NBA Rookie of the Year watch: Grizzlies' Brandon Clarke joins Ja Morant in award race

Sporting News

An NBA rookie class that had underwhelmed entering December continued to sputter before the close of 2019.

Leading Rookie of the Year candidate Ja Morant missed five games due to injury this past month, but his fellow freshmen did little to prove they belonged in the award conversation.

Kendrick Nunn, an undrafted revelation for the Heat, had been the most serious challenger to Morant. He shot 41.8 percent from the field and 29.8 percent from deep in December, though, bringing his still-impressive campaign somewhat back to earth.

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One player who has bolstered his standing is Grizzlies forward Brandon Clarke, the hyper-efficient Gonzaga product currently inhibited only by his limited playing time (21.5 minutes per game).

Despite the mostly disappointing stretch for first-year players, plenty of time remains for members of the group to separate from the pack.

Here are the five rookies who, as of Jan. 1, seem most likely to win Rookie of the Year.

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Ja-Morant-113019-getty-ftr

NBA Rookie of the Year rankings

1. Ja Morant, Grizzlies (17.4 PPG, 3.2 RPG, 6.5 APG, 49.9 eFG%)

Stock: Steady

When Morant injured his back falling into a courtside camera in late November, it appeared he could miss significant time. Instead, he returned to the Memphis lineup on Dec. 9 and scored 26 points in a win over the Warriors. He's been a consistent scorer in the weeks since then. His 48.5 percent clip from the field this past month marked his first stretch as an efficient shooter, and he also took care of the ball well, posting a season-low turnover average.

Morant's ability to wow with his athleticism continues to give him by far the most hype of any active rookie. His posterization of Suns center Aron Baynes is the signature play of his first year so far.

One week later, he almost one-upped himself with an attempted slam over Kevin Love that Love jokingly said almost ended his professional career.

At this point, it seems unlikely another rookie will match Morant's statistical production or best highlights.

2. Brandon Clarke, Grizzlies (13.0 PPG, 5.5 RPG, 1.4 APG, 67.8 eFG%)

Stock: Rising

The Memphis rebuild is finally taking flight. Not only have the Grizzlies received strong play from Morant, but they've also been pleasantly surprised by Clarke's immediate breakthrough. The forward is quietly asserting himself as an all-around machine who could be an effective long-term springy sidekick to Jaren Jackson Jr. in the team's frontcourt. His per-36 averages are staggering: 21.8 points, 9.3 rebounds, 2.4 assists and 1.5 blocks. He's coming off the bench, which has deflated his playing time, but that could change in the second half of the season.

No other rookie has been more effective on a per-minute basis than Clarke, and his remarkable consistency should keep him near the top of a freshman field littered with up-and-down performers. After Dec. 1, he never shot below 50 percent in a game or committed more than two turnovers. He is a 23-year-old who plays without the volatility typical of competitors his age.

3. Kendrick Nunn, Heat (16.0 PPG, 2.8 RPG, 3.5 APG, 52 eFG%)

Stock: Falling

Nunn wasn't bad in December, but he didn't have the money jumper that launched him into the Heat rotation earlier in the season. As a result, he registered just two 20-point outings in the month after delivering a stretch of four in five games in November.

Still, Nunn continues to give Miami vital minutes at the point guard position, a contribution made crucial by continued injury setbacks to Justise Winslow and Goran Dragic. The fact he's been an impact player for a playoff-bound team also helps his potential Rookie of the Year case. His status as an undrafted player makes this campaign extremely impressive regardless of whether he rediscovers his outside stroke.

4. Eric Paschall, Warriors (14.3 PPG, 4.5 RPG, 1.7 APG, 52 eFG%)

Stock: Falling

Paschall lost some of his offensive aggressiveness over the past few weeks, perhaps because of the return of D'Angelo Russell and/or the effects of knee and hip injuries. He did not take more than six shots or play more than 18 minutes in the final four games of December.

In order to be a serious Rookie of the Year contender, the forward needs to get back to the scoring role he seemed so comfortable in earlier this season. Either way, though, Golden State should be happy with the second-rounder's production and the depth he can bring to the organization once its stars return to the court.

5. RJ Barrett, Knicks (13.8 PPG, 5.3 RPG, 2.8 APG, 43.2 eFG%)

Stock: Falling

Last month, we slotted Barrett near the top of this list based on his draft position and bucket-getting potential with the assumption he would get better as the season progressed. Instead, Barrett slumped to a brutal December in which his shooting percentage fell further below 40 percent and his assist average tanked.

At this point, he's not even half the player Morant is despite carrying a significantly richer pedigree, and until he shows himself to be more than a bargain bin version of a raw first-year Rudy Gay, there's no point projecting him to sniff the Rookie of the Year race.

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