If this year's NBA rookie class still were in school, it would have to repeat the grade. From top overall pick Anthony Bennett on down, it's been a rough season for this year's rookies -- so rough that, collectively, they've rated worse than replacement level as a group. That's not quite unprecedented, but it's close.
Worst rookie class ever? Not quite
The saving grace for this year's rookies is the 2000 draft, once described by FreeDarko as leaving "a legacy of ruin and evil." That draft, which included busts Marcus Fizer, Darius Miles and Stromile Swift in the top five, produced at a rate 17.3 wins worse than replacement level by my wins above replacement player (WARP) metric as rookies -- a mark that's unlikely to ever be topped.
The 1990 draft (3.7 WARP as rookies) and 2007 draft (2.
also were relatively weak, though they'd eventually yield superstars Gary Payton and Kevin Durant, respectively. But the 2000 draft had been the only rookie class since the ABA-NBA merger to leave the league worse off than if no rookies had played at all -- until now.
With two weeks to play, there's still an outside chance this year's rookies can get out of the negatives. For now, their minus-3.3 combined WARP is the second-worst mark in modern NBA history.
But be careful before using this year's class as evidence that the one-and-done rule isn't working and today's rookies aren't ready for the NBA. There's no clear downward trend in overall rookie performance. The deep 2008-09 crop actually produced more WARP than any rookie campaign since the merger.
Most of the early attention focused on Bennett's slow start, and understandably so. He's just the fourth No. 1 pick since the merger to post negative WARP during his rookie season (minus-1.5), joining Kwame Brown (minus-0.6), Pervis Ellison (minus-0.3) and Michael Olowokandi (minus-1.5).
Because of his limited playing time, however, Bennett isn't last among rookies in WARP. That dubious honor belongs to Ben McLemore of the Sacramento Kings, whose minus-2.7 WARP ranks lowest among all players.
1 Anthony Bennett -1.5
2 Victor Oladipo 1.9
3 Otto Porter -0.9
4 Cody Zeller 0.3
5 Alex Len -0.6
6 Nerlens Noel -
7 Ben McLemore -2.7
8 Kentavious Caldwell-Pope -1.0
9 Trey Burke 0.9
10 C.J. McCollum -0.6
11 Michael Carter-Williams 2.7
12 Steven Adams 0.2
13 Kelly Olynyk 1.7
14 Shabazz Muhammad -0.3
Bennett and McLemore have plenty of company. Of the 13 lottery picks who have seen action -- No. 6 selection Nerlens Noel has yet to return from ACL surgery -- seven have performed at sub-replacement level. Just two, Michael Carter-Williams of the Philadelphia 76ers (2.7) and Kelly Olynyk of the Boston Celtics (1.7) have rated more than a win better than replacement.
It's no surprise that this year's rookie class is lacking in top-end talent. That criticism of the draft pool was backed up by the numbers, and the absence of a clear No. 1 pick allowed the Cleveland Cavaliers to surprise everyone by taking Bennett first overall. At the same time, this appeared to be a relatively deep group of rookies, and that hasn't panned out.
Injuries are one possible explanation. Beyond Noel, three of the top five picks (Bennett, Alex Len of the Phoenix Suns and Otto Porter of the Washington Wizards) missed either summer league or training camp due to injury. So too did No. 10 pick C.J. McCollum. Having lost out on important development time to help them make the adjustment to the NBA, those players have been behind all season, and none of the four have played more than 1,000 minutes. Making matters worse for Bennett, a strained patella tendon knocked him out of action just as he was starting to get comfortable.
The good news for Bennett and the other slow starters is that it's certainly possible to overcome a poor rookie campaign. While the 2000 draft never got on track, the 2007 draft offers a more encouraging comparison. Before this season, the 2007-08 rookie class was the second-worst on record, and it would have combined for negative WARP if not for the contributions of 27-year-old D-League veteran Jamario Moon. Yet, it eventually produced All-Stars Al Horford and Joakim Noah, valuable starters like Mike Conley and Thaddeus Young -- and, of course, likely 2013-14 MVP Durant.
Rookie of the Year race
So out of this weak class, who should win Rookie of the Year honors? Because the players who have seen the most action (Carter-Williams, Victor Oladipo of the Orlando Magic and Trey Burke of the Utah Jazz) have been inefficient offensively, the numbers agree on an unheralded candidate -- Miles Plumlee of the Brooklyn Nets, who is tops in WARP (2.
, Win Shares (3.5) and PER (17.9).
Ed Mulholland/USA TODAY Sports
Mason Plumlee might not have Michael Carter-Williams' numbers, but he is contributing to a winning team.
In practice, Plumlee is unlikely to win because of his limited role most of the year and pedestrian per-game averages (6.7 points and 4.1 rebounds). Of the last 26 Rookie of the Year awards, 25 have gone to the player with the highest combined averages in points, rebounds and assists per game. (The one exception? Amar'e Stoudemire over Yao Ming in 2003.) That history favors Carter-Williams, who leads all rookies in points (16.1), assists (6.3) and rebounds (6.1) per game, not to mention steals.
But while Carter-Williams is putting up numbers on the lowly 76ers, Plumlee is contributing to a playoff team. Brooklyn has gone 14-5 with Plumlee starting in place of the injured Kevin Garnett, and the Nets have been as effective overall with Plumlee in the middle as Garnett. Their defense suffers, but Plumlee's ability to finish at the rim makes them more potent offensively.
Along with Steven Adams of the Oklahoma City Thunder, European veteran Nick Calathes of the Memphis Grizzlies, Cody Zeller of the Charlotte Bobcats and perhaps New York Knicks guard Tim Hardaway Jr., Plumlee is one of a handful of rookies who will play regular roles in the playoffs. If they can provide solid minutes, they might be able to provide a more satisfying conclusion to a rough year for rookies.