The Trouble With (Two) Rookies

The term “rookie” holds both positive and negative connotations. While a rookie is someone boasting promise and potential, it is also a player lacking in experience and general know-how.

As the connotations suggest, counting on the production of a rookie can bring about the promise of long-term gains along with ever-existent short-term pains. Charlotte Bobcats head coach Paul Silas has spent the 2011-12 season learning this first-hand, while Toronto Raptors bench boss Dwane Casey may be about to find out.

First-year players are far from the only headache that Silas has had to endure during a trying campaign in which his Bobcats have recorded a league-worst 7-44 mark through 51 games. However, rookies are rookies and the introductions to the NBA haven’t been entirely smooth for a pair of youngsters who have actually played fairly well, if unevenly: Kemba Walker, who is one year removed from leading UConn to a national title, and Bismack Biyombo, a 19-year-old Congolese shot-blocking phenom who remains raw in most other areas of the game.

“It’s tough because rookies take time,” admits Silas; “take time to learn the game, to understand it, understand the players, understand what’s expected of them. And you cannot expect them to just go out and do the job right away, so it takes patience.”

Casey, whose Raptors trumped Silas’ Bobcats on Tuesday night in Toronto, may be looking ahead to a similar experience with his club next season. The team is hopeful that they’ll be able to bring 2011 first-round pick Jonas Valanciunas over from current Lithuanian club Lietuvos Rytas in time for the 2012-13 season. Should Valanciunas touch down in time to make his anticipated NBA debut next year, he will likely be learning the North American pro game alongside whichever prospect Toronto selects with its lottery choice in this June’s draft (barring a trade, of course).

Of course, no two rookies (or players, for that matter) are completely alike. While Walker’s NCAA run with the Huskies made him a relatively pro-ready commodity coming out of college, he faces the added challenge of learning how to run the point and adjusting to what is one of the most demanding and talent-laden positions on the floor. Biyombo, meanwhile, had – and still has – a steep learning curve ahead of him, with Silas suggesting that developing a consistent jumper will be a huge off-season focus for the teen.

The combination of the two, coupled with still-developing pieces like Gerald Henderson and Byron Mullens, makes for an environment requiring plenty of patience.

“It’s a process,” acknowledges Walker. “Hopefully we can get some vets mixed in here to bring some leadership. But with me and Biz and Byron and other young guys getting this experience, it’ll help build us into winners.”

The bumps are to be expected, just as they will be in Toronto next season. Walker and Biyombo finished Tuesday’s game with 15 points, nine rebounds and seven assists combined, but also committed six turnovers and were part of an offence that looked out of joint throughout much of their 92-87 losing effort.

Toss in another high profile rookie likely joining the fray next season and the “two or three years” that Silas figures most rookies need to develop and there’s still plenty of work to do (understatement alert!).

Any already-beleaguered Raptors fan reading this can’t be particularly enamored by parallels between this year’s Bobcats and next year’s Raps, but Casey is quick to offer some words of optimism and hope.

“Having young talent is great,” says the first-year coach, “but I’m not sure that young players are given the best possible chance to grow without the opportunity to develop in a structured, disciplined environment that emphasizes the importance of hard work and winning. That’s what we’ve been trying to do here this year, and will continue to try to do.”

About the Author

Ben Fisher Ben Fisher has covered the NBA for and contributed to the Toronto Raptors' Gameday souvenir program. He has also written on the NHL, MLB, Olympic Winter Games and the ATP and WTA tennis tours.

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