Usually, this list consists of ten rookies to keep an eye on during the season. With the shortened season, however, this list is also smaller. Call it laziness on my part, call it whatever you want. It is what it is. Last year’s draft was something out of the Bizzaro universe. It was more notable for the peculiar name pronunciations than anything else. The popular rookies will get press elsewhere so there is no need to cover them in depth on this little blog. Plus, do you really need to read another article about the parallels between Jimmer Fredette and Tim Tebow? No, I didn’t think so.
The way in which the rookies were chosen to appear on this list is completely arbitrary and is a result of hope, sometimes terribly misguided, that these players will transform into household names in the future. Certainly, though, at least one is on here because of the sheer absurdity surrounding his journey to the NBA. (Can you guess which one?)
Norris Cole – PG, Miami Heat
Upon being drafted, Cole quickly discovered how he, as a player, is merely a commodity to teams. He was a member of three different teams on draft night, eventually landing with the Miami Heat. In college, Cole was the focal point of his team’s offense as he took 28.9 percent of his team’s field goal attempts. In Miami that will not be the case (understatement of the year, perhaps). What will set Cole apart will he his ability to pass the ball to the prominent scorers on the Heat as well as conform to the defensive system that Erik Spoelstra employs. His passing is already above average; however, he does have trouble passing out of a double team. Again, though, it will be unlikely that he sees many doubles while on the floor. It would not be surprising if Cole was inserted into the starting lineup at some point during the season so that Spoelstra can bring Mario Chalmers off the bench as an offensive kick for his second unit. Cole must continue to learn and play at a high level for that to happen.
Kawhi Leonard – SF, San Antonio Spurs
The San Antonio Spurs are a damned crafty bunch when it comes to drafting players. For them to have traded a promising young talent in George Hill to the Indiana Pacers for the draft rights to Leonard caused heads to turn. He would have been a great addition to an already scrappy Pacers squad, but they were overloaded at his position. Leonard made his mark in college as a premier (or monster) wing defender, forcing a turnover on 23.8 percent of the possessions in which he was the isolated defender as well as holding opponents to 37.5 percent shooting when he was defending them. His seven feet two inch arm span certainly helped him in these respects. Not only is he a stout defender but he is also a good defensive rebounder. Essentially, Leonard is the ideal Spurs player. Where he needs improvement, which Greg Popovich will administer in his own special way, is with his offense, both his shot and offensive sets. The Spurs are notorious for successfully developing players, much to the ire of rival fans, so Leonard should be in good hands. Also, with San Antonio shopping Richard Jefferson over the summer it looks as though Leonard could quickly move up the depth chart.
Ricky Rubio – PG, Minnesota Timberwolves
Oh, Ricky, Ricky, Ricky. What a zany (channeling Mitt Romney for that one) path Rubio has taken to the NBA. He was drafted what seems like a decade ago only to hold out until the final year of his rookie contract before agreeing to leave his beloved Spain to play in the cold wintery confines of Minnesota. This was either incredibly shrewd or insanely selfish. Rubio is not a typical rookie. He has played at a high level in Spain and internationally with the Spanish national team which is made up of mostly NBA players. One of the major criticisms of Rubio has been his scoring ability, however, he, like other Spanish point guards (read: Jose Calderon) is a pass first, offense facilitator. In Rick Adelman’s up-tempo style of play, especially with a team full of mediocre talent, Kevin Love aside, but that is incredibly athletic, Rubio should learn to thrive in the open court. He must first distinguish himself as deserving the playing time over the 1,000 other point guards that David Kahn has signed, though. That task should not prove to be a problem.
Iman Shumpert – PG/SG, New York Knicks
Shumpert was the buzz of New York after two preseason games. The hype was palpable. Shumpert was drafted for his defensive prowess but his offensive skills soon were apparent once the preseason began. Due to the Knicks’ lack of backcourt depth, he was slated to be a staple in the rotation. However, he suffered an injury in the first game of the season and will be out for several weeks. When he returns to the lineup, Shumpert needs to improve his shot selection, like most rookies, and his ability to finish at the rim. Against the Celtics he only made one of six shots at the rim. Boston maintains a physical defense, especially around the paint, but no NBA team is going to give up easy points around the rim if they can help it. With his usage percentage projected to remain high upon his return, Shumpert must finish the opportunities he is given.
Tristan Thompson – PF, Cleveland Cavaliers
Thompson was drafted pretty high, fourth overall, for a player that possesses little ability to operate away from the rim. He does, however, possess the ability to work off the ball offensively away from the rim in space but this is to free him up on a dive or cut to the basket. He will need to improve his ball-in-hand offense, specifically in the post, in order to adapt his game to the NBA level. Another area of concern for Thompson is his poor defensive rebounding ability. This, for one, is striking due to Thompson’s size, even as a young man, and good post defense. Yet, he cleans the offensive glass rather well which should benefit a team destined to miss a lot of shots. Despite his immediate drawbacks, Thompson has plenty of raw potential and other than Kyrie Irving, represents the only potential the Cavaliers have.
Kemba Walker – PG, Charlotte Bobcats
Michael Jordan has a special place in history when it comes to the draft lottery. That place is specifically referred to as Kwame Brown. MJ, let us hope you done right this time. Walker comes into the league with a solid NCAA pedigree. He was a member, and respective leader, of the national champion UConn Huskies. Not too shabby, right? Walker works well as a primary scoring threat for a team in pick-and-roll and off the ball screens. What will be interesting to watch for this season is if his ball hogging tendencies, he shot the ball 63.8 percent of the time coming off of a ball screen while at UConn, will carry over to the NBA. It is apparent that Walker will split and share time with D.J. Augustin in Charlotte, where is off the ball offensive movement will be on display. However with the ball in his hand, how will he react? One game is not a benchmark for anything, but Walker totaled just three assists, each leading to a shot from 16-23 feet, in 21 minutes in his first NBA game. He is a score first point guard.
Tip of the hat to NBA Playbook for many of the statistics used above.