NBA rookie wall is real but not easily defined

MINNEAPOLIS – Derrick Williams saw it on tape. After last season, when he sat down and played back those games starting in February, around the All-Star Break, it was there. He’ll admit to such now, a year out, now that the whole thing is behind him.

It, in this instance, is the rookie wall, the vague notion that seems to be on the tip of everyone’s tongues this time of year. It’s the idea that these first-year players, coming off 35- or 40-game college seasons or even shorter European ones, are going to crash, with too many games in too few nights finally catching up to them. We’re more than halfway through the NBA season, nearly at the All-Star break, when the talented rookies will get a trip to Houston and the lucky ones a week off, and it’s time for those first-year players to start flagging. At least, that’s what those searching for evidence of the wall will say. They’ll look to every game for signs. When Damian Lillard shoots 27 percent, as the Trail Blazers point guard did Jan. 29, that will be it, the rookie wall, finally. Every time No. 1 overall pick Anthony Davis posts a minus-19 plus-minus for the Hornets, as he did Feb. 1, there it is again.

But what is it, really? The rookie wall is such a vague term, so overused and trite these days that it’s as much the butt of jokes and jabs as it is any visible, fathomable thing. Portland coach Terry Stotts will laughingly chastise the media for predicting Lillard’s. Minnesota coach Rick Adelman, when asked about the wall, will make his particular brand of corny joke, asking if it’s perhaps referring to “the guy in Washington.” (John Wall, of course, who is actually a third-year player.) That’s what we’ve come to, people. Tongue-in-cheek humor, feigned ignorance and really no willingness to talk about whether the wall or obstacle or whatever you want to call it exists.

But it does exist, in some fluid, malleable form, and not for everyone, not in the same fashion. If there’s one thing to say about the rookie wall, it’s that the subject can be very much taboo and nearly impossible to generalize.

But all too often, it’s there. Williams saw it, he said, on those tapes, and what he described wasn’t the stuff of massive statistical fall-offs or night upon night of subpar shooting. In fact, even in his underwhelming rookie season, the forward’s scoring went up after the All-Star break; before it, the 2011 No. 2 overall pick averaged 7.3 points, and after, 10.5. (His playing time increased, too, but even his points per minute played improved, from 0.40 to 0.43.) No, what Williams saw involved a bit more nuance than anything found on paper.

“I think in the beginning of the season, you can go pretty much as long as you can go, whether it be 20, 25, 30 minutes,” Williams said. “I think when you start hitting that wall, you can start seeing yourself get tired around that 15-, 18-minute mark.”

That visible exhaustion is manifested through mistakes, sluggishness and often through poorer shooting. Just look at Williams’ numbers; he shot 43.8 percent from the field before the All-Star break and 39.3 percent after it despite playing and scoring more. That’s a general trend, too. Of the top five highest-scoring rookies in each of the five seasons before this one, 15 of the 25 saw their shooting percentages decline after the All-Star break, compared with just nine of the 25 whose scoring fell.

In fact, only seven of those 25 rookies saw increases in both scoring and field-goal percentage after the All-Star break: Kevin Durant, Eric Gordon, Michael Beasley, Stephen Curry, Marcus Thornton, John Wall and Gary Neal. And with the exception of Thornton and Neal, those are elite talents (even if one, Beasley, has never made the most of said talent), the kind of players whose skills might make them immune to the wall.

Adelman agreed with the idea that talent must come into consideration when it comes to rookies’ midseason struggles. In fact, he said he’s not a believer in the rookie wall in those cases, when the talent is extreme and the player’s minutes are high. There’s too much responsibility for those players, and, more important, too much time. Things might get shaky or imbalanced for a bit, but given that kind of leash, an elite player, even a rookie, manages to regroup.

“When you’re playing 38 minutes a game, you get used to knowing that the game’s going to come to you, even if you’re struggling,” Adelman said. “Even if you’re having problems. … I wasn’t a very good player, and I had one year where I got to play like 36 minutes a game, and I knew how that felt. I could have bad periods, but eventually, you know, the game would come around.”

Apart from the distinction between elite talent and the masses, there’s another difference that crops up when it comes to the rookie wall: American vs. international rookies. Of course, international rookies come in all ages and forms: from 35-year-old Pablo Prigioni in New York to 20-year-old Evan Fournier in Denver, undrafted Alexey Shved in Minnesota to 2011’s third overall pick, Enes Kanter, in Utah. Even so, there are some general maxims about these players; they’ve been playing professionally longer, bumping up against grown men since they were teens, hardened by the more physical European game.

“Sometimes there are 16,000 people in the stands,” Timberwolves president of basketball operations David Kahn said of European basketball. “And if you’re on the road, they’re throwing things at you. That matters. I remember watching Pek the year before we brought him over, in a really important game in Athens. … This is where there are fires in the stands, and fireworks and things are being thrown. Pek stepped up to the line late in the game, and with everybody screaming, he made two free throws.”

There’s no way an American rookie could replicate that experience, not even in a national championship game. It’s too small and weak a sample size, one game on neutral ground. (In fact, in the past decade, only three active players – Joakim Noah, Al Horford and Corey Brewer, have played in two national championship games. All three played for Florida in 2006 and 2007.) Thus, European rookies have that working for them, in part counteracting the shorter seasons they’re accustomed to and the cultural gap they’re working to close.

When the Timberwolves signed Shved last summer, the impression was that he would be a project, unlikely to have much of an impact his first season. Due to injuries, though, and the guard’s own play, he’s cracked the team’s starting lineup at times, exceeding expectations. Shved, who missed five games in late January with a sprained ankle, said he was feeling the wall before the injury, which might have worked in his favor in terms of timing and giving the rest of his body a break.

“I play five, six years professionally in Europe,” Shved said. “I play big games, Olympic games. … I think this for sure helps me because I come here and I’m ready for this. But for sure, this is different games, and here it is harder to play than in Europe.”

So here he is, like any other rookie, in spite of those big games and the massive cultural change. On the court, those factors can dissolve, and it all comes down to talent and who wants it more.

In fact, any generalization about the rookie wall has some example to flout it. There are plenty of players whose numbers dropped off midway through their first season, plenty even who have hit the supposed wall and gone on never to replicate said numbers again. So those players hit the wall and crashed, right? They’re flameouts, no? Maybe, except one player who fits that definition is Blake Griffin, who averaged 22.8 points in the first half of his rookie season, 22.5 on the year, and has never averaged more than 20.7 since. Blake Griffin is starting this year’s All-Star Game.

Or there’s the argument that players who have that big-game, prominent college experience have an edge. Let’s look at Noah, who played in both the 2006 and 2007 national championships, winning each time. He – and both of his teammates, Horford and Brewer – shot better and scored more after the break in their rookie seasons, perhaps proving the point. But so did Kenneth Faried in 2011-12, a player fresh out of Morehead State University, a school whose opponents included UT Martin and Jacksonville State his senior year.

And then there’s the notion that players who shoulder more of a burden than perhaps a rookie should are more susceptible to hitting the wall than those who are left as role players – you could say that, or you could say the role players get stale and the relied-upon power through. For every Marcus Thornton in New Orleans, who had 17 starts his rookie season and improved after the break, there’s a Juan Carlos Navarro in Memphis, whose minutes fluctuated and who started just 30 games, his shooting falling off as the season went on. For every O.J. Mayo, who started all 82 games for Memphis his first year and declined gradually as the season wore on, there’s a Stephen Curry, who played big minutes throughout his rookie year in Golden State and faltered minimally. Every rule has its exception, every wall its particular timing and intricacies, until the whole thing leaves you talking in circles.

And talking about it, that’s the final obstacle. Few rookies want to discuss it, perhaps as a reaction to being questioned so much, but more likely as a defense mechanism. For those, like Shved, who are outplaying their expectations, it may be easier to consider, but for any highly touted rookie, to admit to the wall would seem like basketball’s cardinal sin. It would be a sign of weakness, a sign for many lottery picks that they know they can’t carry their struggling teams on their backs. (Even if they can’t. Even if no one could.)

“I don’t think about that,” the Hornets’ Davis said, just moments after his 18 points on 50 percent shooting wasn’t enough to avoid a 29-point New Orleans loss on Saturday. “You’ve got to play basketball. You get paid to do this. There’s so many other guys that would love to be in your position. You can’t think about how, ‘Oh, man, I’m tired. I don’t feel like playing.’ You’ve got to go out there and play. That’s the approach I take.”

And maybe not thinking about it is fine. There’s only so much a player can analyze, and past that, the only solution is to go. None of these guys is going to be listed as “DNP – ROOKIE WALL,” least of all Davis. When there’s nothing to be done other than to practice, to eat right and get some sleep, perhaps to comment and dissect is suicide.

Williams said he could feel himself struggling last year, especially with the condensed post-lockout season and his lack of a training camp. He could see it in fellow Timberwolves rookie Ricky Rubio before his injury, too, but there was nothing either could do. It wasn’t until after the season, when Williams began his crusade to slim down and improve upon the disappointing first 66 games of his career, that he really began to delve into it. That’s when he watched the film and began to pick apart his performances, to notice that his own form of the cliché was indeed visible as he analyzed.

It can take distance, sometimes, to see this. Only when the year is over can a player afford to be so retrospective without seeming selfish, to rest when rest is really the only cure. For now, they’ll be indignant, like Davis. They’ll laugh, like Stotts, grateful Lillard has shown no signs of letting up yet and hopeful he doesn’t in the dozens of games to come. For now, they’ll point to Durant, who played on like 82 games were nothing, or to Klay Thompson in Golden State, whose scoring went up markedly but whose shooting declined in his rookie season’s second half and who is now one of the Warriors’ better weapons.

Every success story has a reason it could continue, every collision with the rookie wall an example to predict a rebound. Most likely, no precedent will hold, other than that watching those tapes in June won’t usually be the most pleasant of viewing. 

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