Archives For NBA rookies

As I write this, the Timberwolves are supposed to be playing the Atlanta Hawks. At this exact moment (I did the math), Ricky Rubio is supposed to be throwing his first behind-the-back pick-and-roll blindfolded alley-oop (on a 13-foot rim) to Derrick Williams. But this is not happening. So for now we’re stuck with the mystery, with the hope and the fear that always attends the beginning of a bright, new NBA career.

When it comes to Williams, that mystery is fairly typical. Even when a player does things in the college game that are generally considered remarkable, it always requires some vision to picture them in an NBA context. There are things about Derrick Williams that we know: there are questions of upside and position; there are issues of size and quickness; these are things we have discussed at some length. But projecting a player into this new basketball world remains an act of generous imagination. This is why the rookies seem so haphazardly dispersed by #NBARank. Derrick Williams is, evidently, the 196th best player in the NBA. Nobody knows what that means. This is how it always is.

But with Ricky Rubio (ranked 204th), that mystery is fraught with even more enigmatic questions. Questions like: is it possible for a person to suddenly forget how to play basketball? And: why does Ricky’s jumper look exactly like my jumper when I’m wearing a tight-fitting jacket and haven’t shot a basketball in three months? I will not even cite Rubio’s stats from Eurobasket. They’ll just make you feel bad. And they won’t even tell you anything about just how bizarrely adrift Rubio looked on the floor. He shrank from the hoop. He refrained from any substantive involvement in the offense. When he slowly and awkwardly gathered himself to shoot, he appeared to be using only deep dread to guide the ball to the rim. Here’s how David Thorpe, a great lover of Rubio, put it in a recent 5-on-5:

2011 has been a nightmare for him. His offensive game has sunk to incredible depths because passing is tough to do when no one needs to guard you. He now reminds me of a major league second baseman who suddenly can’t make routine throws to first base. His shot and his scoring feel are gone. And that has brought his confidence down severely in all areas. I never would have predicted it, but it has happened.

You know things are getting bad when the oblique Chuck Knoblauch references start flying. As recently as June, we were still fairly optimistic that escaping the Euro game’s constraints and entering the point guard heaven that is the NBA–lots of open floor, lots of pick-and-roll, and we didn’t even know yet about Rick Adelman!–would reverse young Ricky’s alarming decline. And there’s still plenty of room for optimism.  But it’s also hard to imagine a player with such frayed confidence, with such timidity suffusing his game,  suddenly blossoming in the world’s most competitive league. Aw, that was kind of a bummer. Maybe this will help you feel better:

Photo by Luc De Leeuw

It really shouldn’t be surprising that the fourth pick in the NBA draft is playing well. I mean, there’s probably a reason people thought he was really good, right? But when it comes to the draft, we Wolves lovers have gotten used to taking solace in what other people take for granted. After all, we can still faintly hear the voices of Shaddy, and Randy Foye and Ndudi Ebi (and so many others) echoing through the halls.

And even for us, I guess it isn’t too much of a shock that Wes Johnson is hitting that gorgeous jumper of his. (In the past three games, Wes has hit 15 of his 25 shots and seven of his 15 threes.) I mean, have you watched him shoot this thing? His body is lithe and quiet; no motion is wasted; all is in balance. The ball passes through the basket with that clean, forceful snap common to natural shooters.

What has been pleasantly surprising has been Johnson’s composure and patience in adapting to this new level of play. Many rookies, such as Wes’ pal Jonny Flynn last year, attempt to compensate for their inexperience by incautiously forcing themselves on the game. But for the most part, Johnson has been energetic but under control, playing within the offense, allowing the game to come to him.

It’s true that Johnson’s offensive game is still fairly static; his ball-handling lags far behind his other skills and prevents him from being much more than a spot up shooter. But his court vision and intuition have been impressive. He’s made up for his one-dimensional scoring with a knack for the deft interior pass. One moment in Atlanta nearly encapsulated Johnson’s season so far. After a long rebound, Sebastian Telfair spotted Johnson gracefully bounding down the right wing and hit him with a chest pass. Wes bobbled it, gathered it in, bobbled it again and then calmly hit Michael Beasley flashing through the lane for an easy two. If Wes could have somehow topped it off with one of those pure, towering threes, the picture would have been complete.

It’s also clear that Wes is just learning to negotiate the complex web of switches, rotations and hedges that make NBA defense such a puzzle. He occasionally gets lost attempting to work around screens; he occasionally gets caught with his head turned; he’s occasionally late to close out on shooters. But the energy and nerve (not to mention that long, elastic body) he brought to the tasks of guarding the likes of Dwyane Wade and Kobe Bryant reveal a player willing to extend adult-level effort and unbowed by his new context.

So again we’ve got: a rookie with the skills and athletic ability to make elite NBA plays and the intelligence and patience to know his own limitations and find his niche in the game. Good enough for me.