- David Thorpe, ESPN Staff Writer
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As the NBA's rookie class heads into the last month of the season, it's easy for players to either lose their focus entirely or channel their focus into just "playing hard." In reality, improving an aspect of their game helps to focus them, grounding them into the present and forcing them to work on specific rather than general things.
Watching tape and spending extra time before games, after practices or even on off days fine-tuning their craft with an assistant coach is the best way to make their last month of the season their best one.
Each player -- rookie or veteran -- has areas of his game that he can work on. So this week, for 10 of the rookies, I picked one area that's a good place for them to start. Many of these issues are applicable to most of the class. And a good week of work and film study on these specific areas would go a long way toward improving their games.
And as far as the rankings go, I still see a tie between Derrick Rose and Russell Westbrook for the top spot. But for the first time since November, O.J. Mayo is out of the top three, moving down to the fifth spot. Meanwhile, Eric Gordon has moved ahead of Mayo at No. 4.
Click here for my complete Rookie 50 rankings.
This week's observations
Derrick Rose, Bulls
One of Rose's biggest weaknesses is executing a good lob pass. Lobs are an effective way of taking a smaller defender out of the play when a big is racing the floor in transition. Or, in the classic CP3 manner, lobs can be used when Rose gets into the paint after a ballscreen penetration and the opposing big stands between Rose and the rim.
Timing is a requisite, as is a proper pace and trajectory. I liken it to an out route between a quarterback and receiver in man coverage. If it's a perfectly thrown pass, even a well-positioned defender cannot make a play on the ball. (Remember the winning touchdown in the Super Bowl?)
The same rule applies in hoops, with the added bonus of Rose always being able to finish the shot if the help defender stays home. This is a pass play that can be greatly improved with practice.
Russell Westbrook, Thunder
One of the biggest keys to being a good perimeter shooter is making sure your shooting motion is directed straight at the target (the rim). This is much harder than it would seem. Golfers spend lots of hours trying to get "lined up" correctly so their swing can produce the correct ball flight. Shooters in basketball can relate.
If you stand behind Westbrook, you can see that sometimes his shooting hand strokes the shot a foot to the right, which typically is the direction the ball takes, clanging off the side of the rim. This can be caused by poor alignment from his lower body, or not getting enough leg drive because of inadequate knee flex before the shot, or just a bad arm mechanic.
Brook Lopez, Nets
Lopez often makes the classic mistake of using just one hand to hold the ball while reading the defense. It's a mistake for a few reasons.
One, it removes the ability to shoot quickly, requiring the other hand to come to the ball before the shooting action can occur.
Two, and just as importantly, it greatly lessens the ability to pass fake or start a pass and decide to pull it back -- with just one hand on the ball, that action normally results in the ball slipping away.
Eric Gordon, Clippers
Gordon has really taken center stage in this class -- he is simply outstanding as a talent. But he is little at the shooting guard position (6-foot-3), and always will be in this league. So, though he may be coached to catch the ball on the wing and wait for the screener, I think he'd be a lot more dangerous if he quickly attacked off the catch 30 percent to 40 percent of the time.
It's not easy, as he has to peek at where the shot-blockers are before he catches it, but if he pops out in ready position -- knees bent, hands ready -- he'll force his defender to close out quickly. This will allow Gordon to either attack with a shot fake or just blow by the defender with his explosive first step.
O.J. Mayo, Grizzlies
Mayo knows he has to carry much of the load in Memphis for his team to be successful, and because of that he feels the need to try to make heroic-type plays. Meaning, when a play is going badly, Mayo may be faced with a quick decision that has three options, two of which are rather mundane and one which would be spectacular if executed properly. The pressure to perform leads him, I think, into choosing that third choice.
Of course, this action almost always results in a turnover, because it's hard enough to make a great play when everything is going right for you. Doing so when the play is breaking down (or has broken down) is asking for too much. Making the simple play at least ensures that his team retains the possession, and gives them a chance to make a good play. Thus, making the easy play is the great play.
The easy play tends to be the easy pass to a teammate who is not in position to score. The harder play is often trying to shoot off-balance or pass to a player in better scoring position. Of course, the defense is more alert to the options that present the bigger scoring opportunities.
Kevin Love, Timberwolves
When Love drives to the middle of the floor from the wing, he needs to try to release his hook shot just as he reaches the imaginary midline. That way his shoulders will be properly perpendicular to the backboard and the release will be smooth.
By advancing past the line before he shoots it, he has to over-rotate his shoulders to achieve the proper angle, which is very hard to do. Typically, a running hook that is released too late is a missed one.
Michael Beasley, Heat
Beasley loves to float out onto the perimeter, where he can do damage against opposing 4s because of his shooting/slashing game. But his triple-threat action needs a lot of work, starting with the way he brings the ball down below his knees when squaring up his man.
It's a common habit, but it's one that slows him down on his drives (imagine a sprinter starting a race with his back bent forward severely). It also makes it harder to straighten up if he's taking a jump shot. Back straighter, ball held nearer to his core, and he'll be more effective.
D.J. Augustin, Bobcats
Augustin can get to about any spot on the floor he wants to; he's that quick with the ball. And his outside shot forces players to close him out hot, which gives him many chances to fake a shot and drive past them and get into his midrange game. But here is where he really has to focus: Jumping straight up on those jumpers.
Shooting a runner is one thing, where he jumps off one leg while floating at an angle towards the baseline. Shooting a floater is something else, when he releases a one handed-shot while floating towards the rim (off one leg or two). But when he shoots his regular midrange jumper, "straight up, straight down" is the mantra to be repeated again and again. That balance is something he'll need in order to make the shot consistently.
Rudy Fernandez, Trail Blazers
Most coaches teach defense as something that starts with the feet, and Fernandez is definitely a guy who can get better at sliding a step or two more when defending dribble attacks. Like most players, when he lifts his hands up to contest the inevitable shot coming off the drive, he often stops moving his feet.
But using your hands is also an effective way to establish some good defense, by harassing passers and influencing dribblers. Fernandez is long and quick, but often is too passive when defending someone in space. In some cases, he stretches his arms a bit backwards, making it even easier for his man to navigate the terrain. One arm in, one arm up, or both arms spread wide -- either way would be a better plan for him.
Danilo Gallinari, Knicks
Playing defense in the NBA, especially off the ball, requires concentration above all else. Awareness to what's happening is Step 1 -- without it, athleticism, length and strength are mostly meaningless. Gallinari tends to drift off on this side of the floor, mostly when his man is away from the action -- which is precisely when he should be locked in the most.
Of course this is a product of his age and inexperience, but his defense won't get better unless he first intends for it to improve.
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.
Here's how the members of the NBA's rookie class can make their last month of the season their best one.