Is Andre Drummond or Damian Lillard the NBA's Biggest Rookie Surprise?

Jay Wierenga@@JayWierengaCorrespondent IFebruary 22, 2013

Quickly, raise your hand if you thought that the Portland Trail Blazers' Damian Lillard and the Detroit Pistons' Andre Drummond would both be considered legitimate Rookie of the Year contenders.

Outside of a few folks in Beaverton, I would venture to guess that not many of those reading this article are reaching for the sky. Unless of course you just cut your finger and are trying to stop the bleeding. In that case, my apologies, but stop running with scissors.

The truth of the matter is that both Lillard and Drummond were generally considered to be excellent talents that had definite red flags attached to their names.

Lillard was viewed as a fantastic talent that probably would have been a candidate to be picked in the top three had he not played against weak competition at Weber State. He also stayed all four years, a rarity for today's upper-echelon NBA prospects.

Drummond had all the tools coming out of high school and was considered perhaps a top overall selection before his freshman year at Connecticut. But an inconsistent season with the Huskies left some NBA scouts wondering if he had the feel for the game to contribute right away.

Overall, both were considered to be relatively high-risk players that likely would take some time to develop, if they developed at all.

But almost immediately, both made huge impressions on the big stage.

So which of these two players has been the biggest surprise?


The Case for Lillard

Lillard, unlike Drummond, was immediately handed the keys to the franchise. The Blazers decided to not bring in any real challengers for the starting job, and Lillard easily beat out Nolan Smith for the point guard position.

And for those that thought it might take some time to adjust (included yours truly), Lillard had other ideas entirely.

In his first game of the season, a 116-106 clubbing of their bitter rival, the Los Angeles Lakers, Lillard lit up future Hall of Famer Steve Nash and friends to the tune of 23 points and 11 assists.

He played under control aside from a few turnovers and was the unquestioned leader of the offense.

From that point forward, Lillard was all about setting the world on fire. He has had six double-doubles, has scored 25 points or more in eight contests and he has knocked down at least four three-pointers in nine different games.

For the season, Lillard is averaging 18.4 points to go along with close to seven assists per game.

He is leading all rookies in both categories, easily outplaying each of the five players drafted ahead of him last year.

Lillard not only is viewed as the starting point guard of the present and future for the young Blazers, but he is viewed as a potential future All-Star and is already making some Blazer fans forget about Terry Porter.


The Case for Drummond

Drummond, on the other hand, was brought along slowly. The Pistons refused to start their behemoth young center, instead limiting him to less than 25 minutes in each of his first 15 contests.

While Lillard has been counted on to play upwards of 38 minutes per game, Drummond has yet to exceed 36 minutes in any one game.

In fact, he is averaging less than 20 minutes per game.

That being said, he still leads all rookie with 7.5 rebounds per game and is second in blocks with 1.7 per slate.

The only player with comparable numbers to Drummond is Anthony Davis, who is averaging 7.4 and 1.9. However, Davis is also averaging about 28 minutes per game.

If you push their minutes out to 36, you see a truly different story.

In that scenario, Drummond is averaging 13.3 points, 13.7 rebounds, 3.1 blocks and 1.7 steals. Those rebounding numbers would lead the league and blocks wouldn't be much behind the Milwaukee Bucks' Larry Sanders.

Davis' numbers, meanwhile, are a respectable 16.1 points, 9.6 rebounds, 2.4 blocks and 1.4 steals.

The difference is that Davis was supposed to put up big numbers; he was the first overall pick and pretty much unanimously viewed by scouts as the best player in this draft.

Drummond, despite playing so few minutes, has invigorated a slumping Pistons franchise. Generally considered the league's most boring team, Drummond infused life with his thunderous dunks, stunning blocks and overall enthusiasm for the game.

Amazingly, he also has had eight double-doubles, including a breakout 18-point, 18-rebound effort at home against the Bucks.

He is easily this year's most exciting rookie and before fracturing his tailbone earlier this month was steadily seeing his minutes and role increasing for the somewhat surprising Pistons.


The Verdict

On the one hand, Lillard has been the most productive rookie. He is likely going to run away with the Rookie of the Year vote and has the Blazers on the cusp of playoff contention.

He has been the most valuable rookie in this class, without question.

That being said, most pundits saw him as the likely starter from day one. And while nobody thought he would be this good this fast, most thought that he would at least have a pretty good rookie year.

Drummond, on the other hand, was viewed as such a project that some thought he might not even suit up most nights. The last time the Pistons had a talented young big man, Greg Monroe, they eased him into the lineup slowly.

And nobody thought that Drummond was even half as polished of a player as Monroe.

The likelihood that Drummond would already be the Pistons' most effective player (a PER of 22.45 compared to Lillard's 16) at this point in the season would be laughable at best and lunacy at worst.

The other sign of just how surprising Drummond's impact has been as a rookie? Pistons fans are already kicking around the idea of trading Monroe, who was viewed as untouchable just a year ago.

Going forward, Lillard seems the likeliest member of this draft class to reach the first All-Star berth.

But Drummond is viewed as the likeliest to develop into a superstar. Some pundits are even kicking around iconic names like Dwight Howard and Shaquille O'Neal when mentioning the Pistons' big man.

For a player that some viewed as a likely bust when he was drafted, I would say that answers the question of who has had the most surprising start to their NBA career.


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