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February 4, 2010
Rookie Challenge
A Brief Review of the NBA's Youngest Players

by Bradford Doolittle

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The rosters for the NBA Rookie Challenge were set this week when Golden State's Anthony Morrow was added to the sophomore lineup in place of Chicago's Derrick Rose, who will play in the big kids' All-Star game. This gives us a good opportunity to look at these specimens we call rookies and sophomores. The intent here is not to critique the selections, though we'll sneak in a word or two about that, but to take a snapshot of the leading members of these two classes.

We're going to evaluate the rookies against the expectation level we set prior to the draft last season, along with statistical projections we spit out in the preseason. For sophomores, we're going to look at whether the second-year players have progressed, regressed or are simply running in place.

Simple enough?

I'll dip into my NBAPET toolbox to help organize my lists. The key metric will be WP82 (wins produced/82 games), but I'll also look at SPM (statistical plus-minus) to help extract individual performance from team success. There will also be a liberal sprinkling of skill ratings--integers between +5 (the best) and -5 (the worst) that are based on the percentile ranking of each player in different categories.

ROOKIES: THE CHALLENGE ROSTER

DeJuan Blair, F-C, San Antonio: Blair famously shined in many an analytical evaluation of draft prospects, then slid into the second round when selection night arrived. The questions about Blair's knees that led to his slide haven't kept him from becoming one of the NBA's most productive rookies, but they'll probably dog him for several years, until he proves he's not going to break down. Blair is 10th among rookies with 1.84 WP82 despite getting just 38 percent of available minutes in Gregg Popovich's rotation. He's already emerged as a +5 rebounder, though his -2 defense indicates that he's still learning how to cope with NBA-quality interior players, almost all of whom have a height advantage over Blair.

Omri Casspi, F, Sacramento: Casspi was a statistical wild-card at draft time last summer as the first NBA player to come out of Israel. My projections for him weren't wildly off, but they missed just enough to underrate him as an offensive talent. Already a +3 shooter, Casspi has posted a +1 foul-drawing ability, which means both his usage and efficiency are about 20 percent better than I anticipated. While Tyreke Evans has deservedly garnered a lot of attention in his first year with the Kings, Casspi has teamed with him to give Sacramento the top rookie duo in the league.

Stephen Curry, G, Golden State: In the preseason, Curry's backcourt mate Monta Ellis began camp by dismissing a pairing of the undersized, high-scoring duo as a fulltime backcourt a veritable impossibility. He may have been right. Curry is a better passer than his more experienced teammate, or is at least less innately selfish. He's fifth in WP82 among rookies, but is well off the pace I projected for him based on his translated college stats. Curry is going to have to get a lot stronger to hold up defensively and also to become more adept at leveraging his perimeter shooting into a Kevin Martin-like ability to do damage in the lane.

Tyreke Evans, G, Sacramento: Evans' 7.65 WP82 ranks second to Brandon Jennings among rookies and has exceeded the 6.98 I projected for him which already marked him as one of the season's top rookies. The Kings have become Evans' team. After some early bumps defensively, he's become more of a force of late but still has a ways to go. Eventually, he could become a Gary Payton-type defender. Evans' next priority is to improve his decision making. He's got the ability to create offense for himself almost at will, but he could be more efficient and also needs to further his ability to make his teammates better.

Jonny Flynn, G, Minnesota: While Flynn clocks in at sixth in rookie WP82, his is a more a result of quantity than quality. His 61 percent minutes-played figure has been exceeded by only Evans, Curry and Jennings. However, Flynn's -3.2 SPM indicates he's hardly deserved that much run. That's not to say that Ramon Sessions should be taking his minutes--the Timberwolves are building for the future and Flynn has shown the flashiness on offense that made him such an exciting prospect last summer. Like the rest of Minnesota's roster, Flynn needs work defensively and he also needs to learn how to function in Kurt Rambis' triangle offense.

Taj Gibson, F, Chicago: Gibson isn't one of the top nine rookies, but I assume the NBA felt it needed a couple of big men on the Rookie Challenge roster. Only Blair has outperformed Gibson among rookie big men. Gibson is something of a surprise. While he projected to be a good interior defender, his shot-blocking has really outstripped his man defense. He's been solid on the boards and has also displayed a surprisingly reliable midrange jumper. He has potential as an occasional option in the post, but his repertoire down low remains a bit limited.

James Harden, G, Oklahoma City: Harden's ability to attack the rim has translated well to the pros. He's been too often utilized as a spot-up shooter and his long-range accuracy has been inconsistent. However, he's passed the ball well and held up on defense for the most part. His overall value has been held down because of playing time issues. Harden has played behind Thabo Sefolosha all season. He's a better player, but Harden's usage isn't a great fit for Oklahoma City's first unit. It'll be interesting to see how this works out in the long run, because Harden is too good to be on the bench over half the time.

Brandon Jennings, G, Milwaukee: The leading Rookie of the Year candidate and most surprising rookie has come back to the pack over the last couple of months as teams have learned Jennings' strengths and weaknesses. Nevertheless, Jennings has remained productive even after cooling off from his hot start. His 10.8 WP82 is more than three wins ahead of Tyreke Evans and his +4.9 SPM also leads all rookies and ranks in the top 60 overall in the NBA.

Jonas Jerebko, F, Detroit: The Pistons selected Austin Daye in the first round to be the heir apparent to Tayshaun Prince, but it's been Jerebko who has landed the majority of the minutes in the duo's rookie seasons. Jerebko has emerged as an excellent rebounder for his position and as a solid stand-still shooter. He doesn't have Daye's upside on defense. For that matter, Daye also projects as the better offensive player. Jerebko looks like a keeper, but Houston's Chase Budinger might have been a more appropriate selection for the Rookie Challenge.

ROOKIES: COULD HAVE MADE IT

Ty Lawson, G, Denver: Another stathead favorite at draft time, Lawson hasn't disappointed. He ranks fourth among rookies with a 3.69 WP82.

Marcus Thornton, G, New Orleans: Thornton's per-minute play has screamed for more court time all season. New Orleans' trade of Devin Brown opened up a spot for him and Chris Paul's knee injury might have created a need for Thornton to get more shots.

Wes Matthews, G, Utah: The league's top undrafted rookie, Matthews has dazzled with his defense, energy and spot-up shooting.

Chase Budinger, F, Houston: Budinger's +3.2 SPM is third among rookies with at least 20 percent of minutes of playing time, behind Jennings and Tyler Hansbrough. Budinger's shooting and ball-handling ability have shown why the second-rounder was once viewed as a surefire lottery pick.

Darren Collison, G, New Orleans: Collison has held his own as Chris Paul's backup and has shown flashes of being a starting-caliber point guard in the first few games since Paul was injured.

Eric Maynor, G, Oklahoma City: The only top rookie to have been traded thus far (Lester Hudson was waived by Boston and picked up by Memphis), Maynor's play didn't warrant his trip out of Salt Lake City, but was instead a product of the Jazz's swollen payroll.

DeMar DeRozan, G, Toronto: One of the most divisive prospects in the last draft, DeRozan has proven the statheads correct in a sense, but often flashes the potential that had him rated so high by traditional scouts. He's clearly an NBA athlete, and that's not a bad place to start.

David Andersen, C, Houston: Anderson, the Rockets' 28-year-old rookie, has often been an offensive spark off the bench for Houston, but also has shown a tendency to take bad shots. His defense has been a disappointment as well. Anderson can help the Rockets, but he hasn't been as good as I thought he was going to be.

SOPHOMORES: THE ALL-STAR

Derrick Rose, G, Chicago: Like Kevin Durant, Rose has proven to be an example of an inefficient young player that has elite performance written all over him. Durant overcame the inefficiency of his first couple of seasons, and now is one of the NBA's top five players. Advanced metrics were slow to catch up with Durant, as they are with Rose. Nevertheless, Chicago's second-year star is well on his way towards becoming a stat darling. He leads all second-year players with 10.83 WP82, narrowly edging Memphis' Marc Gasol. As for efficiency, Rose's +4.0 SPM is OK, but well short of star status. However, his early stats were dragged down by a lingering ankle problem that he played through. Since Rose regained his health and accepted his role as the Bulls' go-to player, Chicago's record is evidence of just how fast Rose has come on.

SOPHOMORES: THE CHALLENGE ROSTER

Michael Beasley, F, Miami: You have to give Beasley credit for overcoming his preseason problems to become a fixture as Dwyane Wade's sidekick, but his development is still not as dazzling as you'd like to see. He's still a high-volume shooter that lacks efficiency. His shot selection isn't the best. While he's more adept at using his athleticism to attack the hoop than he was as a rookie, he still needs to further refine his game off the dribble. He also should be more of a back-to-the-basket threat than he is. Beasley can still be an All-Star player, but he's got work to do.

Marc Gasol, C, Memphis: One of the NBA's most improved players, Gasol has become one of the best high-post players in basketball. A complete player, Gasol has posted plus ratings in all 10 skill categories that NBAPET tracks. His emergence has meant that Memphis can bring raw rookie Hasheem Thabeet along slowly and still make a run at the postseason. When Zach Randolph's contract is up after next season, the Grizzlies will have a lot of options.

Danilo Gallinari, G-F, New York: Gallinari has taken steps towards becoming the next great homegrown Knick, a legitimate running mate for whatever star free agent the Knicks land next summer. Gallinari's perimeter shooting is as good as advertised, but his developing ability to put the ball on the floor has kept his usage rate at above-average levels. His defensive metrics are also strong, though I don't really trust them. (I suspect there is some Jared Jeffries cross-matching issues going on here.) Gallinari's athleticism is average at best, so his ceiling is probably below that of elite player status.

Eric Gordon, G, L.A. Clippers: Gordon doesn't get enough attention for just how effective he's become as an offensive player. He is an excellent outside shooter, but is also fairly dynamic in his ability to work off the dribble and get to the foul line. Given his relative inexperience at making plays for others, Gordon's ballhandling and passing indicators are also encouraging. The knock against Gordon remains that, at 6'3", he's not an prototypical shooting guard. NBAPET rates him as a +4 defender and has Baron Davis at -4. The system assumes Gordon is matching up with two-guards, while Davis is defending the point. Gordon's athletic indicators, block+steal rate and rebound ability suggest that there is some cross-matching shenanigans going on there.

Brook Lopez, C, New Jersey: Why should Nets fans have hope? Brook Lopez is a good place to start. Lopez is 37th in SPM with a +7.1 figure. (The Nets' minuscule win total makes Lopez's ability to crack the WP82 leaderboard a virtual impossibility.) Lopez rates as a +4 overall offensive player, with a +4s as well for passing and foul drawing. His defense (-4) is not good, but you have to wonder how much of that is due to his need to constantly come off his man to help cover the breakdowns of his teammates. He's a neutral rebounder and +3 in blocks and steals. No matter what happens, or where it plays, New Jersey is set at center for the next few years.

Kevin Love, F-C, Minnesota: Love is the one Minnesota player that has blossomed in Kurt Rambis' system. Love has the ideal skill set for the Triangle offense, as he's a terrific passer and possesses excellent inside-outside skills. His defense is average at best, but he's one of the NBA' best rebounders, particularly off the offensive glass. Despite all the point guards Minnesota currently owns the rights to, Love is the franchise player.

O.J. Mayo, G, Memphis: Mayo has become a more efficient scorer, but his overall game hasn't come as far along. He's still not a willing passer and his defense is porous. While his shot selection is improved, he's still too perimeter-oriented and it causes his athletic indicators to fall well below the levels his natural ability demands. At the same time, Mayo has been willing to be a cog in the machine of Memphis' fine season, and he deserves credit for that.

Anthony Morrow, G, Golden State: Morrow is one of the best shooters in the NBA, but is a bit one-dimensional. Somebody like San Antonio's George Hill might have been a better choice to replace Derrick Rose on the sophomore roster of the Rookie Challenge.

Russell Westbrook, G, Oklahoma City: The big three we saw emerging for the Thunder has really become a big two, as Westbrook has emerged as the primary complement to Kevin Durant. Westbrook's playmaking skills could stand to improve, as could his shot selection. But he's one of the most athletic guards in the NBA and, at 21, has a tremendous ceiling.

SOPHOMORES: COULD HAVE MADE IT

George Hill, G, San Antonio: Hill's defense, athleticism and pure shooting ability have helped him become a mainstay in the San Antonio rotation.

Brandon Rush, G, Indiana: Rush can shoot and defend, but needs to overcome his long-standing tendency to drift around the perimeter.

Ersan Ilyasova, F, Milwaukee: An unlikely sophomore, Ilyasova's rookie season came in the 2006-07 season before he headed back overseas for further ripening. He's become a long, perimeter-shooting, slick-passing four-man in the classic European mold.

Jason Thompson, F, Sacramento: A multi-skilled big man, Thompson hasn't been able to leverage his size and athleticism into a consistent defensive presence.

Ryan Anderson, F, Orlando: At +10.7, Anderson has the best SPM of any first- or second-year player in the league. He's the prototype for the modern-day, floor-spacing power forward.

Mario Chalmers, G, Miami: Chalmers has regressed mightily since his rookie season, particularly on the defensive end where he so sparkled as a first-year player.

Roy Hibbert, C, Indiana: Hibbert has developed nicely as a post player, but his defense and rebounding are holding him back. Hibbert is a good shot blocker, but his slowness afoot is a perfect example of how agility has become every bit as important as size when it comes to a center's ability to excel on defense in today's NBA.

Goran Dragic, G, Phoenix: Dragic's development as an outside shooter has allowed him to become a more viable option to play both behind and alongside Steve Nash.

Rudy Fernandez, G, Portland: Fernandez has been just as effective as he was in his excellent rookie season, though injuries have killed his overall value. The ladies still love him.

Jerryd Bayless, G, Portland: Bayless has shown explosive offensive ability in limited minutes. He may be a poor man's Brandon Roy. The problem is that he shares a backcourt rotation with the actual Brandon Roy.

J.J. Hickson, F, Cleveland: Hickson's ability to finish on the pick-and-roll, as well as the simpatico relationship he's developed with LeBron James has made him an excellent finisher at the rim. The rest of his game remains raw, but the talent is there.

D.J. Augustin, G, Charlotte: Augustin has de-evolved under the pressure Larry Brown puts on his point guards and is now pretty much just an perimeter streak shooter. He's got the talent to be more.

ROOKIES + SOPHOMORES: WOULD HAVE MADE IT

Portland's Greg Oden was headed towards an appearance in this game and possibly the NBA's Most Improved Player award before going down with a season-ending knee injury on Dec. 5. He'll begin his fourth year in the league next season with about 1-1/4 seasons of actual playing experience under his belt. The Clippers' Blake Griffin joined Oden as the second top overall pick in three years to miss the entirety of their rookie seasons when he suffered a non-displaced stress fracture of his left patella in L.A. last exhibition game on Oct. 3. Alas.

You can go read my caterwauling and pontificating Tweets at @bbdoolittle.

Bradford Doolittle is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact Bradford by clicking here or click here to see Bradford's other articles.

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