- David Thorpe, ESPN Staff Writer
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Years ago, I heard about a short little shooter (whose name is not important) heading into the 10th grade. I went to watch him play at a basketball camp that featured nothing but top-rated players, 16 and under. Most observers thought he'd be overwhelmed by the talent.
He played well in his first game, but his team trailed by 9 with 50 seconds to go. However, he then made three consecutive 3-pointers, plus a steal, and suddenly the game was tied. We all stood slack-jawed at what had just happened. But the player acted as if he expected that ending.
Two years later, he led the nation in scoring (50 ppg) and was a McDonald's All-American. Two years after that, as a college soph, he was a starter in the NCAA title game. The kid was easy to write off, but he just kept coming, because he knew he had "it." Those of us who saw that last-minute performance knew he'd end up being a difference-maker.
I have the same feeling when I watch Oklahoma City's Russell Westbrook. It's like he knows he and his team are going to be special. And I felt like this even before Friday, when he pulled a stunt similar to the player I mentioned above.
Down 5 to the Mavs with 22 seconds left (and without Kevin Durant, who sprained his ankle in the first quarter), Westbrook managed to draw a 3-shot foul from Jason Kidd (amazing considering that Westbrook is a poor 3-point shooter). He made his first two free throws, but missed the third. Seeing his teammate Nenad Krstic grab the rebound, he ran to the corner and nailed a 3-ball. Yep, five points in five seconds.
Yes, the Thunder lost that game in OT, but they must feel good that their No. 4 pick continues to find ways to make an impact on games and carry the team. That he got a triple-double three nights later, with KD still sidelined, only furthers the point.
Meanwhile, Derrick Rose poured in 16 fourth-quarter points to rally the Bulls from 17 down in the final period to beat Houston. Rose, too, has "it," and he knows it.
The two explosive point guards are now tied for the top spot in my rankings with six weeks to go, moving slightly ahead of the pack. But don't count out some of these other guys, who are very special players as well. Let's take a peek at how some of them fared in the past week.
(Click here for my Rookie 50 rankings.)
This week's observations
Derrick Rose, Bulls
Back in the Bulls' fourth-quarter rotation, Rose ended up with very good February numbers (15.8 ppg, 6.3 apg, 49.4 percent shooting) and helped keep the Bulls in playoff contention.
He also returned to using his strength and athleticism to make plays inside, which is a very wise choice. And he's not just doing it off the dribble, either. Like Westbrook, Rose is capable of hurting defenses off of catches near the paint, where he then just turns and soars to the rim, absorbing contact with ease.
He still struggles on defense, but will learn to use his great body and strength on that end of the floor as well.
O.J. Mayo, Grizzlies
I have to think the Grizzlies will look to go more up-tempo in the future to better take advantage of Mayo's talents in transition. Mayo is built to be part of a running show, but Memphis currently plays at a fairly slow pace: in the bottom third of the NBA. He's excellent at pushing the pace himself, changing directions as he flies down the floor. And his strength and athleticism translate into his being an excellent finisher.
Russell Westbrook, Thunder
Westbrook struggled shooting the ball in February, but he shot 97 free throws in the month (his highest one-month total) and made a season-high 86.6 percent. In comparison, Mayo and Rose shot 88 free throws combined in February. Rose alone took only 67 free throws during the first two months of 2009.
Brook Lopez, Nets
Many young bigs do not have a good plan when they catch the ball in the post. Even more young bigs don't have a solid counter-move. And almost all big men, young or old, can't score if both their go-to move and their counter are well-defended.
Lopez, however, is special. When he catches the ball in the post, he attacks the middle with a good jump hook, which he can make with either hand. If his defender takes the middle away, he is adept at making a power spin as a counter move. And when his counter is cut off, he is able to set himself and then loft his baby hook.
It's a very effective phase of his offensive game that we don't see very often. But we should see it more as he matures as a player. The fact that he can do those things now is impressive.
Kevin Love, Timberwolves
It's incredible to look at Love's box-score results after a game and see 1-for-4 from the field in 29 minutes. By no means should he be Option No. 1, even with Al Jefferson out of the lineup, but four shots on very few touches is absurd.
Love is not just a threat to score inside and out, as we know from his past results; he's also a threat to draw fouls from the other team's bigs, which would give the Wolves an advantage. Love has not rebounded as well of late on the offensive end, which is on him, but his teammates and coaches need to make a better effort of getting him the ball in scoring position, if for no other reason than to better evaluate his scoring talent when Jefferson isn't on the floor.
D.J. Augustin, Bobcats
Watch how Augustin uses his attack angle on ballscreens. He does not yet value every foot of space on the floor and makes the same mistake a lot of young dribblers do: Instead of taking a sharper angle toward the rim (around the screener), he often settles for the wider arc, which leaves him farther from the rim if he's going to take the jump shot. It also forfeits the chance to blow by the help defender and get to the rim. Both options closer to the rim are typically better than pulling up for the long 2 (the equation changes slightly if he's pulling up for a 3-pointer).
It's not that he does not know this or has not been taught this; it's that many young players tend to lose concentration more than vets.
Jason Thompson, Kings
One benefit of the massive number of front-office moves in Sacramento is that JT has gotten more consistent playing time. He logged a monthly-best 29.2 mpg in February.
Only constant foul trouble limits him now. Thompson has vowed to stay silent when dealing with officials, which is a good move. His next move should be to stop fouling so much; he is one of the most frequent foulers in the NBA. The good news is that he's aggressive, tough-minded and not afraid of hitting people. And it's easier to learn how not to foul than it is learning to play with toughness.
I think Thompson is going to be one of the most improved players from this class at this time next year.
JaVale McGee, Wizards
In July, I suggested that McGee should be seeing lots of D-League time. Not because he lacks talent, but for the opposite reason, actually. He's really talented, and as of today has played 30 or more minutes just once thus far.
In July, before injuries hit the Wizards' front line, it looked like McGee would get even fewer minutes than he has ended up playing, which was 16.6 per game in February. In order to see just what they have in this young athlete, the Wiz would be wise to play him far more in March and April, including giving him extensive minutes in at least a few games. The reference points alone for McGee would be worth it. Otherwise, perhaps a few weeks of D-League action, with him getting 35-plus minutes and being the focus of the offense, would have been a wise choice.
Kyle Weaver, Thunder
Drafted as a defensive specialist, Weaver has been put in a situation to score with Kevin Durant out with an ankle injury. In the Thunder's last five games, Weaver averaged 13 ppg on 50 percent shooting from 3 and shot 22-for-42 overall from the field.
He's rangy and aggressive on defense, so adding some offensive firepower to his production might get him more opportunities to become a permanent member of the Thunder's rotation.
Greg Oden, Trail Blazers
Oden has missed Portland's past seven games with a "minor" knee problem that might end up costing him 20 percent of the Blazers' schedule.
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.