7. KEMBA WALKER
Vol. III: No. 5
It’s March and we’re talking Kemba, so resist the urge to get wistful for his jaw-dropping four weeks on opponents last year. Sitting third in assists by rookies (4.0 per game) and fourth in points (12.1 a night), Walker has shown he can still get his own shot against the pros. The players are better here and his supporting cast is worse, much worse, than in college (at least relative to the competition). But I like his lack of turnovers (1.8 per game, nearly a turnover less than Brandon Knight) and his willingness to go to the boards (3.5 a game).
A concern is he’s stalled since the All-Star break. His points and assists are down and his minutes have decreased by seven a game. The “it’s a long season” excuse works for some rooks but not Walker after what we saw him do last spring. The next phase of his season will be interesting to watch.
6. MARSHON BROOKS
Vol. III: No. 3
What you need to know about him is he’s going to score. Averaging 13.7 points and more than 11 attempts per game, both second-most among rookies, Brooks is reaping what his early season burst earned. He put up 14 points in just 22 minutes in the season’s first month, but now he’s getting about 30 as the Nets try to figure out what life without Deron Williams will be like (you know it’ll happen).
When he gets more than 30 minutes a night, though, it’s typically been a good bet. He gets 16.3 points per game with that type of PT. We’ll have to see if that can correct his troubling scoring trend that has seen his average points fall each month, down to 11.9 now.
5. KAWHI LEONARD
Vol. III: No. 4
It’s probably hindsight to look at Leonard now and think, “Popovich’s type of player.” The former Aztec fits so well into the Spurs’ system already it’s scary. It’s like when Danny DeVito showed up in season two of “It’s Always Sunny” and you wondered how the show was so good (like the Spurs last season) without him. Leonard even got injured right before the All-Star Weekend, so he didn’t have to expend any more energy than usual.
He’s getting 7.6 points and 5.0 boards a game and shooting 48 percent in 24 minutes. That’s not even taking into account his steady defense that you can see is getting used to playing against bigger forwards. Sliding into one of the most ready-made situations for winning of any rookie should be noted, but he hasn’t been a rookie turd in the Spurs’ punchbowl with 2.9 estimated wins added, third-most against rookies.
Part of the reason why we rated San Antonio’s swap of Richard Jefferson for Stephen Jackson so high wasn’t just because of the future financial savings or the fact that it finally rids them of the struggling Jefferson. It was an “A” trade because now it’ll open more room for Leonard, who’s been infinitely more effective this year than his older former teammate.
4. DERRICK WILLIAMS
Vol. III: unranked
He wasn’t exactly giving people reason to cheer Minnesota’s investment in him in the first half of the season but he’s figuring it out, folks. Being part of the Wolves’ bench brigade with Michael Beasley is appealing for D-Will, who’s putting up 8.7 points and 4.9 boards per game in just over 20 minutes a night. In fact, his best games of the season have come post-All-Star Weekend: 27 and five with zero turnovers against the Clips on Feb. 28, as well as two double-doubles and another near-miss in three straight games starting March 5.
He needs to figure out his free-throwing shooting – 65 percent – this offseason, but his 45 percent from the field is what you can expect from a swing player at forward who sometimes spends too much time behind the arc doing a Kevin Love impression.