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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
||Percentile rank (among C's)
|% of teams' at-rim shots contested by
|At-rim contests per 75
|Blocks per 75 poss.
|% of Williams' contests that become
|Opponent FG% at rim vs. expected
(Scroll right to view full table
These are massive data points for any player, much less a
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