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January 28, 2009
The Rookie Challenge
Choosing Up Sides

by Kevin Pelton

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You may know the NBA's Rookie Challenge as the All-Star Weekend event that makes the All-Star Game look like Game Seven of the NBA Finals in terms of intensity. Somewhere along the way, the league's rookies and sophomores deciding putting on a good show was way, way ahead of playing competitive basketball in terms of importance. Naturally, the selection process doesn't receive quite the same scrutiny as does its All-Star counterpart. So while I want to use this column to make my picks for the top rookies and sophomores, the more important purpose is to offer a status check on the development of the league's top youngsters at the midway point of their first or second seasons.

In addition to the bottom-line stats, I'll ground this discussion by calculating similarity scores for notable first- and second-year players and taking a look at what the lists of comparable players portend for the future. Let's start with the numbers in terms of Wins Above Replacement Player. I've ranked every second-year player who has been worth at least one win compared to replacement level and some other notables; with the rookies, it's the top 19 in terms of value, plus Michael Beasley.

SOPHOMORES   Tm   Win%  WARP      ROOKIES       Tm   Win%  WARP

Durant      OKC   .540   4.5      Love         MIN   .583   3.5
Horford     ATL   .556   3.2      Westbrook    OKC   .519   3.0
Stuckey     DET   .534   3.1      Lopez        NJN   .523   3.0
Noah        CHI   .590   3.0      Oden         POR   .575   2.9
Sessions    MIL   .549   2.9      Gasol        MEM   .520   2.8
Landry      HOU   .542   2.6      Speights     PHI   .600   2.4
Scola       HOU   .507   2.5      Fernandez    POR   .502   2.0
Moon        TOR   .517   2.4      Rose         CHI   .468   1.8
Wright      GSW   .570   1.7      Mbah a Moute MIL   .474   1.5
Gortat      ORL   .600   1.1      Chalmers     MIA   .468   1.5
Green       OKC   .446   1.0      McGee        WAS   .543   1.4
Watson      GSW   .457   1.0      Hibbert      IND   .564   1.3
Hawes       SAC   .446   0.7      Morrow       GSW   .504   1.3
Conley      MEM   .438   0.5      Mayo         MEM   .447   1.1
Young       PHI   .423   0.2      Koufos       UTA   .509   1.0
Yi          NJN   .423   0.1      Hill         SAS   .475   0.9
Belinelli   GSW   .402  -0.2      Thompson     SAC   .450   0.8
Chandler    NYK   .394  -0.6      Augustin     CHA   .447   0.7
Young       WAS   .377  -0.8      Gordon       LAC   .436   0.6
Thornton    LAC   .383  -1.1      Beasley      MIA   .426   0.2

My selections won't be based entirely on the stats. Obviously there's an element of potential here as well. Who would you rather watch in the Rookie Challenge: Eric Gordon or Anthony Morrow? Still, expect my picks to lean more toward production than the actual selections to be revealed sometime this week.

SOPHOMORES

Guards - Kevin Durant, Oklahoma City; Rodney Stuckey, Detroit; Ramon Sessions, Milwaukee

Although Durant's takeoff in his second season has had something to do with his move from shooting guard to small forward, he'll have to return to guard for one night because of an imbalance in the sophomore talent. To the extent Durant's December turnaround flew under the radar elsewhere, it's been impossible to miss his enormous January--27.1 points and 8.6 rebounds per game with a 60.5 percent True Shooting Percentage. Yikes. The only real concern is that Scott Brooks might be running the slight Durant into the ground by playing him 39.3 minutes per night (third in the league). The obvious comparison for Durant (Carmelo Anthony) shows up second in similarity. No. 1? Kobe Bean Bryant. Double yikes.

Stuckey's rapid ascent was confirmed when Michael Curry never considered benching Stuckey to resolve the Pistons' imbalanced lineup; the choice was strictly between Richard Hamilton and Allen Iverson. The big change in Stuckey's game is that he's started finishing much more regularly at the rim, enabling him to shoot 47.1 percent from the field, up from 40.1 percent as a rookie. The next steps are adding three-point range and refining his passer/distributor balance. A surprising number of his comps are shooting guards, but the drive-and-finish point guards on the list (Tony Parker, Devin Harris) seem to herald his most likely future.

All-Star Weekend could be the start of a coming-out party for Sessions over the second half of the season, assuming he seizes the opportunity to play alongside Luke Ridnour in the backcourt now that Michael Redd is done for the year with a torn ACL. Sessions gets some of the same comps as Stuckey (Harris scoring as by far the closest match), but the list is tempered by point guards who failed to pan out, like Winston Garland.

Forwards - Luis Scola, Houston; Jeff Green, Oklahoma City; Carl Landry, Houston; Jamario Moon, Toronto

The Rockets get a pair of power forwards on the roster. Scola, 28 going on 29, is what he is--a nice complementary big man. Landry's future is more interesting. Might he be the next Paul Millsap in a bigger role? I'm somewhat dubious, in part because of his age--Landry missed a year with a torn ACL at Purdue and is ancient for a second-year player. His list of comparables lacks guys who truly broke out, other than maybe Chris Wilcox, though there are Nick Collison-types who served competently as starters.

Green has taken enormous strides after a wildly unimpressive rookie season in terms of efficiency. He's still rated below average, but heading in the right direction by improving his accuracy on both twos and threes. As befitting a player still looking for a position, his comps are all over the board, led by Keith Van Horn. Not far behind is my subjective pick, Derrick McKey--like Green a versatile player capable of manning either forward spot. They even share a tendency to favor the left hand around the bucket.

The selection of Moon might surprise some Toronto fans, as he's in the midst of an up-and-down season. There's slim pickings at forward, as the bigger names (Yi Jianlian, Thaddeus Young and Al Thornton) have been unimpressive. I'm particularly disappointed by Young, who was key to Philadelphia's second-half surge last year. 82games.com doesn't indicate Young has played much better at power forward, where he saw most of his minutes last year, so maybe this is just an old-fashioned sophomore slump.

Centers - Al Horford, Atlanta; Joakim Noah, Chicago

The Florida duo reunites in the pivot for the sophomore squad. Even in his second season, it feels like Horford has been around forever and we know exactly what to expect from him--high-percentage scores in the paint, rebounds, blocked shots...pretty much everything you can ask of a big man. His most similar players are equally solid while not spectacular; it's a group epitomized by Brian Grant. Noah's potential is more enigmatic, as is his playing time. He was perfectly cast as the face of his Florida squad, while Horford was relatively in the background. That enabled Horford an easy transition to a similar role in the NBA, while Noah must adjust to the fact that his energetic personality comes off differently as a young player fighting for playing time than it did as a star in college.

ROOKIES

Guards - Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City; Derrick Rose, Chicago; O.J. Mayo, Memphis; Eric Gordon, L.A. Clippers

Westbrook's transition to the NBA fascinates me. I watched him on a regular basis when he was at UCLA, and I liked his chance to become a solid point guard who would stand out at the defensive end. Never would I have imagined that Westbrook would become the third-leading rookie scorer or that his list of comparable players would feature names like Mike Bibby, Gilbert Arenas and (a young, sane) Stephon Marbury. In fact, the list is the exact same top 10 as comes up for Rose, albeit in a slightly different order (the two players are almost exactly the same age even though Westbrook spent two years in college). Westbrook should be considered a very real contender to win Rookie of the Year and a future All-Star whether he settles in at point or off guard. Give Sam Presti credit for seeing what virtually all of the rest of us missed.

Since starting the season on fire, Mayo has cooled (coincidentally at the same time Kevin Love has picked up his game, quieting the talk of the Grizzlies dominating the draft-night trade). In fairness, his numbers are slightly hampered in my system because it assumes based on Mayo's statistics that nearly half of his made shots come off of assists; in fact the number is 38 percent. Mayo is a more unique player than I think is generally acknowledged; who else comes into the league firing up (and making) long twos and threes so frequently? The only comp who comes even close is a young Bryant, yet Kobe was the far better all-around player at the same age. I'm not sure this exercise really gives me any additional clarity on where Mayo goes from here.

Gordon also proves difficult for my similarity system, which settles on...Ron Artest? The upside of Gordon's game, as seen during the last month or so, is his ability to score with threes and free throws--the two most efficient shots in the game. The downside is he's yet to contribute a whole lot else, at least statistically. That's a description that seems to apply best to Kevin Martin amongst players of recent vintage. The strong January play and upside get Gordon in over Mario Chalmers and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, who both rate as more valuable over the course of the season.

Forwards - Kevin Love, Minnesota; Rudy Fernandez, Portland

After a slow start, Love seems to be figuring it out and has--as projected based on his college stats--become the most valuable rookie by WARP. Granting that the numbers fail to appropriately account for his defensive issues, Love has been brilliant as a rebounder and is finishing better in the paint. The difference in shot-blocking and length between the NCAA and the NBA is often one of the biggest adjustments for rookies, especially players like Love who rely on positioning. All of that makes it somewhat challenging to read much into the fact that the lone players who score as similar to Love are athletic freaks Amar'e Stoudemire and Dwight Howard. The results are similar, the methods very different.

I'm much fonder of the comparables for Fernandez. Number one is Reggie Miller, and while Fernandez has a long ways to go to reach Miller's heights, you can certainly see the similarity in terms of their ability to shoot from distance and get free away from the ball. Even their builds are closely matched. Because his game is dependent on the three and his minutes fluctuate, Fernandez is bound to be wildly inconsistent. When he is on, the Blazers are very difficult to beat--he shoots 43.0 percent from three in wins, 33.3 percent in losses.

Centers - Brook Lopez, New Jersey; Greg Oden, Portland; Marc Gasol, Memphis

This is a terrific class of young big men. Most years Marreese Speights would be a lock for the Rookie Challenge, and even JaVale McGee, Roy Hibbert and Kosta Koufos have been effective in limited playing time. Still growing into his offense, Lopez has been excellent as a rebounder and shot-blocker. Let's just hope that he is more motivated than top comparable Benoit Benjamin--which isn't exactly setting the bar high--and continues to develop.

As maybe the most scrutinized rookie ever, Oden has at long last settled in and is offering more regular glimpses of what lies ahead. After the initial concern about Oden's plus-minus, the Blazers are now better with Oden on the floor, which is saying something given how well backup Joel Przybilla has played this season. The last major obstacle for Oden to overcome is moving his feet defensively to avoid picking up cheap fouls on the perimeter, as he still spends too much time in foul trouble. Because Oden's usage is still relatively low, his most similar player comes out as Andris Biedrins. That obviously understates Oden's offensive potential.

Rounding out the Spanish contingent is Gasol, who has quietly had a very nice rookie season (as I wrote about not long ago). In a perfectly fair world, Gasol would be getting some talk as a darkhorse MVP candidate. His set of comparables is better than I would imagine, given that Gasol is nearly 24. Chris Kaman tops the list, which also includes big men with passing touch like Brad Daugherty and Jack Sikma. The only unfortunate news is that Gasol does not score as particularly similar to his brother Pau because of Pau's big advantage in usage rate and slight advantages elsewhere.

What about everyone else? For more rookie similarity scores, including Beasley, stay tuned to the Basketball Prospectus: Unfiltered blog.

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

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