NBA Rookie Rankings: Fresh Meat

(Photo: AP/Gus Ruelas)

Fresh meat. We all love it. Whether it’s the new guy at work, the new girl in your apartment complex, or the guy at the tailgate with the slab of baby-backs, everyone stares and starts asking questions fast.

“Is he here to fire someone?”

“Is she single?”

“Is there any way we can trade him three natural lights for those ribs?”

Once we get the information we want, we spread the information as fast as possible.

“No, don’t worry dude he’s just the boss’s brother.”

“Yeah man, heard she just broke up with her boyfriend.”

“He says we can have half the slab for the three beers…and a hug from Kyle?”

After we have the initial information we begin tracking the fresh meat. We watch the new guy at work for the next couple days, we try to see a ring on the new girl’s finger, and we even observe the tailgater to see if in fact he really does want a hug in exchange for ribs.

Unfortunately, not all of us get these fresh meat encounters in our daily lives, but fortunately every year the NBA brings us a heavy serving in the form of rookies. With the Cavaliers having two rookies playing prominent minutes, WFNY thought it would beneficial to see how the fresh meat around the league is faring in comparison with the Cavalier rookies. Each week, we’ll have NBA rookie power rankings where we’ll rack and stack the freshman class of the NBA. The rankings will be weighted with the most recent games carrying the most importance, but the whole body of work will be taken into account. Great beards and great celebrations may also play a large factor in rankings.

Week 1

1. Damian Lillard

Those of us who want to seem cool among our friends are saying we knew Damian Lillard would be a great pick for the Blazers. Those of us being honest with ourselves are saying “who the hell is Damian Lillard?” Lillard was the 6thpick overall from Weber State. Playing in the Big Sky conference and never having appeared in an NCAA tournament, it’s safe to say not many outside of Ogden, Utah1 have seen this kid play. He leads all rookies in minutes per game (37.8), points per game (18.36), and assists per game (7.2). He was handed the keys to Terry Stott’s offense, floored it out of the driveway, and hasn’t looked back. The Blazers’ point guard leads all rookies in efficiency, the advanced metric that is widely believed to be the best judge of a player’s overall production, as well as estimated win shares, which estimates how many wins a player is accountable for the given year.

Just like people quoting movies before seeing them2 many will speak about Lillard’s game before actually watching him play. When crunch time came during the Blazers dual with Houston, it was Lillard who set up Rip City for winning time. In the extra period, Lillard hit two 3-pointers, a jumper , and assisted on two more buckets. Lillard bounces around the court like a rookie version of Russell Westbrook, full of confidence. Not only is it the number 0 on the jersey and arm sleeve that remind you of Westbrook, the way Lillard cuts and hops his way through the lane at will also is very reminiscent of the young Oklahoma City star. Also like Westbrook, Lillard’s jumper tends to abandon him at times, shooting under 30% from behind the arc this season. So far this season, Lillard has shown a greater passing ability than scouts expected. Instead of weaving his way through five guys and throwing up a contested shot at the rim, Lillard has been making an extra effort to find open teammates. So far in his rookie campaign, the Blazers rookie has assisted on over 37% of teammate’s field goals while he is on the floor, compared to Kyrie Irving’s 36%.3

Lillard’s 23 point, 11 assist debut against the Lakers made him the third player ever to score 20 and dish out 10 assists in his first NBA game. The only other two to match that feat were Oscar Robinson, and Isiah Thomas.

2. Dion Waiters

Dion Waiters has been impressive through his first 5 games in The Association.  The fourth overall pick from Syracuse came into the league with a wide range of expectation from scouts and fans alike. Waiters has been a little erratic so far, but Cavs’ fans have to be thrilled with the early returns on their top pick.  Dion is making it clear from the get-go he has no fear of big moments. Waiters confidently buried a 3 against the Wizards to end a 16-0 run, and give the Cavs’ the lead back for good. He hit seven three-pointers against the Clippers to catapult his team to victory. There seems to be a correlation between Waiters’ success and the Cavaliers’ success as a whole. This is due in part to Waiters’ high usage rate of 23.3. This says that Waiters will use 23.3 possessions per 48 minutes on the floor. That number is 3rd highest among rookies, behind Lillard and Anthony Davis. The Cavs want this stat to be high as they continue to use Dion as the primary ball handler and play Irving off the ball more4 Oklahoma City had great success in years past using Harden is the primary ball handler and playing Westrbook off the ball. Harden and Westbrook were superb in these roles playing off each other the last few years. Dion and Kyrie have only played five games together, but it will be very exciting to watch Waiters and Irving grow and learn how to play together.

The former Big East 6th man of the year ranks second among rookies in points per game (15.4), but more importantly, he is scoring efficiently. Dion is shooting 44% from the field, and 52% from three-point range. It is evident that Waiters will rarely see a shot he doesn’t like, but if he continues to shoot the way he has to start his career, look for Waiters to continue to see the green light from Coach Byron Scott.

3. Anthony Davis

Although Anthony “The Brow” Davis went out with a minor concussion in only his second game, his brief time on the court has lived up to the billing. He leads all rookies with an efficiency per 48 minutes  of 41.95, which measures how effective a player is during his time on the floor.5 His EFF48M is considerably higher than Lillard’s, which says that while Lillard may be having a more productive season, in terms of productivity when on the floor, it’s Davis in a landslide.

The Brow is an immediate game changer on the court. The Hornets started to play more 2-3 zone with Davis in the middle, to keep him close to the basket, and free to disrupt any shot taken near the lane. In his brief 21.5 minutes per game, Davis is still averaging 14.5 points and 6.5 rebounds. Those numbers, along with his place in this list should continue to rise as he gets healthy again.

Davis hasn’t played since his “minor concussion” a week ago, and it is unclear when he will return to the court.  This brings up another issue entirely. I was under the impression sports were trying to get away from classifying concussions by severity and treating all of them with extreme care. Team doctors distinguishing between a mild or severe concussion is like the CIA distinguishing between if our security threat level is orange or red. Neither situation is good, and with no hard data, the classification is completely subjective. If you’re going to classify them as mild and severe, why not go ahead and use our old national security color coding system for concussions too? Headlines could read, “Anthony Davis still out with a Peach Level Concussion”.  As much as I love the potential in this, it could cause serious problems with the players these days. Imagine players fighting with doctors to try and match their concussion color to the color of their post game bow tie and glasses.

4. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist

MKG, not to be confused with MGK, has been exactly what scouts thought he’d be early on. A national champion at Kentucky, Kidd-Gilchrist has extreme athleticism and hustle to go with incredible intangibles, but the basketball skills are still raw. Before the draft, the belief with MKG was that his work ethic and drive were so strong that despite lacking top offensive skills, he would make himself into a great shooter and offense player. His shot still needs work, but Kidd-Gilchrist has shown the ability to finish strong at the rim at the professional level. With time, he may still turn into the great player he was projected as, but for now MKG will make his living as a glue guy. He’ll do all the little things that hold the team together and helps them win.

Kidd-Gilchrist is averaging 8.3 points per game on only 36% shooting, but as mentioned earlier it is the little things he does that add the real value to his team. With 1.7 steals and 2 blocks a game, MKG is top three among all rookies. His 6.7 rebounds per game tops all rookies, and his rebounding percentage((percentage of rebounds to rebound attempts while on the court)) is higher than first round picks Tyler Zeller, Jared Sullinger, Meyers Leonard, and Andrew Nicholson. Without a doubt Kidd-Gilchrist can become a top rebounder at his position, which has Michael Jordan’s mustache smiling, but time will tell if he can become the all-around talent expected from the second pick in the draft.

5. Kyle Singler

He may be the most surprising entry on the list, but Kyle Singler has had a very solid start to his professional career. His google search results are also off to a good start. The top two recommended searches for Kyle Singler are “Kyle Singler Girlfriend”,  followed by “Kyle Singler Shirtless”.  Personally, I would have thought “Kyle Singler rips off Mark Titus” would have been in the top two, but hey, good for Singler.  The former Duke Blue Devil is averaging 9.4 points per game on 55% shooting in 22 minutes of action a night. Singler is fourth among rookies in scoring and sixth in efficiency. He’s only taken half the shots per game as Dion Waiters, and leads all rookies in True Shooting Percentage, a stat that calculates shooting percentage taking into account free throws and 3-point shots.  Scoring and scoring efficiently have been Singler’s true strengths so far, but his defense and his rebounding are below average. Singler’s offense has contributed .3 wins this year for the Pistons, while his defense has a win share of -.1. So even though the Pistons are benefiting from Singler’s offense, his team is worse defensively when he is on the floor.

Honorable Mention

Harrison Barnes

When Barnes hasn’t been busy in a haunted forest with Steph Curry, he has been steadily improving his scoring (8.8 ppg). Against the Cavs, Barnes scored a career high 14 points on 55% shooting. For the season Barnes is 5th among rookies in scoring and is doing so at over 50% from the field. Barnes’ 3-point shooting has been disappointing so far at only 30% but look for that to rise and his field goal percentage to drop.

Zeller Report

The Cavaliers’ first round pick is out indefinitely with a broken bone in his cheek and a concussion.6 This is quite a shame for Zeller, the Cavs, and the fans alike. Tyler has been growing more comfortable on the court as the season goes on, scoring a career high 15 against the Clippers before getting injured.  For the year Zeller is averaging 7.5 points per game on 50% shooting from the field. The reigning ACC player of the year clearly has the basketball skills to succeed in this league, but does he have the size, durability, and toughness that is needed on the boards? Currently, Zeller ranks 9th among rookies in rebounding rate, a stat the 7-footer should be much higher in. When Zeller returns it is critical for him to not regress in his development, but pick up where he left off. Cavs fans will miss Zeller during his injury.

  1. Ogden, UT is in fact a real place. It is home to the headquarters of Jimmy Haslam’s Flying J Management Inc. []
  2. I still find myself doing Tony Montaña impressions without ever actually watching Scarface. []
  3. For reference; Rondo’s career average is 40%, Deron Williams 42%, Tony Parker 32.5%, and John Wall 36% []
  4. Kyrie Irving leads the NBA in Usage Rate at 32.1%. []
  5. Of all players who average over 20 minutes per game, LeBron leads all with an EFF48 of 43.08, Davis is second, and Varejao is third at 40.79 []
  6. It is not yet known where Zeller fits on the new color coded concussion scale. []

  • mgbode

    on the concussion issue: since they have a battery of tests (and do a normalized test before the year begins), I think they absolutely should be able to determine between a mild and severe concussion. it’s not just asking questions anymore, there is empirical data to look at now.

    and, don’t pass the tests, don’t suit up to play. i’m sure it’s not perfect (nor ever will be), but it’s getting better.

  • BenRM

    “The third overall pick from Syracuse came into the league with a wide range of expectation from scouts and fans alike.”

    Being “that guy” and pointing out the error. He was selected 4th overall.

  • Thanks. Fixed.

  • CJJ

    At last, the long awaited rookie rankings … No Bradley Beal, no surprise. So glad the Cavs did not pick him. I have still yet to see this shooting phenom “light it up”. He never did in college, yet got this great rep for being the best shooter. So after one week, we are looking good with our pick. I’m with you on the concussion rankings, but I would use a scale of “slightly dazed” to “I have no f’n idea where I am”.

  • mgbode

    as far as the list, it’s good though I’d add Jae Crowder to the honorable mentions

  • BenRM

    NP. sorry to be that guy.

  • BenRM

    His size was always a sticking point for me.

  • mgbode

    I’m Batman!

  • ehsteve14

    I’m sorry to also be that guy, but shouldn’t Oscar Robinson instead be Oscar Robertson?

  • It’s worth adding that the Cavaliers were very high on Lillard heading into the draft, but the presence of Kyrie Irving rendered him pretty moot.

    Kid’s a stud. Also the subject of the latest Lee Jenkins (SI) feature that I recommend for all.