2015 NBA Rookie Ladder: Who Steps Up to Chase Andrew Wiggins?

Jonathan Wasserman@@NBADraftWassNBA Lead WriterFebruary 3, 2015

2015 NBA Rookie Ladder: Who Steps Up to Chase Andrew Wiggins?

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    Though the NBA Rookie of the Year race is starting to lose its competitive edge, the No. 2 spot on the ladder is still up for grabs.

    Outside of Andrew Wiggins, who's separated himself far from the pack, the rest of the board remains fluid.  

    Of those who didn't make the cut this week, watch out for Utah Jazz wing Joe Ingles and Los Angeles Lakers guard Jordan Clarkson. Both guys are nearing the radar as their minutes and production have increased. 

    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. Langston Galloway, New York Knicks, SG

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    It's been just a month since the Knicks called up Langston Galloway from the NBA D-League, but only Andrew Wiggins and Elfrid Payton were better statistically in January. Plus, the lack of rookie depth this year plays to Galloway's favor, as there just aren't many other deserving candidates for the last spot on the ladder. 

    The Knicks have now won five of seven games, and Galloway has played at least 30 minutes in all of them.

    He's averaging 12 points and 2.9 assists, providing New York with a little shot-making, playmaking and energy. 

    A career 42.6 percent three-point shooter through four years at Saint Joseph's, Galloway's three-ball has also carried over, as he's making 1.5 triples per game.

    He's quickly become a regular in Derek Fisher's depleted rotation, and whether you're buying into Galloway as an undrafted steal or not, it doesn't look like he'll be going anywhere for the rest of his rookie year. 

9. Bojan Bogdanovic, Brooklyn Nets, SF

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    Bojan Bogdanovic's role seems to change by the night, but he's produced lately relative to the time he's been given, averaging 11 points a game during the eight he's played at least 20 minutes in since the start of the new year.

    He recently went for 11 points on three three-pointers against the Clippers on Monday and 11 points and eight boards against the Raptors on Friday. 

    Bogdanovic's game revolves around catching and finishing the plays that find him in the offense, whether it's off a cut or a spot-up three-pointer. He's hit 70 shots at the rim, 44 from downtown and only 12 in between, with a whopping 69.3 percent of his field-goal attempts coming off zero dribbles.

    He doesn't bring much else to the table outside of shot-making (2.6 rebounds, 0.8 assists), but he's converted enough of them to keep his spot on the ladder.

8. Marcus Smart, Boston Celtics, PG

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    Marcus Smart is coming off a career-high nine-assist game against the Miami Heat on Sunday, and though his offense has been somewhat erratic, he's starting to find a rhythm as a table-setter (averaging six assists over his last four games).

    He isn't your typical breakdown drive-and-dish point guard, but he's shown a good feel for getting his teammates the ball in their sweet spots and shooting pockets. 

    Smart also continues to bring pressure at the defensive end, even if it hasn't shown up in the steal column on the stat sheet. 

    However, Smart has made just 11 of 35 field-goal attempts dating back to January 22. Look no further than his shot selection. Twenty-one of those attempts came from behind the arc.

    And that's been the story for Smart throughout the year. He's taken 117 threes to just 62 two-pointers.

    To his credit, he's shot the ball better than expected from deep (36.8 percent), considering he finished below 30 percent from downtown in both years at Oklahoma State. 

    But he rarely gets to the basket, as only 28 of his 179 field-goal attempts have come at the rim, where he's made just 14 shots all year. He's also struggled to score within the defense's second level (8-of-20 in mid-range), which can be tied to his shaky pull-up jumper that's connected on just 23.6 percent of his attempts.

7. Zach LaVine, Minnesota Timberwolves

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    Zach LaVine has missed the last few games with an ankle injury, and though his minutes and production have been up and down, he's still the third-leading scorer among active rookies who've played at least 20 games.

    He recently had a big night against the Boston Celtics on Wednesday, finishing with 17 points, six assists and three steals in a win. His spectacular athletic ability was highlighted a couple of different times, particularly off an alley-oop from half court and a lefty putback slam. We also saw the perimeter-scoring firepower and a few nice finishes around the rim, as well as some good-looking passes out of pick-and-roll sets.

    LaVine actually had a nice month shooting the ball too, having made 38.9 percent of his three-point attempts and 81 percent of his free throws in January. 

    He's going to turn it over and take some questionable shots, but it's just comforting to see LaVine prove he belongs with games like the one he just had against the Celtics. 

6. Jusuf Nurkic, Denver Nuggets, C

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    While it's clear Jusuf Nurkic's offensive game is still a work in progress, nobody has been able to keep him off the glass. He averaged eight boards in 21.9 minutes through January, having finished with fewer than six in a game only once during the month. 

    Nurkic occupies a ton of space around the basket, where his size, foot speed and length have also translated to 2.7 blocks per 36 minutes.

    Though he's struggled to put the ball in the hole as of late—Nurkic shot 0-of-7 against Memphis on Thursday and 3-of-9 against Charlotte on Saturday—he had one of his better games of the year in a win over New Orleans on Wednesday. He went for 15 points and nine boards off two made jumpers, two pick-and-rolls, a post move, a transition dunk and a slash to the hoop.

    Nurkic's skill set isn't quite polished or refined, and it's going to continue leading to offensive inconsistency. But in terms of raw, natural talent, there aren't many rookies with more. 

    He's a project, so any results Denver gets in the first year should be seen as encouraging. 

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

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    Few players have been as streaky as K.J. McDaniels, though the ups ultimately outweigh the downs when evaluating his performance relative to the other rookies. 

    McDaniels was on pace to end January with a bang, having shot 13-of-19 over a three-game stretch that included two Philadelphia wins. Ten of those 13 field goals came on finishes within eight feet from the hoop.

    But since then, he's combined to shoot just 3-of-19 in losses to Atlanta on Saturday and Cleveland on Monday.

    McDaniels doesn't quite have a go-to route for offense just yet. Though capable as a shooter, he isn't particularly accurate, as he's hit just 33.3 percent of his spot-ups and 29.3 percent of his threes. He's also finishing at the rim at a poor 51.7 percent clip, a below-average number. 

    However, in a lineup that ranks No. 6 in the NBA in pace, his athleticism and shot-making ability have still been able to translate to an average of 9.1 points.

    Among his offensive production, his 1.4 blocks per game and his overall defensive versatility, McDaniels continues to hold down a top-five spot on the ladder. 

4. Elfrid Payton, Orlando Magic, PG

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    Elfrid Payton was enjoying his best stretch of the season before running into the Dallas Mavericks on Saturday and Oklahoma City Thunder on Monday, teams he combined to shoot just 1-of-12 against.

    His last two duds won't erase what he did throughout January, when he averaged 10.7 points and 6.9 assists on 45.2 percent shooting, up from the 6.7 points, 5.6 assists and 40.7 percent he shot during December. 

    Overall, we've seen mixed results from Payton, who's done little to diminish the concern over his jumper, which he rarely even looks to use. He takes 75.1 percent of his shots within 10 feet yet struggles finishing around the rim, where he's shooting just 47 percent

    His passing, whether it's out of pick-and-rolls or drive-and-kicks, has been arguably the brightest spot of his game. At 6'4" with good vision, he sees the floor and his shooters. Although, as Daniel Lewis of Hardwood Paroxysm points out, his assist opportunities are pretty low for a point guard (there are 23 players who average more) who isn't much of a scoring threat. 

    It's tough to be too critical of Payton, considering his large rookie role on a team that lacks weapons and veterans. But he'll have some work to do before convincing us he's Orlando's long-term answer at point guard.   

3. Nikola Mirotic, Chicago Bulls, SF/PF

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    Having moved from the 4 to the 3 to the bench within a span of a week, Nikola Mirotic's role has been all over the place. 

    He hasn't recorded a point, rebound or assist in either of Chicago's last two games, playing just 20 minutes total between them. 

    The recent benching comes after Mirotic gave the Bulls 31 minutes, 12 points and seven boards in a win at Golden State Tuesday night. 

    However, that Warriors game had really been the first time in weeks that Mirotic received starter-type playing time. He got 15 minutes or less in each of Chicago's previous five outings.

    Coach Tom Thibodeau has even turned to Tony Snell with Mirotic shooting just 26.5 percent from downtown in January.

    But Mirotic still leads all rookies in player efficiency rating at 16.1. And for a guy whose bread and butter is catching-and-shooting around the arc, you could argue his fluctuating role has affected his confidence and rhythm. 

    There's no doubting Mirotic as a valuable NBA asset, but without having much to show over the past few weeks, he'll have to take a slide down the rookie ladder.

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

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    Nerlens Noel is coming off a much stronger month of January, having shot 46 percent, up from the 38.3 percent he shot in December.

    He recently put up one of his better lines of the year on Friday with 14 points, six rebounds, six blocks, four steals and three assists in a win over the Timberwolves.

    While Noel's offense comes and goes, his defensive activity has been pretty consistent. He covers a ton of ground from baseline to arc.

    You also see him dish out at least one pass a night that highlights his vision and feel for the game.

    According to Sixers.com's Max Rappaport, "Noel is on pace to become just the third player ever to average more than 1.5 assists, blocks, and steals per game as a rookie."

    Noel's size, length, athleticism and instincts have translated to some unique versatility. He'll just have to tighten up his ball skills, from his low-post game to his mid-range shooting touch (27 percent in the mid-range). 

1. Andrew Wiggins, Minnesota Timberwolves, SG/SF

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    The gap between the top two active rookies seems to widen by the week.

    We've reached the point where Andrew Wiggins is even putting up numbers on off nights. Only he hasn't had many lately. Wiggins is coming off a month of January in which he averaged 19.8 points on 47.1 percent shooting.

    He just exploded for 33 points on Saturday in a loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers. Wiggins even took it to LeBron James a couple of times, looking the part of a go-to scorer and potential superstar down the road. 

    What's scary is the room for improvement. Despite Wiggins' huge spike in production, he's only shooting 32 percent in the mid-range, where 38 percent of his attempts come from. 

    When those shots start falling with a little more consistency, there aren't going to be too many answers for Wiggins, who has proved himself capable of generating offense from all three levels within the defense.

    Currently averaging 15.5 points on the year, he's pretty much locked up the award and the No. 1 spot on the ladder.

    The only question: Who finishes behind him at No. 2?

    All stats courtesy of NBA.com.