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January 30, 2012
Top 10 Rookies
Ranking by WARP

by Kevin Pelton


You can't go very far on the Internet these days without coming across rookie rankings. Our ESPN Insider colleague David Thorpe has been posting them for several seasons now, and was recently joined by former Prospectus contributor Sebastian Pruiti, now on Grantland. So another set of rookie rankings is probably the last thing the world needs, but I did want to provide a statistical counterpoint and check in on the development of this year's top newcomers. Our rookie rankings are strictly based on WARP to date, but they feature the same two point guards at the top as everyone else.

1. Ricky Rubio, Minnesota (.581 Win%, 2.2 WARP)
2. Kyrie Irving, Cleveland (.621 Win%, 2.2 WARP)
It's fascinating how Irving and Rubio have both achieved terrific instant results--their current pace would produce around 12 WARP over a full season, which would rival the 12.5 WARP Blake Griffin posted last season--in wildly different fashions. After his hot-shooting start, Rubio has settled in to statistics more similar to what his Euroleague translations portended. Rubio is making less than 40 percent of his two-point attempts, yet he remains invaluable because of well-rounded contributions. Everyone knew about Rubio's ability to get his teammates easy attempts with his precocious court vision, but he's also managed to carry over from Europe his strong rebounding and excellent steal rate. Rubio's size allows him to give opposing point guards trouble, as best exemplified by his block on Chauncey Billups that helped the Timberwolves steal a three-point win against the L.A. Clippers a couple weeks ago.

On a per-minute basis, Irving has been even better than Rubio, but the presence of Ramon Sessions as a veteran backup has limited his minutes. While Rubio excels despite poor shooting, Irving's efficiency is his calling card. No elite point guard since Magic Johnson has been as immediately successful as a scorer. Johnson and Ty Lawson are the lone regular point guards in the last 30 years to outdo Irving's .591 True Shooting Percentage. Like most ballhandlers of his ilk, Irving has benefited from the way the NBA's rules limiting contact favor quickness on the perimeter. To that, he's added 40 percent three-point shooting, which isn't out of line with his translated college numbers (we projected him to shoot 39.1 percent from beyond the arc). What has been a surprise is Irving's ability to maintain his efficiency even while using a whopping 29.1 percent of the Cavaliers' plays. That makes him one of the league's best scorers, rookie or otherwise.

3. MarShon Brooks, New Jersey (.539 Win%, 1.3 WARP)
Brooks' pure scoring ability has been a boon to a Nets team that is low on offensive talent. He's using 23.8 percent of New Jersey's plays, which puts him fourth among rookies behind Irving, Kemba Walker and Tristan Thompson. Of course, we knew Brooks could create shots. What was in his question was his ability to make them at a solid clip. Since we last checked in on Brooks as one of this year's early overperformers, his three-point shooting has come back to Earth. Brooks is still making an impressive 50.3 percent of his two-point attempts. He's hitting around 40 percent of his long twos, which is enough to ensure reasonable efficiency.

4. Chandler Parsons, Houston (.527 Win%, 1.1 WARP)
I can't remember where I saw someone compare Parsons to Trevor Ariza, but I kind of like it, especially because it cuts across the usual racial lines of similarity. Like Ariza, Parsons lacks the kind of outside shooting that is desirable for a modern wing. However, he's forced his way into the starting lineup with his contributions everywhere else. The Rockets are far better defensively with Parsons at small forward instead of Chase Budinger, both because of his superior quickness against quality perimeter scorers and because Parsons has contributed so many rebounds, blocks and steals.

5. Kemba Walker, Charlotte (.492 Win%, 0.9 WARP)
With their two best scorers (D.J. Augustin and Corey Maggette) missing time due to injuries, the Bobcats have had to rely on Walker to create much of their offense. That's proven too much to ask for a non-superstar rookie, even with a collegiate track record as sterling as Walker's. As a result, Walker is making just 38.7 percent of his two-point attempts and 33.8 percent of his threes. Walker could improve his efficiency by cutting down on the long twos (3.7 per game, per Hoopdata.com, accounting for nearly a third of his shot attempts). More disconcerting in the long run is that Walker has struggled to finish at the rim (51.0 percent). However, his other athletic indicators have been positive, which is why Walker rates as nearly average overall.

6. Enes Kanter, Utah (.570 Win%, 0.8 WARP)
Playing behind two veteran starters and second-year post Derrick Favors, Kanter has had the luxury of easing his way into organized basketball after spending all of last season watching from the bench. So far, Kanter looks like an elite talent with plenty of skills development ahead of him. Kanter has been particularly effective on the offensive glass, where he ranks among the NBA's leaders by collecting 15.7 percent of Utah's misses. He's also been solid on the defensive glass and at blocking shots. Kanter's biggest problem has been getting his own shot sent back. 16.1 percent of his attempts have been blocked, one of the league's highest rates. Kanter is no longer athletic enough to overpower opponents around the rim and will have to improve his timing to foil opposing shot blockers.

7. Gustavo Ayon, New Orleans (.729 Win%, 0.8 WARP)
Liberar Gustavo Ayon! In highly limited minutes, Ayon has backed up his impressive ACB translations reported in the Basketball Prospectus 2011-12 supplement. Ayon has been a source of energy off the bench, supplying copious blocks and steals in addition to high-percentage finishing. I'd compare him to Anderson Varejao or Taj Gibson (via Rohan Cruyff) in terms of his proficiency both running and defending the pick-and-roll. Ayon has nimble feet and moves well laterally, making him effective defensively on the perimeter. The Hornets sending Chris Kaman home should open up more playing time for Ayon, so we'll know soon whether his performance is legit or not.

8. Jon Leuer, Milwaukee (.537 Win%, 0.8 WARP)
So far, Leuer has more than carried over his accurate shooting at Wisconsin over to the NBA. He's making an impressive 57.1 percent of his two-pointers, has shot 88.9 percent from the line and added a couple of three-pointers for good measure. As long as Leuer can hold his own defensively and on the boards (surprisingly, he's been better as an offensive rebounder than on the defensive glass), his ability to stretch the floor will make him valuable.

9. Nikola Vucevic, Philadelphia (.587 Win%, 0.7 WARP)
Vucevic is the rare player with a better field-goal percentage than True Shooting Percentage, owing to his 2-of-7 performance at the free throw line. (All the more odd since Vucevic has made an equal number of three-pointers in just four attempts). Of course, the Sixers aren't looking to Vucevic for scoring. As long as he's a 7-foot presence in the paint and on the glass, Philadelphia will be thrilled. For now, the Sixers need to get Vucevic healthy after a quad injury.

10. Josh Harrellson, New York (.527 Win%, 0.7 WARP)
Believe it or not, the Knicks may miss Jorts during his absence due to a fractured right wrist. Harrellson has unexpectedly established himself as a floor spacer in the NBA, making a three-pointer per game at a solid 35.6 percent clip. Add in Harrellson's size at the defensive end and that's a nice combination off the bench. New York has been much more effective with Harrellson on the floor this season.

Coming later this week: A look at the players who didn't make this list.

Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact Kevin by clicking here or click here to see Kevin's other articles.

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