When the regular season comes to an end, the veteran, more experienced teams usually tend to rise to the top, filling out the eight playoff seeds. Because that is the case, there are likely very few teams with rookies handling key roles. With that being said, careers are made in the postseason, so here is our take on the five rookies who could change the outcome of various playoff series.
If there is anyone who could beat Kings star Tyreke Evans for Rookie of the Year, it's probably Jennings. After starting the season with a 55-point game, Jennings has kept up a very high level of play. His game is more balanced than those who called him a chucker coming into the season could have imagined. On the year, Jennings has averaged 16 points, six assists, and three rebounds per game.
The Bucks drew the Hawks as their first-round matchup, which based on past performance, may be a terrible matchup for Jennings. The load offensively will be even more on his shoulders with the injury to Andrew Bogut late in the regular season. Against the Hawks this season, Jennings has only scored nine points a game and shot only 28 percent from the floor and 18 percent from behind the arc. In his latest game against the Hawks, he scored 21 points, but took 23 shots to get there. Hopefully, Jennings can bounce back and lead the Bucks and keep their season alive.
The Oklahoma City Thunder are the best young team in the NBA, stealing that crown from the Portland Trailblazers. For their efforts this season, they get the Lakers in the first round. Harden has been a role player for the Thunder all season, playing third or fourth option depending on who he’s sharing court time with. In a limited role, he managed to score 10 points, three rebounds, and two assists in 22 minutes per game this season.
The Thunder will matchup with the defending champion Lakers in their first playoff series in Oklahoma City. Harden, a California native, has struggled shooting the ball in the Thunder’s four games against LA, shooting just 27 percent from the field and 21 percent from behind the arc. In order to really make this a series, the Thunder will need Harden to step up. Kobe and Artest will try and put the shackles on Durant and Westbrook, so a third option is an absolute necessity.
Taj Gibson has been a welcome addition to this young Chicago Bulls squad. Entering the season, he seemed unlikely to receive large amounts of playing time. Through a good work ethic, strong defense, and steady play, Gibson has earned a consistent role in the Bulls rotation, starting 70 games this season. His minutes just kept going up, now playing 30-plus a night these last two months heading into the playoffs.
With the trade of John Salmons and injuries to Luol Deng and Joakim Noah over the course of the year, Gibson also needed to increase his production and has largely delivered. He provides a consistent front court presence, averaging a near double-double and the defensive bonus of a block-and-a-half every night.
By securing their playoff spot on the final day of the regular season, Gibson and the Bulls won themselves a first-round matchup with LeBron James. Gibson will have his hands full with a deep Cleveland front court that includes Antawn Jamison, Anderson Varejao, and Shaq. The Bulls clearly have the toughest task of any team in first round.
Wesley Matthews went from undrafted rookie to the starting shooting guard for a 53-win playoff team. Due to early season injuries of Utah wing players CJ Miles and Kyle Korver, Matthews was given a chance to prove himself and he delivered. When everyone came back healthy, Coach Jerry Sloan still found minutes for the rookie. His emergence even made the Jazz feel confident enough to trade away their previous starting shooting guard, Ronnie Brewer.
Matthews has started in his place ever since and has hardly looked like an undrafted player. He’s an efficient scorer, shooting near 50 percent from the field and north of 40 percent from three. The long ball also adds another wrinkle to the offense that Brewer just couldn’t offer. Matthews’ presence should force defenses to play a little more honest with his jump shooting ability.
By losing on the last day of the regular season, the Jazz dropped from third to fifth, setting up a first-round matchup with the Denver Nuggets. The Nuggets have terrific perimeter play, but Matthews’ primary task will be to keep reserve JR Smith from getting hot off the bench, as he’s always a threat to do so. He might also be called on to guard the veteran Chauncey Billups for stretches of the game so as to free up Deron Williams from the risk of foul trouble on the defensive end.
For reasons that not many fans understood, DeJuan Blair found himself in the second round of the 2009 NBA Draft. That morning there were rumblings about Blair going No. 11 to the Pacers, even if he slid past Indiana, someone would jump on him, right? Well, the Spurs finally did with the 37th selection. Now Blair is going to be one of the few rookies playing a serious role for a playoff team.
On the season, Blair has been asked to play both center and power forward for an aging Spurs team that has had some injuries. He is playing 18 minutes per game and contributing eight points and six rebounds. However, the minutes he’s kept off Tim Duncan's aging body is probably his biggest contribution.
Against the Mavericks in the first round, he’ll be asked to bang inside with Erick Dampier and may see time on Dirk Nowitzki. We have little question whether he can handle Dampier down low, but if Nowitzki keeps playing around the perimeter, it’s a terrible mismatch for Blair. In his career against Dallas, he has averaged eight points and eight rebounds. What the Spurs would like to see improve is his rebounding—double digits should be a goal for Blair every game of the series. On the defensive end to limit extra possessions for the Mavericks, and on the offensive end to create second-chance opportunities. Anything they get from Blair offensively in the series is icing if he can rebound and defend effectively.