Defining 'The Leap' in the NBA

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Defining 'The Leap' in the NBA
Layne Murdoch Jr./Getty Images

What exactly is "the leap?"

Is it something quantifiable that you can prove on paper or something more amorphous? Is it progress or greatness?

Does it mean going from star to superstar or simply from draft pick to a proven NBA performer? We use this term often, but what are we really getting at? 

Achieving superstar level is certainly an indicator. So is delivering on a consistent basis. It's not enough to do something great; you need to do it time and again. It's about becoming better on an individual level, but it's also about making your teammates better. It's about achieving the larger goals, not just filling up stat sheets.

Sometimes the leap is defined by marketing, or at least those in the marketplace who attempt to define it.

Zach Lowe for Grantland recently wrote about six players who should be taking off. He listed Ricky Rubio, Jonas Valanciunas, Iman Shumpert, Gordon Hayward, Enes Kanter and Tristan Thompson. Lowe looks at a particular, definable point in a young player’s career:

A player’s identity typically begins to crystallize in his third or fourth NBA season. Young players have learned the ropes, and veterans have departed or aged, vacating heavy-duty roles that need filling. Everyone involved — players, agents, executives — looks to see what emerges as a player nears the expiration of his rookie contract.

As for someone who’s already made the jump, look no further than Paul George of the Indiana Pacers.

George went from 12.1 points per game in his sophomore year to 17.4 points per game last season. Led by George, the Pacers also pushed the Miami Heat to Game 7 in the 2013 Eastern Conference Finals. The team rewarded him with a max-contract extension this past summer. George is currently averaging 23.8 points per game.

How does George feel about his level of success? This season there’s been a lot of talk about head-to-head comparisons between the Pacers forward and other elites in the league. Per The Oklahoman's Anthony Slater (h/t Slam Online), George even went so far as to predict that he’d beat Kevin Durant one-on-one.

"What am I going to do? Beat him.”

That’s making the leap, big time. Basketball lore is littered with stories of those who didn't make the grade, of course.

Kwame Brown was infamously selected by Michael Jordan as the No. 1 overall pick for the Washington Wizards in 2001. He never came close to living up to expectations during four years with the team. Brown wound up as a journeyman big man, wandering the league and banking plenty of coin over a 12-year career.

He was waived by the rebuilding Philadelphia 76ers before this season began. Kwame never made the leap.

And then there’s the case of one of the most prolific college ballers ever—Adam Morrison. Ammo was also selected by Jordan, but this time, by the Charlotte Bobcats. The No. 3 pick tore his knee and missed his entire sophomore season. Morrison wound up with the Los Angeles Lakers where he won two rings by mainly sitting on the bench. One of basketball’s purest shooters, he wound up playing in Europe briefly before trying and failing to make good on a return to the NBA.

Sometimes the leap is interrupted, but you think it'll still happen. Anthony Davis of the New Orleans Pelicans was off to a transcendent start this season before fracturing his hand. The second-year big man was averaging 18.8 points per game, 10.2 rebounds and a league-leading 3.6 blocks. His 28.25 PER was fourth in line behind only LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Chris Paul.

Davis was certainly on his way to stardom before the injury, but there’s no guarantee he’ll still be at that level once he returns. The NBA playing field is full of interrupted stories—sometimes they have happy endings and sometimes they don’t.

And then we have the elite superstars whose dominance seemed to be assured early on in their careers.

Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Carmelo Anthony all became household names quickly. Looking at the numbers, however, Bryant shows the most noticeable leap, averaging just 7.6 points per game as a rookie and 15.5 in his sophomore year. It’s also interesting to note that Bryant is the only one of this group who didn’t begin his career as a starter. In fact, he wasn’t a starter until his third season.

Also, Bryant is the only one of the group not drafted in the top 10. James was a No. 1 overall pick, Durant was the second pick in his draft and Melo was the third. Bryant was picked at 13.

Another stat that stands out is that Anthony is the only player listed here who did not show a jump in production in his second year. Season three would seem to have been his leap year.

Rookies to superstars, first four years
Kobe Bryant *7.6 ppg *15.5 ppg 19.9 ppg 22.5 ppg
LeBron James 20.9 ppg 27.2 ppg 31.4 ppg 27.3 ppg
Kevin Durant 20.3 ppg 25.3 ppg 30.1 ppg 27.7 ppg
Carmelo Anthony 21 ppg 20.8 ppg 26.5 ppg 28.9 ppg

Basketball-Reference (*denotes bench)

It's not always about players, however; it can also be about those on the sideline. There are nine rookie head coaches this season: Brett Brown for the Philadelphia 76ers, Mike Budenholzer for the Atlanta Hawks, Steve Clifford for the Charlotte Bobcats, Jeff Hornacek for the Phoenix Suns, Dave Joerger for the Memphis Grizzlies, Jason Kidd for the Brooklyn Nets, Mike Malone for the Sacramento Kings, Brian Shaw for the Denver Nuggets and Brad Stevens for the Boston Celtics.

Some of these guys made the leap as players earlier in their lives—how many will go on to become truly successful coaches?

While we don’t know when or if any of the new head coaches will enjoy a major leap, we can look at some who have.

Gregg Popovich spent 14 years coaching in the college ranks and another four as an NBA assistant. He then spent time as a front office executive for the San Antonio Spurs before being named their head coach in 1996. Pop had a horrible first season at 20-62 but that allowed them to select Tim Duncan as the first-overall pick, and the Spurs have never looked back. They won their first title under Popovich in 1999. They’ve won three more since then.

After a long career as a player, Doc Rivers made an instant leap as a head coach—named Coach of the Year in his first season with the Orlando Magic. For all his success in the league, however, he wouldn’t win a ring until eight years later with the Boston Celtics. He’s still looking for number two, now with the Los Angeles Clippers.

Rick Carlisle spent 11 years as an assistant coach for the New Jersey Nets, Portland Trail Blazers and Indiana Pacers. After being named head coach for the Pacers during the 2003-04 season, Carlisle took the team all the way to the Eastern Conference Finals before losing to the Detroit Pistons. He also coached the NBA Eastern All-Stars that season. The first leap came quickly after becoming a head coach but he didn’t win a ring until 2011 with the Dallas Mavericks.

Erik Spoelstra got his start with the Miami Heat as their video coordinator at the age of 25, operating out of a converted supply room that he called “the dungeon” in the depths of the old Miami Arena.  He wound up apprenticing as an assistant coach for nine seasons before being named head coach in 2008. The Heat made it to the playoffs in Spo’s first season after taking over the reins and have returned each year since. He has two championship titles under his belt so far.

Frank Vogel spent ten years as an assistant coach around the NBA before being named interim head coach for the Indiana Pacers in 2011. He promptly led the team to the playoffs for the first time in five years. Since then he’s been to the conference semifinals and conference finals. Vogel was officially named head coach after exiting the first round in 2011. For the next two seasons, however, he had an associate head coach in Brian Shaw.

Does that change the leap at all? Vogel’s Pacers currently have the best record in the east and Shaw has since moved on.

Finally, although he’s not currently an active coach, it would be remiss not to mention one of the biggest leaps in coaching history. Phil Jackson went from coaching the Albany Patroons to the Chicago Bulls and wound up winning 11 rings in 20 seasons as an NBA coach.

Ultimately, the ladder of success can be a subjective definition but we usually feel like we know it in the moment. It’s seeing someone achieve something special, it’s about turning the corner, about getting it all together, about overachieving.

We won’t always agree on what making the leap means in the NBA, and that’s what makes it great.

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