Ranking 10 best starts by 2015-16’s NBA rookie class
Nemanja Bjelica, Minnesota Timberwolves
The 27-year-old rookie wasn't expected to be a factor in Minnesota's crowded frontcourt, but his ability to space the floor has been plenty valuable for a young Timberwolves team that struggles in that aspect. Bjelica is hitting 38.3 percent from deep as a stretch-four, even though he's been battling with a knee injury for a decent chunk of his rookie campaign. Bjelica isn't a great defender, but he's polished offensively and is mobile with good size. As the oldest rookie in the class, it makes sense that he's been able to contribute right away.
NBAE/Getty ImagesRon Turenne
T.J. McConnell, Philadelphia 76ers
Every rookie class seems to have at least one player who comes out of nowhere. And this season, that guy has been McConnell. Despite going undrafted out of Arizona, he's taken over as Philadelphia's starting point guard and has put up serviceable numbers in the process. He leads all rookies in assists per game (6.2), and he's also shooting over 50 percent from the field and averaging 4.7 rebounds a game. But McConnell is essentially a 'game manager' who doesn't really challenge a defense. The proof? He currently stands as the only player in NBA history to play over 500 minutes in a season and attempt only one free throw, according to Basketball-Reference. There's time for McConnell to add to that tally, but don't expect a parade to the charity stripe.
NBAE/Getty ImagesJesse D. Garrabrant
Willie Cauley-Stein, Sacramento Kings
Cauley-Stein isn't yet a permanent fixture in Sacramento's starting lineup, but he's forcing coach George Karl to consider playing two post players in crunch time. Rather than chasing blocks when he's in the game with DeMarcus Cousins, Cauley-Stein is staying disciplined and deterring shots simply with his presence at the rim. He's learning the intricacies of pick-and-roll defense as well, surprising teams with his understanding of when to wall off the paint and when to pursue a point guard beyond the 3-point line. On offense, Cousins' attempts to space the floor have given his rookie teammate room to operate. Cauley-Stein is shooting almost 60 percent from the floor this season, but he's attempted only one shot outside of the paint, according to Basketball-Reference.
NBAE/Getty ImagesRocky Widner
D'Angelo Russell, Los Angeles Lakers
Russell's rookie season is unlike any other. Selected second overall by the Lakers, he's developing within an environment Los Angeles' own players have compared to a circus. It's Kobe Bryant's farewell tour, and even though Russell is ostensibly the point guard of the future, Bryant often has the ball in his hands for almost the entire possession when both share the floor. Yet the 19-year-old has still managed to pop his head up for a few highlight-worthy flicks of the wrist for fancy dunks by his teammates. Unfortunately, there's a ceiling on how much Russell can do this season, and it was built by the very organization he's been summoned to save.
NBAE/Getty ImagesFernando Medina
Emmanuel Mudiay, Denver Nuggets
More importantly than anything else, the 19-year-old point guard is getting plenty of valuable playing time, as he's started every game for Denver and is second only to Jahlil Okafor in minutes played per game among rookies. But despite averaging 5.8 assists per game and showing flashes of brilliance with his vision and aggressiveness, Mudiay is averaging 4.0 turnovers per game is shooting a dreadful 32.1 percent from the field on almost 14 shots per contest. It's been nothing short of a roller-coaster rookie campaign for Mudiay, but good on the Nuggets for keeping him on the court.
NBAE/Getty ImagesGlenn James
Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Brooklyn Nets
Jefferson is as long as 'War and Peace,' and he might be making the biggest defensive impact of anyone in this rookie class. He's guarding at three positions comfortably as he flies around the floor to get steals and block shots. Statistically, he's been the best rebounding wing in the whole league. Not just among rookies -- among everyone. Some are comparing RHJ to Michael Kidd-Gilchrist because of his shooting woes. It's not a bad comparison; Kidd-Gilchrist is a phenomenal defender. But if Jefferson can work on his jumper, he might become a poor man's Jimmy Butler.
NBAE/Getty ImagesDavid Liam Kyle
Justise Winslow, Miami Heat
Unlike the other top-10 draft picks, Winslow was drafted onto a contending team with real competition for minutes. The Heat can't afford to just throw him out there and let him develop -- they're in win-now mode, and every second counts. Yet there Winslow is, ranking third in minutes per game among rookies. The 6-foot-7 wing has quickly become a lockdown defender, using his athleticism, IQ and relentless energy to effectively defend multiple positions. His numbers don't pop out at you (7.1 points and 5.4 rebounds per game on 44.9 percent shooting), and he's certainly a shaky shooter. But Winslow is threatening to steal the starting spot -- and crunch-time minutes -- from Luol Deng by season's end.
Getty ImagesRon Elkman/Sports Imagery
Jahlil Okafor, Philadelphia 76ers
Recent off-court issues aside, Okafor is one of the more polarizing rookies. The 6-foot-11 behemoth's raw numbers are impressive, as he's putting up 17.2 points, 8.1 rebounds and 1.6 blocks per game. He leads all rookies in points, minutes, and field goals attempted and made, making him a natural candidate for Rookie of the Year. But none of that has translated to a positive on-court impact. Okafor is averaging more turnovers (2.9 per game) than assists (1.3), and advanced stats rank him as one of the worst players in the league. The 1-18 Sixers are being outscored with Okafor on the floor, which speaks to his inefficient offense and porous defense. He's a very good basketball player, but Okafor has a ways to go until he's an All-Star-level big man.
NBAE/Getty ImagesJesse D. Garrabrant
Kristaps Porzingis, New York Knicks
Remember when New Yorkers booed Porzingis on draft night? How long ago does that feel now? The 20-year-old might already be the biggest start in New York -- the next Derek Jeter for NYC sports fans to worship. Knicks fans haven't been this excited since the '90s, and rightfully so. The Zinger is doing it on both sides of the ball. He shoots threes, works the post and dunks on everything that moves on one end, while showing that he's a serious rim-protecting force on the other. The sky is the limit for the best Knicks draft pick since Patrick Ewing.
NBAE/Getty ImagesNathaniel S. Butler
Karl-Anthony Towns, Minnesota Timberwolves
It's no surprise that the 19-year-old Towns, who went first in last June's draft, has also been this season's best rookie. The polish on Towns' game is unlike anything you'll find with any other rookie. He has multiple NBA-level moves in the post. He's a tremendous passer and screener. He can already step out and shoot open threes -- and if he's not quite accurate there yet, he'll keep working on it. Meanwhile, his defense extends far beyond his ability to block shots. At the same age as most college sophomores, Towns already understands team defense, schemes, help-side responsibilities, and all the other complicated facets of an NBA system. And you have to imagine that trait will only improve as he continues to play next to and learn from Kevin Garnett.