Which NBA Rookies Are Poised to Have the Best Second Halves of 2014?

Daniel O'BrienFeatured ColumnistFebruary 19, 2014

Which NBA Rookies Are Poised to Have the Best Second Halves of 2014?

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    With the 2014 NBA All-Star break in the rear-view mirror, top rookies now seek to separate themselves from the rest of the pack.

    Which ones are primed for a big second half?

    For several of these NBA newbies, we've only seen glimpses of what they can do. As they earn more playing time, we'll get a chance to truly enjoy their prowess.

    A couple of rookies are trending upward because they're showing increased production in new roles. Others are projected to thrive now that they're fully recovered from injuries. Can any of these risers outshine the first-half standouts?

    Find out as we determine which youngsters will flourish during the rest of the season.

7. Anthony Bennett, Cleveland Cavaliers

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    Calling Cleveland Cavaliers No. 1 overall pick Anthony Bennett a first-half disappointment is a gargantuan understatement. For much of the first half of the season, he wasn't even a factor, as he struggled to get in shape and find a comfortable role in the rotation.

    Those who quickly slapped the "bust" label on him, however, may soon want to rethink things.

    Bennett is not only in much better shape, he's also getting better at finding scoring opportunities and is more assertive. He's rebounding at a high level and operating as somewhat of a stretch power forward. B/R Cavs columnist Greg Swartz reminds us that this is his natural position:

    Cleveland is also doing the smart thing of entrenching Bennett at power forward after giving him extended playing time at small forward earlier in the season. Keeping him at the 4 will help move Bennett away from the perimeter and closer to the basket where he belongs.

    If his recent upswing in production at power forward is any indication, Bennett is in for a solid remainder of the season. After notching a career-high 19 points and 10 boards against the Sacramento Kings on Feb. 11, he posted another impressive double-double against the Philadelphia 76ers.

    Bennett may never be as good as Cleveland hoped he would be, but with a new bounce in his step and a better feel for the NBA game, his production and value are climbing.

6. Nick Calathes, Memphis Grizzlies

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    Memphis Grizzlies guard Nick Calathes sat the bench for most of the first half of the season, rarely getting significant chunks of minutes. He got his chance to shine, though, when Mike Conley injured his ankle against the Minnesota Timberwolves on Jan. 31.

    Conley was only gone for seven games, but that was enough time for Calathes to showcase his abilities and earn a substantial role moving forward.

    He reached double figures in all but one of those games, and dealt five or more assists in five of them. Calathes is a patient facilitator, using change of speed to attack creases and whip passes to shooters. When he drives to the hoop, he's a great finisher with the ability to score with either hand.

    Chris Herrington of The Commercial Appeal noted that the 25-year-old has become quite comfortable in the Griz backcourt: "Calathes' confidence level is so, so impressive considering where he was a few weeks ago."

    With Calathes in the rotation, Memphis has newfound depth and a steady floor general to aid Conley. Even if he only sees 20 minutes per night, he'll stand out compared to most other rookies.

5. Tim Hardaway, Jr., New York Knicks

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    Sure, he's often a defensive liability and he can't consistently create his own shot. But New York Knicks shooting guard Tim Hardaway Jr. cracks our second-half watch list because he can fill the hoop up.

    A confident outside shooter with deep range, Hardaway regularly gives the Knickerbockers a jolt midway through the game. He's a little streaky, but 39 percent is a nice mark for someone so unabashed about shooting.

    He's also a straight-line driver and transition attacker, as he occasionally unleashes his athleticism in a blur.

    Despite his energy and offensive production, it's important to temper expectations and hype surrounding Hardaway. On a club still hunting for the playoffs, he's not going to see more than 23-28 minutes per night.

    That being said, he'll continue his pleasantly surprising campaign. As B/R NBA Lead Writer Jared Zwerling puts it, "Five years from now, the 2013-14 Knicks season might only be remembered as the season of the emergence of Tim Hardaway Jr."

    No matter where New York finishes this year, he's a big part of its future.

4. C.J. McCollum, Portland Trail Blazers

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    C.J. McCollum spent the first two months of the season rehabbing his foot, and then another couple weeks acclimating to the NBA pace and the Portland Trail Blazers' system.

    Right before the All-Star break, we saw some fireworks that are sure to carry over into spring.

    McCollum finished Rip City's mid-February stretch with three straight double-digit scoring nights, including a 19-point effort in Portland's win over Minnesota. He's definitely finding his niche in the Blazers' high-octane attack, and he'll provide them superb depth when the season hits the home stretch.

    In addition to his sweet outside shooting, McCollum can put it on the deck when defenses overcommit. Inside the arc, he's a heady passer and has a soft touch to score.

    Before his injury, the Lehigh product was projected to be one of the Association's best newcomers. Now that he's healthy and in a groove, he's poised to rise toward the top of the rookie crop.

3. Trey Burke, Utah Jazz

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    An early-February slump cooled Trey Burke off a bit, but the midseason festivities in New Orleans served him a well-timed lift. Being around the rising and current stars of All-Star weekend gave him incentive to maximize his potential in the coming months.

    The Utah Jazz rookie spoke with Aaron Falk of the Salt Lake Tribune: "It makes me very hungry, very motivated and eager to work, not only for the the rest of the season but the offseason, so I can be back in this position next year."

    We can already see his passing potential from the top of the key and off drives, and his career is still in its infancy. Burke delivers a strong 2.8 assist-to-turnover ratio, which is an awesome sign for Jazz fans.

    As a scorer, he has proven to be effective off the dribble or catch-and-shoot. He doesn't blow you away, but he's athletic enough and skilled enough to capitalize on open-court opportunities.

    The Jazz have some talented pieces, and Burke is quickly learning how to empower them. In the second half, he'll demonstrate more consistency and maintain his spot in the top tier of newbies.

2. Michael Carter-Williams, Philadelphia 76ers

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    He's hardly efficient, and the Philadelphia 76ers are a disaster right now, but Michael Carter-Williams isn't going to fade from the spotlight.

    In every game, he's a risk/reward playmaker. He'll cough the ball up plenty of times, but you can't say he's not creative or aggressive. In return for his adventurousness, the Sixers get 15-20 points and five-to-eight assists on plays that most point guards can't make.

    Carter-Williams uses his quick, long strides to slash to the bucket, and once he's in the paint, he uses his size to score or pass in a variety of ways.

    His length also helps him to grab more rebounds and pluck more steals than the average guard, making him arguably the most versatile rookie in the 2013-14 class.

    Those all-around contributions aren't going to stop, so I expect MCW to produce through the rest of the season. Even if he doesn't top our second-half rankings, he will still probably land Rookie of the Year hardware.

1. Victor Oladipo, Orlando Magic

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    Only a handful of rookies in 2013-14 made some noise in the first half, and Orlando Magic guard Victor Oladipo was one of them. Unlike many of the top 2014 draftees, it looks like he was worth the high selection.

    He's the real deal as a combo guard. Although he frequently suffers growing pains as a playmaker, there's a lot to be excited about for the rest of 2014 and beyond.

    Oladipo is still learning many of the nuances of being a point guard, but he can still initiate effective offense by utilizing high ball screens and penetrating to the paint. He's an unselfish youngster who does a good job of keeping his teammates involved, even if he's not a prolific passer.

    When he's not running the point, Oladipo sets up on the wing and operates as a capable shooter (37 percent on spot-up threes according to Synergy Sports, subscription required) and a dangerous slasher.

    Defensively, Oladipo makes his presence felt during every game. It's readily apparent that Orlando plays better defense when his speed, instincts and intelligence are on the floor.

    The Magic will spend the rest of 2013-14 grooming their young talent and creating chemistry to build upon in the future. Consequently, Oladipo will continue to see heavy minutes, whether he's a reserve or a starter. Expect him to give Michael Carter-Wiliams a serious run at Rookie of the Year honors.

     

    Dan O'Brien covers the NBA for Bleacher Report.

    Follow him on Twitter: @DanielO_BR