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Posted: Tuesday March 24, 2009 12:21PM; Updated: Tuesday March 24, 2009 5:41PM
Steve Aschburner Steve Aschburner >

NBA's freshman class proving a lot deeper than originally thought

Story Highlights

Derrick Rose is vying with six others for the NBA's Rookie of the Year award

Rose was the No. 1 overall draft pick last June for the Chicago Bulls

Russell Westbrook has exceeded expectations as leader for the Thunder

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Derrick Rose, who is trying to lead the Bulls into the playoffs, has long been the front-runner for Rookie of the Year.

Thought by many observers to be a tale for only two cities -- Chicago and Miami -- the 2008 NBA draft is proving to be one of the deepest in recent memory. What figured to be Bulls guard Derrick Rose and Heat forward Michael Beasley running some sort of pick-and-roll in isolation for the league's Rookie of the Year award instead has turned into a Princeton offense, only with six or seven players cutting, passing and picking in a supersized weave.

Russell Westbrook, Brook Lopez, O.J. Mayo, Kevin Love and Marc Gasol have made the race for the Eddie Gottlieb Trophy -- you knew that was the official name of the award, right? -- one of the tightest or, at least, most intriguing competitions in years. And that doesn't include a certain center in Portland who already has tried twice to make a great first impression.

T-Mobile, which sponsors the first and second All-Rookie teams, won't be stuck with one Fave and one Not-So-Fave Five, as it has at times in the past. Pressed on the issue, it's a safe bet many league execs wouldn't swap three or four of these newcomers even-up for the 2005 ROY winner, Emeka Okafor, who has been a double-double machine since his arrival, beats all of the rookies on the efficiency scale (18.71) and has a four-year head start in development.

"It's going to be a tough race," Oklahoma City's Kevin Durant said. The Thunder's angular 6-foot-9 scorer was a runaway winner of the '08 Gottlieb Trophy, getting 90 of the 125 available first-place votes (Al Horford got 30, Luis Scola the other five). He doesn't see it playing out that way this spring, not with the depth of this year's rookie class and the fine lines between those at the top.

How deep is it? Through Sunday, 12 rookies were averaging 10 points or more, compared to six last season. Fourteen were grabbing at least four rebounds per game, seven were at 2.0 assists or better and 13 of the new guys had efficiency ratings of 10.0 or higher. Add up those raw scores and you get 46.

Now compare that to the recent past. Last year, the four-category total for the rookies was 34. It was 27 in '06-07, 32 in '05-06 and 34 in '04-05.

Unlike Durant, who dominated the in-season rookie votes, winning the honor in five out of six months, this year's freshman class has shared in the praise. Lopez broke Rose's stranglehold on the award by winning Eastern Conference Rookie of the Month honors in January and February. Westbrook has gained enough admirers to generate a tomato-tomahto choice with Rose akin, for some, to the Chris Paul-Deron Williams debate that has raged since '05. And Mayo, at one time considered Rose's greatest challenge for the ROY prize, has seen his impressive first-half numbers (19.6 points on 45 percent shooting in his first 48 games) slide (15.6 points on 39.1 percent shooting since) to come back to the pack.

From the beginning, this year's rookie class has demonstrated it was a lot deeper than most originally thought. Recall how Rose somehow got snubbed by the NBA's general managers who cast votes in a preseason survey for six possible ROY winners -- none of them him -- but now see him as the MVP of a likely playoff team (and the acknowledged favorite, still, among the rookies). Remember that Love has amassed 23 double-doubles -- one more than Kevin Garnett or Dirk Nowitzki and as many as David West, while averaging anywhere from six to 14 fewer minutes than the two former MVPs and a two-time All-Star forward. Realize, too, that even Eric Gordon has caught on, largely unnoticed in Clipperland, by averaging 20.1 points on 48.9 percent shooting (44 percent from the arc) since Feb. 11.

"Kevin Love is having a great month," Thunder coach Scott Brooks said. "Derrick Rose is obviously having a great year. There are a lot of good rookies who are playing good basketball. I think it's wide open still."

Truth be told, Brooks believes his guy, Westbrook, ranks second to none among the newbies. Whatever pressure Rose shouldered as the No. 1 pick and the starting point guard for a Chicago club with postseason ambitions, Westbrook could match once Oklahoma City GM Sam Presti grabbed him with the No. 4 pick. Too high, many of the experts cried. But guess what? No one -- no one -- bothers to bring it up anymore. Oklahoma City wanted Westbrook, didn't hold a pick further down where he "should" have gone and couldn't, or just didn't, maneuver around in the final minutes. So it spent that No. 4 on him and hasn't looked back.

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