It's No. 1 versus No. 2 Friday when Bulls meet Grizzlies


Dec 11

The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Chicago Bulls. All opinions expressed by Sam Smith are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Chicago Bulls or their Basketball Operations staff, parent company, partners, or sponsors. His sources are not known to the Bulls and he has no special access to information beyond the access and privileges that go along with being an NBA accredited member of the media.

Forget Oklahoma and Florida.

This is No. 1 vs. No. 2 Friday, and it’s in Memphis and it’s for the NBA Rookie of the Year award.

It’s really not more than a two-player race for anyone who is paying attention.

The Bulls Derrick Rose and the Memphis Grizzlies’ O.J. Mayo are the two top rookies in the Class of 2008, and no one is even close.

And not just because of the numbers of Mayo averaging 20.8 points per game and Rose at 18.3. After them, there’s Miami’s Michael Beasley third at 13.9, but usually not even a starter. Same with D.J. Augustin fourth and Russell Westbrook fifth. Mayo is setting rookie records now by scoring in double figures in every game this season, now 22 straight, while Rose is leading rookies in assists at 6.1 and Rose is fifth overall in the NBA among point guards in shooting, his field goal percentage a remarkable for a rookie guard 49.5 percent.

They are the class of the class. But who is better?

One game Friday won’t matter that much, and I’m biased having seen every one of Rose’s games. He’d have my vote for sure.

So I decided to ask another biased guy, Ron Tillery, the fine Grizzlies beat writer for the Memphis Commercial Appeal. Ron’s a Chicago native who covered basketball here and then in Seattle before moving to Memphis. You see a guy all season, and if it’s close, as it is between Mayo and Rose, then you go with the guy you’ve seen.

So I wasn’t surprised when Ron said he’d vote for Mayo, though one statistic Ron offered bolstered my case a bit.

The Grizzlies are 7-15 compared to the Bulls 10-11, which gives Rose a slight edge among voters given the way these things tend to go. But perhaps more telling is that the Grizzlies haven’t won a game when Mayo was their leading scorer. I’ve watched the Grizzlies often because I wanted to see Mayo.

He is good. He’s got an NBA game, an ability to go to the basket, create his own shot and space to get it off, all rare for a rookie, though Mayo hardly plays like one.

The problem I have with him, and why I think Rose should be way ahead of him in the voting, is Rose plays the tougher position, point guard. Though Mayo does handle the ball an extraordinary amount of the time, to the Grizzlies’ detriment in the games I’ve watched, I believe.

It may have come to a head Wednesday night when the Grizzlies made a huge comeback to beat Oklahoma City (it is an advantage to play in the West these days with so many bad teams there compared with the East). In watching the Grizzlies, I’ve sensed a tension between Mayo and Rudy Gay for the ball and shots. And there was a bit of a blowup in the first half against the Thunder Wednesday when Gay had the ball on a three-on-one break and ran in and got fouled while not passing to Mayo. Mayo had some words with Gay, and in the fourth quarter when the Grizzlies made a comeback and took the game, Mayo didn’t play at all while forgotten point guard Mike Conley scored 14 points.

Though there always are mitigating circumstances, like trying to come from behind when you are the team’s scorer. This season, Mayo has averaged 16.7 points in wins and 22.7 in losses while Rose averages 19.2 in wins and 17.5 in losses. In watching Rose, I’ve seen that he rises to the occasion and looks to score more when the team needs it.

Many voters don’t get to see most players more than a handful of times. And scoring and big games have a major impact. Mayo already has had four games of at least 30 points, a 20-point quarter and those marks set by Larry Bird and Magic Johnson for scoring in double figures as a rookie.

So, your case, Ron:

“I’m usually an anti-homer guy, and I would vote for Mayo,” Tillery said. “Their numbers are relatively close, but in the end Mayo will score more. I think he’ll shoot a higher percentage and will be better defensively.”

Mayo is 40 percent on threes and 89 percent on free throws, both better than Rose, and Mayo leads in rebounds 4.2 to 3.8. Rose averages 6.1 assists to 2.6 for Mayo.

“More than that,” insists Ron, “he (Mayo) will be more dynamic. He’s already dropped 30 (four) times, 19, 20 in a quarter. The difference is the Grizzlies don’t get a lot of exposure. But when a rookie evokes Bird and Magic, that’s (special).

“You can’t take anything away from Rose, but Mayo is slightly more dynamic,” Ron insists. “Plus Mayo is doing it on a bad team…with teams paying attention to just him and Gay. His basketball IQ is sky high. He’s very mature and makes most of the right decisions. He’s got great court vision and can get his shot off against anybody. Plus he’s deadly from the three and scores in a variety of ways, three ball, floater, mid range.”

Mayo is undersized at shooting guard, and does have trouble with the big twos like Joe Johnson, though most do. Tillery says Mayo always is approachable, though tough on teammates when the team loses. Chris Wallace, the team’s general manager, likens Mayo to a Dwyane Wade type player, though Mayo doesn’t quite have the hops and long arms of Wade.

It’s an impressive case, and one that could sway a lot of voters.

I’m not persuaded because, ultimately, I don’t think you win with a player like Mayo as your top guy because I see him as too selfish and getting in the way of his teammates, and not explosive enough to overcome that with transcendent scoring like LeBron James or Kobe Bryant.

I like Rose better because of the position, his amazing ability to get wherever he wants on the floor like Chris Paul and an explosiveness at the rim I’ve never seen in the history of the NBA for a point guard.

I believe Rose could be a bigger scorer than Mayo if Rose chose to be. But I see him spending the majority of the game seeking out shots for his teammates. His defense isn’t that good yet, though I believe he’ll get much better. Rose is remarkably consistent and seems unaffected by the vagaries of the game. There’s no statistic for this, but Rose seems to me one of those rare players who seems to know by instinct what the team needs to win the game. And his shot is much better than advertised.

It’s Rose’s first game back in Memphis, where he led the U. of Memphis to the NCAA championship game last spring, and final game between the Bulls and Grizzlies this season. The Bulls won the first somewhat easily in Chicago 96-86 in just the third game of the season. Rose had 26 points while Mayo had one of his poorest games with 16 points and five turnovers. Though neither said much about it, you can believe they were aware of the developing rivalry. You figure Mayo wants to make a statement this time.

The Grizzlies hoped to land Rose in the lottery, but when they didn’t they pulled off a trade to get Mayo, whom they identified as the only other star in the draft. They look right on that for now.

So it should be a fun night Friday in Memphis, which I can’t say I’ve had often. Though there was the time I went to Graceland with Bill Walton. I’ll save that story for another time.

The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Chicago Bulls. All opinions expressed by Sam Smith are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Chicago Bulls or their Basketball Operations staff, parent company, partners, or sponsors.

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