One of the best parts of the end of the NBA regular season — or maybe worst depending on your preference — is we get to see tanking teams empty the bench and play a lot of guys we previously haven’t seen. The Portland Trail Blazers have been doing it for a couple weeks. The same goes for the Indiana Pacers, and the Oklahoma City Thunder have what feels like an entire roster of young guys who they essentially just rotate out every couple nights.
Playing some of these undrafted players and G League mainstays may not always result in the prettiest basketball, but it at least allows us as viewers, and the teams as talent evaluators to see if they have any diamonds in the rough. We saw several rookies over the past week take advantage of the increased playing time, and perhaps for some it may translate to a bigger role going into next season.
Let’s move on to this week’s rankings. Remember these will reflect a rookie’s performance on a week-to-week basis only, and not the collective season. These are not Rookie of the Year standings. With that straightened out, here is a look at the top-performing rookies around the league.
Green has been on an absolute tear to close out his rookie season, highlighted by four straight 30-point games in the last week and a half. With the Rockets well out of playoff contention, they’ve been allowing Green more freedom on offense, and letting things run through him a bit more. As a result, we’ve seen the most dominant version of Green all season long.
Against the Kings, Green was getting whatever he wanted. His crafty handle took center stage, using a variety of crossovers and hesitations to catch a defender on his heels and either book it to the rim or pull up for a mid-range jumper. This last week has shown what a fully unleashed Green looks like, where he’s flying to the rim after beating his defender, launching 3s — and making them — at an absurd rate and his ability to work on or off the ball.
It may not mean a whole lot to some who look at Houston’s record this season and consider Green’s stats to be empty calories on a team that’s headed for the lottery. But Green entered his rookie season incredibly raw, and we’ve seen legitimate progression from the No. 2 overall pick. He shot the ball at a ridiculously inefficient rate to start the season, but over the last month he’s caught fire, shooting 48 percent from the field since the beginning of March, and 40 percent from 3-point territory. He’s turning the ball over less, being more aggressive as a rebounder and finding his teammates far more often for assists. Green will end his rookie season on a high note, which is great news for a Rockets team that will want to build around its young budding star.
Barnes continues to build his case for Rookie of the Year to ensure the race comes down to the final game of the regular season. Last week he added to his resume by becoming the first rookie in his class to record 1,000 points and 500 rebounds this season. He’s also the first rookie since Luka Doncic and just the 22nd rookie in league history to average 15-plus points, seven rebounds and three assists in a season. Oh, and he’s also the only rookie to rank in the top five of every major statistical category this season.
After facing the Raptors on Sunday, former Toronto great Kyle Lowry heaped high praise on the rookie.
“He’s a great talent,” Lowry said. “His passion and effort, he’s a special talent. He’s gonna be one of those guys that leads the franchise and a cornerstone for the franchise. He fits in perfectly here, how hard he plays, how passionate he is for the game. He’s only going to continue to get better.”
Everything Lowry said is right on the nose. There hasn’t been a rookie this season who has been asked to do as much as Barnes is doing for Toronto this year. He’s helped Toronto win games on both ends of the floor, with his versatility as a defender guarding all five positions and his ability to create scoring opportunities with or without the ball in his hands. Against the Magic this past week, he finished with 19 points, eight rebounds and seven assists and showed exactly why you always have to put a body on him when the shot goes up for the Raptors.
Five of Barnes’ eight rebounds came on the offensive glass, which he converted into six points. His knack for aggressively hunting rebounds on offense is a main reason why Toronto ranks second in the league in second-chance points per game (16.4). It’s something that can come in handy in the playoffs for the Raptors, especially if they face a team that’s not great at rebounding the ball.
In a season where the Nuggets are missing two of their three best players, Bones Hyland has stepped up to give Denver a needed sparkplug off the bench. He’s been quietly putting up decent numbers for the Nuggets all season long, but in the month of March his production skyrocketed. Hyland scored in double figures in 12 of 15 games, with averages of 14.3 points, 4.3 assists and 3.0 rebounds, while shooting a ridiculous 51 percent from the field and 47 percent from deep. He joined Nikola Jokic and Michael Porter Jr. as the only rookies in franchise history to average double figures in points for a whole month, while shooting above 50 percent from the field and 40 percent from long range.
He’s got such a pure jump shot and a great deal of confidence, which mixed together means he’s never afraid to go and get his own shot. Hyland moves incredibly well without the ball in his hands, juking defenders and flying around off-ball screens to create space where Jokic will undoubtedly find him for an open look on the perimeter.
Nearly 60 percent of his shot attempts come from beyond the arc, but he’s also capable of putting the ball on the deck and taking a defender off the dribble. He’s got a crafty handle and speed to blow by lesser defenders, and while his finishing rate around the rim or from mid range pale in comparison to his shooting numbers from long range, he’s got those skills in his back pocket to go to if the Nuggets need it.
Mitchell’s really been showing off in the final stretch run of the season, especially since he’s been pushed in to the starting lineup. His passing is what really stood out this past week, executing kickouts to the corner with finesse and precision that always found his teammates in the shooting pocket.
Though not much went right for the Kings this season, Mitchell’s development is a bright spot and something to build off of for next season with Sacramento. His improvement as a facilitator may make trading Tyrese Haliburton away less of an egregious move, especially if De’Aaron Fox, Domantas Sabonis and Mitchell can all jell together.
Sarr is one of several Thunder rookies who’s been making the most of the opportunity he’s been given on a team that’s essentially waved the white flag on the season. He had a career-high 24 points in a shocking win over the Phoenix Suns this past week. Granted the Suns didn’t play Deandre Ayton or Devin Booker, but, hey, a win is a win and Sarr will be able to say he hung 24 points on the team with the best record in the league. Sarr got his 24 points coming off the bench for the Thunder, and wasted little time doing so, as he went 9 of 12 from the field and 5 of 6 from deep.
Honorable mentions: Lindy Waters III, Oklahoma City Thunder (17.0 points, 4.7 rebounds); Keon Johnson, Portland Trail Blazers (15.3 points, 3.0 assists, 2.7 rebounds); Terry Taylor, Indiana Pacers (13.7 points, 5.0 rebounds)