Rookie Watch: Getting their careers off on the right foot
Instead, first-year players should follow the lead of their peers in medicine, law, finance and every other field: Show up early, work diligently and stay late. The NBA game is far different and more challenging than any college experience they ever had. On top of that, the talent they are competing with for rotation minutes is stronger, too.
While it is true that some rookies can afford to fail early because opportunities can and will come again later, the majority of players are undoubtedly better served by starting their careers on a positive path. And this is best achieved by simply outworking the other guy. The NBA, however, requires work that is smart as well.
Let's examine what this means for the current top 20 in my rookie rankings.
The best way for Oden to make an impact in November is to be in the game. Period. His size and talent are enough. So, ensuring that his conditioning level is good enough to allow him to run and jump for long periods of time should be his focus. And studying tape of big men in the league who expertly avoid fouls is a must as well.
As a rookie, Shaq was terrific in the transition game, an ability that is rare for a young big. Oden would be wise to watch and be inspired by tape of "The Diesel" as a 21-year-old.
All rookie bigs who might play a lot should be learning how to play defense with discipline so as to maximize their minutes and not get sent to the bench with early foul trouble. Although Love is a better athlete than people think, he can stand to improve his quickness in tight spaces. Agility drills and defensive slide actions are good places to start.
Beasley's court sense is unmatched in this class. As long as he knows where his starting positions are for each set the Heat run (or are preparing to defend), his feel for the game will ensure that he makes the right movements most of the time. So, more importantly, the Heat need to create a challenging daily routine that keeps Beasley occupied and engaged throughout the day, from sunrise to sunset and beyond.
His off-court issues have the best chance of disappearing if he is spending most of his days and nights in a gym, weight room, film room or training area. Getting rookies to create and then stick to a routine is of paramount importance, and there is no one who needs that more than MB.
Although the Euro game is far more physical than the NBA, it creates players who habitually use their hands instead of their feet on defense and when fighting for rebounding position. Gasol displayed those habits in the Olympics, and he'll get called for fouls nearly every time he uses his hands in the NBA, at least this season. So focusing on defensive movements in practice, with his hands "quiet" or even behind his back, could pay dividends come November.
The Spanish star seems ready right now based on what we saw in China. But for the first time in years, he may not be getting nearly as many minutes and touches as he is accustomed to. Finding ways to be productive within a limited role is a difficult adjustment for players who are so dependent on being in a rhythm when they play.
Fernandez seems capable of making big contributions right away on defense and in the Blazers' transition game. Studying the offensive games of his opponents and challenging himself to not get complacent as a role player look like good starting points for him.
Shot selection. Shot selection. Shot selection. Mayo is an excellent shooter when he is balanced and open. He already shoots better than most, so learning how to get those shots -- while avoiding the ones off the dribble with a hand in his face -- is a great way for him to gain something from the work he'll put in during training camp. He'll also be asked to defend some terrific 2-guards right away, so getting a feel for his opponents via game tape would give him a head start.
Rose's most glaring weakness in both the NCAA Finals and his brief stint in summer league was his inability to exploit ball screens set for him. They are not typically found in the dribble-drive motion offense that he ran for Memphis, so it's not surprising that he was easy to defend in July. Studying the options he has as a ball handler and practicing them each day should get him up to speed quickly.
Unfortunately, nothing is more sacred for an athlete than having a healthy back. An injured one can lead to so many other complications. So Gallinari, who hurt his back during summer league, will not have the luxury of working on anything other than getting his back healthy and then catching up on conditioning. After that, he'll need to learn to sprint -- not just run -- up and down the court to take advantage of the Knicks' offensive system.
If the Nets feature an offense based on the dribble-drive motion, Lopez will be playing away from the ball, as opposed to posting up on the ball side. So developing his touch shots from 5 to 15 feet off the pass from penetration is the plan. He will need to mix in his back-to-the-basket stuff, too, so it will be there for him whenever coach Lawrence Frank needs it.
All point guards need to be adept at handling the ball. So someone like Westbrook, who is converting to the position, knows he needs to bear down in this area. In Year 1, keeping turnovers to a minimum is even more important for him than creating easy baskets.
Playing with Dwight Howard will be more of a challenge than Lee might think, considering he didn't have much of a post presence to play alongside in college. With a player like Howard, who's basically always open inside, Lee has to stay aggressive and only pass when Howard is open in a good scoring spot. A passive player who constantly defers to Howard in the post gives the Magic a 4-on-5 look, an advantage for the defense.
Watching tape of Hedo Turkoglu from last season should give Lee his plan for this season.
Bayless has the classic rookie dilemma: He's a scoring guard on a team that already has savvy scorers who need the ball. Getting used to playing off of other players will be key. So will his ability to be a catch-and-shoot player, rather than one who scores off of his own bounce. His development time should call for many reps of shooting off of kick-out passes and drive-and-kicks.
Speights is one of the most talented players in this class. But he is also the rookie most prone to take plays off and avoid being physical. The best way to address this is to ensure that every rep, every day in every practice, is done at game speed. Building a habit of "locking in" on every possession starts today, and it will create a monster for the Sixers come playoff time, when each possession grows in importance.
Greene is another huge talent who still has to learn how to play. To see him use his rookie season as a launching pad for shooting lots of 3-pointers would be a huge disappointment. He has the ability to score in other ways, so emphasizing those moves each day and even curbing his green light from downtown would be a good start. He's also a guy who could see his athleticism jump to an elite level if he trained for it.
Hickson looked like a top-10 talent in Vegas summer league, but he'll have a different role as a rookie on this contending team. Cleveland is one of the league's best in rotating on defense, which requires good anticipation skills. Hickson needs to immerse himself in defensive film and technique so those rotations become second nature as soon as possible.
No rookie will have a bigger adjustment than Augustin, who now plays for a coach who will literally coach his every move. Augustin needs to relax, open his mind and enjoy the basketball education he's going to receive.
He's also the rare rookie who has a chance to earn a starting spot this season, so setting very high expectations for himself is a great starting point -- as is keeping his turnovers low in October and November. Studying Chauncey Billups' tapes from his Larry Brown days would be smart.
The surprise lottery pick could become a victim of his own talent. He's a power forward with small-forward potential, which is a deadly mix for a young guy but often results in a confused player who doesn't excel at anything. Thompson plays for a team that needs rebounding help and athleticism on the front line. Narrowing his focus in practice to simply being a beast in the paint would be the best plan for him to help his team.
Lopez already has the energy and demeanor to be a good player off the bench. However, becoming a more polished player inside will not only earn him more minutes, but also help make the argument for him as the Suns' center of the future. Effective post play starts with developing a trusted go-to move, then two countermoves. Doing that, along with building great hands around the rim, is where Lopez's focus should be this fall.
Randolph might be shocked to see that his options during the season are far different than what he saw during summer league, when he played point forward and controlled the ball most of the time. That might eventually be his future on the team, but it's not likely going to be his present. We all know he needs to add strength and weight, but it's just as important for him to refine his finishing game and his shot selection. Like for Jason Thompson, the best plan for Randolph is to work from the paint first.
Missing almost all of summer-league play cost Gordon the opportunity to learn valuable reference points for the season. He has a very immature understanding of high-level basketball, although he has a great body and terrific skills. Practicing scoring moves off the pass instead of off the dribble would be smart. Studying tape of the Clippers on offense and looking for the open spots in the middle would also be a good idea, in the hopes of avoiding overpenetration or too much congestion.
David Thorpe is an NBA analyst for ESPN.com and the executive director of the Pro Training Center at the IMG Academies in Bradenton, Fla., where he oversees the player development program for NBA and college players. To e-mail him, click here.
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