NBA Rookie Ladder: Which Youngsters Are Topping the Charts in Mid-December?

Josh Martin@@JoshMartinNBANBA Lead WriterDecember 15, 2015

Los Angeles Lakers guard D'Angelo Russell (1) goes to the basket against Minnesota Timberwolves center Karl-Anthony Towns (32) during the second half of an NBA basketball game in Minneapolis, Wednesday, Dec. 9, 2015. The Timberwolves won 123-122 in overtime. (AP Photo/Ann Heisenfelt)
Ann Heisenfelt/Associated Press

The NBA's newest rookie class is off to a roaring start.

Each of the top four picks from the 2015 draft has at least flashed star potential, with Karl-Anthony Towns and Kristaps Porzingis sustaining strong play for most of the 2015-16 season. In fact, every lottery pick, save for Mario Hezonja and Cameron Payne, has acquitted himself well in the early going.

Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Willie Cauley-Stein would've gotten strong consideration—and not just because of their hyphenated names—if not for injuries. T.J. McConnell and Richaun Holmes may not be NBA-caliber in the long run, but they've done more than enough for the sad-sack Philadelphia 76ers to hang around. Once Stanley Johnson's shot starts dropping, he could force himself onto the ladder.

For now, let's focus on the 10 best rookies, chosen and ranked based on individual contributions and team-wide impact and a subjective take on potential improvement as the season rolls on.

10. Emmanuel Mudiay, Denver Nuggets

David Zalubowski/Associated Press

The early reviews are in on Emmanuel Mudiay, and they aren't pretty. The Denver Post's Mark Kiszla called the 19-year-old "the worst point guard in the league" and offered plenty of statistical evidence to back it up:

Read these statistics and try not to weep: His erratic 31 percent accuracy from the field ranks Mudiay 76th among NBA point guards. Mudiay's carelessness with the basketball gives him a 1.51 assist-to-turnover ratio, which makes him the 69th-most efficient playmaker in the league. Base the analysis on advanced metrics, and the news gets worse: Golden State star Stephen Curry is No. 1 in win shares based on real plus-minus, with a score of 7.05. Mudiay, with a rating of -1.11 in the same category, ranks 82nd, dead last among point guards.

It hasn't been pretty for Mudiay, to say the least, but the kid still has plenty of promise to show. He leads all rookies in assists, with 5.7 per game, and should continue to improve so long as Nuggets coach Michael Malone leaves enough slack on the proverbial leash for him to do so.

"I'm playing the hardest position in the league," Mudiay told the Denver Post. "I'm one of the youngest point guards in the league, if not the youngest. And I've taken my little lumps."

9. Nemanja Bjelica, Minnesota Timberwolves

Bjelica hasn't had the same impact on the Timberwolves since returning from a knee bruise that sidelined him for four games in late November:

Nemanja Bjelica, Before and After Injury
Before InjuryAfter Injury
MPG26.517.8
PPG7.34.7
RPG6.04.1
FTA/G1.60.4
APG2.21.1
Basketball Reference

His struggles have coincided with Minnesota's slide. The T-Wolves have lost six of seven—and sunk out of the playoff picture in the West—since Bjelica came back.

Not that the 27-year-old Serbian is to blame for his team's woes. But the sooner Bjelica can get his game back up to speed, the better equipped the Wolves will be to bounce back from their recent skid and put a scare into some unsuspecting squads around the Association.

8. Frank Kaminsky, Charlotte Hornets

Everyone already knew "Frank the Tank" had moves, courtesy of his eye-opening exhibition in China:

Now, everyone should know that the reigning college Player of the Year is pretty good at basketball too. The 7-footer out of Wisconsin has quickly become an integral part of Steve Clifford's point-scoring, three-point-shooting machine in Charlotte.

Kaminsky leads all Hornets regulars in long-range accuracy, having knocked down 41.7 percent of his threes. He opened more than a few eyes when he went 3-of-3 from deep during the Hornets' blowout loss to the then-undefeated Golden State Warriors. Since then, he's stuffed the stat sheet (five points, seven rebounds, six assists) during a win over the Miami Heat and poured in 15 points against the Memphis Grizzlies' imposing frontline in a blowout victory.

7. Devin Booker, Phoenix Suns

Kaminsky isn't the only rookie who knows how to get down. Devin Booker gave folks a glimpse of his "Hotline Bling" interpretation to celebrate Mirza Teletovic's game-winning shot against the Chicago Bulls:

"It's in the moment, man," Booker said afterward, per the Arizona Republic's Paul Coro. "Drake's my guy. We were just in Toronto recently. He looked out for me. Drake's a good guy. He's like a big brother to me. I just kind of showed him some love on that."

Booker deserves plenty of love for his own exploits since Jeff Hornacek pulled the cover off the Suns' latest lottery pick. The Kentucky product has shot a sizzling 17-of-24 (70.8 percent) on his threes to start his NBA career.

Not bad for the league's youngest player. In time, he could become the hot-shooting third head of a perimeter Hydra in Phoenix, with Eric Bledsoe and Brandon Knight entrenched in the backcourt. For now, the Suns can take their sweet time bringing along their 19-year-old marksman and his picture-perfect stroke.

6. Justise Winslow, Miami Heat

Winslow's numbers (six points, five rebounds, 1.4 assists in 27.8 minutes per game) may not send any eyeballs fleeing from their sockets, but his overall impact on the Heat should.

According to NBA.com, the former Coach K pupil has posted a plus-minus of plus-64 through his first 23 games in Miami—second-best among all rookies, behind only Frank Kaminsky. Alongside Tyler Johnson, he's helped to turn Miami's bench, a presumed weakness, into a source of strength.

His defense has been particularly stellar. Per NBA.com, he's held his marks to below their averages from every spot on the floor:

Justise Winslow on Defense
Defensive FG%Usual FG%
Overall37.8%43.2%
3-Pointers26%35.9%
2-Pointers44.5%47.1%
Less Than 6 Feet56.6%58.8%
Greater Than 15 Feet28.6%36.9%
NBA.com/stats

If Winslow is to become a true cornerstone for the Heat going forward, he'll have to sharpen his shaky shot. So far, he's converted just 10 of 44 (22.7 percent) from three and 21 of 36 (58.3 percent) at the free-throw line. Until those rates rise, opposing defense won't think twice about sagging off him.

"I think a lot of times more attention is on me when I'm in a ball screen or coming off a handoff action," Winslow told the Miami Herald's Barry Jackson. "But there's less attention off the ball. So I'm trying to keep improving my outside shot to make the defense respect it more. As that becomes more consistent, then it'll just make us a much tougher team."

5. Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets

LM Otero/Associated Press

The Nuggets still have high hopes for Jusuf Nurkic. But featuring the beastly Bosnian, who's still recovering from offseason knee surgery, may be difficult to do now that Jokic is establishing himself up front.

Jokic, though, has the requisite skill to play alongside just about any big man. At 6'10", he might already be Denver's best passer and has the sort of stroke (4-of-9 from three) to open up the floor for a beast like Nurkic.

"Very promising for sure," a league source told Bleacher Report of Jokic. "Great touch, great IQ. Just needs to get stronger."

That will come in time for the 20-year-old. He's not an overwhelming athlete to begin with, so losing some lift won't hurt his game too much. What matters is that Jokic adds the bulk he needs to bang with bigs down low—when he isn't busy shooting and passing from up top, that is.

4. D'Angelo Russell, Los Angeles Lakers

SAN ANTONIO, TX - DECEMBER 11:  Head Coach Byron Scott of the Los Angeles Lakers talks with D'Angelo Russell #1 of the Los Angeles Lakers during the game against the San Antonio Spurs on December 11, 2015 at the AT&T Center in San Antonio, Texas. NOTE TO
Chris Covatta/Getty Images

For all the flak Byron Scott caught for benching Russell, it may well have been the right move. After a slow effort against the Toronto Raptors, the No. 2 pick out of Ohio State responded with his two strongest outings as a pro: a 23-point effort in Minnesota, including a game-tying leaner in the lane to send the game into overtime; and a 24-point, six-rebound, six-assist showing during a blowout loss in San Antonio.

Baron Davis can relate. The No. 3 pick in the 1999 NBA draft spent his rookie season in Charlotte as a reserve before exploding onto the scene as a starter in Year 2 for the Hornets.

"It humbled me. It made me hungry," Davis told ESPN.com's J.A. Adande. "I didn't want to be the third pick in the draft and come off the bench. It made me stay in the gym the whole next summer until that next season. I had so much to prove. Whoever was starting in front of me, my mentality was to take him out."

Russell would do well to hang on to that mentality, assuming he's already established it. Despite the youngster's recent improvement, Scott plans to put Russell back on the bench now that Jordan Clarkson is fit to play, per NBC LA's Shahan Ahmed.

3. Jahlil Okafor, C, Philadelphia 76ers

Dec 11, 2015; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Philadelphia 76ers center Jahlil Okafor (8) scores past Detroit Pistons guard Reggie Jackson (1) and center Andre Drummond (0) during the second half at Wells Fargo Center. The Pistons won107-95. Mandatory Credit: Bill
Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Off-court antics aside, Okafor has been as good as advertised for the one-win 76ers. Among his fellow neophytes, he ranks first in scoring (17.8 points) and free-throw attempts (4.0 per game) and third in rebounding (8.1 boards) and blocks (1.5 per game).

As it happens, Okafor's personal problems might pay off for the Sixers too. Per NBA.com's David Aldridge, Philly's mismanagement of its prized rookie may have played a part in the league's push to install Jerry Colangelo into the team's power structure:

The league evidently felt it was time to do more than watch, with NBA Commissioner Adam Silver getting involved in recent weeks. [Co-managing owner Josh] Harris has been talking with the league office about the direction of the franchise, and Silver did, I'm told, have "a significant hand" in putting Harris and Colangelo together. (And, according to a source, former Commissioner David Stern, a longtime friend of Colangelo's, helped moved things toward a marriage as well.)

The league was irate about how the 76ers handled the disclosure of numerous incidents involving Jahlil Okafor.

Then again, that coup could have negative ramifications for Okafor's future. According to Yahoo Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski, Colangelo is looking to add Mike D'Antoni, perhaps the league's most vocal opponent of low-post play, to Brett Brown's coaching staff.

That could be bad news for Okafor, who sports a superb back-to-the-basket game and and has spent 36.7 percent of his possessions on the block showing it off, per NBA.com.

2. Kristaps Porzingis, PF, New York Knicks

Dec 12, 2015; Portland, OR, USA;  New York Knicks forward Kristaps Porzingis (6) defends Portland Trail Blazers forward Al-Farouq Aminu (8) at Moda Center at the Rose Quarter. Mandatory Credit: Jaime Valdez-USA TODAY Sports
Jaime Valdez-USA TODAY Sports

The "Kristapenning" may be slowing down, if only for the time being. Since exploding for 28 points opposite Dirk Nowitzki in the Knicks' loss to the Dallas Mavericks, Porzingis has stumbled to 5.7 points on 24 percent shooting with 4.3 rebounds. That stretch included the first scoreless outing of his NBA career during New York's win in Portland.

"It wears you down just being on the road, playing game after game," Porzingis said after his team beat the Blazers, per SNY's Danny Abriano. "This is kind of the first experience of playing so many games and on the road and in six days, four games...(I need) rest—mentally, physically."

Porzingis got a chance to catch his breath in the fourth quarter of that game, when Knicks head coach Derek Fisher kept him tethered to the bench. The last thing New York would want to do with a prospect as promising as Porzingis is wear him down early and potentially subject him injury.

Then again, if the Knicks are going to push for a playoff spot this season, they'll need every ounce of energy they can squeeze out of the Zinger along the way.

1. Karl-Anthony Towns, F/C, Minnesota Timberwolves

Dec 13, 2015; Phoenix, AZ, USA; Minnesota Timberwolves center Karl-Anthony Towns (32) against the Phoenix Suns at Talking Stick Resort Arena. The Suns defeated the Timberwolves 108-101. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports
Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

In less than two months of NBA action, Towns already looks like one of the league's premier players under 25. He leads all first-years in rebounding (9.2 per game) and ranks second in scoring (14.9 points).

Among the Association, though, he's top-20 in double-doubles (10) and sixth in blocks (2.2).

And that's just the start for the 20-year-old New Jersey native. So far, he's taken to Kevin Garnett's big-man tutelage like a barnacle to a rock and has worked to expand his shooting range out past the three-point arc.

"I always want to be working on the tricks in my bag," Towns told the New York Times' Scott Cacciola. "I just wait to develop the trick fully and make sure it's the best trick I can possibly use."

His shooting "trick" is already pretty good. Through his first 23 games, Towns knocked down 41.2 percent of his threes and 81.4 percent of his free throws.

Potential Busts

Mario Hezonja, Orlando Magic

Hezonja's role has shrunk since he played 25 minutes—and launched crunch-time shots—during Orlando's season-opening loss to the Washington Wizards. The 20-year-old scored a career-high 12 points against Cleveland last Friday but did the lion's share of his work during garbage time of a 35-point loss.

Kelly Oubre Jr., Washington Wizards

Injuries have thinned the Wizards on the wing. Still, Oubre can't seem to get a shake. He's racked up seven DNPs and has scored in double figures just once so far this season.

Marcelo Huertas, Los Angeles Lakers

Does Huertas count as a "bust" if he wasn't drafted? The 32-year-old Brazilian's solid numbers (46.3 percent from the field, 40 percent from three, 2-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio) belie just how clueless he's looked when he's been on the court.

Josh Martin covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter.

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