him to give up the ball without a dribble, but Nowitzki would get it back soon after and drive. Olynyk shuffled over, established position, and absorbed a shoulder to the chest from Nowitzki while drawing the charge call. 

    Olynyk is hitting his stride down the stretch, and it seems Boston has a keeper.

     

    Verdict: Stock Up

3. Victor Oladipo

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    Rick Bowmer/Associated Press

    Team: Orlando Magic

    Position: PG/SG

    2013-14 Per-Game Stats: 13.9 points, 4.3 rebounds, 4.1 assists, 1.6 steals, 0.5 blocks

    Per-Game Stats Since Last Stock Watch: 13.4 points, 3.7 rebounds, 5.0 assists, 1.0 steals, 0.0 blocks

     

    The top three spots in the rookie rankings have featured the same trio of players for most of the year. What's different this time around is that Victor Oladipo has slipped to the third spot after a very long stay at No. 2.

    His fall results from a combination of his own slumping play and the improved efforts of the man who passed him. We'll get to the other guy in a second, but it's important to start by noting that Oladipo's shooting accuracy has declined in March, and he's not getting to the line as frequently as he did earlier in the year.

    And another thing: The Orlando Magic need to put a stop to whatever is happening in the above picture. Oladipo might not have an All-Star game in his future, but he's definitely going to be a rotation mainstay for a decade or so.

    Pregame safety needs to be a bigger priority if the Magic care at all about protecting their assets.

     

    Verdict: Stock Down

2. Trey Burke

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    Team: Utah Jazz

    Position: PG

    2013-14 Per-Game Stats: 12.8 points, 3.0 rebounds, 5.3 assists, 0.6 steals, 0.1 blocks

    Per-Game Stats Since Last Stock Watch: 13.8 points, 2.6 rebounds, 4.9 assists, 0.5 steals, 0.0 blocks

     

    Thanks to his recent play, Trey Burke has leapt over Oladipo for the No. 2 spot.

    On the year, Oladipo still holds overall edges in scoring, rebounding and overall field-goal accuracy. But since March 2, Burke has scored more, shot it better (especially from three, where he's hitting 39.3 percent of his triples against Oladipo's 30 percent) and taken much better care of the ball.

    It still seems the Magic want to turn Oladipo into a point guard, but his ball security continues to be an issue. Burke, on the other hand, is a born facilitator. He has committed just 1.9 turnovers per game since March 2, a figure that looks pretty good next to Oladipo's average of three giveaways per game.

    Oladipo may have the higher ceiling, but Burke is the more polished product at the moment. For that, he gets the nod at No. 2. And let's be honest, Burke earned this spot with his icy game-winner over Oladipo's Magic on March 22.

    As is the case for everybody we've covered so far, he's still nowhere near the man who refuses to give up the No. 1 position.

     

    Verdict: Stock Up

1. Michael Carter-Williams

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    Matt Slocum/Associated Press

    Team: Philadelphia 76ers

    Position: PG

    2013-14 Per-Game Stats: 16.7 points, 6.1 rebounds, 6.3 assists, 1.9 steals, 0.6 blocks

    Per-Game Stats Since Last Stock Watch: 15.1 points, 9.5 rebounds, 6.4 assists, 1.5 steals, 0.5 blocks

     

    Go ahead and trot out the arguments against Michael Carter-Williams if you want; they're the same ones we've heard all year:

    "Philly's pace and style inflate numbers."

    "He's horribly inefficient as a shooter."

    "On a team this bad, somebody has to fill out the stat sheet."

    To some degree, all those criticisms are accurate. But even if we give them some consideration, there's still no other rookie in the league with MCW's combination of obvious potential and statistical production.

    He's a point guard averaging 9.5 boards per game since March 2, for crying out loud!

    He needs to iron out his shot, take better care of the ball (3.8 turnovers per game on the season) and prove his productivity in games that actually matter. But MCW can't control the circumstances surrounding his team, and it's not really fair to knock him for putting up good counting stats in a bad situation.

    There's no better rookie in the game, a fact that hasn't changed for months.

     

    Verdict: Stock Steady

     

    *All statistics via NBA.com unless otherwise indicated.

    **Stats accurate through games played March 22, 2014.