2015 NBA Rookie Ladder: Ordering the Best Prospects Heading into the New Year

Jonathan Wasserman@@NBADraftWassNBA Lead WriterJanuary 6, 2015

2015 NBA Rookie Ladder: Ordering the Best Prospects Heading into the New Year

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    Things are finally looking up for the rookies from the 2014 NBA draft class. Six of our top 10 actually earned starts over the past week. 

    A few of them have really found a rhythm, and it's been refreshing, given the devastating injury wave that's wiped out a number of lottery picks, most notably Jabari Parker and Julius Randle.

    Joel Embiid isn't expected to play in 2014-15 either, while Aaron Gordon (foot) and Doug McDermott (knee) both remained sidelined following surgery last month.

    However, No. 1 on our board looks as strong as he's looked all year, while we added a new member into the top five whose stock is rising by the day. 

    These rankings are based on how each rookie is performing in 2014-15—not his long-term potential. It's possible that No. 7 on our board is a better prospect than No. 3. But at this point, we're only evaluating these rookies as current NBA players.

10. Bojan Bogdanovic, Brooklyn Nets, SF

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    Stock Report: ↓

    This could very well be Bojan Bogdanovic's last week on the ladder, as he's fallen out of Brooklyn's rotation over the past two weeks. 

    "It's not what Bogey's done, it's what he's not done," coach Lionel Hollins told Newsday's Roderick Boone. "You've got to play and compete, and go out and play well, and [Sergey] Karasev has shown me a lot in practice."

    Ouch. Bogdanovic has gone scoreless in five of his last six games. He just can't seem to find his three-ball, having missed 11 of his last 12 attempts. And quite frankly, if Bogdanovic isn't knocking down open threes, he doesn't hold much purpose on the floor (2.3 rebounds, .6 assists per game).

    He's now played 10 minutes or less in five straight games, which included a DNP against Orlando last Friday. 

    We're still early, and he has displayed shot-making ability. But right now, it's just not happening for Bogdanovic, who's becoming more irrelevant in Brooklyn by the day.

9. Marcus Smart, Boston Celtics, PG/SG

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    Stock Report: ↑

    With Rajon Rondo now in Dallas, Marcus Smart's role has begun to increase.

    And he's actually shot the ball well as of late, having hit 7-of-15 from downtown over his previous four games and 15 of his last 35 total attempts.

    It's scoring in between that's been the issue for Smart, who's shooting 37.1 percent from the floor, having taken 63 three-pointers to just 17 shots at the rim and 10 in the mid-range. 

    As a facilitator, he recently dished out four assists in 21 minutes against the Charlotte Hornets on Monday and seven assists against the Dallas Mavericks Friday night. 

    Smart has strong passing instincts, along with the willingness to give it up, though he isn't overly elusive off the dribble as a playmaker. Not everyone is sold on him as the Celtics' long-term answer at the point. The Boston Globe's Gary Washburn noted his belief that Smart is a 2 who can play the 1 secondarily. And I tend to agree. 

    Still, you have to admire his grit and toughness, which primarily shows up at the defensive end. Smart got tossed to the ground recently against Sacramento Kings center DeMarcus Cousins, only to pop right back up and seemingly embrace the physical challenge.

    He's going to bring it every night—Smart's energy and defense are what currently hold the most value in Boston. But expect some shooting and scoring inconsistency to follow. He still has a ways to go offensively.

8. Zach LaVine, Minnesota Timberwolves, PG/SG

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    Stock Report: ↔

    It's all about the flashes for Zach LaVine, who's going to struggle with consistency, shot selection and defense as a 180-pound 19-year-old. 

    He's shooting just 40.2 percent, which you might be able to trace to the fact that 45 percent of his looks are pull-ups. He's also averaging 2.4 turnovers in 25.2 minutes. 

    LaVine did manage to dish out a whopping 14 assists in a loss to the Golden State Warriors December 27. He's not really a point guard, but he does have dynamic playmaking capability, and when he gets into a rhythm, he's got a tendency to milk it.

    As a scorer, LaVine just takes too many tough shots, while his jumper remains fairly erratic. He's shooting 32.7 percent on 33 makes in the mid-range and just 24 percent from downtown. LaVine is also converting just 40 percent of his drives, though you'd imagine that's a number likely to improve as his body begins to fill out.

    For what it's worth, he's third among rookies in scoring (8.7 points per game) and second in assists (3.7 per game).

    Nobody really expected LaVine to play much at all this year, so it's just nice to see him fit in and flash that long-term upside in the process. 

7. Dante Exum, Utah Jazz, PG

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    Stock Report: ↓

    The good news: Dante Exum recorded his biggest scoring outputs of the season in two of his first three games of 2015. 

    He put up 13 points against the Atlanta Hawks Friday night and 13 against the Indiana Pacers on Monday.

    Unfortunately, since the new year, he's totaled just four assists in 75 minutes on 36.7 percent shooting. 

    It's going to be a lengthy learning process for Exum, who's gone from high school ball in Australia straight to the NBA stage.

    Offensively, he's still figuring out what routes to take in order to generate offense off the dribble. 

    He has hit seven three-pointers over his last three games. The next step is finding other ways to score inside the arc, where he's made just two shots in the mid-range all season long.

    Still, we've seen some impressive defensive spurts and offensive poise. Hopefully the Jazz coaching staff extends his playmaking leash with Alec Burks on the shelf and Trey Burke regressing.

6. Nerlens Noel, Philadelphia 76ers, PF/C

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    Stock Report: ↓

    To say Nerlens Noel has struggled offensively lately is a bit of an understatement—he's missed 51 of his last 72 shots from the floor (29.1 percent).

    Considering finishing has always been viewed as Noel's offensive bread and butter, it's a little scary that he's shooting just 52.8 percent within five feet. 

    The Sixers have ultimately begun experimenting with Noel at both frontcourt positions— the 4, where he'll need a jumper, and the 5, where he lacks strength. And it's been ugly at times. 

    On a bright note, he has had a few big outings on the glass, including a 12-rebound game against the Los Angeles Clippers on Saturday and a 10-rebound performance against the Jazz December 27. 

    Defensively, he's blocking 1.4 shots a game, though it's his steal rate (1.5 per game) that's the more impressive number. Between his quickness and length, he can be disruptive on the perimeter as well as at the rim. 

    Still, it's been a disappointing last few weeks for Noel, who's losing steam and position on the 2015 rookie ladder.

5. Elfrid Payton, Orlando Magic, PG

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    Stock Report: ↑

    Elfrid Payton is back in the starting lineup, and he even contributed to a few key wins for the playoff-hunting Magic late in December. 

    In victories over the Miami Heat, Celtics and Hornets, Payton averaged nine points, 7.6 assists, four boards and 2.3 steals. 

    But Payton's season ultimately peaked Friday night in a two-point loss to Brooklyn. With Orlando down 25 in the fourth quarter, Payton played an instrumental role during what was a wild Magic comeback that unfortunately fell just short.

    He finished one rebound shy of a triple-double with 16 points, 10 assists, nine boards and three steals. 

    Payton's growing awareness in terms of making the right pass was what ultimately stood out the most. He's hitting his post men in good position, finding his shooters off penetration and his rollers and poppers off ball screens.

    As a scorer, he's still limited outside the paint. Payton remains most comfortable and effective on his way to the hoop, with a whopping 69.7 percent of his shots coming from within 10 feet of the rim. 

    His offensive attack is ultimately a major work in progress, and until he can threaten a defense from the perimeter (shooting 20.2 percent on jump shots), we'll continue to see a lot of off-balance shots off one foot in the lane. 

    Payton is shooting just 39.7 percent from the floor, but Orlando has to be encouraged by his progress as a facilitator, along with his solid defensive activity and instincts.

4. Jusuf Nurkic, Denver Nuggets, C

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    Stock Report: ↑

    After leading a competitive Adriatic League overseas in player efficiency rating as a teenager last season, Jusuf Nurkic now leads all NBA rookies in the same measurement (18.8).  

    I'm not sure anyone in rookie-ladder history has made a bigger week-to-week jump than Nurkic, who's taken advantage of a bump in minutes and a lackluster 2014-15 field of competitors. 

    He just went for 14 points, six boards and four blocks in 22 minutes in a win at Minnesota Monday night. Saturday, Nurkic double-doubled with 10 points, 11 rebounds and five blocks in a win over the Grizzlies. 

    Over his last four games, he's averaging 12.7 points, 8.5 boards, 3.5 blocks and 1.5 steals—in just 23.5 minutes.

    Nurkic is one naturally gifted kid at 6'11", 280 pounds. He blends monster size with mobile feet and soft hands. Even without polish or go-to moves, Nurkic has that Nikola Pekovic-like ability to gain position and improvise with over-the-shoulder shots and scoops. 

    Only Nurkic is longer and quicker. He ranks No. 4 in the NBA in block percentage and top 10 in rebounding percentage.

    Given his limited playing time through the first month of the season, he doesn't quite have the numbers of some of the other rookies ranked behind him. 

    But on a per-40 minute basis, nobody has been more productive and efficient than Nurkic, who now looks like an absolute steal for the Nuggets at No. 16 in last June's draft.

    If Denver trades Timofey Mozgov anytime soon, Nurkic would immediately have the chance at entering the Rookie of the Year conversation. 

3. K.J. McDaniels, Philadelphia 76ers, SF

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    Stock Report: ↓

    K.J. McDaniels is starting slip after a scary month of December that saw him shoot 34 percent and 18.2 percent from downtown (on 3.4 three-point attempts per game). 

    Quite frankly, McDaniels was never much of a shooter in college, so the drop-off in accuracy is far from surprising. 

    He did bounce back nicely Monday night in a win over the Cleveland Cavaliers. He finished with 12 points, four assists and two blocks on 5-of-8 shooting, an encouraging sign considering McDaniels had shot a combined 4-of-18 during Philadelphia's first two games of the new year. 

    He continues to make the highlight defensive play, thanks to some impressive athleticism, instincts and anticipation, and he'll remain a big-time threat in the open floor. 

    Still, McDaniels will need to knock down a few more jumpers to bump up his value as a three-and-D wing.

    He's done enough hold his spot for now in the top three, but Denver big man Jusuf Nurkic is lurking.

2. Nikola Mirotic, Chicago Bulls, SF/PF

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    Stock Report: ↑

    Despite having a role that seems to change by the week, Nikola Mirotic continues to impact games from a number of different angles. 

    He's fresh off a 17-point, eight-rebound line in a win over the Houston Rockets Monday night. And though he struggled with his shot the previous game against the Celtics, he still contributed eight more boards and four assists.

    With Mirotic, it's all about versatility. It's even allowed coach Tom Thibodeau to play him at the 3 with Mike Dunleavy out due to injury.

    At 6'10", he's nailing 1.1 three-pointers a game at a 38 percent clip. He's really the only Chicago big who can stretch the floor from behind the arc. 

    He's also held his own defensively and on the glass, where he ranks second among rookies in rebounding with 5.2 per game.

    “He’s playing great basketball,” coach Tom Thibodeau told Bleacher Report's Sean HighkinThere’s not much he isn’t doing. He’s playing very well defensively. He’s playing well offensively. He shoots the ball. He make plays. He’s rebounding. He’s doing a lot of great things. He’s playing more than one position.

    Mirotic is ultimately the only rookie contributing meaningful minutes to a contender, which speaks to his maturity and value. 

    He's the clear-cut No. 2 rookie on the board, but if Mirotic starts seeing 25 minutes on a routine basis, No. 1 might need to look out.

1. Andrew Wiggins, Minnesota Timberwolves, SF

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    Stock Report: ↑

    It looks like Andrew Wiggins has officially found his rhythm. He's scored at least 20 points in six of his last seven games on 50 percent shooting during the stretch. 

    He's had a green light while playing mostly from behind, and you can just feel his confidence rising with more reps and made buckets.

    Wiggins has been extra aggressive lately in terms of hunting for offense. He's even taken his game to the post, where he converted three back-to-the-basket moves on Thursday against the Kings and three more against Utah on Saturday.

    Over the past two weeks, we've seen everything from fallaways and step-backs to spin moves and floaters. He's also shooting 10-of-22 from downtown since December 23.

    Now let's just see how long he can keep it going for. 

    Advanced stats courtesy of NBA.com and RealGM.

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