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Top Rookie vs. Sophomore Matchups to Look Forward to This Season

Brace Hemmelgarn/USA TODAY Sports

Earlier this week we took a look at a number of the premier rookie matchups to look forward this season, with the big men dominating some of the must-see games. In part two of our series, we preview the key games between the 2014 and 2015 rookie class in a number of intriguing head-to-head matchups. If the Rising Stars Challenge is anything like their regular-season outings, the young fellas may just take over Toronto during All-Star Weekend.

Karl-Anthony Towns vs. Julius Randle (First Meeting: Oct 28 @ LA) – Depending on how the Minnesota Timberwolves use Towns, this head-to-head matchup might not actually take place during opening night (at least not right away), as Randle may find himself guarding Kevin Garnett with Roy Hibbert on Towns. But fans can only hope the two former Wildcats will have an opportunity to square off.

Other than for one 14-minute shift, both players are basically playing their rookie season this year. Towns has the ability to play down low and step outside the paint, despite his traditional big man measurements. Although Randle gives up a few inches, he has the body to be able to handle his fellow Kentucky teammate, and one can only imagine what the Lakers’ future may have looked like if KAT fell to second in the 2015 NBA Draft: 


Emmanuel Mudiay vs. Jordan Clarkson (First Meeting: Nov. 3 @ LA) – No, your eyes aren’t deceiving you. The rookie vs. rookie feature did have Mudiay taking on D’Angelo Russell, and odds are high that the two freshmen will square off. But if the Lakers decide to play Kobe Bryant in his traditional shooting-guard role, Clarkson may get the early-season nod at the point. Ideally the Lakers will start both Russell and Clarkson in the backcourt and move the Mamba over to the small-forward role.

Both Mudiay and Clarkson provide explosive power and versatile scoring at the point-guard spot, and after proving his worth as a rookie last year, Clarkson will look to take a step in his second season. With Mudiay getting the keys to the Nuggets’ offense right from the start of the season, look for the Denver guard to have a statistical advantage over whichever Lakers point guard he matches up with: 


Justise Winslow vs. Andrew Wiggins (First Meeting: Nov. 5 @ Miami) – Both were one-hit wonders on the college scene, with Wiggins bringing a considerable amount of hype along with him to the NBA. While Wiggins has more of an outside scoring knack and finesse, Winslow can match his ability when it comes to attacking the hoop.

What will be most interesting when these two meet up is if they’ll be able to score on the other when they share the court. Wiggins may have a budding offensive game, but he was actually more touted for his skills on the other end of the floor. I have to give the nod to the Canadian kid in this matchup.

D’Angelo Russell vs. Elfrid Payton (First Meeting: Nov. 11 @ Orlando) – While Russell possesses a better shooting stroke than Payton, this matchup won’t necessarily be about who’s dropping buckets, but rather who’s dropping the nastiest dimes. Far and away the best distributor in the 2014 rookie class, Payton took over the point-guard duties from Victor Oladipo, allowing the former Hoosier to focus more on attacking the hoop instead of setting up the offense. Payton posted 13 double-digit assist games last season, including a season-high 13 against Detroit on March 27. 

With former Magic point guard Scott Skiles taking over the coaching duties in Orlando, look for Payton to improve his ability to control the offense. As for Russell and the Lakers, there are a lot of scorers on the LA roster for Russell to find, but the key question is if he can he keep them all happy. It’s unfortunate that these two teams only meet twice a season: 

Stanley Johnson vs. Jabari Parker (First Meeting: Nov. 23 @ Milwaukee) – As with Winslow and Wiggins, the matchup of these two young forwards is going to be one that’ll hopefully have fans interested in what happens in the Eastern Conference for many years to come. Both players hover around the 6’7″, 250-pound mark, and both could be featured in the starting lineup come opening night. Parker is more of a scoring threat, but he’s also coming off a rookie season in which he only played 25 games due to an ACL injury. Before the injury, some had Parker ranked ahead of Wiggins in the Rookie of the Year race.  

Johnson is no slouch offensively, and he put up nearly 14 points per game for the Wildcats in his one-and-done season with Arizona. Furthermore, Johnson has averaged 17 points and five rebounds in Detroit’s first four exhibition games. Both the Pistons and Bucks added components to their roster this past summer that’ll hopefully help each club climb the ranks in the East, and both Johnson and Parker will be big reasons for their success.

Jahlil Okafor vs. Nerlens Noel vs. Joel Embiid (all season long) – Has David Kahn resurfaced in Philadelphia? Instead of point guards, Sixers GM Sam Hinkie has decided to corral as many big men as possible, apparently not realizing the NBA game has moved away from the paint the last couple of seasons. Embiid, who missed his rookie season with a foot injury, more than likely won’t even see time in this battle thanks to another surgery. 

As for Okafor and Noel, they’ll be an intriguing duo. Okafor isn’t known for his defensive prowess, but he has good size and length and could hold down the fort in the paint while Noel wreaks havoc down low with his defensive skills. On the offensive end, neither is known for stepping outside of the paint, so head coach Brett Brown will have to figure out how to make that work. Okafor spent his time with Duke as a traditional back-to-the-basket big man, and Noel mainly grabs his buckets off putbacks and rolls to the hoop.

Should Embiid actually pull on a Sixers jersey this season, that would just give Brown another talented big to utilize. Brown can also throw Furkan Aldemir and Richaun Holmes, a pair of 6’10” power forwards, out there and have the biggest starting lineup in NBA history.  It’s not like the Sixers are actually playing to win. 

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