Ranking the Rookie-Deal Players of the 2017 NBA Playoffs
One of the best NBA postseason past times, starting right now, entails giving shoutouts to the non-superstars playing above their pay grade.
It's easy to forget about these kiddos when the playoffs tip off. The most important time of the year is usually associated with the biggest names. When we think of the most impactful players on championship hopefuls and first-round steppingstones, our minds don't immediately snap to those on rookie deals.
So this one's for them.
To further prevent the recycling of more established talents, rookie-scalers who have signed extensions that kick in next season forfeit their eligibility. This no doubt stings for them, but Giannis Antetokounmpo, Steven Adams, Rudy Gobert, Victor Oladipo and the like can find comfort amid exclusion in their soon-to-be eight-figure salaries.
Injured players are fair game if there's hope they'll return before the playoffs end. This stinks for Jabari Parker, but arbitrary rules are arbitrary rules.
Regular-season efforts are the umbrella-topped straw that'll stir this springtime cocktail. The playoffs have been underway for, like, a second, so we can't hold poor performances against anyone quite yet. Consider this a comprehensive view of those who have the strongest resumes for 2016-17 and are most likely to have a positive say in how their teams tackle the postseason crucible.
Honorable Mentions: Nos. 15 Through 11
15. Lucas Nogueira, Toronto Raptors
Lucas Noguiera barely plays anymore, so it would have been irresponsible to slot him in the top 10. It was, however, a consideration.
Serge Ibaka is the clear alpha up front now, and the Toronto Raptors need Patrick Patterson to unleash their most switchy lineups. But Noguiera's combination of rim-running and shot-swatting arguably makes him a better fit for the rotation than Jonas Valanciunas.
14. Norman Powell, Toronto Raptors
Norman Powell, like Noguiera, has seen his playing time ebb. He hovers somewhere between inside and outside head coach Dwane Casey's rotation, which is a red flag when he's the one who supposedly rendered Terrence Ross expendable.
Still, Powell is a worker bee on defense, even when he's ineffective. If he hits a higher percentage of his threes, his defensive athleticism will vault him back into Toronto's inner circle.
13. Jaylen Brown, Boston Celtics
Jaylen Brown splashes in more than 43 percent of his corner threes and goes nose-to-nose on defense with some of the NBA's top scorers. The Boston Celtics could do without his random post-ups, but he's a quality finisher around the basket. There's a blueprint for him to be an offensive plus.
In the meantime, his plucky defense is worth more to Boston's postseason livelihood than any other rookie's efforts mean to another contender.
12. Nikola Mirotic, Chicago Bulls
The Chicago Bulls never quite know which version of Nikola Mirotic they're going to get.
Recently, they've enjoyed the one who puts down 43.5 percent of his triples and shoots an absurdly high percentage off the bounce while playing sneaky defense, mostly on 4s, but sometimes on 3s. This momentum isn't enough to ferry him into the top 10, but we might be singing a different tune depending on how many times he detonates for a national audience.
11. Tony Snell, Milwaukee Bucks
Any wing who drills 40-plus percent of his threes and passes the eye test on defense during most games deserves recognition. Tony Snell's rookie-deal clout would be even more powerful if more than a couple of cherry-picked stats verified what our eyes often seen.
10. Clint Capela, Houston Rockets
Years Experience: 3
Clint Capela checks all the boxes for what's required by a Mike D'Antoni-coached big. He complements what they're doing, almost perfectly, without necessitating adjustments.
Set screens? Done. Capela is second on the Houston Rockets in screen assists. He would be a more imposing obstruction if he packed on some girth, but the extra mobility and explosion is just as valuable.
Finish around the rim out of the pick-and-roll? No problem. Capela is shooting better than 60 percent as the roll man—a top-seven mark among all players with 100 or attempts in these situations.
Protect the rim? Easy. Opponents are shooting under 50 percent around the bucket against Capela. Only nine other players match his stinginess while contesting seven or more point-blank shots per game. He challenges a healthy number of three-pointers for a 5 but also holds his own in the post versus burlier brutes.
The way Capela impacts the game is subtle. And with so many offensive weapons, not to mention a ball-dominant MVP candidate in James Harden, the Rockets need subtle—someone who plays his butt off defensively without getting caught up in usage at the other end.
9. Tim Hardaway Jr., Atlanta Hawks
Years Experience: 4
According to NBA Math's Total Points Added, Paul Millsap did not wrap up the regular season as the Atlanta Hawks' most valuable offensive contributor. Nor was it Dennis Schroder.
It was Tim Hardaway Jr.
This doesn't shine a good light on the Hawks offense, which placed dead last in points scored per 100 possessions over the final 31 games. But it says everything about Hardaway. He isn't carrying empty value within an anemic attack; he gives it a pulse—a real, measurable, life-filled jolt.
Atlanta comes close to scoring like an average offense when he's in the game. His climbing three-point clip allows him to play away from the ball, complementing Millsap and Schroder, and his improved decision-making off the dribble has come in handy during the search for a backup playmaker.
Hardaway doesn't just split secondary ball-handling duties with Kent Bazemore, Millsap and whatever third-string point guard head coach Mike Budenholzer is feeling that night. He is a go-to option down the stretch of close games, even when Schroder is on the court.
The Hawks trust him to run pick-and-rolls and break down defenses off the bounce, and he's wielding a more trustworthy shot selection. His shooting percentages are wonky during the final two minutes of one-possession games, but he's so often a bail-out option. He's jacked more shots late in crunch time than everyone except Millsap and Schroder.
There are still issues with Hardaway's defense, but he's cut into Bazemore's starting gig for a reason. He's competent. Opponents are shooting 11-of-44 (25 percent) against him in isolation—efficiency and volume right in line with DeMarre Carroll, his unofficial predecessor.
8. Jusuf Nurkic, Portland Trail Blazers
Years Experience: 3
Two major factors prevent Jusuf Nurkic from stampeding into the top five.
Let's start with the obvious: It's a risk including him at all. He's dealing with a fibular fracture in his right leg, which sounds bad, because it is bad. It's just not bad enough to rule him out for the playoffs. To the contrary, it seems like he'll rejoin the rotation in time for the Portland Trail Blazers' first-round funeral.
"It just depends on how I feel," Nurkic said, per the Oregonian's Joe Freeman. "The doctor said, 'He's tough' and if it doesn't hurt I'm going to be back. It's not a question. But I'm going to do my part, work every day like I do, and try to be back."
Sample size is the bigger concern with Nurkic. He played spectacular basketball through 20 appearances with the Blazers, but he was a mopey mass, albeit a semi-productive one, for much of the season with the Denver Nuggets.
Those 20 outings tend to trump everything else. He's averaging 15.2 points, 10.4 rebounds, 3.2 assists and 1.9 blocks on 50.8 percent shooting since arriving in Portland. His rim protecting isn't great, but it's getting there, and he's been an absolute monster setting and finishing off screens.
Most importantly, the Blazers are feeling his presence:
|Blazers:||Off. Rtg. (Rank)||Def. Rtg.||Net Rtg.|
|With Nurkic||113.3 (No. 1)||103.7 (No. 5)||9.6 (2)|
|Without Nurkic||107.6 (No. 11)||111.3 (No. 30)||-3.7 (23)|
Nurkic can leave a Bosnian beast-sized dent in a playoff series when he's locked in—even one against a Golden State Warriors squad that, upon return, will often see him chase around Draymond Green.
7. Malcolm Brogdon, Milwaukee Bucks
Years Experience: 1
Malcolm Brogdon is a rookie, but you seldom think about that when watching him—because, as CBS Sports' James Herbert outlined, he's playing like a veteran:
He does not force shots or try to do too much. He keeps the ball moving. Coming into the season, Milwaukee desperately needed another playmaker in the backcourt and more perimeter shooting. Brogdon solved both problems, capably running point guard and shooting 40.4 percent from three-point range.
It is rare that rookies, even the most talented ones, actually help their teams win in a tangible way. It is rarer still for that to happen on a good team. The Bucks were 4.4 points per 100 possessions better with him on the court than off it, and that's primarily because he limits his mistakes and fits into their system.
Dependable balance isn't a trait shared by most other rookies. Brogdon is that different—understated yet potent. He's one of five players who ended the regular season clearing eight assists and two steals per 100 possessions while shooting 40 percent or better from deep. His company consists solely of stars: Mike Conley, Stephen Curry, Kyle Lowry and Chris Paul.
Newbies can fall off during the playoffs, when the lights are brightest and the stakes highest. But Brogdon's performance is built to translate.
He's not attacking defenses on every possession. He plays off Giannis Antetokounmpo. Almost one-quarter of his shots come as spot-up triples, of which he converts 43 percent. When he handles the ball, he's patient. And he's already one of the league's peskiest backcourt pick-and-roll defenders.
Postseason basketball isn't going to faze him.
6. Marcus Smart, Boston Celtics
Years Experience: 3
Marcus Smart still can't shoot. He does shoot, to be sure, but he's not the least bit threatening on the perimeter. He's canning under 30 percent of his three-point attempts for his career, and opposing defenses have no qualms about stashing their most prominent sieves on him.
But Smart is good enough in other areas for this to (almost) not matter—mainly on defense. At 6'4", rival guards are chew toys. Most cannot overcome his strength and unflappable engagement. The Celtics stick him on forwards to keep things interesting—and because it works.
Ball-handlers who burst off screens can give him problems, but he's up for most one-on-one challenges. He pressures without relenting, in a way that's a nuisance to even bigs. He's found success as a situational post defender and pursues enemies attacking the hoop with more frequency than most guards.
The Celtics couldn't afford to bench Smart even if he was completely worthless on offense. And sometimes, that's exactly what he is. His touch around the rim isn't good, and he's coughing up possession in pick-and-rolls nearly 25 percent of the time.
This isn't a huge deal when he's playing up a position or two. He's shooting better than 52 percent on post-ups (seriously) and manages to collapse defenses with sheer force. Al Horford is Boston's only everyday player assisting on a bigger share of his drives.
If Smart ever develops a jumper—as he sort of did during the Celtics' first-round loss to the Atlanta Hawks in 2016—the league is in trouble.
Mostly because he's already a terror now.
5. Rodney Hood, Utah Jazz
Years Experience: 3
Rodney Hood has taken a step back after a breakout 2015-16 crusade. It's tough to pinpoint any one reason why.
Right knee injuries limited him all season, a lack of continuity shared by the Utah Jazz as a whole. Their projected starting five logged just 152 minutes together across 14 games—and it was still their most used combination. Added depth around him also makes for wonky usage.
Remove Hood's opening eight outings from the record, and he shot under 40 percent for the season. Joe Ingles has superseded him as the Jazz's best perimeter defender and cut into some of his court time. It's all alarming.
Still, Hood's three-and-D label persists. His three-point success rate spiked past 37 percent for the first time without seeing a significant drop in volume, and he spits fire off the catch (42.1 percent). He's not moving around like he was last season, but he remains adequate when switching pick-and-rolls and recovering onto spot-up shooters.
While his own production is suffering, Hood isn't a detriment to his teammates. Head coach Quin Snyder continues to shape-shift his role. He goes from a lead option with bench-heavy units to playing as the third wheel beside Gordon Hayward and George Hill.
Hood is doing just enough to ensure the player from last year won't be forgotten. And boy, was that player special.
4. Andre Roberson, Oklahoma City Thunder
Years Experience: 4
Andre Roberson shoots under 26 percent on wide-open threes. This is not a prank. About one-third of his total looks are unattended bunnies, and he's knocking them down at a 25.3 percent clip. Yuck.
But the Oklahoma City Thunder don't lean on him for his offense. He's their lifeline on the less glamorous end—an All-Defense candidate who guards everyone except centers.
"Last year with Serge [Ibaka] and with Kevin [Durant] and with Dion [Waiters], Andre was always a great defender," head coach Billy Donovan told the Norman Transcript's Fred Katz. "He [was] always guarding really good players, but we had other guys. Now, there are games he really guards 1 through 4 for us, and he does a great job."
Russell Westbrook, an actual point guard, is Oklahoma City's only player to defend more pick-and-roll ball-handlers than Roberson. Opponents shoot 36.3 percent against him in those situations—a top-five mark among the 90 players to defend at least 150 of these sets.
Screens don't rattle Roberson's footwork, and shooting gaps is a reflex for him. It takes a magician to get him off his feet, and even many of them fail. Rival scorers barely shoot 40 percent against him going one-on-one—an impressively low rate when you consider his primary assignments are frequently All-NBA talents.
Fittingly, there are only three non-bigs who saved more points on the defensive side this season, according to NBA Math: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kevin Durant and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. If the Thunder are able to put up a fight against the Rockets in Round 1, you can bet it's because Roberson defended his tail off. He has the power to turn games, to flip a series, in that way.
And his offer sheets in restricted free agency this summer will be noticeably high because of it.
3. Kelly Olynyk, Boston Celtics
Years Experience: 4
Kelly Olynyk is more important to the Celtics than you think—or even he thinks.
"I think sometimes Kelly sells himself short on all the great things he does," Celtics head coach Brad Stevens said, per Mass Live's Tom Westerholm. "His ability to space the floor, his ability to drive the ball, his ability to make the right basketball play is really good, and we need him to do that for us to be the best version of ourselves."
Stevens isn't kidding. Olynyk slides into most lineups seamlessly, working as a 4 next to another big or as the 5 in small-ball lineups. Boston's offensive efficiency dips with him on the floor, but that's the inherent risk of spending more time next to Marcus Smart than Isaiah Thomas.
Olynyk stands out more on the defensive end this season. His stances on the block against meatier bigs leave much to be desired, but he's posting the Celtics' highest defensive rebounding percentage. He moves East and West quickly enough to chase around frisky 4s, and what he lacks in stationary rim protection he makes up for by heckling pick-and-roll divers.
Place him in the right lineup, and Olynyk's offense can hum. The Celtics' starting five blasts teams by 16.9 points per 100 possessions, with top-ranked offensive and defensive marks, when subbing him in for Amir Johnson. Olynyk drains more than 37 percent of his spot-up threes, an ideal complement to Thomas' and Al Horford's passing, and he dishes out more assists per 100 possessions than Avery Bradley and Jae Crowder.
Boston has been at its best since the All-Star break with certain small-ball units and is starting to get the hang of things when Olynyk is the lone big. His foray into restricted free agency will be fascinating no matter what, but anchoring average defensive groupings, or better, during the playoffs would drum up a price tag already slated to reach eight figures per year.
2. Myles Turner, Indiana Pacers
Years Experience: 2
Myles Turner busted out of a late-season rut just in time to help the Indiana Pacers make the playoffs and, more powerfully, to remind everyone he's not coming.
Turner capped his eruptive sophomore campaign by averaging 19.7 points and 4.0 blocks on 65.7 percent shooting over Indiana's final three games, all wins. Sure, the competition—Orlando Magic, Philadelphia 76ers, G-League version of the Hawks—was underwhelming. But Turner spent most of the year honing his offense while ruining lives on defense, at times registering as the Pacers' best two-way performer.
Rudy Gobert is the only player who contested more shots at the rim per game. Turner still held opponents to sub-50 percent shooting around the iron and lowered their efficiency by more than eight percentage points whenever they stepped inside six feet of the basket.
Hulking centers continue to overpower him in the post, but enemy bigs won't beat him in less methodical situations. He is a blockade against pick-and-roll slashers, and few of the league's infant unicorns are adept at rotating onto one-man shows:
|Unicorn:||Opp. Iso FG%||No. Poss.||PTS Allowed/Poss.|
When Turner's three-pointers are falling, he gives Paul George a run for Indiana's most valuable player. He already shoots 50-plus percent out of the pick-and-roll, and his back-to-the-basket sets, while far from precise, are a viable weapon when he's surrounded by enough shooters.
1. Otto Porter, Washington Wizards
Years Experience: 4
Unlike Turner, Otto Porter didn't put a bow on the regular season by kiboshing an untimely slump. He shot under 35 percent from long range after March 1, a far cry from the 46 percent success rate he championed beforehand.
I dare you to think this matters.
Porter is still the Washington Wizards' most dynamic player. He'll never get a chance to show off his playmaking skills next to Bradley Beal and John Wall, but he can finish sets on-ball. He switches onto smaller guards with more frequency than Washington's other wings and has improved enough when defending on islands to cut into Markieff Morris' role as the team's de facto isolation defender.
As for Porter's recent jump-shooting downswing, there are worse things than nailing almost 35 percent of your threes. Besides, it's merely a matter of time before he works out the kinks. He's too good to remain down for long, especially when firing off the catch.
More than 81 players whirled through 200 or more spot-up possessions during the regular season. Only Stephen Curry and C.J. Miles averaged more points per touch. And of 65 snipers to hoist at least 225 standstill treys, Porter's 44.4 percent swish rate ranked fifth, behind career assassins Allen Crabbe, Stephen Curry, Kyle Korver and J.J. Redick.
There's no one in the playoffs on a rookie deal more important to his team's success than Porter is to the Wizards. Max-contract offers will roll in over the summer accordingly.