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Is This the Year of the NBA Sophomore?

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Is This the Year of the NBA Sophomore?
USA Today

As the late, great and ever quotable Al McGuire once said, "The best thing about freshmen is that they become sophomores."

McGuire, who rose to fame as an NCAA championship coach at Marquette before moving on to an illustrious career in broadcasting, was referring to first- and second-year players in college. But the wisdom of his witticism could just as easily be applied to the NBA.

Particularly during the first few weeks of the 2013-14 season, which have seen a number of last year's rookies emerge as productive role players, solid starters and, in some cases, bona fide All-Star candidates.

Damian Lillard, the reigning Rookie of the Year, has posted a steady line of 20.0 points, 4.5 rebounds and 6.1 assists per game while upping his three-point percentage (from .368 to .400) and cutting down on his turnovers (from 3.0 to 2.3) for the 9-2 Portland Trail Blazers. Anthony Davis, the No. 1 pick in the 2012 NBA draft, has stuffed the stat sheet with 20.9 points, 11.0 rebounds, 1.5 assists and 5.7 combined blocks and steals with the New Orleans Pelicans.

Bradley Beal (20.7 points, .458 from three) has been bombing away from deep with the Washington Wizards, and Andre Drummond (12.3 points, 12.0 rebounds) continues to pile up double-doubles for the Detroit Pistons like it's nobody's business.

Not that these and numerous other developments should come as any surprise, at least to those who last surveyed the basketball landscape in, say, the fall of 2011. Back then, scouts, sources, mock draftniks and all-around gurus were touting the 2012 NBA draft for its prospective depth and breadth of tantalizing, tank-worthy talent. The specter of the lockout had led a number of the previous year's most prized prospects—including Harrison Barnes, Tyler Zeller, John Henson, Jared Sullinger and Perry Jones III—to stash their lottery tickets and see what a more settled labor situation between the owners and the players would bring.

Throw those hats into the ring along with those of fabulous freshmen like Davis, Drummond, Beal and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and—voila!—the league had itself a hefty batch of rich new blood to replenish its supply.

Jerry Lai-USA TODAY Sports

But several months of so-so collegiate performances, shady leaks about injury risks, questions about attitude and commitment, and all manner of other surreptitious propaganda that hit the Interwebz in the lead-up to draft day 2012 had some in the hoops intelligentsia running scared. As a result, Sullinger and Jones dropped like stones, Drummond nearly slipped out of the Top 10 and Dion Waiters somehow wound up going fourth overall.

(Though that pick probably had much more to do with the Cleveland Cavaliers' faulty draft logic under general manager Chris Grant than anything else, but I digress.)

The 2012-13 season played out as if to specifically vindicate those who figured the residuals of the Anthony Davis sweepstakes for fool's gold. Lillard ran away with the Eddie Gottlieb Trophy faster than the dish did with the spoon, thanks in no small part to a spate of injuries, unsettled roles and flat-out shelvings for many of his more highly touted classmates.

For the most part, those concerns that allowed Lillard to take home top honors among rookies have been allayed.

The cream of the 2012 crop is healthier, on the whole, than it was last year. Davis, who missed 18 games last season due to a smorgasbord of injuries, is fit now, with additional bulk and confidence in his game to go toe-to-toe with grown men in the middle on a nightly basis. The stress fracture in Drummond's back seems to have abated, as has the stress reaction in Beal's fibula. 

In many cases, last year's draftees have stepped into steadier and/or expanded roles. Drummond's per-minute production has held relatively steady, but his minutes have nearly doubled now that he's starting in the Pistons frontcourt. Jeremy Lamb has ascended to become the first man off the bench for the Oklahoma City Thunder, in the wake of Kevin Martin's departure to Minnesota. After bouncing between being buried on the benches of the Sacramento Kings and the Houston Rockets as a rookie, forward Thomas Robinson, who was the fifth player taken in 2012, must be enjoying the regular run he's getting with the Blazers.

Don't discount the effect that team-wide improvement can have on individual performance, either. Davis can take fuller advantage of his all-around abilities now that he has a trio of established youngsters (i.e. Eric Gordon, Jrue Holiday and Tyreke Evans) handling the New Orleans Pelicans' perimeter business. The same could be said for Drummond, who seems to be relishing the opportunities afforded by Detroit's summer additions, chief among them Brandon Jennings:

Beal's breakout season quite closely resembles the (albeit brief) brilliance he exhibited alongside John Wall last season. The new coaching staff in Charlotte seems to have a much better grasp on MKG's strengths and weaknesses and has adjusted his shot distribution accordingly.

Even Lillard, who played like a borderline All-Star in his debut season, has benefitted tremendously from the veteran depth with which Portland has fleshed out its bench. 

On the whole, though, you can probably chalk up a good chunk of the growth among this season's sophs to the natural progression that you'd expect to see from any young player. These kids are a year older, a year wiser and a year stronger. They've had the opportunity to see what the NBA game is all about, to acclimate themselves to the rigors of playing against seasoned veterans and to put in the work over the summer with coaches and trainers to make sure they're ready to let their true talents shine through on the court.

This isn't to suggest, though, that the Class of 2012 is in any way flawless. The sophs have already seen their fair share of prospects teeter toward "bust" status.

For every Lillard, there's a Kendall Marshall. The Phoenix Suns selected the pass-first point guard 13th overall out of North Carolina, but he is currently without a club after being bought out in the Marcin Gortat trade.

For every Beal, there's an Austin Rivers. Doc's son has fallen even further down the Pelicans depth chart after an abysmal rookie campaign.

For every Anthony Davis, there's a Royce White. The talented but troubled forward didn't even make it out of training camp with the depleted Philadelphia 76ers.

Throw in the long-term absence of Festus Ezeli from the Golden State Warriors, the inevitable injury woes of Jared Sullinger and the rumors of Waiters being a cancer in the Cavs' locker room, and clearly, the 2012ers are far from perfect.

David Liam Kyle/Getty Images

Then again, the same could be said of any draft class that's ever attempted to forge an identity within the league.

The vaunted 2003 draft—which gave the league LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and Carmelo Anthony—saw Darko Milicic, Jarvis Hayes and Michael Sweetney chosen in the Top 10. In 1996, future Hall of Famers like Kobe Bryant, Allen Iverson and Ray Allen were accompanied by such "luminaries" as Samaki Walker, Erick Dampier and Vitaly Potapenko. Even the 1984 draft, which ushered Michael Jordan and Hakeem Olajuwon into the pros, was dragged down by nobodies well beyond the size and scope of Sam Bowie.

What makes the current crop of second-years so remarkable is the extent to which the good outweighs the bad and the ugly, and just how many players are contributing to the former. 

Leave out the big names, and you'd still have the Houston Rockets' new regular at power forward (Terrence Jones), a pair of productive youngsters for the Orlando Magic (Andrew Nicholson and Maurice Harkless), a high-flying wing for the Toronto Raptors (Terrence Ross), a long-armed Larry Sanders facsimile (John Henson) and a dunking fiend for the Phoenix Suns (Miles Plumlee).

And that's just in the first round. What about the slew of second-rounders (Draymond Green, Orlando Johnson, Jeffery Taylor, Jae Crowder, Khris Middleton) who play regularly for their respective squads? We could even go "off the board" entirely and include the guy who beat out Jeremy Lin in Houston, Patrick Beverley, the same guy who was drafted in the second round in 2009 but didn't make it stateside until last season, after going for "cups of coffee" in Ukraine, Greece and Russia.

Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Does he count in this discussion? Perhaps, if you want to be a certain kind of technical about it.

But that doesn't really matter, does it? This year's slate of sophomores has talent at every tier in the league.

And while its products may not all go on to be Andrew Wigginses and Jabari Parkers and Julius Randles and Marcus Smarts and Aaron Gordons, there will still be plenty of pivotal players whose contributions are critical to their teams' successes.

Keep in mind, too, that many of the names mentioned above will get better, because that's what often happens to professional basketball players in their early-to-mid-20s; they find their niches, they hone their skills and they improve.

If you think the Class of 2012 took a step forward by virtue of morphing from freshmen to sophomores, just imagine how good this group could be once it's junior only to superstars in their 30s and senior to all the precocious kids currently waiting in the wings in high school and college.

 

Let's share a toast to the sophomores on Twitter.

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