By Steve Aschburner
March 24, 2009

Thought by many observers to be a tale for only two cities -- Chicago and Miami -- the 2008 NBA draft is proving to be one of the deepest in recent memory. What figured to be Bulls guard Derrick Rose and Heat forward Michael Beasley running some sort of pick-and-roll in isolation for the league's Rookie of the Year award instead has turned into a Princeton offense, only with six or seven players cutting, passing and picking in a supersized weave.

Russell Westbrook, Brook Lopez, O.J. Mayo, Kevin Love and Marc Gasol have made the race for the Eddie Gottlieb Trophy -- you knew that was the official name of the award, right? -- one of the tightest or, at least, most intriguing competitions in years. And that doesn't include a certain center in Portland who already has tried twice to make a great first impression.

T-Mobile, which sponsors the first and second All-Rookie teams, won't be stuck with one Fave and one Not-So-Fave Five, as it has at times in the past. Pressed on the issue, it's a safe bet many league execs wouldn't swap three or four of these newcomers even-up for the 2005 ROY winner, Emeka Okafor, who has been a double-double machine since his arrival, beats all of the rookies on the efficiency scale (18.71) and has a four-year head start in development.

"It's going to be a tough race," Oklahoma City's Kevin Durant said. The Thunder's angular 6-foot-9 scorer was a runaway winner of the '08 Gottlieb Trophy, getting 90 of the 125 available first-place votes (Al Horford got 30, Luis Scola the other five). He doesn't see it playing out that way this spring, not with the depth of this year's rookie class and the fine lines between those at the top.

How deep is it? Through Sunday, 12 rookies were averaging 10 points or more, compared to six last season. Fourteen were grabbing at least four rebounds per game, seven were at 2.0 assists or better and 13 of the new guys had efficiency ratings of 10.0 or higher. Add up those raw scores and you get 46.

Now compare that to the recent past. Last year, the four-category total for the rookies was 34. It was 27 in '06-07, 32 in '05-06 and 34 in '04-05.

Unlike Durant, who dominated the in-season rookie votes, winning the honor in five out of six months, this year's freshman class has shared in the praise. Lopez broke Rose's stranglehold on the award by winning Eastern Conference Rookie of the Month honors in January and February. Westbrook has gained enough admirers to generate a tomato-tomahto choice with Rose akin, for some, to the Chris Paul-Deron Williams debate that has raged since '05. And Mayo, at one time considered Rose's greatest challenge for the ROY prize, has seen his impressive first-half numbers (19.6 points on 45 percent shooting in his first 48 games) slide (15.6 points on 39.1 percent shooting since) to come back to the pack.

From the beginning, this year's rookie class has demonstrated it was a lot deeper than most originally thought. Recall how Rose somehow got snubbed by the NBA's general managers who cast votes in a preseason survey for six possible ROY winners -- none of them him -- but now see him as the MVP of a likely playoff team (and the acknowledged favorite, still, among the rookies). Remember that Love has amassed 23 double-doubles -- one more than Kevin Garnett or Dirk Nowitzki and as many as David West, while averaging anywhere from six to 14 fewer minutes than the two former MVPs and a two-time All-Star forward. Realize, too, that even Eric Gordon has caught on, largely unnoticed in Clipperland, by averaging 20.1 points on 48.9 percent shooting (44 percent from the arc) since Feb. 11.

"Kevin Love is having a great month," Thunder coach Scott Brooks said. "Derrick Rose is obviously having a great year. There are a lot of good rookies who are playing good basketball. I think it's wide open still."

Truth be told, Brooks believes his guy, Westbrook, ranks second to none among the newbies. Whatever pressure Rose shouldered as the No. 1 pick and the starting point guard for a Chicago club with postseason ambitions, Westbrook could match once Oklahoma City GM Sam Presti grabbed him with the No. 4 pick. Too high, many of the experts cried. But guess what? No one -- no one -- bothers to bring it up anymore. Oklahoma City wanted Westbrook, didn't hold a pick further down where he "should" have gone and couldn't, or just didn't, maneuver around in the final minutes. So it spent that No. 4 on him and hasn't looked back.

"We played pickup games in September before the season started, and I was really impressed then,'' Thunder forward Nick Collison said. "His development has been unbelievable, when you think about how -- two years ago -- he wasn't playing a lot at UCLA. He wasn't one of their main guys as a freshman, and, in high school, he wasn't highly recruited. To go from that in three years to being talked about as a Rookie of the Year [candidate] is really impressive. He's just fearless. A great athlete. But he's just scratching the surface of what he can do. He's doing a lot just on ability now, but he works hard and he watches the game, and he'll pick up skills and he'll make a lot of improvements going forward."

Said Durant: "I knew as soon as we picked him that he was going to be the guy for us. First of all, he's an unbelievable person off the floor -- that's the kind of people we need here. On the floor, he gives us a lot of depth as far as another guy who can score, who can rebound. ... He's the motor that gets this team going. So we lean on him and rely on him a lot."

In an insignificant game at Minnesota on Sunday, Westbrook was all over the place, the Timberwolves and the box score. Late in the third quarter, he set up Collison for a jump shot that put the Thunder up 80-48 and left Westbrook with as many assists to that point (nine) as the entire Timberwolves squad. Though Oklahoma City was up 91-65 with 6:17 left, Westbrook stayed in gear when he chased down Wolves rookie Bobby Brown to thwart a breakaway dunk, bothering to foul at that point in the blowout. He sat from there and finished with seven points, 10 assists and eight rebounds, the circumstances interfering with what would have been Westbrook's second triple-double in three weeks.

The rookie's defense, which might be a hair better than Rose's right now, has clearly caught his coach's eye. "It's getting better," Brooks said. "It's not where it needs to be. He will understand that there are good players in this league who don't get to play a lot, but it's your job to know your scouting report, know the personnel you're playing against, and treat every player [with respect]."

Even when it's a touted UCLA rookie barreling after his undrafted-in-'07, Cal State Fullerton counterpart. "That has to be habit," Brooks said. "We're trying to create winning habits and winning players. Keep the game simple on the offensive end, and on the defensive end, they're committed to each other every time downcourt."

Chasing down that Bulls guard from Memphis could be tougher, however. Rose has some math on his side: He is on pace to become only the eighth rookie in NBA history to average at least 16 points, 3.5 rebounds and 6.0 assists, and five of the seven who've done it were named Rookie of the Year. Westbrook, at 15.7 points, 4.8 rebounds and 5.1 assists, is a little off Rose's pace. Rose has led Chicago in scoring 16 times and in assists 51 times, while reaching at least 20 points in 27 games. Westbrook has led the Thunder nine times in points and 29 times in assists, while scoring 20 on 17 occasions.

Head to head, their teams split their season series 1-1. In the first meeting, Westbrook starred with 14 points, 12 rebounds and four assists in a 109-98 overtime victory in Chicago in January. But on March 18, Rose was 10-of-10 after halftime, and scored 20 of his 25 points in a 103-96 Bulls victory.

Westbrook has helped close the gap on Rose in what many consider the ultimate measure of success, the won-loss record. Since Jan. 12, the Bulls are 17-16 while the Thunder are 14-17, growing from their 6-33 start as Westbrook -- among other developments -- has grown.

"The main thing is winning with your team," Westbrook said before the second clash with the Bulls, "and putting your team in the best situation possible and getting better as the season goes along. I think everybody kind of thinks they deserve it [ROY]."

This is one of those years in which everybody might be right.

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