Who’s the Freshest of Them All?

by March 06, 2010

Close to two years ago, three SLAM scribes debated the merits of three freshman players. SLAM 117 brought you Michael Beasley, Eric Gordon and Derrick Rose as part of a three-cover issue. The trio of freshmen were ripping up the competition in college during the 2007-08 season, and SLAM was on hand, trying to decipher which one was the best of the bunch.  Now, as they put the lid on their second NBA season, their really is no argument as D. Rose  shines the brightest.—Franklyn Calle

SLAM 117: Mike Beasley

Michael Beasley

by Bonsu Thompson

With all due respect, this “best freshman” question must be rhetorical. How could it not be? Simply put, there isn’t one NCAA freshman whose statistics near Michael “Be Easy” Beasley’s portfolio. There isn’t even a single other freshman listed in the top five of any major statistical category (though Kevn Love comes close). Kansas State’s dream-come-true recruit ranks top five in the top two. He’s No. 1 in the land for rebounds—12.3, to be exact. He isn’t the tallest (6-9) or most massive (230 lbs), just the best at it. Spotlight his sticky fingers, small forward hops, Chris Brown body control plus gluttonous appetite for food off the glass and any Repub or Dem can see how he could lead a nation. It actually makes complete sense that Beasley’s the boardroom’s numero uno. He’s been groomed for the ranking since pubescence. “When I first started playing [AAU ball], I was playing with Kevin Durant,” Beasley begins. “My only role on the team was to rebound, so I’d just grab 20-30 rebounds a night. I didn’t really score as a youngster.”

It wasn’t until age 15 that Michael realized he was not only able to score but could do so mercilessly. “I was in the gym one day playing 5-on-5 and somebody just got to talkin’, saying I can’t do this and that,” remembers the Washington, D.C. native. “I realized the more I got mad the harder it was for them to stop me. So I [said] after that day I’m gonna play like this from here on and I’ve been playing like that ever since.”

A 6-9 forward who owns a tricky first step, quickness to follow and a platter of rim finishes—ambidextrous lay-ups or violent dunks—is special. When that same forward’s a southpaw who owns a midrange fade-away and three-point accuracy average of 42 percent, he’s the country’s No. 4 scorer at 25 ppg. Beasley is in a class by himself and still has every student in the hallway shook. “Once I step on the floor, I’m superman. I feel unstoppable,” he says.

“Guys that are just playing for Freshman of the Year can have that title,” Beasley continues. “They’re not better than me, but it’s more than just scoring points and grabbing rebounds. You gotta be the man off the court as well…I bring light to the room.”

Derrick Rose is a green light on Beale Street when measured against the star wattage of Beasley. Rose—like UCLA’s Love—benefits from playing on a talented and experienced top-five team. Even OJ Mayo, who’s looked more like a freshman than any of his golden classmates, leads a USC starting five with multiple double-digit scorers. Beasley the Beast has had to drag his Kansas State program to a national ranking with his only major assistance coming from Bill Walker, a neophyte in his own right still recovering from a knee injury. K-State Coach Frank Martin has accused his Wildcats of being “dependent” on their big man.

I’ll consider Eric Gordon quality competition on account of the excitement he brings, but efficiency trumps excitement. (I’m sure Coach Sampson would love to Windex the streakiness off his prize recruit’s NBA range.) When Gordon eventually learns that your cerebrals make plays before your speed does, he’ll be Gilbert Arenas. Until then, he’s Michael Beasley’s runner-up.

If you were Kevin McHale or Pat Riley going into the ’08 Draft and desperately needed a young superstar to replace the frontcourt All-Star you’ve recently lost (KG/Shaq), which freshman would you entrust your team’s future with? How does a frontcourt tandem of Beasley and Al Jeff sound? Or Wade and Beasley? Envision any other freshman on those squads. Now go pop two Motrin.

Eff stopping at FOY—Michael Beasley will quite possibly beat every upperclassman for POY and then the No. 1 Draft spot (where next year he’ll be a favorite for ROY). But Beas informs that he’d rather remind League fans of another former freshman standout from the Maryland province. “I think I’ll be more like Carmelo [in the NBA],” says Beasley. “He can shoot it from deep, post you up, shoot it mid-range, he’s quick…”

If Beas intends on following Melo’s pro steps, he’ll want to duplicate his frosh year with a championship first. But before the net-cutting comes some Big 12 business to be handled. Those who wrote KSU off as the Sunflower State’s B-team didn’t hear Beas predict a season sweep of Kansas. They surely saw him back his words in last January’s first in-state match-up, though. MB struggled offensively in the first half, but then a Jayhawk made the terminal mistake of determining that the McDonald’s All-American MVP is “not that good.” The “that good” forward then poured in a post-intermission 17 points (25 total), including 4 of 4 from three. “I think I can coast through a game and give you about 19-20 points,” MB says. “But as soon as somebody get to runnin’ they mouth, that’s when I turn it up.”

That night, Kansas’ undefeated season died along with its 25-year win streak at State. Now, for the first time in decades, the Wildcats are serious contenders for conference supremacy and locks for a Tourney invite. No other player has done more for his school this year, regardless of classification. Now if only The Beast could muster up the confidence to mirror his gargantuan game…

SLAM: Kansas State is nationally ranked and near the top of the Big 12—what are your predictions for the rest of the season?
MB: Wins. I’m going for the Big 12 championship and then the national championship.

SLAM: Would winning Player of the Year mean something to you?
MB: I would like that but I wouldn’t be mad if I didn’t get it.

SLAM: But you do feel like you deserve it, right?
MB: Hmmm. Sometimes, yes.

SLAM: Is there anybody you feel deserves it more than you?
MB: Nah.

SLAM: You obviously feel you’re your only competition. So what do you need to improve on?
MB: Making it look so easy.

SLAM 117: Eric Gordon

Eric Gordon

by DeMarco Williams

Eric Gordon? The best freshman in college? You seriously want to argue this? Okay, okay. For the sake of channeling our inner Denzel, Eric and I will play along with the silly debate.

Talent-wise, Mike Beasley and Derrick Rose are in the same prestigious category with Eric of players who can cut it on and off whenever the scoreboard calls. “We always try to be playmakers,” Gordon says of this fantastic class he’s been competing with on the high school/AAU/camp scene for some time now. “We take every game seriously. We play every game like it’s our last. We just try to get to the next level. We always try to bring our game up and we always try to provide for others. I’d just say our mentality takes over.”

Illustrating that so profoundly is Eric’s game-by-game log through the season’s first three-plus months. No matter if the undiscriminating Hoosier is playing Illinois State, Southern Illinois or Illinois, he’s coming out hard and determined to give 40 minutes of blood, sweat and teardrops. Going over 25 points in eight games before Valentine’s Day, Gordon paces the Big Ten in scoring with a 21.4 average. If he keeps it up offensively, Eric will become the first freshman since Minnesota’s Kris Humphries in ’04 to lead the conference in the category. Even if he somehow comes up short, the Isiah Thomas-Steve Alford-Damon Bailey chain of gushed-about Indiana guards most definitely has a new link.

But truth be told, things got bumpy in late January. In back-to-back contests with UConn and Wisconsin, Eric seemingly hit the freshman wall, combining for just 30 points in the two loses. Though a banged-up left wrist was the chief reason for the struggles, Gordon didn’t make a huge deal about his aches. The next game, in fact, he hit Northwestern with a healthy six treys and 29 total points, putting an exclamation point on his return. The game after that he toughed through two overtimes at Illinois (where he was booed the entire game for spurning an earlier commitment to the Illini) and got Indiana a season-defining W. Ask me—or anyone looking at the college game with an unbiased eye, for that matter—and Eric Gordon’s game never left.

Watching Eric Gordon Jr., all 6-4, 215 pounds, eat fellow  McDonald’s All-Americans over the summers leading up to his first season in Bloomington, you just knew he’d make a smooth transition to college. But did last year’s Indiana Mr. Basketball envision something so seamless? “I was always naturally-built, a good size and all of that for my height,” EJ admits. “I had the physical abilities to do whatever in college. I was already faster and as strong as these guys. All I had to do was have my skill play out.”

That’s what makes Eric a special frosh. What makes him the best is the fact that he showcases these skills amidst a tougher set of circumstances than either Beas or Rose. First off, Indiana’s tradition of winning runs laps around Memphis’ and Kansas State’s. Thomas and Alford led their respected Hoosier squads to national titles. Translation: The Sweet 16 ain’t gonna cut it for Eric Gordon’s crew. Second, the Big Ten is a tougher conference to play in than the Big 12 or Conference USA. (At press time, there were three Big Ten teams in the Top 20. The Big 12 had two and C-USA had only Memphis.)

The third point, and arguably the least-discussed, separating Air Gordon from the bunch is the scrutiny he has to deal with before and after every tip-off. Whereas the super-hyped Beasley and Rose were surrounded with I heard he’s good buzz, the Hoosier State’s attention was more like, He better be good for all the trouble we went through to get him. Big difference. When Gordon, an Indianapolis native, backed out of his early verbal commitment to Illinois to sign up with new Indiana coach Kelvin Sampson, the Fighting Illini faithful were heartbroken and even screamed foul play. “I know they have a lot of hatred,” Gordon says, then pauses as if he’s waiting for Indiana big man DJ White to clear out the lane before coolly adding, “But I’m not really into all of that.”

Yet another thing you gotta appreciate about the kid—he doesn’t let hype consume him. The various voters could probably care less, but there’s something to be said about a sharpshooter—85 percent from the line, 48 percent from the field, 41 percent from beyond the arc—whose take on playing at the next level is: “I’d rather be a star in college than a player who just sits around in the NBA, ’cause I’d rather play the game and make the best of it. The NBA will come whenever. I’m just glad to fulfill my success in college ’cause it’s been fun here. Everything’s been what I expected. There have been some things that I didn’t know about college that have been great.”

I’m guessing the throngs of Indiana fans in the cafeteria classify as one of those things. Eric Gordon is adored on campus. On the Indy Star’s website, his every move on the court is chronicled like some dunking deity. Still, he makes it a point not to get wrapped up in what either arena has to say. Eric says his only sounding boards are “my family and the coaches. Those are the people you should listen to really. You should just block everything else off. You gotta just keep playing your game and everything will come.”

It most certainly will, young man…including the national Freshman of the Year honor.

SLAM 117: Derrick Rose

Derrick Rose

by Jake Appleman

“Derrick Rose goes by the nickname ‘Pooh’; his grandmother called him that as a baby because he was chubby and yellow like Pooh Bear. Tattooed on Rose’s left bicep is a wizard holding a staff in one hand, a basketball in the other and framed by the words ‘The Great Poohdini.’ He won two state championships and has been compared to NBA stars, such as Dwyane Wade and Jason Kidd. If he decides to go to the 2008 NBA Draft, he is expected to be a top pick.”—Wikipedia

“My brain is the key that sets my mind free.”—Harry Houdini

Derrick Rose is the best freshman in the country. You probably disagree. Let me try and convince you otherwise.

A freakishly fast, athletic point guard who absorbs hits like a contact sponge and floats teardrops that would make Mark Jackson cry, Rose is the engine behind the transition game largely responsible for Memphis’ perfect start (22-0 at press time).

We’re going from micro to macro while analyzing this track show, so for added perspective, let’s look at the metaphorical fingerprints Rose smeared all over the Tigers’ late-January win over Gonzaga.

On their first possession, Rose races the ball upcourt in transition and throws an errant pass that overshoots Chris Douglas-Roberts. Unfazed, he immediately atones on the following possession, again pushing the ball at his customary warp speed, hitting Antonio Anderson in stride for an and-one opportunity. 2-0. Anderson, as is often the case with these Tigers, misses the free throw. Joey Dorsey grabs the offensive board and promptly throws the ball away. The ball ends up with the on-his-toes Rose, who snags it, penetrates toward the middle of the floor, draws the defense and fires an overhead skip pass out to CDR while misdirecting the defense by jumping away from his target. Three-ball. Wet. 5-0. (What is it with escape artists, always using that damn misdirection?)

Another Gonzaga miss follows, and CDR grabs the board and takes it the other way, hitting a 14-foot pull-up. 7-0. Gonzaga tries to return the favor by pushing the ball but Rose bats a lazy pass out of bounds, allowing the Tigers to get set defensively. The Tigers clamp down in the half court, resulting in a late-on-the-shot-clock air ball. Again, Rose pushes the ball up the court, slowing up just enough to confuse the helpless Bulldogs. This change of pace helps him draw three defenders into the paint. He kicks it out to the trailing Anderson. Another three. Bottoms. 10-0.

This 10-0 start to the biggest regular season game in Memphis regular season history—it was the Tigers’ first-ever home game as the nation’s No. 1 team—is important for two reasons: 1) Memphis would go on to win the game by eight points. 2) With three assists in four possessions to go with his tempo-controlling play, Rose proves to be the heart and soul of the early spurt without scoring. The sequence also turns the criticism that he doesn’t play like a pure enough point guard on its head.

Right before the half, Rose, who finishes with 19 and 9, skies through the air for a follow-up dunk. What was once a four-point deficit is now a three-point lead. Back in Bristol, ESPN analyst Tom Brennan calls Rose, “the difference.” The second half only proves Brennan’s point. Having been frustrated by Gonzaga’s zone in the first half, Rose finds CDR sneaking backdoor for an alley-oop on the Tigers’ first possession. Roughly a minute later, Rose finds his main man again with the backdoor lob, resulting in two free throws. Seconds later, Rose nails a triple with a hand in his face. The closest Gonzaga gets after that is five.

Next comes Rose’s signature “Poohdini” moment. It starts when he offers a quick but effective pass-fake in CDR’s general direction, then immediately, almost all in one motion, tries to slither between two defenders and absorbs the contact to his left like a compliment…and he goes up…and it looks like he’s confused…surrounded, he’s committed that cardinal sin of jumping when you don’t have any passing options in sight, plus his body is moving away from the
basket that he isn’t directly facing…somehow, while rising, he squares up perfectly…he’s now at the top of his leap, surrounded by a Bermuda Triangle of defenders…he starts to attempt the shot just as he stops reverse-pimping gravity…he lets it go right before his feet touch back down…the ball hangs in the air like in the movies…his follow-through, awkward because he took the shot in the air only to complete his release on the ground, looks like that of a shot-putter…and then the ball completes its arc and finds its home in the net.

Though Rose’s numbers (14.5 ppg, 4.5 apg, 4.4 rpg, 3 turnovers and 28 mpg for the nation’s deepest team) don’t scream Freshman of the Year, it’s better to think outside the box(score) when gauging his impact. In fact, Rose is so unselfish, he’s skewed his numbers downward when playing against vastly inferior opponents: In five blowouts against certifiably garbage teams, Rose is averaging just five points and three assists per game. How’s that for unselfish sportsmanship?

To that end, while the performances of Eric Gordon and Michael Beasley may dictate whether or not their team wins—taking non-contenders and turning them into legitimate threats in the process—they’re simply playing as better, improved extensions of their high school selves. Rose, on the other hand, has been able to fully subjugate the dominant abilities he honed as Chicago’s schoolboy hero to help make a very good team great. More to the point, by coming in and bettering a squad that has made consecutive Elite 8 appearances—a symbolic Houdini-esque contortion in its own right—Rose is succeeding at a greater challenge than someone whose job it is to simply carry the load on a team that’s desperate for exactly that.

Adaptation like this, especially for a kid whose style of play has an inexorable influence on the flow of the game, shows maturity, something often lacking in freshmen. Understanding his explosive capabilities—28, 9 and 8 against Oak Hill last year—it’s not at all farfetched to believe that Rose would average 20 and 8 in his sleep on a team with half the Tigers’ talent.

As any PG should, Rose thanks his teammates. “My whole team is my mentor,” he says. “I look up to them like my big brothers.”

Think about that: the little brother is the V-12 engine and his teammates are everything else that makes up the rest of this one-of-a-kind, sleek, well-oiled machine (free throws notwithstanding).

After ESPN used the Poohdini circus shot in slow motion while segueing into a commercial break, I rewound and fast-forwarded the play five times. Then I called my roommate into the room.

“You’ve gotta see this,” I said.

We sat there, dumbstruck, and watched it another three times. There was a long silence. I finally broke it.

“I don’t understand how he just did that.”