Traditionally, this would be the point in the season where teams would be unleashing a slew of their rookies and younger players as they've given up hope of securing a playoff spot. However, with the new play-in tournament introduced, only two teams have been mathematically eliminated from the postseason with just a couple weeks left of the regular season. While we haven't seen as many under-the-radar first-year players getting more looks down the stretch, we're still seeing solid performances from rookies who are playing in some surprisingly meaningful games at this point in the schedule.
Now moving on to this week's rankings, which will reflect a rookie's performance on a week-to-week basis only, not the collective season. These aren't Rookie of the Year standings. With that straightened out, here is a look at the top rookies this week.
Despite already being eliminated from playoff contention, the Timberwolves have suddenly started to win games, going 6-4 in their last 10 games. After Minnesota's second consecutive win over the top-seeded Utah Jazz, Edwards was asked why the Wolves have been far better down the stretch in games recently compared to the beginning of the season. Let's take a look at his answer:
Asked Anthony Edwards why the Timberwolves have been playing better in 4th quarters recently compared to the beginning of the season.— Dane Moore (@DaneMooreNBA) April 25, 2021
His answer: "I was on the bench back then."
This kid just keeps serving up media gold. Not only is the No. 1 overall pick in last year's draft blossoming on the court, but he's quickly becoming a fan favorite because of his personality. He certainly doesn't lack confidence, and given the way he's been playing recently who could blame him.
With starting point guard De'Aaron Fox out for at least two weeks due to the league's health and safety protocols, Tyrese Haliburton got pushed into the starting lineup this week and certainly made the most of it. Although the Kings only came out with one win during that stretch, Haliburton's individual performances across the week were a bright spot for Sacramento. Against the Mavericks, Haliburton finished the night with a double-double (14 points, 10 assists) to go along with five rebounds and three steals.
I've said it several times already and I'll say it again: The best thing to come out of the Magic trading away Aaron Gordon and Nikola Vucevic is the increase in playing time for Chuma Okeke. He went from role player off the bench to consistent starter, and while he isn't putting up ridiculous scoring numbers on a consistent basis like some of his fellow classmates, he's been delivering jaw-dropping plays like this one since the trade deadline:
That's an impressive level of confidence from a rookie to go head on against a 6-10 Andre Drummond. Oh, and then there's dimes like this that he's been dropping left and right:
As Okeke continues to develop he will surely be a important piece of Orlando's future, something that the Magic likely wouldn't have found out if they hadn't made those franchise altering moves at the deadline.
Speaking of Orlando's future, Cole Anthony has been consistent since returning from his rib injury that sidelined him for 25 games. Although he put up 18 points against Cleveland this week in Orlando's only win, his most impressive performance came against the Lakers, where he finished with 15 points, seven assists four boards and went 3 of 4 from long range. His 3-point shooting is especially impressive given the fact that he's struggled heavily with his shot from beyond the arc all season long. The issue has been consistency, which was on display this week as he had two other games where he went a combined 2 of 7 from deep.
Payton Pritchard isn't going to be winning Rookie of the Year, and he'll likely miss the All-Rookie team as well, but don't let that distract you from the fact that he's been one of the most impactful rookies this season for his team. It's always difficult for a rookie to join a team that is contending for a championship, as playing time will be sparse, but Pritchard earned his spot in the rotation with his 3-point shooting. This week he put up a career-high 28 points on the Thunder, and in his last 10 games he's scored in double figures six times. He's been an ideal role player for Boston off the bench, and he'll likely see some solid minutes when the postseason rolls around.
This week we got to see Jae'Sean Tate go head-to-head against No. 1 overall pick Anthony Edwards for the third time this season, and just as it went the previous two times Tate put the clamps on Edwards. For the nearly four-and-a-half minutes Tate was on Edwards during that game, Edwards went 0 for 3 from the field, missed on his lone 3-point attempt and turned the ball over on this Tate steal:
Tate then finished that game with 20 points, seven rebounds, four assists and two steals while shooting a ridiculously efficient 75 percent from the field. If he can develop a consistent jump shot he'll begin to develop into a formidable two-way player in this league.
This week, Kenyon Martin Jr. recorded his first career start, and put up 18 points, four boards, three steals and two assists. It was the most minutes Martin logged all season, playing over 40 minutes in a loss to the Nuggets. His offensive performance was especially impressive considering he was tasked with keeping up with Michael Porter Jr. on the other end of the floor all night. Martin didn't have his greatest defensive performance against Porter, as he struggled to fight around screens or losing him when he was moving off the ball, but it was a good challenge for this rookie who has shown flashes of being a decent defender on the perimeter.
You can tell that Tyrese Maxey's confidence is growing with each passing game, as he's beginning to be more assertive on offense. He's been incredibly efficient in the pick-and-roll all season long, ranking in the 86th percentile in points per possession (1.021), and he's starting to show more willingness to attack the rim more instead of settling for a floater which became his go-to shot early in the season. Take this play, for instance:
A couple months ago Maxey surely would've pulled up for a floater on that shot, but he recognized he could blow past his defender, and once he got him on his hip he was able to get an easy scoop shot.
It was a career week for Isaac Okoro, who put up 20 points against the Raptors, in addition to six rebounds and going 8 of 16 from the field. As solid of a week as he had, though, there's still significant room for him to grow on the offensive side of the floor. Okoro's defense has earned him praise all season, and he could develop into a player who could make an All-Defensive team at some point in his career, but he needs to be shooting better than 28.9 percent from deep, and ranking in the 35th percentile in shots at the rim.
While the Thunder are already thinking about the upcoming draft as they're all but mathematically eliminated from the playoffs, that hasn't stopped Theo Maledon from continuing to impress in Shai Gilgeous-Alexander's absence. He put up 20 points in a loss to the Wizards this week, coming up just two assists shy of what would've been his second double-double of the season.