NBA rookie rankings
New York Knicks rookie Immanuel Quickley. Photo: USATSI

It’s the third edition of our 2021 NBA rookie rankings.

By the time the All-Star break rolls around, we usually have a good gauge on how a rookie is performing and, perhaps a little surprisingly, the 2021 NBA rookie class has produced some instantly impactful players. Whilst there was undoubtedly some serious talent at the top of the draft – one player, in particular, has shone of late, but more on him later – it’s the later, less-heralded picks that have provided little sparks of joy in an otherwise tumultuous season.

For our previous rookie rankings, click here and here.

1. LaMelo Ball (Last ranking: 1)

Charlotte Hornets

Notable stats: 15.9 points, 6.1 assists, 5.9 rebounds, 1.6 steals, 37.5 3P%

Well, well, well. Hasn’t the cat been thrown amongst the Rookie of the Year pigeons!

With Ball likely out for the remainder of the season with a wrist injury, this could mean the end of his ROY hopes. More concerning for the young starlet, it will likely mark the last time he tops our rookie rankings (#prayforlamelo). Let’s hope he can recover from that tragedy.

Before going down, Ball was continuing his fine introduction to NBA life. Remarkably, he was leading all rookies in scoring, rebounding, assists and steals at the time of his injury, though he’s since been overtaken in a couple of those categories.

Ball’s counting stats are great. His efficiency is surprising. What is most enjoyable about Ball, however, is his enthusiasm. He looks to genuinely love playing the game and seems totally disaffected by the fact that he’s in the NBA. That exuberance – aligned with some genius level vision – permeates though to his teammates.

The Hornets – and the greater NBA public – are poorer for his absence.

2. Anthony Edwards (LR: 9)

Minnesota Timberwolves

Notable stats: 16.7 points, 4.3 rebounds, 2.6 assists, 1.0 steals

In our previous two rookie rankings, this writer described feeling a little disappointed by Edwards, but noted that there were just enough flashes of something special to remain intrigued. Those flashes have exploded into a near nightly fireworks display.

Despite the return of Karl-Anthony Towns the Wolves still suck, and are even worse now that D’Angelo Russell and Malik Beasley are out. However, Beasley’s suspension in particular has cleared the lane for Edwards – the rookie has thundered down that lane, dunking on everything that stands in his way.

Check out the raw production from the #1 pick both pre and post the All Star game:

PPGFG%RPGAPGSPG3PFG3P%
Pre All Star14.937.10%42.50.91.930.20%
Post All Star26.143.40%5.52.91.33.335.60%
Stats per Basketball Reference

In only about six more minutes per contest, Edwards has dialed it up to the point where his numbers are comparable to actual All-Stars! He’s even doing it efficiently, which isn’t something that anybody would have thought only six weeks ago.

Edwards had himself a night out against Phoenix earlier in March, becoming the third youngest player in the history of the NBA to post a 40+ point game.

Edwards looks to have found his shooting stroke, augmenting his already bullocking driving game. That should excite Wolves fans; and frighten the rest of the league.

3. Immanuel Quickley (LR: 4)

New York Knicks

Notable stats: 12.7 points, 37.5 3P%, 88.9 FT%

The Knicks have themselves a player.

Quickley has, well, quickly (Sorry. Not sorry) established himself as a weapon off the bench for the Knicks, able to light it up from time to time whilst also holding his own on the defensive end of the floor. With the Knicks starting point guard Elfrid Payton sitting out for a few games, Quickley finally found himself in the starting line-up and didn’t disappoint. He drained four treys on his way to 21 points in that bizarre loss to the Nets.

Whilst Payton is now available and back in the starting five, one can’t help but wonder how long it will be until coach Thibodeau bites the bullet and starts his rookie. With so much of the Knicks play making falling to RJ Barrett and All-Star Julius Randle – yep, still weird – it seems redundant to have a Payton type (good play maker, solid defender, patchy shooter) playing off of those two.

As long as Quickley continues his defensive development, a starting role should be his sooner rather than later.

4. Tyrese Haliburton (LR: 2)

Sacramento Kings

Notable stats: 12.8 points, 5.0 assists, 3.4 rebounds, 1.3 steals, 48/42/85 shooting splits

Haliburton continues to enjoy one of the more underrated campaigns in recent memory. Despite playing behind a franchise cornerstone and a highly paid veteran, the Iowa State product has maintained the solid, steady play that belies both his age (he’s just turned 21 – interestingly, Haliburton’s birthday is February 29) and inexperience.

The Kings are now a full three games outside of a western conference play-in place, so it will be interesting to see if coach Luke Walton alters his rotations to give Haliburton more time running the show, or playing alongside Fox. Of course, the Kings are reportedly active in pursuing trades before the deadline (they acquired Delon Wright as this article was being prepared) so their personnel – and therefore rotations – could look quite different in about 24 hours time.

5. Saddiq Bey (LR: 10)

Detroit Pistons

Notable stats: 10.5 points, 4.1 rebounds, 38.6 3P%, 87.8 FT%

The Pistons are quietly threatening – if that’s the right word – the Wolves for the status of the worst team in the NBA. Literally, zero percent of that is due to the performances of Saddiq Bey.

The small forward has established himself as a long term building block for the Pistons, on the back of excellent shooting and surprisingly resilient defense.

Since the All-Star break, Bey’s been posting 14.2 points, 5.3 boards and 1.3 assists, though his economy has understandably slipped with the increased responsibility. He was, however, able to hang an efficient 28 points (six treys), 12 boards and a pair of steals on the struggling Raptors.

The Pistons will be giving all of their youngsters all the court time they can handle. So far, Bey is making the most of his opportunities.

6. Jae’Sean Tate (LR: 5)

Houston Rockets

Notable stats: 10.4 points, 5.5 rebounds, 1.2 steals

Mature age rookie Jae’Sean Tate continues to be a lovely story for the beleaguered Rockets.

As a starting forward he’s probably not the answer for a team with serious aspirations, Tate certainly looks like he could be the answer for a contending team looking for a jack-of-all trades type for their second unit.

Essentially an undersized power forward, Tate has proven himself a very good rebounder and somewhat of a ball hawk. His ability to score against NBA defenses – thought to be his major weakness at this level – has been better than advertised. Tate has also shown some serious play making chops, twice topping five assists in the past week or so.

If you squint hard enough, with the ball in his hands, there are some Julius Randle vibes to Tate’s game.

7. Theo Maledon (LR: 8)

Oklahoma City Thunder

Notable stats: 8.2 points, 3.4 assists, 3.1 rebounds, 37.2 3P%

The 19 year old Maledon only moved into the Thunder’s starting lineup as cover for injured veteran George Hill – he’s started 22 of his 23 games since then. Part of that is because of Hill’s sporadic absences, but it’s mainly due to the heady play of the young Frenchman.

As mentioned in our previous rankings, Maledon is not your normal 19 year old rookie – he’s been playing professional ball in Europe since he was 15. (An aside: what were you doing aged 15? Whatever it was, I’ll bet my house that it wasn’t as cool as what Maledon was doing). His methodical approach to the game mirrors that of back court running mate and Thunder star man Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, and the ability of both to play off the ball or as a genuine point guard gives the Thunder a certain unpredictability.

Maledon perhaps doesn’t have the pure athleticism, or the shiftiness to evolve into a genuine star in his own right, but he’s shown enough to say with some certainty that he’s going to have a long and prosperous NBA career.

8. Patrick Williams (LR: 6)

Chicago Bulls

Notable stats: 9.6 points, 4.9 rebounds, 38.3 3P%

Williams’ play has dropped away slightly over the past month. Whilst his raw production has tailed off, he continues to do the little things well, particularly at the defensive end: closing a passing lane, hedging correctly, rotating at the right time, not roaming from dangerous assignments. Whilst the Kawhi Leonard comparisons – yes, this writer was guilty of them, too – were perhaps a touch premature, Williams shows a rare understanding of the defensive side of the game for someone so young (Williams doesn’t turn 20 until August).

Offensively, he’s tough to get a read on of late. In March, his success rate from deep has skyrocketed to 39.1% after a rough February which, given his shooting early in the season, suggests that staying in the high 30’s from beyond the arc is sustainable. From the charity stripe, however, he’s plummeted to 57.1%, though only on 14 attempts. That lack of free throws is a little concerning in and of itself: Williams’ slippery drive game should lend itself to creating contact. It will be interesting to watch his free throw attempt numbers as he develops.

9. Desmond Bane (LR: 3)

Memphis Grizzlies

Notable stats: 9.5 points, 49/46/86 shooting splits

Bane’s impact on a night-to-night basis has dissapated as the Grizzlies once shocking injury list has reduced to more acceptable levels, but when he’s out on the court, there’s just something about Desmond Bane that you can’t help but like. Sure, he’s an older rookie so it’s fair to expect that he’d adapt to NBA life with more aplomb that other rookies, but it’s more than that. Bane plays more like a 10 year veteran role player than a solid older rookie. To this writer, there are shades of Garrett Temple to his game.

Temple has made a career out of always being in the right place at the right time, not screwing up defensively, hitting open jump shots, and making the right decision with the ball in his hand. Temple is a 34 year old respected journeyman in his 12th NBA season. Bane is that player right now.

10. Kenyon Martin Jr (LR: Not Ranked)

Houston Rockets

Notable stats: 7.1 points, 4.7 rebounds, 1.0 blocks

Like his predecessor Daryl Morey, Raphael Stone seems to have the ability to create potential rotation planers out of nothing.

After making practically no impact in his previous stint at the big club, Martin Jr went back to the G League, took his lumps and earned his way back to Houston. Since returning he’s been a pleasant surprise. He’s posted 10.3 points, 5.9 rebounds, 1.2 blocks and a steal in 26 minutes per game since being called up.

Despite being somewhat smaller than his father, Martin Jr is a similar player in many ways. He’s more than willing to yam on someone and is a willing and able rim protector.

Not much has gone right for Houston this campaign, but their remarkable ability to find players on the fringes remains unparalleled.

Just outside the top 10: James Wiseman (Warriors), Xavier Tillman (Grizzlies), Aleksej Pokusevski (Thunder), Payton Pritchard (Celtics)

Dropping out from the last rankings: Xavier Tillman