- David Thorpe, ESPN Staff Writer
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Last season, Kevin Durant was so much more productive than everyone else in his class that he had to be our top rookie despite his team's being so bad. But that's not the case this season. The rookie crop of talented and productive players is deep, so we can look beyond individual numbers.
Russell Westbrook, Kevin Love and Brook Lopez are all playing on teams that have been winning more games than was generally expected. In the case of the Thunder and Timberwolves, that is especially true lately.
So in recognition of the key roles they are playing on their teams -- not as role players but as rising stars -- we have some new leaders in our report. That O.J. Mayo and Derrick Rose were so dominant early on makes it seem surprising, but in the marathon of an NBA season, this ebb and flow is part of the pattern.
Can our new Top 3 maintain their flow, or will they ebb back down a notch? Will Mayo and Rose turn their engines back on and assume their place at the top again? There's a good chance. Or maybe Oden will keep improving and jump into the top spot. But for now, past the halfway point of the season and two weeks away from the All-Star break, there are no more important or impressive rookies than these three guys from the Pac-10.
Click here for my updated Rookie 50 rankings.
This week's observations
Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City
What separates Westbrook from the other guards in this class is his combination of athleticism and length, which translates into the makings of a premier defensive player. He's not there now, but it's easy to project him getting there soon.
Using his quickness and length, he can lock and trail on a shooter using a screen, which means Westbrook runs over the screener and behind the shooter. His extended arm can bother the shooter, and his teammate defending the screener has to offer just a hint of curl protection before Westbrook recovers. Since this is a young team, that does not happen often enough, so you may see Westbrook's man making shots while Westbrook is trailing the play.
But unless he's wrongly going over the top of the screen (meaning he's supposed to go under it on that play), it's not his fault if the shooter makes the shot. That shot is on the big who forgot to offer curl protection.
Kevin Love, Timberwolves
Just a month ago, many experts were bashing the Wolves for the Mayo-Love trade. I, too, admitted that it looked like a big mistake, even though I loved the deal on draft night. The thing is, we forgot how long the season is and how special a player Love is.
What Love has really shown lately is his incredible combination of skill and size, and his feel for the game -- he's often in the perfect position to make a play. He's now No. 2 in Player Efficiency Rating for rookies and is tops in all three rebounding metrics (offensive, defensive and total rebound rate). That's impressive, considering his poor start.
Brook Lopez, Nets
In just the first quarter against the Spurs recently, Lopez showed enough talent that people around the league are now wondering if he should have been a top-3 selection on draft night. First he scored on a nice half-hook against Tim Duncan in the low post. Then he beautifully executed a drag screen and roll, where he missed the dunk, but only because he rushed it a bit -- his nimbleness for a guy that big was on full display, including a tough catch off a low bounce pass. On another play, he kept moving as Devin Harris was darting around on a dribble penetration, eventually freeing himself from Duncan to finish a tough shot off a quick pass. He also beat Duncan to two tips, making the second one with a fully extended arm.
In the second quarter, he scored on a jump shot over Duncan from the post, after giving TD multiple fakes to clear space for the shot. He also buried Tony Parker at the rim after a pick and roll. And in the second half he made a pick-and-pop jumper and a tough pick-and-roll floater.
Late in the game, however, he rushed his shots some, never getting his footwork right. And the Nets lost by three in San Antonio. If Lopez learns to slow down when he should, his field goal percentage should balloon, which would help the Nets a great deal and continue to establish him as one of the rising stars in the league.
O.J. Mayo, Grizzlies
Mayo's shooting only 32 percent from 3 this month, down from 39 percent in December and 42 percent in November. One problem I've noticed is that he is backtracking on his shot as soon as he lands: He jumps to shoot, lands and immediately starts moving backward. Many people would say that's OK technique, since the ball is already out of his hands, but I think it's often a sign of a lack of total concentration on the shot itself.
I always use golfers as an example of this. Think about an important putt or long drive off the tee. Golfers tend to lock in on their target and freeze for a moment or two before even twitching. They do this to ensure that they totally complete the swing. Shooters should employ a similar strategy. If Mayo starts landing and freezing until the shot reaches the basket, I'd expect his percentages to rise.
Derrick Rose, Bulls
When I think of Dwyane Wade, I see him looking like Barry Sanders while dribbling, changing speeds and direction in incredibly tight spaces. When I think of Chris Paul, I see him controlling the ball in the paint in slow motion, yet being hyper-aware of all of his options and then suddenly dropping in either a lob or a floater.
And when I think of D-Rose, I see him on the run, pushing the ball up the floor at full speed with his left hand. Except that he wasn't at full speed, it just seemed that way. Because when he gets to the first line of defense, he explodes into another gear and is suddenly at the rim. He is one of the rare players that always seems to have just one more level of speed that he can call on when necessary.
DeAndre Jordan, Clippers
Some players sulk and feel like they are being wronged when they rack up DNP-CDs. But it looks like Jordan took a different approach, and wisely so. He appears to be highly motivated to prove he belongs on the court, which is great for him, because it was his perceived lack of motivation that caused his drop in the draft last June.
He put up 23 points, 12 rebounds and 4 blocks in a blowout loss against the Lakers and followed that up with a strong 8-point, 20-rebound performance in another big loss to Golden State. At the very least, he's demanding more playing time and showing potential. He won't turn 21 until July.
Michael Beasley, Heat
I think Beasley is making good progress in his efforts to make himself a credible defensive player. Great credit should go to his coaching staff and his teammates for helping that process along, but Beasley gets a thumbs-up, too. He's far more aware of his responsibilities on and off the ball, and quicker to respond on closeouts than he was early on. But defense at that position in this league is far more difficult than one might realize. It's one thing to be able to anticipate a play and choose the right action to defend it in a blink of an eye, but quite another when something unexpected happens.
Like when Beasley, guarding Kendrick Perkins at the top of the key late in the fourth quarter, turned his head toward the strong side and took two steps with Perkins rolling down the lane, only to realize he was supposed to stay topside. Just as he realized it, Ray Allen popped open at the top and Beasley paused just for a beat before closing him out. But a beat is all No. 20 in green needs, and a 3-point dagger was the result.
Consider it another lesson learned: When you're guarding an area and a top-flight shooter catches the ball in that area, do not pause for one beat. Instead, quickly close him out with your hands up and your butt down, and do not worry about getting beat off the dribble.
Greg Oden, Trail Blazers
I'm not nearly as impressed with the nine offensive rebounds Oden got against Washington as I am with how he got them. He made a living in the paint. No pop-outs for open jumpers. No leaving a bit early to get back on defense. No giving up on balls that he was unlikely to possess.
He knew the Wizards had no one who could push him inside, and he made them pay. That is a great sign. The league is filled with bigs who don't love to pound inside. But Oden loves the tough stuff.
And I can't wait for him to get his full bounce back. He's averaging 10 points and 7 rebounds in just 24 minutes in January, and I think his athleticism output is at 50-60 percent of what he'll be capable of down the road. Watch out.
Mario Chalmers, Heat
It's hard to put up flashy stats against Boston, but that shouldn't mean hanging your head and dogging it in other areas. And Chalmers didn't. He shot 3 for 9 from the field and finished with 6 points in the game. But I love that Chalmers dished out 7 assists, had just one turnover and had 4 steals, too. Doesn't that look just like a Rajon Rondo game from a year ago (minus a few rebounds)?
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.
Russell Westbrook, Kevin Love and Brook Lopez are the top three rookies.