In the end, there can be only one.
And I’ll just come right out and say it: Luka Doncic is my pick to win this year’s Kia Rookie of the Year.
There’s no reason to beat around the bush or put off the announcement. Doncic came out of the gate firing (and hitting), so why shouldn’t I?
The Slovenian, whom the Mavericks landed last June in a Draft-night trade with Atlanta (for, of course, fellow rookie Trae Young), arrived as a 19-year-old with three years of experience playing alongside seasoned professionals with Spain’s Real Madrid.
And it showed. Doncic displayed no fear or trepidation and captured the nation’s hearts with his stepback 3-pointers, floaters in the lane, and all-around game that was far from what we’re used to seeing from rookies. He was a game-changer, and the Mavericks have a transcendent player to take the reins after Dirk Nowizki’s 21-year reign in Dallas.
Sure, Young caught fire after the All-Star break to make things interesting, and he had some performances to remember. He had an incredible 49-point, 16-assist showing in a loss to the Chicago Bulls, becoming just the third rookie with a 40-10 game (joining LeBron James and Michael Jordan). He also had seven 30-point, 10-assist games, surpassing Stephen Curry and LeBron James for most ever by a rookie.
By almost every metric, Doncic outpaced the field. He led all rookies in scoring while becoming the only rookie to average 20 points, seven rebounds and five assists since Oscar Robertson did it in 1961. He finished the season with eight triple-doubles, good enough for third-most by a rookie, behind Robertson and the reigning Kia ROY, the Philadelphia 76ers’ Ben Simmons. And despite cooling off at the end of the season, he’ll still finish with better effective field-goal and true shooting percentages than what Young boasts.
But in the end, Young’s slow start was just too much to overcome. He definitely made things interesting, and he should grab some votes, but Doncic gets my vote in what turned out to be a closer-than-expected race for Kia Rookie of the Year.
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1. Luka Doncic, Dallas Mavericks
Last week: No. 2
After falling to second for the last four Rookie Ladders, Doncic takes the top rung when it matters most. This piece gives extra weight to recent play, so Young deserved the first spot down the stretch. He was playing at a level that Doncic wasn’t quite matching. But when you look at the body of work, which this final Rookie Ladder does, Doncic gets the final nod. Among his notable statistics, he finishes the season with eight triple-doubles, good enough for third most by a rookie (trailing only Robertson and Simmons). Years from now, when Doncic is a perennial All-Star and potential Kia MVP candidate, we’ll look back at this rookie campaign fondly. It was a fun ride, and it was fun watching Doncic bring joy and passion to the court every night.
2. Trae Young, Atlanta Hawks
Last week: No. 1
If there was an award given to the best rookie after the All-Star break, Young would easily get it. What Young did offensively after the All-Star break was inspiring, and the fact that he actually made people reconsider Doncic for the top spot is worth praising. Young averaged 24.7 points, 4.7 rebounds and 9.2 assists per game while shooting 44.2 percent from the field (34.8 percent on 3-pointers). The Hawks were 10-14 after the All-Star break and the signs are there that Young — alongside John Collins and whomever comes in the 2019 draft — and the Hawks have a bright future. “Besides the one month (November) I didn’t shoot the ball well, I think I had a really good season as far as making plays, getting my teammates involved and scoring when needed,” Young told USA TODAY Sports. “One thing I wanted to do was bring life back to the city of Atlanta, and we’ve done a great job of doing that.”
3. Deandre Ayton, Phoenix Suns
Last week: Not ranked
Ayton had moments when he could disappear, but when you look at his whole rookie season, the numbers show the Suns have a potential All-Star big man they can build around. In 71 games, the No. 1 pick averaged 16.3 ppg (fourth) and 10.3 rpg (first) while shooting 58.5 percent. His defense is a work in progress, but he still managed to get a block and steal per game. “I think I’ve seen the trenches a little bit, but I won’t say I went through all bad,” Ayton said in his Suns exit interview. “We did a lot of great things, learned a lot of great things. I feel I definitely got better, stronger. Stronger mentally as well.”
4. Marvin Bagley, Sacramento Kings
Last week: No. 3
The Kings were in playoff contention for most of the season, and Bagley’s contributions off the bench were a big reason. Sacramento sought a long-term fit when they took Bagley second overall, and he proved his worth, especially down the stretch. He’ll finish fifth among rookies in scoring (14.9 ppg) and third in rebounding (7.6) and his numbers after the All-Star break show his improvement (18.5 ppg and 9.2 rpg). Kings fans might always wonder what could have been if they’d grabbed Doncic, but if Bagley’s first year is any indication, the Kings’ fortunes are only going to improve with time.
5. Collin Sexton, Cleveland Cavaliers
Last week: No. 5
Sexton looked lost early in the season, leading many to wonder if he had what it took to be an NBA point guard. But by the end of March, those concerns were put to rest and Sexton proved he has a future as a scoring point guard. While he never put up big assist numbers (3.0 apg), Sexton will finish third among rookies in scoring (16.7 ppg) thanks to a March that saw him average 22.4 points on 51 percent shooting (44.7 on 3s). For the season (he played all 82 games), his shooting numbers are excellent — 43 percent overall, 40.2 on 3-pointers (first among rookies), 83.9 on free throws (1st) — and actually better than both Doncic and Young.
Just missed the cut:
Jaren Jackson, Memphis Grizzlies
Jackson only played 58 games (starting 56), before being sidelined in February by a right quad injury, but what he did in that time will earn him plenty of All-Rookie first team love. The lanky No. 4 pick averaged 13.8 points (sixth) and 4.7 rebounds (eighth) on 50.6 percent shooting (35.9 on 3-pointers) in 26.2 minutes per game. But Jackson also proved to be one of the best rookie defenders, getting 1.4 bpg (second) and 0.9 spg and will be a force on both ends for years to come.
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, LA Clippers
The point guard out of Kentucky was steady all season and was a big reason the Clippers are in the playoffs. He finishes ninth in scoring (10.8 points), but he was effective in getting his points, hitting at a 47.6 percent clip (36.7 on 3-pointers). He played all 82 games, starting 73 and got better as the season progressed. “I was high on him,” Rivers told The Athletic. “I said it when we drafted him. I said, ‘He’s gonna be a star.’ Then in camp, I was really high on him because you could just see it. I didn’t know where he was going this year or when he was gonna get there. But he’s gonna be really good. He’s just going to keep getting better.”
Landry Shamet, LA Clippers
Shamet’s scoring numbers aren’t staggering, but he was the best shooter of this class and did it for two playoff teams (the Sixers, then the Clippers after a midseason trade). He averaged 9.1 points while leading all rookies in 3-point shooting (42.2 percent, 11th among all players). With the Clippers facing the Golden State Warriors in the first round, he’ll be on a big stage while most other rookies are left watching.
Mitchell Robinson, New York Knicks
The Knicks had several rookies leave their mark. Kevin Knox had his ups and downs and finished as one of the Top 10 scorers. Allonzo Trier also ended up in the Top 10. But the Knicks’ best rookie may have been Robinson, who emerged as a defensive force, leading all rookies in blocks (2.4 per game, No. 2 overall in NBA) while grabbing 6.4 rebounds per game (fifth) and scoring 7.3 points on 69.7 percent shooting. For a second-round pick, he might end up being a steal for New York.
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(All stats through Wednesday, April 10)
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About Last Night: Harden’s historic night can’t derail Rockets
So, in the annals of demoralizing playoff defeats, where does this one rank?
* You somehow manage to induce your opponent’s best player, the league’s reigning Kia MVP and a newly minted scoring champion — with the league’s highest average in 32 seasons — to brick his first 15 shots, setting a playoff record for futility.
* That same player draws his fourth foul with 20:28 remaining in the game, while his only other teammate who can consistently create for himself and others earns his fifth with 13:26 left.
* Oh yeah, you’re playing at home, in front of one of the league’s most rabid crowds.
And yet, somehow, with advantages you’d happily pay several months of gameday revenue for as you attempt to dig out of a 2-0 deficit, you … lose?!?!?
Such is the extent of the wounds the Jazz will have to lick before Tuesday’s Game 4 as they dissect how in the world the Rockets were able to escape with a 104-101 victory that, if NBA history is any guide, all but ensures their advancement to the second round at 3-0.
As great players are wont to do, Harden still had a big impact, finishing with 22 points despite shooting a miserable 3-for-20 from the field. (Not only did he set the aforementioned record for most consecutive misses at any point in a playoff game, his 15.0 shooting percentage was the third-worst of his career when taking at least 15 shots.)
Harden insisted after the game he had no idea he was shooting that poorly, and his fourth-quarter production backs that up. Attacking the Jazz at every opportunity, he accounted for 22 of Houston’s 30 points in the period, scoring 14 and assisting on eight more, as the Rockets held on against virtually all odds.
His first bucket? A dunk with less than eight minutes remaining:
He followed with a pair of 3-pointers, including a back-breaker at 1:11 after Jazz star Donovan Mitchell cut Utah’s deficit to one with a 3 of his own.
“That’s James Harden,” said Jazz coach Quin Snyder. “He’s that good at the end. You give yourself a very small margin (if the game is close).”
Combined with great defense, good ball security, ample support (led by 18 points from the foul-plagued Chris Paul, five other Rockets scored in double-figures) and a nightmarish shooting night for Mitchell (18 missed field goals, one more than Harden), it was juuuuuuuuuust enough for the Rockets to escape.
“Just keep shooting,” Harden said of his mentality. “My job is to go out there and produce and be in attack mode. Nothing changes (at 0-15).”
Said Paul, “At the end of the day, it’s win the game. It doesn’t matter what he shot. We won the game.”
Just like championship runs have become a rite of early summer in San Antonio, so have early exits in Denver. When the Nuggets even make the playoffs at all, which they did this season for the first time since 2013.
That was the last of 10 straight postseason appearances for the Nuggets. All but one resulted in first-round exits, with two of those coming after they squandered home-court advantage in the first two games.
So it came with a strong sense of déjà vu, perhaps even inevitability, that the Nuggets promptly stumbled out of the gates once more with a 101-96 loss to the Spurs in the opening game of their first-round series. That put them in the unenviable position of needing to win their first game of any kind in San Antonio since 2012 – a stretch of 13 straight losses – and their first in the playoffs since 2007, when the team was anchored by Allen Iverson and Carmelo Anthony.
Attempt No. 1 failed with a 10-point loss in Game 3 that wasn’t that close. But with a 3-1 deficit staring them in the face, the Nuggets found some nerve, shaking off both their woeful history and a sluggish start to outscore the Spurs by 26 over the final three quarters for a commanding 117-103 victory in Game 4.
Even with home-court advantage restored, they still have plenty of work to do if they hope to advance. But the maturity and composure displayed by Nikola Jokic and company on Saturday indicate these Nuggets, unlike so many of their predecessors, could actually be up for that challenge.
76ers’ crown jewel shines in Game 4
BROOKLYN — There were 256 players who played at least 1,000 minutes for a single team this season. For only one of the 256 could you say the following: His team was at least five points per 100 possessions better offensively and at least five points per 100 possessions better defensively with him on the floor than they were with him off the floor.
The additions of Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris this season have given the Sixers a ridiculously talented starting lineup. And with Embiid missing Game 3 of their first-round series against the Brooklyn Nets on Thursday, the rest of that lineup took care of business.
But Embiid remains the Sixers’ “crown jewel,” as head coach Brett Brown has called him. He’s a matchup problem for every team in the league and the difference maker for the Sixers on both ends of the floor.
In Game 4 on Saturday, the Nets just couldn’t match up, Embiid was the difference, and the Sixers came away with a 112-108 victory to take a 3-1 series lead.
Embiid’s line: 31 points, 16 rebounds, seven assists, six blocks and two steals in less than 32 minutes. He was the fulcrum on both ends of the floor.
The Nets were one of five teams that took more than 40 percent of their shots from 3-point range this season. But they also led the league with 30.9 points per game scored on drives. The Nets’ biggest offensive weapons in this series have been Caris LeVert and Spencer Dinwiddie, guards who can attack the rim by exploiting the Sixers’ lack of quickness on the perimeter.
Brooklyn was successful at the rim against Embiid on a few occasions, with both LeVert and Dinwiddie scoring over him. He also had a close-up look at a Jarrett Allen dunk when LeVert drove at him and dished off. But while the Philadelphia defense did bend at times, it never broke when Embiid was on the floor. And when Jared Dudley was ejected for shoving Embiid early in the third quarter, Brooklyn lost the only player who could possibly play center and make Embiid pay for hanging near the rim.
“I know these guys are going to go at me, because they want me to retaliate,” Embiid said about the skirmish that started when he hit Allen with what was deemed a flagrant foul. “So I got to be the mature one on the court and just stay cool and don’t react. I could have reacted, but I felt like my team needed me more than they did Jared Dudley. I just got to stay cool and mature and do my job.”
On defense, his job was to help the Sixers get stops. And with Embiid on the floor, Brooklyn scored just 62 points on 71 possessions. With him off the floor, the Nets scored 46 points on just 33 possessions.
On the other end, Brooklyn just couldn’t deal with Embiid in the paint. When they tried to front him in the post, the Sixers flashed a man to the foul line and got the ball to Embiid with high-low action. When he was doubled in the post, he found the open man, often Ben Simmons cutting to the rim after the Nets sent help off him.
When Embiid caught the ball on the perimeter, he didn’t settle, instead backing down into the post where he could score more easily or draw an extra defender (or two). In this series, Embiid has shot 22-for-35 (63 percent) in the paint and 3-for-14 (21 percent) outside it.
“I’m just trying to live in the paint,” he said. “They’re going to have to double-team me. I figured that. They’re going to have to send two or three guys. If they’re going to guard me in single coverage, I’m going to dominate. And then I’m also going to make the right pass. That’s my job. We found it.”
With the Sixers down one with 25 seconds left in the game, the Sixers looked to Embiid, with Allen fronting him in the post. Joe Harris crashed from the weak side and knocked the ball out of Embiid’s hands, but Embiid beat Traveon Graham to the ball and, with one hand, got the ball to an open Mike Scott (Harris’ man) in the corner for what turned out to be the game-winning 3-pointer with 18.6 seconds left.
The goal in NBA offense is to find an advantage and use it to exploit the defense and get an open shot. Embiid is that advantage for the Sixers whenever he walks on the floor. And with him on the floor on Saturday, the Sixers scored 80 points on 69 possessions. With him off the floor, they scored just 32 points on 35 possessions.
“He was dominant,” Brown said. “There were times you can see that it’s still raw, and there are some decisions that he probably would like to have over again. But given the volume of playing time lately that he hasn’t had, it’s just a dominant performance. What more can you say?”
Embiid remains the most important piece to the Sixers’ puzzle. Really, when it comes to competing with the best teams in the league, he is the puzzle.
The question is just how much they’re going to have him going forward. For every game in this series, Brown hasn’t known until shortly before tip-off whether or not he’s going to have his most important player. Embiid was clearly hobbled in Game 1, better in Game 2, absent in Game 3, and dominant in Game 4.
Maybe things are trending in the right direction. And maybe Embiid’s status will remain a question from here on out.
The Sixers’ ability to compete for an Eastern Conference championship hangs in the balance.
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From retread to ‘godsend’, Bogut finds new life with Warriors
Once his body healed, he chose to return to the game to success with the Sydney Kings. He was league MVP and Defensive Player of the Year, averaging 11.4 points, 11.6 rebounds, 3.4 assists and 2.7 blocks in 30 games. Besides basketball, Bogut began raising a family and the balance was beneficial to him.
“I feel good,” Bogut said. “Probably more mentally as well. Just felt burnt out mentally with the grind of the NBA season for 13 seasons straight. It was good to just get home and get back to some normality, playing in Australia once or twice a week. And then obviously having a family now. Family kind of changes my perspective of what should be stressful and what shouldn’t be and what’s important in life.”
The urge to return to the States simmered inside him, however, especially since he wouldn’t need to trudge through an entire NBA season. Bogut says that’s unlikely to happen again, no matter how well he plays from here. Still, he wants to make the most of the next two months, assuming the Warriors are still in business.
“Leaving and coming back makes you appreciate this much more,” he said. “Having another opportunity to play with the best players in the world is great. I probably appreciate it much more now. When you’re stuck in the moment as I was the first time around, I don’t think I enjoyed it and been appreciative of it as I should’ve been.”
From a numbers standpoint, the Warriors didn’t need Bogut, even though Damian Jones, the starting center at the season’s onset, is out with a torn pectoral muscle. Not only was Cousins healthy, but Kevon Looney showed growth and a new confidence in his mid-range shot. Looney, however, is more of a power forward, and the Warriors had nothing to lose by bringing in Bogut, a favorite of Kerr thanks to his instincts and intelligence.
“Andrew is a brilliant basketball mind,” Kerr said. “He’s one of those guys when you call a play or teach him a play, he gets it right away. He understands where all five players should be and he understands why you’re running the play. He just has beautiful feel for the game. He sees and feels the game like Andre (Iguodala) does, only at the center position. His voice is so prominent, when you’re down on the floor and our team is on defense, you can hear Boges barking out commands, barking out signals, letting guys know where they need to be, like he’s like a quarterback out there.”
While Cousins was obviously a productive player, he often struggled in the pick and roll and has never been known for defense. Those are areas of strength for Bogut and it gives Kerr more options with Steph Curry and Klay Thompson, shooters who are deadly when sprung off picks. Also, with the emphasis on half-court play in the playoffs, Bogut’s 7-foot stature becomes an asset near the rim on both ends.
“This is the reason we signed him,” Curry said. “We never wanted to talk about it and want to admit of the possibility. But it was to shore up that center position in case of injury. It’s how it has played out. We have to be ready to adjust and win basketball games.”
The Clippers don’t offer much resistance in the middle. Yet if the playoff seeds hold true and the Warriors see the Rockets in the second round, Bogut will be valuable against Clint Capela, who is active offensively in the pick and roll.
“I just want to be a positive to the team,” Bogut said. “They don’t need me to score, obviously. But whatever they need, really. I can be a voice defensively, control the paint and do what they need me to do. I feel I fit in pretty well. Not a whole lot has changed in the system and the flow of the game since my first time here. Hopefully as an older guy who’s played around the world I can use my voice a little more and get guys going.”
One month into this reunion, Bogut and the Warriors have discovered they need each other more than either imagined.
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Shaun Powell has covered the NBA for more than 25 years. You can e-mail him here .
The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.
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