6 NBA Rookies Who Are Starting to Get Their Bearings

Zach BuckleyNational NBA Featured ColumnistJanuary 24, 2014

6 NBA Rookies Who Are Starting to Get Their Bearings

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    The 2013 NBA draft class has been short on surprises.

    Anthony Bennett was a giant gamble as the first pick. Victor Oladipo has been incredibly easy to cheer for and even more enjoyable to watch. Michael Carter-Williams' star has easily shined the brightest, but he always had an intriguing mix of talent and opportunity with the rebuilding Philadelphia 76ers.

    The season hasn't taught us a lot that we didn't already know, which is unfortunate considering just how poorly regarded this crop of first-timers was viewed before its debut.

    However, that narrative is starting to change.

    Slowly but surely, this class is beginning to show some signs of life. The star power isn't great, but this wide-eyed batch just might have more NBA talent than we first realized.

    Between the lengthened schedule, heightened competition and increased tempo, the Association can be brutally unkind to green youngsters. Nearly three months into the season, though, these six rookies appear to be finding their rhythm.

     

    Unless otherwise noted, statistics used courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com and NBA.com.

Pero Antic, F/C, Atlanta Hawks

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    There is no way to cushion the loss of a talent like Al Horford, but Pero Antic is doing everything he can to help the Atlanta Hawks keep their heads above water without their unheralded star.

    The 31-year-old is a unique specimen, and not just for his Wooly Willy look.

    He's a 6'11", 260-pound bruiser who spent the last decade-plus throwing his weight around overseas. ESPN.com's David Thorpe (subscription required) compared him to former Utah Jazz center Mehmet Okur for his shooting range (36.7 three-point percentage) and relentless work on the boards (7.9 rebounds per 36  minutes).

    Thorpe also gave Antic his "midseason award for 'best defender'" of the rookie class, highlighting one of the strengths not often shared with a stretch big man.

    Since joining Atlanta's starting lineup at the beginning of this month, Antic is averaging 11.4 points (on 49.2 percent shooting) and 5.9 rebounds in just under 25 minutes a night.

    Considering those numbers were just 3.7, 27.0, 2.5 and 12.1, respectively, over his first 21 games, it's safe to say the beast has been unleashed.

Ryan Kelly, F, Los Angeles Lakers

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    The fact that Ryan Kelly is giving the Los Angeles Lakers anything at all might qualify as something of a mini miracle.

    He came from a part of the draft that doesn't typically yield NBA-ready talent (48th overall). He missed all of summer league and two weeks of training camp rehabbing from foot surgery.

    It was anyone's guess if he'd even make the team, let alone contribute.

    Yet here he is just one game removed from three consecutive double-digit outputs. Over his last five games, he's averaging 13.2 points and shooting 46.7 percent from the field.

    He's not a defensive presence to say the least, but he isn't playing for a defensive coach, either.

    "He does two or three things that we would like everybody to do," coach Mike D'Antoni said, via Lakers.com's Trevor Wong. "He battles, he's smart and he makes shots. He will just keep getting better."

    That would be a welcome sight for the talent-stricken Lakers. Kelly already looks better than advertised.

Kelly Olynyk, C, Boston Celtics

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    Boston Celtics rookie Kelly Olynyk is all of 34 games into his career, and already he's been dubbed a franchise savior, a bust and everything in between.

    Olynyk, the No. 13 pick, looked really good at the Orlando Summer League. Probably too good for his own sake.

    With inflated expectations awaiting his arrival, the bar was set higher than it should have been. He lost three weeks to a sprained ankle, further complicating matters. At the 20-game mark, the former Gonzaga star was averaging just 6.4 points on .377/.222 percent shooting.

    He's still having problems with consistency—as most rookies do—and his scoring hasn't changed much (7.4 points over his last 14 games), but his efficiency is soaring (.500/.444 shooting over that stretch).

    Those early-season struggles lowered his ceiling a bit, but that's a good thing. It's all about viewing him through the right lens. He's not a game changer by any stretch, but he could be a valuable contributor for a long time.

Shane Larkin, G, Dallas Mavericks

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    After two years at the University of Miami, Shane Larkin had tantalized with enough superstar potential to put his name in the NBA draft lottery discussion. The only problem was that intrigue came attached to his end-of-the-bench frame: 5'11", 176 pounds.

    There was a light at the end of the tunnel, but a long and winding road to that point. More miles were added to that path when he suffered a broken ankle during a summer-league practice.

    By the time he was healthy enough to play, he found himself at the bottom of a crowded backcourt rotation. Jose Calderon and Monta Ellis claimed the Dallas Mavericks' starting spots, with Vince Carter, Wayne Ellington and Gal Mekel falling in behind them.

    Larkin missed the Mavs' first 10 games and has shuffled in and out of the rotation since.

    But he's learning how to make his mark in limited minutes, a trait it takes some players years to discover. He shot just 32.4 percent from the field and 23.8 percent from distance while seeing 12.6 minutes over his first 18 games. Despite getting less than one more minute of run over his last 12 games (13.5), he's upped those percentages to 48.9 and 46.2, respectively.

    That stretch included an 18-point, five-assist effort during a Mavs win over the Phoenix Suns on Jan. 17, a game that saw Calderon fight foul trouble and eventually exit with a knee injury.

    "This is why we drafted him,” coach Rick Carlisle said after the game, via Tim MacMahon of ESPN Dallas. “We felt he could have this kind of impact.” 

    The numbers might not always be that high, but he's proving capable of making a major impact in a minor role.

C.J. McCollum, G, Portland Trail Blazers

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    Teams aren't the only ones who can find fortune on draft night. Players can get their own lift from Lady Luck.

    That was the case for combo guard C.J. McCollum, who just so happened to be snatched up by a Portland Trail Blazers team that plays perfectly to his strengths. It was just last season that Portland picked up a scoring guard from a mid-major conference, Damian Lillard, and helped him snag Rookie of the Year honors.

    McCollum's career seemed to be starting as a best-case scenario.

    Then, disaster struck. He suffered a broken foot in training camp that wound up costing him more than two months.

    But he's back on the floor now. And that fit in Portland has never looked better. He's seeing just 13.3 minutes of action, but he's already flashing the efficiency (.452/.412/.750 shooting slash) of a dynamic scorer.

    Because, well, that's what he is. And it's what the Blazers know how to use best.

Hollis Thompson, G/F, Philadelphia 76ers

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    Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sport

    If Hollis Thompson is playing over his head, well, credit the former Georgetown Hoya for seizing this opportunity.

    He was passed over in the 2012 draft and failed to find an NBA home last season. He toiled in the D-League for a year and caught on with the youthful Philadelphia 76ers in training camp. Even amid scrapped parts of the rebuilding Sixers, Thompson was considered a "long shot" to stick with the team by Keith Pompey of the Philadelphia Inquirer.

    Thompson didn't just hang around on the roster, he's ingrained himself in it.

    He cracked coach Brett Brown's starting lineup in December and tallied 7.4 points along with 4.8 rebounds in 13 games that month. He's since moved out of the starting five, losing some volume but adding efficiency. In 12 January games, he's shooting 50.0 percent from the field and 35.3 percent from deep, a significant jump from his .442/.327 marks over his first 28 games.

    He's also seen a plus 15-point per 100 possession swing this month, via Basketball-Reference.com. His offensive rating is up to 110 (101 in December) and his defensive rating has fallen to 109 (was 115).

    He might not have had much NBA interest before, but teams will be watching him now. Thanks to his fateful decision to go to Philly, he won't be digging through the help-wanted ads anytime soon.