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LaMelo’s Return, Ant’s Surge, and One Final NBA Rookie Check-in

With just a few games left, has the Rookie of the Year race already been decided? Plus, we highlight two West rookies who could be postseason X factors, Obi Toppin’s struggles in New York, and Tyrese Haliburton’s promising glimpses as a focal point.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

As the NBA regular season winds down, our focus tends to shift toward what comes next: playoff matchups, championship chances, early shopping lists for draft night and free agency, and year-end awards balloting. Two months ago, Rookie of the Year seemed all but sewn up, with LaMelo Ball running away from the pack as the pace-setter of the go-go Hornets. But then Ball broke his wrist and Anthony Edwards started surging, and now, with just a few games left in the 2020-21 campaign, there might still be a bit of juice left in the ROY race after all.

Let’s check in on how those top rookies and a handful of other freshmen of note are faring as we near the finish line, starting with the just-returned playmaker in Charlotte:

LaMelo Ball, Hornets

The six weeks of rust have shown up on Ball’s shot—just 1-for-8 from outside the paint in his first two games back—and in some slight misfires on his customary audacious passes, contributing to 10 turnovers against Detroit and Miami:

But while Charlotte’s offense actually operated more efficiently by the numbers with LaMelo off the court than on it during his first two games back, you could still feel the impact that his return had on the Hornets. He revs up their pace, which goes through the roof whenever he’s on the court. He keys their ball movement; nearly 70 percent of their buckets came off an assist when LaMelo was in the game against the Pistons and Heat. He injects new possibility into every possession, no matter where on the court it starts:

Ball’s preternatural poise and duck-to-water transition to the NBA game helped foster the Hornets’ egalitarian and energetic identity; his size, versatility, and two-way playmaking helped vault Charlotte from the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings to legitimate playoff contention. That size could present head coach James Borrego with an intriguing new flavor of the small-ball units he’s been cooking up, too. The lineup of Ball, Terry Rozier, and Devonte’ Graham in the backcourt, with Miles Bridges (provided he’s healthy enough after clearing the league’s COVID-19 health and safety protocols) and PJ Washington up front, has played a grand total of 22 minutes thus far this season; the sample size is really small and could prove untenable defensively, but it feels like it has a hell of a lot of playmaking potential, and could be a tidy damn-the-torpedoes option to turn to in a win-or-go-home play-in game. (A healthy Gordon Hayward would be awfully nice too; he’s been out for a month with a sprained right foot but recently shed his walking boot, and his return hasn’t yet been ruled out.)

Returning for Charlotte’s final 10 games after missing the previous 21 should allow Ball to solidify one of the rookie crop’s most impressive statistical résumés: He still leads all rookies (minimum 500 minutes played) in assists and steals per game, value over replacement player, player efficiency rating, and box plus-minus; ranks second in points and rebounds per game; and is fifth in win shares per 48 minutes and sixth in total win shares. That, combined with the endless string of highlights and the clear impact he’s had on the Hornets’ surprise turnaround, might prompt voters to look past the 22-game, nearly 800-minute gap in actual floor time between Ball and Edwards, choosing the quality of his contributions over the quantity of the no. 1 pick’s when it comes time to fill out their Rookie of the Year ballots.


Anthony Edwards, Timberwolves

When D’Angelo Russell rejoined the Wolves after nearly two months on the shelf recovering from arthroscopic knee surgery, I wondered whether his return would impede the progress that Edwards had shown as an offensive weapon when paired with Karl-Anthony Towns and under new head coach Chris Finch. So far, so good: Finch has brought Russell off the bench, allowing the 25-year-old to hunt his own shot and fuel Minnesota’s second unit while giving Towns and Edwards the opportunity to continue building their chemistry.

Towns has remained a monstrously efficient scorer, while Russell is shining in a reserve role, averaging a shade under 19 points on solid shooting efficiency with six assists in 26 minutes per game since coming back. Edwards has also continued to get plenty of chances: He’s led the Wolves in shot attempts since Russell’s return, ranking second in frontcourt touches and points per game, and averaging just under 22 points, six rebounds, and 3.5 assists per game.

His scoring efficiency has skyrocketed when playing alongside Russell. Ant’s posting a .618 true shooting percentage when playing with Russell since he came back, thanks in part to the introduction of another dangerous scorer and playmaker creating some cleaner lanes for Edwards to drive and cut through:

Minnesota’s gone 8-5 in the 13 games that KAT, Russell, and Edwards have played together since Russell’s reentry, scoring at a top-five rate when they share the floor. The issue, as it always seems to be for these Wolves, comes on the other end: Despite all that offensive punch, they’re still a net negative in those minutes, because they’re giving up an obscene 125.5 points per 100—a historically bad defensive rating—with their top three talents on the floor over the past month.

Edwards is young, inexperienced, and prone to off-ball narcolepsy, but he has the physical tools and aggressive mentality to develop into a helpful perimeter defender. There’s a chance that lineups featuring him, intriguing fellow rookie Jaden McDaniels, and wing stopper Josh Okogie could provide the sort of athleticism and versatility Minnesota needs to produce an above-average defense for the first time in ages. In very limited minutes, the lineup featuring those three with Towns and Russell has held opponents to just a point per possession. That’s a promising start that Finch and Co. must build on, because it’s hard to see the offensive potential of a Towns-Edwards-Russell core amounting to much until the Wolves’ best players consistently commit to getting stops.

Tyrese Haliburton, Kings

It’s not quite true that the 2020 draft’s no. 12 pick has been a rock-solid metronome of consistency throughout his rookie season. It’s notable, though, that even during his low points, Haliburton has still performed like a league-average combo guard—a level of production and reliability sorely needed by a franchise that has struggled over the years to establish any type of foundation.

The 21-year-old has provided a steady source of complementary playmaking and efficient shotmaking, drilling 40.9 percent of his 3-pointers and dishing assists on nearly a quarter of Sacramento’s offensive possessions when he’s on the court. He’s continued to show great poise, vision, and touch as a facilitator while taking care of the ball, ranking in the top 20—overall, not just among rookies—in assist-to-turnover ratio. One ludicrous-but-fun stat: The only other rookies ever to average at least 15 points and five assists per 36 minutes on a true shooting percentage as high as Haliburton’s were Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan. Decent company.

Haliburton has mostly rung up those impressive numbers as a supporting cast member in Kings lineups keyed by leap-making point guard De’Aaron Fox, sharpshooting guard Buddy Hield, and the eminently dependable Harrison Barnes. But after Fox entered the health and safety protocols, Haliburton slid into the starting point guard spot and more than held his own, averaging 18.5 points and nine assists in 35.6 minutes per game over his first four starts.

With the keys to the Kings offense, Haliburton is taking four more shots per game and dramatically boosting both his usage and assist rates. His patient probing and measured pace helped keep Sacramento’s attack humming in Fox’s absence, nearly knocking off Stephen Curry’s Warriors, and helping deliver surprise wins over the Mavericks and Lakers:

Haliburton’s run at the controls was interrupted by a knee injury that is expected to end his rookie season. It offered a promising glimpse, though, of what he might look like in a more central, higher usage role, which could prove useful as general manager Monte McNair works this offseason to retool the roster in search of a combination that could end the NBA’s longest-running postseason drought.

Facundo Campazzo, Nuggets

Campazzo spent more than a decade collecting trophies in Argentina and Spain before coming stateside this season; that makes the 30-year-old elder statesman of this class something of a cheat, a vet in rook’s clothing. The former Real Madrid and Argentine national star started the season trying to elbow his way into a crowded Nuggets backcourt rotation. But after a spate of injuries—to star Jamal Murray, key backup Monte Morris, starting shooting guard Will Barton, and now PJ Dozier—Campazzo has become an awfully important figure in Denver, relishing the chance to test his mettle in starter’s minutes against the best competition in the world.

“I just wanted the opportunity,” Campazzo recently told Mike Singer of The Denver Post, explaining his decision to leave superstardom and perennial EuroLeague title contention in Madrid to sign a two-year, $6.4 million contract with the Nuggets. “I don’t know if my level can work here or my game can fit here, but I just needed the opportunity to try at least. I don’t want to finish my career and think, ‘OK, I didn’t try at least,’ you know?”

Denver’s ongoing success amid all its rotational shuffle owes primarily to the continued brilliance of MVP favorite Nikola Jokic, with ascendant scorer Michael Porter Jr. (averaging 25 points per game on 57 percent shooting since Murray’s injury) deserving plenty of credit, too. But Campazzo’s experience, playmaking savvy, and pestering on-ball defense have also paid dividends. He’s averaging just under nine points, six assists, three rebounds, and 1.5 steals in 31 minutes per game since Murray went down, shooting 35 percent from 3-point range on 4.5 attempts per game, and taking just enough of the playmaking burden off of Jokic’s shoulders to keep the Nuggets’ offensive machine from breaking down.

Campazzo’s an absolute wizard with the ball, routinely eliciting “oh, shit” exultations with his penchant for look-away drop-offs and firing fastballs through keyholes:

That flair for the dramatic, though, comes attached to a smart, veteran table-setter who understands the value of making the simple connective-tissue passes that turn good possessions into great ones. Campazzo has posted a 3.4-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio since Murray’s injury; Denver has outscored opponents by 5.4 points per 100 possessions in Campazzo’s minutes during that span. That’s not all him drafting off of Jokic, either: The Nuggets are plus-25 in 76 minutes during this run with Campazzo orchestrating while Jokic sits, as the pint-sized point guard wheels and deals to the likes of JaMychal Green, Paul Millsap, and whoever else happens to be healthy that night for Mike Malone’s club.

It’s unclear how many of Denver’s wounded guards will be back in form by the opening round of the playoffs; the 5-foot-10 Campazzo may well wind up playing the largest postseason role of any rookie. That may come back to bite the Nuggets, especially if opponents can take advantage of his generously listed height on the defensive end. Not that he’ll make it easy on them: Campazzo ranks in the 86th percentile in steal rate among guards, according to Cleaning the Glass, and averages more deflections per 36 minutes than anybody but chaos agents Matisse Thybulle, T.J. McConnell, Killian Hayes, and De’Anthony Melton.

Whether he soars or slumps in the postseason remains to be seen, but it’s a good bet that Campazzo—a multi-time EuroLeague and Liga ACB champion who has played in gold-medal games at the FIBA AmeriCup and World Cup—won’t be overwhelmed by the moment. He came to Denver to learn how he’d fare on the biggest and brightest stage in the sport. He’s about to find out.

Desmond Bane, Grizzlies

It feels like the Grizzlies have needed a shooter on the wing since time immemorial. A dude who didn’t need to have the ball in his hands a ton, but who could quickly and cleanly send it through the nylon at a high rate whenever he did. That’s exactly what they’ve found in Bane, who exited TCU after four years as one of the most ready-made pros in the draft class, and who has begun his NBA career by doing precisely what it said he would on the label (or, at least, in KOC’s draft guide): stroke jumpers.

Bane ranks fifth among rookies in 3-point makes, and seventh in the entire league in long-range accuracy, drilling 44.8 percent of his long balls. He’s made an immediate impact as a catch-and-shoot threat, whether stationed in the corners or smartly sliding along the arc to create better passing angles for the Grizzlies’ playmakers to find him with a kick-out.

When defenders race out at him to run him off the line, Bane’s got enough wiggle to drive the closeout, and what he lacks in explosive athleticism (just 55 percent at the rim, a 22nd percentile mark among wing players this season) he makes up for with a deft touch in the floater game, lofting the ball up from a variety of angles before shot blockers can pounce:

Bane might not have a superstar’s upside, but Memphis has scored and defended at an above-average level with him on the court—a rarity for rookies, especially ones drafted at the end of the first round. Head coach Taylor Jenkins can turn to him for dependable floor spacing and perimeter defense across wing positions … and, in a pinch, on point guards and even small-ball power forwards. In fact, many Grizzlies fans would likely prefer to see Jenkins turn to Bane more often; Memphis has outscored opponents by a very strong 7.5 points per 100 non-garbage-time possessions when he shares the floor with starters Ja Morant, Kyle Anderson, Jonas Valanciunas, and Dillon Brooks.

Every team needs guys like this. Memphis found one at no. 30. These dudes know how to draft.

Isaac Okoro, Cavaliers

Like Patrick Williams, the tantalizing wing prospect selected one spot ahead of him, no. 5 pick Okoro walked into one of the NBA’s toughest roles for a rookie: guarding the league’s top-tier scoring threats of all sizes and shapes, from Trae Young to LeBron James.

Over Cleveland’s past 15 games, the Auburn product has had to deal with the likes of Stephen Curry, Bradley Beal, Jimmy Butler, Devin Booker, Pascal Siakam, Brandon Ingram, and Terry Rozier. As you’d expect, Okoro has had some tough nights on the job—his fair share of possessions when, despite doing his damnedest to stick with his man through every screen and feint, and fighting to get a good contest on the shot, that shot still found the bottom of the net:

There’s also been plenty of good: the trips when that effort is rewarded with a miss, when he shows both the off-ball awareness to slide over to deter a drive before recovering to contest, and where he stays with a quicksilver guard step-for-step before absorbing contact and snuffing out a shot attempt:

Those sorts of plays are why J.B. Bickerstaff has entrusted a 20-year-old with assignments that produce the eighth-toughest average matchup difficulty of any defender to log 1,000 minutes, according to The BBall Index. It doesn’t always go great—opponents are shooting about 4.8 percent better with the 6-foot-5 Okoro guarding them than they do on average, according to NBA Advanced Stats’ tracking—but his combination of strength, versatility, on-ball utility, and off-ball smarts should allow him to be a plus perimeter defender for a long time to come.

The bigger question is how Okoro will develop on the other end. Okoro has averaged a fairly quiet nine points per game on 43/30/75 shooting splits while rarely getting to the foul line, struggling to finish at the rim, and averaging just two assists per 36 minutes of floor time … all of which made his performance against the Suns on Tuesday so eye-popping.

With point guard Darius Garland sidelined by an ankle sprain, Okoro got more opportunities to handle the ball and create, and he made the most of them. Against one of the NBA’s best teams, Okoro exploded for 32 points—a dozen more than his previous career high—on 10-for-16 shooting to go with a career-best-tying six assists in 47 minutes of work. Okoro had it all working, knitting together disparate threads he’s shown at times this season—confident downhill drives right at a shot blocker; stepback jumpers and quick-trigger catch-and-shoot looks; enough patience and craft in the pick-and-roll to keep defenders on his hip and find open shooters; tough finishes through contact with either hand—into a cohesive offensive whole that knocked the Suns back on their heels and nearly helped the Cavs pull a major upset.

It was an exceptional outing, in both senses of the word; we probably shouldn’t expect Okoro to suddenly start using 20 percent of Cleveland’s possessions, running a ton of pick-and-rolls, and becoming one of the Cavs’ primary late-game ball handlers and shot creators. Still: Finding out that all of that’s in there somewhere, even if only in a nascent and still-buffering form, seems like a pretty cool development for the Cavs, who could use some more perimeter juice alongside Garland and Collin Sexton, and need to start figuring out what to make of their young core.

Tyrese Maxey, 76ers

Maxey opened a lot of eyes earlier this season when he erupted for 39 points—the second-highest scoring game by any rookie thus far—for a wounded Sixers club that ran out just seven players against the Nuggets. Once Philadelphia got healthy, though, the 21st pick once again found himself behind Ben Simmons, Danny Green, Seth Curry, Shake Milton, and Furkan Korkmaz on the depth chart; he averaged just 10 minutes per game from the start of February through mid-March, scrapping and clawing for opportunities on a veteran club with championship aspirations.

But when Curry sprained his ankle and Milton started scuffling recently, head coach Doc Rivers called Maxey’s number, giving the rookie a longer look and a chance to work his way back into rotation minutes. He responded by showing signs of growth in his game, especially during a recent seven-game stretch in which he averaged 11.6 points and 2.4 assists in 18.5 minutes per game, using nearly a quarter of the Sixers’ offensive possessions during his floor time and providing efficient scoring and playmaking off the Philly bench.

He’s quick enough to dust defenders off the bounce and attacks the basket with purpose, taking nearly 60 percent of his shots in the paint, shooting 61 percent at the rim, and evincing a soft touch on runners and floaters:

His jumper remains a work in progress—just 17-for-52 (32.7 percent) outside the paint since the All-Star break—but he looks more confident in it, more willing to let it fly. I’m no shot doctor, but his mechanics seem smooth, his release looks fine, and he’s making 86 percent of his free throws; I wouldn’t bet against the shot coming along. The more it does, the tighter defenses will have to play him on the perimeter, which will open up more driving and playmaking opportunities. If he can build on that confidence and nudge those percentages north, he could be an awfully intriguing piece of Philly’s guard rotation as soon as next season.

The arrival of trade-deadline acquisition George Hill has rounded out a strong second unit that features Milton, Korkmaz, defensive menace Matisse Thybulle, and Dwight Howard; I wouldn’t expect Maxey to factor too heavily into Philly’s postseason plans. It wouldn’t shock me, though, if at some point during the postseason, the Sixers offense stalls, and Doc—in need of something to get it moving—decides to dust off the kid who’s got more north-south oomph in the half court than anyone else on the roster, and gives him a chance to try to adrenalize the attack with a few pedal-to-the-metal drives.

Obi Toppin, Knicks

To the extent that there’s a gray cloud to be located within the blindingly bright silver lining of New York’s shocking season, it’s that Toppin—a high-scoring 4 purported to be one of the most NBA-ready offensive players in the draft when the Knicks selected him eighth—has scarcely participated in the festivities.

Julius Randle cementing himself as an All-NBA-caliber fixture at power forward has relegated Toppin to 11 minutes per game of mop-up duty in which he’s had to play a drastically different role than the one that made him the national collegiate player of the year. At Dayton, Toppin was at his best as a rim-running lob threat who could slice to the basket, rise above the defense, and finish loudly at the rim. But playing alongside the Knicks’ assortment of rim-protecting non-stretch centers—Mitchell Robinson, Nerlens Noel, Taj Gibson, Norvel Pelle—has led to Toppin spending a surprising amount of his rookie season spacing the floor, with 3-pointers accounting for nearly twice as large a share of his shot attempts as a Knick as they did at Dayton last season. And Toppin’s not yet a good enough shooter—31.8 percent above the break and just 22.6 percent from the corners, according to NBA.com—to make a real impact in that sort of role.

Combine that with the typically steep learning curve that rookie big men face on defense—an incline made all the more daunting by playing for Tom Thibodeau—and Obi seemed to spend most of his first three months as a pro just kind of … floating. Not really connected to the action unfolding around him, or all that capable of influencing it.

Toppin’s still buried behind Randle in the rotation, and the production’s still humble: He’s averaging just four points and 2.3 rebounds. Quiet as it’s kept, though, he’s started to show signs over the past few weeks that the lights are coming on. It’s the little stuff that can help tilt the possession game—making multiple efforts for defensive rebounds, closing out to stall a drive and force a reset, contesting without fouling at the rim, flipping his hips to slide with a driver and keep him from getting to the basket, running the floor hard to get good post position, etc.:

Toppin still makes mistakes, but he seems more committed to, and capable of, making plays—especially those quiet ones. Maybe that’s because playing with Derrick Rose has afforded him more opportunities to make loud ones, too:

Rose’s arrival from Detroit in exchange for Dennis Smith Jr. and Charlotte’s 2021 second-round pick—a deal that looked good at the time, and now stands as the best piece of in-season business New York has done in ages—has transformed the Knicks in a number of ways. One of the quieter ones: Toppin’s averaging about 15 points and nine rebounds per 36 minutes since the trade deadline when he shares the floor with Rose, and lineups featuring the no. 8 pick and the former MVP have outscored opponents by 86 points in 176 minutes in that span.

As it turns out, when you give him the chance to run with a point guard who likes to hunt early offense, play pick-and-roll, and reward his bigs for cutting and moving, Obi Toppin looks a hell of a lot more like a lottery pick … and maybe what looked like a gray cloud is actually just more silver lining on the most successful Knicks season in nearly a decade.