Exactly one month into the season, the two frontrunners for Rookie of the Year have more than established themselves. Cleveland's Kyrie Irving and Minnesota's Ricky Rubio have their teams in fringe contention for postseason berths, and both have emphatically answered the questions asked of them before the season began.
Each week, before getting into player rankings themselves, we'll take an in-depth look at one or two interesting features of rookie play. In this opening edition, we'll stick with the players that headline our first rookie rankings.
Kyrie Irving and Ricky Rubio in the Pick and Roll
That the pick and roll has become such a strong staple of the respective offensive games of rookies Ricky Rubio and Kyrie Irving should come as no surprise. Irving's head coach, Byron Scott, oversaw the development of one of the the great pick and roll players of the modern era in Chris Paul, and Rubio had experienced success in the pick and roll in Spain, even if it arguably diminished his creative abilities at the time. In exactly a month's worth of play, both Rubio and Irving have become proficient practitioners at the NBA level, relying on it heavily for both their own offense and to set up plays. A whopping 48 percent of Rubio plays that end in shots (from the field or line) or turnovers come out of the pick and roll with Irving right behind him at 43 percent. Similarly, 35% of Rubio's assists come out of pick and rolls, a figure slightly surpassed by Irving's 38 percent.
But while the end results are strikingly similar, Rubio and Irving are fairly different in terms of how they use picks for penetration.
On drives, Rubio stays, almost universally, wide off the screen. His turns are loping by design, his cuts rarely incisive. Where a Russell Westbrook would attempt to charge in, elevate, and slam through a rotating big, Rubio opts to quietly slip through, unnoticed until it's too late. Here, he easily manages to blow by Jason Terry despite an exaggerated turn that keeps him behind the arc all the way to the wing and beats Brendan Haywood to the spot with ease:
Even when Rubio comes straight down the middle, as in this clip against Detroit, it still comes as a full evasion off the edge of a defender:
Rubio splitting the pick is relatively rare, though he did try it two weeks ago against Atlanta. Rubio simply ran out of space on the pick side and was forced to redirect:
It's too early to say he can't do it, but it's certainly not a staple of his game. The rounded turn is especially important for Rubio because his passing game is so closely linked with his cross court vision. Staying wide through a pick clears the immediately vacated zone for the screening big man to spot up, and running east-west instead of north-south allows Rubio to open up a passing lane to the screener. Both of these aspects are visible in this play against Washington:
As a result of his turns, Rubio rarely dribbles directly into traffic. He does make quite a few ill-advised pass attempts on a nightly basis, through multiple passing lanes, over defenders, and into impossible angles, but a significant percentage of these are decision-making errors and not pressure induced ones.
This, then, brings us to Kyrie Irving, who relies far more heavily on change of direction and a straight line post-screen mentality. Irving does circle all the way around picks with some regularity as well. But unlike Rubio, the cut-back split is definitely a part of his arsenal:
It is, of course, a double-edged sword. Irving's directness allows him the opportunity to finish at the rim more frequently than Rubio. Given Irving's body control and touch off the glass, it's a natural fit. By the same token, Irving also encounters more defensive traffic within the first two to three steps of coming clean of a pick. As a result, he's prone to both ball handling errors as well as offensive fouls at a rate far superseding Rubio on screen penetration.
Even when he gets all the way around the edge, his cut back is far more direct. Here, he drives straight forward without moving around his defender, getting himself into trouble:
When he does come off the end and cut past his defender cleanly, his speed to the rim and finishing ability are both phenomenal:
Ultimately, there isn't a better style per se, especially since the end results are so similar. But the disparity in the two players' use of the pick and roll provides some insight into the pair as offensive players at large. Rubio's play, despite his reasonable stationary shot making ability, is largely predicated on distribution. Staying wide and expanding the court is fundamentally a pass-first approach to the game. Irving's creativity is very impressive in its own right, but it's foundationally attack-first.
On the screen-drive, penetration is the critical first step Irving looks to establish, one that subsequently creates a range of follow-up options - drop offs, layups, cross court passes. For Rubio, the primary goal coming off a screen is seeing the floor cleanly, penetration itself becoming a secondary follow-up option.
And with that, it's off to the rankings. All stats, above and below, are through Wednesday's action and come via Basketball-Reference, Hoopdata, and Synergy Sports. "Efficiency differentials" refer to the difference in points/100 possessions from the league average of the relevant season.
||Cavaliers||+4 offensive efficiency differential, 28% usage, 36% assist rate, 19% turnover rate
Kyrie Irving's unique combination of usage and efficiency as a rookie continues to impress. Only Ben Gordon and Carmelo Anthony posted higher rookie usage rates in the modern era, and neither of their offensive efficiencies -- negative 6 and negative 1 respectively -- was particularly great. Two other rookies in the 28% range, LeBron James and Kevin Durant, similarly checked in at negative 4 and negative 7.5 in 2004 and 2008. Irving sits right around plus 4 for now, and while he turns over entirely too often, all the makings of a legitimate star are there.
||Timberwolves||43% assist rate, 0.82 PPP in pick and rolls (37th), 0.66 PPP in isolation defense (16th),
|Rubio is the 1b of this class, but not in the "Deron Williams was 1b to Chris Paul" sense; he legitimately could be ranked as Irving's equal. His shooting has tailed off a bit in recent weeks (4 for his last 16 threes), but he continues to be a plus defender, especially in isolation situations.
||Nets||+11 offensive efficiency differential, 24% usage, 11% assist rate, 9% turnover rate
|The note on efficiency and usage applies just as much to the play of Brooks as it does to Irving. Ultimately, his relative inability to get to the rim (19 percent of all shots) and, to a lesser degree, the foul line, and his over reliance on isolation possessions would appear to make this outrageous offensive start unsustainable. Brooks' defense remains terrible too, especially considering the atrocious defensive unit he's a part of. But for now, he's absolutely killing it individually on offense.
||Bucks||+12 offensive efficiency differential, 16% usage, 58% true shooting||--|
Leueur responded to his first start in fine fashion two weeks ago, putting together a 15 point, 6 rebound, 5 assist, 0 turnover performance. Since then, he's started regularly. His offensive success is so heavily spot-up predicated that it's tough to gauge how he'll hold up moving forward. But his flip hook shot around the rim -- which already resembles a vaguely refined version of Antawn Jamison's -- looks a legitimate skill.
||Jazz||16% offensive rebound rate, 24% defensive rebound rate, +4 offensive efficiency differential, 17% usage||--|
|Kanter is far and away the best rookie rebounder, both offensively and defensively. In fact, he's top five among all players on the offensive glass, and he couples it with randomly effective putback ability, often fumbling the ball around wildly, but routinely redirecting it back into the hoop anyway. His game is mostly unpolished everywhere else on the offensive end, but his offensive rebounding skills are elite enough to push him over the large number of role players that define this class so far.|
+6 offensive efficiency differential, 15.6% usage, 1.52 PPP after offensive rebounds
|Parsons is a very Leuer-esque player offensively; he floats into open space and regularly shoots jumpers, if with a bit more range than Leuer. However, he lacks the same sort of midrange game. As a result, when he puts the ball on the floor, he's more likely to take all the way to the rim, where he's been finishing well. While the two players have performed similarly on the offensive glass, Parsons has stood out for his outstanding put back ability. On 29 offensive rebounds this season, Parsons has opted to go immediately back up 21 times, scoring on 15 occasions.|
0 offensive efficiency differential, 25.6% usage,
|Burks is rapidly becoming a notable slasher; his quick first step and odd-but-effective floater are both tough to defend. For now, he requires space and his first move to be created by a pass, rendering his own defender slightly off balance. The next step will be beating his defender off the dribble himself. He's been impressive defensively as well, even if primarily matched up with bench players.
0 offensive efficiency differential, 20.4% usage
|As much as I want Williams to rely less on long twos and three pointers, Minnesota's offense almost seems designed to maximize those types of shots for him when he's in the game. Williams' shot distribution is rather extreme at the ends right now; 89% of his shots come directly at the rim (43 percent) or beyond 16 feet (46 percent). Very little comes in between because the vast majority of Williams catches come on the perimeter and force him to choose between shooting immediately or taking to the hoop.
4.5% block rate, 12.7% offensive rebound rate, 19.7% defensive rebound rate
|Austin Carr getting excited for Thompson dunks is one of the very best parts of the young season, and Thompson's incessant activity both on the offensive glass and in moving off the ball is fun to watch. Thompson's back-to-basket game is composed of two rather disparate stages at this point; he feels defenders on his back very skillfully, shifting his own weight, and jumping into the lane with good timing. But he finishes wildly, often opting to fade away in the paint even after beating his man. If he can start gathering himself more slowly on the initial turn and avoid going to the fadeaway so indiscriminately, there's a very decent post game in his future.
|10.||Nikola Vucevic||Sixers||13.4% offensive rebound rate, 22.0% defensive rebound rate, +11 offensive efficiency differential, 16.4% usage
|Vucevic is another tough player to judge, simply due to how much of his (highly efficient) offensive play comes within the flow of the team's elite offense. He's been used liberally on the pick and pop, representing a sort of evolutionary Jason Smith for Philly, and he's been connecting with regularity from range (50 percent from 16-23 feet). He's also been one of the best rebounders in this class, coming in only behind Enes Kanter offensively, and third behind Kanter and Boston's Greg Stiemsma defensively.
On the fringes: Kawhi Leonard (interchangeable with 7-10), Gustavo Ayon (lack of minutes), Markieff Morris, Tyler Honeycutt, Kemba Walker