NBA Rookie Rankings: Harkless, Valanciunas, Leonard add depth to rookie class

WFNYhoopslogoWith 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 nicknames, beards, and great celebrations may also play a large factor.

1. Damian Lillard (Last Week: 1)

Six losses in a row have buried Lillard and the Blazers. Portland now sits 6 games back of the 8 seed Lakers, and is for all purposes out of the playoff hunt. Injuries to LaMarcus Aldridge and Nicolas Batum have put more pressure on the rookie point guard to carry the load for the struggling Blazers.

In Monday’s loss Lillard broke the rookie record for 3-pointers in a season, but on Wednesday the silver lining was a little harder to find. With both Batum and Aldrige out, Lillard led a Blazers’ starting lineup that featured 3 rookies into action against the Grizzlies…and it wasn’t pretty. Memphis pulled away to an 18 point win in which the future Rookie of the Year struggled. Lillard went just 1 of 6 from downtown and had 5 turnovers to go with his 6 assists in the loss. Portland has had a good starting five all year long, but the team’s depth has been a huge issue. There’s no doubt Lillard can be more effective with guys like Batum and Aldridge on the court then with rookies Meyers Leonard and Victor Claver.

Despite struggling of late, Lillard is still ready to build off his successful rookie year.

“I think I can be a first team All-NBA, I think I can be an All-Star, I think I can be an MVP,” Lillard told “That’s just my opinion. I don’t know when, but how I plan to work and how much better I want to be, I feel like anything is possible.”

That’s the attitude you love to see out of a young player, but with Irving, Rose, Westbrook, and Wall all under the age of 25 those All-NBA point guard honors could be hard to come by in the years to come.

2. Anthony Davis (Last Week: 2)

Davis earned 11 trips to the free throw line on Sunday night against the Cavs, a career high for the number one pick. His long arms and hyper activity terrorized the uninspired Cavaliers all night long. There was a confidence to Davis against Cleveland that isn’t there each and every night. He has to be comfortable utilizing his size and athleticism to earn more time at the line like he did against the Cavs’. While Davis finds his way, learning when and where to get his shots, there is no better place for him to be then standing alone at the charity stripe.

Against Golden State a few night later Davis showed that he is still far from a finished product offensively. The Brow was just 2 of 11 from the field and managed only 2 free throws on the night. While he was still able to do the little things he’s known for, 3 offensive boards, a steal, and a block, the Hornets’ big man was befuddled by the Warriors’ defense.

With Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson’s scoring abilities, Davis doesn’t have to be the guy on the offensive end, but he must be one of the guys.

3. Maurice Harkless (Last Week: 3)

Week after week Harkless posts a new career high in scoring and this week was no different. In Houston on Monday night Harkless racked up 28 points on 55% shooting. The rookie out of St. John’s is getting better and better as the season winds down. With the injuries to Beal and Waiters, Harkless is in a class of his own behind Lillard and Davis. And if you’re looking at the last 10 games, Harkless is on par with if not ahead of the leaders of the rookie class.

He’s a rare find at an important position in today’s NBA. Harkless scores, runs, rebounds, and defends. He is a prototypical NBA 3-man in every essence of the word. Orlando has spent the season in the shadow of Dwight Howard’s departure, but Harkless is a shining light for Magic fans. While playing meaningless games at the end of the season in front of sparse crowds, he continues to bring it each and every night. It’s tough to step on the court night in and night out and know you’re probably going to lose, but that hasn’t fazed Harkless. He continues to impress Orlando coaches, fans, and media alike with his intensity and will to win each and every night.

With the emergence of Harkless, Orlando may find their trip back to relevancy to be shorter than expected.

4. Jonas Valanciunas (Last Week: 5)

Jonas-Valanciunas-RaptorsIt all seems to be really coming together for the 5th pick in the 2011 draft. After struggling with inconsistency throughout the early parts of the season Valanciunas has now scored in double figures in 13 of his last 14 including a current streak of 10 straight. The big man scored a career high in his last time out racking up 24 points, largely in part to being 16-18 from the free throw line.

“From the start I was a new guy in the NBA, didn’t know a lot about it and there’s a big learning process during every game,” said Valanciunas, who admitted he’s starting to get more calls from refs around the league. “I was not talking to (the officials), not complaining about calls, maybe that helped me.”

Valanciunas is not only playing big minutes, he’s playing a big part in the outcomes for Toronto these days. No longer is he being looked at like a shaky rookie, Valanciunas is now being counted on as the steady rock for the Raptors in crunch time.

“The physicality of the game doesn’t bother him anymore,” Casey said. “Where before he’d kind of disappear a little bit, now JV is huge at the end of the games. You can go to him, he can make free throws, he can pass the basketball. Most of all, he can defend without fouling and I think that’s huge for him, too”.

The big man is also making an impact on the defensive end of the floor, averaging 4 blocks a game over the last week and a shade under 10 rebounds at 9.75.

5. Meyers Leonard (Last Week: NR)

By now everyone knows about Portland’s top draft pick Damian Lillard, but their other first round pick, Meyers Leonard, the center out of Illinois is encouraging Rip City fans these days. With the injury to Lamarcus Aldridge, the 7’1’’ Leonard was thrust into the Blazers starting lineup, and after four games he already has Portland fans believing they may have found their future starting center.

Portland fans are notorious for getting excited at the slightest bit of positive play1 and throwing their support full force behind one of their own, sometimes its merited and sometimes it is not. In Leonard’s case, the jury is still out, but in his four starts since the Aldridge injury, Leonard is averaging 14 points and 6.75 rebounds.

Leonard is athletic for a 7 footer and was expected to struggle offensively and succeed defensively as a rookie but this year it’s been the opposite. The former Illini center looks great working the pick in roll with Lillard. He looks good rolling hard, slipping, or popping from screens for a short jumper, but will definitely need work on his rotations and post defense this summer

  1. Sound familiar Clevelanders []

  • mgbode

    Meyers Leonard is basically a poor man’s Cody Zeller. So, anyone interested in Cody should try to check him out to see what we’d be getting (the good and bad).

  • Steve

    Drummond comes back, goes for 9 and 8 on 64% shooting, and not even mentioned.