Kyrie Irving and NBA's Top 15 Rookies from 2011-12

Sam QuinnContributor IIIMay 27, 2012

Kyrie Irving and NBA's Top 15 Rookies from 2011-12

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    Let me be the 13,000th person to tell you that the 2011 NBA draft produced a fairly weak class of rookies. Unless Jonas Valanciunas surprises us next year with the Raptors, I wouldn't be surprised to see only two players from this class ever play in an All-Star game.

    But that doesn't mean there wasn't some depth to this group. Even if only two of them will ever be stars, it produced a number of players who will have meaningful careers. Fans usually only look for big names, but championship teams need to go at least nine deep, so rotation players play a critical role.

    That's the theme of this year's rookie class. Most of these guys are really good at one thing. That's what allows them to play in the league and makes them valuable pieces to have. Here are the 15 top-performing rookies of the 2011-2012 season. 

No. 1: Kyrie Irving

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    20.9 PPG, 5.9 APG, 5.5 RPG, .417 FG%

    18.5 PPG, 5.4 APG, 3.7 RPG, .469 FG%

    The top stat line belongs to LeBron James as a rookie in 2003. The bottom belongs to Kyrie Irving as a rookie this season. 

    It's not really fair to compare them, but Kyrie will always be linked to LeBron, so it only seems appropriate. He wasn't quite as good as King James, but he was pretty close. LeBron almost destroyed basketball in Cleveland; Kyrie Irving is bringing it back.

    That's all that needs to be said. He was the best rookie in the NBA this year, he will play in multiple All-Star Games and he will lead the Cavaliers back into contention. Cleveland fans couldn't be happier with how their No. 1 overall pick worked out. Rather than nitpick, I'll move on. 

No. 2: Ricky Rubio

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    As good as Kyrie Irving was, Ricky Rubio made this a legitimate race for most of the year. He may not have been better than Irving, but Rubio was certainly more entertaining, and still managed to finish second in Rookie of the Year voting despite a season-ending injury early March.

    The Steve Nash and Pistol Pete comparisons lingered, but Jason Kidd probably makes the most sense. Both are world-class passers and lockdown defenders, but both entered the league without any semblance of a jump shot. 

    That's Rubio's only weakness, but to bash him for it would be hypocritical considering how often we call modern players ball-hogs and chuckers. 

    Rubio plays the point guard position the way it was meant to be played. He sees angles nobody else does and makes the flashy passes look as easy as the simple ones.

    The Spaniard's chemistry with Kevin Love made Minnesota a must-watch for the first few months of the year. Before his injury, Minnesota looked like a playoff team. It's no surprise that the Timberwolves fell apart without him; his passing and general basketball intelligence took their impressive collection of talent and turned it into an actual team. 

    That's why I'm not worried about Rubio's recovery. He's going to change his game just as easily as Chris Paul has. He'll stay out of the paint when he has to, he'll focus fully on helping his teammates and he'll always be smarter than the guy who's guarding him (unless, of course, that guy is Paul).

    Like Irving, Rubio is going to be an All-Star for the next decade, and he's going to put the Minnesota Timberwolves on the map. 

No. 3: Isaiah Thomas

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    Absolutely nobody saw this coming. Just look at the circumstances surrounding Isaiah Thomas' rookie year:

    • He's 5'9''.
    • He was the last pick in the draft.
    • The team (and I use the word "team" in the loosest sense of the word) that picked him was the Sacramento Kings, an organization desperately trying to move, had a coach they would fire seven games into the season and were filled with moody young guys all fighting for the spotlight. 
    • The Kings had earlier traded up for another guard (Jimmer Fredette), had a former Rookie of the Year (Tyreke Evans) at the other guard and also had another starting-caliber guard (Marcus Thornton).
    • His name is Isaiah Thomas; what were the odds 30 years ago of there being two excellent point guards named Isaiah (or Isiah) Thomas?

    In other words, Isaiah Thomas doing what he did defied all logic.  

    He had to earn every minute of his playing time, but once he was on the floor, he dazzled not with flashy plays, but with a maturity and work ethic the Kings desperately needed. It's rare to see a rookie have such command over a team, but Thomas provided the leadership necessary to make the Kings relevant. 

    Tyreke Evans selflessly slid over to small forward, Marcus Thornton settled into his role as designated scorer, DeMarcus Cousins didn't do anything stupid (well, not that stupid) and all of this can be attributed to the rookie Thomas.

    I don't care what the stats say—that's what basketball is really about. Isaiah Thomas made his team better, and that's why he's so high on this list. 

No. 4: Kenneth Faried

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    The manimal! If nothing else, Kenneth Faried has by far the best nickname in the NBA. Oh, and he's an awesome player as well.

    His calling card is defense. Well not just defense, but the whole "defense, rebounding, energy" package. He was drafted to do those things, but he's blossomed into a really good all-around defense.

    There were Dennis Rodman comparisons when he came out of college, but I don't think those are accurate. He's a bit thicker and more powerful than Rodman; defensively, he's a lot more like Ben Wallace. But Wallace was a complete offensive liability. Faried isn't.

    He scored 10.2 points per game (on a very impressive 58.6 percent shooting) and 7.7 rebounds. He also shot a very respectable 66.5 percent from the free-throw line. He'll never be Tim Duncan, but he's on his way to being a solid offensive player.

    Great defenders who can also score are really hard to come by, yet the young power forward is already there. If he continues to improve, in a few years, the Morehead State success story may challenge my "only two players in this draft will be All-Stars" edict. I can't say that about him yet, but he's close.

    The worst-case scenario is that he has a Shane Battier-type career—someone everyone in the league raves about and says is undervalued. That's a pretty nice floor.

    The ceiling? I'm not even sure; I just know that Ben Wallace was a four-time All-Star selection without ever playing offense. Imagine the possibilities if he did. We might get to see that in Faried. 

No. 5: Klay Thompson

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    Klay Thompson is essentially Monta Ellis, only he isn't too small to defend shooting guards. In other words, he single-handedly solved Golden State's Curry-Ellis dilemma. 

    In all seriousness, he's an incredible scorer, mainly as a shooter. Last year, he scored 12.5 points per game, but when you factor in his natural progression and the extra minutes he's sure to play, it's very possible that he's a 20 points per game player next year. 

    There are two problems. First of all, he's a volume shooter rather an efficient shooter. He needs a lot of shots to get going, and he doesn't get to the free-throw line. That means his absolute ceiling is probably around where Joe Johnson is now, but realistically, he's looking like the next Jamal Crawford.

    He also doesn't play defense.

    The former Washington State Cougar is a slight improvement over Ellis (who still doesn't believe the term "defense" is an actual word), but that's mainly due to his size. He can actually guard players who play his position because he doesn't have to get on his tippy toes to meet their eye line. 

    I have faith in Thompson, though. I think he can play with Stephen Curry long-term. He has the body to actually play defense, and if he just starts going to the hoop a bit more, he could become an efficient scorer. He has a bright future ahead of him; he just has to stop being such a one-dimensional shooter. 

No. 6: Kawhi Leonard

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    Kawhi Leonard is basically a perimeter version of Kenneth Faried. He's a defense-rebounding-energy player. Now all he needs is a cool nickname. 

    What separates Leonard from other guys in his mold is his commitment to improving and refining his game to suit his team. He was an awful three-point shooter in college (he shot 25 percent), but he spent the lockout improving and is now at least a marginal threat from long range, shooting 37.6 percent in 2011-12. 

    When the Spurs need him to guard a superstar, he does. When they need someone to crash the boards because Tim Duncan is on the bench, he does. And when they need a bit more scoring from their perimeter guys, he doesn't mind heading to the bench. He's the ultimate team player.

    Kawhi Leonard is the ultimate example of why the Spurs are so good. Coach Popovich knows how to take players and plug them into a very specific system. He does exactly what the Spurs ask of him, never straying outside of his comfort zone if he doesn't have to. That's what makes him such a valuable role player. It's the perfect combination of player and team.

    So maybe I'm giving Leonard a bit too much credit, because playing for the Spurs would give anyone an advantage, but I'm a sucker for good defense, and Leonard plays just as hard and just as smart as anyone in the league. He's a consummate Spur. 

No. 7: Iman Shumpert

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    I hate to say this after only one year, but I'm not sure if we'll ever know just how good Iman Shumpert really is. 

    He spent his rookie year on one of the most dysfunctional NBA teams ever, playing through a coaching change, Linsanity and complete misuse. Out of desperation, the Knicks used him at point guard early in the season, forcing him out of his natural position as a shooting guard.

    This stunted his growth offensively. Fortunately, Linsanity (and later Mike Woodson) would help put him back on the path he should have been in on from the start. His offense really started to progress later in the season. And then he got hurt.

    Torn ACLs are among the most serious injuries in sports. Players don't ever really recover from them—they just get to a point where they're healthy enough to play. Shumpert's agility and explosiveness are going to be limited for the rest of his career.

    It's a shame, because as a rookie, he showed Defensive Player of the Year potential. When he and Tyson Chandler were on the floor together, the Knicks almost always had the two best defensive players in the game. His defense was so good that the Knicks honestly felt like they had a chance against Miami because he could contain Dwyane Wade.

    Rookies aren't supposed to play defense at that level. In the NBA, defense is about intelligence and experience as much as skill. Once he learned the tendencies of his opponents and started to settle in as an NBA player, Shumpert had lockdown potential.

    And now there's a chance we'll never see it. It's a shame, because I can honestly say I've never enjoyed watching a rookie grow more than I did with Shumpert. Let's hope he has a speedy recovery. 

No. 8: MarShon Brooks

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    MarShon Brooks is the anti-Shumpert. He's a pure volume scorer. And I emphasize the word "volume" because he's never seen a shot he didn't like. 

    But shot selection is something that improves with experience, and Brooks was playing on a bad team. As the Nets get better, he's going to settle into a more comfortable role as a designated scorer rather than a straight-up chucker. 

    Brooks comes in at No.8 on this list because of his potential.

    It's foolish to judge rookies on consistency alone, as there are so many external factors at play. They're still getting used to the speed of the pro game, the motions of their teammates and the personalities around them.

    Early in the season, he looked like a future star, as he led all rookies in scoring for a brief period. He slowed down a bit, but nobody could have expected him to maintain that pace. 

    What counts is that he showed flashes of a great player. It may take him some time to harness it, but for now, the Nets have to be happy with him as their shooting guard of the future. 

No. 9: Brandon Knight

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    Brandon Knight is a tweener, and unless you're Allen Iverson, tweeners have a pretty defined ceiling. 

    Knight shot more than both Thompson and Brooks, yet he's supposed to be a point guard. His shooting would be fine if he was efficient, but he shot only 41.5 percent from the field. 

    Pure point guards need to focus on passing and only scoring on easy looks. That isn't Knight, and it doesn't look like it ever will be. The eighth-overall selection in the draft, he averaged only 3.8 assists per game, one of the lowest averages among point guards. 

    In all honesty, Knight would probably be best utilized as a sixth man.

    He'd be great at providing instant offense, as scoring is clearly his area of expertise. He just doesn't seem like a pure point guard, and like it or not, true point guards win games. There's a reason Golden State hasn't won anything with Stephen Curry and Monta Ellis, and there's a reason Iverson is ringless. 

    If Knight is utilized correctly, he could be a very valuable player, doing for Detroit what Jason Terry does for Dallas. Sadly, I think the Pistons are going to keep trying to use him as a point guard. Just don't say I didn't warn you when one of the smart teams (Oklahoma City, San Antonio, etc...) picks him up 50 cents on the dollar and he wins a Sixth Man of the Year award. 

No. 10: Chandler Parsons

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    Chandler Parsons is one of the more complete players from this rookie class, which is odd considering he was a second-round pick. 

    On offense, he does a little bit of everything. He hits almost 34 percent of his threes, but is also underrated athletically. He's even a solid passer, putting up 2.1 assists per game. He's not great at any one aspect of offense, but he's useful in almost every way. 

    What really impresses me about the former Florida Gators star, though, is his defense.

    Parsons is long enough to defend passing lanes, has the right combination of size and quickness to guard multiple positions and has picked up the nuances of NBA defense very quickly for a rookie.

    In fact, he was so impressive that he actually managed to do the impossible: He received a compliment by Kobe Bryant

    Parsons will never be a star, but he has the potential to be a long-term starter because of his versatility. It's impossible to take him out of the game because he can do so much. That's a very rare trait in a rookie, especially one who was picked No. 38.

No. 11: Markieff Morris

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    I feel a little guilty about putting Markieff Morris this high just because he got to play with Steve Nash. Having Nash as a teammate is basically the equivalent of an MLB rookie getting to use a metal bat. It's an unfair advantage. 

    You can't look at his raw numbers to evaluate Morris' stats, as he played less than 20 minutes per game, but he was very good with his time. He averaged 13.7 points and 8.2 rebounds per 36 minutes. If he gets more playing time next year and improves as he should, expect him to put up those numbers every night next year.

    Offensively, Morris needs to work on creating his own high-percentage shots. He was a solid spot-up shooter, but almost a third of his shots were three-pointers. At 6'10" and 245, that seems wasteful for someone of his size.

    His defense also needs work. He has the body to defend big men and the quickness to spend some time on the perimeter, but he doesn't seem entirely comfortable with either. This could stem from the fact that he doesn't have a defined position. He tries to play like a perimeter player when his body says he should be a big man.

    The Suns need to give him a more defined role next year. Personally, I'd like to see him work on being more of a pure big man. The talent is definitely there, and his shooting will make him a versatile threat. He's come a long way from living in his twin brother's shadow. 

No. 12: Derrick Williams

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    Derrick Williams is frustrating. In terms of physical ability, he has no equal in this class, and that includes Kyrie Irving. Yet he spends so much time on the floor looking completely lost.

    There are games like the one he had against the Clippers in February, where he went off for 27 points on 9-of-10 shooting, but then he'll disappear for two weeks. It's agonizing.

    It's not entirely his fault; he's in a precarious position. He should probably be used as a stretch power forward—someone who can play on the perimeter but only shares the lane with one other big man (the center). The problem is, he plays with Kevin Love on the team, so playing power forward is out of the question.

    That means Williams is going to have to play out of position, but the Wolves are so young that the transition is going to be a challenge.

    Williams' destiny is tied to Ricky Rubio. He's the one player on the Wolves that can make his situation work. Unfortunately, most of next year will be about recovery for Rubio, so Williams' growing pains will continue. 

    Eventually, though, Williams is going to work out. He's too talented to fail. The key is how willing he is to adjust to playing small forward. It seems simple because of how much he likes to hang around the perimeter, but it's going to be tough.

    If he can do it, I think Derrick Williams has All-Star potential. Realistically, I think he falls a bit short, but still turns into a solid NBA player. 

No. 13: Tristan Thompson

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    Tristan Thompson had a tough adjustment to the next level, and it was evident. He just never looked too comfortable working in the low post against stronger, more experienced big men, and he seemed a bit hesitant to get down and dirty with the ball.

    There are obviously mental adjustments he needs to make, but first and foremost, he's going to have to add a bit of muscle. If Thompson sees that he can physically handle his opponents, his confidence will soar.

    This is crucial because he was very inefficient for a big man. He shot just under 44 percent from the field, whereas most top big men are well over 50 percent. If Thompson wants to get into that class, he's going to have to work on getting easy shots.

    One thing I was impressed with was Thompson's rebounding.

    He averaged just under 10 rebounds per 36 minutes, and his offensive rebounding was excellent, averaging only 0.3 fewer offensive rebounds than defensive rebounds. 

    His rebounding shows me that Thompson has the talent to succeed inside; he just has to harness it. Once he develops a low-post game, he'll be very hard to guard. He and Kyrie Irving are the foundation of a bright future in Cleveland. 

No. 14: Norris Cole

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    I can't say I feel great about putting Norris Cole on this list because he's been so inconsistent, but he's a rookie and I can't hold that against him. Cole has shown flashes of brilliance, and if he played for any other team, I'd feel comfortable with him reaching it.

    He scored 14 fourth-quarter points in just his second NBA game—against the Celtics no less. He was so good that many started calling him the "fourth Heatle." The problem is that as quickly as it comes, it disappears. 

    Cole has been so bad at times that Erik Spoelstra (who, in fairness, yanks minutes around more than any coach this side of Vinny Del Negro) has taken him out of the rotation. 

    Succeeding in Miami, especially as a point guard, would be hard for anyone, and it's hard to learn the nuances of running an offense when you never get that chance. 

    If Cole played for a team like the Bucks or Hornets, I think he could be a very good player. It's just going to be impossible for him to grow in Miami. Think of Cole's career as if it's on hold. When he leaves as a free agent in three years, we'll see what kind of player he really is. 

No. 15: Kemba Walker

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    Playing for the Charlotte Bobcats is like playing for the Heat, only it's the exact opposite. Instead of his team being too good for him to improve, Kemba Walker's team is too bad for him to really improve.

    Not one player on the Bobcats would play significant minutes for any of the four remaining playoff contenders, and that includes the Celtics, who seem to be collectively playing on one leg. 

    It's a shame, because Kemba is actually going to be good some day. The young point guard shot only 36.6 percent from the field, but I can't entirely blame him for that. He took his share of bad shots, but he almost never saw open looks because the rest of his team was so offensively inept.

    The fact that he made 30.5 percent of his threes is a minor miracle considering Charlotte's best big man (Bismack Biyombo) should essentially be counted as a negative player on offense. Opposing defenses could roam around the perimeter and readily double-team Walker because there was no threat of getting burned down low. 

    We won't know how good Walker is until his teammates are upgraded from complete ineptness to just terrible. We saw what a warrior Walker is at UConn. He put the Huskies on his back and carried them to an NCAA championship. 

    He'll never be that type of player in the NBA, but he's had to be for the Bobcats. Once that incredible load is lightened to a more manageable one, I think Walker will evolve into a valuable player.