Commentary

Rookie Watch: Welcome, Westbrook

Originally Published: December 10, 2008
By David Thorpe | Scouts Inc.

Russell WestbrookFernando Medina/NBAE/Getty ImagesHere's some good news for Thunder fans: Russell Westbrook finally cracked our top 10.

As the NBA season enters grind mode and the rookies watch their old college chums playing in holiday tournaments at exotic locations or in marquee matchups on national TV, many of the guys who entered the draft early start to question their decision. And it's understandable.

This is when the difference between college and pro hoops really presents itself to them. Some guys throw themselves into playing video games. Others watch DVD after DVD. Some vets do the same thing, so the rookies often are just following their leaders. But the recipe for success, for rookies and vets alike, is a balance between work, rest and play.

Much can be gained from film study or extra work on the court. Spending more time in the weight room or working with a trainer on flexibility pays dividends, too. It takes discipline and dedication to wake up early on an off day and drive to the gym for treatment. But that's what pros do.

Let's check in on some of the newest pros, including some guys we haven't looked at for a bit. (Click here for my updated Rookie 50 rankings.)


Russell Westbrook, Thunder
Westbrook is really coming on as a player, using his jets to fly around the court and hit midrange jumpers (something he struggled with earlier this season).

The downside to his recent success is the attention he's getting from defenses. In his past four games, he has 19 turnovers. He'll learn to make easier plays and start anticipating blitzes and stunts as he uses ball screens.


D.J. Augustin, Bobcats
Augustin has the third-best turnover rate among guards in this class; Courtney Lee and George Hill are the only ones ahead of him. Credit their coaches: Larry Brown, Stan Van Gundy and Gregg Popovich.

Playing for them is like going to "Don't Turn the Ball Over" University. They don't just preach that mantra, they also teach their players how to be strong and smart with the ball.


Kevin Love, Timberwolves
Love is a skilled big, but I'm impressed with the way he stays hunched on the perimeter, both as a screener and a receiver. Players too often stand straight up, but not Love.

Love must work on using his basketball smarts as a defender. In a game against the Nets on Friday, he allowed Yi Jianlian to take (and make) two easy 3-pointers. One time Love closed out casually. The other time he offered help on Vince Carter, who was using a soft screen at the top, even though Al Jefferson was in position both to help on Carter and to recover on the screener (who was not a threat), so Love had the chance to stay home on the sweet-shooting Yi. This kind of thing shows up well on tape, and Love should be able to avoid this error going forward.


Courtney Lee, Magic
Want a taste of the rookie roller coaster? Check out Lee's ride last week. On Wednesday, he had his first great offensive game as a pro, scoring 19 points on 8-for-10 shooting (3-for-3 from 3) and adding 4 boards, 3 assists and 3 steals.

In the Magic's next game, he was rewarded with 10 first-half minutes and scored six points on two shots (a 3-pointer and an "and 1"). But in the second half, Lee sat and watched for the rest of the game.

This is classic rookie stuff. And he can't complain because the Magic won the game. He just has to suit up and be ready for the next one.


JaVale McGee, Wizards
Although Lee's roller-coaster ride was interesting, McGee's was far more exciting (and a lot shorter).

In Chicago on Saturday, McGee started for the Wizards and blocked a shot on the first possession of the game. Next, he blocked two shots on the second possession (both on Derrick Rose attempts). Then he blocked a fourth shot before the game was even three minutes old. He also mixed in an excellent driving finish, a power dunk and a hook shot in his 11 minutes of play.

Yes, he played just 11 minutes the entire game, despite committing only two fouls. Six points on 3-for-4 shooting and four blocks in 11 minutes. As the starting center. Now that's a thrill ride.


O.J. Mayo, Grizzlies
Anyone would be impressed by Mayo's numbers thus far. He's an impressive shooter and competes hard on both ends. But every time I watch him, I keep thinking of Allen Iverson because he takes as many tough (or bad) shots as AI did when he was younger.

He's a better shooter than Iverson; in fact, he's a better jump shooter off the dribble than most of the league. However, AI always did something much better than Mayo is doing -- he got to the line. As a rookie, Iverson took 6.7 free throws per game on 17.6 field goal attempts. Mayo is at 3.6 free-throw attempts on 17.2 shots per game, and the game is called much tighter now than when AI was a rookie.

Memphis ranks 25th in the league in offensive-rebound rate and 11th on the defensive end (which shows it has some good rebounders). One reason for this disparity: Mayo's shot attempts are often pull-up jumpers with his man right on him and no help coming. This leaves the other four defensive players in good box-out rebounding position.

Mayo knows he can get his shot off against most defenders, but for him to both grow as a player and help his offense, beating his man and forcing help would do the trick. He has a ton of talent, and with guys like him, expectations have to be higher.


George Hill, Spurs
During the past few years, scouts have learned to value length in addition to height. Hill is a great example. One might think that Hill, who stands shorter than 6-foot-3 in shoes and is very skinny, is small, or average at best, for a combo guard.

However, he has a 6-foot-9 wingspan, which allows him to extend his arm past defenders. This forces defenders either to let him get the shot off going to the rim or to get even closer to him on the driving finish, which generates more foul calls. Hill takes 3.8 free throws per game on just 8.2 field goal attempts per game. (Remember, Mayo is at 3.6 on 17.2 shots per game.)


Anthony Randolph, Warriors
Although Randolph's play and minutes have been inconsistent, many feel he is still a top-five talent. Anyone who watched the Warriors against the Rockets on Friday could see why.

In the third quarter, Randolph grabbed a rebound and started the break with an advance dribble up the side. Then he quickly threw a hit-ahead pass and raced to the rim, where he caught the ball in traffic, dribbled once to avoid traveling and finished at the rim. It was a very impressive play and a tough one to make. He followed that up a minute later with a monster tip dunk over Yao Ming.


Sean Singletary, Suns
He's had some bright spots in Phoenix, but it's hard for a rookie point guard to adjust to the league when his whole team is doing the same thing under a new coach with a new system.

He's struggling with his shot right now, partially because he's not sure the shots he's taking are good ones.


Goran Dragic, Suns
We expected him to return to Europe, and perhaps he should have -- he is arguably one of the worst players in the NBA. But, like Singletary, he's in a tough position as a rookie point guard in Phoenix. He also has even more adjustments to make than his American rookie teammate. So no permanent evaluations can be made yet.

We certainly don't expect him to continue to make just less than 30 percent of his shots and less than 10 percent of his 3s. He's a better shooter than that. If he isn't, there will be some nervous scouts in Phoenix.


Anthony Tolliver, Spurs
I liked watching Tolliver in the summer league. He played really hard and had nice range on his jumper. The Spurs appreciate a guy like this more than most teams. And even though Tolliver is still searching for his shot (6-for-28 from 3), the Spurs are hoping he'll find it so he can become a true threat come playoff time.


J.J. Hickson, Cavaliers
Hickson is caught in no-man's-land -- he's not quite in the rotation, but he might get put in at any time. That's better than not dressing or having no chance to play in anything but a blowout, but too often players in this spot try to do too much when they do get in the game. They play a beat or two too fast trying to make something happen.

Hickson has done exactly that in some games. But his skill level and overall talent are evident, and the Cavs understand why he makes some of the mistakes he does.


Jerryd Bayless, Blazers
There's little Bayless can do right now except "be a pro" every day: watch tape, show up early, stay late and prepare for the night when he earns a real chance to play. He's stuck behind a lot of good players on a very good team that is playing well.

Click here for the entire Rookie 50 rankings

David Thorpe is an NBA analyst for Scouts Inc. and the executive director of the Pro Training Center at the IMG Academies in Bradenton, Fla., where he oversees the player development program for more than 40 NBA, European League and D-League players. Those players include Kevin Martin, Rob Kurz, Luol Deng, Courtney Lee and Tyrus Thomas. To e-mail him, click here.