— At the outset of this NBA campaign, four players led the chase for 2008-09 Rookie of the Year: Derrick Rose, O.J. Mayo, Greg Oden and Michael Beasley.
One month into the season, two of those players have sprinted out to a sizable lead — perhaps even an insurmountable one — but the pursuit still has plenty of intrigue left. If this were a cinematic chase sequence, we’d see a tight shot of Rose and Mayo (the leaders) charging directly toward the camera, and just seconds later, coming over the crest of the hill, there would be a pack of rookies jostling for position, all while running at full tilt.
Though there’s no questioning who’s at the front, the rest of the pack is far from being settled. Here’s a closer look at how this impressive rookie class currently shakes out:
No. 12 (and rising): Eric Gordon, Clippers
The numbers: 7.1 points per game, 1.1 steals per game and 41.5 percent 3-point shooting
Some may question Gordon being here in place of Sacramento’s Jason Thompson (10.7 ppg, 6.5 rpg) or Milwaukee’s Luc Richard Mbah a Moute (9.1 ppg, 7.2 rpg), but we’re talking about players who are chasing top rookie honors, and quite simply, Thompson and Mbah a Moute don’t have the upside to get it done. As for Gordon’s upside, consider the 19-year-old’s average stats during back-to-back games on Nov. 24 and 26: 24.5 points, 4.0 made 3-pointers, 3.5 assists, 4.0 steals and 1.5 blocks. In the game that followed, Gordon flashed some trademark first-year inconsistency when he was held to five points, but the statement had already been made: This rookie will be rising up the rankings soon.
No. 11: Kevin Love, Timberwolves
The numbers: 8.7 points, 6.4 rebounds and 0.8 blocks
There have been glimpses of excellence (most notably a 14-point, nine-rebound, three-block performance against Tim Duncan and the Spurs), but inconsistency and poor shooting (40.2 percent) have kept Love out of the top tier of rookies. He posted his first double-double (18 points, 12 rebounds) on Nov. 29, and assuming he doesn’t wear down physically, his numbers should climb.
No. 10: Mario Chalmers, Heat
The numbers: 8.9 points, 4.5 assists and 2.1 steals
Chalmers’ performance to date can best be likened to a multi-sectioned quilt. Some sections are brilliantly crafted (such as his nine-steal game on Nov. 5 and his 23 points, six assists, four steals and five 3-pointers on Nov. 24), while others look like they were made by a 5-year-old with no artistic aptitude and a box of Crayolas (Chalmers failed to score in double figures in 12 of his first 18 games and had three or fewer assists eight times during that span). Miami has wisely chosen to place its faith in Chalmers’ promising side, and eventually this second-round pick should outgrow crayons for good.
No. 9: Rudy Fernandez, Trail Blazers
The numbers: 11.0 points, 2.7 rebounds and 42.6 percent 3-point shooting
Behold an odd but telling statistical trend: Fernandez averaged 14.8 points through his first nine games, then averaged precisely half of that (7.4 points) in the nine games that followed. If he plummets to 3.7 points over the next nine games, then we may have to send these findings back to the lab for analysis, but for now it can simply be said that Fernandez is struggling. However, considering that his jump shot is as dangerous as any rookie’s — and more importantly, considering that he understands how to get open — the 23-year-old Spaniard should be on the statistical upswing soon enough.
No. 8: Greg Oden, Trail Blazers
The numbers: 8.1 points, 7.7 rebounds and 1.7 blocks
He’s this low in the rankings in part because he missed six games with a foot injury, has been exceedingly inconsistent and studies have shown that witnessing his shoddy footwork and general lack of offensive polish can cause emotional scarring in field mice. But considering he’s coming back from a lost season after knee surgery, Oden's performance has been more than a little bit encouraging. As his comfort level increases and his offensive game continues to develop, his numbers will only improve. And perhaps most importantly, field mice everywhere will be able to live in peace.
No. 7: Marc Gasol, Grizzlies
The numbers: 12.2 points and 7.1 rebounds on 57.6 percent shooting
He may never be able to change the perception that he’s the younger and less-famous Gasol brother, but Marc has already changed the perception that he was little more than a random throw-in as part of the deal that sent Pau to the Los Angeles Lakers last year. Marc Gasol (or Pau Lite, if you prefer) is big, relatively mobile and has a delightfully crafty (if slightly unorthodox) offensive repertoire. Memphis may have dumped Pau because of monetary considerations, but in a junior version of the same surname, it has found a legitimate starting center for years to come.
No. 6: D.J. Augustin, Bobcats
The numbers: 12.6 points, 4.3 assists and 40.0 percent 3-point shooting
If he wasn’t stuck behind incumbent Raymond Felton, Augustin’s numbers would likely be in the highest tier of first-year players — the former Texas Longhorn averaged 19.0 points and 6.3 assists in four November starts replacing the injured Jason Richardson. Augustin is smooth, confident, can distribute efficiently and has outstanding shooting range. Never mind that Charlotte needed a center (such as the soon-to-be-discussed Brook Lopez) in the draft — at least in choosing the wrong position, the Bobcats still managed to find a franchise point guard.
No. 5: Michael Beasley, Heat
The numbers: 14.7 points and 5.4 rebounds on 44.9 percent shooting
There have been seasons in the past that Beasley’s performance would have made him the clear favorite for Rookie of the Year (we’re talking to you, Mike Miller in 2000-01), so the fact that Beasley is ranked here is a clear testament to the strength of this rookie class. The 19-year-old is going to be a dominant NBA scorer, but the transition from college prolific to professional prolific can’t always be instantaneous. Despite a few ugly outings (most notably a scoreless game against Phoenix on November 28), Beasley hit double figures in 14 of his first 18 games this year.
No. 4: Russell Westbrook, Thunder
The numbers: 12.3 points, 4.1 assists and 1.8 steals
Try to ignore the dreadful shooting (34.9 percent from the field, 25.9 percent on 3s through 18 games). Over his final 10 games of November, Westbrook averaged 13.5 points, 5.2 assists and 2.4 steals (not to mention a slightly improved 39.5 percent shooting). More importantly, the tempo-changing 20-year-old appears to have seized the Thunder’s starting point guard job, and if you’re willing to overlook some spotty shooting, there’s every reason to like the storm of production Westbrook is set to unleash.
No. 3: Brook Lopez, Nets
The numbers: 9.7 points, 7.1 rebounds and 1.6 blocks
Sometimes it’s hard to tell twins apart, especially when both are centers who come into the league simultaneously from the same university (Stanford). But here’s an easy device for distinguishing the Lopez twins: Robin is the one with the circus act of a haircut who backs up Shaq, and Brook is the one who averaged an outstanding 13.8 points, 8.7 rebounds and 2.1 blocks in his first nine games after taking over the starting role. Those are stats most teams would absolutely love to have from a starting center, not to mention a 20-year-old who’s less than one fourth of the way through his first NBA campaign.
No. 2: O.J. Mayo, Grizzlies
The numbers: 21.9 points, 4.6 rebounds and 1.3 steals on 46.4 percent shooting
His shooting percentage and scoring average — both better than his numbers at USC last year — have been sensational, but his offense-clogging tendency to hold the ball has been a noticeable disappointment. At USC last year, Mayo averaged 3.3 assists, but this year he’s down to 2.2. Prone to excess dribbling on the perimeter and holding the ball for prolonged periods of time, Mayo has drawn plenty of defensive attention but hasn’t consistently capitalized on it by dishing off to teammates. It’s this failure (coupled with the Grizzlies’ 4-13 start) that leaves the leading rookie scorer slightly short in this race.
No. 1: Derrick Rose, Bulls
The numbers: 18.4 points, 4.1 rebounds, 6.0 assists on 48.7 percent shooting
Meanwhile, unless you’re a nitpicker of the highest order, there’s virtually nothing to gripe about based on the performance of the No. 1 pick in the draft. Rose is explosive off the dribble, already has an outstanding feel for running a pro offense, and if his jump shot lacks some range, at least he realizes it — Rose has attempted just 19 3-pointers all year (making seven), and has at times shown an unstoppable mid-range jumper. He has yet to decisively win this race, and like any other rookie, he could certainly break down from fatigue as the season wears on. But since it’s widely known that the adrenaline of the chase makes you faster, the hard-charging, formidable rookie class of 2008-09 should be all the incentive Rose needs to maintain his blistering pace all the way to the end.