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NBA Stats Notebook: 5 players who could break into the All-Rookie race

NBA Stats Notebook: 5 players who could break into the All-Rookie race

The most important word in NBA All-Star break might actually be "break."

For one week, the entire league recalibrates itself for the home stretch of the regular season and catches up on the aches, pains and more significant injuries that stem from competing hard every single day. Rookies can also breathe after being thrown into the fires of their first year as a pro.

Young talent can thrive coming out of the break. Bottom-feeding teams are ready to turn minutes over to those with less experience and more upside after the trade deadline. Contenders have a better understanding of how rookies could slot into a playoff-seeking rotation. And regardless of the ethics, a stellar final impression can heavily impact All-Rookie narratives.

So who might surprise us with a strong close to the season?

Here are five under-the-radar rookies worth monitoring for a leap forward — "under-the-radar" excluding lottery draft picks and players already firmly in the Rookie of the Year conversation (i.e. Walker Kessler):

Malaki Branham, San Antonio Spurs

Malaki Branham is barely under the radar at this point; he's leading all rookies with 18.1 points per game in February. But he is one of my favorite players in this rookie class, and since he fits my criteria, I'm seizing the chance to spotlight him.

According to PBP Stats, 136 players have attempted at least 50 "self-created" mid-range shots this season (attempts after possessing the ball for at least two seconds). Branham is converting on a ridiculous 56% of those shots, ranking third behind only Kevin Durant and Seth Curry.

The No. 20 overall pick hardly wastes time and effort when he attacks off the dribble. While Branham has showcased his chops as an on-ball scorer, he's also 26-for-29 on assisted shots within 10 feet of the rim this season, per PBP Stats, and Synergy says Branham is shooting 76.5% on cutting field goal attempts. 

Branham's relatively low output from the perimeter at Ohio State drew question marks around the NBA Draft. Could he stretch his mid-range prowess beyond the arc? This season, Branham has made just 33.3% of his catch-and-shoot threes, but since February, he's at a scorching 18-for-41 (43.9%) on 4.6  attempts per game. 

Right now, he's purely been a bucket. We're still waiting to see a bit more of the off-dribble playmaking, which I believe was underrated in college. Branham also is, well, a contributor to the Spurs' league-worst defense. But the 6-foot-5-inch wing is playing in a low-stakes environment by NBA standards and is clearly growing more comfortable with each passing game. If you told me he would lead rookies in post-All-Star scoring, I'd believe you.

Christian Braun, Denver Nuggets

The No. 21 overall selection in this past year's draft hung around the back end of the Nuggets' rotation for most of the season, but has received 23.3 minutes per game this month. Christian Braun is averaging 7.8 points, 4.6 rebounds, 1.8 assists and 1.3 steals across nine February contests on a scintillating 64.5% True Shooting clip. 

Braun is a quintessential connector for the Nuggets right now. Over 53% of his shots have come at the rim, mostly off of secondary drives or cuts, and he'll also spot up from the corners frequently. He's not a lead playmaker, but he'll keep the ball moving; plus, he's had just six bad-pass turnovers all season, per PBP Stats. 

The Nuggets also like to use Braun's size at 6-foot-7, 218 pounds to guard up the lineup. According to BBall Index, the Kansas product has spent over 62% of his playing time defending point guards and shooting guards. And, while he's not the point-of-attack defender, he's useful in taking away complementary options and being an additional pest.

Denver's lack of trade-deadline additions on the wing (and top billing in the West) means Braun is expected to contribute to a deep playoff run. A stable three-point shot would go a long way (46.7% in February, 37.1% on the season), along with continued growth on defense. But Braun is the rare rookie on a pressure-packed team, and thriving would say a lot about his impact.

Tari Eason, Houston Rockets

Tari Eason's 1.5% block rate and 2.2% steal rate place him in an elite group of defensive havoc-wreakers this season. He's averaging 4.52 bad-pass steals or deflections per 75 possessions, per BBall Index, which puts him in the 95th percentile at his position.

Eason is already a unique event-creator on defense with his length and mobility. He also inhales rebounds on both ends of the glass. The former LSU forward secures offensive boards on 10.6% of Houston's misses, a rate that ranks second among all non-bigs in the league. 

Those two impact areas carry the weight for Eason's All-Rookie case; he's still finding his niche on offense. He has to create more for himself than expected, and he's making a paltry 40.7% of his unassisted shots at the rim. The Rockets' offense has been a mess all season long. Ideally, Eason could start his career capitalizing on more cuts, lobs and spot-ups, but it's unclear if he'll find that balance this season.

Still, his defensive impact and rebounding activity warrant a prime spot in the rotation of a young, losing team, and Eason is talented enough to make it work.

Jaylin Williams, Oklahoma City Thunder

The pesky Thunder continue to stick around in the playoff race, and Jaylin Williams — not to be confused with Jalen — has been the most recent young head-turner with his charge-taking. Check out this graphic from Dom Samangy:

Williams is such a fun, unique player. He's not racking up blocks or steals as a rim-protector, but he rebounds, takes charges and positions himself well on defense for a rookie.

Then, on offense, he's warped his impact from the pre-draft projections coming out of Arkansas. Williams' perimeter shot-making was more of an intriguing developmental pathway than a bread-and-butter skill entering the 2022 NBA Draft. The second-rounder is shooting a red-hot 47.7% from long range this season, including (checks notes) 55.6% since Jan. 1. In contrast, he's barely scoring around the rim; just 29% of his shots are coming within 4 feet of the basket.

Add in an 11.1% assist rate (66th percentile among bigs) and 3.1 screen assists per 75 possessions (80th percentile), and Williams is upending a lot of the traditional images for low-usage young centers. 

OKC moved on from Mike Muscala and forward Darius Bazley at the trade deadline. Williams' playing time has fluctuated this season, but he's averaging 21.8 minutes per game in February and has started 11 of 17 games in the new year. He'll be a big part of this stretch run for a Thunder team capable of contending.

Mark Williams, Charlotte Hornets

The Hornets traded away Mason Plumlee and are well out of the playoff picture. It's time to give the young guys some runtime, and that begins with Mark Williams, who has started the last four contests. The No. 15 overall pick is averaging 7.6 points, 5.6 rebounds and 1.2 blocks in 15.9 minutes per game this season.

Williams has thrived in more of the traditional finishing-center archetype. He's tallying 4.4 screen assists per 75 possessions (88th percentile) and posting a monster 3.7% block rate and 2.0% steal rate. (He missed the minute qualifier for Eason's previously mentioned stat). The 7-foot-1-inch center takes 78% of his shots around the rim, the majority via assists, and he makes 70% of those attempts. 

Let's expand on the interior defense a bit because Williams' small-sample impact numbers are insane. Pulling from BBall Index's data, here's a look at how he's affecting shots around the basket.

Category Value Percentile rank (among C's)
% of teams' at-rim shots contested by Williams 47.14% 96th
At-rim contests per 75 poss. 10.82 99th
Blocks per 75 poss. 2.6 97th
% of Williams' contests that become blocks 24.29% 86th
Opponent FG% at rim vs. expected FG% -11.60% 99th

(Scroll right to view full table on mobile)

These are massive data points for any player, much less a rookie.

When Williams is on the court, Charlotte allows 6.6 fewer points per 100 possessions, according to Cleaning the Glass. He's already changing the tone for a squad that has historically had issues fortifying the floor. Hopefully we get to see more of that in this stretch run.

THE OUTLIERS (a.k.a. other random interesting numbers I found in the void):

  • Not a stat, but I do want to give honorable mention shoutouts to AJ Griffin of the Atlanta Hawks and AJ Green of the Milwaukee Bucks. Both are talented rookies ready to join their team's rotations; I just wonder what minutes are available. Griffin now has to compete with Saddiq Bey in Atlanta's wing room in addition to the other established talents on the roster. Green seems to take a back seat when the Bucks are fully healthy.
  • Synergy's Todd Whitehead made these neat visualizations of pick-and-roll defense that I highlighted at the beginning of the year, and he's got some interesting takeaways now:
  • Another post-All-Star stats check-in courtesy of Tom Bassine:
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