Commentary

Rookie Watch: Big men making their mark

Originally Published: December 30, 2008
By David Thorpe | Scouts Inc.

Kevin LoveAndrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/Getty ImagesKevin Love might be struggling with his offense, but he's been quite impressive on the boards.
Watch an NBA game, and you'll often hear the words "rookie mistake." Miss a layup? Rookie mistake. Illegal screen? Rookie mistake. Weak foul leading to the "and 1"? You guessed it, another rookie mistake.

But, in most cases, that's rubbish. Basketball is a game full of mistakes, and you probably can find at least one made on every possession by either team or both, by rookies and veterans alike.

Rookie 50

Memphis guard O.J. Mayo has climbed up the rookie ranks to grab the top seat in the impressive class. Insider: Rookie 50

Yes, there is a learning curve to the NBA game. But real rookie mistakes are not knowing the talent of your opposition, not being able to guess what play is coming or what move is coming by the guy he's protecting, and not having a feel for what the opponent might do when he's guarding you.

Only experience and a desire to spend extra time studying game films and statistics will help rookies learn this nuanced part of the game. But to think these guys make certain mistakes just because they are rookies is simply not true. Most of these guys have already played hundreds of important games in their basketball careers. They've even played many games against the same guys they are seeing now, whether in college or AAU tournaments. The game has been mostly the same for them every time.

I'm especially irritated by the way rookie bigs are treated. They are held under more scrutiny, as if they aren't allowed to make mistakes. And if they do, it's because they are playing their first season in the NBA. Please. If you look at the rookie bigs, you will find no fewer than 13 guys who have a better-than-solid chance at being good NBA players. Some of them already are outperforming a good number of veteran bigs.

So, let's check on the good and bad from our rookies this week, with a special eye on some big men turning heads with their play.

(Click here for my updated Rookie 50 rankings.)

Observations on some rookie big men


Marc Gasol, Grizzlies
Gasol was impressive Saturday in San Antonio, where he put up 15 points and 10 rebounds with four blocked shots. He was excellent in pick-and-roll action and effective playing in space near the paint, playing off Memphis' drivers. He seemed to surprise Tim Duncan a few times with his ability to finish over or around TD's long arms.


Greg Oden, Trail Blazers
Early in the first quarter against Toronto on Saturday, Oden backed in Jermaine O'Neal and attempted a right-handed hook. (His hook tends to come off a right arm that isn't fully extended.) O'Neal snuffed it out with ease, but Oden stayed with the play, grabbed the ball back and viciously dunked it with two hands over JO. The fans loved it. But that wasn't my favorite Oden play of the night. This was:

In the third quarter, Oden ran down the floor as the trail post and initially set an influence screen at the top to free up Steve Blake. Then he released to the weak side as LaMarcus Aldridge had the ball in the midpost. Oden set a flare screen for Brandon Roy in the corner, but LA passed the ball back to Blake at the top. With 10 seconds on the shot clock, Oden realized that Blake was not likely to break his guy down and create a shot, so he raced up to set a ball screen. Then he rolled to the rim, put his hand up and caught a pass from Blake that he flushed. What I loved about that play was his hustle to set the screen, realizing that every second counts.


Brook Lopez, Nets
In December, Lopez has had two games in which he didn't block any shots. But in every other game this month (12 games) he has blocked at least two shots. In six of those games, he has blocked three or more shots. How many centers in the league can shoot from the perimeter, score inside and block shots? And how many could do it on the NBA level at age 20? Get the picture?


Jason Thompson, Kings
No rookie has dropped as far in one month as Thompson, who continues to struggle. It seems as if his mind is racing too fast and he's trying too hard to make plays. One month ago, Kings fans were thinking they had their power forward of the future. Now, drafting Blake Griffin is a legitimate possibility. Such is the life of a rookie.


Kevin Love, Timberwolves
He's not as athletic as Marreese Speights. Not as tall as Brook Lopez. Not as strong as Greg Oden. Which might explain why Love is playing only 22.8 minutes per game. But in terms of being a pure rebounder, Love is at the head of the class. He ranks second in overall rebound rate and tops the class in offensive rebound rate.

More impressively, he's tied for sixth overall in the entire league in rebound rate. Yes, he's struggling to score and shoot efficiently, but his ability to rebound should earn him more minutes. Think about this: He has grabbed 233 rebounds in 683 minutes this season. Kevin Garnett has 273 rebounds in 1,017 minutes.


Roy Hibbert, Pacers
Hibbert had a two-game explosion against the Grizzlies and Hornets, scoring 34 points on 14-for-21 shooting in just 30 minutes combined. He had a nice race-to-the-rim dunk against New Orleans and outhustled the Hornets on a few plays in the half court, too. With consistent minutes, we might see his poor rebounding numbers improve (he's averaging 2.9 rebounds per game).


Marreese Speights
Speights is playing great on offense. No surprise there. But to be a better defensive force, he needs to learn to try to deny his opponents good post-up position. It's not possible to deny them the ball totally, but forcing them to catch the ball a step or three beyond where they want it is the first line of defense.


Kosta Koufos, Jazz
Want to get an idea of how diversified Koufos' offensive game is? Here's how he scored his buckets in the Jazz's big win over Dallas:

Offensive-rebound putback, layup off a dive in low-high action, step-through off a loose ball, race to the rim from the left-hand side, left-hand dribble and right-hand layup over Erick Dampier, rim-to-rim sprint and dunk, pick-and-roll left-hand finish, dive-to-the-rim dunk in low-high action, right-hand hook (and 1!) off a pick-and-roll.

Observations on the top two rooks


O.J. Mayo, Grizzlies
One of the keys to being a star is having the ability to carry your team in a tight game -- to make the big shots, make some key plays and stay composed. Mayo is not quite there yet, but his talent continues to impress. He was huge in Memphis' tough loss in San Antonio, simply making jump shot after jump shot. I've always contended the belief that the "midrange game is missing" is a myth, and Mayo certainly is proof of that.


Derrick Rose, Bulls
Rose was amazing to watch in Atlanta on Saturday. He seemed unstoppable getting into the paint and finishing, and he was alert to his open teammates.

With two starters out with injuries in Chicago, it's likely we'll see Rose score and play more. (He logged 42 minutes in that game against the Hawks.)

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.