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NBA Rookie Stock Watch: Can Michael Carter-Williams Outpace Surging Challengers?

Grant HughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistApril 7, 2014

NBA Rookie Stock Watch: Can Michael Carter-Williams Outpace Surging Challengers?

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    Charles Krupa

    Michael Carter-Williams' stranglehold on the NBA's Rookie of the Year award may be loosening in the season's final two weeks.

    Since the last edition of Stock Watch, MCW has maintained his stat-stuffing ways. But challengers to his rookie throne are popping up all over the place, perhaps sensing the need for a final push before the regular season comes to a close.

    Mason Plumlee earned some serious praise for his statistical contributions to the playoff-bound Brooklyn Nets; the value of playing well for a winner can't be lost among this crop of talent. For the most part, the top 10 rookies are toiling for go-nowhere teams in meaningless games—and have been for months.

    Plumlee's not alone in his late surge, either.

    Gorgui Dieng's excellent interior work for the Minnesota Timberwolves earns him some first-time recognition. And Ray McCallum's stunning stand-in effort for Isaiah Thomas deserves notice.

    Instead of hitting the rookie wall, those two kicked down the door.

    As a reminder, we're ranking these rookies based on full-season performance with emphasis on recent work. As you'll see, a couple of hot weeks since the March 23 edition of these rankings have resulted in big changes throughout.

    With the season winding down, the rookie race is heating up. Here's how MCW and the rest of the first-year crop have fared.

     

    Stats accurate through games played April 5.

10. Ryan Kelly

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    Team: Los Angeles Lakers

    Position: PF

    2013-14 Per-Game Stats: 7.7 points, 3.5 rebounds, 1.5 assists, 0.5 steals, 0.8 blocks

    Per-Game Stats Since Last Stock Watch: 8.4 points, 4.5 rebounds, 2.9 assists, 0.9 steals, 0.9 blocks

    Previous Ranking: 6

     

    Ryan Kelly has shown promising flashes in a number of areas all season long, and his past two weeks have been no different. Whether handing out a season-high eight assists in an ugly loss to the New York Knicks on March 25 or going for 17 points on 6-of-12 shooting in a win over the Phoenix Suns on March 30, Kelly has been intermittently exciting.

    His overall game isn't eye-popping (above jam against the Suns notwithstanding), but Kelly's combination of size, skill and shooting is tantalizing.

    Some new additions to the countdown and a mild statistical decline from the stretch that earned him a No.6 ranking last time result in a slide for Kelly. But this is a guy who should be a part of the Los Angeles Lakers' rotation going forward.

    Stock: Down

9. Tim Hardaway Jr.

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    Rick Bowmer

    Team: New York Knicks

    Position: SG/SF

    2013-14 Per-Game Stats: 10.1 points, 1.5 rebounds, 0.8 assists, 0.5 steals, 0.1 blocks

    Per-Game Stats Since Last Stock Watch: 10.9 points, 1.3 rebounds, 1.0 assists, 0.6 steals, 0.0 blocks

    Previous Ranking: 7

     

    Tim Hardaway can score a little bit, but we're starting to learn that his points are ultimately empty.

    Per NBA.com, New York's offensive rating improves by 3.3 points per 100 possessions when Hardaway is on the bench. Despite his respectable 36.2 percent stroke from long range, the Knicks are more productive without him.

    And Hardaway absolutely kills the Knicks on the other end, causing their defensive rating to spike from 104.5 to 109.5 when he's on the floor.

    So enjoy his occasional scoring outbursts and hope he'll someday become a player capable of more than semi-efficient buckets. Just know he's a net-negative player with a long way to go before he contributes in a meaningful way.

    He slides two spots because others overtook him, but also because he simply isn't showing signs of rounding out his game.

    Stock: Down

8. Cody Zeller

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    Kent Smith/Getty Images

    Team: Charlotte Bobcats

    Position: PF

    2013-14 Per-Game Stats: 5.9 points, 4.4 rebounds, 1.2 assists, 0.5 steals, 0.5 blocks

    Per-Game Stats Since Last Stock Watch: 9.9 points, 5.7 rebounds, 1.3 assists, 0.3 steals, 0.7 blocks

    Previous Ranking: 9

     

    There's no way to prove this, but I'm starting to think Cody Zeller reads these rankings. Here's what I had to say about Zeller's perplexingly poor shooting when I ranked him ninth in the March 23 edition:

    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.

    Apparently, Zeller didn't need much time at all to respond to those criticisms. Suddenly finding the accuracy he'd been missing all year, Zeller knocked down 68.8 percent of his field-goal attempts in the two weeks since we last ranked rookies, per NBA.com.

    He's still hitting just 42.4 percent of his shots on the season, but things are definitely heading in the right direction for Zeller.

    Best of all, he's been a useful part of the playoff-bound Charlotte Bobcats' frontcourt rotation, averaging 22.1 minutes per game over the past two weeks. He'll be tested anew in the postseason, but it appears he's ready to face that challenge.

    He moves up a spot on the strength of his key contributions to one of the NBA's feel-good teams.

    Stock: Up

7. Ray McCallum

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    Rocky Widner/Getty Images

    Team: Sacramento Kings

    Position: PG

    2013-14 Per-Game Stats: 5.4 points, 1.6 rebounds, 2.1 assists, 0.3 steals, 0.1 blocks

    Per-Game Stats Since Last Stock Watch: 13.4 points, 3.1 rebounds, 6.4 assists, 1.0 steals, 0.1 blocks

    Previous Ranking: NA

     

    Sometimes a trial by fire is the best way to test the toughness of an unproven rookie. To that end, the Sacramento Kings spent much of the past two weeks nearly burning Ray McCallum out.

    Per James Ham of Cowbell Kingdom, Kings head coach Mike Malone said of the rookie's exhausting stretch:

    Ray is an iron man for us. Last three games he hasn’t come out for us in the second half at all and tonight he played all 48. Eight assists and two turnovers in a 48-minute game for a young guard on the road is tremendous.

    McCallum's sudden spike in playing time is a direct result of Isaiah Thomas' bruised quad, an injury that has cost Sacramento's starting point guard seven straight games.

    Obviously benefiting from the 40-plus minutes per game he's been logging over the past two weeks, McCallum's counting statistics have been impressive. But it's also important to note a couple of key rate stats that might be even more meaningful for the point guard going forward.

    He's sporting an assist-to-turnover ratio of better than 3-to-1 since taking over starting duties, per NBA.com. What's more, McCallum has shown the kind of poise and steady play that could earn him a rotation spot in next year's lineup.

    As always, it's hard to gauge the value of any individual numbers when they come from a team with nothing left to play for. But it's equally tough to deny what McCallum has done lately.

    Stock: Up

6. Gorgui Dieng

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    David Sherman/Getty Images

    Team: Minnesota Timberwolves

    Position: C

    2013-14 Per-Game Stats: 4.0 points, 4.2 rebounds, 0.5 assists, 0.5 steals, 0.7 blocks

    Per-Game Stats Since Last Stock Watch: 11.1 points, 9.6 rebounds, 1.2 assists, 1.1 steals, 1.0 blocks

    Previous Ranking: NA

     

    Admission time: Gorgui Dieng probably deserved to crack the top 10 last time around. On the strength of his 22 points and 21 rebounds in a 129-106 loss to the Houston Rockets on March 20, the Louisville product could have earned at least an honorable mention.

    At the time, I was skeptical of Dieng's three-game run of double-doubles that culminated in that monster effort—mostly because he hadn't cracked double figures in points or rebounds in any game prior.

    Dieng's recent play hasn't been quite as impressive as the surge I ignored in the last edition of Stock Watch, but it clearly indicates he's much more than an end-of-the-bench big.

    In fact, Dieng has played better than any rookie in the league over the past two weeks, a distinction that earned him the Western Conference's Rookie of the Month honor for March.

    Best of all, his potential to become a defensive force could give the Wolves exactly what they need, per ESPN's David Thorpe (subscription required):

    Perimeter players drive recklessly into the paint against the Wolves, knowing there is no one at the rim to block or bother their finishes. With Dieng in the game, that is not the case. Once he learns the overall NBA game and, more pressingly, what opposing centers like to do, it is possible to imagine Dieng helping the Wolves become a top-six defensive team for an entire season.

    If Minnesota wants to keep Kevin Love around, pairing him with a rim-protector who can also clean the glass might be a good idea. The injured Nikola Pekovic, whose absence allowed Dieng to crack the rotation, is under contract for $12 million per year through the 2017-18 season, which presents a playing-time problem for Dieng in the future.

    You can bet that Dieng's emergence and obvious fit alongside Love will force the Wolves to look for a solution sooner than later.

    Stock: Up

5. Kelly Olynyk

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    Ron Turenne/Getty Images

    Team: Boston Celtics

    Position: PF/C

    2013-14 Per-Game Stats: 7.9 points, 5.0 rebounds, 1.5 assists, 0.5 steals, 0.4 blocks

    Per-Game Stats Since Last Stock Watch: 10.0 points, 5.1 rebounds, 1.1 assists, 0.7 steals, 0.4 blocks

    Previous Ranking: 4

     

    In a testament to the way this year's rookies have turned up their play down the stretch, Kelly Olynyk's steady growth wasn't enough to keep another first-year big man from leaping over him in the rankings. We'll get to that as-yet-unnamed center in a moment, but it's only fair to point out that Olynyk has played very well in his limited role of late.

    The Boston Celtics have lost eight in a row, which doesn't say much for Olynyk's impact on his team's success, but his numbers have been solid. In about 20 minutes per game, the skilled 7-footer has nailed 57.1 percent of his shots from the field and 41.7 percent of his long-range tries since March 23.

    He could stand to add a little bulk and still has a long way to go in his understanding of team defense, but Olynyk has shown enough recently to ensure he'll get the minutes and experience he needs in the future.

    Again, Olynyk isn't down a peg because of any dip in play. It's just that he's merely held steady while others showed real growth.

    Stock: Down

4. Trey Burke

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    Layne Murdoch Jr./Getty Images

    Team: Utah Jazz

    Position: PG

    2013-14 Per-Game Stats: 12.4 points, 2.9 rebounds, 5.3 assists, 0.6 steals, 0.1 blocks

    Per-Game Stats Since Last Stock Watch: 13.4 points, 2.0 rebounds, 5.3 assists, 1.0 steals, 0.0 blocks

    Previous Ranking: 2

     

    Trey Burke is willing his way to the finish line of a tough NBA season, as running a sputtering Utah Jazz offense as a rookie is clearly taking its toll on him.

    Overall, Burke's numbers from the past couple of weeks aren't appreciably different from his season-long figures. But take one look at his 34 percent stroke from the field and his 10.5 percent accuracy rate from long distance since March 23 and it's clear: Burke is gassed.

    It's tempting to argue Burke has simply never been much of a shooter. But any doubt about the source of his slide goes out the window when you hear the explanation from a source as close as head coach Tyrone Corbin, per Vince Ellis of the Detroit Free Press

    His body hurts in places he didn’t know there were muscles before, and that’s part of being a young guy in this league. I remember my first 82-game season, it’s a long haul, and until you go through it and people talk to you about it and you say, ‘I’m ready, I’m ready.’ And then you go through it and it’s like, ‘Wow.’

    Burke is wearing down at the end of a rough season. As a poignant point of contrast, consider where he was just one year ago: leading the Michigan Wolverines all the way to the NCAA's championship game.

    There'll be no title tilts for Burke anytime soon. And unless he can show the kind of stamina and consistency first-string NBA point guards need, a playoff berth doesn't look very likely either.

    Stock: Down

3. Mason Plumlee

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    Michael Perez

    Team: Brooklyn Nets

    Position: C

    2013-14 Per-Game Stats: 6.8 points, 4.1 rebounds, 0.7 assists, 0.7 steals, 0.8 blocks

    Per-Game Stats Since Last Stock Watch: 7.3 points, 5.9 rebounds, 1.3 assists, 0.4 steals, 1.0 blocks

    Previous Ranking: 5

     

    It's easy to pile up points, rebounds and assists in a losing environment—just ask either of the players in the next two spots. It's harder to make meaningful contributions that actually lead to wins—just ask Mason Plumlee.

    Here's the deeper dive into the numbers, per ESPN's Kevin Pelton (subscription required): 

    So out of this weak class, who should win Rookie of the Year honors? Because the players who have seen the most action (Carter-Williams, Victor Oladipo of the Orlando Magic and Trey Burke of the Utah Jazz) have been inefficient offensively, the numbers agree on an unheralded candidate—Mason Plumlee of the Brooklyn Nets, who is tops in WARP (2.8), win shares (3.5) and PER (17.9).

    It's not just that Plumlee's advanced stats are better than those of his rookie peers. It's that he's been such a key figure in making the Nets the playoff threat they are today. With him in the starting lineup, Brooklyn is 16-5.

    Great athleticism and a willingness to play physically make Plumlee an ideal big man to pair with the Nets' other, more offense-minded starters. He lacks the know-how and savvy of Kevin Garnett, but Plumlee offers a much more dynamic set of skills than the veteran big man at this stage of his career.

    Ultimately, Plumlee's play is a big reason his team is among the league's hotter postseason entrants. You can't say that about anybody else on this list.

    Stock: Up

2. Victor Oladipo

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    Fernando Medina/Getty Images

    Team: Orlando Magic

    Position: PG/SG

    2013-14 Per-Game Stats: 14.2 points, 4.2 rebounds, 4.2 assists, 1.6 steals, 0.5 blocks

    Per-Game Stats Since Last Stock Watch: 16.7 points, 3.4 rebounds, 4.7 assists, 2.3 steals, 0.1 blocks

    Previous Ranking: 3

     

    Oladipo retakes his No. 2 spot from Burke in this edition, and he does so with an emphatic statistical fortnight. Not only was the Orlando Magic's rookie stud the highest scorer among all first-year players over the past two weeks but he also knocked down an impressive 40.9 percent of his threes in the process.

    If the long ball becomes a reliable weapon in his arsenal, watch out.

    Many of Oladipo's advocates try to make the case for slotting him ahead of Michael Carter-Williams (who you should now know sits at No. 1) on the strength of his superior defense. But the truth is, Oladipo holds both point guards and shooting guards to efficiency ratings that are just a hair below average, per 82games.com.

    Despite far less help, no interior presence on the roster and a pace that basically crushes any hope of solid defensive numbers, MCW grades out as only marginally worse than Oladipo in terms of individual defense.

    Oladipo is going to be a very valuable two-way rotation player in the NBA. His recent numbers indicate an improving jumper, and his effort can't be questioned.

    But it's hard to see him ever becoming a star. In contrast, the next guy on the list might someday earn such a distinction.

    Stock: Up

1. Michael Carter-Williams

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    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: 16.7 points, 6.0 rebounds, 6.7 assists, 1.9 steals, 0.4 blocks

    Previous Ranking: 1

     

    Though Oladipo narrowly outscored and handily out-shot MCW over the past two weeks, the man who's been atop the rookie rankings for most of the season still took home the Eastern Conference's Rookie of the Month award for March.

    It was Carter-Williams' third such award this season and yet another sign of his year-long rookie supremacy.

    There are arguments against MCW's position here, most of which we've touched on at some point in previous editions of Stock Watch: His numbers are inflated, he's playing with no expectations or pressure and he's got some serious flaws in his shot.

    All true.

    But Carter-Williams' value isn't tied totally to numbers, even if he leads all rookies in scoring, rebounds and assists this season. Watch him corral a rebound, lope up the court with huge strides, look off a defender and finish above the rim. Then ask yourself how many players in the league have the package of skills and size necessary to do that.

    Oladipo made things interesting, and guys like Plumlee and Dieng showed there were more promising rookies in this class than we initially thought. But MCW is still the best of the bunch.

    Stock: Steady

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