Saturday, March 13, 2010
By Aggrey Sam
Starting with the oft-mentioned trio of Sacramento's Tyreke Evans, Golden State's Stephen Curry and Milwaukee's Brandon Jennings, there have been plenty of rookies making instant impacts during their debut NBA season. Meanwhile, there have plenty of neophytes many observers (or at least the teams that drafted them) thought would be serious contributors, but haven't yet panned out in their first year.
While there's still lots of time for the slower-developing group to make its mark, this season -- like every year in the league -- there are under-the-radar rookie players who have already proven themselves invaluable to their respective organizations.
Whether they were late first-round picks a team's respective fan base wasn't exactly excited about -- honestly, who among us thought Taj Gibson would be this good, this early -- second-round choices given little hope of succeeding for various reasons (which is why they slipped in the draft to begin with), potential long-term projects, overseas products thought to need time to adjust, or worst of all, an undrafted rookie, here are 10 players enjoying surprising initial success in the NBA:
Rodrigue Beaubois, Dallas Mavericks 6-foot-1, point guard, GuadaloupeAverages: 6.2 points per game, 1.3 assists per game
Signature game: 24 points, five rebounds, five assists vs. Bulls on March 6
A native of the Caribbean island of Guadeloupe, Beaubois cut his teeth professionally in France, where he established himself as one of the top young prospects in Europe. Despite his diminutive stature, he isn't a conventional point guard, but his blazing speed, explosive athleticism, long wingspan, finishing ability and knack for making plays have made him one of the more exciting rookies in the league. With sixth-man supreme Jason Terry out with a facial injury, Beaubois has blossomed under the tutelage of future Hall of Famer Jason Kidd, and with more confidence, he has become a game-changer, capable of affecting games for stretches, as evidenced against the Bulls in Chicago recently.
DeJuan Blair, San Antonio Spurs6-foot-7, power forward, University of PittsburghAverages: 7.9 ppg, 6.3 rpg
Signature game: 28 points, 21 rebounds, two blocks vs. Thunder on Jan. 13
It's well known by now how Blair, last year's Big East player of the year, was passed over by teams because of the two torn ACLs he suffered earlier in his career, but the second-round steal is exceeding expectations. One wonders how his pro production wasn't anticipated, as the Pittsburgh native was dominant in both high school and college after suffering the injuries. Regardless, things have seemingly worked out for the best, as the undersized widebody has been a major contributor for a veteran squad with his tenacious rebounding, physical demeanor and underrated offensive skills. A national audience was treated to a showcase of his all-around game during All-Star weekend, when Blair stole the show at the Rookie-Sophomore Challenge. Like Beaubois, ongoing mentoring by a future Hall of Famer -- Tim Duncan -- will only enhance his game.
Chase Budinger, Houston Rockets 6-foot-7, small forward, University of ArizonaAverages: 8.5 ppg, 3.0 rpg
Signature game: 16 points, 12 rebounds, five assists vs. Pistons on Dec. 15
A highly touted high school All-American (he was supposedly an even better volleyball player), Budinger was a good player at Arizona, but regarded as somewhat soft and an underachiever -- although in fairness, there was a lot of turmoil during his tenure in Tucson. At the same time, his ability to fit right into the rugged Rockets' system was a bit surprising. But Budinger has been a big part of Houston's deep bench, as his size on the wing, big-time athleticism and deep range make him unique.
Omri Casspi, Sacramento Kings 6-foot-9, small forward, IsraelAverages: 11.6 ppg, 5.0 rpg
Signature game: 22 points, 11 rebounds, four assists vs. Mavericks on Jan. 2
Casspi has been closely monitored by NBA types since his standout performance for the international team in the 2007 Nike Hoop Summit, a high school all-star game pitting some of the best young prospects from around the world against top U.S. high school players, which included the Bulls' Derrick Rose that year. Casspi's aggressiveness and versatility has made him an impact rookie for the Kings and a nice complementary piece to likely NBA Rookie of the Year Evans. Casspi's professional experience for Israeli powerhouse Maccabi Tel Aviv likely helped the transition process, as he found a niche with his outside shooting, unique skills, tremendous motor and athleticism.
Darren Collison, New Orleans Hornets6-foot, point guard, UCLAAverages: 10.9 ppg, 4.8 apg
Signature game: 22 points, 13 rebounds, 12 assists vs. Pacers on Feb. 19
Collison, who played in three consecutive Final Fours, likely could have left college and been a high draft pick after either his sophomore or junior campaigns (following in the footsteps of former teammates Jordan Farmar and Russell Westbrook). Instead, he chose to stay at UCLA and endured a disappointing senior season, causing his stock to drop. The son of Guyanese national-team track standouts, Collison's speed was never in doubt, but his ability to defend bigger point guards in the league was questioned. Well, he answered those questions and more when he was thrown into the fire following the injury of New Orleans superstar point guard Chris Paul. Collison's college experience has proved valuable. as he has shown the ability to run the show, make plays for himself and others (despite some turnover issues) and occasionally dominate games with his game-changing quickness.
Taj Gibson, Chicago Bulls6-foot-9, power forward, USCAverages: 8.6 ppg, 7.1 rpg, 1.2 bpg
Signature game: 20 points, 13 rebounds, two blocks vs. Sixers on Feb. 20
It's hard not to appreciate the impact Gibson has had for the Bulls, as the workmanlike New York City native stepped in for Tyrus Thomas -- eventually making Thomas expendable -- early in the year and immediately played with the poise, steadiness and consistency of a veteran, earning praise throughout the league. The defensive player of the year in the Pac-10 last season, Gibson was overshadowed by teammates such as Grizzlies guard O.J. Mayo and Raptors rookie DeMar DeRozan throughout his college career, and while his game isn't necessarily exciting, the same basic tenets of his game that were effective on the collegiate level -- finishing around the basket, rebounding on both ends, a high IQ on the defensive side of the ball, working hard and keeping things simple -- easily transferred to the pros. A near-lock to be a longtime, consistent -- if not flashy -- player for years to come, his game will likely continue to develop as he gains strength, continues to gain knowledge and sticks to his script of putting in extra work off the clock.
Jonas Jerebko, Detroit Pistons 6-foot-10, power forward, SwedenAverages: 9.1 ppg, 5.9 rpg
Signature game: 15 points, 13 rebounds vs. Knicks on March 3
A native of Sweden -- although his father played under Jim Boeheim at Syracuse -- just a few years ago, Jerebko was slated to attend mid-major Buffalo, before blowing up at a camp for top European prospects. After playing for a top Swedish team, he made the move to the more competitive Italian league and his continued progression resulted in being drafted by Detroit. A versatile inside-outside talent, Jerebko's hard-nosed inside play, rebounding acumen and unwillingness to back down earned him minutes early on in the season, while his athleticism and developing perimeter skills make him an even tougher matchup. Although the Pistons haven't had a successful season, the rookie is considered one of their key building blocks for the future.
Ty Lawson, Denver Nuggets 5-foot-11, point guard, North CarolinaAverages: 9.0 ppg, 3.3 apg
Signature game: 23 points, nine assists, three steals vs. Jazz on Jan. 2
The lightning-quick Lawson, a heralded prospect since his high school days, was in danger of suffering the same fate as Collison, especially after his aborted early entry into the 2008 draft. However, he salvaged his once-dropping stock with a stellar junior season, capped by winning a national title. Drafted by the Nuggets (who were poised to take him before he suffered an injury during the 2008 NBA Pre-Draft Camp in Orlando), he's coached by a fellow Tar Heel in George Karl and mentored by one of the best in Chauncey Billups, making his transition to the pro game relatively seamless. Denver now has an heir apparent at point guard, who fits their up-and-down style, can be a potential running mate for Carmelo Anthony moving forward and currently offers both depth, versatility in the backcourt (moving Billups off the ball or simply giving him a break) and a change of pace off the bench.
Wesley Matthews, Utah Jazz6-foot-5 shooting guard, Marquette UniversityAverages: 8.4 ppg, 2.0 rpg
Signature game: 21 points, five assists, four rebounds, two steals vs. Suns on Jan. 25
Another son of a former pro, Matthews had a stellar four-year career at Marquette, but somehow managed to go undrafted. Well, he landed with the right team, as old-school Jazz head coach Jerry Sloan fully appreciates hard work, toughness and an emphasis on defense -- all hallmarks of Matthews' game. While he isn't putting up gaudy numbers, the Wisconsin native has made himself extremely valuable to Utah, enabling them to trade former starting shooting guard Ronnie Brewer to Memphis at the trade deadline and allowing Matthews to start next to All-Star Deron Williams in the backcourt. His all-around skills, maturity and ability to do a little bit of everything have engendered confidence in the latest of Jazz general manager's terrific finds.
Marcus Thornton, New Orleans Hornets 6-foot-4, shooting guard, LSUAverages: 12.6 ppg, 2.6 rpg
Signature game: 37 points vs. Cavaliers on Feb. 23
Thornton, a native of Baton Rouge, La. -- about an hour from New Orleans -- was a lightly recruited high school prospect who developed into a dangerous scorer after a junior-college stint in Texas, then became a bona fide pro prospect as his strong point production continued at LSU. Still, the second-round pick was viewed as more of a "hometown kid makes good" story until, like Collison, the injury to superstar Chris Paul allowed him to showcase his skills. A bit undersized for an NBA shooting guard, Thornton makes up for it with his powerful and compact frame, outstanding shooting range, acrobatic finishing ability and explosive first step. His poise and scoring have helped keep the Hornets within shouting distance of a playoff spot during Paul's absence.
Aggrey Sam is CSNChicago.coms Bulls Insider. Follow him @CSNBullsInsider on Twitter for up-to-the-minute Bulls information and his take on the team, the NBA and much more.