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By David Thorpe
Fernando Medina/NBAE/Getty Images Steph Curry may not win Rookie of the Year, but he gets our vote for Most Improved Rookie honors.
In the NBA, there is no time to relax after accomplishing something of significance, especially for the 50 or so rookies who just accomplished a lifelong dream by getting drafted or making an NBA team.
Some guys immediately start coasting, while others have the talent and the mindset to immediately make an impact. And then there are others who keep working and learning, and have turned what could have been an average season, or even a poor season, into a successful one. These are my Most Improved Rookies of the Year.
[h4]NBA Rookie 50[/h4]
Check out David Thorpe's 2009-10 rookie rankings. NBA Rookie 50
• Hollinger's stats: Rookie leaders
1. Stephen Curry, Warriors
Six weeks into the season, Curry looked like he'd be a solid pro going forward. He was shooting close to 40 percent from 3, had one 22-point game and was showing excellent passing skills. By the end of 2009, he had added a 27-point outburst and maintained the overall impression that he was worthy of the No. 7 pick. Since then, he's been lights out.
In 2010, he's scored 20 points or more 19 times, hit the 30-point mark seven times and averaged more than 19 points per game for three consecutive months. His assists are down a spell because of his scoring, but nobody is complaining since he's been taking great shots. He's shot 46.7 percent or better from the field in every month in 2010 and better than 48 percent from 3 in January and March.
There is still some debate over what his best position is, but everyone agrees he needs to be on the court a lot. Unlike other members of this class who are playing well, Curry looks like he'll get even better over the next few years.
2. Jrue Holiday, 76ers
As expected, Holiday struggled during the season's first two months. The youngest player in the NBA, who also didn't have much experience playing the point (thanks to the excellence of Darren Collison at UCLA), he shot poorly and looked tentative on offense. However, he stayed relevant to his coach by defending with desire. And then in January, he showed some 3-point shooting range, making 9 of 17 shots -- which is especially impressive because it's harder for a young player to shoot well when taking fewer shots -- and that seemed to give him new confidence as he took over the starting point guard position.
March has been a breakout month for him -- he's averaged more than 13 points, 5 assists, 2 steals and 4 boards per game, and he's made 24 of 50 shots from behind the line and half of his shots overall. Most importantly, he's been a pivotal player in big wins over playoff teams (Bucks and Hawks) as a starter.
There are questions about how this franchise is being run, but one thing is clear: The Sixers chose wisely with the No. 17 pick.
3. Rodrigue Beaubois, Mavs
In terms of who has made the biggest one-month splash in this class, it's Roddy Buckets. While he had shown flashes all season, even going back to Vegas Summer League, he just had too many vets in front of him to earn quality minutes early on. But now, after this past month, it's hard to imagine him not being a factor in the playoffs, one of the few rookies that will have that honor.
He's scored 16 ppg in March, shooting 59 percent from the field and 49 percent from 3. And he's been a jet on defense and in transition -- recovering or causing loose balls, racing back to slow fastbreaks, or racing ahead to draw the defense's attention away from a primary scorer. Although he's playing mostly off the ball now, I still see him becoming a dynamic point guard down the road.
4. Darren Collison, Hornets
DC would be first on this list except for one problem: He was good as soon as he got the chance to play. He hit the ground running when he first got rotation minutes back in mid-November, averaging 11 points and 4.6 assists to just 1.9 turnovers in his first nine games. (He scored 10 or more points in each game.)
And then, after coming back to earth through January, he exploded in February and March. Try these numbers out: During the past two months, he's averaging more than 18 ppg on better than 50 percent shooting from the field and 42 percent from 3. And he's still handing out almost nine assists a game. No rookie guard can touch those numbers. Not many veterans can either, making him a valuable asset for the Hornets.
5. Wayne Ellington, Timberwolves
Remember, this is a most improved list, not a list of the best players who have improved, and Ellington has improved a great deal in the one area the Wolves needed him to most: Shooting. Through 2009, Ellington made just 14 of his 57 3-point attempts (24.5 percent). But after making 2-of-3 on New Year's Day, he's now 45 of 93 in 2010 (48.3 percent). It's not a huge sample size, but it's enough to suggest that he might be the best longrange shooter in this class, which would be an enormous accomplishment with Curry in the mix.
Although the Wolves lost every game in March, Ellington hardly deserves any of the blame for that. He just completed his best month of the season, scoring more than 10 ppg. His status in Minny may still be unsettled, but his 3-point talent should spell at least one defined role for him in the future.
6. Terrence Williams, Nets
We've been hard on Williams for good reason this season, as he just didn't provide anything but heartache for a team in desperate need of his talents early on. I was also never sure he was deserving of that high a pick.
But now I am. Forget about his maturity issues for a moment and just focus on how he is finally producing for a Nets team that has now won three of its past four games. In March, he has averaged 13.6 points, 6.8 boards and 4.6 assists, and made a number of strong defensive plays, as well. It has been his best month of the season by far. And he has eliminated much of the behind-the-scenes drama that has bothered him, making it a better working environment for everyone.
For the first time this season, Nets officials can smile as they think about the future, and the multiple ways Williams can impact a game.
7. Wesley Matthews, Jazz
Despite going undrafted, the 23-year-old rook came into the season full of strength and confidence. It's hard to mark much improvement, considering he was ready to contribute in November when he cracked the rotation -- averaging 25 minutes and more than 8 points per game -- and has been consistent all season. A mini-breakout in March has pushed him to more than 11 points a game this month while getting almost 30 minutes a night.
Still, to be a difference-maker and play your best ball in the heat of a playoff run for one of the league's best teams is impressive. In some respects, Matthews reminds me of Carl Landry and DeJuan Blair; all three make plays that seem surprising given their size and bodies. But results trump everything else, and Matthews is making Jazz fans giddy with what he brings every night.
8. Toney Douglas, Knicks
Douglas is evidence that a player can learn to be a point guard if he allows himself to be coached and fights his instincts when they are in direct opposition to what his point guard duties dictate.
He's gone through a tough journey in the NBA already -- initially sitting, then getting 17 minutes a game, then sitting again. Then, in March, he got another chance, and he has surprised a lot of people with his play. In games in which he played 20 minutes or more, the Knicks went 5-7, with wins in Dallas and at home against Atlanta and Denver. And he's shot better than 45 percent from 3 (24-for-53) and 46.9 percent from the field while averaging 12.6 points and 3.7 assists this month.
No, Douglas is not Steve Nash (on either side of the ball actually, because TD is an excellent defender), but Mike D'Antoni loves how he gets the Knicks into their offense and takes nothing but good shots while making easy passes. Playing more than 28 minutes a game in March, he averaged just 1.5 turnovers. Combine that with his shooting numbers and factor in his 1.2 steals per game, and you can see how efficient he's been.
9. Serge Ibaka, Thunder
Ibaka has steadily grown into his role in OKC. In fact, he's performing so well that draft prospects who are a bit raw are being measured against him. Meaning, scouts are asking, "Can he develop like Ibaka?"
Now playing 20 minutes a game, Ibaka has averaged 7.5 points, 6.3 rebounds and 1.9 blocks in March. Impressive stuff, especially when you consider that he plays with a great spirit and impacts games even when he's not stuffing the stat sheet.
Can he ultimately start for the Thunder? It's still too early to tell. But that's because he could theoretically be a college freshman right now; he's still just 20 years old.
10. Jordan Hill, Rockets
No rook has had more room to improve than Hill, who for whatever reason wasn't fitting into New York's plans. In Houston, though, he's been dynamite. I've seen multiple plays where he used his size, effort level and athleticism to make a play that resulted in points or rebounds. He's also shown an ability to knock down midrange jumpers and make defensive plays using his agility. And he's even made some tough catches in traffic, though this is still an area of weakness for him.
Although it's unlikely he'll beat out Luis Scola or a healthy Yao Ming for a starting gig next season, we can expect him to be part of a steady frontcourt rotation with them and Chuck Hayes. Better yet, it's now clearly possible that he can be a starter on a good team in the future, as long as he maintains the effort level we've seen from him lately.
Honorable mention: D-League call-ups
Almost every player in the D-League has turned down European contracts at least three or four times more valuable than what they can make in this league. To do that, stay focused and continue to work on their game all for the dream of getting called up to the NBA is a tough way to make a living.
I'd like to give a special mention to these guys, each of whom got the call up this season, with some of them doing enough to earn a permanent place on a roster. This was a record season with 30 call-ups, topping the 29 call-ups in 2007-08. And to my eyes, this league is going to just get better and better. It's a great way to develop and teach young players.
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