The NBA Rookie Report 1/3
By Sam Littman
If Spurs rookie Gary Neal plays the rest of the season like he has these past two weeks, Blake Griffin might not be the only rookie taking home a trophy this off-season. If Neal continues to produce like has of late, he should be a serious contender for Sixth Man of the Year honors.
The aging Spurs needed someone to rejuvenate them, some sort of spark. Gary Neal has been just that. The Spurs badly needed a three-pointer shooter, the guy they lacked in their second round loss to the three-point happy Suns in the second round of last year’s playoffs. Gary Neal has been just that. The Spurs needed someone to shake things up. Gary Neal has been all that and more.
The Spurs have won 28 of their first 32 games due in no small part to the contributions of the 26-year old rookie from Towson University. In the Spurs’ 13-2 December, Neal averaged 11 points and 2 three-pointers per game while shooting 86.7% from the line. Not until recently did he truly step into the spotlight, though. In his last five games, Neal is averaging 15.4 points and 3.2 three-pointers, a run highlighted by a 22-point showing (5-7 from range) in a win over the Magic, and a 21-point performance (5-8 from range) in a win over the Mavericks. Neal has been a major sparkplug while satisfying the Spurs’ only major need, proving to be a very important piece on the league’s best team.
While Neal has blossomed, the other top rookie guards, Wall and Fields, have struggled. Wall has battled injuries while learning to adapt to change, and Fields has become a borderline non-factor on offense for the Knicks, posting paltry scoring numbers despite his playing time and the Knicks’ pace of play. Gordon Hayward has been the lone bright spot among rookie guards over the past couple weeks, posting his first solid game (17 points and 6 rebounds in a whopping 44 minutes) in a win over the Clippers, and following it up with a decent 11-point showing against the Blazers.
Meanwhile, the most heralded young big men continue to disappoint. DeMarcus Cousins is showing no signs of maturing, Greg Monroe continues to be too hesitant and is not helping a deplete Pistons front court, and Derrick Favors isn’t playing with fire. The Raptors’ Ed Davis has been the lone aberration, displaying a great all-around game defined by savvy rebounding and great instincts.
Rookie Rankings 1/3:
1. Blake Griffin
As of Sunday morning, the double-double streak was at 20.
2. John Wall
Constant shifts in the lineup, nagging injuries and fatigue have hurt Wall’s production, but he still appears to be good for either 20 points or 10 assists each night.
3. Gary Neal
The unheralded combo guard has taken 10 or more shots in each of the Spurs last seven games, and not one person is complaining.
4. Landry Fields
Though he’s still posting great rebounding numbers, he managed just 8.8 points in 34.6 minutes per game in December, which is unacceptable for someone who is not a defensive stopper or has some other invaluable specialty.
5. Ed Davis
The North Carolina product is battling for minutes in a crowded Raptors front court that features Andrea Barganani (34.7 minutes), Linas Kleiza (25.9 minutes), Amir Johnson (23.6 minutes) and Joey Dorsey (13.6 minutes), but when given minutes he’s been phenomenal. Davis was the best player on the floor in a stunning road win over the 24-7 Mavericks, going for 17 points and 12 rebounds to go along with 3 blocks and 3 steals.
6. Derrick Favors
Nets coach Avery Johnson recently made his opinion about Favors public, praising his talent but stating that the rookie hasn’t been aggressive enough and hasn’t given him a reason to start him. And for the most part, he’s been right. Favors is still very efficient, but he often loses focus for long stretches and picks up far too many unnecessary fouls (6.4 per 36 minutes).
7. Wesley Johnson
The overly shy swingman might finally it together be putting, contributing 24 points (including 6 three-pointers) in a rare Timberwolves win against New Orleans.
8. DeMarcus Cousins
Though he’s the only rookie outside of the Griffin/Wall class capable of posting monster games (Cousins went for 21 and 16 in the Kings inspiring win over Memphis), his ludicrous shot selection, turnover and foul rates have yet to improve.
9. Al Farouq Amin
This past week saw Aminu get solid minutes for the first time in a month and he didn’t disappoint, averaging 11 points, 6.3 rebounds and 1.3 in his last three games.
10. Larry Sanders
Griffin’s got scoring and rebounding on lock, Wall’s dominating assists and steals, but blocks is Sanders’ kingdom right now. The bouncy, 6-11 combo big is blocking 1.3 shots in just 14 minutes per game, which translates to 3.4 per 36 minutes.
- Much of what makes Monroe’s performance so frustrating is the responsibility he’s saddled with. The Pistons badly need him to contribute with Jonas Jerebko out and Ben Wallace deteriorating, but he continues to be disappointingly inefficient. He’s proven to be a very good rebounder, however, and deserves more minutes.
- Stingy defense has become Henry’s calling card, which is a great sign considering he was drafted for his exceptionally mature offensive skill set.
- Splitter’s lack of playing time is baffling; in the four games in which he got at least 20 minutes (never more than 24), he rewarded the Spurs with averages of 12 points (67%FG) and 5.8 rebounds.
- The 21-year old is currently enduring a potentially crippling slump, but his overall averages (7.3 points, 4.4 assists and 1 steal) are still very impressive given his age.
- His PER puts him up there with the very best, but like Splitter, he’s struggling to find minutes. With Kenyon Martin returning from injury, Carmelo’s potential departure seems to be all that could assist him in getting more floor time.