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The regular season is barely a week past the All-Star break, not close to done, and yet the discussion is mid-April closed.
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The rookie big men of 2015-16 who were expected at the start of the season to be unusually good, in a way a crop of newly arrived centers and power forwards haven’t been for years, have been that good. So good, in fact, that it’s impossible to imagine anything happening in the final 30 percent of the regular season to change that opinion.
It’s late February, and it’s over.
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The point could be made that the bigs have actually exceeded collective expectations because the Minnesota Timberwolves’ Karl-Anthony Towns, while projected by most front offices to eventually become the best player in the Draft, has had a far greater immediate impact than imagined. General managers picked him to finish second for Kia Rookie of the Year, behind Jahlil Okafor of the Philadelphia 76ers, and yet here is Towns threatening to turn the race into a runaway.
Only one non-point guard or wing has won the award in the last seven years, Blake Griffin in 2010-11. The top three finishers when ballots are submitted in April could be cheap nba basketball jerseys a center (Towns), a power forward (Kristaps Porzingis) and a center (Okafor). Indiana Pacers power forward Myles Turner, meanwhile, has been one of the best rookies since the calendar turned to 2016. Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic has earned a spot among the best newcomers despite little preseason buzz because he was drafted in 2014, and as the No. 41 pick at that.
Four months into the season, everything — and nothing — has changed. The rookies have stepped far into their new world by the latest position-by-position breakdown, although with difficulty in some cases, and the bigs have collectively performed at a high level. As expected.
NBA Rooks: D’Angelo Russell
As All-Star Weekend approaches, BBVA Compass Rising Stars Challenge participant D’Angelo Russell of the Lakers talks about the learning curve of a rookie point guard.
1. D’Angelo Russell, Los Angeles Lakers
2. Cameron Payne, Oklahoma City Thunder
3. Emmanuel Mudiay, Denver Nuggets
4. T.J. McConnell, Philadelphia 76ers
5. Jerian Grant, New York Knicks
Preseason ranking: Mudiay, Russell, Grant, Payne, Delon Wright.
Jan. 1 ranking: Russell, McConnell, Mudiay, Raul Neto, Grant.
Summary: Although still one of the weaker positions of the first-year class, with only Russell in the top 10 of the latest Rookie Ladder, point guard has improved greatly in the last month with Payne and Mudiay playing much better. With Russell in the midst of his best month, shooting well and taking care of the ball better than any time in the first half of the season, and with McConnell continuing to offer solid play under the radar in Philly, there is suddenly decent depth. Not enough that it’s a tough cut to leave someone off the first five, but definitely forward progress.
Devin Booker Finds His Shot
Check out rookie Devin Booker getting acclimated to the NBA 3-point line this season!
1. Devin Booker, Phoenix Suns
2. Jonathon Simmons, San Antonio Spurs
3. Mario Hezonja, Orlando Magic Jerseys
4. Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Brooklyn Nets
5. Lamar Patterson, Atlanta Hawks Jerseys
Preseason ranking: Hezonja, Booker, Rashad Vaughn, Norman Powell, Pat Connaughton.
Jan. 1 ranking: Hollis-Jefferson Booker, Hezonja, Patterson, R.J. Hunter.
Summary: Hollis-Jefferson was the easy leader in the first in-season progress report, and then he got hurt. Booker is the clear call in the update just after the All-Star break, and now he is slumping. Shooting guard is every bit the soft spot it was at the start of the season. It may not turn out that way when the Draft class as a whole is re-evaluated in three or five years — Hezonja could still develop into a star, Hollis-Jefferson could still become a steal as the No. 23 pick, Booker could have a long career tormenting defenses from the 3-point line — but 2015-16 has been an undeniably a slow start for this position. It helps, a lot, that Simmons has turned into a tremendous success story by going from an NBA D-League open tryout to getting about 14 minutes a game for the second-best team in the league. Hollis-Jefferson’s healthy return from an ankle injury would be another plus.
NBA Rooks: Justise Winslow
10th overall pick Justise Winslow takes stock of his season so far, including how he’s benefitted from his relationships with Dwyane Wade and Head Coach Erik Spoelstra.
1. Justise Winslow, Miami Heat Jerseys
2. Stanley Johnson, Detroit Pistons
3. Kelly Oubre, Washington Wizards Jerseys
4. Justin Anderson, Dallas Mavericks
5. Anthony Brown, Los Angeles Lakers
Preseason ranking: Johnson, Winslow, Anderson, Oubre, Hollis-Jefferson.
Jan. 1 ranking: Winslow, Johnson, Oubre, Simmons, Anderson.
Summary: This could turn out to be the start of years of the Winslow-Johnson comparison — small forwards who will get real minutes at other positions, one-and-done college players, potential physical forces on defense, each needing to prove they can make shots, and off the board about the same time in June 2015. (Johnson went No. 8 and Winslow went No. 10.) They have been 1-2 from the beginning, in some order, and will finish the season that way barring a surprise. Oubre, with some of the similar background as the No. 15 selection, has had some encouraging moments and could join the conversation in later years. For now, though, only playing about 11 minutes a game means a significant gap from the lead pack.
Inside Stuff: Towns and Porzingis at All-Star
Inside Stuff goes behind the scenes with Karl-Anthony Towns and Kristaps Porzingis as the rookies experience their first All-Star Weekend.
1. Kristaps Porzingis, New York Knicks
2. Myles Turner, Indiana Pacers
3. Bobby Portis, Chicago Bulls
4. Larry Nance Jr., Los Angeles Lakers
5. Frank Kaminsky, Charlotte Hornets Jerseys
Preseason ranking: Porzingis, Turner, Willie Cauley-Stein, Kaminsky, Portis.
Jan. 1 ranking: Porzingis, Kaminsky, Nemanja Bjelica, Nance, Richaun Holmes.
Summary: A clear top two, then a bit of a drop to No. 3, then a big drop. But there has been enough production in that third group for the close call of four players with a case for the final two spots — Nance Jr., Kaminsky, Holmes and Lyles. Each has contributed and each has shown the ability to handle prominent roles, Lyles and Kaminsky for potential playoff teams. That’s good depth for a position that has offered pleasant surprises all along, especially with Holmes, Nance and Bjeclia coming from far back of the pack to rank among the best power forwards.
Kia Awards: Karl-Anthony Towns
Timberwolves rookie Karl-Anthony Towns is averaging 22.2 points and 12.4 rebounds per game in February.
1. Karl-Anthony Towns, Minnesota Timberwolves
2. Jahlil Okafor, Philadelphia 76ers
3. Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets
4. Willie Cauley-Stein, Sacramento Kings
5. Boban Marjanovich, San Antonio Spurs
Preseason ranking: Okafor, Towns, Jokic, Walter Tavares, Joshua Smith.
Jan. 1 ranking: Towns, Okafor, Jokic, Cauley-Stein, Marjanovich.
Summary: There is no better sign of the strength of the position than Cauley-Stein, a starter having a good season as the first installment to what should be a long career, as the fourth-best center. While Towns took control of the top spot early, for the entire Rookie of the Year race as well as the position breakdowns, the next three have been far more than afterthoughts. All four were in the top 10 of the Rookie Ladder as recently as Feb. 10, just before the All-Star break, and all four could be there at the end amid the possibility of a Cauley-Stein return. Offense will generate most of the attention, especially with Towns and Okafor plus the massive potential there for Porzingis, but there is a lot of defense on this list.
Scott Howard-Cooper has covered the NBA since 1988. You can e-mail him here and follow him on Twitter.
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