Strong start for rookies; more observations from opening week
Several rookies -- many drafted late -- are making significant early contributions
With Kevin Garnett back, the Celtics already are showing midseason form
The Rockets are off to a nice start without Yao Ming and Tracy McGrady
The 2009 rookie class looks like it will provide more meaningful contributors than anticipated. Eleven first-year players have averaged more than 20 minutes per game during the first week of the season -- and that's without top pick Blake Griffin, who is sidelined with a kneecap injury.
It isn't just rebuilding teams stocking their lineups with rookies either. The Nuggets, who lost to the Lakers in last year's Western Conference finals, opened with three consecutive victories while deploying rookie point guard Ty Lawson both in relief of Chauncey Billups and alongside Mr. Big Shot in their backcourt. The Spurs, widely expected to mount the most serious challenge to the Lakers' conference supremacy, have second-round pick DeJuan Blair spelling veteran Tim Duncan for significant minutes as they gird for what they hope will be a grueling 100-plus-game season counting the playoffs.
The examples of Lawson and Blair demonstrate that even already successful franchises choosing late from a supposedly thin pool of talent can add a crucial component in their push for a championship. Not only do they provide welcome respite for grizzled cornerstone players like Billups and Duncan, but they also complement the surrounding personnel or shore up a glaring weakness. Lawson is an ideal catalyst for a Nuggets second unit that thrives in an up-tempo setting. And Blair, who led the NCAA in offensive rebounds last season, comes to a Spurs team that ranked last in that category last season. Don't be surprised if both players are logging meaningful minutes in second-round playoff action next spring.
Elsewhere, rookie point guards made a dramatic impact in the first week. A night after missing a triple-double by a single rebound and assist against Philadelphia, Brandon Jennings scored 24 points to lead the Bucks past the Pistons. The 6-foot-1 Jennings, who turned 20 six weeks ago, led the Bucks in minutes, scoring and assists and was even second in rebounds after three games. In Golden State, rookie Stephen Curry led the Warriors in minutes and assists, while point guard Jonny Flynn topped the Timberwolves in assists and ranked second in scoring. The Kings have flipped the keys to their offense to Tyreke Evans, who was second on the team in assists and third in scoring through the first week.
Another interesting point about this freshman crop is the contribution of so many late selections. Led by Lawson (the 18th pick) and Blair (37th), 10 of the top 20 rookies in minutes were chosen 18th or later, including Atlanta's Jeff Teague (19th), Sacramento's Omri Casspi (23rd) and Jon Brockman (38th), Chicago's Taj Gibson (26th), Minnesota's Wayne Ellington (28th), Memphis' Sam Young (36th) and Houston's Chase Budinger (44th).
Let's look at some other notable developments from the opening week:
The clear-cut ranking of the three top dogs in the Eastern Conference goes Boston, Orlando and then Cleveland. The Celtics are way ahead of every other franchise in terms of quality execution at both ends of the court. Kevin Garnett can't sky like he once did, but he still has enough elevation for his signature turnaround jumper in the left block. He also has regained the lateral skedaddle that anchors the Celtics' clampdown defense -- ask the Bobcats, downsized to 59 points by Boston in their season opener.
Beyond KG's health, the good news for the Celtics includes stellar play by lumbering big man Kendrick Perkins. His example was followed by well-traveled former lottery pick Shelden Williams, who reincarnated his potential by averaging 7.0 points and 6.5 rebounds in only 17.3 minutes in the Celtics' 4-0 start. This is Boston's 10th man?
The Magic's depth was likewise on display as they went unbeaten despite the suspension of Rashard Lewis and injuries to Vince Carter and Mickael Pietrus. It helps that J.J. Redick played with his college confidence while racking up 27 points against Toronto, and that Jason Williams looks able to provide solid backup at the point to Jameer Nelson, who was in last year's All-Star form to start the season. And they're rejoicing in Disneyland about Dwight Howard's 14-of-16 performance at the free-throw line against the Raptors.
In Cleveland, however, the Cavs have issues. Raise your hand if you expected Shaquille O'Neal and Zydrunas Ilgauskas -- not twin towers so much as a water tank and a silo -- to share the court for any time this season. Defending high pick-and-rolls and closing out on the wings remain sore spots, and the offense has been sputtering. Coach Mike Brown has sought more touches for guard Mo Williams, who scored 28 points in the Cavs' opening two losses and 44 in their subsequent two victories, and the return of Delonte West was an elixir in the win against Charlotte. But here's a harsh reality: The Cavs are minus-26 in the 36:39 LeBron James has been off the court.
Washington and Atlanta have reason to fantasize about joining the East's Big Three. The Wizards opened with a win at Dallas in which Andray Blatche came off the bench to score 20 points. Two games later, Blatche made 15-of-18 shots and hung 30 on the hapless Nets. Whether he can sustain the success bears watching. The 7-footer has been notoriously inconsistent his first four years in the league, and a significant portion of his points -- on 71.8 percent shooting -- has come from mid-range jumpers, which won't continue to swish as prolifically.
A more reliable bet is ongoing savvy from Blatche's frontcourt mate Fabricio Oberto, whose modest numbers belie his contributions to ball movement and team defense. Add fellow newcomers Randy Foye and Mike Miller (both off to strong starts) and the return of Brendan Haywood and Gilbert Arenas from injury, and the Wizards have an entire lineup's worth of firepower to overcome the loss of Antawn Jamison and (more temporarily) Caron Butler.
Atlanta handed Washington its first loss when the Hawks harassed Arenas into six first-half turnovers and blocked his shot five times -- four them by Al Horford, who has been magnificent so far. But the Hawks had a reality check against the Lakers on Sunday, when Joe Johnson erupted for 18 points in the game's first eight and a half minutes but managed only nine the rest of the way after L.A. softened him up with larger defenders such as Ron Artest and Lamar Odom.
Is there a more fun team to this point than the Rockets? Rick Adelman's selfless, opportunistic crew outhustled the Jazz in Utah on Monday for its third consecutive victory. Eight players scored in double figures in a reworked, Yao Ming-less offense that ranks behind only Boston and Orlando in assists. With backcourt mates Aaron Brooks and Trevor Ariza both averaging more than 20 points and second-round pick Chase Budinger sliding in nicely behind Shane Battier at small forward, one wonders if the return of Tracy McGrady -- shown on a video clip during a break in the action hopscotching stairs in a stadium as part of the late stages of his knee rehab -- will besmirch the glorious team chemistry.
I know point guards are supposed to be distributors first, and that go-to scorers have to keep the faith through cold spells, but Chris Paul needs to shoot more and Kevin Durant has to chuck it up less frequently. Paul is shooting a ridiculous 65.6 percent (and 81.8 percent from three-point range) in four games, but the Hornets have started 1-3 because his teammates are clanking for a combined 42 percent. Durant's Thunder might be undefeated if he hadn't destroyed the rims for 3-of-21 shooting without registering an assist in Sunday's loss to Portland. I don't begrudge Durant his gifts -- he had only two turnovers and got to the line 28 times in Oklahoma City's first three games -- and his improved defense is one reason the Thunder are holding teams below 40 percent from the field. But Durant was shooting below 42 percent before his Sunday clankfest, and with second and third options Jeff Green and Russell Westbrook hitting half their shots (38-of-76), a little less gunnery is in order.
By the way, Oklahoma City's signing of defensive-minded swingman Thabo Sefolosha to an extension is further proof that general manager Sam Presti and his crew know how to build a franchise. Sefolosha was the first player this season to contain Portland's Brandon Roy, holding him to 5-of-17 shooting and just seven free throws on Sunday.
The plot thickens in the Trail Blazers' unsettled point-guard situation. The ongoing drama seemingly is affecting Andre Miller, who doesn't share the court well with Roy, is shooting 34.4 percent and is playing less (24.3 minutes, seventh on the team) than at any time in his 10-year career. Meanwhile, Steve Blake's ability to convert Roy's passes into corner three-pointers reaped 18 points against the Thunder on Sunday. Coach Nate McMillan has been starting Blake and shuffling the pair during crunch time. Through almost equal duty, the Blazers are a net plus-13 during the 103 minutes Blake has been on the court, and a net minus-14 during the 97 minutes Miller has played.
On Monday, the same day the Timberwolves exercised their fourth-year option on his contract, Corey Brewer demonstrated the ecstasy and the agony of his skill set during a road loss to the Clippers. A 6-9 string bean with a nonstop motor, Brewer registered five steals to put himself atop the league lead with 12. He also leads the Wolves in blocks and minutes. Less officially, as he showed on Monday, Brewer is unrivaled when it comes to muffed layups and errant short jumpers, a circumstance that hasn't stopped him from becoming a volume clanker. A career 37.8 percent shooter, Brewer's 6-of-21 performance against the Clippers dropped his accuracy for the season to 36.1 percent, yet he has attempted only one fewer shot in four games than stud scorer Al Jefferson.
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