For first-year NBA players, few gulfs are wider than that between the high hopes of June and the harsh realities of November.
Every year, a new crop of rookies enters the league, and fans and writers spend the summer building them up in hopes they'll become their teams' next savior. Rather than look at how previous rookie classes fared, and noting that only in rare instances did a player play at a high level immediately, we become immediately taken with the idea that our team's player will be the exception the "Next Jordan," "Next Bird," or "Next Duncan."
Then November comes around, and all their weaknesses are exposed. Soon we abandon the idea of finding a rookie who can be the Next Jordan, because none of them even look like the next Otis Birdsong.
This season has been a particularly humbling year in this regard, as the draft class is living up to its reputation as one of the weakest in memory. In fact, looking at the performance of the rookie crop thus far, the 2006 first round could go down as one of the great stinkers ever right up there with the infamous 2001 draft, whose biggest "stars" were Kenyon Martin and Mike Miller. (The one true star from that draft, Michael Redd, was a secondrounder).
Several of the most prominent rookies have fallen flat in the opening weeks. Check that. All of them have. After a summer of hype and projection, the 30 first-rounders' contributions have varied between "not much" and "nothing at all."
Don't agree? Let's see how the high lottery picks are performing after a summer of hype:
Top overall pick Andrea Bargnani, despite arriving with solid pro experience gained in Italy, has played sparingly for the Raptors and done little to inspire confidence in his few minutes. Heading into yesterday's games, he's averaging 4.3 points a game and shooting 42.3%; he's also played pitiful defense. In a recent Raptor game when fouls forced coach Sam Mitchell to go to the bench down the stretch, he opted for journeyman Kris Humphries and left Bargnani on the pine.
The no. 2 overall pick, LaMarcus Aldridge of the Blazers, was almost immediately discounted as a possible impact rookie after the team watched him over the summer. He missed the first five games following a shoulder injury and figures to spend most of the year caddying for Zach Randolph.
Third overall pick Adam Morrison's shooting percentage is even uglier than his grooming, and that's saying something. He's at 32.4% from the floor and his secondary contributions 1.8 boards, 1.3 assists are embarrassingly low considering he's averaging 30.3 minutes a game.
Fourth pick Tyrus Thomas had a nice dunk in the opener against Miami, then broke his nose and has done little since. He has nearly as many turnovers (4) as field goals (6) and is having trouble finding minutes on the deep Bulls roster.
Fifth pick Shelden Williams has a spot in Atlanta's starting lineup, but only because Marvin Williams broke his hand. He's been a disaster offensively, averaging 3.7 points a game and taking two free throws the entire season, but his muscle has at least helped one of the league's weakest front lines.
Sixth pick Randy Foye was touted by many as a Rookie of the Year pick after dominating in summer league, but against more stout competition, he has struggled to get off the T'wolves' bench. He's shooting a mere 34.5% from the floor, though his high scoring rate offers hope that he might snap out of the funk. He'll have to if he wants to play, because Minnesota's backcourt is as deep as any in basketball.
Seventh pick Brandon Roy, though lauded as an impact rookie thanks to the Blazers' hot start, had some struggles too he was at 37.7% from the floor before checking out with a heel injury that may require surgery.
And so on down the line. Patrick O'Bryant. Mohammed Saer Sene, J.J. Redick, Hilton Armstrong, Cedric Simmons, Ronnie Brewer all these guys were lottery picks, and all have had trouble just getting on the floor.
Of the 30 first-rounders, the only one to really play well has been Chicago's Thabo Sefolosha, averaging 6.8 points and 1.0 steal a game in just 16.8 minutes. But he's a deep reserve and may be exposed with more extended playing-time.
The rookie struggles extend to the three local first-rounders Marcus Williams, Renaldo Balkman, and Mardy Collins. Williams was another rookie caught in the hype machine during preseason, with pundits extolling his virtues as court vision and basketball instincts. All that may yet come to pass, but thus far his introduction to the NBA has been a rough one. He's averaging more turnovers than assists not a good sign for somebody drafted as a pure point guard and is 2-for-17 from beyond the arc.
At least Williams is playing. New York's two youngsters have barely left the bench, and when they have the results haven't been pretty. Balkman has been the more prominent of the two, providing a bit of energy and the alwaysentertaining sight of flying dreadlocks, but he's mustering just 11 points in eight appearances. Collins only has 10 NBA minutes under his belt and could end up making a trip to the D-League once Steve Francis and Jared Jeffries return.
So if you're lamenting the struggles of the local rookies, keep in mind that it's been tough all over the league this year. But if you're a see-the-glass-as-half-full type, keep another thing in mind as well: Rookie performance tends to increase sharply as the year goes on. Last year, for instance, Utah's Deron Williams was a dog for the first two-thirds of the season. But he went gangbusters down the stretch and is a big reason the Jazz are on top of the Northwest Division this season.
Thus, the rookies will get a little better, and it's far too early to write off any individual from the class of '06. But on a group level, the trend is startling. While many newcomers struggle out of the gate, it's highly unusual for the entire group to start so amazingly badly. Since the class of 06 didn't have much of a reputation to begin with, it's fair to start asking whether most of the crop will be a dud and, in turn, whether this class will go down as one of the worst ever.