Tuesday, February 27 2024
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Draymond Green had some poignant words to say about the 2023 NBA Draft class earlier this week. He lauded guys like Victor Wembanyama, Amen and Ausar Thompson as well as Marcus Sasser. But on a larger scale he said something about this crop of rookies that rings true from what I’ve seen this season as well.

“When you look at this rookie class, it doesn’t really look like a rookie class,” Green said. “Even our two rookies, you put those guys in the game and they don’t make mistakes that rookies make. It’s the same thing like for the Thompson twins and Wemby, and you start to look down the list — even Marcus Sasser — they don’t look like rookies. I think it’s an incredible class.”

I’ve found myself saying “they don’t look like rookies” on several occasions when watching guys like Wembanyama, Chet Holmgren, the Thompson twins, or Dereck Lively II. This class is incredibly deep, and so many of them are making significant impacts regardless of what role they have. 

As impressive as this rookie class has been, there are five that stood out amongst the rest this week. So let’s take a look at the top five performing rookies from this past week’s slate of games. 

Keep in mind that these rankings will reflect a rookie’s performance on a week-to-week basis only, not the collective season. These aren’t Rookie of the Year standings, but rather a reflection on what the player has done over the past week. With that straightened out, here is a look at the top rookies from the opening week of the 2023-24 season:

Holmgren is one of just two rookies this season who ranks in the top five of points, rebounds, assists, rebounds and steals per game. It’s a testament to just how good he’s been early this season, and he’s doing it while not being the main guy on a Thunder team that is 5-3 and is looking to make some noise this year. He’s only had one game where he shot under 50% from the field, and even then he managed to make an impact elsewhere that was still a win for OKC. That was a 16-point, 12-rebounds performance, where he also tallied three assists, three blocks and a steal.

But the real highlight of the week came in a nail-biting loss against the Warriors on the first night of the In-Season Tournament. Holmgren put up 24 points, eight rebounds and five assists, on an efficient 77.8% from the field and perfect 2-2 from 3-point range. The fluidity Holmgren displays is unreal, and while he still has some baby deer tendencies due to his frame where it may look a little clumsy, he’s got great control with the ball when he puts it on the deck.

Just look at this impressive drive he executed on Andrew Wiggins. It’s just textbook: drive, spin, pro hop and finish with the layup. He caught Wiggins with the pro hop, and because of the length  OKC is playing 5-out, there’s no protection at the rim stopping Holmgren from getting the easy finger roll:

On a different play the rookie made sure to take advantage of the size advantage he had on Stephen Curry. What we get is a post-up where Holmgren spins baseline and muscles through for this dunk:

That’s just the tip of the iceberg on Holmgren’s performance, he knocked down 3s, brought the ball up the floor which led to assists and had some solid moments on defense. While other rookies may be the star on their team, Holmgren has been the most impactful on a winning team, where he’s also putting up big numbers.

There’s no denying Wembanyama’s brilliance to start his NBA career. He started this week with an “I’m here” performance against the Suns where he dropped 38 points in what was San Antonio’s second-straight win against Phoenix in a three-day span. But just as every rookie on this list will experience, as much as there will be highs over the course of the season, there will also be some lows to get through. That was true of Wemby’s game in his Madison Square Garden debut against the Knicks on Wednesday night.

The Spurs ended up keeping things close toward the end, but that wasn’t indicative of how ugly things got in New York City. The Knicks built up a 30-point lead at one point, and Wembanyama struggled to get into any sort of rhythm all night. He finished with 14 points and nine rebounds, but he also went 4 of 14 from the field and finished the game minus-25. In the first half, Wembanyama was held to just two points, on 0-5 from the field, the first time this season he failed to make a shot in a half.

But as inefficient as Wemby’s performance might’ve been against the Knicks, it shouldn’t be seen as anything other than a learning experience to help him grow over his career. As Spurs head coach Greg Popovich said after the loss, basketball is a game of mistakes whether you win or lose, so there will be things Wembanyama can take away from this game to learn and grow for next time. 

Draymond Green said something earlier this week about Thompson — and his twin brother Amen — that deserves some attention.

“I feel a way about the Thompson twins and Wemby, because those guys are making it much harder for me to continue to make All-Defensive teams,” Green said.

That is incredibly high praise from a guy who is a four-time champion, Defensive Player of the Year and eight-time All-Defensive selection. And Green’s not off base about his praise of the Thompson twins, either. Ausar specifically has come into the league and made an immediate impact on the defensive side of the ball. 

He’s already had some of the toughest defensive assignments amongst rookies, guarding Damian Lillard, Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Kevin Durant and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. It’s not like he’s locking any of these dudes up, not yet at least, but he’s shown great instincts and a high IQ about where to be on that end of the floor. What’s really impressive about Thompson’s play on defense is his shot-blocking ability. 

At 6-foot-6 you wouldn’t think he’d be that impactful in that area, but he’s already totaled 16 blocks on the season, which is tied for eighth in the entire league with Joel Embiid. That’s ahead of actual rim protectors like Rudy Gobert and Brook Lopez. But his blocks aren’t just coming at the rim, his closing ability out on the perimeter is what’s leading to blocks away from the basket, and it’s in part because of his 7-foot wingspan.

Just look at how he recovers with this block against Lillard who is trying to create some space to get off a 3-pointer:

Or the same thing against Zach LaVine who tries to use the stepback to create space, but instead gets met with a block:

LaVine recovered nicely to get the bucket, but Thompson’s wingspan isn’t making it easy for guys to get shots off against him out on the perimeter. It’s similar to how much of a threat Mikal Bridges is when he’s guarding on the perimeter. Bridges has a 7-foot-1 wingspan, and standing at the same size as Thompson he too has become known for his blocking ability. Thompson’s on a similar track as Bridges, and if he keeps trending in the right direction, then Green’s right about being worried in losing his All-Defensive spot.

Sasser made the Bucks sweat this week with a 26-point outing that almost won the Pistons the game on the road in Milwaukee. Twelve of those points came in the fourth quarter, and Milwaukee just didn’t seem to have an answer for him. He was getting wherever he wanted, either at the rim or from deep, and he did all of this while coming off the bench. 

There’s a bit of a guard logjam in Detroit behind Cade Cunningham, with Sasser, Killian Hayes and Jaden Ivey all on the roster. And while Hayes has gotten the start on the season as the second guard in the backcourt, Sasser’s two 20-plus point outings this week should at least make Pistons head coach think about the possibility of throwing him in the starting lineup and seeing what he can do. 

Hawkins has quietly been putting together a solid rookie season. He currently ranks fourth in points per game in his class, and he’s already put together a 30-point performance in a loss to the Denver Nuggets where he went 10-19 from the field and 7-14 from deep. He’s a pure shooter who has a quick release from beyond the arc, and he’s also shown two-way capabilities on defense as well. His shooting will help a Pelicans team that was league average at knocking down 3s last season, and his effort on defense is never a bad thing to have on the bench. 

Source: CBSSports.com

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