NBA rookie rankings shouldn't be a popularity contest. If you visit NBA.com, ESPN and elsewhere, that's what you'll get. The question is which players had real value for the month of February, not which players attempted the most shots. There's a lot of talent in this rookie class, it just seems like they're rarely ranked on that talent. Let's take a look at the league's rookies for 2011-12, and how their talent stacked up for the month of February.
1. Ricky Rubio - Point Guard - Minnesota Timberwolves
Part of the knock on Rubio pre-draft was his shoddy shooting. Surprise, he's shooting shoddily in 2012. Rubio shot 36% from the field in February, but his total impact barely edges out Kyrie Irving. Almost single-handedly, he has helped turn around the Minnesota Timberwolves to the point that they are currently a .500 team. I'm going to repeat that-- Minnesota is a .500 team. Rubio's offensive leadership is spectacular, and he's playing smart defense to match. Rubio's throwback style is apparent in the numbers-- 11 points, 7.5 assists and 2.5 steals for a team that went 7 and 7 in February. In the Western Conference, to boot.
2. Kenneth Faried - Power Forward - Denver Nuggets
Without much fanfare, Kenneth Faried joined the starting lineup for the Nuggets in February. In those games, he's averaging 8 points and 8 rebounds-- nothing that should jump off the page. But given that Faried only averages 22 minutes per start, that production is nasty. If Faried were playing the full 36, that production would average out to 13 points, 13 rebounds, a steal and two blocks. The advanced stats love this kid, as he's sporting the highest ws/48 and PER of any rookie starter. The "manimal" nickname certainly suits him...
3. Kyrie Irving - Point Guard - Cleveland Cavaliers
Kyrie Irving put up phenomenal scoring numbers in January. He averaged 19 points on 13 attempts thanks to 54% shooting. In February, however, that offense fell apart. It took Irving 16 shots to score 18 points as his shooting sank to 40% from the field. He's averaging 7 more minutes per game in February, and the increased role isn't suiting him. Irving has a lot of talent, but February was a frustrating month for the rookie.
Despite the tough month, Irving sits barely, just barely behind the two above. He's taking good care of the ball (better than January), passing efficiently and defending well. For a 6'1" guard, averaging a steal and a block per game is pretty remarkable. The top three here is pretty much a toss-up.
4. Gustavo Ayon - Forward/Center - New Orleans Hornets
This guy is a hair behind Faried and easily the top undrafted rookie of 2011-12. He was picked up after the season started with a buyout of his Spanish ACB contract. In February, Ayon tossed up 8 points, 8 rebounds, a steal and a block in 25 minutes. It amazes me that there is talent like this available outside of the draft, but so few teams every explore it.
5. Isaiah Thomas - Point Guard - Sacramento Kings
The last pick of the 2011 NBA Draft has been paying dividends for Sacramento. The 5'9" Isaiah Thomas started the last four games for the Kings, averaging 20 points, 7 assists and 4 rebounds while entering the rare 50/40/90 club from the field. Specifically, Thomas shot 51% from the field, 45% from the perimeter and 93% at the line. Sure, the sample is small, but you've got to give a player credit when they're given a chance and they follow through.
6. Kemba Walker - Point Guard - Charlotte Bobcats
Yes, and only slightly above Brandon Knight. Walker and Knight are producing in a similar fashion, but Walker is showing a slight edge in passing efficiency and the ability to get to the line. Kemba put up a 4.3:1 assist-to-turnover ratio in February (!), and earned 5 trips to the free throw line per game. The former showed a better control of the offense, the latter allowed Walker to produce the same points per attempt as Brandon Knight, despite the fact that Knight shot 6 percent better from the field.
7. Brandon Knight - Guard - Detroit Pistons
Given that turnovers have been the biggest problem in Knight's game, he should be proud of his ball control in February. Knight averaged 1.8 TO's per contest this month, down from 3.1 in January. He's still not passing, averaging only 3.8 assists per game, and there are a few other troubling factors. He's 48th amongst rookies in steal rate, which is an issue given that point guards are usually the most active in passing lanes. He's also not getting to the line, attempting only 2.3 free throws per game this month. The improvement in ball handling is positive, but there's little to nothing else to get excited about yet.
8. Bismack Biyombo - Forward/Center - Charlotte Bobcats
Blocks, dunks and boards. That's all you get here. Biyombo became a starter in February, holding down the center position for the Cats. In February, Bismack has recorded 5.6 points, 7.5 rebounds and 2.2 blocks in 25 minutes. He's only attempting 4 shots per game, but connecting on 54% of them. What is most remarkable is his body control, given that he's all hustle-bound and blocky, yet he picks up just 2.5 fouls per contest. If given 36 minutes to play with, 8 points, 11 rebounds and 3 blocks are in order. His lack of foul trouble makes him look like the anti-Amir.
9. Nikola Vucevic - Forward/Center - Philadelphia 76ers
Philadelphia sank in the standings in February, but Vucevic shouldn't shoulder the blame. The 6'10 Swiss big man averaged 8 points, 5 rebounds, a steal and a block in 19 minutes. If he was given more playing time and could actually draw contact from opposing bigs, his value would rise quickly. For now, his numbers are more than respectable.
10. Tristan Thompson - Power Forward - Cleveland Cavaliers
With Anderson Varejao out, Thompson is working his way toward the starting lineup in Cleveland. He's shooting miserably, only 36% in February, but doing enough other things to warrant the playing time. Thompson is averaging 6.6 points, 8.4 rebounds and 1.4 blocks in 22 minutes, bringing the kind of energy that Cleveland needs without Varejao. Now if only he could grow out an afro and learn how to flop...
On the Bubble:
Kawhi Leonard is a clear-cut performer this year, but he didn't get the burn to warrant an inclusion here. The same can be said for guys like Jon Leuer, Jajuan Johnson and Enes Kanter. Markieff Morris isn't shooting or rebounding well, but could find himself in the top ten next month. Marshon Brooks had an off month in shooting, which kept him off this list since shooting is his only job. NOW YOUR THOUGHTS.