Friday, December 19, 2008

Most Important Rookie

At the conclusion of the regular season, the NBA will hand out its Rookie of the Year award. Unlike the league’s Most Valuable Player, the award is not necessarily predicated on team success, but on a combination of outstanding statistics and the player’s impact, both on his team as well as on the league. The field for this season’s ROY award has already been narrowed dramatically- with the Chicago Bulls Derrick Rose and O.J. Mayo of the Memphis Grizzlies leading the race, and Michael Beasley of the Miami Heat also with a chance.

However, in any given year, the NBA’s Rookie of the Year is not necessarily the league’s Most Important Rookie. Very rarely does a ROY winner play for a title contender; often times, the ROY doesn’t even make the playoffs. Most important Rookie is an interesting concept to consider, as statistics, while still somewhat important, take a backseat to these criteria:

Team outlook- What is the team playing for? If even making the playoffs is a pipe dream, the significance of a rookie’s contribution is diminished, as the team would have been lottery-bound with or without him (sorry O.J.!). Any rookie making vital contributions to a playoff run earns big MIR points; big bonus for any rookie that contributes to a title contender.

Playing time- In addition to the obvious measure of average minutes per game, late-game minutes are particularly significant. It’s noteworthy any time a rookie on a quality team is trusted by his coach to be on the floor in the game’s vital moments. Production in these situations is especially key.

Significance on the depth chart- Even if a rookie earns significant minutes on a quality team, there is generally at least one veteran that can be relied upon if needed. A rookie that fills an important role for team with little or no veteran insurance behind, be it because of injury or the implicit trust of his coach, must be considered an MIR candidate.

Based on this criteria, a group of this year’s rookies must be considered for Most Important Rookie. Here is a ranking of the NBA’s top 5 Most Important Rookies, along with a pair of rookies that didn’t make the list, but are certainly deserving of honorable mentions:

Greg Oden (C, Portland Trailblazers)- He is starting for likely playoff team, but Greg Oden is still getting his NBA bearings. While he’s put up decent numbers (8 ppg, 8 rpg, 1.4 bpg, 51% FG), he has yet to consistently avoid foul trouble and earn the big minutes that will make him an impact player. Looking at Oden’s minutes, he often not on the floor at the end of the Blazers’ games, either due to foul trouble or ineffectiveness, with Joel Przybilla usually getting the nod. Oden’s had more games in December (4) with under 20 minutes played than he has with 30+ (3). With all of that said, Oden’s already a solid big man, and he’s developing. Expect him to climb when this list is revisited later in the season.

Courtney Lee (SG, Orlando Magic)- Very quietly, the Magic have posted a 20-6 record to start the season, and find themselves just four games behind the white-hot Boston Celtics and a game-and-a-half behind the Cleveland Cavaliers. The Magic are two-deep at the point guard and have Superman in the middle, but have far less room for error at the “2” and “3” positions, with Hedo Turkoglu, Mickael Pietrus, Keith Bogans and Lee holding down the fort. With Pietrus, Orlando’s starting SG, sidelined for the past 10 games with a thumb injury, Lee has seen his role, and his value on the depth chart, grow. In December, his minutes have nearly doubled (23.7 v. 12 in November), his scoring has quadrupled (9.6 v. 2.4), and Lee is averaging just one turnover a game, while averaging 1.4 steals (2+ in 5 of the last 9 games).

#5 Brook Lopez (C, New Jersey Nets)- On the surprising Nets, Lopez has been a very pleasant surprise. Less than two months into his pro career, Lopez has established himself as the Nets’ top big man. In 24 games, he’s averaged 9.9 ppg, 7.4 rpg (2.6 orpg) and 1.9 bpg, in 27.3 minutes; those numbers climb to 12 ppg, 8.5 rpg (3.3 orpg) and 2.3 bpg in 31 minutes in the 16 games he's started. The Nets do have a couple of other options at the center position (Josh Boone, Sean Wlliams), but neither has been nearly as effective as Lopez. If the Nets, who at 12-12 are tied with Miami for #6 in the Eastern Conference, can keep up this level of play, Lopez will have the chance to play a big role in a playoff race, which would bump him up on this list.

#4 Rudy Fernandez (SG, Portland Trailblazers)- Fernandez is not only one of the NBA’s most popular rookies, he’s been the offensive spark for the Blazers’ second unit all season, and is the only true backup to Brandon Roy. Rudy has scored in double figures in 18 of Portland’s 27 games, and is averaging 10.9 ppg on just 8.2 field goal attempts a night, thanks large part to making 40.1% of his 3-pointers and 93% of his free throws. Fernandez promises to be a consistent double-digit scorer all season, and is also capable of putting up 25-30 points on any given night. With the Trailblazers likely to be fighting for a division title and a top-3 seed in West, Rudy will be asked to play a big role.

#3 Mario Chalmers (PG, Miami Heat)- Chalmers has been Miami’s starting point guard, playing alongside Dwyane Wade, from Day 1, and has yet to play fewer than 24 minutes in a pro game. In 24 NBA games, Chalmers is averaging 10.1 ppg, 4.3 apg, 2 spg (44.4% FG; 37.4% 3-pt) for the Heat, who at 12-12 are currently tied New Jersey for #6 in the East and figure to contend for a playoff spot at season’s end. As he gets more NBA reps, Chalmers should develop into an excellent lead guard- he’s already well on his way. A durable, experienced PG, with a championship track record in college- on a better team, Chalmers would easily be #2, and receive strong consideration for #1.

#2 George Hill (PG, San Antonio Spurs)- Simply put, Hill is San Antonio’s best option at the point behind Tony Parker, and he’s already shown what he can do. Hill was called into action in just his fifth pro game, when Tony Parker was injured in Miami. Hill had only seen the floor in two of his first four games, for 26 total minutes. Hill stepped up big over the next 12 games, averaging 26 minutes, 11.8 ppg, 3.6 rpg, 3.5 apg and just 1.4 TO/g, as the Spurs won eight of twelve to close out the month of November, with Tim Duncan the only healthy member of their “Big Three”. In the Spurs’ 15 victories, Hill has averaged 10.9 ppg (v. 6.6 in losses), 3.8 rpg (v. 1.6), 3.7 apg (v. 1.4) and just 1.1 TO/g. As one might predict, with Parker back healthy, Hill’s numbers have dropped off, but he’s only an injury away from being called back into action.

#1 Derrick Rose (PG, Chicago Bulls)- Not only is Derrick Rose the Bulls’ best rookie, he is the best player, period. Frankly, Rose, who’s started every game for Chicago this season, doesn’t really seem like a rookie. Rose has the Chris Paul-like quality of being able to play the game at a speed that no one can match, but doing so with control. Rose’s stats aren’t too shabby either- he’s averaging 17.6 ppg (4.8 in the 4th quarter), 3.8 rpg and 6.4 apg in nearly 40 minutes a night! In the Bulls’ 12 victories, Rose’s numbers have been even better, as he’s averaged 19.2 ppg, 3.8 rpg, 7 apg, 1.5 spg and just 2 TO/g, shot better than 51% from the field. With the Bulls (12-13) currently #8, a logjam forming for the final three playoff spots in the East, and the injury to Kirk Hinrich, the point guard position, and the fate of his team’s season, will depend entirely on Rose.

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