Rookie Watch: Mayo the new No. 1
One of the harshest lessons a rookie must learn about this business is the temporary status of most NBA head coaches. Six coaches have already been fired, with a few more possibly on the way out. Many of these rookies played for strong college programs whose coaches are ingrained into the landscape of the community, so losing a coach during the season is new territory for the most part.
In college, players put their ultimate trust into their coaches, allowing coaches to define, plan and implement their development as players chasing a dream. Rookies arrive in the NBA with similar thoughts, but soon learn that they must be accountable for their own career path. They are the ones who must put on their hard hats every day and go to work, as the man coaching them today might not be there tomorrow. For Sacramento's Jason Thompson and Bobby Brown, Philadelphia's Marreese Speights, Oklahoma City's Russell Westbrook, Minnesota's Kevin Love, Washington's JaVale McGee and Toronto's Roko Ukic, that reality is now painfully clear.
With that said, let's take a look at how some members of the rookie class are developing. (Click here for my updated Rookie 50 rankings.)
O.J. Mayo, Grizzlies
Composure is one of Mayo's biggest strengths. And most of the time, composure in a player results from genuine confidence. Genuine confidence, as opposed to the type of confidence that is merely a shell covering insecurities, is born of hard work and successful practices and games.
In a game against the Bulls last week, Mayo started out 0-for-4 from the field, then 1-for-6, then 2-for-8. That he finished 5-for-14 is not so important; it was his first poor shooting performance since before Thanksgiving. What's important is that I saw a player still locked into the total game. He didn't allow his off night from the field to deter him from finding ways to help the team win, or keep him from taking good shots. He looked like a veteran, and has been playing like one all season.
Derrick Rose, Bulls
It's easy to see Rose's deficiencies on defense right now. He's not nearly as interested on this side of the ball as he is when the ball is in his hands. He doesn't just struggle guarding some of the quick and crafty point guards, but also is far from understanding how to be a good helper.
This does not make him unique among rookies, as most rookies struggle defensively, but it does prove that he's not a superhero. Yet.
George Hill, Spurs
What this young guy is doing right now might even be more impressive than what he did to explode onto the scene at the start of the season. Though his minutes are down, thanks to the return of Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili, Hill has still been able to score and shoot efficiently on fewer shots. Not an easy thing to do.
In the Spurs' current six-game win streak, Hill has hit 6 of 12 3s and 45 percent of his shots overall. It is fun to envision his role come playoff time, something I'm sure Gregg Popovich has long since seen in his mind's eye.
Brook Lopez, Nets
Lopez does something all big men should do, and do often: Run to the rim and look for the ball. In transition. After screening. After a teammate gets an offensive rebound. Or when confusion and chaos are reigning on a particular set. And Lopez has shown that he knows what to do with the ball when he gets it.
Michael Beasley, Heat
In Miami's loss to Memphis, Beasley had a solid 20-point, 8-rebound performance. But I really liked what I saw from him on the defensive end. He was engaged on almost every possession and seemed to know his responsibilities in every respect. Erik Spoelstra has really done a great job getting Beasley to grow on that end of the floor.
Still, Beasley has some bad habits to break, such as allowing opposing bigs to get great position near the rim without working to get it. Beasley could get away with this in the past, but not on the NBA level.
Russell Westbrook, Thunder
Being a phenomenal athlete alone is not enough to be a great defensive player in this league. It takes an active mind and a willingness to study. Consider this action by Westbrook in Dallas:
He was defending the weak side, with J.J. Barea in his corner and Devean George on the wing, both behind the 3-point line, while Erick Dampier had the ball in the high post. Westbrook cut off the simple pass to George, going for a steal, and left open the corner pass to Barea. Did he do the right thing, considering the corner 3 is the easiest shot worth 3 points (based on distance)?
Barea was shooting 40.9 percent from 3 going into the game, while George was at 35 percent. But it would be a mistake to just look at those numbers in the scouting report. Barea was just 1-for-4 from that left corner, up to that point, and George was 1-for-3 from the wing. Small sample sizes, yes, but nothing alarming enough to convince Westbrook to stay with Barea. So the risk was worth it. And even though Westbrook did not get the steal, Barea did miss the shot.
Courtney Lee, Magic
How did the Magic win a big road game against Utah without Dwight Howard? They got another solid contribution from Lee, who has been playing well in December. This month, Lee is averaging 9.5 ppg on 58 percent shooting from the field and 50 percent from 3. And his coach says he's the best on-ball defender on the team.
On top of that, I like the fact that Lee finished two left-handed drives with his left hand in the Utah win, a move he couldn't make earlier in the season. Pros might fail, but they have to keep working until they get something right.
I've always believed that toughness is an equal talent to any other type of skill, and I think Arthur is bringing this trait to a Memphis team that suddenly is showing lots of toughness. Arthur is attacking the rim -- trying to dunk almost everything -- and he's rebounding like a machine, too. His defensive rebound rate (23.3) is second only to Oden in this class and ranks him in the top 10 among all power forwards.
Chris Douglas-Roberts, Nets
He has appeared in just five games this season, with five veteran wings ahead of him on the Nets' depth chart.
Eric Gordon, Clippers
Gordon has a lot of similarities to Mayo -- he's a powerful athlete and a terrific shooter, and he has a smooth stroke from 3. But he's an even more dynamic athlete than Mayo off the dribble, with both speed and quickness as weapons. His improved play has been a big help to the Clippers so far in December.
Roko Ukic, Raptors
He's playing much better ball than he did in November, averaging almost 7 ppg on 45.5 percent shooting. And he might be a better defensive player than anticipated, too.
Roy Hibbert, Pacers
After not being part of the regular rotation, Hibbert has started the past two games for Indiana. He played decently in a blowout loss and didn't do much of anything in a win, so the jury is still out. I've always liked him as a project, and the fact that he just turned 22 suggests he has another few years of physical maturity left before we get a full gauge on what kind of athlete he can become.
Kosta Koufos, Jazz
Koufos really has a nice offensive repertoire. Against Orlando, he even showed off a beautiful left hook from the left block, which is a very difficult shot. He runs the floor hard, too.
One thing I'd like to see him do is shoot every shot, instead of throwing up the ball like he sometimes does when taking a shot from a tough spot on the floor. It's a habit a lot of players have; relying on their superior touch when shooting a shot they have practiced countless times is the best choice.
Joe Alexander, Bucks
He has played more than seven minutes in only two games this month, both in blowout losses. As of today, he's not a part of coach Scott Skiles' plan. However, he's 7-for-18 (38.9 percent) from 3 as a pro, so perhaps he'll be used in spot duty as a shooter late in quarters.
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.
MORE NBA HEADLINES
- Pacers' George: Ready to live up to pressure
- Bosh admits he was 'close' to leaving Heat
- Ginobili has stress fracture, to skip World Cup
- Rose acknowledges tension with Bulls, circle
MOST SENT STORIES ON ESPN.COM
NBA Rookie 50
During the regular season, Scouts Inc.'s David Thorpe ranks the rookies and provides observations on the entire class. Rookie 50
Thorpe's weekly reports• 01/06: Who's bringing the D?
• 12/30: Big men making their mark
• 12/23: Hunting for playoff minutes
• 12/17: Mayo takes over No. 1 spot
• 12/10: Westbrook soars into top 10
• 12/02: Augustin races into top 10
• 11/26: Oden climbs back into top 10
• 11/18: Rose takes over No. 1 spot
• 11/11: Mayo jumps into top five
• 11/05: Fernandez shoots to top of the list
• 10/29: The debuts of Rose, Oden
• 10/24: Oden begins season at head of class