Revisiting the overlooked rookies
By Rob Mahoney
In November, I took a first look at the performance of the 2012 rookie class beyond No. 1 pick Anthony Davis and headline-stealing standout Damian Lillard, who, up to that point, had eclipsed the rest of the first-year field. With the season almost complete, it’s time to check in on the development of that same group. (Note: The 15 prospects below have been chosen solely by sample size, as they have logged the most minutes of all first-year players besides Lillard and Davis. For more on Davis, click here. For Ben Golliver’s recent assessment of the Rookie of the Year race, click here.)
PROSPECTS IN PROGRESS
Bradley Beal, Washington Wizards
Many have run headfirst into the infamous rookie wall over the last few months, but Beal had the misfortune of scaling that obstacle at the start of the season. His shooting underwhelmed, his ball-handling proved unproductive and his short-handed team provided little in the way of help or respite. A player’s first year in the NBA is always something of an education, but the lessons came early and often for the 19-year-old and the utterly miserable Wizards.
Yet when the calendar year flipped, so too did Beal’s shooting. The woeful shooting marks that aptly summarized the No. 3 pick’s first few NBA months took a sharp trend for the better, and he has averaged 17.2 points per 36 minutes with 47.8 percent shooting from beyond the arc since Jan. 1 (he’s played only five games in March because of injury). That’s the highest three-point percentage in the league over that three-month stretch among players who attempt as many threes as Beal does, exceeded only by choosy, wide-open spot-up types like Jose Calderon and Wayne Ellington.
It’s easy to credit Beal’s overnight jump in shooting efficiency to the return of John Wall, and the timing for that theory does line up rather perfectly. But Beal is actually shooting an incredible 48.2 percent on three-pointers without Wall in the game over that same stretch of the season, and he’s doing really tidy offensive work overall regardless of whether he’s sharing the court with Washington’s speedy dribble penetrator.
That said, there’s no doubt that having Wall around is a huge benefit to Beal’s offensive game, in large part because the Wizards’ offense is now in the hands of a more capable creator. Beal no longer needs to loiter at the top of the floor in case the off-the-dribble work of Garrett Temple or A.J. Price breaks down; he can simply run his curls, retreat to the corners (where he’ shooting a jaw-dropping 59.2 percent in the new year) and play the part of a true off-guard.
On top of that, coach Randy Wittman has begun to engineer some interesting high-post pick-and-roll sets around Beal, who tends to make poised reads from the teeth of the defense. He shouldn’t be dropped into a role as a high-frequency creator anytime soon, but in select situations Beal can make sound plays out of limited space.
Dion Waiters, Cleveland Cavaliers
Nothing about Waiters’ game has fundamentally changed over the last few months, but he’s showing some subtle signs of growth that bode well for his aggressive scoring style. I detailed a few of those signs earlier this month, and unfortunately Waiters has played only about half of the Cavs’ games in March because of a knee injury. A bad break for a young, improving player.
Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Charlotte Bobcats
MKG had a rough January and February, a characteristic of most rookies, but otherwise has played more or less up to expectation in his first season. He’s about as raw offensively as a top-two pick can be, but that was expected. No one in the Bobcats’ front office was under the impression that they were drafting a finished product, as evidenced by the fact that Charlotte began reworking Kidd-Gilchrist’s jumper at the earliest possible juncture. Thus began a rather deliberate process of building up an offensive skill set from scratch — a necessity for a player who is essentially incapable of scoring anywhere outside of the immediate basket area:
To Kidd-Gilchrist’s credit, he has no delusions about his game. Most catches are followed in short order by an attempt to drive, and he remains particularly committed to attacking the basket on the secondary break and in all quasi-transition situations. He also does an outstanding job of making himself available on cuts without interfering with the spacing of a teammate’s drive — a talent that often puts MKG (No. 14) around the rim at the perfect time:
Those kinds of openings are just what Kidd-Gilchrist needs to put up points. He just doesn’t have enough variation in his work off the dribble to get all the way to the basket, and his speed can only take him so far.
Unsurprisingly, Kidd-Gilchrist is much further along on the defensive end, where he does an amazingly consistent job of contesting jump shooters without fouling. Because of his quickness and anticipation, Kidd-Gilchrist is able to guard players more closely than most, trimming the gap to close on a potential pull-up. As a result, MKG often needs only to step in slightly and extend vertically, an unusually flat-footed technique that allows him to influence shots without biting on pump fakes.
Andrew Nicholson, Orlando Magic
The Magic’s rotation was somewhat crowded earlier in the season, but various absences in the lineup — and the downward tilt of Orlando’s season — have opened opportunities for the most underrated rookie in this year’s class. Nicholson’s game is about as unsexy as it could possibly be, fueled largely by patient footwork and glitz-less set shots. But in that aesthetically neutral style is something legitimately exciting, as Nicholson, the 19th pick last year, has put together a solid scoring season in the post and as a pick-and-pop big man.
He’s not quite strong enough to grapple for position inside on a full-time basis or to contend on the boards as well as he should, but Nicholson creates value as one of the best rookie shot creators and an impressively efficient shooter. Nicholson’s 44.7 percent shooting on mid-range jumpers puts him squarely in Kevin Garnett territory. Though his defensive game leaves something to be desired, Nicholson has the quick feet necessary to eventually become a pretty successful team defender.
Harrison Barnes, Golden State Warriors
Barnes does a few things on offense very well. He’s capable of shooting from select spots on the perimeter, prime for selective usage in the post against smaller defenders and decent at counter-driving from the weak-side wing. Otherwise, things are a bit dicey. Barnes may have built his rep on his ability to create and convert intermediate jumpers, but against NBA defenders this season he has hit just 29.3 percent of his mid-range tries. That’s a pretty pitiful number, though not one that’s ultimately all that concerning given Barnes’ fairly narrow role and modicum of success in other areas.
As I noted in my initial evaluation of Barnes’ game, I’m much more impressed with where he stands defensively. It’s not easy for a first-year player to achieve even defensive competence, but Barnes has been a truly solid individual and team defender for the Warriors. Here’s a quick glimpse of his defensive play (No. 40), with particular emphasis on his activity level:
Barnes is quick enough laterally to avoid blow-bys and long enough to recover in time to contest pull-up jumpers when he opts to guard a drive more conservatively. That balance comes into play even more often off the ball: Barnes has a helpful tendency to shade toward ball handlers on his side of the floor, though he does so without overcommitting and generally manages to recover in time to contest or prevent any potential shot. That’s a tough balance for a first-year player to grasp, and though Barnes hasn’t mastered it entirely, he does a fairly good job of crowding a ball-handler by lingering in their peripheral vision.
He also does a pretty solid job of rotating into the lane from the corner or wing when Andrew Bogut or David Lee move to help, but naturally he still has some tightening to do in terms of his timing and positioning in those situations. A sound start still, and a good defensive foundation for Barnes to work from as he finds his offensive game.
Austin Rivers, New Orleans Hornets
A season-ending hand injury in early March upended the first remotely successful stretch of Rivers’ season. Truly a rough break, and unfortunately one that may have disturbed Rivers’ developmental momentum. Even after picking his spots and finishing more effectively in the lead-up to his injury, Rivers still had — and has — quite a ways to go before looking the part of a viable rotation player.
WORTHY ROTATION TYPES
Tyler Zeller, Cleveland Cavaliers
I still believe that Zeller will be a successful pro, but the No. 17 pick is in the midst of a pretty underwhelming season. His capacity to score is largely reliant on mid-range jumpers, but he shoots a disappointing 32.9 percent on those bread-and-butter attempts. His offensive rebounding has been solid, but overall he’s merely decent on the glass — good enough to avoid hurting his team, but not much of a net positive. He does a fine job of slipping screens for quick jumpers and sneaky cuts to the rim, but he’s so accustomed to springing quickly that he doesn’t actually make good contact on his screens. There just isn’t much in Zeller’s offensive game to really like, though he has the potential to refine some aspects and become a more helpful player.
Defensively, the Cavs have Zeller playing back a few steps when defending the pick-and-roll, a reasonable decision given his marginal athleticism. But that positioning makes him especially vulnerable to stretchy, shooting big men. Zeller makes an earnest effort to close out on those kinds of pick-and-pop options, but it’s tough for any big man to cover that kind of ground in a short span. That leaves Zeller in a bit of a middle ground; he’s neither big enough nor an impressive enough rebounder to battle a lot of interior bigs, but he’s just a half-step shy of really being able to defend the more perimeter-oriented options. Offseason training and the natural improvement of his game will help make his work against both types more manageable, but as it stands, Zeller isn’t providing Cleveland much value on either end of the court.
Kyle Singler, Detroit Pistons
Singler ranks rather improbably as the leader in minutes played among rookies not named Damian Lillard largely because Detroit is so reliant on his off-ball movement and complementary shooting. He’s fallen off a touch since his strong start, but Singler remains a very solid spot-up option (38.2 percent on spot-up threes, per Synergy Sports Technology) worthy of immediate use as a role player. His inability to do much off the dribble makes him strictly a catch-and-shoot type, but he will pass the ball out and move on if he receives the ball in an unfavorable situation.
That deficit — also known as the J.J. Redick Corollary — should ultimately come to define Singler’s ceiling as an offensive player. Even without the ability to work off the dribble, Singler should have a nice run providing long- and mid-range support for teams in need of some floor spacing. Becoming a threat off the bounce (as Redick did gradually in Orlando) may be expecting too much of a player who will soon turn 25 (he spent four years at Duke and played last season in Spain after being the 33rd pick in 2011), but Singler’s NBA career is young and the Pistons may experiment with him in a variety of roles.
Brian Roberts, New Orleans Hornets
The undrafted Roberts is a relatively unknown 27-year-old rookie operating on one of the worst teams in the league, but he’s proved without a sliver of doubt that he’s a quality NBA player. That credibility starts in the high pick-and-roll, where Roberts brings an impressive variety to one of the NBA’s most basic sets. Even before he breaks down the defense, Roberts toys with an assortment of options — splitting defenders, darting around the screen, stringing out the defense by tracing the three-point line — as he navigates the sequence like an open question. From there, he has enough speed to beat help defenders to the rim on a fairly consistent basis, but generally opts for floaters and pull-up jumpers, both of which he hits with impressive consistency.
Roberts, who has played in Germany and Israel, isn’t a pure playmaker and has trouble keeping his man in front of him on defense. But Roberts — who, in his second career start, had 18 assists Monday when New Orleans snapped Denver’s 15-game winning streak — is an amazingly effective pick-and-roll specialist deserving of a reserve spot in a pick-and-roll league.
Jeff Taylor, Charlotte Bobcats
Some have rather lofty estimations of Taylor’s defensive work, and I can definitely see the appeal. He clearly understands where to be on the court, defends credibly without reaching when placed on the ball and is well-suited to defend a subset of players (taller, stronger shot creators) against whom it’s difficult to cross-match. I’m just not enamored enough with his work to regard him as anything other than a defensive prospect, and I remain unsure of how wide an application he may have as an NBA defender. Regardless, Taylor is a perfectly solid player for a coach like Mike Dunlap to have at his disposal.
Jae Crowder, Dallas Mavericks
Praise for Crowder’s energy level isn’t some obligatory nod to the intangible, but a necessary acknowledgement of his most compelling quality. His jumper is a work in progress and he still has trouble picking his spots to drive, but, for better or worse, the No. 34 pick in the 2012 draft is active and engaged at every turn, ready to fire off into a fast break or cut toward the rim without the slightest notice.
That roaring internal engine also makes Crowder an interesting defensive prospect, though for the moment his concern with helping can draw his attention to the ball and away from his man. He’ll reel in that defensive restlessness with time, and he has the chops — and strength — to be an effective helper off the wing for the Mavs in the long term.
THE QUESTION MARKS
Maurice Harkless, Orlando Magic
I like most of what I’ve seen from Harkless defensively, but he strikes me as a blank slate on offense. Magic coach Jacque Vaughn has had a solid first year, but what will he make of a wing player without much immediately redeemable offensive value (rebounding aside)?
Jonas Valanciunas, Toronto Raptors
A work in progress, and unfortunately a player to whom Raptors coach Dwane Casey doesn’t offer much slack. We know that Valanciunas isn’t quite ready for big-time NBA burn from a technical standpoint, but he has a knack for spacing and movement that could be harnessed in a really productive way. In the meantime, Valanciunas has definite and immediate value as a pick-and-roll finisher, though he’s still too unpredictable on defense to provide much stability.
Alexey Shved, Minnesota Timberwolves
Minnesota’s season has been so strange that it’s tough to know how Shved might fit in with a full cast of teammates. As it stands, he’s a little too loose with his handle and shot selection to be a big help to Rick Adelman, even if his passing makes for a great fit on such an unselfish team.
Terrence Ross, Toronto Raptors
I like Ross quite a bit as a long-term prospect, but there’s some work to be done before his most attractive NBA qualities (long-range shooting, defensive potential) come to bear fruit. He still needs to expand his ability to create quality shots if he’s ever going to be more than a volume shooter, because right now he’s too reliant on multiple screens and set-up passes to produce points.