May 15, 2021

NBA Rookie Rankings: Saddiq Bey breaks Pistons record; Theo Maledon, Aleksej Pokusevski shine for Thunder

As we inch closer to the end of the regular season, the focus shifts to playoff seeding and postseason matchups. This becomes a time where rookies sometimes become an afterthought as it’s uncommon to see first-year players play past the regular season. However, that doesn’t mean that what these guys are doing isn’t important. 

By this point in the season, some first-year players hit that “rookie wall,” succumbing to the grind of their first full year in the NBA and their performances on the floor start to waver. But what we’re seeing this season is consistent performances from many of the draft class’ top players, and several late bloomers, like R.J. Hampton and Chuma Okeke down in Orlando. We may not be focusing as much on the rookies with the playoffs just around the corner, but there’s still plenty of jaw-dropping and eye-opening performances from these guys on a week-to-week basis to keep your attention.

Now moving on to this week’s rookie rankings. These rankings will reflect a rookie’s performance on a week-to-week basis only, not the collective season, so these aren’t Rookie of the Year standings. With that straightened out, here is a look at the top rookies this week.

Much has been made about Anthony Edwards’ second half surge this season, but he’s actually been balling out for a little bit longer than that. You could pinpoint it to when the Timberwolves fired coach Ryan Saunders on Feb. 22, after which Edwards proceeded to score 20-plus points in three-straight games before the All-Star break. He’s been allowed to assert himself on offense more, and while it hasn’t resulted in a bunch of wins for the Timberwolves, which isn’t an indictment on Edwards, he’s been able to break free a bit more and be a force on offense. Like this play against the Sixers:

I don’t think Edwards makes that effortless of a move in his first few games of this season, especially against the second-best team in the East. The patience it took to navigate through traffic under control and euro step around Joel Embiid’s seven-foot frame for an easy bucket, that’s veteran-level craftiness. We’ve been able to see Edwards’ continued improvement with each passing game, and it’s been a treat to witness.

It feels as though every week Theo Maledon continues to climb up the rookie rankings, and ever since I wrote about him as one of the five underrated rookies to watch in the second half of the season, he’s done nothing but prove me right. This week, that came in the form of a career-high 33-point performance.

He continues to display his ridiculous passing skills, his ability to score at all three levels and more importantly being able to play both on and off the ball. Perhaps no one has benefited more from Shai Gilgeous-Alexander’s untimely foot injury than Maledon, who is more than proving his worth with the Thunder this season. Paired with the next rookie on this list, OKC has found themselves some gems.

Aleksej Pokusevski accomplished a rather sizable feat this week, setting the franchise rookie record for most 3s made in a game (7), while simultaneously becoming the youngest player in league history to make seven 3-point shots in a game, passing LaMelo Ball and Coby White. Then, on top of all of that, Poku and Maledon became the first pair of rookie teammates to score 25-plus points each in the same game since 2021, when Kyrie Irving and Tristan Thompson did it. The accomplishments just keep stacking up for both of these rookies, and since inserting Pokusevski into the starting lineup, he’s averaging 13 points, six boards and nearly three assists while shooting 36 percent from 3-point territory. All of this while standing at seven feet tall.

Earlier in the season, Isaac Okoro’s defense is what was garnering his attention in these rookie rankings, but lately, his offensive game has started to develop. He’s become more efficient since the All-Star break, which is crucial in his development as a defensive-minded forward. Coming into the NBA Draft, Okoro was getting compared to guys like Justise Winslow, Andre Iguodala and Caron Butler, but in order to live up to those comparisons, Okoro needs to continue his development on knocking down mid-range and 3-point shots. His defense is his calling card, and it will only improve as he understands the game at this level better, but his shooting is where he will be able to cement himself in a starting lineup for years to come.