"I've been laying, waiting for your next mistake.
I put in work, and watch my status escalate."
-- GangStarr

Nov. 16, 2006 -- I write the Rookie Rankings. I look at every boxscore every night to see what the new guys are doing and when I'm League Pass surfing, I'm always checking out the games with the big-name rooks. Love those Sunday afternoon Toronto games.

Last year, there was a group of 20 or so rookies that I kept a close eye on during the course of the season and a whole bunch that I paid much less attention to because they weren't exactly playing, let alone playing well. A year later, some of those guys that scored more splinters than points last season are playing big roles with their teams and I'm thinking, "Where did these guys come from?"

Last season, Andrew Bynum saw much more action on his MySpace page than he ever did with the Lakers. When an elbow from Shaq is the highlight of your first season, it's not exactly All-Rookie material. Eight games into his sophomore campaign, he has played more than half of the minutes he did last year, starting for the Lakers and looking like he just might be worthy of a No. 10 pick.

Monta Ellis came on strong at the end of his rookie year, but basically, he was an afterthought on Mike Montgomery's bench. Now, he's starting for Don Nelson and doubling his rookie numbers across the board while the Warriors are 4-0 with him in the first five.

At his current pace, Jason Maxiell will surpass his total minutes and points of his rookie season next week. After a Darko-esque rookie year, he has cracked the Detroit rotation.

Who the heck is C.J. Miles and how is he starting for the 7-1 Jazz? Dude played in 23 games last year ... and not very well.

Last season, Fabricio Oberto was the 12th man on the Spurs. This season, he's starting and came up huge in their Nov. 8 win over Phoenix, scoring 22 points on a perfect 11-for-11 from the field and grabbing 10 boards.

Hakim Warrick spent more time on the court in the dunk contest than he did for the Grizzlies last year, and he was eliminated in the first round. This year, he's starting and averaging 13 and six.

The Net's selection of Antoine Wright at No. 15 was questioned several times last year, even by the biggest Net homer I know. This season, Wright is a major contributor off the bench for the Nets and is currently filling in admirably in the starting lineup with Richard Jefferson out.

Brandon Bass... Jarrett Jack... David Lee... Lawrence Roberts... Ronny Turiaf... Martell Webster... The list goes on and on.

For Bynum and Warrick, injuries to vets (namely Chris Mihm and Pau Gasol) have aided them in their increased floor time. But mostly, these guys are better because of maturity, being more comfortable and because they put their work in.

Now, I know

Deron Williams didn't exactly ride a lot of pine last year (and he even stole a Rookie of the Year vote from Chris Paul), but his status has escalated quite a bit just the same and now he's running the show for the best team in the NBA. And he's not just distributing. Last week, I was watching the Jazz believing that they needed a go-to scorer, but then Williams made me rethink that.

How did Williams turn it up over the summer? Well, he admitted to me that coming into his rookie year, he didn't exactly know what he was getting into.

"You don't know what to expect coming into it," he said. "People tell you a little bit, but you don't know until you go through it. And that's the main thing. Once you go through it, you have a better grasp of things. I know what Coach Sloan wants out there on the court and I know what he expects from me every night."

And it's not just about knowing your coach. Coming to the NBA from college or high school is a huge adjustment, no matter how talented you are or how big of a program you played at.

"I learned a lot," Williams said of his rookie year, "From how to take care of your body to just getting the experience of traveling and feeling what that's like. Knowing what you gotta do and how much you've got to travel going into this year has been a big key for me."

Dedicated

Antoine Wright spent a lot of his rookie year in New Jersey on the inactive list. Late in the season, he saw a few minutes here or there, but before he could get anything going, he got hurt. He played less minutes than the Nets played games in the postseason. He always showed potential (he's athletic and has a good-looking jumper), but his lack of playing time resulted in a lack of confidence.

"Last year," he told me, "getting in there for spurts, you didn't really know how much you were gonna play, so you didn't know how many shots you were gonna take."

When the season was done, his coach told him what he needed to do over the summer... and he did it... every single day... with his coach right there with him. He made a couple of trips to work out with Vince Carter in Orlando and one to visit Jefferson in San Diego, but most of his summer was spent in East Rutherford, New Jersey, drilling with Lawrence Frank.

"He did it in the weight room, he did it conditioning and he did it on the floor with the coaches," Nets GM Ed Stefanski said. "Give the kid the credit. He has all the tools, he has all the people to help him, but it's the kid that did it. So now, he's reaping the benefits."

"It was a total dedication to his game," Frank affirmed. "I think that in a short amount of time, he's made great progress and he just needs to continue to take those steps. You're never satisfied. You're never resting. You have to continue to work and he's done that."

The work that he put in allowed Frank to trust him with playing time, and in turn, that has made him a more confident player.

"This year," Wright said, "coach says that I'm in the rotation, so I'm believe in myself more when I'm able to shoot freely and play freely."

And according to Jefferson, the fact that Wright didn't play that much last year could actually be a benefit in some ways.

"Guys that play really good their rookie year, people have a better feel for how they play," RJ told me. "I think it's easier for 'Toine because he didn't play as much his rookie year, so teams don't know what type of player he is or how to play him, so coming into this season, he kinda had a clean slate."

Money talks, as does success

RJ knows a thing or two about putting in work. Last week, I wrote about the last guy on the floor after practice being my new favorite player. More often than not, in New Jersey, that guy is Richard Jefferson. So what keeps him motivated?

"You want to win a championship," he said. "You want to become an All-Star. You want all these things to happen and you understand that if you continue working and continue getting better, those things have a better chance of happening."

And for these sophomores, a little monetary motivation sure doesn't hurt either.

The new Collective Bargaining Agreement went into effect in the summer of 2005, affecting last season's rookie class (technically, just those that were drafted in the first round) by making the third year of their contract a team option, instead of a guarantee. And that option must be exercised before their second year begins. So if they had a not-so-impressive rookie season, they have to show their team what they got right away... in training camp.

"The players have to realize that they've got to get it going," Stefanski told me. "What happens a lot, with rookies, it takes a year of transition anyway. A lot of rookies, if they come in and play right away, they're awfully special or they're on teams that need help right away. So, I think it really helps if the kid realizes that he's got to get it going."

And the new setup benefits the teams as well, at least those that don't draft well.

"I think helps the team from a financial standpoint to [not have to] make that long of a committment," Stefanski said.

Especially since there are players in this league that aren't nearly as dedicated to their craft as the ones listed above.

"That's why there's a lot of guys that don't stay in the league," RJ said. "There's a lot of guys where people wonder why they haven't gotten better in two or three years or their numbers or percentages don't increase. Because a lot of these guys aren't putting in time."

Let's wait a while

So, you can try to evaluate the latest rookie class right now if you want, or even at the end of this season. But I suggest that you wait a while. Heck, it's still too early to evaluate this second-year class, especially with guys like Marvin Williams, Bynum and Gerald Green, who could be major players down the road...

As long as they continue to put in work.

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