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Zion, Ja, and the NBA’s Most Impressive Rookies at the All-Star Break

The Rising Stars Challenge may not feature much defense, but it will feature a first-year class capable of putting on a show, headlined by the electric talents of Williamson and Morant

Scott Laven/Getty Images

The NBA’s rookies and sophomores will take center stage on Friday night, tipping off All-Star Weekend in Chicago with the 2020 NBA Rising Stars Challenge. Teams of first- and second-year players will square off in the U.S. vs. the World showcase, vying for viral attention, bragging rights, and the chance to gain iron-fisted control over geopolitical matters of vital importance to the ongoing existence of humankind.

OK, maybe not so much that last part. But definitely the bit about trying to generate a bunch of oohs and ahhs with a cool dribble, dunk, or dime.

As we did a couple of months back, let’s check in on some of the notable freshmen who will be suiting up in the exhibition. I can think of no better way to prepare for what we all expect will be a slow-paced, precisely executed, defense-first affair. (In the interest of covering some new ground, I’m not going to revisit every Rising Stars rookie whom I looked at last time. My apologies to those who would love updated takes on Memphis’s Brandon Clarke, Miami’s Kendrick Nunn and Tyler Herro, and Golden State’s Eric Paschall.)

First, though, a quick note on a couple of the sophomores:

Luka Doncic and Trae Young both rank top six in the NBA in points per game, top three in assists per game, and were voted starters for the actual All-Star Game on Sunday night. Yes, they are second-year players. No, they should not be playing in this game.

My hope is that they each do one (1) rad thing in their first two minutes of floor time—maybe Trae nutmegs three World defenders in one fell swoop; maybe Luka pays homage to AO and Jason Richardson with a soft bounce off a defender’s head into a Hardenian double stepback (it’s not like they’re going to call you for steps here, my guy)—and then take the rest of the night off. They have skipped a grade. They are past this.

Zion Williamson, Pelicans

The no. 1 pick isn’t past this yet, because he has played all of 10 NBA games. What he’s shown in those 10 games, though? Sweet fancy Moses. Quoth the man himself: “I expected to make an impact, but I didn’t expect to do nothing like this.”

The Pelicans were 17-27 before Williamson’s debut; they’re 6-5 since his arrival, including a win in Indiana on Saturday in which neither Zion nor Brandon Ingram played. Since Williamson’s first game on January 22, New Orleans has the NBA’s no. 6 offense and no. 8 defense, and has outscored opponents by a very healthy 5.8 points per 100 non-garbage-time possessions, according to Cleaning the Glass. Look specifically at Williamson’s minutes, and the numbers get even more monstrous: The Pelicans are blowing teams’ doors off by nearly 14 points per 100 with Zion on the court, scoring and defending like a member of the NBA’s elite rather than a team scratching and clawing to get back into the race for the no. 8 seed.

Williamson is very much at the center of that. He stepped into the league midway through the season and hit the ground sprinting, averaging 22.1 points, 7.5 rebounds, and 2.2 assists in 27.4 minutes per game—a level of outlandish per-minute rookie production that puts Zion in the company of dominant first-year forces Wilt Chamberlain and Joel Embiid.

Of note: Wilt and Joel were 23 and 22 years old, respectively, when they played their first game; Zion is 19. (He’s also about half a foot shorter than them.) This dude is the fourth-youngest player in the league, clearly not yet in pristine game shape, and already patiently and methodically feeding Hassan Whiteside into a wood chipper:

He’s giving defenses heart attacks every time he moves into the paint, and he’s barely even gotten out of the starting blocks. I have no idea what Zion Williamson will look like when he’s fully operational, and I’m not sure anyone else does, either. What a terrifying proposition for defenses. What an exciting thing to watch unfold.

Rui Hachimura, Wizards

You’d be forgiven if you’d forgotten about Hachimura, the no. 9 pick in last June’s draft. The groin injury he picked up in mid-December was supposed to cost him just a “couple of weeks,” but instead cost him 23 games. Despite rejoining a team suddenly in the middle of a playoff push—for all its defensive failings, Washington is just three games out of the no. 8 spot in the East—Hachimura went right back into Scott Brooks’s starting lineup and promptly set about reminding us what he brings to the table:

Among rookies who have played at least 200 minutes, the 22-year-old ranks fourth in points per game and second in rebounds per game, while shooting a respectable 48.7 percent from the field in a moderate-usage role for a team that ranks 13th in offensive efficiency. The 6-foot-8, 230-pound power forward moves fluidly around the floor with a knack for finding pockets of space in which to make himself a threat. He has the frame and strength to finish through contact inside, shooting 66 percent at the rim, and while his 3-point shot remains a work in progress (he’s shooting 23.6 percent on fewer than two attempts per game), the purity of his stroke from midrange (a sparkling 51 percent from 14 feet to the arc) and the foul line (82.6 percent) offer hope that he can stretch his range out to the higher-value areas one day.

That said, the concerns that draftniks raised when Hachimura came out of Gonzaga persist. He’s limited as a passer and playmaker, logging just 46 assists in 864 minutes. (In fairness, he mitigates that by turning the ball over on a microscopic 7.1 percent of his offensive possessions.) The bigger issue, though, is how Hachimura struggles to hold up on defense against either bigger 4s or quicker perimeter players.

You can’t hang all of the Wizards’ defensive failings on the rookie; you don’t rank dead last in the league in points allowed per possession because one newbie can’t stop anybody. Still, the numbers paint a grim picture of Hachimura’s work on that end: He ranks 89th out of 93 power forwards in ESPN’s defensive real plus-minus, dead last at his position by FiveThirtyEight’s RAPTOR metric, and dead last among all rookies in defensive player impact plus minus. The Wizards concede a wince-worthy 121.1 points per 100 in his minutes—the kind of performance that makes a player difficult to continue running out there, even if he can get you 20 on a given night.

One potential cause for optimism: Washington has fared much better defensively, albeit in limited minutes, with veteran center Ian Mahinmi on the court alongside Hachumira than when young big man Thomas Bryant is in the middle. Whether Brooks sticks with Mahinmi in the starting lineup once Bryant’s ready to return from the stress reaction in his right foot remains to be seen, but a steadier diet of lineups in which Hachimura is backstopped by a stabilizing vet could help minimize his mistakes and allow him to focus on what he does best right now: putting the ball in the hole.

PJ Washington, Hornets

No rookie had a more triumphant introduction to the big show this season than Washington. The no. 12 pick stormed out of the gates with a 27-point barrage in his NBA debut, going 7-for-11 from 3-point range—an NBA record for most long-range makes by a rookie in his first game, getting him nearly one-fifth of the way to matching the number of triples he hit in two years at Kentucky after just one pro game.

The 21-year-old has since blown past his collegiate 3-point total. He’s also contributing on the glass as a complementary playmaker, and as a versatile defender capable of taking assignments up and down the positional spectrum. Washington spends the bulk of his time guarding power forwards, according to NBA Advanced Stats’ matchup data—stretch bigs like Lauri Markkanen and Jaren Jackson Jr., more traditional types like Julius Randle—but has also done plenty of work at every other spot in the lineup, whether it’s bodying up opposing centers (Myles Turner, Andre Drummond) or hanging with guards off switches on the perimeter (Garrett Temple, Luke Kennard).

It’s not easy for a rookie, even a polished one, to be a positive contributor to an NBA defense straight out of the draft. Washington has pulled it off, though: Charlotte allows 7.2 fewer points per 100 possessions in his minutes, giving up fewer offensive rebounds and committing fouls less frequently.

“I was like, jeez, man, it’s like this dude has been doing this for a long time,” veteran Marvin Williams, who reached a buyout agreement with the Hornets before joining up with the league-leading Bucks, told James Herbert of CBS Sports in December. “It’s kind of scary, honestly. … You only have to tell him something one time, he’s going to pick it up right now. And that’s even if you have to tell him.”

Washington’s malleability allows coach James Borrego to think boldly as he envisions what the most competitive version of his Hornets might eventually look like. With Williams, who had been averaging just under 20 minutes a game at power forward and center, now out of the picture, Borrego recently said he might take a longer look at how Washington and 2018 no. 12 pick Miles Bridges work as a super small-ball combo. The 6-foot-7, 230-pound Washington would slide up to the 5, with the 6-foot-6, 225-pound Bridges (who’s quietly on something of a tear in the past couple of weeks) stepping in at the 4. Perhaps every experiment is viable and any rotational configuration is permissible in a post-Rockets world, though it’s worth noting that such lineups have gotten drilled by 12.2 points per 100 possessions in limited usage. Whether the two lottery selections fit together in the frontcourt remains to be seen. What’s clear, though, is that Charlotte believes in Washington enough to give him every opportunity to make it work.

Washington’s touch has come and gone lately; he’s shot just 43.9 percent from the field, 32.8 percent from 3-point range, and 56.4 percent from the free throw line in 19 games since returning from a two-week absence with a fractured finger. (The vaunted rookie wall might be a factor, too. Washington told Roderick Boone of The Athletic that, once he finishes his Rising Stars duties, “I’m not doing nothing until practice [next Tuesday].”) Even as he scuffles, though, he still shows something in nearly every game—his footwork and hands as he rolls to the rim, his poise when attacking a closeout, his commitment to working over smaller defenders in the post when he draws a mismatch. He never seems to be in a hurry; he always seems to be moving with the rhythm of the game rather than frantically trying to catch up to it.

Again: That’s rare for a rookie. Then again, it sounds like Washington is a rare rookie.

“I mean, you can quote me right now,” Williams said in December. “There’s no way that he’s not going to be in the final running for Rookie of the Year.”

RJ Barrett, Knicks

In late November, Barrett appeared to be on the path to being a rare bright spot in another hope-crushing Knicks season. So, naturally, things have taken a more dire turn since.

The no. 3 pick’s production has dipped virtually across the board. He’s shooting 36.6 percent from the field and 30.4 percent from the 3-point line since the start of December, with only one more assist (46) than turnover (45). The Knicks have been outscored by 188 points in his 778 minutes in that span—the worst plus-minus mark on the team, and eighth worst in the entire league. Tough stuff.

Every bit of sunshine is followed by a gray cloud. Glass half full: Even with defenses unconcerned by his jumper and sagging back to wall off the paint, Barrett has remained a reasonably high-volume source of dribble penetration, bulldozing his way into the lane to the tune of just under 10 drives per game, third most among rookies. Glass half empty: His lack of explosive athleticism severely hampers his chances of success once he gets in among the tall trees; he’s shooting just 33.5 percent on those attempts, the second-worst field goal percentage among 99 players who’ve logged at least 250 drives this season. (The only player with a lower hit rate, Charlotte point guard Devonte’ Graham, is 5 inches shorter and about 20 pounds lighter.)

On the whole, Barrett attempts nearly half his shots within 4 feet of the basket—a fantastic rate for a wing player. But he converts only a little more than half those shots—an awful rate for a wing player. His buckets rarely seem easy; even the ones that go down often require more double-clutching, contortion, and theatrics than you’d like to see from a player with his size and physical gifts.

It feels like Barrett can be a freight train in the open court … and then you see that he’s scoring less than a point per transition possession, putting him in just the 24th percentile in the league, according to Synergy Sports. He fares better working out of the post, ranking in the 68th percentile in points produced per possession on the block … but he barely ever gets any looks there, with a mere 26 post-ups to his credit, accounting for just over 3 percent of his offensive portfolio. He’s shown a propensity for getting to the charity stripe—he’s got a top-20 free throw rate among swingmen, just a tick below Bradley Beal’s—but he leaves a ton of money on the table, making just 61.1 percent of his freebies.

Barrett’s aggression, physicality, and flashes of attentive off-ball defense offer cause for optimism that he’ll continue to smooth out the wrinkles in his game. (Indeed, there are arguments to be made that he’s taken some developmental steps even within the confines of a disappointing season.) If the Knicks’ next front office, which will reportedly be led by longtime CAA power broker Leon Rose, can add more viable shooters to a team that ranks 28th in the NBA in 3-point attempts per game and 3-point shooting percentage, Barrett might find clearer paths to the rim and less help defense once he gets there; a sharp uptick in interior effectiveness, and in overall efficiency, could follow.

The context is going to matter a lot for Barrett. It seems unlikely he’ll blossom into the kind of blue-chip superstar who can transform the Knicks’ fortunes single-handedly. He’s got a chance to help, though—provided they can give him some first.

Ja Morant, Grizzlies

I’ve gushed about Morant a handful of times already this season, so I won’t belabor this. Morant and the Grizzlies have been must-see TV for months, but they’ve also just been flat-out good for a while: Since Morant returned from a four-game absence due to back spasms on December 9, Memphis has gone 22-10, seventh best in the NBA.

One reason for their surge: The Grizzlies have been great in tight games, going 9-4 in that span in games when the score is within five points in the final five minutes, and scoring 115.5 points per 100 “clutch” possessions. Morant is the catalyst for all that late-game success. The 20-year-old point guard has shot 14-for-22 (63.6 percent) in clutch situations during this remarkable run, dusting defenders off the dribble, creating space for all manner of layups, leaners, and floaters, and sometimes just bringing the roof down on a would-be rim protector’s crown:

The Grizzlies’ improbable push for the West’s no. 8 seed is about more than just Morant. (That push is getting more and more realistic by the day, by the way; they enter the All-Star break four games and a head-to-head tiebreaker up on the Trail Blazers.) Personnel chief Zach Kleiman has put together a deep and talented team, and head coach Taylor Jenkins has managed it wonderfully. Jaren Jackson Jr. and Jonas Valanciunas complement each other beautifully up front. Dillon Brooks has played well enough to earn a $35 million contract extension. Brandon Clarke and De’Anthony Melton are annihilating opponents off the bench. There’s plenty of credit to go around. This is Ja’s team, though; it goes where he goes. And at this point, I wouldn’t be too quick to put a ceiling on how high that can be.

Also, real quick: I understand why Grizzlies fans were ticked off that Suns guard Devin Booker, and not Morant, got the nod to replace injured Damian Lillard in Sunday’s All-Star Game. It seems like rewarding a good-stats-bad-team guy over a player who’s directly producing wins for one of the league’s most remarkable stories. As I wrote a couple of weeks ago when I picked Booker as a reserve, though, I don’t think Booker deserves that tag anymore. (If he ever did.)

Booker is flirting with a historic combination of production and efficiency in Phoenix; he’s on pace to be one of just seven players ever to average 26 points and six assists with a true shooting percentage north of .600, joining two guys who are in the Hall of Fame and four more who will be. He outpaces Morant in a slew of advanced metrics and actually affects winning himself: The Suns outscore their opposition with Booker on the floor (by a bit more than the Grizz outscore opponents in Morant’s minutes, for what it’s worth) and just get trucked when he’s off it. He’s really, really good, and even accounting for team quality, he’s been more deserving of an All-Star berth than Morant this season.

Ja, for his part, appears to have taken the decision in stride:

Damn straight it will. For now, though, we’ll have to tune in on Friday to catch Morant’s act. If you haven’t yet, trust me: It’s worth it.