How NBA rookies get past mental, physical obstacles blocking their path to stardom
NBA rookies weigh in on why it's so hard to achieve consistency in their first year
Josh Jackson is finally starting to figure this NBA thing out. He's scored 20 or more points in five of his last seven games, and is coming off of the best all-around game of his entire career -- 20 points, seven rebounds, five assists and four blocks against the Nuggets. Sure the Suns lost, because the Suns almost always lose, but Jackson is making strides that cause coach Jay Triano to sing his praises before their ensuing game against the Golden State Warriors.
And then -- disaster.
Jackson shoots 4-for-18 in a 45-point loss to the world champs, a game in which Triano pulls him aside after a wild 3-pointer to sternly discuss the suspect shot selection in language Jackson would rather not repeat after the game.
Two steps forward, one step back.
This is, and has long been, the life of an NBA rookie. Euphoric highs followed almost immediately by unimaginable lows. It's a tough situation for anyone to deal with -- humans crave consistency and routine -- but it's particularly difficult for 19- and 20-year-olds who have almost exclusively experienced success and praise in their athletic careers up to this point.
"You know, it's just learning a new game, adjusting," Mavericks rookie Dennis Smith Jr. told CBS Sports. "Teams adjust to you, so you gotta be able to read that and continue to try to maintain your game at the same time, so it can be tough sometimes."
Adjust. You hear that word a lot from rookies. It's easy to come out of a bad game and say, "Hey, I'm not doing that again." In reality, taking the steps to make that happen is much more difficult. Getting used to the rigors of the NBA is a physical and mental struggle that affects all aspects of a rookie's life -- not just when he's on the court.
First and foremost, there's the task of simply getting through an 82-game season. Most fans complain when players take games off for rest or sit out with an injury that seems like they should be playing through. They berate players from their couches if their effort seems lacking or if they make more mistakes than usual. But the grind facing NBA rookies is unlike anything they've seen before.
"There's just a lot of games," Lakers rookie Kyle Kuzma told CBS Sports just before the All-Star break. "You're playing against the best players in the world every single night. And it's different. In college we only played 35 games, as a student-athlete, and in the NBA we've already played about 50 games in a short period of time."
Prior to arriving in the league, most rookies haven't dedicated themselves to the daily physical maintenance necessary to complete a full NBA season. Outside of tournament settings, most players coming out of college haven't faced many sets of back-to-back games, which can wear on the body, particularly given the NBA's increased pace.
"The amount of games that we play compared to college is vastly different, so you really, really have to take care of your body," Celtics rookie Jayson Tatum said. "With a lot of back-to-backs, you want to stay durable during the season."
And then there's the sheer fact that most rookies are boys playing against grown men, in an era where strength and endurance training is emphasized more than ever. Take Nets center Jarrett Allen, for example, a 19-year-old who was thrust into the starting center role for Brooklyn after the team traded Tyler Zeller just before the deadline.
Nets coach Kenny Atkinson said that he never, in his wildest dreams, expected Allen to play such a large role on the team so soon -- in fact, he thought Allen would spend most of his rookie season in the G League while he matured physically. Instead Allen has progressed brilliantly, and Atkinson says he's now "convinced" that he's found their franchise center. But pounding away against some of the biggest, strongest, most athletic basketball players in the world has been demanding for the 6-foot-11, 229-pounder.
"Playing against guys like JaVale McGee, DeAndre Jordan, Anthony Davis -- they're all pretty big guys, so you definitely feel the strength difference," Allen told CBS Sports. "But for me, that's something that's gonna come with time so I'm not too worried about it."
Staying physically ready is the baseline, but the mental gymnastics accompanying a rookie season -- particularly one with a lot of ups and downs -- is the true barrier for many young players.
"It's not necessarily the play, I would say, just more the mental fatigue that comes with it," said Atlanta Hawks rookie John Collins. "You know, the 82-game season, the turnover for new games, the turnover for whatever the case may be. I think the basketball part is always gonna come, but it's just being able to withstand it and try to figure out a way."
Draymond Green is far removed from his rookie season, but the Warriors forward talked earlier this season about how rewarding a day off can be, particularly on the mental side.
"Everything you do that day, has to line up with you being great at 7:30 p.m.," Green said. "You wake up at 8 a.m., and everything you do for those next 11 hours has to somewhat line up or put you in the best position to be great at 7:30. That's a lot of pressure throughout that day knowing I have to be conscious and aware of everything I do."
This is coming from an NBA champion, Defensive Player of the Year and three-time All-Star in his sixth NBA season. Imagine that grind for a 19-year-old who's probably living on his own for the first time in his life?
The stats reflect the inconsistency brought on by this physical and mental fatigue. Even Ben Simmons, Donovan Mitchell and Tatum, three of the league's most consistent rookies, have still endured extreme vacillations from one game to the next. Here's a look at some of the biggest scoring swings in consecutive games from rookies this season:
Donovan Mitchell, Jazz
|Kyle Kuzma, Lakers||31||9||-22|
|Lonzo Ball, Lakers||29||8||-21|
Ben Simmons, 76ers
|Dennis Smith Jr., Mavericks||27||8||-19|
Josh Jackson, Suns
|Jayson Tatum, Celtics||18||4||-14|
And that's just scoring. You see that inconsistency in all aspects of the game, from defense to effort to turnovers, throughout the season.
Breaking through the wall
So what do rookies do to combat the obstacles and achieve consistency? There are several steps you can take, but most agree there's just no avoiding the ups and downs. Mitchell, who may have overtaken Simmons as the front-runner for Rookie of the Year with his performance over the last few months, preaches the importance of listening and learning.
"I've been continuing to use every game and everything as a learning process," Mitchell said. "I feel like if I continue doing that, and treating every game -- whether it's a great game where I score a lot or I do well, or a game where I don't play well at all -- just trying to take away a bunch of things to learn from."
This is where veteran teammates and organizational structure can be critical. We talk all the time about how the development of a rookie can be stifled by a dysfunctional organization, or accelerated by a great one. It's why you see young teams sign veteran players, and it's part of the reason why rookies drafted by good teams (think Spurs, Celtics, Warriors) often appear further ahead of schedule than expected.
Dillon Brooks is a rare case of someone who was drafted by a good team but ended up on a bad one just a few months later -- even though he wasn't traded. Due to a key injury to Mike Conley, Memphis has devolved from playoff stalwart to one of the worst teams in the league, currently riding a 15-game losing streak. But Brooks says the infrastructure is there to help him acclimate to the NBA lifestyle, despite their poor record.
"Guys like Mike [Conley], guys like Marc [Gasol], they try to critique you and try to make your routine better," Brooks said. "Because you know, at one point, I want to be like them in my career -- being a face of a team, being great basketball players, at the top of the NBA. They give me little tricks about the NBA, you know, how to keep your body from being sore, and just being ready every single day to play basketball."
But no matter what steps you take or how many tricks you learn, like most things in life it usually comes down to time and experience. Until you get double-teamed off a pick-and-roll by the length of Kawhi Leonard or get baited into drawing a foul by James Harden's antics, it's hard to know how you're going to react.
"I think just playing in the league, period, has helped me," Lakers rookie Lonzo Ball said. "The more I play, I feel like the better I'm doing."
But through adversity comes strength.
Navigating a rough stretch, possibly the first a rookie has seen in his basketball career, can be draining mentally. The process of breaking through, however, is sometimes more beneficial than success itself.
"You know it's gonna happen, you've just got to attack it and push through it," Collins said. "And then once you attack it, you're gonna feel a lot better once you come out of that slump or that streak. It happens to all rookies, whether it be a noticeable one or one that's not so noticeable.
"It happens to all of us."
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