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Rookie Rankings: Early-Season Edition

Chris Humphreys/USA TODAY Sports

It’s been a historic start for the 2015 rookie class, with several top picks making their mark on the NBA early on, so it’s time to take a deeper look into how they’ve maintained that success so quickly. There’s been early-season surprises, disappointments and steady offensive performances among the first-year players so far, so it should be fun continuing to monitor their progress as they develop. This list will factor current production as well as past rankings and success in both preseason and Summer League.

Honorable mention: Montrezl Harrell (PF/C Houston Rockets), D’Angelo Russell (PG/SG, Los Angeles Lakers), Jerian Grant (PG/SG, New York Knicks), Nikola Jokic (PF/C, Denver Nuggets), Devin Booker (SG, Pheonix Suns)

10. Stanley Johnson SG/SF Detroit Pistons

Stats (17.0 MPG): 6.0 PPG, 4.0 RPG, 1.5 APG

Johnson has brought physicality on defense and slashing ability to the Pistons early on, and likely would’ve been higher on this list prior to his 0-for-5 performance against Indiana on Tuesday. In the prior three games, Johnson scored 8.3 points per game and the Pistons started 3-0. Johnson has proved to be somewhat of an X-factor for Detroit, but he’ll need to improve offensively to keep defenses honest in Stan Van Gundy’s offensive system that emphasizes floor spacing.

Johnson has struggled on the offensive end, shooting 27.3(!) percent from the field and 25.0 percent from three. It’s surprising to see Johnson’s struggles, but it’s early on, and he did look like one of the best rookies during the preseason and Summer League. It’d be unfair to drop him from the top 10 right now, and I’m look forward to watching him bounce back soon.

9. T.J. McConnell PG Philadelphia 76ers

Stats (28.0 mpg): 4.8 PPG, 8.0 APG, 4.8 RPG

McConnell is a big surprise on this list, as he became the first rookie in NBA history with at least 12 assists in two of his first four career games for the 76ers. McConnell has already earned the starting spot in Philly as an undrafted free agent, and he’s shown plenty of grit, determination and passing ability to possibly be a solid backup point guard down the line.

McConnell needs to improve shooting the ball from distance (just two three-point attempts in four games, making one), and he needs to work on his overall offensive game in general to become more complete as a point guard. But time should continue to be there for McConnell with point guards Kendall Marshall and Tony Wroten still recovering from ACL injuries, so don’t be surprised if he keeps this up as the season moves along.

8. Justise Winslow SG/SF Miami Heat

Stats (26.6 MPG): 5.6 PPG, 4.2 RPG, 1.4 APG

Winslow has been a bright spot off the bench for the Miami Heat, already showing progress as a lockdown defender by holding James Harden to 2-15 shooting after a rough outing against LeBron James earlier this season. Winslow has provided another ball-handler to the lineup, which helps Miami in transition with his ability to get to the rim.

Winslow’s in a nice spot for a team that should compete in the East as a player coming off the bench and doing the little things needed to win. It likely won’t be this year, but Winslow should be a staple for Miami’s future post-Dwyane Wade, but in the meantime all he has to do is learn from the future Hall of Famer and wait for his turn to shine in South Beach.

7. Nemanja Bjelica SF/PF Minnesota Timberwolves

Stats (25.8 MPG): 5.3 PPG, 7.3 RPG, 2.0 APG

The 27-year old Serbian stretch forward has been a bright spot for the Wolves, providing a different element than any other big on the team can bring to the table. Not only has Bjelica produced when given time, but he’s shot a solid 36.4 percent from three. He has a high basketball IQ as well, which helps him when floating out to the perimeter.

Bjelica has shown the ability to get in the passing lanes (0.8 SPG) and has done a nice job rebounding the basketball, but he needs to improve as a defender. At 27 years old, Bjelica might have reached his full potential, but it’s possible he’s still not fully comfortable playing in a new environment, despite the prolific numbers early. He should continue to be effective for Minnesota as they develop the young talent on the roster.

6. Myles Turner PF/C Indiana Pacers

Stats (18.8 MPG): 7.8 PPG, 4.0 RPG, 1.5 BPG

Turner has been impressive for Indiana, bringing an efficient game and shot-blocking presence off the bench for the Pacers. Turner is shooting 54.2 percent from the field while both facing up and attacking the rim. The youngster needs to work on avoiding foul trouble, but that should come with time as he continues to adjust to the physicality of the NBA game. He’s shown enough activity level on defense to come up with three steals, so his defense will likely get him more time in the future.

Turner looks like he could potentially start later this season, and Frank Vogel already said they’re simplifying the game for him as a rookie — keeping Turner at center instead of switching between both frontcourt positions. Turner needs to continue improving at defending the pick-and-roll, but the good news is his unnatural running gait looks much better now than it did at Texas, which should help speed that process.

5. Willie Cauley-Stein PF/C Sacramento Kings

Stats (22.2 MPG): 7.2 PPG, 6.2 RPG, 1.2 BPG, 1.0 SPG

Cauley-Stein has given the Kings big minutes both off the bench and in the starting lineup, and he’s been impressive while running the floor and as a defensive presence. Cauley-Stein looks like a potential Defensive Player of the Year candidate in future seasons, accumulating over a block and steal per game in just 22.2 minutes. Cauley-Stein is active, attacking the rim with great length and quickness, and he’s shooting 73.7 percent from the field.

Cauley-Stein fits the mold of the new age, mobile big man that exists today. The fact that he’s so quick at 7-feet and 250 pounds allows him to guard multiple positions and be extremely effective in pick-and-roll defense. Cauley-Stein has all the tools, but needs to keep improving offensively (either in the post or as a jump shooter) in order to take advantage of his potential.

4. Emmanuel Mudiay PG Denver Nuggets

Stats (30.4 MPG): 11.6 PPG, 5.8 APG, 4.0 RPG, 1.0 SPG

Mudiay looks like a franchise point guard for Denver, taking over the starting gig since Day 1 and looking every bit like the top draft pick he was. Mudiay has done a solid job orchestrating the pick-and-roll on offense, and he plays an unselfish style of basketball that teammates love. The 19-year old has also held his own defensively, accumulating one steal per game and also blocking three shots through four games. His physicality can be a lot for other point guards to handle, and his size allows him to see over the defense.

But Mudiay still has a ways to go with taking care of the basketball, as his passes are often off the mark or his teammates don’t expect them. With time, he should improve these mistakes, and he’ll become a more well-rounded point guard. In hindsight, it was probably a mistake Mudiay fell to pick No. 7, but the Nuggets sure will be happy with how he develops as he learns the point-guard position throughout his rookie season and beyond.

3. Kristaps Porzingis PF/C New York Knicks

Stats (23.2 MPG): 12.0 PPG, 7.4 RPG, 1.2 BPG, 1.8 SPG

Porzingis has been my biggest surprise thus far, showing surprising fluidity and athleticism at 7-foot-3. He’s a mismatch against most stretch 4s thanks to his length and shooting touch, which allows him to shoot over most defenders. Porzingis has shown enough toughness as a rebounder and shot blocker, although his lower-body strength is still a weakness at times. The limited minutes he’s received to this point also shows how impressive Porzingis has been taking advantage of whatever opportunity head coach Derek Fisher has given him.

However, despite showing flashes, Porzingis is still inconsistent from three-point range at this stage of development (20.0 percent). He looks more comfortable in the mid-range area, so we’ll have to monitor how his game adjusts and improves as he extends his range. Adding lower-body strength should be priority No. 1 right now, and he needs to learn how to play defense without fouling. But Porzingis’s potential is through the roof, and I think it’s fair to say he’s ahead of schedule and should continue to put up solid numbers for a Knicks team in need of his length, shooting touch and activity level.

2. Jahlil Okafor C Philadelphia 76ers

Stats (34.0 MPG): 20.3 PPG, 5.5 RPG, 1.0 BPG

Okafor has an argument for No. 1 on this list — and would be No. 1 in just about any other year, showing the depth of the effectiveness of this rookie class. Okafor has been excellent offensively, becoming one of six centers to score 20 or more points in three of their first four games. The other five? Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Bill Cartwright, Shaquille O’Neal, Willis Reed and David Robinson. Okafor has talent on par with these great centers when you pair his ball handling ability, touch and smooth in-between game at 7-feet and 270 pounds.

He’s already proved to be an unstoppable force at this level, but Okafor’s far from a finished product at this point. Okafor’s conditioning can always be improved, and it’d help his overall defense and ability to run the floor. His shot-blocking prowess has been a bit of a surprise, as he’s blocked a shot per game, but he still must improve significantly on that end. The big man is looking even better on both ends than many people thought, and his ceiling remains high.

1. Karl-Anthony Towns PF/C Minnesota Timberwolves

Stats (28.5 MPG): 14.8 PPg, 8.8 RPG, 2.8 BPG

Towns has been a world-eater up front for the Timberwolves (although his last game wasn’t great), justifying every gripe Wolves fans could’ve had after taking him first overall in the draft. Towns looks physically ready down low, competing (and dominating) against NBA starters while nearly averaging a double-double and two-plus blocks per game. Many (including myself) were uncertain about Towns’s ability to have an instant impact on the Wolves, citing his lack of playing time while playing for Kentucky and possibly lacking the strength to compete down low.

But Towns has proved he’s more than capable right away, and it’s actually become a legitimate question if Towns is already Minnesota’s best player. Towns has shown the ability to stretch the defense as well as move well enough laterally to stay with point guards. Towns has everything you look for in a franchise big man, so it’ll be a joy to watch him develop into a dominating force.

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