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Does D’Antoni Hate Rookies?


After Jordan Hill’s solid play Sunday against the Knicks, Tom Ziller of NBA Fanhouse examined the issue of whether Coach Mike D’Antoni plays rookies:

Hill […] hardly played for Knicks coach Mike D’Antoni, despite the fact that N.Y. remains one of the worst teams in the league and that the franchise needed all the boosted assets it could manage.  [Hill returned as] a legit rotation player with Houston, mind you.

Hill had tantalized at various times while playing for the Knicks, but he was never given much room to learn and grow and well… time to play.  Many fans rightly felt Coach Mike D’Antoni should’ve given Hill more burn, particularly since it’s been clear for a long, long while that we ain’t making it to the playoffs.  In his return the other day, Hill himself stated that D’Antoni doesn’t like to play rookies.  As we mentioned yesterday, unfortunately D’Antoni responded with his comment that he just doesn’t like to play “bad rookies.”  Other players & fans have also leveled the accusation that Coach D doesn’t play rooks (& truth be told, many coaches prefer to rely on the consistency of vets), but Ziller has D’s back:

For Hill to argue D’Antoni refuses to play rookies as a rule — that’s just wrong. D’Antoni just refused to play Hill and, well, all those “bad rookies” he had in Phoenix [DJ Strawberry, Alando Tucker, Sharrod Ford, Dijon Thompson, Jackson Vroman and Yuta Tabuse]. But the best rookie he’s had, Barbosa, got plenty of opportunity under D’Antoni. The “D’Antoni hates rookies” theorem just doesn’t float.

I have trouble agreeing with this, and honestly, it’s Ziller’s own writing earlier in the post which disproves his point.  The crux of Ziller’s defense is basically Barbosa’s minutes, combined with that list above which proves D’Antoni truly has indeed had some bad, bad, bad, okay, godawful rookies.  Now Ziller’s spot-on in his praise of D’Antoni’s unearthing and usage of Barbosa:

You have to go all the way back to D’Antoni’s debut season with Phoenix to find the last time he played a rookie at least 1,000 minutes — and that was Leandro Barbosa. Frank Johnson, who coached the team through December that season, had buried Barbosa on the bench behind Stephon Marbury, and Joe Johnson. D’Antoni freed Leandrinho, and the Brazilian Blur became a key cog in D’Antoni’s championship-contending Suns run.

So let’s give D’Antoni due credit there.  However, I ain’t buying the other half of Ziller’s equation with his list o’ crappy rooks.  I mean, hell yeah, I’m buying that all those guys sucked and shouldn’t have gotten minutes, but that doesn’t prove nada.  If my made-up guess-timated math is correct, out of all the rookies that make it onto a NBA roster (not just first rounders, but second rounders and other pick-ups), you’ve probably got 7 potential really good players, 8.3 solid players, and maybe 25+ players who’ll be outta the league within a few years (or will be the types who average less than ten minutes a game — if they even get in).

In other words, chances are your rookie WILL suck.  Hard.  And when you coach a top team like the Suns (as D’Antoni did), you get late draft picks, making chances jump even higher that your rookies will suck.  So D’Antoni can’t get points for correctly “deducing” a rookie is bad and not playing him.  Basically to determine whether the accusation against him is correct, we’ve gotta narrow it down to the four decent rooks that D’s had: Barbosa, Danilo Gallinari, Hill & Toney Douglas.  We’ve already gone over Barbosa, so let’s see what Ziller wrote about the other three:

Hill’s limited per-minute performance in New York fortold what Hill has done with Houston: 14 points and nine-plus rebounds per 36 minutes. To say that Hill is playing much better as Rocket than a Knicks — that’s just inaccurate. Hill’s just getting minutes now.

But what about all those other rookies out there? Does D’Antoni hate them too?

Toney Douglas, Hill’s 2009 draft classmate, has played in only 44 of New York’s 70 games, and in those games is playing only 16 minutes per game. That susses out to just over 700 minutes, or 17 percent of available minutes.

Last year, then-rookie Danilo Gallinari struggled through injury. He played in only 28 games, and averaged only 14 minutes a game in those.

Let’s also be honest that Toney’s measly average of 16 minutes is as high as it even is just ‘cuz he’s finally cracked the rotation the last few weeks.  While Barbosa rightly was buried behind good talent in Marbury and Joe Johnson, Toney Tone’s been hidden behind Chris Duhon, Sergio Rodgriguez (a third-string PG on two previous teams), the still-recovering easily-winded Tracy McGrady, and Nate Robinson (a player who was literally traded simply ‘cuz Coach didn’t like him).  Ziller correctly also includes that a team’s standing has a huge effect on whether newbies see the floor:

That’s really what can’t be left out of this conversation: things are different when you’re contending for a title. Can you really blame D’Antoni for not playing Vroman and Strawberry and Thompson more? Of course not! Those were bit players at best, and the team fought for every win. You don’t rip Mike Brown for leaving Danny Green on the bench, just like you couldn’t rip Hill’s new coach Rick Adelman for burying a rookie Gerald Wallace on a championship-level Kings team. But the stakes are different for the Knicks, and D’Antoni. There was really little evident reason for Hill to be buried in New York. And — again, barring some work ethic issues not known publicly — Hill showed he could play in the limited Knicks opportunities he got.

Ziller’s point may’ve been that Coach D doesn’t hate rooks, and hey, “hate” is a strong word, so Zill’s probably right in the literal sense.  As far as the question of whether D’Antoni gives solid rookies enough minutes, the Fanhouse post seems to me to offer more points condemning Coach.