Five rookies to watch in 2011-12
No. 1 pick Kyrie Irving could start immediately at point guard for the Cavaliers
Iman Shumpert's D will help Knicks'; JaJuan Johnson's size is needed in Boston
It's finally Ricky Rubio time in Minnesota; Charlotte is high on Kemba Walker
We have heard it before: This year's crop of rookies doesn't measure up; the 2011 draft was light on can't-miss talents, according to several college scouts. Some first-year players, however, will be in a position to make a major impact this season. Here's a look at five rookies (including one from the 2009 draft) who could be big factors:
Kyrie Irving, Cavaliers. With Baron Davis' departure, Irving has the inside track on the starting point guard spot. Irving is raw, having played just 11 games as a freshman at Duke before becoming the No. 1 pick in the draft. But Cavs coach Byron Scott has indicated that Irving doesn't need an apprenticeship, and with Cleveland in full-scale rebuilding mode, the 6-foot-2 Irving and No. 4 overall pick Tristan Thompson are likely to be thrown into the fire. There will be some tough times -- point guard is the toughest NBA position to learn, after all -- but Irving has a chance to put up some major numbers this season.
Iman Shumpert, Knicks. The addition of Tyson Chandler fortified New York's frontcourt but damaged the backcourt thanks to the release of Chauncey Billups. Enter Shumpert, a physical, 6-6, 220-pound combo guard who gives the Knicks a different look than Mike Bibby and another veteran who is set to sign, Baron Davis. Shumpert is an exceptional athlete and he showcased a good, albeit unpolished offensive game at Georgia Tech. But his real strength is defense. Shumpert was an All-ACC defender last season and is an above-average rebounder at either guard spot. With New York not lacking for offensive firepower, don't be surprised to see Shumpert, who performed well against strong competition at trainer Joe Abunassar's "Lockout League" last summer, get significant minutes.
JaJuan Johnson, Celtics. A rookie getting run on the veteran-laden Celtics? Boston's lack of big men makes it possible. The 6-foot-10 Johnson is not a natural center but he could be pressed into minutes there behind 33-year-old Jermaine O'Neal, who played only 24 games last season while battling a knee injury, contemplated retirement over the summer and has exceeded 42 games once in the last five seasons. Johnson, the 27th pick, averaged 2.5 blocks per game last season as a Purdue senior and was the Big Ten's Defensive Player of the Year. Johnson has a nice mid-range jump shot and spent a week during the lockout working out with Rajon Rondo, developing some early chemistry with the Celtics' point guard. If Johnson's slender, 220-pound frame can handle the physical toll of matching up with bigger, stronger players, he has a chance to be a factor.
Ricky Rubio, Timberwolves. You remember Rubio, right? Drafted fifth in 2009, stuck around for a couple of years in Spain, coming over with a little bit of hype, if not a reliable jump shot? The flashy playmaker has already drawn rave reviews in Minnesota camp. Rubio has a solid mentor in assistant coach and longtime NBA point guard Terry Porter; an up-tempo, Rick Adelman-led system that the 21-year-old says he loves; and a young supporting cast -- including former top-five picks Kevin Love, Derrick Williams, Michael Beasley and Wes Johnson -- to feed. Given the attention Rubio has received since he was a mop-topped 14-year-old dazzling U.S. fans on YouTube, it's nearly impossible for him to meet expectations. But he could come close.
Kemba Walker, Bobcats. Coach Paul Silas has had high praise for Walker, comparing the diminutive point guard to Tiny Archibald. Walker has impressed coaches early in camp with his mid-range shot and is more of a natural playmaker than penciled-in starter D.J. Augustin. If Walker's quickness, stop-and-go style and patented step-back jumper translate from college to the NBA, Walker could emerge as the star in the 2011 class.