If a basketball player's initial year in the pros is characterized by first impression and third year is marked by a projected jump, the second season is defined by the inevitable throat-clearing. Every NBA player is part of a never-ceasing evolution, and the sophomore campaign is an invaluable time for young prospects to implement lessons learned and correct course.
Or, in the case of today's subjects: build on impressive rookie seasons and fully break out with the help of a little experience and coaching. The rookie class of 2011 doesn't have all that many compelling cases for breakout sophomore seasons in the year to come, but three reliable candidates should be rather impressive in the natural progression of their basketball careers.
Without further ado:
Klay Thompson, Golden State Warriors
There's plenty of reason for optimism when it comes to this season's Warriors, but Thompson's projected development is actually a prominent part of Golden State's plans. Steph Curry, Andrew Bogut and David Lee offer the Dubs a solid core, but it's in players like Thompson that the Warriors' capacity for playoff contention—both now and in the future—truly lies.
If Thompson is able to mimic his efficiency and production from the tail end of his rookie year, the Warriors should be a playoff team come April. Things could get dicey if he doesn't turn out a similar effort, but given Thompson's skill set, fit and convincing performance both last April and at the Las Vegas Summer League, there's little reason to predict an alternative outcome.
Thompson can do a lot on offense with the ball in his hands but should be even better without it; though his versatility came in handy for a team missing its primary playmaker late last season, expect to see a more focused and specifically effective Thompson in the year to come.
Having the opportunity to work off of Curry, Bogut and Lee should position Thompson beautifully, and he earned the benefit of the doubt with his rookie-year scoring.
Kenneth Faried, Denver Nuggets
Faried may have already announced his presence on the NBA scene, but this year we can look forward to more than just energy from Denver's bouncy reserve big. Pure effort can go a long way for a player in Faried's situation, but with a little defensive grooming, the 22nd overall pick in the 2011 draft could be capable of so much more.
That evolution could take a while, but in the meantime, it would be nice to see Faried take on a bigger role in the Nuggets' half-court offense. Denver is strapped as it is for shot creators once the game slows down, and if Faried isn't providing much in the way of shot-creating play action (as a screener, a cutter, etc.), then he's partly hurting the superstar-less Nuggets as they stumble through some of their half-court sets. If (and when) Faried integrates himself in a way that enhances Denver's creative potential, the Nuggets could take a sizable hop forward.
I'm betting on this season for that progress, and if that seems a bit hasty, blame the charisma of Faried's energy and work ethic.
Kawhi Leonard, San Antonio Spurs
Leonard has already done fantastic work as San Antonio's go-to perimeter defender, but it's clear that Gregg Popovich has greater designs for the sophomore's eventual role in the offense. Spotting up in the corner and hitting the offense boards simply won't do.
Pop surely won't lean on Leonard to create full-time for the Spurs, but the capacity to manufacture shots remains one of the great untapped elements of his NBA potential.
With Tony Parker, Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili—not to mention an entire roster of capable role players—to balance the bulk of the offense, Popovich has the luxury of bringing Leonard along slowly. But his glowing reviews of Leonard's play and potential speak volumes, and we should all know better than to bet against the NBA's best coach going.
This is a great marriage of prospect, tutor and team, and though San Antonio may not again sprint off with the West's best record, I'd expect Leonard to only build on all that he showed in year one.