Gary Neal is not a rookie to Pop, a very good one to everybody else
People in the NBA cirlces we bloggers don’t have access to must have it in for Greg Monroe. That, or Gary Neal is the sunshine of their lives. As much as I’ve watched Neal’s rookie season, and I’ve viewed almost all of it very closely, I can’t explain how the undrafted rookie finished ahead of the Detroit Pistons’ Monroe in both Rookie of the Year and All-Rookie voting.
Neal finished fifth in voting for the Rookie of the Year Award with 19 points, three second place votes and one of the third place variety, putting Neal behind award-winner Blake Griffin and other top freshmen John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins and Landry Fields. And today, Neal was named to the All-Rookie 1st Team with the four previously mentioned first years.
There’s some history involved in Neal’s assignment to the All-Rookie 1st Team, as the press release issued by the San Antonio Spurs mentions:
Neal becomes the second undrafted rookie to make the NBA’s All-Rookie First Team in league history, joining Jorge Garbajosa who earned the honor in 2006-07 with the Toronto Raptors. Overall, only 10 undrafted rookies have been named to either a first or second All-Rookie team in history.
Neal averaged 9.8 points per game for the Spurs, shooting just a blade of grass under 42% from 3-point in his rookie season. Greg Monroe averaged 9.4 points per game for the Pistons this season and added 7.5 rebounds per game.
As we’ve learned with many things, though, numbers aren’t enough. So I reached out to Patrick Hayes of ESPN TrueHoop Network blog PistonPowered to give us some words on Monroe:
The thing that hurts Monroe when it comes to awards voting is the same thing that made him such a solid player for Detroit this season: subtlety. Watching the Pistons, it was pretty common, especially in the second half of the season, to glance at the box score in the third quarter or so and say, “Wow … Monroe has 12 points and 10 rebounds already?” He’s not particularly explosive or athletic. He scored points by taking good shots, by crashing the offensive glass and by using craftiness around the basket to make up for his lack of athleticism. He’s a throwback player to the earlier 2000s Detroit teams — selfless, hard-working, smart and largely anonymous outside of Detroit. Monroe’s advanced stats clearly make him one of the five best rookies in the league this year. Monroe was also hurt by the fact that the Pistons were not just bad this season, they were unwatchable, perhaps the most boring and predictable team in the NBA to watch on a night-to-night basis. That doesn’t change the fact that Monroe was absolutely Detroit’s best player this season when you factor in production, attitude and upside.
Gary Neal and Landry Fields had nice seasons for better teams, which gave them more exposure. They also played with more talented teammates who created more opportunities for them. Monroe’s consistency this season is most remarkable simply because the Pistons were an absolute mess of a team and organization around him. He was the lone bright spot for Detroit, but surrounded by so much chaos, it’s easy to see why Monroe has been overlooked by media in the Rookie of the Year voting and now by coaches in the All-Rookie team voting.
None of this is meant to bash Gary Neal and the recognition he received. Neal endured a long, difficult journey to the NBA, the itinerary of which I’d rather not review. He joined the Spurs well aware of what his job was. He stuck to the party line. Neal understood that the willingness to play defense was what got him onto the summer league roster, and he earned a contract with the Spurs based on his ability to shoot 3s like his life depended on it. Which, in a career sort of way, it was. But does that mean he had a better rookie season than Monroe, who had far more responsibility put on his shoulders?
Where Neal’s postseason honors reach their peak level of intrigue is when you think about how much he shouldn’t be the one in silver and black receiving said honors. In fact, you could easily have predicted that Neal would be a distant third on the Spurs in Rookie of the Year voting. Tiago Splitter joined the Spurs the same month as Neal with far more promise, pedigree and expectations. Ditto for James Anderson.
And yet, here we are. Both the media and coaches honored Gary Neal by launching him into its top-5 rookies this year. And that may be where I end up second guessing myself all summer. Enough people in two different groups of basketball people gave Neal enough votes to finish as essentially the fifth-best rookie this season.
I and others may think it was a mistake, but that’s been the story of the season regarding Neal. A lot of head scratches and thoughts of this can’t be right. If I learned anything from following along this year, there’s only one thing you can do: just Neal with it.