NBA Rookie of the Year Race: Can Anyone Catch Luka Doncic?

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NBA Rookie of the Year Race: Can Anyone Catch Luka Doncic?

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    Matt York/Associated Press

    The 2019 NBA Rookie of the Year race has a leader but no lock to win. The gap is closing between the top two candidates, who’ve begun to separate themselves from the pack. 

    We’re also starting to see other first-round picks get comfortable and string together productive weeks.

    A rising second-rounder has entered the picture as well.

    There is competition for the final spots on the ladder, as a handful of rookie rotation players just missed the cut. We declared Marvin Bagley III ineligible after missing 12 of his last 13 games. 

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    Scott Cunningham/Getty Images

    For the No. 10 spot on the rookie ladder, Kevin Huerter edges out Landry Shamet and Allonzo Trier by checking more boxes with his playmaking and team defense. 

    Hitting 1.5 threes per game at a 37.7 percent clip, Huerter’s NBA calling card is shooting. But the 2.4 assists per game also highlight his ability to put the ball down and pass on the move, enhancing the threat he poses out of spot-ups to closing defenders. 

    At only 190 pounds, Huerter is making just 43.4 percent of his two-point attempts, as he’s having trouble converting scoring chances off the dribble on pull-ups (32.2 percent) and drives (38.9 percent).

    But the Atlanta Hawks’ offense has been 5.8 points per 100 possessions better when Huerter is on the floor, and it’s defense is giving up 5.1 more points when he’s on the bench.

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    Adam Glanzman/Getty Images

    Teams missed on Rodions Kurucs after he barely played last season with Barcelona. Healthy and drafted by a team lacking talented forwards, the No. 40 pick has emerged as a serviceable rookie for the Brooklyn Nets, but more importantly, as a potentially key building block over the next few years.

    Averaging 9.1 points on 48.0 percent shooting in 19.6 minutes, Kurucs is standing out with 6’9″ size, mobility and shot-making, particularly during the game Monday against the Boston Celtics, when he went for 24 points on five three-point makes. 

    His ball skills and creating ability remain limited, but he’s picking up baskets off cuts, straight line drives and spot-up jumpers.

    Kurucs has also flashed encouraging defensive range with his lateral quickness and height to guard bigs. 

    Raw, thin and 20 years old without a great deal of high-level experience, he’ll likely be up and down all season. But he’s proving to be a fast learner while possessing valuable two-way versatility for the Nets to unlock. 

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    Jason Miller/Getty Images

    Fourth among rookies averaging 14.6 points, Collin Sexton has lived up to his reputation, for better and worse. 

    He’s still not using his dribble to set up teammates as much as a point guard should. Sexton averages just 2.8 assists to 2.3 turnovers in 29.7 minutes per game.

    But his scoring ability has carried right over, mainly thanks to his pull-up jumper, which is connecting 3.3 times per game at a 40.6 percent clip. Sexton is also making 39.1 percent of his threes, though he’s taking half as many (2.1) as he did at Alabama (4.0). 

    He has been less successful when driving deep into the defense, shooting 49.7 percent in the restricted area. But Sexton’s production, even if it’s mostly empty for the eight-win Cleveland Cavaliers, earns him the No. 8 spot on January’s rookie ladder.

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    Rick Scuteri/Associated Press

    Shai Gilgeous-Alexander has earned an everyday role by staying efficient, limiting his mistakes, moving the ball, defending, playing to his strengths and taking what the defense gives up.

    He’s averaging 10.1 points in 26.3 minutes, shooting 49.1 percent and making enough of the three-point attempts (22 of 58) that find him within the offense. 

    Though not explosive, Gilgeous-Alexander averages 10.2 drives and converts them a a strong 55.2 percent clip, using his handles and change of speed to gain a step, plus body control, length and angles to finish around the basket.

    His pull-up has become a reliable shot as well, as he’s making 1.5 per game and 44.7 percent of his attempts.

    Playing alongside veteran guards and forwards, Gilgeous-Alexander’s playmaking hasn’t taken off (2.9 assists). And his lack of open-floor speed and burst in the half court suggest he may never be a volume assist man, though he’s still an excellent passer.

    Limited creating ability and freedom will make it tough for Gilgeous-Alexander to finish with top-five rookie production. Signs still point to him taking over full time at point guard in L.A. by 2020, though. 

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    Dylan Buell/Getty Images

    Even with times turbulent in Chicago, Wendell Carter Jr. has remained relatively steady throughout his rookie season. 

    He’s not erupting, but the Bulls have a good idea of what to expect from their rookie every night. Carter has averaged 10.4 points and 6.9 rebounds on 48.7 percent from the floor, working from the block to the mid-range as a finisher, post scorer and shooter inside the arc. 

    His execution out of the post has been disappointing (29.3 percent), but he’s compensated by finishing strong at the rim (65.3 percent FG) and knocking down catch-and-release jumpers at a reliable rate (41.1 percent).

    While blocking 1.4 shots in 25.2 minutes, his timing and awareness in rim protection have also impressed for a 19-year-old starter. 

    Carter still doesn’t have a bread-and-butter skill, limiting his offensive opportunities and ability to have high-output scoring games. His three-ball from college also hasn’t carried over, as he’s just 5-of-29 from behind the arc.

    Regardless, Carter has been a rock in the Bulls rotation for most of the year.

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    Chuck Burton/Associated Press

    A breakout December (17.1 points) helped push Kevin Knox up the ladder and reignite the excitement/hope he created during summer league. 

    The game is slowing down for the 19-year-old forward, who’s become more comfortable, most notably with his shooting range and runner around the key. 

    Knox is now making 1.6 threes in 26.6 minutes at a respectable 35.3 percent clip. And though he still lacks polish scoring in tighter windows inside the arc, he continues to show confidence and enough competence in his pull-up, floater and finishing ability.

    Only shooting 38.5 percent on two-pointers, Knox’s execution has still been off, as he struggles to convert when forced to adjust or counter around the trees and rim.

    Given his age, tools, poise, skill set and sudden consistent production, the team shouldn’t feel overly concerned with Knox’s early inefficiency.

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    Danny Karnik/Associated Press

    A 39.4 percent field-goal mark, 4.0 turnovers per game and the worst defensive plus-minus of any NBA point guard cast a cloud over Trae Young’s productive rookie season. But the positives still outweigh the negatives, particularly given the rookie’s weak supporting cast, which forces Young to often try making something out of nothing. 

    He’s still averaging 15.5 points and 7.3 assists as the Atlanta Hawks’ primary ball-handler. And he’s starting to find a shooting rhythm, having now made 20 of his last 40 three-point attempts over an 11-game stretch. 

    Inside the arc, Young continues to put pressure on defenses, driving 16.6 times per game, the fifth-most among NBA players. He’s dishing out 2.2 assists on those drives as well, with only James Harden averaging more. 

    Young has had trouble finishing in the restricted area (50.0 percent), and he’s struggled all season converting on pull-ups (29.9 percent) despite attempting 6.0 per game.

    His Rookie of the Year case is hurt by all the inefficiency, but it won’t be fair to fully judge Young until the Hawks’ young talent improves. 

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    Mary Altaffer/Associated Press

    Jaren Jackson Jr. hasn’t been as steady as the top two rookies, but he’s had a few outbursts each month while remaining efficient throughout the season. His offense is also currently clicking, with Jackson averaging 18.0 points on 62.2 percent shooting in January. 

    His post game has worked early, as the rookie is shooting 53.1 percent on his attempts. 

    And after converting just 54.2 percent of his baskets around the rim at Michigan State, per Synergy Sports, Jackson is making 73.8 percent of his shots this year in the restricted area.

    His three-ball is on and off (33.3 percent), but for a 6’11” 19-year-old, the 0.8 makes per game outweigh the misses and inconsistency.

    Defensively, Jackson is still fouling at a wild rate of 5.4 times per 36 minutes. But he remains disruptive and impactful, averaging 1.6 blocks and holding opponents to 50.8 percent against him at the rim, while his 2.39 defensive plus-minus ranks No. 23 in the NBA.

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    Christian Petersen/Getty Images

    Only eight other NBA players have more double-doubles than Deandre Ayton.

    Already a force around the basket, the Phoenix Suns rookie is shooting 73.2 percent in the restricted area, the second-highest number behind Giannis Antetokounmpo’s (minimum 5.0 attempts). He’s become one of the game’s elite finishers, but also a top post scorer, with only LaMarcus Aldridge, Karl-Anthony Towns and Joel Embiid averaging more post-up field goals made.

    Knocking down a catch-and-shoot jumper per game as well (42.9 percent), Ayton continues to look comfortable in the mid-range. 

    He only takes 2.5 free throws in 31.2 minutes, and there are games when he isn’t as imposing as he should be for a skilled, 7’1″, 250-pound center. His defensive effort and impact have also been mixed all season.

    Otherwise, Ayton is building a Rookie of the Year case with enough production (16.7 points, 10.7 rebounds) and extreme efficiency (60.7 percent FG). He’s leaving the current frontrunner with little margin for error. 

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    LM Otero/Associated Press

    Ayton is knocking, but Luka Doncic still has the edge atop the rookie board, holding firm as the class’ leading scorer (19.6), its No. 2 assist man (4.9) and No. 3 rebounder (6.7). 

    He takes on more decision-making and play-initiation duties, working as both the Dallas Mavericks’ top option and secondary playmaker.

    Doncic’s 2.00 real plus-minus ranks No. 47 in the NBA (Ayton’s minus-1.09 ranks 253rd). He’s executing with special skills and basketball IQ, compared to Ayton, who’s leaned more on his tremendous physical profile around the basket.

    There is case to be made for both players in the Rookie of the Year race, but for a 19-year-old guard, Doncic’s consistent scoring punch, well-rounded production, fourth-quarter play and perceived impact help tip the scale in his favor as of January. 

          

    Stats courtesy of NBA.com, ESPN.com

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