Trending Player: D.J. Augustin, PG, Charlotte Bobcats
A few weeks ago, we took note of how the Bobcats have surged offensively since replacing Larry Brown with Paul Silas as head coach. Nobody has benefited more than Augustin, who is playing the best basketball of his NBA career over the last month-plus under Silas.
The biggest difference is that Silas has freed Augustin up to be more aggressive on offense. This has translated into Augustin using 22.9 percent of Charlotte's plays, up from 18.3 percent under Brown. Augustin's aggression shows up elsewhere, as well. He's getting to the basket more frequently and making more trips to the free throw line because he makes plays off the dribble.
At the same time, Augustin has improved his efficiency of late. After a slow start beyond the arc, he's made 40.0 percent of his three-point attempts since the coaching change, in line with his figures during his first two NBA seasons.
Augustin's weakness had been two-point shooting, but the forays into the paint have helped him improve in this regard, and the extra free throws have had a huge impact on his scoring numbers, seeing as Augustin makes his freebies at a 90 percent clip. Combine all those factors and Augustin's True Shooting Percentage under Silas is an excellent 59.7 percent. Just five players in the league have posted higher True Shooting Percentages this season while playing as large a role in their team's offense as Augustin.
Best of all, Augustin hasn't forgotten about his teammates--his assist percentage has actually increased of late. He handed out assists on 8.2 percent of his plays under Brown, which has improved to 9.0 percent under Silas. With Augustin posing a threat to defenses as a scorer and a passer, the Bobcats are no longer missing departed point guard Raymond Felton. Augustin's development has been the biggest reason Charlotte's offense has improved enough to get the team back in the playoff hunt in the Eastern Conference.
Trending Team: Phoenix Suns
Over the last nine games, Suns newcomer Marcin Gortat has been playing heavy minutes coming off the bench behind starting center Robin Lopez. Gortat has earned the extra playing time with his production. Starting with a 16-point, 12-rebound effort at the Cleveland Cavaliers, Gortat has recorded six double-doubles in the last nine games and has averaged 14.6 points, 10.6 rebounds and 1.2 blocks in that span.
More noteworthy than Gortat's own production is how his minutes have affected Phoenix as a team. Gortat's emergence means Suns coach Alvin Gentry is no longer playing Channing Frye as an undersized center on a regular basis. Instead, Frye's minutes are primarily coming at power forward, making Phoenix a bigger, more defensive-minded squad.
The results are striking on both ends of the floor. The Suns have been vastly improved in terms of contesting shot attempts, allowing opponents to make just 42.4 percent of their shots in the last nine games, down from their previous 48.4 percent mark and good for second in the league, as compared to season-long numbers (only the Chicago Bulls, who hold opponents to 42.3 percent shooting, are better).
Gortat has also made a difference on the glass, where Phoenix has gone from the league's second-worst defensive rebounding percentage (69.8 percent of available missed shots) to above average at 74.7 percent. In part, the Suns have benefited from facing some poor offenses in the last nine games, but they have held opponents 3.1 points per 100 possessions below their typical Offensive Ratings. Previously, Phoenix allowed teams to score 5.7 more points than usual per 100 possessions.
The defensive mindset has come with a cost on the other end, however. Despite Gortat's own high-percentage shooting, the Suns have been less potent. Phoenix's Offensive Rating has dropped from 113.0 points per 100 possessions to 107.8, because the Suns are getting to the free throw line less frequently and, surprisingly, grabbing fewer offensive rebounds. Gentry will allow that tradeoff if Phoenix continues to win games with defense.
League Trend: Comparing Rookie Challenge rosters
Last week, the NBA announced rosters for the Rookie Challenge, which pits the league's best rookies and sophomores against each other. While the rosters sometimes reflect where players were drafted more than actual on-court performance, looking at the rosters across the years can give us some idea of the strength of the various classes and how this year's groups stack up in terms of Basketball Prospectus' Wins Above Replacement Player metric.
Year Rookies Sophomores
2007 10.6 48.3
2008 9.1 40.6
2009 33.8 21.9
2010 32.2 48.3
2011 26.8* 35.2*
*Projected to 82 games
Naturally, the second-year players usually have a clear advantage. Just once in the last eight years have the rookies emerged victorious. Oddly, that did not come in 2009, the lone time in the last five years the rookies have had more total value. Instead, that group fell victim to an upset last year. Even given that the sophomores were playing without Derrick Rose, whose WARP is not included above, it was a disappointing performance by last year's second-year players.
This season's sophomores have a chance to become the first group since the 2001 draft class to sweep both Rookie Challenge appearances. However, the sophomores have yet to really build on their precocious success. Because Tyreke Evans and Brandon Jennings have battled injuries and other players have slumped, the sophomores have barely improved as a group from their first-year performance.
That might provide an opening to the rookies, who have a solid WARP total thus far, with one big caveat: More than half of the first-year players' value has been provided by sure-fire Rookie of the Year Blake Griffin. However, Griffin may sit out the Rookie Challenge for the same reason Rose did last year--an All-Star Weekend schedule that is packed with events on all three days now that Griffin has been chosen to the big show, Sunday's All-Star Game, in addition to headlining Saturday's Dunk Contest. Before Griffin was announced as a reserve on the Western Conference roster, Clippers coach Vinny Del Negro told reporters the team did not want Griffin in action all three days. Without Griffin, the rookie roster would look a lot like the 2007 and 2008 teams, both of which were blown out.
A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider .
Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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