This is the second installment of our 2011 NBA Awards coverage. Click here to read about the MVP award. Our thoughts on the NBA Most Improved Player of the Year will be posted Monday.
The Rookie of the Year award has long been a prestigious and illustrious honor and has been bestowed upon many future All-Stars and Hall of Famers. Previous winners include all-time greats like Jordan, Larry Bird and Kareem and current MVP candidates Derrick Rose and Kevin Durant. Then again, the award by no means guarantees later success. While former winners like Mike Miller, Darrell Griffith and Damon Stoudamire have enjoyed nice careers, none of them ever emerged into real stars. With that in mind, let’s dive into this year’s crop:
1). Blake Griffin (LAC) – One of the best athletes at the power forward position the game has ever seen, Griffin has wowed fans with jaw-dropping dunks and insane finishes. What separates Griffin is that, unlike many young leapers, he is far from just a SportsCenter highlight.
As a rookie (he missed last season with a broken kneecap), Griffin has averaged over 22 points and 12 rebounds a game -- and has been every bit the defender and active body he was at Oklahoma. The comparisons to Amar’e Stoudemire in terms of playing style and shot making ability, although lofty, are fair.
Blessed with a rare feel for the game and unusual grasp of footwork and touch, the 6-foot-10-inch pivot is both agile and tricky in the post. He’s extremely quick, but never in a hurry. One of his better moves, the up-and-under, is a great example of his patience. The player has to sell the up fake and get the defender into the air, and wait to proceed to step through for the shot or dunk. For a rookie to have such composure is very uncommon.
Event though he is a deft shooter out to 12 feet, Griffin in no way follows the trend of young bigs being perimeter-oriented drifters. He still needs to improve his range and must increase his free throw percentage (64.5), but those problems are fixable. He loves to bang and create his offense on the block using his increasingly effective arsenal of tools and is an excellent running partner on the fast break. The obvious reason why transition game is so good is because he’s so athletic and powerful, but his real gift is his extremely soft hands -- he literally catches everything, albeit on the ground or in the air. Still just 22 years old, Griffin is just getting started and will be a superstar for years to come.
2). John Wall (Washington) – Brimming with confidence since the day he set foot in the league, Wall is a special talent that doesn’t come along very often. With his size, unrelenting end-to-end speed and playmaking ability, he’s everything you want in a lead guard.
But, Wall is still very immature and has trouble harnessing his speed and staying composed for a full game -- which makes for lots of turnovers and classic rookie mistakes. To be fair, this could stem from the simple fact that he’s always been athletic enough to get away with it. That aside, it’s hard to discredit all of the good things Wall has done even under such immense pressure as the Wizards so-called franchise savior.
He has also dramatically improved his ability to finish at the basket -- using a nice floater and pull up game -- especially in the half court, during the season. We’ve all seen his full court forays to the basket, so the real challenge was for him to convert scoring opportunities when he didn’t have the advantage of a running start.
Aside from his natural talent, Wall’s intangibles have seen a considerable jolt, namely in his defensive fire and desire to make his teammates better. His operation of the pick-and-roll is improving, as is his general feel for when to dish and when to score once he reaches the paint. His 8.6 assists per game is good for sixth in the league, and one of the best rookie averages of all time -- a number better, in fact, than those of current greats Jason Kidd, Chris Paul and Deron Williams, as well as all-timers like Magic Johnson, John Stockton and Isiah Thomas. Further, using his size, length and quickness, Wall has also developed into a menacing defensive pest and a terrific guard rebounder.
With his already impressive 16.2 points per game, it’s reasonable to understand the comparisons to Derrick Rose, another speed demon (and John Calipari disciple) who entered the league with a shaky j.
3). Landry Fields (New York) – It’s hard to think that Fields fell to the second round in June’s draft. While not a superior talent or athlete, the four-year Stanford forward is truly a jack of all trades that does everything well, but nothing great.
The 6-7 Fields is a menacing defender and ace rebounder who could remain an effective player in the league even without any sort of offensive game. A starter for most of his rookie season, he has been Mike D’Antoni’s most consistent defensive weapon in that he can guard two and sometimes even three positions. While Fields doesn’t have the ceiling of Wall or Griffin, he has all of the tools to become a really solid starter at the NBA level. Think of him as a 2-3 version of Marc Gasol for Memphis; a young guy who you can plug in the lineup for years to come and know you’re going to get quality play every night, a key reason why GM Donnie Walsh refused to include him in the Carmelo Anthony deal.
Even more so than Griffin, he has a mature feel for the game. Unselfish and intelligent, he plays like a 10-year vet with his spate of passes, deflections and overall maturity. The next step for Fields is improving his offensive repertoire -- right now he doesn’t finish well in the lane and doesn’t fully use his size. All of this means he needs to improve his footwork. Not just getting quicker, but learning how to post up more and utilize the pull-up jumper. He is already a really good outside shooter with a sound and compact stroke, so the framework is certainly there, but his no frills consistency is a wonderful sign moving forward.
Bonus -- Three underrated rooks nobody talks about but are worth watching for:
Paul George (Indiana) – Overcame a rough start this season to show flashes of his colossal talent. In time, he should become a big-time scorer and solid No. 2 option, resulting in a strong wing nucleus with Danny Granger. George could also make Granger expendable if he continues to develop his offensive game. He recently tallied a career-high 23 points in helping the Pacers clinch its first playoff spot in five years. Best Case: Danny Granger
Greg Monroe (Detroit) – Not a super athlete but Monroe is a very skilled big man who can be the cornerstone of the franchise at the four spot if he continues to work. He is progressing offensively and is a splendid passer along with aggressive rebounder. All is not lost in Auburn Hills. Best Case: Better Brad Miller
Patrick Patterson (Houston) – A beastly rebounder who always competes, Patterson displayed real promise as a starter when Luis Scola went down. After a sub-par start to his career which included a D-League stint, Patterson showed enough promise to suggest he can be a bona fide energy big off the bench, or perhaps even a backline starter. Best Case: Brandon Bass
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