The NBA rookie class of 2014-15 might be most distinguishable by not being on the court. By my count, seven of the 14 lottery selections have been hurt, playing overseas (hi, Dario!), or left out of their team's rotation so far this season. That doesn't count Nerlens Noel, who has missed the past two games. Injuries have taken some of the shine and sparkle off the highly heralded rookie crop.
By not being injured, the top five in my rankings survived by sheer attrition. This week, I'm highlighting the skills that have brought these rookies to the spotlight this season.
1. Jabari Parker (Bucks)
Last Week: 2
Number of Note: Has just 5 assists this season.
Core Competency: Versatile scoring
Bucks coach Jason Kidd likes positional versatility, and Parker has started at and can competently play both forward positions offensively. In addition, he has the skills to score from either spot - whether he uses a quickness advantage against fours or a size difference against threes. Somewhat surprisingly, he's played better as a three. Tweeners typically play better at the bigger of the two positions. Parker has to this point shown the opposite effect.
So far, you can see where the Carmelo Anthony comparisons have come from, especially since Parker's conditioning has improved. Parker will never be as athletic, and his shooting will have to improve like Melo's did if he wants to reach an all-star level some day. He's not as talented, yet, but he might get there. Like Melo, Parker needs to become a better passer.
2. K.J. McDaniels (76ers)
Last Week: Not ranked
Number of Note: Has not played more than 29 minutes in a game this season
K.J. can fly. There's no other real explanation for a 6'6" guard to have three games with at least three blocks this season. Last night against the Raptors, McDaniels basically hovered in the air before volleyball spiking a ball about 10 rows into the stands. My God, K.J., have some mercy! Aside from that, K.J. has been a great three point shooter (not really expected) and dunker (very much expected). If he can maintain the three point shooting at a league-average rate or better, he should be an NBA starter down the line.
McDaniels is clearly the best wing player the Sixers have right now and probably should be starting right now, too. There's a big ol' elephant in the room right now - we're just waiting for someone on the team to point it out.
3. Bojan Bogdanovic (Nets)
Last week: Not ranked:
Number of Note: Shooting 62% on two point shots.
Clearly the fifth cog in the Brooklyn starting lineup, Bogdanovic is playing well in his role. Like Parker, Bogdanovic is a scorer. He's scoring fewer points than Parker but is shooting more efficiently, at 48% overall. However, he falls behind Parker here because he simply is not asked to do much, with a usage rate of just 16.6% on the season. Bogdanovic hasn't added much else other than scoring, either, which means he needs to do that well enough to justify starting on a 4-2 team that fancies itself as an Eastern Conference contender. He did score 22 points on 12 shots Sunday night.
4. Andrew Wiggins (Timberwolves)
Last week: 5
Number of Note: Just 9-16 from the foul line this season.
Wiggins has been simultaneously impressive and unimpressive, oftentimes showing his patented flashes of brilliance while making ill-advised or incompetent plays. The NBA version of Wiggins so far seems to be about what we expected, with one caveat. When Wiggins gets the ball in his hands, he's been more assertive than at any point we'd seen previously.
He still is a work in progress, and the Wolves actively do not run their offense through Wiggins, and his usage rate is still just 18%. He's still an inactive bystander when plays aren't run for him. But when he gets the ball, more often than not Wiggins tries to make a play. Now, that play is usually an out of control mess, but his athleticism makes what he does work sometimes. Wiggins needs to improve upon scoring in the flow of offense, but that he's trying to make stuff work is a nice first step.
5. Elfrid Payton (Magic)
Last Week: 1
Number of Note: Has not attempted a three this season.
Payton is basically a lower-usage, less efficient Michael Carter-Williams from last season. As shown in Orlando's literal last-second victory over the Sixers, Payton can ball. Late in the game, he made three great plays, two of them on the defensive end (the other was a backbreaking offensive rebound and putback - rare for a guard). He leads rookies in assists and is a fine distributor, but Payton's defense is what should get him paid. Payton is a dogged defender who has frustrated opposing point guards and averages more than a steal and a half per game.
Dropped Out (Prior Week Ranks in Parentheses):
Nerlens Noel (3), Nikola Mirotic (4)
Noel was injured, and Mirotic barely played this week. Dante Exum had a nice week, and his minutes are quietly creeping up. Aussie Kobe has notched at least 20 minutes in each of the past three games and should warrant consideration next week. Doug McDermott is playing well enough in limited minutes to also warrant consideration, despite his less-than-great showing from behind the three point line (just 5-15). Zach LaVine impressed me in his start against Miami on Saturday, but he just hasn't played enough to be ranked. And finally, Kostas Papanikolaou (which I spelled correctly on the first try, and I'm not sure if this is a brag or just really, really sad) would be considered if not for shooting 29% from the floor in an expanded role for the Rockets.