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Highlights: Trail Blazers vs. Nuggets

If there were questions about the product of NBA basketball we were going to get after nearly five months off, those concerns have been alleviated as we’ve seen some playoff-like performances from several players across the league. That concern was likely doubled for rookies, as first-year players were just beginning to get in the swing of things back in March before COVID-19 shut everything down. However, there have been a handful of first-year players who have balled out down in Orlando, and it has resulted in a great product on the floor. 

What makes it even better, is that most of the standout performances we’ve seen from rookies have come on teams who are fighting to either improve their seeding in the playoffs, or are fighting for that final spot out West. So what we’re seeing is all-out basketball with maximum effort in these final regular season games, which is something we rarely get in a normal schedule. While the pool of rookies may be smaller now that eight teams are out of the picture, there have still been plenty of first-year guys making some noise in Disney World. Based on performances solely from when the season resumed on July 30, here are the latest Rookie Power Rankings for the NBA restart.

The Nuggets have been down three starters all four games they’ve played in the bubble, and it’s definitely played a factor in their two losses against the Miami Heat and Portland Trail Blazers. However, one player who has been stepping up to fill the scoring void left behind by Gary Harris, Jamal Murray and Will Barton is M.P.J. The rookie put up two 30-plus point performances in the four games he’s played in the bubble, and aside from a cold shooting night against the Heat in the first game, Porter’s been scorching hot from downtown. 

It’s not just offense, either. Porter has been far more locked in and committed on the defensive side of the ball, something that head coach Mike Malone has harped on him for throughout his rookie campaign. He’s starting to earn the trust of his coach, and it has resulted in a string of breakout performances for the Mizzou product. Utilizing Porter has always been a goal of the Nuggets, I mean he’s 6-10, hyper-athletic and can sink 3s, but he hasn’t always been consistent this season. If his play continues, Denver could have a legitimate secret weapon on its hands for the postseason.

The Memphis Grizzlies have not had it easy in the bubble thus far. Despite still sitting in the No. 8 spot for the playoffs, they’ve lost all four games they’ve played in Orlando, and now hold just a 1/2 game lead over the ninth place Trail Blazers. It isn’t for lack of effort from Morant, though, as the sensational rookie has been required to put the team on his back game-after-game, especially after it was announced that Jaren Jackson Jr. would miss the rest of the season with a torn meniscus. The only thing that’s slowed Morant down in the bubble is his inefficiency. He’s shooting just 39 percent from the field, and 18 percent from beyond the arc as teams have dared him to put up 3s knowing that it’s still an area where he is lacking. 

Still, though, despite the shooting woes he’s experiencing, Morant can’t be stopped at the rim. His speed has burnt almost every defender that’s tried guarding him in the bubble, the only issue is he isn’t getting much help from his teammates. It’s absurd to think that he’s averaging almost a triple-double and no team success has come from it. But it has shown us a glimpse in the future, a future where Morant is averaging a triple-double and is surrounded by capable shooters who can help carry the offensive load with him. 

The Pelicans have been playing it cautious with Williamson in the bubble, and rightfully so. Yes, he’s fully healed from the knee surgery he had at the start of the season, and the hiatus did wonders for him to rest up, but you never want to sacrifice long-term success for short-term gain. Williamson’s been averaging just under 20 minutes a game, but what he’s done in that time has been just as impressive as his play before the season was postponed. 

In the one game that head coach Alvin Gentry really let Zion break free, the star rookie was given the green light to put up as many shots as he wanted, and not only did it result in him feasting in the paint, but it happened to be the Pelicans’ only win in the bubble so far. He caught lobs from teammates, fought for second-chance buckets off of his own misses and took it right at Jonas Valanciunas who presented a tough challenge for Williamson. It wasn’t all sun and roses, though, as the Duke product did struggle to finish around the rim, but that will undoubtedly approve given his size, athleticism and finesse when he’s attacking the basket.

The Phoenix Suns are the surprise team of the bubble with a 4-0 record, three of which came against tough competition, including a buzzer-beating win against the Clippers. Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton have been incredibly impressive in the bubble, as has Phoenix’s bench. But one player who has shown great improvement since arriving in Orlando is Johnson. All season long, Johnson has been severely underrated, as many considered it a head-scratching move for the Suns to draft him so high last summer. However, he’s been shining in his role and it’s been a major reason why the Suns are winning. 

In the upset win against Dallas, Johnson couldn’t miss from 3-point range, going 4-of-8 from downtown and finishing the game with 19 points. Clearly he wasn’t on the scouting report for the Mavericks, because each of his makes came on wide open shots, and when you leave a shooter like him open you’re going to pay. While it’s still unclear if Phoenix’s efforts will result in it making the playoffs, at the very least the Suns can head into next season knowing that Johnson is very much part of this team’s future.         

Statistically speaking, there are other rookies I could’ve put in place of Dort for the fifth spot on this list. The Spurs’ Keldon Johnson has been impressive, Tyler Herro has continued his positive play with the Heat, but Dort’s place on this list isn’t because of his offense. A quick glance at his numbers and you’ll see that he’s shooting an abysmal 28 percent from the field and he’s having an even worse time from 3-point range (13.3 percent), but his impact on defense cannot be understated. 

On defense, Dort is allowing opposing players to shoot just 28 percent from the field, and when he played against the Lakers, he more than held his own against LeBron James. The Arizona State product picked James up the full length of the floor, and when LeBron tried to post him up down low, he quickly realized that Dort is basically built like a brick wall. His athleticism and length allow him to guard players on the wing, and his size and strength make him a solid option to guard a bigger player in the post. He’s become a regular starter for OKC dating back to January, and while his offensive game can still use significant improvement, his defense is what makes him invaluable to this young Thunder team.


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