With the Cavaliers having two rookies playing prominent minutes, WFNY thought it would beneficial to see how the fresh meat around the league is faring in comparison with the Cavalier rookies. Each week, we’ll have NBA rookie power rankings where we’ll rack and stack the freshman class of the NBA. The rankings will be weighted with the most recent games carrying the most importance, but the whole body of work will be taken into account. Great nicknames, beards, and great celebrations may also play a large factor.
1. Damian Lillard
From the moment Damian Lillard stepped onto an NBA floor, dropped 23 points, 11 assists, and led the Blazers to a convincing opening night win over the dream team Lakers, the rookie of the year was Lillard’s to lose. At that moment to most basketball fans Lillard was still an unknown. The sixth overall pick out of Weber State never played in an NCAA tournament, or any other meaningful game to basketball fans outside of Weber, Utah, but all of that changed in a hurry.
Lillard went on to set a rookie record for 3-pointers made in a season, captured five straight Western Conference Rookie of the Month honors, and kept a Portland team with low expectations in the playoff race until the final leg of the season. As dynamic as they come, Lillard had scoring nights of 38, 37, 35, and 33, terrorizing NBA defenses with his elite athleticism and deadly three point shooting. He became a huge weapon coming off high ball screens, making defenses choose between sagging off and allowing him to rise up for a jumper, or attacking Lillard and risk getting blown by.
Like many rookies, Lillard struggled mightily on the defensive side of the ball a la Kyrie Irving. Rookies often are cut some slack for their poor defense, especially when they’re producing on the offensive side of the ball, but Lillard was dreadful as a defender during his rookie campaign. Playing in every game, at over 38 minutes a night Lillard it’s easy to nitpick, but to take the next step towards becoming an MVP, the Blazers’ guard must get much better on defense, sharpen up his ball control, and continue to relentlessly attack defenses, not settle for jumpers.
Lillard will no doubt join the likes of Irving, Wall, and Rose as point guards to win Rookie of the Year honors, and with the hunger, talent, and athleticism he possesses it’s feasible Lillard may turn out the best of the bunch.
2. Anthony Davis
13.5 points and 8 rebounds aren’t exactly mind blowing numbers for a number one pick in the draft, but throw in the blocks, steals, and over 50% shooting from the field and Anthony Davis had a very efficient season. Efficient is nice, and efficient is productive, but as the face of a franchise you need to be able to take games over. Davis may not yet be the offensive player to control games, only scoring 20 plus in 10 of 64 games, but The Brow found other ways to be a force for the Hornets this year by rebounding and playing defense, the things that come natural to the rookie out of Kentucky.
Davis recorded four games with 15 rebounds or more, eight games with 3 or mores steals, and six games with 4 or more blocks. He has the ability to leave his mark on a game even when he’s not scoring. Nothing exemplified this more then The Brow’s game winning tip in over top of Kevin Garnett to down the Celtics. That being said, to be a true star in this league he needs to be averaging closer to 20 and 10.
With Davis being flop proof at the number one pick, Austin Rivers was just the opposite for the Hornets who selected Rivers with the 10th pick in last year’s draft. While Davis wasn’t billed as a top scorer, Rivers was supposed to be a guy who could put the ball in the hoop, but instead Rivers had one of the worst statistical rookie campaigns of all time.
That leaves Davis and the Hornets still without a real go to scorer.1 With another high selection coming New Orleans way in this June’s draft, and Davis having a full offseason to work on his game, the Hornets and Davis both have the potential to take a big step forward next year.
3. Dion Waiters
Dion started the year in the dog house of some Cavalier fans. At the time of his selection as the fourth pick in the draft, few had even considered Waiters an option for the Cavaliers at four, but ready or not Waiters was coming to Cleveland. Some iffy performances, marred by horrid shot selection, and out of control drives to the hoop during Summer League didn’t do anything to add to the collective confidence in Cleveland’s top rookie.
But in his fourth real game of his career, Waiters jumped onto the scene scoring 28 points against the Clippers, followed by 23 more against Phoenix just four days later. At this moment it was evident that Mr. Waiters was an NBA talent.
Efficiency, inconsistency, and horrid defense were the black marks on Waiters’ freshman campaign, but it was Dion’s playmaking skills, and ability to shoulder the offensive load that resonated most throughout Waiters’ rookie season. He has an uncanny ability to slither his way through defenses and get to the rim with ease. Dion received the rookie treatment from officials for most of the year, drawing contact time and again with no whistle. This visibly frustrated Waiters at times, leading to irrational chucks at the rim off of rainbow fadeaways and errant bombs at the rim from deep.
In between the hard to watch jumpers, Waiters sprinkled in numerous picturesque drives to hoop, splitting double teams, contorting his body in mid air, and throwing down jams with abandon. Dion has the skills and the confidence to be a hell of an offensive player in the NBA, but needs to continue learning and progessing. Those who questioned Chris Grant last June in the selection of Waiters at number 4 have to give credit where credit is due, Dion was the right choice. The way in which Tristan Thompson progessed from year one to year two has set the bar high for Waiters, but if he can gain that sort of improvement then the Cavs should have a backcourt defenses fear night in and night out in 2013-14.
4. Bradley Beal
Like Davis, and Waiters, Beal also dealt with injuries throughout his first season in the pros. Beal was shut down for the year at the beginning of April due to a stress injury to his lower right leg. He battled through ankle problems for a good part of the year and had some peaks and valleys in terms of his shooting. To end December, Beal went 0-for in five straight games from behind the arc, then followed it up with a Rookie of the Month performance in January, where he shot 60% from downtown over a 10 game stretch.
Beal was helped immensely by John Wall’s return from injury in the second half of the year. Beal and Wall formed a formidable young pair, rivaling Irving and Waiters until Beal’s injuries forced him out of action as the year winded down.
Everyone knew Beal was a shooter, but the former Gator showed the ability to penetrate and finish at the rim effectively with both hands as the year went on. Beal averaged almost 2 more free throws a game in the second half of the season than he did in the first. His 13.9 points per game, less than a point behind Waiters was a solid start to his career, but everyone in Washington would love to see that number approach 20. Like most young players consistency will be key for Beal. If Beal is going to continue to draw comparisons to Ray Allen, he’ll need to start shooting like him each and every night and not just get hot every week or so.
5. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist
Not many knew what the Bobcats were getting in terms of basketball skills when they selected MKG third overall. Raw, hardworking, team player, these were the attributes that described the 2nd pick in last years draft, not exactly basketball words. But from day one those intangibles made their mark on the Bobcats season. Charlotte got off to the best start in franchise history winning 7 of their first 12 and many around the Bobcats were crediting MKG’s winning attitude as a reason why things were different. This great start even led to Kidd-Gilchrist earning Eastern Conference Rookie of the Month honors. Then came 19 straight losses and the Bobcats were back being the Bobcats.
MKG was cautious all year with his shot selection, rarely taking outside jumpers which is the greatest weakness in his game. Still Kidd-Gilchrist continued to shoot a high percentage, block shots, create steals, and grab some boards as a jack of all trades. If he would have landed in a role similar to the ones Kawhi Leonard and Harrison Barnes came into as rookies on playoff teams, MKG might be all the rage. Instead, he is the “glue guy” on a team whose pieces are so disjointed it would take gallons of rubber cement to put them back together.
After a strong start to the season and a disappointing middle, MKG had a steady last month and a half of the season. In true Bobcat fashion, Charlotte managed to win three meaningless games in a row to end the year and hurt their lottery chances. The Bobcats have holes all over their team and it seems as if Kidd-Gilchrist’s services may be wasted in Charlotte until his rookie contract expires and he can jump to a contender.
Eric Gordon isn’t cutting it, and Ryan Anderson despite his pretty stats is still Ryan Anderson [↩]