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Sam: Surprises of the 2009-10 Rookie Class

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Sam: Surprises of the 2009-10 Rookie Class

Saturday, March 13, 2010
3:56 PM

By Aggrey Sam
CSNChicago.com

Starting with the oft-mentioned trio of Sacramento's Tyreke Evans, Golden State's Stephen Curry and Milwaukee's Brandon Jennings, there have been plenty of rookies making instant impacts during their debut NBA season. Meanwhile, there have plenty of neophytes many observers (or at least the teams that drafted them) thought would be serious contributors, but haven't yet panned out in their first year.

While there's still lots of time for the slower-developing group to make its mark, this season -- like every year in the league -- there are under-the-radar rookie players who have already proven themselves invaluable to their respective organizations.

Whether they were late first-round picks a team's respective fan base wasn't exactly excited about -- honestly, who among us thought Taj Gibson would be this good, this early -- second-round choices given little hope of succeeding for various reasons (which is why they slipped in the draft to begin with), potential long-term projects, overseas products thought to need time to adjust, or worst of all, an undrafted rookie, here are 10 players enjoying surprising initial success in the NBA:

Rodrigue Beaubois, Dallas Mavericks 6-foot-1, point guard, GuadaloupeAverages: 6.2 points per game, 1.3 assists per game
Signature game: 24 points, five rebounds, five assists vs. Bulls on March 6
A native of the Caribbean island of Guadeloupe, Beaubois cut his teeth professionally in France, where he established himself as one of the top young prospects in Europe. Despite his diminutive stature, he isn't a conventional point guard, but his blazing speed, explosive athleticism, long wingspan, finishing ability and knack for making plays have made him one of the more exciting rookies in the league. With sixth-man supreme Jason Terry out with a facial injury, Beaubois has blossomed under the tutelage of future Hall of Famer Jason Kidd, and with more confidence, he has become a game-changer, capable of affecting games for stretches, as evidenced against the Bulls in Chicago recently.

DeJuan Blair, San Antonio Spurs6-foot-7, power forward, University of PittsburghAverages: 7.9 ppg, 6.3 rpg
Signature game: 28 points, 21 rebounds, two blocks vs. Thunder on Jan. 13
It's well known by now how Blair, last year's Big East player of the year, was passed over by teams because of the two torn ACLs he suffered earlier in his career, but the second-round steal is exceeding expectations. One wonders how his pro production wasn't anticipated, as the Pittsburgh native was dominant in both high school and college after suffering the injuries. Regardless, things have seemingly worked out for the best, as the undersized widebody has been a major contributor for a veteran squad with his tenacious rebounding, physical demeanor and underrated offensive skills. A national audience was treated to a showcase of his all-around game during All-Star weekend, when Blair stole the show at the Rookie-Sophomore Challenge. Like Beaubois, ongoing mentoring by a future Hall of Famer -- Tim Duncan -- will only enhance his game.

Chase Budinger, Houston Rockets 6-foot-7, small forward, University of ArizonaAverages: 8.5 ppg, 3.0 rpg
Signature game: 16 points, 12 rebounds, five assists vs. Pistons on Dec. 15
A highly touted high school All-American (he was supposedly an even better volleyball player), Budinger was a good player at Arizona, but regarded as somewhat soft and an underachiever -- although in fairness, there was a lot of turmoil during his tenure in Tucson. At the same time, his ability to fit right into the rugged Rockets' system was a bit surprising. But Budinger has been a big part of Houston's deep bench, as his size on the wing, big-time athleticism and deep range make him unique.

Omri Casspi, Sacramento Kings 6-foot-9, small forward, IsraelAverages: 11.6 ppg, 5.0 rpg
Signature game: 22 points, 11 rebounds, four assists vs. Mavericks on Jan. 2
Casspi has been closely monitored by NBA types since his standout performance for the international team in the 2007 Nike Hoop Summit, a high school all-star game pitting some of the best young prospects from around the world against top U.S. high school players, which included the Bulls' Derrick Rose that year. Casspi's aggressiveness and versatility has made him an impact rookie for the Kings and a nice complementary piece to likely NBA Rookie of the Year Evans. Casspi's professional experience for Israeli powerhouse Maccabi Tel Aviv likely helped the transition process, as he found a niche with his outside shooting, unique skills, tremendous motor and athleticism.

Darren Collison, New Orleans Hornets6-foot, point guard, UCLAAverages: 10.9 ppg, 4.8 apg
Signature game: 22 points, 13 rebounds, 12 assists vs. Pacers on Feb. 19
Collison, who played in three consecutive Final Fours, likely could have left college and been a high draft pick after either his sophomore or junior campaigns (following in the footsteps of former teammates Jordan Farmar and Russell Westbrook). Instead, he chose to stay at UCLA and endured a disappointing senior season, causing his stock to drop. The son of Guyanese national-team track standouts, Collison's speed was never in doubt, but his ability to defend bigger point guards in the league was questioned. Well, he answered those questions and more when he was thrown into the fire following the injury of New Orleans superstar point guard Chris Paul. Collison's college experience has proved valuable. as he has shown the ability to run the show, make plays for himself and others (despite some turnover issues) and occasionally dominate games with his game-changing quickness.

Taj Gibson, Chicago Bulls6-foot-9, power forward, USCAverages: 8.6 ppg, 7.1 rpg, 1.2 bpg
Signature game: 20 points, 13 rebounds, two blocks vs. Sixers on Feb. 20
It's hard not to appreciate the impact Gibson has had for the Bulls, as the workmanlike New York City native stepped in for Tyrus Thomas -- eventually making Thomas expendable -- early in the year and immediately played with the poise, steadiness and consistency of a veteran, earning praise throughout the league. The defensive player of the year in the Pac-10 last season, Gibson was overshadowed by teammates such as Grizzlies guard O.J. Mayo and Raptors rookie DeMar DeRozan throughout his college career, and while his game isn't necessarily exciting, the same basic tenets of his game that were effective on the collegiate level -- finishing around the basket, rebounding on both ends, a high IQ on the defensive side of the ball, working hard and keeping things simple -- easily transferred to the pros. A near-lock to be a longtime, consistent -- if not flashy -- player for years to come, his game will likely continue to develop as he gains strength, continues to gain knowledge and sticks to his script of putting in extra work off the clock.

Jonas Jerebko, Detroit Pistons 6-foot-10, power forward, SwedenAverages: 9.1 ppg, 5.9 rpg
Signature game: 15 points, 13 rebounds vs. Knicks on March 3
A native of Sweden -- although his father played under Jim Boeheim at Syracuse -- just a few years ago, Jerebko was slated to attend mid-major Buffalo, before blowing up at a camp for top European prospects. After playing for a top Swedish team, he made the move to the more competitive Italian league and his continued progression resulted in being drafted by Detroit. A versatile inside-outside talent, Jerebko's hard-nosed inside play, rebounding acumen and unwillingness to back down earned him minutes early on in the season, while his athleticism and developing perimeter skills make him an even tougher matchup. Although the Pistons haven't had a successful season, the rookie is considered one of their key building blocks for the future.

Ty Lawson, Denver Nuggets 5-foot-11, point guard, North CarolinaAverages: 9.0 ppg, 3.3 apg
Signature game: 23 points, nine assists, three steals vs. Jazz on Jan. 2
The lightning-quick Lawson, a heralded prospect since his high school days, was in danger of suffering the same fate as Collison, especially after his aborted early entry into the 2008 draft. However, he salvaged his once-dropping stock with a stellar junior season, capped by winning a national title. Drafted by the Nuggets (who were poised to take him before he suffered an injury during the 2008 NBA Pre-Draft Camp in Orlando), he's coached by a fellow Tar Heel in George Karl and mentored by one of the best in Chauncey Billups, making his transition to the pro game relatively seamless. Denver now has an heir apparent at point guard, who fits their up-and-down style, can be a potential running mate for Carmelo Anthony moving forward and currently offers both depth, versatility in the backcourt (moving Billups off the ball or simply giving him a break) and a change of pace off the bench.

Wesley Matthews, Utah Jazz6-foot-5 shooting guard, Marquette UniversityAverages: 8.4 ppg, 2.0 rpg
Signature game: 21 points, five assists, four rebounds, two steals vs. Suns on Jan. 25
Another son of a former pro, Matthews had a stellar four-year career at Marquette, but somehow managed to go undrafted. Well, he landed with the right team, as old-school Jazz head coach Jerry Sloan fully appreciates hard work, toughness and an emphasis on defense -- all hallmarks of Matthews' game. While he isn't putting up gaudy numbers, the Wisconsin native has made himself extremely valuable to Utah, enabling them to trade former starting shooting guard Ronnie Brewer to Memphis at the trade deadline and allowing Matthews to start next to All-Star Deron Williams in the backcourt. His all-around skills, maturity and ability to do a little bit of everything have engendered confidence in the latest of Jazz general manager's terrific finds.

Marcus Thornton, New Orleans Hornets 6-foot-4, shooting guard, LSUAverages: 12.6 ppg, 2.6 rpg
Signature game: 37 points vs. Cavaliers on Feb. 23
Thornton, a native of Baton Rouge, La. -- about an hour from New Orleans -- was a lightly recruited high school prospect who developed into a dangerous scorer after a junior-college stint in Texas, then became a bona fide pro prospect as his strong point production continued at LSU. Still, the second-round pick was viewed as more of a "hometown kid makes good" story until, like Collison, the injury to superstar Chris Paul allowed him to showcase his skills. A bit undersized for an NBA shooting guard, Thornton makes up for it with his powerful and compact frame, outstanding shooting range, acrobatic finishing ability and explosive first step. His poise and scoring have helped keep the Hornets within shouting distance of a playoff spot during Paul's absence.

Aggrey Sam is CSNChicago.coms Bulls Insider. Follow him @CSNBullsInsider on Twitter for up-to-the-minute Bulls information and his take on the team, the NBA and much more.

Joakim Noah has a new look and it's, uh, interesting

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USA TODAY

Joakim Noah has a new look and it's, uh, interesting

Joakim Noah played in only seven games for the New York Knicks this season, having last appeared in action on Jan. 23. A few weeks later, Noah was granted an indefinite leave of absence by the team.

So what's the former Bull up to now?

Well, apparently he's attempting to audition for one of the latest wild life survival shows.

In honor of Earth Day, Noah showed off his new look on Instagram:

Jah bless the earth

A post shared by Joakim Noah (@stickity13) on

"God bless the Earth and the trees and the sun," he says in the video.

No. God bless you, Joakim.

Why the Bulls should draft Deandre Ayton if they win the Lottery

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USA TODAY

Why the Bulls should draft Deandre Ayton if they win the Lottery

Something special occurred on the campus of Oregon University in late February. The Arizona Wildcats were in town, 24 hours removed from an ESPN report that claimed head coach Sean Miller had discussed paying $100,000 to land blue-chip prospect Deandre Ayton. The report shook the college basketball world, Miller took a leave of absence from the team and the Wildcats, ranked 14th in the country, became the lead story on sports talk shows for all the wrong reasons.

And the 19-year-old Ayton found himself at the center of the turmoil. Heading into Eugene, a place the Ducks were 31-3 at over the last two seasons, the Oregon student section mercilessly heckled Ayton all night, chanting “wi-re tap” and “hun-dred thou-sand” at the freshman star. The 7-foot-1 Bahamian could have crumbled in the moment. No one would have blamed him if he had.

Instead, Ayton dominated. He took over the game for 44 minutes, resting for 66 seconds in the first half before playing the final 26:37 of the overtime thriller. His final line – 28 points, 18 rebounds, 4 blocks – somehow didn’t do the performance justice. He made 11 of 15 shots, including 17-foot jumpers, offensive rebound put-backs, low-post moves and transition dunks. In a season of extraordinary for the Pac-12’s eventual Freshman of the Year and Player of the Year, that Saturday night may have been his most impressive, all things considered.

And it’s one of many reasons why, if that 5.3 percent chance becomes reality, the Bulls can’t pass on Deandre Ayton with the first pick in June’s NBA Draft.

Let’s begin with the raw stats. Ayton joined Duke’s Marvin Bagley as the only freshmen since 1993 to average 20 points, 11 rebounds and shoot 60 percent from the field. What’s more, only 10 others – regardless of year – had accomplished the feat, last done by Oklahoma’s Blake Griffin in 2009. Four of those 10 were drafted first overall (Michael Olowokandi, Tim Duncan, Andrew Bogut and Griffin). So, spoiler alert, there’s precedent for a dominant big man being selected first overall. Ayton certainly could join that list, which we’ll note has a respectable success rate.

Those offensive numbers were compiled in impressive fashion. Ayton has been blessed with a remarkable skill set for a 19-year-old. Per Synergy, his 1.16 points per possession (PPP) ranked in the 98th percentile, and he did while playing out of position most of the season; Miller insisted on playing Ayton alongside 7-footer Dusan Ristic, which clogged up the offense at times. He’ll have more freedom in the NBA.

There’s no denying the 260-pound Ayton was a force around the rim, using his NBA-ready frame to overpower opposing frontcourts; he shot 76 percent from inside 5 feet (200 of 263) and ranked in the 90th percentile in post-up situations (1.05 PPP). But his game, like his frame, is NBA-ready, too. Ayton displayed an above-average jump shot, shooting 38 percent on 104 possessions; Kentucky’s Anthony Davis shot 34 percent on just 67 possessions in 2012. Ayton also spent more time as a pick-and-roll roller (14.6% of his possessions) than Davis, Karl-Anthony Towns or Joel Embiid in their respective college years.

He also expanded his game out to the 3-point line, attempting 35 triples in 35 games. That may not seem like much in “today’s game,” but consider: Joel Embiid (1-for-5), Karl-Anthony Towns (2-for-8) and Anthony Davis (3-for-20) combined for fewer made and attempted 3s than did Ayton in one year; Towns shot 42 percent from deep this past NBA season, Embiid made 66 triples with the Sixers and Davis has increased his made 3s each of his first six NBA seasons. Shooting can be taught, and Ayton is already ahead of schedule, even if he’s going to earn his money 15 feet and in. Ayton will jell in an NBA offense from Day 1. His game was made for the NBA.

That physically imposing frame made him a terror around the rim. Ayton stands 7-foot-1 and weighs 260 pounds; only six NBA players were listed at that size or taller/heavier. Ayton is as physically ready a rookie as we’ve seen in a handful of years.

It also makes some of his defensive metrics perplexing. Ayton’s block percentage, per KenPom.com, was 6.1%; Towns, Davis and Embiid all had double-digit block percentages. Ayton was also a liability defending the post, ranking in just the 34th percentile (allowing .919 PPP). And though some of these ugly numbers can be attributed to playing out of position, his motor has come into question and he looked out lost at times on that end of the floor. It’s certainly an area he’ll need to improve upon; it’s not enough to say he’ll roll out of bed and score 20 points. He’s got the easy part down, standing 7-foot-1 with a 40+-inch vertical. A strong defensive-minded coach will do Ayton wonders early in his career.

So why the Bulls? Well, as you’ll read a lot in this series, the team needs an injection of talent. Team need isn’t going to come into play much after Cristiano Felicio averaged 17.8 minutes per game. The Bulls need talent, and Ayton defines that. It also fits that Ayton would make for a near-perfect 1-2 punch with Lauri Markkanen, a fellow Wildcat. Ayton saw significant time as the “hi” man of Arizona’s hi-low sets with Ristic. With Markkanen maneuvering the perimeter, Ayton would be free to work 15 feet and in where he’s at his best. Having Robin Lopez as a mentor for a year would only improve Ayton’s game, and his pick-and-roll numbers would improve with Kris Dunn, who made even Felicio look serviceable.

Ayton is the best prospect in the class. There isn’t much else to say. As the series progresses we’ll need to make stronger arguments for prospects, but not with Ayton. He’s the best center prospect since Karl-Anthony Towns, and his offensive game is ahead of any frontcourt prospect with two eyebrows the last decade. Prospects like Ayton come along once every few years (Towns, Embiid, Davis) and he’s as close to a sure thing as there is in this draft. If, 10 years after the Lottery gods smiled down on the Bulls, lightning strikes twice, Deandre Ayton is the man to lead the Bulls back to contention in the Eastern Conference.