Who's Better, NBA Rookie or Sophomore Class?

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistDecember 24, 2013

The past two NBA draft classes still have plenty of time to mature, but we've seen enough by now to make some judgements on their overall quality.

If Anthony Bennett's skewering at the hands of ESPN's Chad Ford is any indication, this year's crop of rookies isn't off to the most auspicious start.

Via The Cleveland Plain Dealer's Jodie Valade, Ford said: "It's very early, but right now, he's looking like the worst in the past 20 years. That includes Greg Oden. Oden was injured all the time, but when he played, he at least looked like a No. 1 pick."

Bennett's not the only dud, but he's a solid representative of a largely unimpressive class.

The talent from the 2013 NBA draft looks even worse when compared to some of the developing superstars we're seeing among this year's sophomores.

The annual Rising Stars Challenge that'll pit rookies and second-year players against one another won't take place for another couple of months. That contest will go a long way toward determining whether this year's rookies have any chance of measuring up against the sophs.

For now, let's take a look at how each class stacks up, with one eye on the present and another on the future.


Rookie Star Power?

Right this second, it's very hard to confidently predict that any rookies will develop into stars. Nobody's having the kind of standout performance that screams franchise cornerstone, though there are a few top picks playing well in difficult situations.

Michael Carter-Williams is the best of the bunch.

The lanky point guard is averaging 17.6 points, 7.8 assists and 5.5 rebounds per game. Some of those numbers get a helping hand from the Philadelphia 76ers' uptempo style, but there's little question that he's been the most productive first-year player this season.

Is he a potential star, though? That's a tougher question.

After MCW, Victor Oladipo and Trey Burke are promising talents with very different skill sets. The former is a jack-of-all trades athlete whom the Orlando Magic are trying to mold into a point guard, while the latter is a natural leader whose only real questions marks are size and strength.

Both are good players, but both have legitimate flaws.

After those three guards, there are some promising wings in Tim Hardaway Jr., Ben McLemore and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. Only Hardaway has shot the ball well this year, though, and none of the three has anything close to the defensive maturity necessary to impact the game on both ends.

On the bright side, Carter-Williams and Caldwell-Pope give the rookies a clear edge in hyphens. It's unclear how this impacts the overall star power of the class, but it can't hurt.


Rookie Depth

The most recent NBA draft was one we all knew lacked top-end talent. Perhaps in a reactionary effort to keep interest high, many pundits touted it as having decent depth.

In reality, that was a nice way of saying that nobody was going to be all that good.

There are probably a handful of rotation-quality players among the rest of this year's rookies, but very few likely starters down the line.

Giannis Antetokounmpo and Steven Adams have as much long-term potential as anybody outside of Carter-Williams, but both are significant projects. If Adams develops his offensive game, he's got a chance to become an effective, highly physical center. And Antetokounmpo is a total wild card.

His potential is basically impossible to determine because we've never seen a player at his age (19) with his size (6'10" with enormous hands) and his skills. It's possible that he becomes some strange hybrid of Kevin Durant and Nicolas Batum, but we're a very long way from seeing him reach his potential—whatever that might be.

Encouragingly, the Bucks have played well with him on the floor:

Beyond those two players, you've got Kelly Olynyk, Mason Plumlee, Nate Wolters, Cody Zeller and Dennis Schroder as potentially useful pieces going forward. But none of them has been all that impressive this season, and it's hardly safe to assume they'll develop enough to have an impact down the line.


Sophomore Studs

Put simply, this year's sophomore class is loaded. Anthony Davis and Damian Lillard are already legitimate stars, with the former projecting as a perennial All-Star and potential Hall of Fame player.

It's practically impossible to overstate Davis' potential. His per-game averages of 19.2 points, 10.2 rebounds and 3.3 blocks don't tell half the story. He's a defensive menace capable of guarding four positions effectively, a highly disruptive force in the pick-and-roll and an analytics darling.

Davis' player efficiency rating of 27.9 ranks third in the NBA, per Basketball-Reference.com, and at this point, the only gripes about him are totally facetious:

Right behind Lillard and Davis are Bradley Beal and Andre Drummond, both of whom are likely to see their fair share of All-Star Games in the future. The Detroit Pistons center possesses a rare combination of size, athleticism and work ethic that makes his ceiling extremely high.

According to Grantland's Jonathan Abrams, Pistons coach Maurice Cheeks sees big things in Drummond's future:

He's always asking questions. Even before practice, he'll come in and see me and we'll talk about certain things that he can do to get better at. I think he has some knowledge in terms of where he wants to get to in terms of his ability. Most guys like that can reach another level—he has that ability.

The sophomore quartet of Davis, Lillard, Drummond and Beal are all a notch above anybody in the rookie class.


Depth for Days

After the sterling foursome that makes up the top of the sophomore talent pool, there's a deep reservoir of quality players lurking beneath the surface.

Harrison Barnes, Patrick Beverley, Jonas Valanciunas, Jared Sullinger, John Henson—the list of fringe starters and rotation players goes on and on.

Even after those guys, there's still Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Dion Waiters, Miles Plumlee, Tony Wroten, Terrence Jones, Moe Harkless, Terrence Ross, Andrew Nicholson, Jeremy Lamb, Draymond Green and Khris Middleton.

Maybe it just seems like these players are better than the rookies who populated the middle and lower parts of the first round because we've seen more of them and are more familiar with their games. Then again, isn't it also possible that last year's draft was simply much deeper than this year's? For my money, that seems like the more plausible scenario.

Frankly, there are probably four or five sophomores who would have been the No. 1 pick in the most recent draft. And there are as many as 15 players who would have gone ahead of anybody not named Oladipo, Burke or Carter-Williams.


Stacking Up

Talking about the respective collections of talent from each class might not be the best way to paint a clear picture of the sophomores' superiority, though. For you visual types, here's a potential lineup and bench comparison from each class.


PGMichael Carter-Williams
SGVictor Oladipo
SFGiannis Antetokounmpo
PFKelly Olynyk
CSteven Adams

Tim Hardaway Jr., Trey Burke, Ben McLemore, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Mason Plumlee

As you can see, the rookies feature an unbalanced, guard-heavy rotation that simply lacks anything close to a go-to scorer. There's potential here, but almost no current punch.



PGDamian Lillard
SGBradley Beal
SFHarrison Barnes
PFAnthony Davis
CAndre Drummond
BenchJonas Valanciunas, Patrick Beverley, John Henson, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Jared Sullinger

Now, that's a lineup. The sophs are more talented at the top and far deeper on the bench. There's interior defense, perimeter shooting and loads of athleticism. In fact, you could probably field as many as three five-man units from the sophomore class that would easily handle this year's rookies.


Hope for the Future?

If Carter-Williams develops into Anfernee Hardaway with better vision and Oladipo winds up closer to a poor man's Dwyane Wade than a rich man's Tony Allen, maybe there'd be a case that the rookies' top-end talent is somewhere close to the sophomores'.

But those are a couple of huge "ifs," and even if the current sophomores don't get any better than they already are, they'll still have a huge edge in the talent department.

Bennett has been catching a lot of heat lately, and I'm sure you noticed that he's not even mentioned anywhere in our preceding consideration of the top rookies. As you should have also noticed, he's not the only problem in his class.

This is a bad crop of rookies, short on depth and even shorter on potential stars. It's not their fault; it's just the truth.

Don't worry, though; we should see things change next year when one of the most highly anticipated rookie classes in history crashes the party.


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