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Condensed NBA season makes it difficult for rookies to adapt to NBA

By Joseph Goodman, McClatchy Newspapers –

MIAMI — It has been a difficult season to be a rookie in the NBA.

Beginning with a shortened training camp, the league’s condensed schedule has required first-year players to learn on the fly.

Since then, the rigors of travel, playing on short rest and the NBA lifestyle — a difficult transition for a young player under ideal circumstances — have been crammed into four hellish months. The physical and mental strains are beginning to take a toll.

In his last four games, Heat rookie Norris Cole is 2 of 21 from the field. That’s right, 2 of 21. For a player who began the season as a legitimate scoring option off the bench, those revelatory numbers are brutal evidence of this season’s effects on rookies.

And Cole played four seasons in college before being drafted. For younger rookies, the transition from college or high school to the post-lockout NBA has been more taxing.

Brandon Knight of the Detroit Pistons, playing in Miami on Sunday for the first time since graduating from Fort Lauderdale Pine Crest in 2010, has had an up-and-down season as the team’s starting point guard. He is averaging 12.5 points per game, second most among rookies, but recently Knight’s scoring has been down and in the past two games he has averaged 24 minutes, ceding much of his point-guard responsibilities to reserves.

“I think everyone hits that rookie wall no matter how long the season is, 82 games or 66 games,” Heat forward Udonis Haslem said. “I think it’s inevitable that you’re going to hit that wall as a rookie.”

Cole, it seems, collided with his rookie wall after the All-Star break. Since then, he’s only scored in double figures twice and is averaging 3.3 points per game. He hasn’t made a field goal in his last three games.

His minutes per game are dwindling as well and there’s a chance he could be left out of the rotation all together when Mike Miller returns from injury.

Miller, who has missed 14 games in a row due to a sprained ankle, likely will play on Sunday against the Pistons. He participated in the Heat’s practice on Saturday.

“You can’t really make any excuses because you want to play and this is what we had to do to play,” Cole said.

In late December, rookies around the NBA began their first seasons in the league unprepared due to the owner’s extended lockout. Now, with less than a month remaining until the playoffs, their bodies are feeling the strain of this season’s hectic scheduling, which often has teams playing four games in five days or six games in eight nights.

The Heat’s most difficult stretch of the season is still ahead of it. The team plays eight times in 11 days beginning Thursday in Chicago.

With little practice time, rookies have been learning their teams’ offensive and defensive systems during film sessions and shootarounds. During a typical offseason, rookies in the Heat organization have six to eight weeks during the summer to absorb the team’s philosophies. That wasn’t an option this summer and training camp, normally a month, was reduced to 10 days.

By the start of training camp, Heat coach Erik Spoelstra would like rookies to know “all of our defensive concepts and about 60 percent of our offensive package, so they have a running start.”

“That process was done completely on the fly,” Spoelstra said. “So, it is a challenge for these young kids. I’m sure everybody’s heads are spinning. I know our guys’ are.”

Coincidentally, the player who has taken away some of Cole’s minutes in recent games is another rookie, Terrel Harris, who was invited to training camp in December and had less than two weeks to make an impression.

Harris was cut by teams in France and Germany and played in the D-League before earning a spot on the Heat’s roster.

“I came here with maybe three sets of clothes and most of that was my practice gear,” Harris said. “So, I had to wear the same thing a couple times and go to Foot Locker and buy some shorts. One bag — I came straight from the road and never went back home.”

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