Sam Smith: Rating the rookies

The Bulls look like they did pretty well in last June’s NBA draft with James Johnson and Taj Gibson. But what if everyone had another shot at the draft?
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Sam Smith: Rating the rookies

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Taj Gibson
Through six exhibition games, Bulls rookie forward Taj Gibson averaged 12.7 points and 6.3 rebounds per game.

(Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE/Getty Images)

The Bulls look like they did pretty well in last June’s NBA draft with James Johnson and Taj Gibson, the latter among my top 10 rookies of the early season based on the preseason reviews.

So who should we look for? Not Ricky Rubio for at least two years, as we know. But what if everyone had another shot at the draft? No, nothing would change on top. Blake Griffin is in another league from the rest of the guys. You can forget the Rookie of the Year vote. That’s pretty clear as long as he stays healthy. But a lot of teams have to be wondering why they didn’t take a shot at DeJuan Blair. Anyway, here’s a first, very early look at the rookie race for 2009-10.

1. Blake Griffin, Clippers: Even the Clippers didn’t mess this up. The guy’s got some Tim Duncan in him the way he rebounds high and Karl Malone with his toughness. He’ll compete every game.

2. DeJuan Blair, Spurs. He didn’t go until 37 because of knee problems and maybe he won’t have a long career. But the guy has a huge body and spirit and if he gets the chance with a loaded Spurs team he’ll put up some numbers.

3. Tyreke Evans, Kings. He’s not much of a shooter. But he’s a big, tough guy and can dominate the smaller guards—who are becoming more prevalent again—like he did with Stephen Curry.

4. Jeff Teague, Hawks. May be a bit of a stretch since he’s getting big minutes early. But among the explosive little guards, he’s been the most impressive early averaging more than 15 per game with a two to one assist-to-turnover ratio and on the path to eventually replace Mike Bibby.

5. James Harden, Thunder. He hasn’t shot it that great and who knows how much time he’ll get with all the young talent. But he’s a tough guy who can’t be intimidated and will find a way onto the court.

6. Taj Gibson, Bulls. I keep hearing Joe Smith comparisons, though I see more Horace Grant. The guy competes constantly and plays with unusual confidence for a rookie. He’s versatile and knows how to defend.

7. Jonny Flynn, Timberwolves: He’s going to absorb a lot of losses, but he’s a step ahead of Brandon Jennings with a better shot. One of those new jets to get to the hoop.

8. Stephen Curry, Warriors. It’s difficult to get much gauge on anyone in that mess. He’s taking way too many shots and being pushed around, but should do well once he finds a regular spot.

9. Rodrique Beaubois, Dallas. Another of those little guy, quick guards but with more of a shot than the other guys. Could be a nice surprise.

10. Brandon Jennings, Bucks. He plays much too out of control for now, but, like Flynn, can beat almost everyone to the basket. Others in this area could be Marcus Thornton of the Hornets, Sam Young of the Grizzlies and Eric Maynor of the Jazz.

Start spreading the news…

-- It was interesting to hear last week the Knicks deciding to scrap the traditional morning shootaround on game days and replace it with an early pregame meeting and meal. The reason was to save commuting time as the Knicks training facility is in suburban Westchester far from Madison Square Garden and some players live in New York City. But what it further reveals is how difficult it is to play for the Knicks given, among other things, the logistics of New York traffic. It’s another reason why few free agents ever have chosen New York. The creation of the shootaround, ostensibly to better prepare for games but also to perhaps push players to ending their nights out earlier, is credited to then Lakers coach Bill Sharman in 1971. My favorite story about that was with Wilt Chamberlain on that team. Wilt supposedly told Sharman he comes to the arena once a day and Sharman can decide when. Wilt pretty much eschewed the shootaround. Also in New York, does this one sound familiar? Larry Hughes was 0-for-17 in the preseason before Sunday’s game against Maccabi Tel Aviv. Hughes was one of three Sunday in eight minutes in the game which was delayed when the Maccabi coach was ejected and refused to leave even after a rabbi came out of the stands to ask the referees to allow the coach to stay. Yes, only in New York. I don’t know what the coach said, but, geez, you have to eject an international guy in New York in an exhibition game? I saw this also in China when Danny Granger was ejected. Who else had they come to see? Overall, I think the replacement refs have done OK. But let’s use some logic. It’s still a game for the fans who are paying a lot of money. Hughes, meanwhile, said he’s not worried since, “I’m a proven scorer in this league.” When did we hear that one? Hughes also offered that he doubts former teammate LeBron James will leave the Cavs and for James it’s not about playing in a big market like New York. The Knicks had to love that. The speculation in New York is the Knicks will try to buy out Hughes, who then could return to the Cavs with the Cavs uncertain about the status of Delonte West.

Contenders in the East

-- The Celtics and Cavs generally are the favorites in the Eastern Conference, though the Magic went to the Finals. But I wouldn’t sleep on or dismiss the Magic. The Bulls get a look at them here Monday, and the Magic is loaded. And, I believe, better than last season. The conventional wisdom was they might have taken a step back letting go Hedo Turkoglu for Vince Carter given how key Turkoglu was in the playoffs. But I always felt the Magic’s big weakness was their two forwards, Turkoglu and Rashard Lewis, who really were threes who played only face up. Lewis, by the way, opens with a 10-game suspension for a substance violation. Now, I think the Magic is much more well rounded. Ryan Anderson, who came in the trade with Carter, is a terrific and underrated shooter and Brandon Bass, a free agent from Dallas, is a bruiser at power forward. Marcin Gortat is a legitimate NBA starting center and would have started for Dallas if the Magic had not matched his free agent offer. He could play with Dwight Howard at times. And Carter, 32 (Turkoglu is 30), will be better, I believe. Though Nets coach Lawrence Frank is technically competent, he appeared to coach Carter out of fear of offending him. That’s over with. Stan Van Gundy doesn’t worry about that with anyone, and you’re going to see a better Carter who actually defends and isn’t taking those crazy fallaway 30 footers. They’re not deep at point, though Jameer Nelson is back. Assuming Kevin Garnett is healthy, they’re going to fight it out with Boston for best record and are going to be a handful to defend.

No love for NOLA

-- If you’re looking for a Western Conference team to take a fall—the Rockets, of course, but without Yao what chance do they have?—try the New Orleans Hornets. They’ve been getting pushed around all preseason, which doesn’t mean much. And Emeka Okafor hasn’t played yet with a minor injury. But scouts watching them say the talent level across the board is shaky with Julian Wright now replacing Peja Stojakovic at small forward, Mo Peterson trying to work back at shooting guard and an uncomfortable vibe around the team. Observers say they’ve seen signs of discontent from Chris Paul, who had been close with Tyson Chandler, Rasual Butler and Jannero Pargo, mainstays when the Hornets won 56 games two years ago. Although I’ve had hopes for Okafor, some scouts keep telling me he won’t fit with Paul, who likes to lob to his big man. Of course, that raises again the question brought up a year ago about whether Paul will become an issue and push for changes. The Hornets and Paul for now say things are fine, but it will be a team and star to watch carefully.

NBA news & notes

-- You know it’s preseason. Nothing against Ben Gordon as I always thought he tried harder on defense than people gave him credit for. But the Pistons last week were lauding Gordon’s defense. Said coach John Kuester: “His willingness to work on defense has been impressive.” It’s an amazing change for the Pistons, who are playing a small, guard oriented finesse game after two decades of tough, defense first commitment. … Gilbert Arenas did make a good point to Washington reporters about why he stopped giving interviews and was fined by the NBA: “The fans, I just think they just want to see me play again. I think they can live without me rambling on about stupid stuff in my life.” Can’t argue that. … Everyone makes draft mistakes, but 1995 was a brutal one for the Bulls when they decided Michael Finley couldn’t shoot (after three years shooting 46 percent he shot 38 percent as a senior) and it wasn’t a good idea to pick a Chicago guy. So they went for Jason Caffey one spot before Finley. Caffey eventually went to jail on a number of support issues and Finley is about to start his 15th season, a pro’s pro with the Spurs who’ll move to the bench now with the acquisition of Richard Jefferson. I asked Popovich the end of last season about Maywood’s Finley and he practically gushed, not a familiar pose for Popovich: “He seems ageless. He hasn't lost even a half a step. He's the same as he's been the last four or five years. He works. Comes early, stays late.”

-- It looks like Thabo Sefolosha has locked up a starting shooting guard spot with the Thunder after energizing the team with his defense in his return from injury. He’s also been shooting better at 54 percent and 40 percent on threes. … I love the old school wisdom of Jazz coach Jerry Sloan talking to Utah media about rookie point guard Eric Maynor: "Everybody likes a point guard who passes the ball. They get a free ride home. They don't have to worry about getting a ride. It's the guys that shoot all the time that have a tough time getting a ride home."... Several teams are examining their exercise equipment after the bizarre accident in Sacramento when Francisco Garcia was lifting two 90-pound dumbbells when the exercise ball he was on exploded. Garcia will miss most of the season with arm and hand injuries. It also may well open more playing time for former Bull Andres Nocioni, though the Kings are going mostly with young players. … There’s always a question of a fit with new players, and it’s going slowly in Portland with point guard Andre Miller, who isn’t a long distance shooter and hasn’t quite fit yet with star Brandon Roy. Said Roy to the Oregonian: “It's weird, because when I play with (Steve) Blake, I'm used to Blake spacing and stretching the defense. Whereas with Andre, there's gonna be somewhat of a learning curve there. Andre and I are going to have to build on is our spacing, because me and Blake had it. It was like, if I went off a screen, Blake knew where to be.” Already, Miller has openly expressed concern about signing with Portland given coming off the bench behind Blake early. Plus, the Trail Blazers have hesitated on giving LaMarcus Aldridge an extension, perhaps in part because they reupped Roy at a maximum deal, which many questioned given whether Roy was quite that kind of talent. It often becomes the issue with young teams with so many draft picks and players wanting to get paid the same time. The Bulls went through it and it wasn’t pretty.

-- Midwesterners Wesley Matthews of Marquette, son of former Bull and NBA vet Wes, and Michigan State’s Goran Suton, whose family fled Saravejo in the war in 1999, are trying to hook on with the Jazz. You wonder if the Jazz is any more motivated to make a multiplayer deal for Carlos Boozer with C.J. Miles out now with injury, Matt Harpring likely to retire and the team perhaps looking to keep several rookies. … Phil Jackson begins his 10th season with the Lakers, one more than he was head coach with the Bulls. The Lakers play an annual preseason game in Las Vegas and it was a pretty sweet accommodation for Jackson, whose room featured a swimming pool. Jackson said it was only 10 feet so he had to do extra laps. … Hard to understand why the NBA continues to schedule games in Mexico with these instructions: "Don't leave the hotel. Drink bottled water. Don't leave the hotel," said Suns guard Jason Richardson to Phoenix media about Sundays game. "If you see us high-fiving with the back of our hands, you know that's swine flu precautionary measures."… It never ends with Stephen Jackson in Golden State as the Warriors stripped him of his captaincy amidst Jackson doing interview after interview (give the guy that. He is cooperative) about how he still wants out and nothing’s changed. On the surface, Jackson seems ungrateful, but don’t blame Jackson. He’s spent a lifetime as a hustler. So he pretended to cozy up to Warriors chief Robert Rowell, earning himself a huge extension when no one else was bidding for him. So he conned the Warriors. It’s who he’s always been. Don’t blame him for that. The Warriors fell for it. Jackson has had episodes like this his whole career. You deal with him with your eyes open. The Warriors decided he was who they wanted him to be instead of who he was. Their fault. Not his. "If they want to send me home and pay me, I'm fine with that," Jackson said. It’s just Jack.


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