1. Rook Roundup: Scouting First-Year Players
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
• 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
• 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
• 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
• 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
• 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.
2. Around The Association
Recap | Box score
MVP: Blake Griffin had his best offensive performance of the season, registering his first 30-point game of 2012-13. He dominated Utah inside, with 12 of his 14 field goals coming basically right at the rim. He single-handedly kept L.A. in the game all night.
That was ... a layup drill: Neither club cared much about playing any defense. The Jazz cooled off late but ended up shooting 56.8 percent(!). Both teams scored more than 50 points in the paint, and the shot charts were just a bunch of dots near the rim.
X factor: Halftime. At the end of the first half, the Jazz decisively led in points in the paint and had more than twice as many rebounds as the Clippers. That all changed after intermission, with L.A. evening it out and coming up victorious.
Recap | Box score
That was ... epic: Down 18 with five and change left in the fourth, Portland outmuscled, outhustled and outclutched the scrappy Cats, forcing an unlikely fifth stanza and pulling away down the stretch. What a game.
MVP: LaMarcus Aldridge. LMA took advantage of his many mismatches, wielding a devastating inside-outside repertoire en route to besting the Bobcats for 25 points, 13 boards, five assists and three blocks.
X factor: The Blazers hit the glass hard and often as regulation wound down, grabbing rebounds seemingly at will -- including six on the offensive end that helped extend a series of do-or-die possessions -- as the maxed-out Cats stood idly by.
Recap | Box score
MVP: Kyle Lowry. Although ultimately unsuccessful, Lowry's tenacity and poise kept the Raptors in the game. Lowry, who finished with 24 points, seven assists and three blocks, helped Toronto mount an improbable comeback from down 15 with six minutes left.
That was ... quite a sequence: Down six with 18 seconds left, Toronto didn't quit. Lowry and Amir Johnson each hit deep treys from the left wing. Down three, DeMar DeRozan missed from the same spot at the buzzer.
X factor: The athletic Nuggets seemed to be everywhere in the second quarter -- making steals and long outlet passes, creating blisteringly quick transition opportunities. The Nuggets dominated the quarter, and it proved decisive.
Recap | Box score
That was ... routine: The Pistons dispatched the injury-ravaged Cavaliers with ease. A stat as simple as field goal percentage tells the story: The Pistons shot 42.9 percent while holding the Cavs to a measly 33.7 from the field.
MVP: Jason Maxiell had an efficient 12 points on 6-for-12 shooting, but what jumps off the stat sheet are his five blocks. It's rare that a 6-foot-7 power forward affects the game defensively, but Maxiell commanded the paint.
LVP: Alonzo Gee. I hate to pick on a hard worker like Gee, but with Dion Waiters and Kyrie Irving absent for the Cavaliers, he had to shoulder the offensive load and failed, finishing with six points on 2-for-10 shooting.
3. Monday's Best
LaMarcus Aldridge, Blazers: Awakened after being on the receiving end of an early MJ impression by the Artist Formerly Known as BJ Mullens, Aldridge went on to total 25 points on 17 shots to go along with 13 rebounds and five assists in Portland's overtime win in Charlotte.
4. Monday's Worst
Alonzo Gee, Cavs: The former D-Leaguer-turned-starter struggled mighty against the hapless Pistons, finishing 2-for-10 for six points as the Kyrie Irving-less Cavs dropped another one in Detroit.
5. NBA Video Channel
6. Tweet Of The Night
7. Quote Of The Night
"I remember just like yesterday when I signed here and basically, like the roof caved in. To see that I and my team and everyone around me was able to patch that roof up, to come to this point, to come to this point and receive such a prestigious award, it's huge."
-- LeBron James, on being named Sports Illustrated's Sportsman of 2012.
8. Look What The Cat Dragged In
9. Stat Check
• Ben Gordon scored the 10,000th point of his career in Charlotte's loss to Portland on Monday. He's the sixth player out of the University of Connecticut to score at least 10,000 points in the NBA, and all six came out of UConn when Jim Calhoun was the head coach there. They are: Clifford Robinson, Donyell Marshall, Ray Allen, Richard Hamilton, Caron Butler and Gordon. The only other school to send at least six 10,000-point players to the NBA in the past 25 years is Arizona, which also has six: Sean Elliott, Damon Stoudamire, Mike Bibby, Jason Terry, Gilbert Arenas and Richard Jefferson.
• The Raptors sent JaVale McGee to the free throw line 16 times in Denver's win over Toronto on Monday, and he made nine of them in a three-point win. That's the most free throws attempted by any non-starter in any game this season; the only substitute to go to the line that many times in a game last season was Jerome Dyson, formerly of the Hornets, on April 18 (14-for-16).
10. Dunk Of The Night
MVP: After a quiet first half offensively, J.J. Redick erupted with 17 second-half points. Redick put his stamp on the game for the Magic not only with his scoring (22 points) but with his passing (seven assists).
Defining moment: Tied at 69 after three, Orlando used a 33-point fourth quarter to come away with the victory. Just like the Lakers on Sunday, the Warriors struggled to contain the Magic's offense late in the game.
That was ... a case of deja vu: In back-to-back games on the road, Orlando has put up point totals of 40 and 33 in the fourth quarter against Los Angeles and Golden State, respectively. And in both games, the Magic were able to come away with hard-fought wins.
MVP: Ryan Anderson, who led New Orleans in scoring with 22 points on 9-for-14 from the field, including nine points in a third quarter in which the Hornets compiled enough of a cushion.
X factor: Robin Lopez. Lopez is supposed to be the defensively inclined Lopez brother. Instead, Robin shot 8-for-10 from the field and 5-for-5 from the free throw line for 21 points. Lopez was key to the Hornets starting this game well.
That was ... a relief: In the first quarter, the Bucks shot 13 free throws. Monta Ellis was posting up and drawing fouls, and it looked dangerously close to becoming a sputtering, tough-to-watch game. Instead, we got a wide-open, high-energy game once the fouls subsided.