(Shelden Williams, get crammed on.)
I watch preseason NBA games for many reasons, none having to do with the quality of play: I love seeing the Stephane Lasmes of the world earn their headlines; watching preseason is more fun than NOT watching basketball; I’m entirely addicted to the NBA (I have a problem); it’s interesting to see how offseason additions fit; and I love getting a look at the new rookies.
That last point might be the reason I most enjoy the NBA preseason. I dare you to watch this 40-second clip of John Wall and not be enthralled. I dare you. It’s not going to happen. Talents like Wall enter the NBA and make you think, “What’s possible?” With established players, you know what their ceiling is, or you at least have an idea. But with rookies? Until we find out otherwise, the rafters are the limit. Wall could become the NBA’s best point guard within three years, Blake Griffin could become an electric mix of something in between Amare Stoudemire, Carlos Boozer and Dwight Howard, and Derrick Favors or DeMarcus Cousins could be the next great low-post threat. Before those guys play a single game, nothing’s out of play.
Even less-heralded rookies inspire the imagination. Can Avery Bradley become the C’s next defensive stopper? Does Luke Harangody have what it takes to be Danny Ainge’s latest diamond in the rough? Could Semih Erden potentially displace one of the O’Neals in the lineup? Even with the picks who have less upside, the preseason is a time for hope. I can remember last preseason, reading about Lester Hudson: He averaged 27.5 pppg in college! He has a 6’9″ wingspan! He’s got 3.4% body fat! This kid could be a keeper! Alas, Hudson was cut midway through the season after hardly making any impact on the Celtics. But before the season, there’s always hope.
With that in mind, I handicap the Rookie of the Year race.
1,000,000-1 odds: Luke Harangody
So… you’re telling me there’s a chance? No, not really. If I could have made Harangody’s percentages zero, I would have. But there’s always a small chance every other rookie in the NBA gets injured, right? Right?? Okay, maybe Harangody actually does have zero chance of winning the ROY. But he surprised me the other night with 16 points and 12 tough rebounds. I might be guilty of something I despise: underrating someone who always produces, just because his upside fails to make Jay Bilas salivate.
45-1 odds: Avery Bradley and Semih Erden
In a perfect situation, on the perfect team, with perfect health, Bradley might have a chance to garner some Rookie of the Year votes. And I stress might. In Boston, stuck behind Rajon Rondo, Ray Allen, Nate Robinson and Delonte West, and struggling to put an ankle injury behind him, Bradley won’t earn a single vote. If the Celtics are lucky, he’ll make some type of positive contribution. But I wouldn’t count on it. Doc Rivers has a habit of keeping rookies down.
Erden, on the other hand, isn’t your regular rookie. He’s already been seasoned in the Turkish professional league, and holds an advanced basketball IQ to go with a natural toughness. That doesn’t mean he’ll find much playing time: The Turk happens to be sitting behind 21 combined All-Star appearances, and, when he returns from injury, Kendrick Perkins. How do you say “talented bench-warmer” in Turkish?
7-1 odds: Wesley Johnson and Derrick Favors
I love Favors… for the future. For now, he’s just a project who happens to be equipped with a package of length, strength and athleticism that’s only surpassed by Dwight Howard. Not bad company for the Nets’ future power forward. But in the present, he’s still learning the game.
As for Johnson: He shouldn’t be a bust, but he won’t immediately be a star either. Drafting Johnson is like going to Blockbuster (do they even exist anymore?) and renting a movie you’ve already seen. You know what you’re getting and it’s going to be good. But you might enjoy the night more if you roll the dice with a new flick.
6-1 odds: Evan Turner
People wrote Turner off after Summer League, when he puked all over himself for a week straight. Then I wrote him off further when he played the Celtics and Tommy Heinsohn describes Turner’s play by saying something like, “Well, I’m not too impressed by this new Turner kid. He doesn’t really do anything.”
But Turner has silently put together a solid preseason, averaging 10 points, 6.8 rebounds and 3.2 assists. That’s a nice all-around line, and Turner won’t have much competition in Philly to steal his playing time.
4-1 odds: DeMarcus Cousins
Cousins is like the new Porsche a millionaire gives his daughter for her sweet sixteen. It’s got all the tools to be the best ride she’s ever had and the best present a father has ever gifted. But would anyone be surprised if the Porsche ends up getting totalled?
5-2 odds: John Wall
I knew Wall was going to be great in the NBA. Players who are that athletic and that talented don’t come around very often, and when they do, they normally become superstars. But Wall has surpassed even my lofty expectations in preseason. He isn’t just that athletic and that talented; he’s also a poised point guard who knows how to run a team. That combination is deadly.
2-1 odds: Blake Griffin
The thing that impresses me the most about Griffin isn’t that he flies through the air for dunks. It’s not that he gobbles up rebounds like Lamar Odom does candy bars, and it’s not that he has perimeter skills despite his 6’10″, Zeus-like frame.
No, I’m most impressed by the effortless way he moves. Griffin doesn’t run, he glides. He doesn’t jump, he floats. And if he can somehow avoid the Clippers Curse and stay healthy all season, Griffin should be strutting at the end of the season, with the Rookie of the Year trophy in his hands.