NBA Rookie Race at the Break

As the All Star break nears, many writers have been looking back at the first half of the season and drawing conclusions. Some of this involves speculation on who will be named rookie of the year at the end of the season. At this point the consensus pick is the status quo; the number one pick last year, Kyrie Irving. Everyone seems to agree it is a two man race between two rookie point guards trying to revive forlorn franchises–Kyrie Irving of Cleveland, and Ricky Rubio of Minnesota.

The contest, although seen by many as already won by Irving, is more than a chance to choose a favorite up and coming point guard: It is a philosophical litmus test that defines how one views the game of basketball.

NBA culture tends to put scoring ability above all else, no matter how much other aspects of the game may aid winning. It is not a coincidence that almost every NBA champion team is a formidable defensive team, or at least plays as though defense is important. But you won’t hear much talk about defense or any non-scoring aspect of the game from fans and writers. In this atmosphere the impressive, seemingly well rounded numbers of Irving have made him the favorite for rookie of the year. His ease in scoring is impressive. He is shooting .485 from the field and an amazing .419 from behind the arc. He also has a knack for driving the ball and finishing in the paint and is an able ball handler. Often, he shows a maturity beyond his 19 years. Perhaps refreshing the Cleveland fans, he shows none of the pick-up game chest pounding and sense of privilege that Lebron James continues to emit.

On the other hand, though Irving’s stats may seem well rounded, particularly for a rookie, his game is lop sided. He is well below average as a defender, averaging a meager .8 steals per game at 30 minutes a contest. That statistic is only an entry way into Irving’s short comings as a defender, which are surprising in light of his offensive talent and maturity. For a player who’s reputation is mostly balanced on his offensive ability, Irving’s 18.3 points per game is impressive but not overwhelming. When I look at his assists per game, now at 4.8 per game, I wonder if Irving is the next great point guard or just another above average score first point guard, which I’ve taken to calling ‘score guards.’ At this point the league is full of ‘score guards.’ Famous examples of young ‘score guards’ in the league are Russel Westbrook and Brandon Jennings. There are plenty of point guards in the league who score a lot, but are also true points that pass well, run an offense, and defend. Deron Williams and Chris Paul come to mind. Will Irving become the next Deron Williams or the Next Brandon Jennings?

The fact that Ricky Rubio is a more well rounded player that Irving is almost totally overlooked. Much has been made about Rubio’s lack of scoring ability and particularly his poor shooting. Although this aspect of Rubio’s game isn’t the strongest, he already averages a healthy 11.5 points per game, which is excellent for a rookie. From the scoring aspect everything looks up-Rubio is already proving to be one of the best defenders at point guard in the NBA. He is near the top of the league with 2.4 steals a game, and most of these come from quick hands and smart help defense, not from risky gap jumping attempts that lead to defensive breakdowns. Even more impressive is Rubio’s passing and play making. He runs the offense with the confidence and authority of a ten year veteran, while putting up 8.4 assists per game. This number is near the top of the league, yet still fails to fully impress upon people the spectacular nature of many of his passes and the amazing fundamental excellence of his game. Ricky doesn’t look like a rookie-in fact in most respects he looks like an elite veteran at the position.

Ultimately the battle comes down to what whoever is judging it values. There is a school of thought that is seen as old-fashioned, that puts defense, leadership, passing and play making above pure scoring ability at the point position. In this view Rubio isn’t just the run away rookie of the year, he is perhaps an all time great in the making. A few have pointed out that Rubio’s stats thus far resemble Jason Kidd’s rookie numbers. Rubio is averaging one more assist per game, one less rebound per game, and 2.4 versus 1.9 steals per game. The young Kidd and Rubio have similar shooting percentages with Ricky taking the edge from the three point line. Irving’s effort thus far resembles Stephen Curry’s rookie numbers. Irving averages 18.5 points a game versus 17.5 from Curry. Irving has put up about one less assist a game and two less rebounds. Curry averaged one more steal a game than Irving.
In my eyes the more special, and rare talent here is Ricky Rubio. He already has elite passing and elite defensive numbers. His offensive numbers are good for a rookie, and perhaps more importantly, better than what was expected. Irving is merely a well above average, though not elite scorer at this point. He has the makings of an excellent offensive player in the future, although not in the all time great category, but his future looks to be average or slightly above average in all other aspects of the game. Despite America’s love affair with basketball scoring, Rubio should win rookie of the year.

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