Rookies and first round draft picks come in with often unfair expectations. Their draft slot becomes a burden as common perception shifts to them being productive right away. They should be difference makers from opening night and every coach should play them or else they hate rookies. Yet, there is often a lot to consider with an incoming player. Where are they going and what is that team’s situation? After all, playoff teams often don’t have time for player development and teams drafting on talent may select a player despite have someone on the roster already at their position.
Then there’s the natural learning curve. Some players jump the curve as Philadelphia’s Michael Carter-Williams did in November while others have steadily rounded into form as the season has progressed. While players like Carter-Williams and even Portland’s Damian Lillard last year have begun their NBA careers with a bang, those cases are the exception, not the rule. More times than not, developing rookies is a test of a team’s patience and a player’s confidence. For the most part, these are kids 18-20 years old trying to adjust to a shortened shot clock, playing in more complicated systems and facing better athletes than they have before.
In particular, big men take the most time. Take Charlotte Bobcats rookie Cody Zeller and Minnesota Timberwolves rookie Gorgui Dieng for example.
Cody Zeller’s career, like Dieng’s, got off to a less than auspicious beginning. Despite possessing freaky athleticism and an innate ability to rebound, Zeller had a hard time adapting to the NBA game. Offensively, Zeller looked lost, like he wasn’t sure where to be and when he should be shooting, and it showed. From November to January he cracked 40 percent shooting just once and failed to post an average offensive rating. Defensively, he was a negative for the Bobcats as he learned how to defend NBA bigs in the post.
Then, February hit and things suddenly clicked for the seven-footer. He posted a +8.9 plus/minus and shot 55.8 percent in the month of March and looked far more comfortable in the offense. It took him four months, but he finally got “it” with steady minutes throughout the season despite his struggles– a prototypical trial by fire, if you will. The amount of confidence it takes to persevere through those struggles and dealing with not being the best player on the court for the first time in your life is immeasurable, and a must. Zeller knew his role coming into the season knowing that Al Jefferson and Josh McRoberts were the starters in the frontcourt and Steve Clifford never deviated from that. This is the consistency that is so crucial in player development and Zeller has rewarded the Bobcats with his production and a playoff spot.
Unlike Zeller, Dieng took a different route to the rotation. Dieng was far from ready to be an immediate contributor despite his age. His offensive game was still raw, and although he had superior shot blocking instincts, he had a penchant for fouling that made it difficult to play him for more than a handful of minutes per game. To make his odds of seeing the court even more unlikely, the Timberwolves had high playoff aspirations for the season, unlike Zeller and the Bobcats, initially.
When injuries took hold in March and Nikola Pekovic and Ronny Turiaf were both sidelined, Dieng was pushed into the starter’s spot. Suddenly, Dieng showed improved fundamentals defensively by keeping his hands up instead of down in order to cut back his fouls. Because of this, the Timberwolves finally saw what they had in Dieng. The Louisville product went on to shine in March, earning Rookie of the Month honors for his double-doubles and emphatic shot blocks. Dieng has continued his production in April, posting his first 20 rebound game of his career on the 11th and even showed off the midrange shot that his collegiate opponents remembered. More than that, the Timberwolves appear to have stumbled into a young and affordable backup for Pekovic at center for the next few years.
So, which way is better: to show immediately or down the road? The answer is neither. Just like there’s no wrong way to build a contender as long as you build one, as long as the player develops there is no wrong answer. Each individual is different and learns in their own way and at their own pace. Lillard started out strong and continued that production throughout his rookie campaign, while Kevin Love, once upon a time, improved steadily as his rookie year went on. For the vast majority of draftees, development takes time and possibly a change of scenery. Heck, it took Portland’s Thomas Robinson three teams in one year to hit his stride as a sophomore, but there was nothing wrong with that process either.
Perhaps the biggest thing we need to accept is that not every rookie is going to be a LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Anthony Davis or Lillard. For every one of those, there are several Loves, Diengs, and Zellers that require more time. A lot of time that involves finding the right situation, like Thomas Robinson. These things take time and it’s not necessarily a referendum on a player’s career if they don’t play immediately or are moved around multiple times. In a case like Robinson’s, it’s not that the teams didn’t think he could be good enough; he just didn’t fit the needs of the team at the time.
For us, learning to see the big picture in the present can be a challenging thing. But that’s why we watch and continue to refine our thought processes: to become smarter, just like a player working on their game. Maybe we want those early season games to mean something, but when you step back, they are really just a fraction of what will eventually be a larger body of work. That’s why we look for improvements and consistencies as the season goes, and conversely, look out for stagnation or drop-off after a hot start. There’s an unknown to a player’s rookie season, which is both exciting and scary because of the uncertainty. Each path that a player takes to becoming a legitimate NBA player comes with its unique twists and turns, but it’s thrill of that uncertainty over the outcome that makes it worth watching.