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Wednesday, January 21, 2009
Rookie Watch: The going gets tougher

By David Thorpe
Scouts Inc.

Russell Westbrook
OKC's Russell Westbrook is making it a three-man race for the Rookie of the Year award.
The Wall. It's a term often associated with rookies' fatigue as they deal with a season more than twice as long as they have ever dealt with before.

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.)


O.J. Mayo, Grizzlies
Here are some interesting numbers: 23.1, 17.7, 16.8 -- Mayo's scoring averages for November, December and January, respectively. Why the downward trend? Easy, check out Mayo's field goal percentages for those months: 48 percent, 43.8 percent and 40 percent, respectively. Then factor in Mayo's 3-point numbers: 42.1 percent, 39.1 percent and 32.5 percent; his 3-point accuracy has dropped each month as well.

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.


Russell Westbrook, Thunder
Westbrook performed well against the Jazz recently, putting up 22 points and 7 assists (with one turnover) in his head-to-head matchup with Deron Williams. Westbrook, who turned 20 in November, is four years younger than D-Will.

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.


Derrick Rose, Bulls
When the game is tight or the competition is tough, Rose is challenged with stepping up and doing more for his team. It's an extremely tough task for a rookie point guard.

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.


Kevin Love, Timberwolves
It's not just Love's rebounding that has helped spark the Wolves in 2009. Or his knack for getting by defenders using shot fakes and good footwork. And it's definitely not his outside shooting, as he's hitting less than 31 percent of his perimeter shots.

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.


Anthony Randolph, Warriors
There's no question Randolph still does not understand what a good shot is for him. Two-thirds of the shots he takes are perimeter jumpers, and he makes just 26.5 percent of them. It's time he stopped taking them, period.

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.


Courtney Lee, Magic
The Magic have gone 7-0 since Lee moved into the starting lineup. Of course, he's nowhere near the key guy on this team, but his numbers are still very impressive in January -- 9.7 ppg in 29 minutes per game, shooting 50 percent from the 3-point line.

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.


Rudy Fernandez, Trail Blazers
Fernandez made six field goals Sunday night. The significant part is that only one of them was a 3-pointer.

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.


Brook Lopez, Nets
Though the Nets are struggling, Lopez is excelling. He may even be cruising toward a rookie of the month award. He had 28 points and 10 rebounds in a loss to Boston on Saturday, raising his January averages to 15.1 ppg and 8.9 rpg, along with 2.2 blocks per game.

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.


Jerryd Bayless, Trail Blazers
Bayless finally had his coming-out party, which seemed inevitable after watching him destroy the competition in the Vegas Summer League. He scored 23 points on just nine shots against New Jersey last week, thanks in large part to his 11-for-11 showing from the free throw line. He displayed a knack for getting to the line (a lot) in Vegas, too.

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.


Greg Oden, Trail Blazers
It matters not that Oden had his huge game -- 24 points, 15 boards, 2 blocks and 2 steals -- against the Andrew Bogut-less Bucks. If 80 percent of the game of basketball is mental, like some coaches (including me) contend, then 50 percent of that part is sheer confidence. And Oden, who is a perfectionist in some respects, simply needs positive things to happen for him to help him realize that he can truly be a franchise player.

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.


Danilo Gallinari, Knicks
He made his first appearance of the season Saturday and knocked down 2 of 4 shots. Both shots were 3-pointers, a skill the Knicks have been desperate for from their bigs.

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.