Even though the season is less than half over, this year’s rookie class has performed remarkably well. From top to bottom, there have been key first year contributors on good teams, bottom feeding teams, and even great teams. This list is only preliminary, because some players, such as Marresse Speights and JJ Hickson have played well in very limited minutes, while at least one of these players will regress as the grind of an 82 game season wears on, but it’s important to note that this year’s rookie class has talent, skill and a deceptive amount of experience.
Guard: Derrick Rose
While everyone expected Rose to pan out, critics expected far more out of #2 pick Michael Beasley than they did of Rose, especially since he’s playing the toughest position on the court on a team loaded with established guards. But in two short months, Rose has proven to be the best of the bunch. With a crossover that teams know is coming, combined with a pass-first mentality, superior defensive prowess, and a team-first attitude, it’s only a matter of time before Rose joins Chris Paul and Deron Williams at the top of the point guard food chain.
Guard: Rudy Fernandez
Like Rose, people expected Fernandez to eventually become a good NBA player, but maybe not a great NBA player. But what has been remarkable about Fernandez so far this season has been his quick adjustment to the NBA three-point line, shooting an eyelash under 40% for the year. And despite being a 23 year old rookie, Fernandez has played professionally for seven years, has been tested against a wide variety of defensive scenarios, and doesn’t need the ball in his hands all the time in order to be effective. The big thing holding him back at this point is the overall logjam of talent in Portland.
Guard: O.J. Mayo
Mayo leads all rookies in scoring and PER, while being only second to Rose in minutes played. This means that Mayo is not only scoring well, but he’s doing it with far greater efficiency and consistency than normally expected from a rookie. In a way, Mayo development has been bittersweet. Scouts always spoke the world of him in high school, but as they saw more of him, the hype machine began to break down, dropping his stock to a more manageable level. I’m often concerned when scouts gush over a player, because it almost always means they haven’t seen much of him. Consider any highly touted young player. It’s rarely the case that his hype goes up while he’s under the spotlight of a nation of scouts, even if he’s consistently improving, las Mayo has been doing.
Center: Marc Gasol
Marc may have a lower ceiling than his brother Pau, but since Pau is an All-Star, that’s barely a knock against him at all. Marc is experienced from his days on the Spanish national team, able to provide a polished set of post and finishing moves, and is willing to crash the boards. So far this season, Gasol has finished 18 games with 6 or more rebounds while playing only about 29 minutes a night, which counts as a windfall, considering that he was regarded as a throw-in to the trade that sent his brother Pau to the Lakers.
Center: Greg Oden
Oden may have been the most hyped draft pick since Lebron James, but he has been able to step in immediately and provide tough defense and rebounding. His offensive game isn’t very polished, and he hasn’t been able to command double teams, much less learn to pass out of them, but Portland is full of shoot first guys. Plus Portland has been handling him with the tiniest of child gloves, which should ultimately help Oden’s confidence as he grows into the center position.
Sixth Man: George Hill, Spurs
Despite a great set of pre-draft workouts, Hill has still surprised everyone by filling in heroically for the then-sinking Spurs. With Manu Ginobili out, Coach Gregg Popovich assigned Hill to take every available shot. And while giving a rookie point guard the green light to take a heaping helping of field goal attempts is usually counter productive to their overall development, Hill has blossomed for this very reason. Hill has been averaging 19 points per 40 minutes, while getting to the foul line at an absurd rate (3.8 attempts per game on a 22 minute average), which has put Hill’s confidence somewhere between the middle and the top of the stratosphere. And in many ways, giving a rookie the confidence to succeed is half the battle.