It's been only three seasons since the 2008 NBA draft class first burst onto the scene, but the players soon entering their fourth pro seasons -- which include three All-Stars, two All-NBA selections and one MVP -- have already made their mark on the league.
Where to now?
1. Who will be the fifth-best "NBA senior" in the 2011-12 season?
Tom Haberstroh, ESPN.com: Marc Gasol. He's coming up on his 27th birthday, so he's stretching the "senior" label. But I feel much better about slotting Pau's little brother here than Brook Lopez, who was outrebounded by Evan Turner last season on a per-minute basis (look it up).
Bret LaGree, Hoopinion: Eric Gordon. Last season, he showed that he could score a lot without sacrificing efficiency. When he's healthy, there's a chance that Blake Griffin complements him on any given night.
Beckley Mason, HoopSpeak: Marc Gasol. He may be a tad overvalued following the Grizzlies' inspiring postseason run, but he is an emerging defensive force not unlike Andrew Bogut and has reliable offensive skills in the post. His strong mid-range shooting and passing skills provide a crucial pressure release for Memphis' compressed offense, but his rebounding isn't what you'd expect from such a mobile giant.
Andrew McNeil, 48 Minutes Of Hell: Marc Gasol. I wanted to move the bigger little Gasol brother up a spot, but I'm concerned how he'll play after getting a new contract. Either way, it was a joy to watch him as the fulcrum of an offense that the Spurs had no answer for at times in the playoffs.
Kyle Weidie, Truth About It: Eric Gordon. Right wrist issues kept us from talking about Gordon more last season (his numbers were down in March and April after missing over five weeks). If he can regain his long distance shooting touch, the kid who was born on Dec. 25 and has shed baby fat in the NBA will pair perfectly with his much-hyped teammate, Blake Griffin.
2. Who will be the fourth-best "NBA senior" in the 2011-12 season?
Tom Haberstroh, ESPN.com: Eric Gordon. Maybe it was the injuries. Maybe it was his Kia-jumping teammate. Whatever it was that caused him to go under the radar, that won't be the case next season. Gordon is a hyperefficient 2-guard who needs to work on his rebounding, but that's a little like saying a Prius needs better off-road capabilities. A star in the making.
Bret LaGree, Hoopinion: Marc Gasol. An elite complementary player. Though you'd never build a team around him, he could fit into and improve any of the other 29 teams in the league.
Beckley Mason, HoopSpeak: Eric Gordon. Only deficiencies on defense prevent Gordon from being the West's second-best shooting guard. In contrast to his underdeveloped defending, Gordon's offensive game is strikingly mature and well-rounded. With a coherent defensive philosophy behind him (update: Vinny Del Negro still coaches in Earth's top league) he could soon replace Manu/Kobe as the West's most complete 2-guard.
Andrew McNeil, 48 Minutes Of Hell: Brook Lopez. It seemed like Lopez had some early senioritis from time to time last season, but a full(ish) season with Deron Williams can make any big man look like a world-beater. Lopez still needs to become a force on the boards if he wants to have any chance of cracking the upper-echelon of big men in the league.
Kyle Weidie, Truth About It: Marc Gasol. It's becoming a point guard-heavy league, which is why the tough, space-taking big man should be valued even higher. His numbers took a slight dip last season after a stellar soph campaign, but that or the fact that he's already 26 shouldn't hold back his promise.
3. Who will be the third-best "NBA senior" in the 2011-12 season?
Tom Haberstroh, ESPN.com: Kevin Love. I get that rebounding is a component of defense, but I'm just not completely sold on Love's franchise-player status until he improves on that end of the floor. He's the first player in NBA history to make 50 or more 3-pointers and pull down 300 or more offensive rebounds in a season, so he's unlike anything we've ever seen. (Seriously, how can you do both?) Alas, uniqueness doesn't make him the best.
Bret LaGree, Hoopinion: Kevin Love. His ridiculous rebounding numbers are mostly a function of skill but he gets some help from his teammates' indifference. If Love, despite his limitations, is just one experienced head coach away from being a part of a respectable defensive team, he could rate even higher in his class.
Beckley Mason, HoopSpeak: Kevin Love. His defensive shortcomings shouldn't be ignored, but I'm about to do just that. He just does a ton to make each offensive possession a point-producing one. He preserves possessions by grabbing more offensive rebounds than anyone and converts them into points at a very high rate by shooting a great percentage from 3 and the free-throw line -- the two most efficient ways to score.
Andrew McNeil, 48 Minutes Of Hell: Kevin Love. The Timberwolves big man appears to have a clearly defined ceiling with his lack of athleticism, but you're crazy if you don't think the dude is going to fill out every bit of that potential. He's a force everywhere around the rim and out at the 3-point line. A mid-range jumper could make him dangerous.
Kyle Weidie, Truth About It: Kevin Love. His dad played for the Washington Bullets, turned bodyguard for the Beach Boys, and then named his son (middle name) after Wes Unseld. Love's game was built with a throwback type of flair. His defense will improve with experience, otherwise we could call him the bizarro Dennis Rodman.
4. Who will be the second-best "NBA senior" in the 2011-12 season?
Tom Haberstroh, ESPN.com: Russell Westbrook. Statistically, there's not much separating him and the reigning MVP (Westbrook actually edged Rose in player efficiency rating last season by 0.01 points). I'm putting Westbrook here until further notice because he seems to bring his bad idea jeans to the court too often.
Bret LaGree, Hoopinion: Russell Westbrook. Being so good and confident, at 22, that you don't fully understand your limitations is not that bad as obvious weaknesses go. Westbrook has yet to miss an NBA game while posting consecutive year-over-year improvements.
Beckley Mason, HoopSpeak: Russell Westbrook. With James Harden's emergence as a creative force, Westbrook likely won't handle the ball enough to post another 31.6 percent usage rate. But I expect his offensive efficiency to improve markedly if the Thunder unleash his potential as a one-man dynamo in transition and, in the half court, as a Tony Parker/Dwyane Wade hybrid slashing rimward from off the ball.
Andrew McNeil, 48 Minutes Of Hell: Russell Westbrook. He's explosive, skilled and competitive. I'd argue that he's also smart and his decision-making is improving. It almost doesn't seem fair that he's growing alongside one of the best players in the league in Kevin Durant. I'm looking forward to watching them over the next five or so seasons.
Kyle Weidie, Truth About It: Russell Westbrook. Sure, he can be erratic, frustrating and unpredictable. Not sure how that overshadows all of his excellence. Now, it's not unfathomable to imagine chemistry between Russell and Kevin Durant melting if the speed bumps become bigger. But figuring it out is not a bad problem for coach Scott Brooks to have.
5. Who will be the best "NBA senior" in the 2011-12 season?
Tom Haberstroh, ESPN.com: Derrick Rose. You know what's scary? An unfinished product just won the MVP. Since his sophomore season, Rose added a 3-point shot -- although he did shoot just 27.9 percent from downtown post-All-Star break -- to his arsenal and made big strides defensively. Now, he needs to tighten his shot selection and work on his passing game. A real wing man could do the trick.
Bret LaGree, Hoopinion: Derrick Rose. Part of the league's best defense, Rose also carried an otherwise pedestrian Bulls offense to the league's best record, then took on an even bigger offensive role in the playoffs. He can have an outstanding career even if he never bests his 2010-11 season.
Beckley Mason, HoopSpeak: Derrick Rose. After making a huge leap with his shooting (for at least part of) last season, Rose's gains will be more subtle and incremental from here on out. If Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau entrusts the Bulls' offense to the Flex, I like Rose to play a more efficient and, perhaps more importantly, less-physically-taxing game this season.
Andrew McNeil, 48 Minutes Of Hell: Derrick Rose. Duh. First off, he's got the whole "reigning MVP" thing going. Everything I said about Westbrook above? Same thing and then some for Rose. He's improved his game in every statistical area with each passing season. If he manages the same in 2011-12, we're in for one helluva historic run.
Kyle Weidie, Truth About It: Derrick Rose. Not only easily first, but far more senior than anyone else in his class. Rose can put a team on his back and contort his body enough to be a performer in Cirque du Soleil. Now the MVP just needs a co-MVP. (Hey, why isn't there an award for that?)
ESPN.com and the TrueHoop Network
Tom Haberstroh covers the NBA for ESPN Insider and ESPN.com's Heat Index. Bret LaGree, Beckley Mason, Andrew McNeil and Kyle Weidie contribute to the TrueHoop Network.
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