Rookie Watch: Who's bringing the D?

Conventional wisdom suggests NBA coaches may preach about defense but will always defer to good offense if given the choice. But in reality, coaches are more pragmatic than that. They will look to players, rookies or not, who can help their teams. And if they need more help on defense, then that's what they'll look for. (The same goes for rebounding, shot-blocking, athleticism, etc.)

So rooks trying to move up in the rotation need to be aware of just what their team is in short supply of by listening closely to their head coach. He'll spend plenty of time pointing out those deficiencies, so the sharp player who's paying attention can take full advantage.

How does this play out in the real world? Let's peek in on the Magic, who recently played a red-hot Dwyane Wade and his Heat team.

Stan Van Gundy knows Wade well from his coaching days in Miami and wanted his players to challenge Wade on both sides of the court -- hoping to both fatigue him and curtail any late-game heroics. He also made things tougher on Wade by forcing him to drive into the teeth of the defense, where Dwight Howard lurked. It's a strategy used against outstanding guards that SVG has preached all season to his guys, one which rookie Courtney Lee has used to gain ground in his turf war against three other shooting guards on the team despite his below-average offensive numbers.

So as the fourth quarter began, with Wade already having poured in 33 points, Lee was assigned to defend Wade and try to slow him down. Well, the game ended with Wade still stuck on 33 (he was 0-for-3 from the field with zero free throw attempts in the fourth quarter) and Lee further cementing his place in Orlando's rotation. Not because he shut Wade down by himself -- he didn't. Lee simply took SVG's challenge of guarding Wade aggressively, working to stay in front of him and forcing him to drive toward Howard (who blocked one of the three fourth-quarter misses and made Wade alter another).

Chasing Wade on ballscreens was important, too. As was not fouling him by trying to block a shot Lee would never get to (a common mistake players make while defending Wade).

Guys like Lee, Luc Richard Mbah a Moute and Mario Chalmers remain in their teams' rotations because of what they bring on the defensive side of the ball. And fittingly, if the playoffs were to begin tonight, they'd be the only rookie guards/wings to get rotation minutes in the East.

Here are my latest observations on how some members of the rookie class are developing defensively and otherwise.

(Click here for my updated Rookie 50 rankings.)

Courtney Lee, Magic
It wasn't just his stellar efforts on defense that caught my eye against Miami. His offensive game, while not always efficient, is very solid. He has slowed down and learned to create problems for guys closing out on him fast by using a nice shot-fake-and-go move. Opponents are rushing him because, like most of Orlando's perimeter players, Lee can really shoot it. He's at 39.5 percent from 3 after starting the season 4-for-18 from downtown; he's hit 13 of his past 25 attempts from beyond the arc.

Greg Oden, Trail Blazers
Watching Boston lose to Portland late last week, I was taken with how well Oden defends guys on the perimeter. That's not to say he's a lockdown guy out there, obviously. What was impressive was his willingness to step out and contest shooters off of flare screens, even when they were behind the line. Most bigs are afraid of getting too extended from the rim, because getting extended means there is a lot of space to get beat in. But not Oden. He even switched onto smaller guys (once against Paul Pierce at the top -- a very dangerous place for a mismatch), but he wisely kept his huge hand up to take away the easy jumper and force a drive into a sagging defense.

Remember, knowing the game plan is one thing, but executing it is another. Oden deserved praise for his execution defensively against the Celtics.

Mario Chalmers, Heat
One of my favorite tools to evaluate a point guard is comparing turnovers to steals, with the thinking being if a player can create as many possessions as he gives up at the point, he should end up being a net positive for his team. Chalmers has 64 turnovers this season and has stolen the ball 62 times.

His turnovers are relatively low for a rookie point guard because he does a nice job of staying under control while still being aggressive. And it's easier for his coach to live with his mistakes when he is so deft at getting the ball on the other end. A common refrain uttered by coaches after their player turns the ball over is "get it back on defense." Chalmers often does.

Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, Bucks
He's likely the best perimeter defender in this class. But I wonder what he was thinking when he tried to defend Boris Diaw on Saturday, because he certainly never had to guard a player that versatile in his life.

When you are challenged to defend the other team's best offensive player each night, as Mbah a Moute seems destined to be by the Bucks, then you have to be prepared to defend all sorts of talents and sizes. Explosive athletes, terrific shooters, constant movers. And a guy like Diaw, who can back you down, face you up, make his teammates better and generally frustrate the heck out of you.

O.J. Mayo, Grizzlies
Any discussion of rookies playing D must mention Mayo. He's not anywhere close to being a good NBA defender yet, but it's clear he's going to get there. In projecting defense, we look at desire to defend, strength and quickness, height and length, feel, basketball IQ, awareness and overall disposition. Among the rookie class, Mayo ranks in the top three or four in almost every category.

Kevin Love, Timberwolves
Heading into a matchup against Mayo and the Grizzlies on Tuesday, Love has put together the best two-game stretch of his young career, scoring 37 points and grabbing 20 boards in the Wolves' back-to-back wins.

It's easy to suggest that Memphis got the better end of the Love-for-Mayo deal, but it's still too early to declare the winner. Mayo will always be the bigger star, but that was assumed from the start. Love's toughness and hoops IQ, plus his size and skills, also give him a chance to anchor winning teams in the future.

Anthony Randolph, Warriors
After watching him play well in the Vegas summer league, I wrote; "Don Nelson is letting him play as a point forward, so Randolph has many chances to display his immense talents. But I worry how he'll respond once the regular season starts and he goes from getting 'royal jelly' to 'DNP-CDs.'"

Don Nelson and other coaches have confirmed these concerns this season. Randolph is still a mega-talent, in my eyes, but it seems he has a long way to go before getting in the good graces of his coaching staff. Losing minutes to undrafted rookies Rob Kurz and Anthony Morrow is telling. Still, it's hard to make the case that he's not playing hard on the court, as his rebound rate of 17.4 ranks third in this class behind only centers Oden and Love.

Eric Gordon, Clippers
Gordon's offensive game is really coming on; he's scored 24, 21, 21 and 31 points in his past four games.

But I'm impressed with his defense, too. Finding shooters and closing out on them is a must in this league, and his awareness and long arms are a big help here.

Marc Gasol, Grizzlies
In his game against "The Big Fundamental," Tim Duncan, Gasol showed off his great footwork. He is an expert at using crafty steps and exquisite timing to create angles for himself, since he's not going to outquick or outjump anyone.

His fake-handoff, split-the-defenders step-through in the third quarter that resulted in a dunk was one of the most impressive moves I've ever seen from a big man at that spot on the floor.

Brook Lopez, Nets
He's already known as a gifted offensive player, but what Lopez has done on defense recently must be making the Nets burst with pride. Until his game Sunday, Lopez had blocked at least two shots in eight straight games, getting five blocks in the first game of that streak. He's fifth in the entire NBA in blocks per game (1.94).

If he keeps this up, it'll be easy to project Lopez to one day be one of the best scorers/shot-blockers in the NBA. Oden should eventually be in that elite group, as well.

Russell Westbrook, Thunder
Westbrook has not disappointed his coaches on either side of the ball. He notched his third five-steal game of the season on New Year's Eve after scoring 31 points two nights earlier. The Thunder were expecting the steals, but not the points this early in his first season. He's scoring well while still not being a good shooter, a skill that can be improved over time. That bodes well for both Westbrook and the Thunder.

Jason Thompson, Kings
The change in coaches seems to have had a positive effect on Thompson, who was spiraling downward after a terrific start to the season. His jumper is falling again and he has been very active around the basket. He'll get pushed around inside, for now, but he projects to be a strong power forward with good shooting range.

I still believe he has the talent and toughness to be a starter in this league. Now it's just a question of how hard he'll play every minute on the floor, and how hard he'll work on his off days.

George Hill, Spurs
Another guy who has terrific defensive potential, Hill plays on a team that needs offensive firepower off the bench. Sometimes. Recently, they've not needed Hill at all, so he's been quiet, scoring just 10 points in the Spurs' past six games (five were wins) before Monday.

But they needed his scoring badly in Miami on Monday, and Hill delivered, scoring 15 points in 17 minutes and making all three of his 3s. I continue to see a similar trend all season for Hill and the Spurs, with Popovich getting him minutes every game to keep him plugged in, expecting a few nights like we saw in Miami.

Kosta Koufos, Jazz
The big guy is one of the fastest risers in this class, averaging 12 points and 6 rebounds in just 20 minutes per game over his past five games. He has his motor revving high, which greatly helps his cause thanks to the Jazz' offensive system and unselfish players. On some teams, he'd be running in circles and getting few touches, but not in Utah. How's this for helping out a teammate: Koufos has dunked on 9 percent of his shot attempts, and 100 percent of his dunks have come off an assist.

Rudy Fernandez, Trail Blazers
Here's another idea of how important the 3-point line is to Rudy Fernandez. Consider this: In the 13 games in which he's made fewer than two 3s, he is averaging just 5.8 points per game. In the 19 games in which he's hit two or more 3s, he's at 14.8 ppg.

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.