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|OKC's Russell Westbrook is making it a three-man race for the Rookie of the Year award.|
Now that the NBA season is at its halfway point, rookies have already played at least 10 more games than they did in college last season (or about the same amount of games as a full season in Europe). And there are still about 40 games left -- the equivalent of yet another season and a third in college.
So how does The Wall affect the rooks? In some cases, it's a physical thing. With no time between games to let wounds heal, the pain builds and the performance of the player lessens. Sometimes the legs just give out.
Most of the time, though, it's the mind that starts to slip. The attention to detail begins to dampen. The willingness to defend a particular play with toughness disappears. Ironically, rookies begin to make fewer easy plays and force things more. There is nothing more important for a player than his concentration -- thinking and anticipating. So a fatigued mind kills that part of the player's game.
With players like Derrick Rose and O.J. Mayo, who have had to do so much for their teams since the start of the season, it's no surprise that we've seen their production slip from month to month. They lead all rookies in minutes played by a mile. And they have the ball in their hands all the time, forcing them to think constantly.
All of which makes Russell Westbrook's rise more impressive. He's fourth in this class in minutes played, yet he has been able to advance his game every month. He is now playing at a level equal to Rose and Mayo, and he has even been better in some areas.
Most importantly, Westbrook has helped his team earn four wins thus far in January -- equal to Chicago's win total this month and three more wins than Memphis has in 2009. Of course, having Kevin Durant as a teammate is a big help, but Westbrook was huge in three of those wins. He is playing like a legit ROY candidate now.
I expect Rose and Mayo to regain their edge and finish the season in grand style. Both of them were ready for this season long before it started. They have the pride and smarts to figure things out and get themselves going again. But the question is, when will Westbrook hit The Wall? And when he does, will it knock him down for good or just prove to be a temporary obstacle?
With that in mind, here are my rookie observations for this week:
(Click here for my updated Rookie 50 rankings.)
We'll get into why his numbers are dipping some other time, but here's the important part: Mayo's lack of free throw attempts is causing this direct correlation of poor shooting and a drop in overall scoring. He has taken just 23 free throws in his eight games in January thus far, and though he has made 21 of them, he's just not getting to the line as often as a team's primary scorer typically does.
Another thing in Westbrook's favor is that he doesn't have to develop his game on his own, thanks to the presence of talents like Kevin Durant and Jeff Green in Oklahoma City. Williams had similar good fortune, growing his game next to Jazz stars Carlos Boozer, Mehmet Okur and Andrei Kirilenko.
In the Bulls' past five games against teams in the top 10 in defensive efficiency, Rose was 21-for-74 from the field. The Bulls' OT win against Cleveland was their only victory among those five games. And in that game, Rose had five teammates shoot a combined 24-for-42, while he shot 6-for-20.
In a recent loss to the Spurs, four of Rose's teammates -- Drew Gooden, Ben Gordon, Luol Deng and Andres Nocioni -- shot a combined 25-for-41, while Rose made 6 of his 21 shots. He did have 8 assists and zero turnovers, however, showing that he is capable of making easy plays.
As Rose matures, he'll recognize that in most cases, passing up his own contested shot for a wide-open look from a hot-shooting teammate actually helps him get his own offense down the road. I do not think Rose is selfish, not at all. But managing this game while staying aggressive takes knowledge and experience.
I think his biggest value comes in his rare combination of toughness and intelligence. He battles every team's bigs down in the post, using his strong legs to hold his ground. He brings the fight right to them, but he's smart enough to avoid fouls most of the time. He averages just 2.3 fouls per game, but in no way can he be considered a soft player.
However, there is also no question that he is a relentless rebounder, as he trails only Love and Greg Oden in the rebound rate category. He is very quick and long, and has a good nose for the ball.
His playing time has been inconsistent this season, and that may not change regardless of what he does. Still, shooting jumpers less (or better yet, not at all) and attacking the rim more seems like a change that will only help his overall production.
On top of that, he often gets the toughest assignment on defense. In his six starts, he has guarded Joe Johnson, Kobe Bryant and Manu Ginobili. Only Kobe was able to score easily and consistently on the defensive-minded Lee.
It was the first time he made more than three 2-point field goals in a game since Dec. 18, and just the fourth time all season. The five 2-pointers were one off his season high of six, set way back on Nov. 1.
He is also 26-for-30 from the free throw line this month, showing how tough he is to defend. Get too physical with him and he'll kill you from the stripe, unlike some of the other dominant bigs we have in the league.
In his next game, he went 6-for-9 from the field but took just three free throws. Given that he's only 1-for-10 from 3 this season, adding points from the line is imperative if he wants to become an efficient scorer.
It does not matter if his coach believes it. Or his teammates, fans, the media or the "experts" watching the NBA. At least, not until he believes it first. And after games like Sunday night, when Oden dominated most of the action in all 35 minutes he played, he can think about what happened and smile (inwardly at the very least). Then, he'll want to go out and do it again.
When he starts expecting to be that dominant and can brush off momentarily failures while staying focused on the big picture, these types of games will appear with more frequency.
• Click here for the entire Rookie 50 rankings and more observations
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.