Timberwolves’ Towns, Bjelica colonize NBA rookie leaderboards


Earlier this week, Karl-Anthony Towns was named Western Conference Rookie of the Month for October-November. Statistically, it would have been hard to justify anyone else for the award, as Towns put up numbers that were in some ways historic for a player who just recently turned 20.

Wolves fans know the team’s other prominent rookie, 27-year-old Nemanja Bjelica, has played well, too. They may be surprised at how well he has compared statistically to other rookies.

Together, Towns and Bjelica’s names appear on numerous rookie stat leader boards.

Each month, this column will review the 2015-16 rookie class to check in on how the Wolves’ first-year players stack up. (See previous analysis of their performance in the preseason here.) For each list below, players need to have played at least 15 minutes per game, a qualification which includes 17 rookies. All stats are through November 30 and were taken from basketball-reference.com.

The five rookies below have put up perhaps the most impressive traditional stat lines on a per-game basis. (An asterisk signifies league leader among rookies):

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These, however, are not the only five rookies this season. Mudiay in particular has shown flashes of how good he can be, but has not played well overall and is not even the Denver Nuggets’ best rookie. Mudiay has shot 32.1 percent from the field, averaged four turnovers per game, and posted a net rating of -28, worst by far among the 17 qualifying rookies. Russell has not played badly, but neither has he impressed.

A look at some advanced stats provides better context.

To start, a player’s rate at recording rebounds, assists, blocks, etc. while on the floor tells us more than just the number of each per game. Rebound percentage, for example, indicates the rate of rebounds that a player managed to grab while on the floor.

Rebound Rate

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Assist Rate

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Block Rate

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Towns and Porzingis are the clear leaders in rebound percentage, with Towns in the top-15 overall in the NBA.  Towns also leads in block rate and is behind only Hassan Whiteside and Rudy Gobert overall.  Assist rate is typically dominated by point guards and the Wolves’ rookie PG, Tyus Jones, has barely played so far this season.

Towns rates well in shooting efficiency as well, but Bjelica tops all rookies in true shooting percentage, a measure that incorporates free throw shooting and gives extra weight to three-pointers.

True Shooting %

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Towns and Bjelica also have performed very well across the board in advanced stats that measure overall offensive and defensive efficiency.

Towns leads all rookies in player efficiency rating (a catch-all rating of a player’s efficiency, mostly on offense), win shares per 48 (an estimate of the number of wins a player contributes per 48 minutes), and value over replacement player (an estimate of the number of points a player contributes per 100 possessions above a replacement-level player).

Bjelica leads all rookies in net rating per 100 (an estimate of points produced minus points allowed for every 100 possessions) and box plus/minus (an estimate of the average points per 100 possessions contributed above a league-average player).

Player Efficiency Rating (PER)

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Net Rating per 100 Possessions

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Win Shares per 48 Minutes (WS/48)

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Value over Replacement Player (VORP)

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Box Plus/Minus (BPM)

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For context, a PER of 15.0 is league-average and 20 and above is considered very good. Stephen Curry leads the NBA in WS/48 at 0.385, while Kevin Love is 20th at 0.203. Curry also leads in VORP with 2.7, and only six rookies have a positive BPM this season.

In short, advanced stats only bolster Towns’ case for the accolades he’s received. And while Bjelica has not played up to KAT’s level, he is clearly among the top-10 rookies so far and is arguably in the top-five.

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Taking everything into account, a top-three rookie list of Towns, Porzingis, and Okafor is solid. After that, things become murky.

Jokic is still mostly an unknown even among NBA fans but has played with high efficiency and made an impact on defense. A case could be made for Bjelica being in the top-five but missing four games hurts him.

Miami’s Justise Winslow doesn’t show up on any of the lists above but has done a number of things reasonably well while playing plus defense.  Mudiay, Johnson, Cauley-Stein, and Hollis-Jefferson could fill out the rest of the top-10, in no particular order.

What all this has to do with the Towns minutes controversy

As an aside, the fact that Porzingis is nipping at Towns’ heels as the top rookie is part of why many Wolves fans are so worked up about Towns sitting recently in the fourth quarter.

Fans love listening to people like Bill Simmons and Zach Lowe talk about how great Towns is and how great the Wolves are going to be. They love hearing the big man compared to great rookie centers of the past. They want him to win awards and accolades. Consuming media talk about that kind of thing is kind of addictive.

Next: Should The Timberwolves Trade Kevin Martin?

Towns sitting on the bench is forcing a kind of withdrawal onto some fans, made worse because they can’t see any good reason why it’s happening. That’s not the whole story because there are some good reasons why fans might be upset too. But there’s a psychological element at work, too.