by Karissa Morton
Rookies to Watch (By Draft Order)
The Cavs are in an interesting position inasmuch as they are patiently rebuilding. They likely won’t be bothered if Bennett takes a little time to develop as an NBA-caliber player–which is fine for them, but it doesn’t say much for his potential as a breakout star worthy of top-billing for the Rookie of the Year award. Here’s why I’m skeptical of Bennett:
During his freshman year at UNLV, he hit 53.3% of his attempted field goals, but the NCAA this ain’t. Much has been made of his size (6’7” & a soft 240 rather than an power-forward-fit 240) & conditioning (he’s recently been struggling with asthma during practices), & I think these things both have the potential to slow him down. He does have great footwork, but when he comes up against bigger forwards, the points that came so easily to him in the NCAA will be a little tougher to get. Defensively, he has the tendency to lack the spark he has on offense–but for that problem, Cleveland’s exactly where he needs to be.
He does have four huge things working for him, though:
1. His ability to play some incarnation of a combo forward position: He has the size of a 4 & the skill set to play a 3. The suspicion that he’ll lack excellence at either seems to be largely rooted in his conditioning. If he can get a bit more in shape & learn to manage the things like asthma & endurance issues, he has the potential to be a key player for the Cavs.
2. Mike Brown: He puts emphasis on defense & is exactly the right coach to teach Bennett NBA-level defensive skills. We’ve seen him up Cleveland’s stock as a defensive unit, despite having great defenders. He’ll pull the defense out of Bennett if it’s there.
3. Kyrie Irving: He’s already the Cavs’ savior, which means that despite Bennett’s #1 draft position, he won’t have quite as much pressure on him as he otherwise might have. Irving’s All-Star status also means that Bennett will likely be able to capitalize on the open shots Irving’s game provides.
4. Humility: He’s respectful, humble, & thus far, all signs point to him being extremely coachable. He doesn’t seem to have the ego (& legal) issues that many other players might.
Outlook: The Cavs are the right place for Bennett, & if he can pull everything together in terms of his shape & conditioning, & really take advantage of Mike Brown’s expertise in defensive structure, he has the potential for a solid career. Keep an eye on him for Rookie of the Year, but I wouldn’t rank him first or second in the hunt.
Anyone who’s projecting Rookie of the Year at this point would be stupid to overlook Victor Oladipo. During his final year at Indiana, he shot 59.9% from the floor, 44.1% from 3-point-range, & was the only guard in the country who ranked in the top 50 for offensive rebounding percentages. The fact that he hits multiple bases (whereas Bennett didn’t) works in his favor. Similar to Bennett, Oladipo plays a sort of mix of two NBA positions, but rather than being a combo forward, he’s a combo guard. He plays equally well as a 1 & a 2, & stands up as a floor-leader. Defensively, he had the highest block percentage (at 2.8%) of any guard in this year’s draft class. Now that he’s officially slotted in at point guard, he’ll see lots of numbers this season, which will bode well for his chances at winning Rookie of the Year.
As his NCAA stats show, I think he also has the potential to be a great attacker. There is the fear, though, that his final year at Indiana was a flash in the pan–his stats the two previous years were much more disappointing. So far in the preseason, he’s shown himself highly capable of the transition to the NBA–recently leading the Magic with 18 points & three assists, including two three-pointers under buzzer pressure. If he can work on improving his passing a bit, he’ll be even more of a star than some think.
Outlook: If he doesn’t end up in the top 2-3 candidates for Rookie of the Year, I’ll be shocked. He deserves quite a bit (though my bet is not quite all) of the hype he’s received thus far.
I like Georgetown basketball, & I like the work ethic they instill in their guys. Porter is an incredibly smart player. I loved watching him at Georgetown because of the fact that he takes an intellectual approach to the court–he knows the angles, he knows the timing, he knows the perimeter. His ball-handling is a huge pro for him because not all of the rookies in his draft class are great (or even necessarily good) at this. Defensively, he’s a beast–ranking highly in rebounds, blocks, and steals. The fact that he’s 6’9” (with a standing reach of 8’10”), paired with his physical play, makes him a big threat to opponents’ jumpers. Offensively, his weakness is the fact that he only has 6.7% body fat. He is one lanky dude, meaning he may very well struggle in traffic against NBA-sized opposition. It’s really just his movement that’s a problem–I think if he adds some bulk, it’ll help with the fact that he has a tendency to look like a scarecrow when he plays. He’s has the tendency to be stiff in his play, sometimes creepily so. On the whole, I don’t think he can be overlooked as a standout player (much less a standout rookie), but the fact that he lacks the bulk & quickness that many other players have will hurt him. Also hurting him? The fact that he still hasn’t practiced with the Wizards due to his hip injury. Only time will tell at what speed he’ll get back into the fold.
Outlook: He’s potentially the smartest of the rookies, but I really do think his movement will prevent him from truly excelling. Pair that with his early injury, & I’d be cautious in labeling him a top-of-the-heap Rookie of the Year guy. (As much as I want to do so.)
I’m gonna be upfront with you here. I am not on Team Zeller. I didn’t like him when he played for Indiana & I don’t like him any more now. He’s not a particularly athletic player, nor does he have the kind of explosiveness to make up for the deficit in his athleticism. Pair that with the fact that he’s not a bulky/muscular guy for his height & as such, tends to overcompensate on defense & end up in foul trouble, & I’m skeptical. He’s poor at protecting the basket & even poorer at defending the post–largely because he’s easy for opposing forwards to throw around.
This is not to say that Zeller doesn’t have his strengths–he does. The foremost of these is his shooting ability. The kid seems to instinctively know when to do what–& he can do the right thing, more importantly. He’s got the aggressive layup, the forceful dribble, the smooth pump-fake; he’s got an incredibly sharp mid-range jumper & he’s impressive at the free throw line. It’s not impossible for him to be successful in the NBA since he does have this kind of shooting acumen despite being fairly unskilled defensively (look at Ryan Anderson), but he needs to improve in terms of toughness before anyone can realistically pair the word “elite” with the name “Zeller.”
Outlook: He’s not done poorly in the preseason, but he also hasn’t been shockingly impressive. If he can bulk up / toughen up, he’ll prove himself a more threatening defender–something he crucially needs to do in order to have a successful run in the NBA. At this point, there are a number of players who are quite simply better than Zeller. Those are the guys who appear more prominently on my Rookie of the Year radar.
There’s a lot of Alex Len hate online. A lot of it. People were quick to label him the bust of the draft, but I think that’s an overstatement. Watching his draft videos makes it clear that he can play the rim like a beast… but when it comes to most other things, he does seem pretty raw. The guy is gigantic, however. At 7’1”-255 with a 7’3.5” wingspan, he is a physical powerhouse, yet moves with surprising agility. His height & arm length are certainly pros for him since he does tend to stick toward the rim, leading to skill as a rebounder (one every 3.3. minutes on average). One of my favorite types of players, though, is the one who can do well with the lob-pass, & Len can definitely catch ‘em & dunk ‘em. The problem is that he lacks any sort of polish. He’s sort of a one-hit-wonder. Yes, he’s incredible at the hoop, but that’s kind of about it. He’s not great from the field, he’s not great from the free throw line, & he’s not at all nuanced on defense. At Maryland, he landed in quite a bit of foul trouble because of the fact that he sort of just throws his body through the field rather than playing intelligent defense. He’ll also need to gain more full-court awareness if he wants to have a successful NBA career. At Maryland, he didn’t show much leadership, & instead, more just took the ball when it was lobbed his way. He needs to step up & figure out how to work with his teammates rather than for them, & stay aware of the fact that everyone on the court isn’t 7’1” so he needs to stop carrying the ball above his waist where shorter defenders can easily snatch it.
Outlook: I don’t think Alex Len will be a total bust, but he also hasn’t shown himself to be the most humble & coachable of guys, so I’m skeptical of his long-term outlook. I’m extremely curious to see how he develops this year, but I’d more or less write him out of Rookie of the Year contention.
This one breaks my heart. I like the 76ers. I want the 76ers to succeed, I really do. As soon as I heard they’d nabbed Noel to play alongside my boy Michael Carter-Williams, I was thrilled for them. Then it comes out that he’s not playing this season, but instead, spending it rehabbing his surgically-repaired knee. If the 76ers are truly looking forward to rebuilding with MCW, Noel, & early draft picks next year, rehabbing his knee like this is most definitely the way to do it. I’m just a selfish fan & don’t want to have to wait another whole year to see MCW & Noel play together in Philly. (Although I can’t help but fantasize about what a team headed by Noel, MCW, & Andrew Wiggins would look like…)
Historically, sitting out a year hasn’t harmed breakout players–on the contrary, it’s helped them become even stronger (see Blake Griffin, Derrick Rose, et al). This year Noel can rehab his knee, sharpen his offensive game, & put on weight to make him a more imposing defensive figure–two things that will bode well for him starting out for the Sixers next season. With a 7’4” wingspan, he is a machine on defense already, & the only thing that would further add to that is more bulk.
Most importantly, this is his chance to learn how to play NBA-style offense. He’s weak offensively, no ifs-&s-or-buts about it. He’s quick, he’s agile, he’s athletic, & he’s shown an extremely strong work ethic. Defensively, he’s not scared to get in there & bang up for rebounds… but that was in the NCAA. He’s not going to be able to throw himself in there in quite the same way with NBA-level defenders–another reason some bulk is necessary. Shooting-wise, though… Noel is strange. There’s not really a better way to put it. He lacks some of the basic technique like how to roll off a smooth free throw. He’s only shooting from the field at 45% & he turns the ball over more often than he draws the foul call–something that definitely needs work. In other words, get the kid into the gym this year, get him shooting much better than he did under Calipari, & he’ll easily be an elite.
Outlook: The ACL injury prevents him from eligibility for Rookie of the Year this year, & with the stellar draft class coming in next year, he’ll likely be overlooked next year during his first year of play, but if he improves his offensive play, he definitely has the potential to become a real star.
McLemore is one of my favorite rookies. I hate the Jayhawks in the way 90% of the internet hates Alex Len. Actually, no, the internet’s Alex Len hate doesn’t even come close to my hatred of the Jayhawks. You know how there are some teams who just have hugely irritating fans? Basketball-wise, Kansas is that team for me. I know that, rationally, there have to be Jayhawks fans out there who have heard the word “sportsmanship,” but I haven’t met many of them. Anyway. I don’t like the Jayhawks but I love Ben McLemore.
I also think this kid has serious potential to win Rookie of the Year. The interwebz widely compare him to Ray Allen, & while that’s an oft-heard comparison, it’s not an oft-earned one. It is here. He is an expert ball-handler & his three-pointer is incredibly well-elevated. (He managed two three-pointers [for 42%] per game at Kansas). He also has the speed & foresight to get himself open at the perimeter, & as such, proves dangerous to defenses. On that front, he’s also highly energetic & athletic–he can keep up with the kind of fast-paced game that’s become prevalent in the NBA.
Weakness-wise, he needs to hone his ball handling, as he’s prone to turnovers. On the same note, he needs to get a sharper feel for when aggressive defense is necessary & when it’ll lead to foul trouble. He’s also young–& acts young. That’s a critique frequently leveled at McLemore–he needs to develop his confidence & leadership skills on the court. I, for one, have full faith that this will happen–& fast.
Outlook: McLemore scores points, period–plus he’s playing with Greivis Vasquez, who’s third-ranked in assists in ‘12-’13. Sacramento is structured with a field that lets McLemore come out with guns blazing from the get-go. Tack on the fact that seven of the eight past Rookie of the Year award winners led first-year players in scoring. Aaaaand who’s projected to be the rookie scoring leader? I’m calling it: Ben McLemore is your Rookie of the Year.
This kid might be my least favorite of all the first-rounders. We’ll get the obvious out of the way first: he can shoot the three. Man, can he shoot the three. He’s also great at faking a drive in order to leap up for the jumper. He’s also good on defense, statistically. But what Caldwell-Pope is known for is his shot–particularly the balanced jumper from behind the arc. So far in preseason play, he hasn’t shown that he earns much consideration for Rookie of the Year, shooting just 28.6% & 24.1% from his trademarked spot–behind the arc.
Here’s the problem, both on the court & in my mind–he’s cocky. He’s a selfish player who prefers to take difficult shots (especially deep three point attempts) rather than wait it out for a more logically sound opportunity–either for himself or for his teammates. He’s impatient–both in traffic & with the ball, he’s impulsive, & he doesn’t pass.
Atop this, he has no problem getting in there & throwing his body around–including post-shot. Ordinarily, this wouldn’t be a problem (& would probably be a plus, in fact), but Caldwell-Pope throws himself around so hard & so dramatically that I’d be willing to bet on an injury in his rookie season.
Outlook: Yes, he can shoot for three. But what else can he do? Time might tell, but I wouldn’t hold your breath. I’m personally writing him off for Rookie of the Year–maybe prematurely, but I don’t think so.
Burke unfortunately finds himself in a boat similar to that of Nerlens Noel. After breaking his finger in the preseason–an injury that’s looking like it’ll cost him somewhere between two & four months–the Jazz have signed Jamaal Tinsley up in his place. (If you listen to Burke himself, he says four to six weeks, but the Tinsley signing makes me question that timetable.) I think he deserves to be talked about anyway, though. Burke is a stellar PG–no denying it. That said, at 6’1”-190, he is small for an NBA PG, which could present a problem coming up against bigger defenders. He makes up for some of that lack of size with pure aggression & determination, though. He also exhibits the patience that rookies like Caldwell-Pope lack–he waits for the right shot, the right pass, & is the glue of a team. The thing that I would argue is most important about Burke–one of the things that’ll contribute to him probably having a strong NBA career once he gets back in the swing of things–is his speed. He’s stupidly fast & stupidly agile. Package this with the fact that he can shoot successfully from across the floor, & there’s no doubt he’s a rookie to watch.
Outlook: Keep an eye on him once he gets healthy. I think he’ll be out too long to be seriously considered for Rookie of the Year, but I have no doubt that he’ll have a great rookie season with the Jazz.
Yet another rookie guard who’ll be sitting on the bench, sadly. McCollum broke his foot in training camp & as a result, has been “indefinitely” sidelined. Prior to this injury, though, he was certainly a front-runner for Rookie of the Year. When a player averages 23.9 PPG (with 5 rebounds & 2.9 assists) & 49.5% FG, 51.6% 3P, & 84.9% FT, it’s hard not to take notice. He’s more or less a total package. He’s big, he’s buff, he’s aggressive. But he’s also not sloppy with his body–he knows how to be right there when he’s on defense. The only thing that holds McCollum back (besides the broken foot) is the fact that he’s barely come close to playing anything that even resembles competition for him. There were a couple of NCAA games that challenged him a bit, but really, he slid through his career at Lehigh without confronting much toughness. At this point, the only thing that could make McCollum more ready is simply experience at the NBA level. Whenever he gets that experience, he’ll be explosive.
Outlook: Wait with baited breath for McCollum to return to the game. He won’t disappoint, but will be out too long to call him a frontrunner for Rookie of the Year, sadly.
5 Other Rookies You Should Watch (Regardless of ROTY Contention):
11. Michael Carter-Williams (Philadelphia 76ers / Syracuse): My very favorite rookie. I’m a Syracuse fanatic, & have spent entirely too much time hyping Carter-Williams. He plays like a classic PG, is perfect in size, & is insanely athletic. In terms of getting in there & stealing the ball, Carter-Williams is a monster, averaging three steals per game in his last season with the Orange. The problem, though, is that he led the NCAA in turnovers. He is straight up not good at keeping hold of the ball, usually because he gets ahead of himself on the court. If he can learn to handle the ball better & polish his jumper (which is solidly mediocre right now), he’ll have a good future. The fact that he’s going to be expected to shine for the Sixers this year will give him the benefit of a lot of playing time, which might just serve as the polishing opportunity that he needs.
13. Kelly Olynyk (Boston Celtics / Gonzaga): In the NBA Rookie survey, Olynyk was voted as the player who’ll have the longest NBA career (tied with Victor Oladipo). I completely agree with this vote–I think we’ll be talking about Olynyk for a long time. He’s gigantic, but he has the brains to go with the brawn, as well as having a fantastic jumper that he’s not afraid to use. His weakness right now is his apparent hesitation on defense–to the point where he sometimes seems to deliberately avoid getting in there & mixing it up. He played well this summer & seems poised, as a very coachable player, to only continue getting better.
14. Shabazz Muhammad (Minnesota Timberwolves / UCLA): Muhammad is also one of my very favorite rookies. I loved watching him play at UCLA. As a T-Wolves fan, I’m glad that Muhammad fell to us, but his skillset makes the most sense at small forward–a position where the Wolves already have approximately 624 players. With the potential, though, for Chase Budinger to be sitting for the majority of the season, Muhammad has a chance to see more playing time than he otherwise would have. When that playing time is alongside someone who can pass the ball as well as Ricky Rubio can, it would be a mistake to ignore Muhammad at this point. I’d like to consider him a dark horse for Rookie of the Year, but if I did that, I’d probably be jinxing it.
17. Dennis Schroeder (Atlanta Hawks / Germany): He’s fast, he’s a strong ball handler, & he’s athletic as hell. His ability to visualize the court as a whole is certainly an asset, whereas his tendency to get pushed around a bit due to his size is not. The fact that he’s a great three-point shooter helps improve his stock further, even though he’ll be playing on a team that already has a primary PG. He won’t be in consideration for Rookie of the Year, but is worth watching nonetheless. Once he gets used to the style of defense he’ll be facing, I would put money on him being able to utilize his crazy wingspan to his (& his team’s) advantage.
24. Tim Hardaway, Jr. (New York Knicks / Michigan): Tim Jr. scores. That’s it. And that’s okay because he’s so damn good at it. From the perimeter, from the basket, from anywhere, he shoots. Handling the ball, he’s good. Athletically, he’s good. Height-wise, he’s good. The thing about Hardaway is that’s where he’s sitting: good. We’ve seen him have the potential to be an explosive player (see: last year’s national title game), but that doesn’t really happen very often. I like him because he knows the game (see: his dad) & he plays the game well, but he quite simply needs to A] put on some bulk & B] loosen up. He’s one of those guys who has a tendency to look incredibly stiff & upright when he plays. This, paired with his lanky legs, is a formula for injury. He’s not going to be in Rookie of the Year contention, but if he keeps working hard at the game (which he’s shown he’s willing & able to do), I think he has the potential to play an integral role on any team down the road.