- David Thorpe, ESPN Staff Writer
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In this deeply talented rookie class, four players are still slightly ahead of their peers. But since the All-Star break, none of the four has done enough to separate himself from the others. And their teams' struggles only muddle the picture further.
The Nets finally got a win Monday, but Brook Lopez had a pedestrian 7 points and 5 rebounds. Russell Westbrook averaged 19, 6 and 6 in his past 5 games, but he hit just over 41 percent of his shots and the Thunder lost each game. O.J. Mayo has shot the ball a bit better, but he hasn't seen a win in two weeks.
And though the Bulls have played well lately, Derrick Rose has been up-and-down on offense in that stretch while also struggling on defense.
Still, Mayo, Rose and Westbrook have been terrific enough to make up for any recent struggles, and Lopez delivered big, efficient numbers during the Nets' five-game swoon. So we're still stuck in the same spot as we were before the break: Four guys are worthy of being our top rookie, and a bunch of other talented guys are just a cut below.
We'll rank our Top 4 this week based on Player Efficiency Rating as of today, until one raises his level of play just a bit higher. Click here for my Rookie 50 rankings.
This week's observations
Brook Lopez, Nets
During the Nets' recent five-game losing streak, Lopez averaged 18 and 8 on 61 percent shooting from the field. He also blocked 9 shots and cut his turnovers down, while playing about 30 minutes a game. In short, he has been doing his part. Yes, he got outplayed by Yao Ming, Dwight Howard and Tim Duncan in that stretch, but those numbers against that kind of competition are very impressive.
To open play in Houston, Lopez blocked Yao's baseline turnaround jumper, then followed that up with a sweet face-up jumper of his own on the other end. That sequence showed he came ready to play against a very difficult matchup, a sign that his confidence is growing despite his team's troubles.
Derrick Rose, Bulls
Most scouts believe that being a rookie at the point guard position is tougher than at any other position. One of the biggest reasons is because point guards typically have to defend the guy with the ball more often than the other four positions do.
Rose is experiencing difficulty in that area. His poor defense has led to his being pulled late in games in favor of the defensively focused Kirk Hinrich. Rose seems willing to be a good defender -- and his speed and strength suggest that it's an area he can excel in -- but considering how big of a role he plays on the offensive end, it's not surprising that he's in over his head on the defensive side of the court right now.
O.J. Mayo, Grizzlies
One of my biggest pet peeves about NBA defenders is how passive most of them are when guarding the ball on the perimeter. They put no pressure on the ball handler, who is then able to take his time and read the other eight players on the floor. Mayo, however, often makes me smile when he's guarding the ball. He sits down in a good stance and waits to pounce on the unsuspecting player, even if that player is advancing the ball on the dribble.
I would assume every opponent's scouting report on Mayo has an entry like this: "Be strong with the ball when Mayo is guarding you, or he will either strip it clean or deflect a weak pass."
Russell Westbrook, Thunder
Despite the fact Westbrook is committing more turnovers per game now than ever -- largely because his minutes have increased -- I like what I'm seeing from him. He's definitely learning how to play a strong two-man game, in which he attacks and reads the defender of either his screener or his closest teammate.
But that is not the toughest part of playing the point in the NBA. This is: Learning how to read and react to the other six players on the floor, in response to the two-man game action. The brilliant point guards -- like Kidd, Paul, Nash and Williams -- can get the ball to any of their four teammates while attacking their own defender and the nearest one as well. In reality, this is how point guards can "make teammates better" -- by finding them for easy baskets when the average point guard would likely miss the opportunity. If Westbrook is to become the All-Star he's capable of growing into, this is one of the key areas he'll need to improve in.
Kevin Love, Timberwolves
Love is not a good finisher on putbacks and other contested finishes inside. Nor is he a good shooter from the perimeter. But I have no doubt he's going to excel in both areas soon. And that should keep Wolves fans smiling for years to come.
He is still learning how to play with his new, slimmer body. And I expect him to get stronger and leaner over the next two offseasons. Practicing finishing with explosiveness around the rim should be Priority No. 1.
Meanwhile, his jumper looks fine -- he often shoots too fast, but he will slow down in time and it's going to be a huge weapon for him.
He's already a double-double guy, playing less than 30 minutes a night, so when he adds these two skills to his game, his scoring could jump into the 18-plus point range by the time he's 21 years old and getting more minutes. Figure his rebounding will swell to 12-plus a game, and you have yourself a very productive and efficient starting center. And we haven't even mentioned his passing gifts.
Marreese Speights, 76ers
Speights just logged his first double-double of the season the other night, putting up 11 and 10 in just 22 minutes. He has been so amazingly productive in the 15.5 minutes a game he's averaged all season. His PER of 21.04 places him in the top 10 of all power forwards (or centers) in the league.
Of course, coming off the bench with purpose is not new to him; he was the fourth big in Florida's post rotation when the Gators won their second NCAA title.
Michael Beasley, Heat
Beasley looks like he'll be an excellent pick-and-pop guy for years to come. Clearly, he is a terrific shooter with great range -- he has made 22 of 56 3s this season (39.3 percent). But it comes at a price.
If he has taken 56 3s, it's probably safe to assume that he has been parked outside four to five times as much and just didn't get the ball (not including the times he did and drove instead). That represents 200-250 shots that were taken while Beasley was standing 24-plus feet from the basket. And it goes a long way to explaining why he's 20th in this class in offensive rebound rate. He even trails Goran Dragic, the Suns' slightly built point guard, in that category.
Beasley has too good a set of hands and too good a feel for where the ball is going to go to not be more active inside after a shot is taken.
D.J. Augustin, Bobcats
When talking about the best shooters in this rookie class, Augustin has to be on the short list. He's currently second in this class in true shooting percentage among all guards and tops the list for point guards. He was a very good shooter in college, so it's not surprising, but it is still impressive to have a TS% over 56 percent as a 21-year-old point guard.
The fact that he finishes strong at the rim makes him a tough guy to defend. And fouling him is a big mistake -- he has attempted 153 free throws this season and missed just 15 (90.2 percent).
Anthony Randolph, Warriors
There are obvious concerns about Randolph's body language and facial expressions during games (and apparently practice, too), but sometimes a coach has to look deeper into a player to make the proper evaluation. As I see it, Randolph is still immature at times, yes, but that immaturity manifests itself the way it does because he competes so passionately.
Randolph cares about playing well and winning, helping explain why he's such an excellent rebounder among men much bigger and stronger than he is. He gave everything he had in a tough loss to the Lakers last week, at some points carrying the Warriors by his sheer will to make things happen.
Jason Thompson, Kings
On his way out of town, Brad Miller mentioned that Thompson needs to stop complaining to the referees so much. It's time JT does exactly that. He's not getting calls, but neither are most rookies on most nights.
It's true Thompson plays with toughness and gets into lots of contact situations. But maintaining his composure and just battling hard every night accomplishes two things: (1) It keeps him focused on the tasks at hand, and (2) prevents him from earning a rep as a whiner. Both are net positives for Thompson and the Kings.
Eric Gordon, Clippers
One of the many things I really like about Gordon right now is that he's not falling in love with his terrific jumper. Especially in late-clock situations. Most guys will count down the seconds and loft a pretty shot, but Gordon is thinking "Attack, attack, attack." This earns him more free throws and some layup attempts, too, when the defense is focused on not fouling.
Sure, there are times to take the outside shot, but with his skill level and athleticism, taking the ball to the rim is sound strategy.
David Thorpe is an NBA analyst for Scouts Inc. and the executive director of the Pro Training Center in Clearwater, 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.
Four rookies still stand above the rest of the class.