The fantastic rookie class of 2008-09 gave us many rookie of the year candidates. O.J. Mayo dominated early. Kevin Love picked up some steam. Russell Westbrook jumped into serious contention. And Eric Gordon and Marc Gasol both played their way into consideration.
Brook Lopez, C, Nets
In the NBA, the center position is the toughest physically and the hardest to fill effectively. Lopez, who turned 21 last week, has performed ably and efficiently for the Nets in just his first season. His PER of 18.06 ranks him 10th in the NBA among centers who play 30 or more minutes a game, and first among rookies who average more than 26 mpg.
What makes Lopez unique is his ability to help his team in a variety of ways on both ends of the floor. His numbers after one season suggest he's a lot like Yao Ming, who is arguably the best center in the league at the pick-and-pop game. Check out Yao's offensive numbers: Thirty-nine percent of his shots are jumpers, many of which come after setting a ball screen. And his effective field goal percentage is a strong 44.6. Similarly, Lopez, who is eight years younger than Yao, gets 40 percent of his shots from the perimeter and his efg% is 40.
In addition to his perimeter skills, Lopez is also adept at using his size, speed, strength and agility in the paint, much like Dwight Howard, who is the most dominant center in the game. And this is where Lopez separates himself from most of the centers who have solid shooting talent. The Nets' big gets 16 percent of his shots on dunks and another 6 percent on tips (Howard gets 22 percent of his shots on dunks and 3 percent on tips; Yao gets 8 percent of his shots on dunks and 3 percent on tips). Yes, even though Lopez is not the athlete or physical specimen Howard is, he has enough athleticism and power to overwhelm many of his opponents (and it's fair to project that Lopez will gain strength in the coming years).
Lastly, to go along with his rare ability to do damage both from the perimeter and in the paint, he is also a shot-blocker on defense. In fact, he and Yao are the only two players in the NBA this season to have such balance on offense and finish in the league's top 10 in blocked shots.
Factor in that Lopez is 21st in the NBA in rebounding (clearly his weakest area), and it's hard to fathom that a player who has had this kind of impact would not be the rookie of the year.
But when you're in Derrick Rose's class, that's how it goes.
Derrick Rose, PG, Bulls
Rose is third in PER (15.92) among rookies who have played 30-plus minutes a game, first among non-centers. Among rookies, he is second in scoring, first in assists and first in assists per turnovers. And perhaps the most important stat of all is that the Bulls are back in the playoffs and have been one of the hottest teams in the NBA since the All-Star break. (Sometimes this has less meaning for rookies, who often play small roles and rarely play big minutes. But with Rose, it takes on more meaning because his role has been huge in Chicago. As have his minutes.)
But the case for Rose is even more impressive once you get past the easy stats above. From day one, the Bulls have operated around a system that best allows Rose to play to his strengths: attacking the rim and finishing. His dribble-drive game is deadly, and his strength allows him to finish shots even when he hasn't totally beaten his defender. He gets to the rim for 39 percent of his shots, which is a strong number, and he finishes 56 percent of them, which is even stronger.
Early on, teams allowed him to drive and did not devote much energy to helping onto him. So he flourished as a scorer, averaging 18.9 ppg on 50 percent shooting from the field in November. Then teams started helping more, forcing him to pass and think more. It worked to some extent, as Rose saw his scoring drop by more than two points per game and the Bulls had a losing month in each month until March.
But during that time, he learned to make easy passes out to teammates if opponents reacted quickly to his drives. And, when forced to be a scorer, he became more efficient at getting baskets, especially in his midrange game. So when the Bulls added more perimeter threats at the trade deadline, their offense took off because of his lessons learned.
One of Rose's best traits is his willingness to be a role player when necessary, allowing his teammates to take the bulk of the shots when the matchups dictate that. He has a maturity that is beyond his age and experience. His selflessness, though, is matched by his soaring confidence that he can take over at any time. And, in those times, he has earned his teammates' trust because they know he's trying to make the right play for the team. They'd be OK seeing him score just 9 points on 7 shots (with 7 assists and 5 boards) in a win, just as they would be if he went for 23 points on 25 shots in a loss.
Those attributes are even more powerful than his stats, and they are what will make him an All-Star in the years to come, a key member for future versions of Team USA and a postseason star for the resurgent Bulls going forward.
By helping the Bulls return to the playoffs, Rose gets the nod for rookie of the year. Beating out Lopez and the rest of this outstanding class is noteworthy, and it's just the beginning for this special talent.
David Thorpe is an NBA analyst for Scouts Inc. and the executive director of the Pro Training Center in Clearwater, 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.