Rookie Watch: It's hunting season

Each week thus far, I've mentioned, in one form or another, the challenges presented to each rookie. But for a smaller number of guys, the challenges are even greater because they play for teams with legitimate playoff aspirations. Each play is magnified a little more and studied a little longer. One bad game can lead to a string of bad games, prompting the coach to change the rotation or perhaps the GM to make a deal that brings a veteran into the fold.

Guys like Derrick Rose, Greg Oden and Rudy Fernandez can take comfort in the fact that they will clearly be a part of their teams' playoff runs, regardless of a few bad games. They are guaranteed to get minutes all season long, and have to start peaking only come springtime to ensure playing time in the playoffs.

But for players like San Antonio's George Hill, Orlando's Courtney Lee, or even New Jersey's Brook Lopez, the hunt for meaningful playoff minutes has already started.

With that said, here are my rookie observations for this week.

(Click here for my updated Rookie 50 rankings.)

Derrick Rose, Bulls
I wonder if all of the attention, pressure, playing time and burden of being all things for his team is wearing down Rose faster than the Bulls expected. He looked tired in the two games I watched -- at Charlotte and home against the Clippers. His numbers are down almost across the board in December. This is partly because teams are now helping off of the other Bulls and on to him, which was not often the case in November.

Still, the young man from Chicago is full of talent and spirit, and he performed beautifully in a recent win over Utah.

George Hill, Spurs
I loved what the Spurs' coaches were doing with Hill before their game in Orlando on Thursday. They weren't practicing the all-too-common spot shooting or simple curl/fade stuff. Instead, they had Hill using a ballscreen where he had to immediately deal with the hedge defender. It was full of the little nuances that make a drill feel "game-like" -- eyes watching for teammates, looking off defenders, changing speeds, etc.

The players who get better every month are not necessarily working harder than their counterparts, but smarter.

Brook Lopez, Nets
The more I watch Lopez, the more I like his future in the league. He's playing with a high motor more often now, attacking the glass on both ends effectively.

We knew he could score inside, but he also looks good taking perimeter shots, although he is not hitting them effectively right now. But I see him being an excellent shooter down the road. And then the league's centers will truly have their hands full. "Harris and Lopez" will be a hit duo.

Rudy Fernandez, Trail Blazers
When Fernandez sets his feet and holds his follow through, he's a top-notch 3-point shooter. When he doesn't do those things, he's not. Electing to shoot step-back 3s off the dribble is not smart.

If he's dribbling, I'd rather see him attacking the rim or pulling up for a midrange jumper.

Greg Oden, Trail Blazers
Two season ago, I watched Nene give Tim Duncan fits in the Spurs' half court offense because the Nuggets' center is long and strong. So seeing Greg Oden getting open and maneuvering with ease for some post buckets over Nene on Monday night was a special sign.

Oden is still lost on defense sometimes and he is a long way from being totally comfortable on the court (he air-balled a simple, 7-foot jump hook in Denver), but his low-post offensive game is showing signs of resurfacing. He has hit 22 of his past 33 shots (66.7 percent).

Courtney Lee, Magic
Coming out of college, the biggest knock on Lee was that he was not assertive enough. On the other hand, Lee rarely took bad shots, enjoyed making easy passes to teammates, was extremely quick and athletic, and loved to defend. He's doing those positive things on the pro level now, which is exactly why Stan Van Gundy likes him.

Among rookies, Lee is tied for first (with Derrick Rose) in field goal percentage, fifth in true shooting percentage, fifth in turnover rate and fifth in defensive rebound rate.

Marreese Speights, 76ers
I first saw Speights a couple of years ago when he was a college freshman, and couldn't believe his touch around the basket. And now, despite being on the "playing time see-saw," he's hitting 49.3 percent of his shots.

And as of today, he leads all rookies in player efficiency rating by a bigger margin than the No. 2 rook (Mayo) holds over the next 10 rookies. Speights is still a liability on defense, and his motor can stall from time to time, but his offensive talent is enormous.

O.J. Mayo, Grizzlies
In Memphis' bad home loss to Charlotte, Mayo scored just seven points, the first time all season he didn't reach double figures. Poor shot selection was his downfall. Shooting 1-for-5 from 3 (1-for-10 in back-to-back games) didn't help, either.

But I was very impressed with the job he did utilizing ballscreens and distributing the ball. He gets low and moves fast around bodies, and he made the right read almost every time.

Kevin Love, Timberwolves
I was one of the "experts" who liked Minnesota's trade of Mayo for Love. In layman's terms, however, it looks like what you would call a "swing and a miss." I believed in Love as a rebounder, and I still do. His terrific hands and feel greatly help him on the boards, as does his motor.

But he's been awful as a scorer/finisher -- rushing shots, settling for fades too quickly, not exploding on finishes inside. However, I still see tremendous potential in him. The Wolves must continue to develop his talent.

Russell Westbrook, Thunder
Westbrook has had a terrific month, averaging more minutes, points, rebounds and assists than last month. His game against the Raptors had to make the Thunder executives, who drafted Westbrook partly because he is a winner, especially happy.

He was super fast and brought high energy in that game, but still played with (some) control. And he made two huge shots to help ice the game for a team desperate for wins. Both were "old school" bank shots from the side off of dribble drives.

Anthony Randolph, Warriors
My advice for Randolph: beast it every night on the boards, in transition and on defense. And do not shoot one single shot from outside of eight feet (he's below 30 percent from this distance out). I'd like to see him smile more, display better body language, and just be happier to be in the NBA.

Once he manages those things and starts averaging a double-double, because he's that good, we can start discussing learning how to play on the perimeter. I assure you, Don Nelson is saying those things right now.

D.J. Augustin, Bobcats
There is no delicate way to put this: Augustin cooked Derrick Rose in their meeting in Charlotte on Tuesday. His change of speed went from slow to lightning fast. And he was strong with the ball, too.

Rob Kurz, Warriors
Kurz, who was a student of mine in August, experienced the ups and downs of the NBA in just two days.

First, the undrafted power forward out of Notre Dame survived a cut when Monta Ellis returned to the roster (the Warriors instead cut PF Richard Hendrix, who was drafted and signed to a guaranteed contract).

Then Kurz was awarded a start in Atlanta the next night, thanks to his great shooting stroke (mostly seen in practice) and overall feel for the game. But after an 0-for-4 performance in 12 minutes, missing wide open looks, Kurz still must worry about January 10; all players still on the team after that date are guaranteed their contract for the remainder of the season. He knows he has to make shots to stick.

Click here for the entire Rookie 50 rankings

David Thorpe is an NBA analyst for Scouts Inc. and the executive director of the Pro Training Center at the IMG Academies in Bradenton, Fla., where he oversees the player development program for more than 40 NBA, European League and D-League players. Those players include Kevin Martin, Rob Kurz, Luol Deng, Courtney Lee and Tyrus Thomas. To e-mail him, click here.