One Critical Improvement Each 2012-13 NBA Rookie of the Year Contender Must Make

Daniel O'Brien@@DanielO_BRFeatured ColumnistOctober 31, 2012

One Critical Improvement Each 2012-13 NBA Rookie of the Year Contender Must Make

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    As talented as the 2012-2013 NBA rookie class is, it's not without flaws.

    There are concrete things that even the top draftees must work on in order to maximize their contributions and compete for Rookie of the Year honors.

    For some rookies, skill development is what's missing for them to become elite. For others, it's decision-making such as shot selection or defensive discipline.

    What does each big-time rookie need to do to become the best version of himself?

Jared Sullinger, Boston Celtics F

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    Critical Improvement: Must work on defensive efficiency

    Compared to most 20-year-olds, Boston Celtics forward Jared Sullinger is extremely polished and ready to handle the NBA grind. His offensive instincts and physicality are fantastic, and he had an impressive preseason.

    However, his defense against power forwards needs improvement.

    Sullinger seemed to struggle defending versatile power forwards, and the statistics aren't pretty. When he played 25 or more minutes in a preseason game, he committed at least four fouls. He committed five fouls twice and fouled out once.

    Part of it is adjusting to NBA defensive rotations, and part of it is learning when to pull back the reins and refrain from aggressive fouling.

    Sullinger is not a great athlete, but he's smart enough and strong enough to make this adjustment.

Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Charlotte Bobcats F

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    Critical Improvement: Shooting, shooting, shooting

    No one questions Michael Kidd-Gilchrist's drive and defensive prowess. He can impact the game without being a featured offensive player.

    But if the Charlotte Bobcats want to climb out of the basement, and if Kidd-Gilchrist wants any Rookie of the Year consideration, his shooting must improve.

    His jumper is still flawed, as it isn't the smoothest. If his preseason work is indicative of his rookie year, he is miles from where he needs to be. He shot 32 percent from the field, including 0-of-6 from three-point range.

    This is one of the major downsides of the one-and-done trend, because offensively, Kidd-Gilchrist would be better served by improving his skills in college.

    A lack of shooting skill could be the difference between him scoring nine points or scoring 15 per night. It could potentially take him out of the running for ROY honors.

Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers G

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    Critical Improvement: Take better care of the ball

    He's the most NBA-ready guard in the 2012 class, but Portland Trail Blazers rookie Damian Lillard has coughed up a few too many turnovers throughout October.

    In his six exhibition tilts, Lillard averaged 3.8 turnovers. That's far too many to run an efficient offense, especially considering his assist-to-turnover ratio is less than 2-to-1.

    He's going to handle the ball a ton for Portland, so some mistakes are inevitable. The key for him is to avoid over-dribbling, use his strong frame to command the ball and try not to force tight passes.

    Lillard is talented enough to let the game come to him, so there's no need to try to do too much on every possession.

Anthony Davis, New Orleans Hornets F/C

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    Critical Improvement: Free-throw shooting

    In addition to bulking up, which is an area Anthony Davis must address, he needs to get back on track from the free-throw line.

    I don't know what happened between his Kentucky campaign and this fall, but he shot a dismal 56 percent from the charity stripe in October for the New Orleans Hornets. Shooting 18-of-32 is hardly what Hornets fans want to see out of their featured forward.

    Davis shot over 70 percent in college in 2011-12, so his track record is better than the 2012 preseason suggests.

    It might be a matter of him adjusting to the physical exertion necessary to excel in the NBA. He's going to have to work harder to get his points than he did in college, so he'll be a bit more exhausted when he hits the free-throw line.

    That's when enhanced fundamentals and hard work will pay off.

Harrison Barnes, Golden State Warriors F

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    Critical Improvement: Shot creation for himself and teammates

    Golden State Warriors forward Harrison Barnes displayed bursts of excellence during the preseason, but his offensive output was inconsistent due to his mediocre shot-creating skills.

    Firstly, his ball-handling skills are somewhat suspect. He lacks the handle and body control to execute effective crossover dribbles, and his spin move is fairly easy to guard. Here's some video evidence of those struggles (skip to 5:56).

    If that dribbling and maneuvering becomes more fluid, he's going to create more space for himself and also create shots for his fellow Warriors.

    Barnes also could become a better finisher once he gets into the lane. This includes scoring through contact and exhibiting better touch off the glass.

Thomas Robinson, Sacramento Kings F

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    Critical Improvement: Back-to-the-basket skills

    The Sacramento Kings landed one of the most physically gifted and mentally driven players in the draft in Kansas product Thomas Robinson.

    Whenever he plays, his quickness, power and hunger are evident. Unfortunately, sheer explosiveness won't be enough for him to boost the Kings and launch a Rookie of the Year campaign.

    To be a legitimate offensive threat against NBA defenses, Robinson needs to develop a better back-to-the-basket repertoire.

    He already has the size and the strong base to get position, so the next step is incorporating drop-steps, up-and-under fakes and turnaround jumpers.

    Robinson won't become Pau Gasol overnight, but the sooner he adjusts his low-post approach, the more dangerous Sacramento will be.

Andre Drummond, Detroit Pistons F/C

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    Critical Improvement: Defensive leaping discipline

    Although offensive polish is a major weakness in Andre Drummond's game, Detroit has bigs like Greg Monroe and Jonas Jerebko to do the skill work.

    What the Pistons need from him is discipline and discretion when it comes to aggressively defending.

    Drummond got himself into foul trouble a few times in the preseason, including fouling out in just 25 minutes against Milwaukee. It's a representation of poor positioning and failed defense, and the over-agressive approach also puts him out of position for many rebounds.

    He must realize that his presence and long frame will alter plenty of shots without him over-committing. Staying home and exercising restraint at the right times will be invaluable for him.

Bradley Beal, Washington Wizards G

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    Critical Improvement: Shot selection

    One of the toughest things for young players and young teams to grasp is the importance of achieving quality possessions on every possession.

    For the Washington Wizards, it's imperative that shooter Bradley Beal makes wise decisions and strives for high-percentage opportunities.

    Shooting your way through slumps is an effective strategy, but it can be detrimental to the team if it adversely affects the squad's offensive efficiency.

    It's no coincidence that Beal's three worst shooting nights in the preseason (0-of-6, 5-of-12 and 7-of-17) all resulted in sub-90 point totals for the Wizards.

    The more he seeks quality possessions, the better off Washington will be.

Jonas Valanciunas, Toronto Raptors F

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    Critical Improvement: Back-to-the-basket skills

    Much like Thomas Robinson, Toronto Raptors rookie Jonas Valanciunas could use some development in the low post.

    The Lithuanian sensation is a superb pick-and-roll player and a forceful finisher, much like Amar'e Stoudemire. That's a great start, but in order to join the upper tier of post players, he must be able to work with his back to the basket.

    Toronto doesn't need to completely change who he is, they just need to work post-ups into the game plan more frequently.

    When Valanciunas goes to work on the low block, he'll not only increase his chances to score and draw fouls, but he'll become a better passer and set up shooters like Andrea Bargnani and Kyle Lowry.

Dion Waiters, Cleveland Cavaliers G

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    Critical Improvement: Shooting Balance

    The likelihood of the Cleveland Cavaliers having back-to-back Rookie of the Year winners is slim, but Dion Waiters is nonetheless a candidate to keep an eye on. His strength, agility and playmaking enticed Cleveland, and they're counting on him to pull his share of the load on offense.

    The only issue is that Waiters has struggled to shoot consistently, as he floundered in summer league (30 percent FG shooting) and the preseason (34 percent).

    Part of the problem is shot selection and balance. Sometimes Waiters relies on his athleticism too much and tries shots with a high degree of difficulty. From fadeaways to drifting jumpers to leaners, he's often off-balance.

    Emulation of his teammate Kyrie Irving could help Waiters out in a big way. 

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