Rookie Watch: Star-studded class
Let's start with the gimmes: Derrick Rose is a top-tier athlete with skill and savvy. Greg Oden will be the biggest, most agile center in the league after Dwight Howard. O.J. Mayo is already one of the top shooters in basketball, and has the strength and mindset to be an excellent defender. Brook Lopez could eventually be the most skilled 7-foot center in the NBA. And he's a shot-blocker, too. If all four stay healthy, they should make many All-Star appearances in the future.
But this class has a lot of other potential stars, too. Russell Westbrook is Rose's equal as an athlete at the point guard position and is going to be a dynamic defender. With the Thunder's future looking bright, Westbrook has a good chance to make at least one All-Star Game. Kevin Love might have been passed over for the rookie game, but he has a chance to be the league's best rebounder. Add in his solid shot and brilliant passing game, and he, too, has a good chance to be a coach's pick one day. And Michael Beasley, who probably deserves to be on the first list if we're evaluating just talent, is a guaranteed star if he continues to grow as a player.
That's seven potential stars. But wait, there's more.
Jerryd Bayless is a very talented guard who can shoot and get to the free-throw line. And he could be the point guard of the future for one of the youngest and most talented teams in the league.
Danilo Gallinari is a sweet-shooting big who is playing for a coach whose system suits his talents perfectly. He averages 18 points per 40 minutes now -- bad back and all -- so it's easy to project 20-plus points in 36 minutes within a few years. And he's still just 20 years old.
J.J. Hickson, who turned 20 in September, has a big and lively body with a great feel for scoring inside. And he plays with the world's best player.
Eric Gordon is a scoring machine who just turned 20 in December. JaVale McGee is a big-time athlete as a center; he also turned 20 just a few weeks ago. Anthony Randolph has length, ball skills, rebounding and shot-blocking talents, and a scorer's touch inside 5 feet. And he won't turn 20 until July.
And while Rudy Fernandez might be a few years older than all these kids from college, he already has one of the top combinations of outside shooting and athleticism in the NBA.
Add it all up, and almost half the first round has exhibited some special talents inside the first three months of their first season in the NBA. And two others, Courtney Lee and Mario Chalmers, are starting for playoff teams.
So while there might not be four players at the level of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and Carmelo Anthony, there could be a lot more impact players. Let's take a look at how some of these guys did in the past week.
(Click here for my updated Rookie 50 rankings.)
This week's observations
I have seen Rose numerous times in person, and it's clear he'll have to change his shooting form if he wants be a good 3-point shooter. Most good long-range shooters have a few similarities in their mechanics. One is that the forearm on the shooting arm stays close to a 90-degree angle on the shot. In other words, the shooting elbow points down.
Rose, however, collapses his arm flat toward his shoulder and raises his shooting elbow before he releases it, as if catapulting the ball toward the rim. He does that on all his jump shots. This form uses the triceps more than they should be used, which reduces both power and consistency of power on the shot.
It's possible Rose will groove a consistent shot from this form -- the NBA has always been populated by great shooters with poor mechanics -- but it's more likely he'll have to adjust this if he wants to be a better shooter from long range. He's made just three of his past 18 3s. To his credit, he's taken only 12 3s this month, a sign that even though he takes a lot of shots, he is not a chucker. Rose is smart about what he does on the offensive end and very smart as far as rookies go.
When the Kings first drafted JT, there was talk about how he was agile enough to maybe move to the 3 one day. But at this point, he might be better served moving to the 5 spot. He's not big and strong enough to play the center position yet, but his size, length and body type suggest it's possible. He also has the required toughness for the position.
There are many reasons why I doubt he can be a successful 3. One is his poor footwork on his perimeter shots, specifically the way he turns both of his shoes to the left before he shoots. This means he shoots the ball with his upper body facing the rim while his lower body is facing left. This can be remedied, but until it is, he may want to stop shooting so many jumpers. Currently, 47 percent of his shots come by way of jumpers, and he's making only 37 percent of them. Yet he's finishing better than 60 percent of his inside shots.
The biggest improvement Gordon has made -- and the reason he's killing opponents on offense now -- is his relentless dribble attack, which didn't exist early on. He's now taking 6.8 free throws a game, up from 2.3 in November. He has all the makings of a terrific scorer, in that terrific scorers normally combine excellent shooting abilities with slashing moves and the ability to get to the line.
As he proved last week, when he scored 41 in a win over the Thunder, he is capable of carrying a team to a win. But it's always hard to evaluate scorers on bad teams -- the Clippers have won just twice in 2009. Since he's always going to be very small as a shooting guard, I'm curious to see whether the Clippers will let him play more point guard to see how he fits in at that spot.
As I've written before, one of the things I love about Westbrook is his willingness to get things done in the paint, usually crashing for offensive rebounds and finishing in transition. But now he's more comfortable getting inside in other ways.
He's been using his explosive crossover or hesitation dribble move to get in the paint, where he lowers his hips and drives right through defenders. And sometimes he uses his length and strength to back guys down in the post. In other words, he's become a nightmare matchup -- he's too quick for shooting guards to stay in front of when he's matched up with them, and he's too powerful for point guards to stop.
He's averaged 18.8 ppg in his last five games, with 5.4 boards and 4.4 assists. He's No. 5 in PER for all rookies, and No. 1 for guards and for rookies playing 30-plus minutes a game. Imagine what he'll be like when he improves his outside shooting.
Emeka Okafor learned firsthand just how big, strong and agile Oden is. Oden scorched Charlotte for 14 and 14 (8 offensive boards) and added 2 steals and 3 blocks. His sheer size and length -- and his willingness to compete hard -- are making a huge difference against other teams' bigs.
However, I've seen a reluctance on Oden's part to offer counter moves to his jumphook in the post. Synergy Sports has an offensive breakdown page, and it shows that Oden turns left over 60 percent of the time from both blocks. This allows defenders to sit on that shoulder and create awkward shooting angles for his jumphook (which also needs work in the offseason).
Developing a simple turnaround counter must be an immediate goal, one that will greatly help get him a better angle for a better shot.
Though his numbers dropped in January, he looked terrific in the last game of the month against the Lakers. Clearly, matching up with Kobe helped inspire Mayo, who rained in beautiful-looking jumpers all game.
His previous coach, Marc Iavaroni, gave him the green light from the get-go, so it bears watching to see whether he will still have that freedom under new coach Lionel Hollins.
One aspect of Love's game that needs to improve is how he rushes some shots in the paint. This is a very normal issue for young players, one that is noticeable in Greg Oden and Jason Thompson as well.
When Love gets the ball in traffic with an angle to the rim, he often shoots the ball quickly so as to avoid getting blocked. But too often he is unable to finish because he doesn't set himself first. The better play most of the time is to gather and then finish strong. Not only will more shots be made this way, but more fouls will be drawn too, making it a higher-reward play to counter the increased risk of getting blocked.
Lopez finished off a terrific January with a monster 24-point, 17-rebound, 4-block performance. A monster game, in my eyes, is any 20-plus-point and 15-plus-rebound game. It was his first such game of the season.
He has also had five other games of 20-plus points and 10-plus rebounds in which he has been absolutely dominant inside. How dominant? He's not putting up Dwight Howard numbers (when D12 was 20) but he's not far off either.
Fernandez is not just a terrific shooter, shot-maker and athlete. He also plays a very thoughtful and unselfish game. This was on display the other night, as Portland led Charlotte by 16 late in the game. Greg Oden deflected a guard-to-wing pass up the floor, which was picked up by a hard-charging Fernandez, who had only one defender to deal with. It looked as if an easy layup or foul was coming.
Instead, Fernandez noticed that Oden stayed with the play and was also running hard to the rim. So he deftly slipped a slick bounce pass directly backward to Oden, who would have smashed the basket on his dunk attempt had he not been fouled.
By making that pass, Fernandez acted upon a basic tenet of high-level basketball: Take care of your big men when they run the floor. Oden was already enjoying a stellar game, and no one would have thought Fernandez foolish had he just eased in for his own shot. But the pass motivates Oden and his fellow bigs to race the floor in the future, which means Fernandez helped make his team better.
Batum is a hard guy to evaluate because of the role he plays in Portland. More than half of his attempted shots are 3s, similar to Rudy Fernandez. However, he currently does not have the overall shot-making skills of his teammate from Spain. Batum is a decent shooter from 3 (35 percent) but gets most of his shots off good spacing and unselfish teammates who find him after ball penetration.
Batum did a nice job of getting himself involved in Portland's transition game against Utah and scored 16 points on 5-for-8 shooting, including 4-for-5 from 3. It was his second double-figure scoring game in 2009, and the first time he scored 10 or more points in a Portland win since mid-December.
Anderson has had his share of impact games for New Jersey. He started Tuesday night in a big win over the Bucks and scored 19 points on 7-for-10 shooting. Anderson has good size, a great shooting stroke, big-time hustle and a nice feel for the game. And he can still develop physically.
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.
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