The preseason in the NBA isn’t particularly useful in my eyes. Basketball teams don’t really care about the games, so coaches are often more interested in just getting their team to the regular season as healthy and ready as they can. Winning the games is secondary (or worse). There are a few things that you can learn a lot about in the preseason, though – things that can help you be more prepared for the preseason. One of those things is how ready NBA rookies are to contribute and how quickly they can become a major factor for their team. Some rookies are ready to hit the ground running and turn heads from the start – Using a 2009 example Tyreke Evans and Brandon Jennings fit that mold. Others, like James Harden, need more time to get comfortable and start to perform.
We’ll never really know how ready a rookie is until we see him in action when the games matter and are played at full speed. By watching the preseason, though, we can gather some clues about how well they are going to adjust, and what the team has in mind for them. Here are six things to keep an eye on in the NBA preseason that can help you differentiate an immediate contributor from an early bench warmer and help you take better advantage of the NBA odds during the regular season:
How much are they playing? – Playing time can be deceptive in the preseason if a team has a lot of veteran players – those veterans won’t want to play too much to burn out or risk injury, so there will be a lot of playing time available. Still, if a NBA rookie is seeing a lot of time on the court – especially if he isn’t an automatic star like John Wall – then that’s a decent sign that the coaches want to see what he is capable of, and that they want him to get comfortable with playing NBA systems against NBA players.
When they are playing? – Playing time is far less interesting if it comes in the second and third quarter than it is if it comes n the first quarter when the starters are on the hardwood, or late in the game when the game is on the line. Simply put, the more quality time a player is playing, and the more he is playing with likely starters, the more likely it is that the rookie will see meaningful time early in the regular season.
Are they showing improvement? – Preseason statistics don’t mean that much in raw terms because of the lack of NBA starters and stars playing at full intensity. In other words, a guy isn’t going to be able to score 20 points a game in the regular season because he scores 20 points in a preseason game. Where the statistics are important, though, is when you compare what a single player accomplishes as the preseason progresses. If a rookie is seeing his playing time increase, his points, rebounds, and/or assists increasing along with it, and his turnovers and other errors decreasing then it’s a sign that the player is making progress. If a player is getting more comfortable and understanding the systems and the needs of his coaches more as the preseason goes along then it will be easier for the staff to trust him when the season starts.
How are coaches and teammates talking about them? – If a rookie isn’t expected to be a key player then his coach and teammates aren’t likely to say much at all about him – he just doesn’t matter. The more that a basketball player is talked about in the media – even if it isn’t universally positive – the more likely that that player will be able to contribute early on.
How is their body language? – When you are actually watching a game you can learn a lot about the rookies by how they are carrying themselves. If they are looking comfortable and loose, they seem to fit in with their teammates, and they have a bit of a swagger to their play then they will likely be okay. On the other hand, if they look tentative or nervous then the transition to the big time is going to be less smooth. Here’s another way to think about it – the less a player looks like he is a rookie, the less likely he is to play like a rookie.
What’s the depth chart? – It doesn’t matter how good a rookie looks in the preseason if they aren’t playing minutes to be had. For example, a point guard in Chicago could look brilliant in the fall and not get any time because he’s behind Derrick Rose. As important as how a NBA rookie is playing is what needs the team has. Brandon Jennings’ rookie season started so well in part because he was confident, intelligent and ready to play basketball, but it was at least as important that the team didn’t have a point guard and was really lacking in offense. Any sports bettor who realized that he had the ability and opportunity to contribute used that information in their NBA handicapping.