The NBA season is young and some of the youngest players in the game are already making an immediate impact. Some rookies are making their presence felt providing a spark off the bench. Some rookies are succeeding with the pressure of starting and thriving at the moment. And some rookies who might have dropped in the draft are driving GMs who had an opportunity to select them, mad. Without further ado, here are the top five rookies in the NBA, right now.
1. Karl-Anthony Towns – Minnesota Timberwolves
*Photo via Getty Images
If you’re a Minnesota Timberwolves fan, there’s a lot to smile about these days. You might lose a lot of games this year but who cares; you have Karl-Anthony Towns. The former Kentucky Wildcat has hit the ground running in his first year and through nine games is averaging 15.7 points, 10.3 rebounds and 2.3 blocks, all in a cool 29 minutes. In the second game of his career against the Denver Nuggets, Towns recorded a career high in points and rebounds with 28 and 14, respectively. Oh by the way, he also tallied up four blocks.
It’s one of the reasons why the Timberwolves management is so excited about the New Jersey native along with the late great Flip Saunders, who is probably beaming down from heaven. Towns gets it done on both ends of the floor. His offensive repertoire is enough to post double digits in scoring and his activity and motor on the other end is contagious on a young ball-club. He’s also giving the Wolves an element that they did not have on the defensive side of the ball in recent history as a shot-blocker. As a scorer, Towns has shown an ability to consistently drain mid-range shots in addition to putting the ball on the floor, driving hard to the rim. His athleticism is key for Towns shooting over defenders once he’s near the cup and his versatility and youth will give opposing stretch fours fits, every night.
Towns looks comfortable in the league so far, albeit a small sample and is receiving the best education any young stretch-four could ask for with a champion and future Hall-of-Famer in Kevin Garnett as a teammate. With a starting five boasting a bevy of lottery picks in Andrew Wiggins, Ricky Rubio and Towns, the Wolves are well on their way to significant basketball in April soon, even if it doesn’t begin this year. It won’t be long until Towns receives the adoration from the basketball community that New Orleans Pelicans forward, Anthony Davis has been receiving recently.
2. Jahlil Okafor – Philadelphia 76ers
*Photo via NBAE
We all saw this coming. We all knew Jahlil Okafor would make an immediate impact for the Philadelphia 76ers and so far through eight games, the former Blue Devil has lived up to the billing. The Sixers will most likely make another trip to the lottery at seasons end, but Okafor is definitely worth the price of admission. Through nine games, the Chicago native is averaging 19 points, 6.8 rebounds and 1.8 blocks per game in 33 mins, carrying the offensive load for one of the worst scoring teams in the league. He has also posted a career high 26 points against the Boston Celtics and his latest victim, the Toronto Raptors.
Joel who? Okafor makes being a big look cool and his play has the city of “Brotherly Love” forgetting all about the talented center from Cameroon, the Sixers took in the lottery the previous year. Okafor leads all rookies in scoring and outside of a 10-point performance against the Utah Jazz and a 6-point performance last night, he hasn’t scored less than 18 points to start the season. With a post-game comparable to Tim Duncan and Hakeem “The Dream” Olajuwon, Okafor is scoring at will and it doesn’t seem like he will slow down anytime soon. Offense is the least of Okafor’s problem; it’s his defense and most notably, his free-throw shooting. To his credit, Okafor is defending well 1-on-1 and has shown an ability to block shots, recording four against the Toronto Raptors, his last time out, but the struggles on the defensive end are obvious.
Okafor has trouble guarding the pick-and-roll and has to deal with the emphasis-being on defense-as a pro, for the first time in his career, according to Jake Pavorsky of LibertyBallers/SB Nation. Okafor has to get used to playing 30 plus min a night because of his importance to the Sixers starting unit and conditioning over an 82-game stretch will also be another learning experience for the 19 year-old. For someone who will live at the free-throw line for the majority of his career, Okafor must improve on the easiest two’s he will score all game, shooting 51 percent in November. He’s already an All-Star caliber center. Free throws will make him a superstar.
3. Emmanuel Mudiay – Denver Nuggets
*Photo via USA Today
After trading away Ty Lawson to the Houston Rockets this past summer, the Denver Nuggets had a gaping hole at the lead guard position. With the seventh pick in the 2015 NBA Draft, the Nuggets found their answer in Emmanuel Mudiay. Mudiay took the Brandon Jennings route, forgoing collegiate ball for professional ranks overseas and so far, so good. All of the concerns from critics regarding Mudiay’s ability to run a team has subsided and Milwaukee Bucks head coach, Jason Kidd is a fan. “He’ll be better,” Kidd said, after coaching his Bucks to a 103-102 win over the Nuggets on Wednesday night. “He’s better already.” Its high praise from a future Hall-of-Famer but if Kidd sees something in this kid, we should all take notice. Mudiay, averaging 11.9 points and 6.8 assists and has led his Nuggets to a 5-4 record to begin the season and at 19 years old, has shown flashes of a future All-Star. He’s steady, patient, under control, has great court-vision, picks his spots wisely on offense and has some flair to his game.
Mudiay is also good at getting to the rim and changes speeds well, whether it’s in the half-court or in the open floor. Running an NBA franchise at 19 year-old is one thing, looking comfortable is another and that’s how Mudiay has looked thus far. To take the next step in his career, Mudiay has to develop a consistent jump-shot. It’s the same problem dynamic guards like Derrick Rose, John Wall and Russell Westbrook had to figure out and Mudiay is no different. Mudiay is shooting 34 percent from the field, 22 percent from 16 feet to three and 33 percent in three-point field goals. The free-throws aren’t any better and his defense is hit-and-miss. I expect Mudiay to play during All-Star Weekend in the rookie challenge game. And he should be in contention for the Rookie of the Year honors at the end of the year.
4. Kristaps Porzingis – New York Knicks
*Photo via NBAE
When the New York Knicks selected the Latvian born, Kristaps Porzingis fourth overall last June, every Knicks fan in attendance at the Barclays Center booed. Now, through nine games, those same fans and the rest of NY can’t get enough of him. Porzingis is starting alongside Carmelo Anthony and is holding his own early into his NBA career. At 7’3, Porzingis is dispelling all of the talk of Europeans not being tough or his wiry frame not being able to withstand the punishment of opposing NBA big’s by pretty much posterizing some of your favorite stretch-fours and collecting nine boards a game.
Against the Charlotte Hornets, Porzingis grabbed a career high 15 boards while also scoring 10 points; his fourth double-double of the season. He’s got Magic Johnson saying he was the steal of the draft, even though he was picked fourth overall. He’s even got Lakers Head Coach Byron Scott stating that he misjudged how long it would take Porzingis to develop as a big man. If D’Angelo Russell, the Lakers 2015 second overall pick, was playing as well as Porzingis, I doubt he makes those same comments. And the reason why Porzingis has everybody talking is because he isn’t American but has adjusted to the NBA game, despite a small sample size. Porzingis isn’t afraid to mix it up and bang down low in the post.
On offense, Porzingis is just as talented as the two selected before him. He can shoot from anywhere on the court, facing-up, off-screens, picking and popping, from three, it doesn’t matter. When I think about star potential for any rookie, it’s all about their deficiencies and Porzingis has a couple to correct going forward. Porzingis has to stay out of foul trouble, and keep his feet on the ground when closing out on shooters. With his length, Porzingis doesn’t have to jump to block shots and should take advantage of his superior height. Porzingis needs to continue to add weight to his frame and develop a post-game. Fortunately for Knicks president of basketball operations, Phil Jackson, who took a chance on the European big, Porzingis isn’t a 2-4 year project. In the second half of this season and into next season, I expect Porzingis to show glimpses of the player he is destined to be. In 24 minutes, Porzingis is averaging 11.5 points per game on 39 percent shooting, 4th overall among all rookies.
5. Justise Winslow – Miami Heat
*Photo via Getty Images
It’s quite clear that Pat Riley got a steal in the draft as Justise Winslow, the second Blue Devil selected in the lottery, fell to Miami at 10 this past June. Winslow’s specialty is defense and through the first nine games of his career, has earned the assignments of guarding LeBron James, DeMar Derozan, Paul George and James Harden. "I always took defense personal," Winslow said, according to the Boston Herald. "I was the youngest in my family so I couldn't really score on my siblings. So I had to play defense."
With Winslow on the court, the Heat are outscoring their opponents by 72 points, according to the Boston Herald. At 6’7, 225 pounds, Winslow enters the league a teenager but physically, a man, which allows him to guard some of the best players in the NBA. On offense, Winslow excels at attacking the rim and possess the size to finish strong through contact. Shooting is a challenge for the Texas native as well as creating offense. Being focused on the defensive end of the floor has helped Winslow earn minutes early and it’s only a matter of time until his offense catches up.