NBA Rookie Power Rankings: Towns Still Leads the Field
Welcome back to the second installment of numberFire's NBA Rookie Power Rankings.
All year we're going to be looking at which rookies have performed the best. Bear in mind, this isn't a Rookie of the Year watch.
We've seen from previous years that Rookie of the Year is heavily based off of minutes played and points scored. While Andrew Wiggins won Rookie of the Year last season, advanced metrics strongly disagreed that he was the best rookie.
So instead we're going to use our nERD metric to evaluate which rookies have been the best for their teams so far this season. nERD indicates how many wins above or below .500 a player would make an average team over a full season. It's like Win Shares but is meant to be predictive rather than descriptive.
Because it so early in the season, we are going to limit our consideration to players who have averaged at least 15 minutes per game.
Let's jump into this week's rankings.
5. Nemanja Bjelica
Nemanja Bjelica was a bit of a surprise when he slid onto the previous power rankings. I predicted his success would fall back to earth, and it's done so a little bit -- his nERD two weeks ago was 4.7. But Bjelica is still performing at a high level. He's averaging 7.3 points, 6.0 rebounds and 2.2 assists per game while shooting 43.5 percent from the field. His 55.1 Effective Field Goal Percentage is actually higher than a certain other Minnesota rookie who ranks a little bit higher in our rankings. Unlike said other rookie, Bjelica still hasn't started a game for the Timberwolves, but he's still getting almost 27 minutes per game, good for fourth on the team.
Bjelica through two weeks of the season hadn't missed a shot inside three feet. Since then, he hasn't found the same success inside, but he's still shooting 83.3 percent on shots near the basket. When Bjelica is on the floor, the Timberwolves as a whole take more shots close to the basket (32.2 percent of all shots versus 26.6). They also convert those shots at a higher rate (65.1 versus 61.1). When Bjelica is playing, the Timberwolves also take more three points (22.9 versus 14.8). A whopping 65.2 percent of Bjelica's individual shots have come from beyond the arc.
4. Willie Cauley-Stein
Willie Cauley-Stein has continued to do the things that the Kings drafted him to do, albeit at a slightly worse than he did in the first handful of games. He's played solid, rim-protecting defense and shot the ball efficiently. He's putting up 4.7 points and 5.4 rebounds per game, a little bit lower than what he was doing two weeks ago. His shooting percentage has similarly dropped, but it's still second best among rookies. Willie Trill broke onto the scene in his second NBA game with 17 points and 9 rebounds. It's been downhill from there: in three of his last five outings, he's been held scoreless.
But there's definitely still good news about the big fella. The on-court/off-court data reveals that Cauley-Stein is a valuable part of the team. His team has an Offensive Rating of 106.9 when he's playing. It drops to 102.5 when he's not. There's a similar story on defense. When Cauley-Stein is hulking down low his team has a Defensive Rating of 101.1. With him on the bench, it's 110.6. So while his raw stats seem to show his performance is declining, WCS is still helping the Kings win games.
3. Nikola Jokic
There's quite a gap between third and fourth on this list. And at third is the only newcomer to the power rankings. Nikola Jokic has quietly been one of the best rookies this year. He's averaging just 7.2 points and 5.1 rebounds per game, but he's been one of the most efficient scorers on the Nuggets. Jokic is shooting 52.9 percent, third on the team. Recently, we've seen glimpses of how good he could be. For whatever reason, he plays his best against the best. Jokic had a 23-point, 12-rebound game against the Spurs last week. The performance was good enough to earn the Serbian a starting role. In his second game as a starter, Jokic again posted a double-double, that time against the defending champions.
Jokic is averaging the fewest minutes among the five rookies in this list. In fact, he just barely makes the 15-minute per game cutoff. His 15.9 points per 36 minutes put him a little bit below the guys above him on this list but above more well-known rookies. With the starting gig in Denver, expect to see a lot more of Jokic in the coming weeks.
2. Kristaps Porzingis
Everyone's favorite rookie (okay, maybe not everyone) comes into our rankings at number two. Porzingis has been great for the Knicks. It seems like everywhere you look there's some sort of Porzingis highlight. But his performance goes beyond the standout plays. His points per game and rebounds per game both rank in the top three for rookies. Looking at his most recent games, he's now had three 20 points games in his past four games. He shot 52 percent in those four games while pulling down 11 rebounds per game.
His defense has similarly been strong. His 1.5 blocks per game put him third among rookies. A seven-block performance against Houston helped bumped up that number. With Porzingis on the floor, opponents shoot 56.4 percent from within 3 feet against the Knicks versus 63.5 percent when he's off the court. Among rookies, only the next player on this list has more Defensive Win Shares.
The legend of Porzingis just keeps growing.
1. Karl-Anthony Towns
A month in, there is no doubt that Towns has been the best rookie. Aside from being first in nERD, he's first in rebounds per game and free throw percentage and second in points per game. Toss in his stellar defense (most blocks per game among rookies), and it's clear that Towns is the best rookie so far in the NBA. He's shown he can shoot the ball (connecting on 47 percent on all shots farther than 16 feet from the hoop). He's shown he can defend (according to NBA.com, opponents are shooting 45 percent against him, better than last year's defensive first team selection, DeAndre Jordan). He's shown he can play efficiently (he sports a PER of 21.8, which puts him in the company of Kevin Love and Jimmy Butler). He's shown he can be consistent (he's had just two games of fewer than 10 points and just three games of fewer than 7 rebounds).
Finally, at just 20 years old, he's shown he can lead a team. He's arguably been the best player on the Timberwolves so far. His points per game is second only to the number one draft selection the year before Towns went first overall, Andrew Wiggins. Towns is first in rebounds, blocks and Win Shares. Among qualified players on Minnesota, he's first in field goal percentage.
What can we expect from future rankings? My bet is much more funky Towns.