Updated: December 4, 2012, 11:31 AM ET

1. Rook Roundup: Scouting First-Year Players

By Kevin Arnovitz
ESPN.com

For most franchises whose principal architects don't have six rings to plop down on a table in front of a free-agent superstar, there are few surefire ways to enter the ranks of title contenders, but here's one:

Draft killer prospects and groom them for greatness. That's the operational mission for the vast majority of the NBA.

Monday's slate of games included several such teams, many of which feature a rookie who will determine their future fortune. A light schedule of only six games offered a glimpse of seven rookies who were top-10 picks (had Anthony Davis and Dion Waiters not been injured, that number would have been nine) and a few others who either start or play meaningful minutes.

This class spotlights a number of curiosities, but how many can an NBA organization build a winner around?

A quick survey of rookies who saw action Monday night:


Portland at Charlotte

lastname
Kidd-
Gilchrist
lastname
Leonard
lastname
Lillard

• Rookie point guard Damian Lillard is at the center of the Trail Blazers' rebuilding/reloading plan. As one NBA scout recently said, "He's only been in the league for a month but he's already figured out how to control the game." Lillard already is Portland's third-best player, and he's quickly emerging as its go-to guy. On Monday night, he scored the Trail Blazers' first bucket with a sneaky hesitation move, a baseline drive and then a beautiful reverse finish to elude Brendan Haywood. With his outside shot off the mark all night, Lillard continued to attack the rim both in the half court and in transition. It wasn't Lillard's finest night of the season, but he clearly can be entrusted with the controls in the cockpit.

Meyers Leonard was the No. 11 overall pick and is penciled in as Portland's center of the future. He is ripped and bouncy, and can paste opposing guards with sturdy screens. The size and speed are there -- that's a given. But Leonard also looks to have some potential to play a face-up game. He calmly drained an open 18-footer generously afforded him by Charlotte in the first quarter. Defensively, the effort isn't yet translating into proficiency. He's almost too mobile for his own good.

• At some point, the Bobcats need to uncover a couple of guys capable of serious production. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist is a cornerstone of the Bobcats' new foundation, and even though he was born during the Clinton administration, he already projects an innate feel for the game. It's one thing for a young guy to bring defensive energy to the floor, but it's obvious Kidd-Gilchrist is engaged in active decision-making as a defender (example: when to help on Lillard and when to stay home on Nicolas Batum). Offensively, the ball never stops with Kidd-Gilchrist. He either acts immediately or moves the ball. Not taking stupid shots is one of the hardest things for a rookie on a young noncontender, but he rarely seems tempted. On Monday night, Kidd-Gilchrist didn't get the call for key overtime possessions, with Ben Gordon playing well and Ramon Sessions consistently reliable late this season.

Cleveland at Detroit

lastname
Singler
lastname
Drummond

Andre Drummond might be more fun to watch after the ball goes up than before. For a guy who got slapped with the low-motor rap, he looked awfully hungry after Greg Monroe's botched jam in the third quarter, battling Tristan Thompson for the loose ball overhead. On the other end, Drummond altered shots all night, rumbling in from the weak side at the faintest smell of leather. With Monroe's talent perfectly suited for the high post, Drummond has the potential to hold down the low block for the Pistons for years to come. That's a formidable frontcourt base.

• If Kyle Singler becomes a rotation player in the NBA, it won't be because the Pistons deliberately made him a focal point of the offense. Singler is a scavenger who prowls the court for opportunities. He'll run to the right spot on the break, as he did in the first quarter when he ran down the gut of the lane, caught Brandon Knight's pass on the move, then stopped and popped for a foul-line jumper. A minute later, he sneaked behind the Cavs' defense with a back-door baseline cut, which earned him two more. On the next trip down, he found a vacant spot along the arc, where the ball found him again for a 3-pointer.

Milwaukee at New Orleans

lastname
Henson
lastname
Roberts
lastname
Rivers

Austin Rivers is spending a little more time off the ball, but he's not particularly adept at finding places to spot up, and not draining shots when he does. More troubling is his inability to convert at the rim. Rivers understands how to use a screen and attack a big defender, but it's that last line of defense where he confines himself to an impossible angle. We saw this dynamic at work in the second quarter, when Rivers beat the pick-and-roll coverage but had to confront the weakside big, Larry Sanders. There was an available pass to Jason Smith, but one gets the impression Rivers isn't all that interested in distributing. Rivers' layup attempt caromed off the upper-right corner of the backboard.

• If rookie Brian Roberts' playmaking makes him seem like a vet, that's because the 27-year-old rookie (happy birthday, Mr. Roberts) has been globetrotting overseas since he graduated from Dayton in 2008 and went undrafted. Roberts orchestrated one of the prettier possessions of the night when he went wide of a Lance Thomas pick, then stopped on a dime to reward his screener with a pocket pass through traffic -- resulting in a driving layup and-1 for Thomas.

• Milwaukee has accumulated an impressive collection of athletic, defensive-minded big men, with John Henson the youngest of the group. Henson is a tall, spindly kid and will especially come in handy for the Bucks on the defensive end, where he's already a useful pick-and-roll defender with his quick feet and insane reach. He is a smart helper and had his eyes on the ball while he simultaneously patrolled the paint. Defenders who can perform more than one task at the same time are a rare commodity, particularly up front, and Henson projects to be a real problem for opponents, provided he eats something now and then.

Toronto at Denver

lastname
Ross
lastname
Valanciunas

• Nobody spends more time on the court with his arm in the air calling for the ball in the block than Jonas Valanciunas. On most possessions, the 20-year-old Lithuanian has earned it. He uses every part of his torso, tuchus and base to carve out space for himself on the block. The most entertaining sideshow in the Raptors-Nuggets game was the endless game of rugby going on down low between Valanciunas and Kenneth Faried when the Raps had possession. One look at the wily shot-fake, nimble baseline drive and furious reverse dunk in the second quarter against Faried could sell the most ardent Valanciunas-skeptics on his frightening size-skill talents.

• The Raptors need some defensive-minded wings in the rotation, and Terrence Ross represents the team's best hope in both the near and long term. He has quick instincts and Tony Allen size without the brute strength. On Monday night, Ross spent most of his time on Corey Brewer, then was part of Toronto's Hack-a-Vale strategy in the third quarter. The most promising moment for Ross came when he attacked JaVale McGee with an assertive baseline drive, then drew the foul en route to the basket. Not a big deal, except the whistle sent Ross to the line for his first pair of free throws of the season (he had a single unsuccessful attempt against Boston as part of an and-1). He followed that by stepping rhythmically into a pretty catch-and shoot jumper in transition.

Magic at Warriors

lastname
Ezeli
lastname
Green
lastname
Barnes

• Can Harrison Barnes become a star? Of all the unknown variables up in the Bay, this question might be the most tantalizing. There's a diversity to Barnes' game that suggests he's the full package, but some nights he displays only a small segment of that range. Where Barnes has distinguished himself is on the defensive end, where he blanketed Arron Afflalo on the perimeter but still straddled the help line and made the right call when Orlando made its move. More times than not, Barnes was the first guy back on D and often picked up the ball in transition.

• Barnes isn't the only rookie who earns time for Mark Jackson. Othersized forward Draymond Green had his hands full with Glen Davis and was overmatched, but not for a lack of effort. Festus Ezeli is Golden State's show starter at center, and although he was a nonfactor Monday night, he gives a small team a bit of size until Andrew Bogut returns.

Kevin Arnovitz is an NBA writer and editor for ESPN.com. Follow him @kevinarnovitz.

Dimes past: Nov. 16-17 | 19 | 20 | 21 | 22 | 23-24 | 25 | 26 | 27 | 28 | 29 | 30-Dec. 1

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