Ranking the rookie point guards
Tyreke Evans is the top rookie point guard, but just barely over Stephen Curry
Ty Lawson has displayed a well-rounded game off the bench for the Nuggets
N.O.'s Darren Collison has been a surprise; Jonny Flynn has had a rocky season
With less than one full season as evidence, it is still too early to proclaim the rookie point guard class of 2009-10 to be among the best of the past quarter century. It will be a while before we know if this crop can rival the class of 1987 (Kevin Johnson, Mark Jackson, Muggsy Bogues and Kenny Smith) or 1999 (Steve Francis, Andre Miller, Baron Davis and Jason Terry), let alone the two best groups of the last 25 years, from 1996 (Steve Nash, Allen Iverson, Stephon Marbury and Derek Fisher) and 2005 (Chris Paul, Deron Williams, Raymond Felton, Jarrett Jack and Monta Ellis).
But we can say that the quality and quantity of this year's first-year floor generals have been auspicious thus far. Point guards should grab the top four spots in the Rookie of the Year race, and another half dozen are regarded as valuable future assets by their respective teams.
In the interest of dramatizing the depth of this class -- and hopefully starting a few arguments -- I offer up my ranking of this year's top 10 rookie point guards. There is no set methodology here. I've perused a raft of smart, stat-oriented Web sites -- I'll often cite, from Basketball-Reference.com, players' statistics per 36 minutes, which is close to how much most starters play -- and solicited the judgment of Rockets point guard Aaron Brooks and a respected Western Conference scout. But what's the point of making apples-to-oranges comparisons of, say, Tyreke Evans and Stephen Curry without adding one's own preference and gut instinct into the mix? These rankings are thus partially based on my perception of how, and how much, these rookies improve their teams.
1. Tyreke Evans, Sacramento Kings
This is a conventional pick -- Evans is the ROY favorite -- but a very close call. Evans has some maddening foibles, like incessant dribbling and only so-so court vision even when he's inclined to give up the ball. His assist-per-minute frequency is eighth among the 10 point guards being considered here, and the Kings' offense is 9.4 points better per 100 possessions when he's on the bench, according to 82games.com.
But at 6-foot-6, 220 pounds, Evans has the physique of a linebacker and the quickness and agility of a mountain lion.
"Right away this guy showed he was physically ready to take on NBA players and sometimes physically dominate them," the scout said. "That's a huge thing to be able to say about a rookie."
In fact, it's helped Evans get to the free-throw line an average of 6.4 times per 36 minutes, easily tops among rookie points. The rugged style also pays off on defense -- the Kings permit 2.7 fewer points per 100 possessions when Evans is on the court.
"He's probably the toughest matchup for me defensively [among rookies] because of his size," Brooks said. "One thing he needs to work on is his shooting, but once he gets that down, he's going to be a phenomenal player."
Evans showed his alpha-dog mentality when backcourt mate Kevin Martin went down with an early-season wrist injury, prompting the Kings to deal Martin to Houston soon after his return to the roster last month. With Sacramento's future now firmly in his hands, Evans is averaging 20.3 points, 4.8 rebounds and 5.3 assists. The only players to post 20-5-5 in their rookie years are Oscar Robertson, Michael Jordan and LeBron James.
2. Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors
ABC analyst and former coach Jeff Van Gundy likened Curry to Nash while picking the Warrior as ROY on the air last weekend. Watch Curry play for five to 10 minutes and he'll do something to justify the comparison. Last Friday, he burned mismatched Hawks center Al Horford with a crossover dribble-drive to the left, then later feinted the same move to create space for a step-back three-pointer en route to 31-point, 11-assist performance that had even the Atlanta crowd applauding in appreciation. On Monday, he zipped a pass from the left wing through three Hornets defenders to Anthony Tolliver in the low right block for an easy layup -- the kind of pass many point guards either turn over or don't attempt.
"His passing is underrated," Brooks said.
Questions about Curry's fitness to play the point coming out of college seem absurd now. He intuitively dribbles to optimize spacing for his teammates and deploys the right feed -- a wraparound bounce pass while driving through the lane, an expertly lofted baseball toss in stride to a teammate in transition -- with nonchalant fluidity. A deadly outside marksman (41.6 percent from beyond the arc), he shoots less frequently than most of the Warriors' starters and half of the point guards in this ranking.
His primary weakness is a frail physique that makes him seem smaller than his listed height of 6-3 and leaves him susceptible to hard traps on the perimeter.
"He's not a terrific athlete who can finish over other guys," the scout said. "And his defense is never going to be a strength" -- though in Don Nelson's system, who would know? -- "but he makes up for it with his offense."
3. Ty Lawson, Denver Nuggets
Because Lawson plays behind Chauncey Billups and has been hampered by a bruised shoulder that has limited him to just 87 minutes since the All-Star break, he's under the radar right now. When healthy, however, he's been a godsend for the Nuggets, providing an up-tempo contrast to Billups' more deliberate game while demonstrating exquisite shot selection. His true shooting percentage (which factors in the added value of made free throws and three-pointers) is a gaudy 60.5 and he turns the ball over less frequently per minute than any of his rookie counterparts. As the Nuggets contemplate a deep playoff run, it must comfort them to know that Lawson experienced plenty of big-game pressure while leading North Carolina to a national title last season.
"He can drive, he can shoot, he can get his teammates involved. I'd say right now he is probably the most complete of all of the rookie point guards," Brooks said.
Lawson was the 18th pick in the draft and the seventh point guard selected.
"I don't know why he didn't get picked sooner," the scout said. "He's quick, strong, competitive, very well-rounded. What a great pick for them. I guess if he has a weakness, it would be his shooting."
If so, Denver will settle for 51.4 percent from the field, including 43.2 percent from three-point range.
4. Brandon Jennings, Milwaukee Bucks
Who would have guessed that the 55 points Jennings hung on Golden State in November would boomerang back on his reputation? That shooting explosion focused an inordinate amount of attention on what turns out to be a notoriously inaccurate jumper. But while Jennings' field-goal percentage has declined for four straight months, he has become the minutes leader on a team improbably overachieving its way into the playoffs.
The Bucks don't run much -- they're 27th in fast-break points -- but the 6-1 Jennings' court vision and ball-handling have fostered crisp, rapid passes and minimal turnovers in the half-court set. He leads all rookies in assists, and has the highest usage rate -- a calibration of how often a player is involved in his team's plays when he is on the court -- of any player ranked here, yet turns the ball over less frequently per minute than any of them but Lawson and Atlanta's Jeff Teague. And he is a key component to a typically staunch Scott Skiles defense that ranks third in the NBA in efficiency and eighth in points allowed.
"Jennings is very quick, very fast, a sparkplug type of player," Brooks said. "You can get in trouble overplaying him to his left because he'll go the other way and take advantage of you."
Said the scout: "The best comparison I've heard is to [fellow left-hander] Nick Van Exel, who could shoot a little better, but Jennings will get there. He's good on the high pick-and-roll. His weakness might be his size; it is hard for him to see once he gets down in the key."
I'd say his weakness is that clanging jumper. He's helped some by being more accurate on threes (38.3 percent) than he is overall (36.6 percent). But when you shoot more frequently per minute than any other rookie point guard and have an anemic 46.8 true shooting percentage to show for it, that's problematic.
5. Darren Collison, New Orleans Hornets
Collison fans can certainly make an argument that he's ranked too low. Despite just 26 starts, he's already compiled eight games with double-figure assists (Curry is next best with four), including Monday's 20-assist extravaganza against (who else?) the Warriors. Along with his rookie-best assist-per-minute totals, Collison is rangy and opportunistic on defense. He's also level-headed with a good temperament for the locker room.
But my view is that Collison looks better on paper than he does on the court. His assist totals are somewhat inflated by an offense geared to maximize the passing contributions of Chris Paul. The Hornets spread the floor and deploy picks on the wings to provide open looks for spot-up shooters such as David West and Peja Stojakovic. Collison may not rack up as many assists as Paul, but the system is designed around a playmaking point guard.
Collison also tries too often to make the spectacular play in crunch time -- jumping the passing lane for a steal instead of maintaining on-ball defense, or driving hard for a layup in deep traffic rather than probing for an open look for West, Stojakovic or his prolific rookie backcourt mate, Marcus Thornton. He's tied with Minnesota's Jonny Flynn for the most turnovers per minute among rookie point guards, and the normally porous Hornets defense yields 2.8 more points per 100 possessions when he is on the court.
All that said, Collison is a tremendous value as the 21st pick in the draft and easily one of the league's most pleasant surprises filling in for Paul for large parts of this season.
"Darren has learned a lot from Chris," Brooks said. "He's not the best shooter but he's smart and quick. If you relax for a minute, he will split right by you."
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