NBA Rookie of the Year ladder: Warriors' Brandin Podziemski surges into top 5

Golden State Warriors off-guard Brandin Podziemski has been a revelation for a team desperate to get back on track.

Brandin Podziemski, Golden State Warriors
Brandin Podziemski, Golden State Warriors / John Hefti-USA TODAY Sports
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Dereck Lively II. 4. player. . Center. 79. Mavericks. . Dereck Lively II. 4

There has been a ho-hum quality to Dereck Lively's output in Dallas. He doesn't generate highlights on offense, nor do his statistics leap off the page at first glance. Still, it's abundantly clear Dallas is better with Lively on the floor. He was named starter in the Mavs' second game of the season and he hasn't relinquished that role.

It's exceedingly rare for rookie centers to start (and be effective) for contenders. There are multiple exceptions to that particular rule of thumb in 2023, but Lively is especially unique in that he was the No. 12 pick — not the No. 1 or 2 pick. The Mavs traded back with the express intention of landing Lively. He was a clear fit with Luka Doncic on paper. Dallas has never been able to place Doncic next to an athletic rim-runner who can effectively protect the paint on defense. Even so, the expectation was that Lively would have to wait his turn behind Dwight Powell and Maxi Kleber. Not so.

Lively has been an excellent defensive anchor for Dallas. He has help on the perimeter with Derrick Jones Jr. and Dante Exum on the rise, but it's hard to field a competent defense without a viable rim protector. Lively is averaging 1.5 blocks in 25.2 minutes. He's a deterrent in the paint with the lateral quickness to guard up on the perimeter and the basketball I.Q. necessary to avoid the back-breaking lapses customary of most rookie bigs.

He doesn't explode on offense, but Lively excels in his streamlined role. He's shooting 73.4 percent from the field, with almost all those shot attempts coming at the rim. His gravity rolling down the lane has worked magic as defenses scramble to defend Luka Doncic two-man actions. Doncic is quick to locate Lively when he's available above the rim. When he's not, that normally means Doncic has a fissure to exploit. Dallas is 18-14, currently the No. 6 seed in the West. Lively has been, what, the third or fourth-best player on the team?