Barely a dozen games into his NBA career, Portland guard Damian Lillard has already set the standard for this year's crop of rookies. After four years at Weber State running a point guard dominant offense that was heavy on pick and rolls, Lillard has appeared before us almost fully formed. He's not only the early front-runner for Rookie of the Year, he's also helped jumpstart Portland's rebuilding project.
At the other end of the rookie spectrum is New Orleans guard Austin Rivers, who in one season at Duke had far more hype and notoriety than Lillard had during his entire college career. Perhaps the most divisive prospect in last spring's draft, Rivers has been getting ample time in the Hornets' backcourt rotation, but the results have not yet followed and on Friday he was replaced in the starting lineup by veteran journeyman Roger Mason.
"Austin is doing a decent job of trying to learn," Hornets coach Monty Williams said earlier in the week. "He's got to do a better job of picking up the NBA concepts. You're going to see flashes at times. You're going to see times where he looks like a college player, but he works hard. He's diligent about film work. He's going to get better because he works at it."
Rivers was drafted with the idea of turning him into a lead guard, but with Eric Gordon's absence still hovering over the Hornets' long-range plan, Williams moved Rivers off the ball with Greivis Vasquez handling the point guard duties. Despite a devastating first-step, Rivers hasn't shown the ability to score consistently from anywhere on the court. He's shooting in the low 30s and almost all of that has come inside the restricted area where he's having difficulty finishing. His advanced metrics paint an even more dire portrait of a low usage guard who doesn't score efficiently and turns it over too much. His 6.7 PER is even lower than his modest 7 points per game scoring average.
Against the Pacers earlier in the week, Rivers slashed to the basket early and made his first three shots. He pulled off a number of slick moves, including splitting two bigs for a nifty layup, but the Pacers adjusted and with Roy Hibbert blocking everything in sight, Rivers became a non-factor. He was reluctant to take outside shots, despite the Pacers giving him space, and while he could get to the basket almost at will, he has yet to develop a finishing move. Before the game I asked Williams if Rivers has shown he can handle the responsibility that comes with getting 30 minutes a night.
"No," Williams said, matter of factly. "No 20 year-old is. Unless your first name is LeBron and your last name is James, I don't know who does handle that. That doesn't mean he's doing anything wrong. It's just part of the process. I don't care what family you come from or how talented you are when you get to this level, there is a learning curve that you cannot skill and he's going through that right now.
"What I like about him is he's not dodging it. I heard all this stuff about Austin not being this and not being that. Austin is just as coachable and trying to learn just like everybody else and he's going to get better because he works at it."
Rivers' learning curve has been made more difficult by Gordon's absence, a strange saga that no one connected to the Hornets really wants to talk about. The official word is that he is rehabbing his knee and Williams was inclined to leave it at that until someone pressed further.
"Really?" Williams responded incredulously. "You take 20 points and seven assists off the floor it changes a lot. You take the best player off any team what do you think would happen? You're asking young guys to fill that void. That's a lot to ask of Anthony (Davis) and Austin."
Yet the Hornets are not about immediate returns and instant gratification. Despite a concussion and a balky ankle, Davis has produced strong numbers in his first half-dozen games. After two nondescript seasons, Al Farouq-Aminu has emerged as an athletic corner forward who attacks the glass relentlessly. Free agent acquisition Ryan Anderson has helped New Oreleans make a jump from one of the worst offensive teams in the league to middle of the pack and Robin Lopez has made the most of his increased playing time.
Rivers is a part of the long-term rebuilding project and patience is in order. While he doesn't stack up with Lillard -- no one does -- his numbers are in line with other scoring guards taken in the lottery such as Bradley Beal and Dion Waiters, who have also struggled. Give Lillard his due for adapting so quickly to the pro game, but let's reserve judgment on some of the other rookies for now.
IN PRAISE OF DAVID WEST
We often think of NBA players in one of two tiers: superstars and everyone else. That leaves a vast middle ground of role players who come in all shapes and sizes. Some are specialists. Some are young players still finding their way. But what of the exceptionally good player? The one who does his job every night with a modicum of fanfare?
David West is such a player. A nine-year vet who has consistently posted 16 points and 8 rebounds a night, West had no career arc. He established himself early in his career and has more or less been the same guy, night in and night out for the last decade.
"David is one of my favorite guys that I've had a chance to coach because we're probably the most alike," said Monty Williams, who coached him in New Orleans. "We're kind of grumpy. We just want to do our job and go home; just leave-me-alone personalities. We got along really well just because he knew I was serious about my job and he was serious about his job. He's tough. When you play against him you know you're going to play against a guy whose going to compete for every second he's out there. He stepped up in leadership for this team. He's got such a strong voice. He's one of the guys I really missed."
West has had the same effect on the Pacers, whom he joined last season as a free agent. He filled a void on the court as a pick-and-pop frontcourt compliment to Roy Hibbert and Danny Granger, and he has also taken up a leadership role for a younger team that needed his sage wisdom.
"It's everything, really, for a coach," Pacers coach Frank Vogel said. "You got a coach-coached team you're only going to go so far. You've got a player-coached team you've got a real chance to do something. He's one of the few guys (that) can sort of kick a guy in the ass to get him going without that guy being offended. That's valuable."
The league needs more grumpy ass-kickers like David West.
HOW SERIOUSLY SHOULD WE TAKE THE BOBCATS?
They start two rookies, a second-year point guard and a power forward with barely 100 games under his belt who takes a ton of threes and misses almost 75 percent of the time. With the exception of center Brendan Haywood, they have no one in rotation over the age of 30. They're a horrible shooting team and rank dead last in defensive rebounding percentage, but somehow the Bobcats are 7-5 and have already won as many games as they did all of last season.
What in the name of Cardboard Gerald is going on here?
Credit first-year coach Mike Dunlap, who has pushed the pace with his double point-guard look featuring Kemba Walker and Ramon Sessions, and put his young players in a position to succeed. Walker has been a revelation, increasing his scoring average to over 18 points per game while become a more efficient scorer in the process, and Sessions has lived at the free throw line.
Rookie Michael Kidd-Gilchrist has been as advertised: a defensively-inclined player who gets most of his offense off transition and broken plays. Even Byron Mullens -- he of the wayward long bombs -- has been effective on the defensive glass.
The Bobcats have taken advantage of a relatively soft schedule to help them rack up wins, but in the vast middle that is the Eastern Conference, they have staked a claim as a team to watch. The future, of course, is much brighter than the present. GM Rich Cho is sitting on a pile of cap space and while they owe a future first-rounder to Chicago from the ill-advised Tyrus Thomas swap, Cho has also stockpiled future protected picks from the Blazers and Pistons.
Genuine surprises in this league are rare and the Bobcats have been the most pleasant so far. They visit the Thunder and Hawks this week and then have six of their next seven at home. Simply being in the conversation is an accomplishment, but we'll know more by mid-December.
RE-THINKING THE D-LEAGUE
As a rookie last season, Marcus Morris played more minutes for the Rio Grande Valley Vipers than he did for the Rockets. In his second year, he's become a valuable part of the Houston's frontcourt rotation, averaging 9 points and almost 5 rebounds, while shooting 38 percent from behind the arc. Morris's strong play this season is evidence that the D-League can be a useful development tool for NBA teams.
The Rockets are one of five teams that have what's known as a hybrid relationship with their D-League affiliate where they assume the control and costs of running the basketball operations in partnership with local ownership. The others are Brooklyn (Springfield), New York (Erie), Portland (Idaho) and Boston (Maine). A half-dozen other teams have single-affiliation relationships with D-League teams.
These are important steps, yet 12 years into its existence there is still a stigma attached with the D-League that is tough to shake. The D-League loves to promote its unlikely successes, but the real value is in developing first-round talent that would otherwise go to waste on the end of NBA benches racking up DNPs. Another test case will come when teams send veterans down to the D-League to get a game or two under their belt when they come back from injuries.
The D-League shouldn't be seen as a demotion or a punishment. It's one of the true cost-effective ways the NBA can develop its young players, and with more stories like Marcus Morris it can finally begin to fulfill its mission.