NBA Rookie Of The Year Watch, 3/20/12
With about six weeks remaining, the current crop of NBA rookies has already placed their collective stamp on the lockout shortened 2011-2012 NBA season. There are definitely some future stars in this group.
This year, the Rookie of the Year or ROY watch has been dominated by the Cavaliers’ 2011 first overall pick Kyrie Irving and the Timberwolves’ 2009 fifth overall pick Rick Rubio, a pair of point guards who are sure to star in the league for many seasons. When Rubio went down with a torn ACL 11 days ago, most deemed the contest to be over, but some late bloomers still believe they will have something to say about that over the final 20 games.
#5 Kawhi Leonard – 42 games, 7.6 points, 5.0 rebounds, 1.4 steals
When the Spurs traded guard George Hill for the Pacers fifth overall draft pick, it was safe to assume Kawhi Leonard was going to be a very good NBA player and Leonard hasn’t disappointed. Coach Gregg Popovich has started the rookie in 18 games already this season which speaks volumes about how quickly the 20-year-old has adapted to the NBA game at both ends of the floor.
Leonard has averaged 10.8 points, 5.7 rebounds, and 2.1 steals in 25.7 minutes over the past 10 games as Popovich bumps him back and forth between the starting line-up and the bench as needed. Even with the recent addition of Stephen Jackson, it is going to be hard to cut back on the rookie’s minutes.
This rookie is filling a key role on the team with the fourth best record in the NBA and he is producing like veteran. Leonard isn’t going to have the statistics to win ROY, but he is more likely to be playing meaningful minutes in a conference championship game this season than any of the other rookies under consideration.
#4 Klay Thompson – 43 games, 9.2 points, 1.9 rebounds, 1.5 assists
Breaking out of the pack, Thompson is proving that his per 36 minute rate of 17.2 points per game was no fluke as he has poured in an average 18.6 points in 36.2 minutes over his past five games.
The Warriors eleventh pick of the 2011 draft stepped into the starting shooting guard spot when Monta Ellis was traded to the Bucks and he has been a solid point provider as his replacement. The rookie still has lots of work to do on his game and needs to become a more efficient shooter, but with little standing between him and a lot of minutes going forward, Thompson should continue to impress with his ability to pile up the points.
#3 Kenneth Faried – 26 games, 9.0 points, 7.2 rebounds, 1.0 blocks
At the start of the season, Coach George Karl was saying the rookie wouldn’t play much and now he can hardly keep him off the floor. Faried has started 19 games for the playoff bound Nuggets since early February and “the Manimal” just keeps getting better. Over his past 10 games, Faried has averaged 11.2 points, 8.6 rebounds, 1.0 blocks, and 0.8 steals in 24.4 minutes and with the trade of Nene to Washington, Faried’s playing time should only be expected to go up.
The 22-year-old wasn’t drafted until late in the first round, but he is proving his doubters wrong and is making a late charge for ROY.
#2 Ricky Rubio – 41 games, 10.6 points, 4.2 rebounds, 8.2 assists, 2.2 steals
After being drafted fifth in 2009, Rubio spent two more seasons in Spain developing his game and the now 21-year-old arrived in the NBA looking nothing like the typical rookie point guard.
It took 10 games and four double-doubles before Rubio earned the starting point guard job on the young and talented but previously woeful Minnesota Timberwolves and the credit for the Wolves plus .500 season and playoff expectations belongs to Rubio’s presence even more than the continuing emergence of All-Star Kevin Love.
Despite the complaints about Rubio’s sub-par shooting percentages, the young guard has piled up 12 double-doubles on the season and is this team’s on-court leader. In the six games since he tore his ACL, the Wolves are 2-4 with loses to the lottery-bound Hornets and Kings and they have been imploding on the court.
In this observer’s opinion, Rubio should have been leading the ROY race all season despite Irving’s stellar play as Rubio was leading one of the league’s worst teams to their best record in seven seasons with legitimate playoff aspirations. Unfortunately, the season ending ACL injury with 25 games remaining has relegated this future star to no better than a second place finish for ROY.
#1 Kyrie Irving – 39 games, 18.7 points, 3.7 rebounds, 5.6 assists, 0.9 steals
The first overall pick of the 2011 draft has been meeting expectations since he arrived at the Cavaliers preseason training camp, and make no mistake, after losing LeBron James, those expectations were very high.
Irving started the season hot and has stayed hot throughout and despite a slight drop in his shooting percentages since missing three games in February due to a concussion, his game has continued to improve. Irving boosted his assists per game to 7.1 in March and recently collected his first double-double in points and assists.
At this point ROY is Irving’s to lose, and with the trade of Ramon Sessions to the Lakers handing the rookie even more playing time and his only competitor Rubio side-lined for the rest of the season no one is expecting Irving to give this honor away.
The Bobcats’ Bismack Biyombo has flown under the radar on the league’s worst team all season, unless you were trying to sneak in a soft layup at the rim. The uber-athletic Biyombo has been swatting shots and hauling in rebounds while his team waits for his very raw offensive talents to develop. As Coach Paul Silas has boosted his minutes, Biyombo has kept pace on the defensive end and over the past nine games he is averaging 6.4 points, 9.3 rebounds, and 2.3 blocks in 29.8 minutes.
This has been a good crop of rookies and any of MarShon Brooks, Derrick Williams, Chandler Parsons, Brandon Knight, Kemba Walker, Isaiah Thomas, Iman Shumpert, or Biyombo could be among the top five rookie vote-getters at the end of the season.
For some, the race for ROY may have already become a foregone conclusion as Irving and Rubio had lapped the field early on and Rubio is now out of the race. It is easy to forget that in a lockout shortened season, most of these players still have one-third of their games left to play and circumstances can change quickly and unexpectedly. The Cavaliers appear to be dropping out of the playoff race just as the Nuggets appear to have bet their playoff future on the rebounding and defense of Faried. Maybe it is too late for things to change, but this honor hasn’t been awarded just yet.