Tuesday, February 10, 2009


If you’re a NBA fan right now, life is pretty good.

Sure, we heard way too much about the Dream Week here in the fair metropolis called New York City. Without question, the mainstream sports media would have not made much if the Los Angeles Lakers, Cleveland Cavaliers and Boston Celtics descended upon Milwaukee’s Bradley Center within a span of five days. Yet, all three teams, along a few others have added some flavor what has typically been a bland month of sports. Considering the news surrounding every other sporting organization as of late, the last thing that anyone would have called the A is a breath of fresh air.

Such has been the first few weeks of 2009.

Now, we are on our way to this weekend’s All-Star break in Phoenix. The Slam Dunk contest may be the most popular non-game event of the entire weekend, but it is the Rookie Challenge that is the most intriguing event on the slate.

While these guys are in the pre-K and Kindergarten classes of the NBA, they’ve shown so far that they can advance through the classes, at least based on the talents they have displayed so far.

What may still turn out to be an underwhelming rookie class of 2008-09, at least on Saturday, we’ll get to see the best of the crop so far after three-plus months:

Michael Beasley (Miami), Derrick Rose (Chicago), O.J. Mayo and Marc Gasol (Memphis), Greg Oden and Rudy Fernandez (Portland), Eric Gordon (LA Clippers), Brook Lopez (New Jersey) and Russell Westbrook (Oklahoma City)

Of that roster, the most intriguing players are all under 6’ 6”. When the question “who are the best young point guards in the league after Chris Paul and Deron Williams?” comes up, the rookies feature at least two solid answers in Rose and Westbrook. Rose may have received the hype, but unlike the rest of his teammates in the Windy City, he’s been a consistent performer admist some tenuous circumstances [rookie head coach in Vinny Del Negro, fatigue of the P-word (not that one) in relation to the team]. Westbrook, as the rest of the Thunder, have to improve upon their defense, but he has taken the role as lead ball handler quite well for a team still getting settled in a new city.

Mayo, the truest shooting guard on the team, may fester in the River City if Grizzles management repeats its history of not build around a star player because of thriftiness. However, he’ll become one of those league leaders in scoring as he has a mature offensive game and better-than-expected defense for a first-year player.

The sophs may not present the small guard flash that the rookies present, but outside of Aaron Brooks at six-even, they are a much bigger squad.

Kevin Durant and Jeff Green (Oklahoma City), Al Horford (Atlanta), Wilson Chandler (New York), Al Thornton (LA Clippers), Brooks and Luis Scola (Houston), Rodney Stuckey (Detroit) and Thaddeus Young (Philadelphia)

For the most part, you have to solid starting frontline contributors with both Als, a good 1-2 offensive punch in Oklahoma City and two players in Houston that have been strengthened by playing in the league’s toughest division (the Southwest). Yet, the players to watch are Chandler and Stuckey. For all the hell that former team president Isiah Thomas has gotten (and deserved) for his tenure with the Knicks, he’s a pretty good talent evaluator. Chandler didn’t get any real shine until late last season, but in the past year through those final weeks in ’07-’08, summer league ball and this season, he has the athleticism and scoring knack at small forward that New York hasn’t had since… Bernard King? It may be too soon to compare the two players, but the ‘three’ has been a franchise Achilles’ heel for just about two decades.

Meanwhile, beyond contract wiggle room and a desire to infuse a stagnant team with new life, Joe Dumars’ decision to trade Chauncey Billups to Denver for Allen Iverson is obviously all about Stuckey. Last year’s playoff performance by the former Eastern Washington star may have presented a lovely problem of depth at lead guard, but when the season started, there was no way that anyone would have expected Dumars to pull the trigger so early in the year. Entrusting Stuckey to run the point for a team that can still make their seventh straight conference final meant that the Pistons are willing to let a second-year player take chances in the final minutes of some late March/early April games.

Sure, it’s more of a part of the carnival than a serious competition, but for many of these players, it’s the first true opportunity on a national, let alone global stage. Some players went the one-and-done route out of big name colleges such as Texas and USC while others were plucked from the international scene with little attention from us myopic Americans. The established stars in Sunday’s All-Star contest are the league’s brand names, but we’ll discover at least one more on Friday.

Say What?!?!: Speaking of brands, have I been consuming a banned substance for the last year thanks to vitaminwater?

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