The learning curve for rookies is a sliding scale even if every rook enters the NBA dreaming of 20 and 10 a night. Only eight rookies in 2011-12 averaged more than 10 points per game. The guy who becomes the rookie of the year is one of the few whose role can make or break his team, but there’s a huge gap in the roles the rookies will be asked to tackle. While many will be given scraps of playing time, these are the 10 who will be asked to do the most in their first year in the NBA.
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10. QUINCY ACY
Acy’s length and hops will make him, as a forward, more of a factor early than eighth pick Terrence Ross. Ross has to compete against an older clone of himself, DeMar DeRozan, for minutes and shots but Acy can slide into the four spot behind Linas Kleiza and Ed Davis in reserve minutes early before growing into a larger role later. Head coach Dwane Casey asks for defense all the time, and Acy should be able to do better at that than the aforementioned Davis and Kleiza.
9. PERRY JONES III
Jones is easily the most questionable pick there is on this list because his temperament reminded me of Two-Face last season at Baylor. Sometimes you get the 6-10, freakishly versatile player with top-10 talent or the guy who can play with all the excitement of being told to take out the trash. This may be a different case in Oklahoma City, where he is decidedly not the best player on the team any more and can do what he wants, when he wants to. Durant and Westbrook should, hopefully, give him veteran structure while developing Jones into the missing piece OKC never found after trading away Jeff Green to Boston two seasons ago. He won’t take minutes from James Harden, but he could be up right after him. On a winner like OKC, the importance of the role of seventh man might not be reflected in his minutes.
8. TERRENCE JONES
As big a fan as I am of what Royce White can do on the court, he’s just a bit too small and still unproven to jump him ahead of the seemingly 10 other forwards on the Rockets’ roster. There’s a missing spot where Jones, the Kentucky sophomore, can inhabit though, as a hybrid shooting guard-small forward. Jones is possibly the only player on this team who can play two positions and he can go a third (in college it was four) at times, too. Jones will be the oil that keeps Houston’s unmovable parts — Lin at point guard, Asik at center — moving along. Because of his versatility he’ll be on the floor often.
7. TYLER ZELLER
Cleveland’s frontcourt has been a patchwork of journeymen or young players who can’t be expected to grow into an All-Star dating back to LeBron’s tenure. Zeller is the first, true 7-footer able to be built around. He’s certainly mature (four years at North Carolina) and knows how to contribute on a team whose focus is its guards. Zeller will likely become the starting center by Thanksgiving, if not faster, where his offense will be trusted more over time by Kyrie Irving as he begins to play opponents for the third and fourth times.
6. JOHN JENKINS
The last time we left the Hawks, they were clearing out cap space (though they won’t have enough for both) for a run at Chris Paul and Dwight Howard next summer. The master stroke by GM Danny Ferry was jettisoning Joe Johnson’s contract, which opened up a spot for a shooter on the wing. Enter the best shooter in the draft, Jenkins. This isn’t to say he molds himself to the void Johnson left with his 18.8 points per game last season; however, even off the bench, the Vanderbilt shooter will be counted on to score and stretch the floor like Johnson.
5. KENDALL MARSHALL
With Steve Nash out of the picture in Phoenix, it’s the North Carolina guard’s turn to handle what was once the dream job of any point guard. It’s not nearly as coveted a gig as it was even three years ago, but the Suns floor leader role will have Marshall’s imprints on it from the early beginning. How well he plays by New Year’s should give a peek into whether the Suns try to return to the “7 Seconds Or Less” philosophy or a half-court team.
4. ANDREW NICHOLSON
Orlando saw the hungry, “energy-guy” forward play exactly as he was billed this summer, but don’t think this is a prediction he’s the piece the Magic build around. He doesn’t have that ceiling. But in a post-Dwight Howard world, or hell even one where he still plays in Orlando, Nicholson is the kind of consistent power forward general managers crave. His post defense will take a few months to solidify against bigger forwards, but his free-throw line jumper is smooth. More reliable than Big Baby Davis, Nicholson could be asked to play a lot early because he’s not the player of the future, he’s the player of now.