NBA Sophomore Report Cards: Grading Campaigns of Top 2nd-Year Players
In many ways, that original query has proven prescient in the intervening months. Two second-year studs made their respective debuts as All-Stars in New Orleans last month. Scores more have either risen into more prominent roles or further established themselves in spots they'd previously occupied.
As such, picking out a handful or two to highlight was no easy task. The list of youngsters worthy of an honorable mention is rather lengthy, from Kendall Marshall (second in the NBA in assists per game) and Patrick Beverley (41 starts for the Houston Rockets) to Terrence Ross (dunks!), Jeremy Lamb (9.5 points off the bench in OKC) and John Henson (stuck on Larry Drew's yo-yo).
These guys have done plenty to earn recognition in Year 2 in the Association, though the following 10 figure to make the biggest marks of all—good, bad or indifferent.
Who better to begin this discussion than Damian Lillard?
The reigning Rookie of the Year has, by and large, improved upon his impressive introductory campaign by establishing himself not only as one of the brightest young point guards in the NBA, but also as one of the premier three-point shooters in basketball. He's bumped his accuracy from deep to 40.3 percent, up from 36.8 percent in 2012-13, and ranks second, behind only Stephen Curry, in treys made (193) and attempted (412).
One can't help but admire, too, the degree to which Lillard embraced his maiden voyage to the All-Star Game. While in New Orleans, Lillard became the first player to ever participate in five of the weekend's events: the All-Star Game, the Rising Stars Challenge, the Skills Challenge, the Three-Point Contest and the Slam Dunk Contest.
Lillard only came out ahead in the Skills Challenge, but his willingness to stretch himself to the extent that he did spoke volumes about the 23-year-old's desire to be a superstar.
More importantly, Lillard has his Portland Trail Blazers on the march up the Western Conference ladder. They've already won eight more games than they did all of last season and, at 41-19, had climbed into third place out West as of March 4, just 4.5 games back of the first-place Oklahoma City Thunder.
All thanks, in no small part, to Lillard.
The injury bug is still a bit too cozy with Anthony Davis; he missed seven games in December with a broken bone in his hand and has been playing through a bum shoulder of late. Even so, Davis' personal growth and impact on the New Orleans Pelicans in Year 2 is unmistakable.
The numbers are impressive on their own. Davis is averaging 20.2 points and 10.0 rebounds a game, with 1.4 assists, 1.5 steals and a league-leading 2.9 blocks to boot. He's also shooting slightly better from the field (.519) than he did as a rookie (.516) and has nearly doubled his free-throw attempts per game, from 3.5 to 6.3.
Keep in mind that he's continued to post impressive performances while the rest of the Pelicans' core has crumbled around him. Jrue Holiday and Ryan Anderson are both done for the year, as is starting center Jason Smith. Tyreke Evans has been in and out of the lineup with ankle problems.
And yet, Davis remains as productive as ever. Not surprisingly, New Orleans has fallen on hard times amid all the absences, recently losing eight in a row for the second time this season. Just three more wins, though, and the Pels will have matched their total from 2012-13.
Speaking of young bigs who've improved by leaps and bounds this year, how about Andre Drummond?
The 20-year-old out of UConn has started all 60 of the Detroit Pistons' games this season, during which he's averaged 13.2 points, 13.1 rebounds (third in the NBA) and 1.9 blocks (eighth) in a modest 32.5 minutes a night.
He also ranks second in field-goal percentage (.616) and, according to NBA.com, he's held his opponents to the eighth-lowest percentage at the rim among those those who've defended at least eight such attempts per game (48.8 percent).
In other words, Drummond has been precisely what Detroit likely expected he'd be: a big, athletic body who's active in the paint on both ends of the floor.
That characterization cuts both ways. As impressive as his field-goal percentage is at first glance, he's worked almost exclusively at or near the hoop. According to NBA.com, 62.6 percent of his looks have come within eight feet of the rim, and among players who average at least 30 minutes per game, none has scored more points in the paint by percentage than has Drummond.
Part of the responsibility for Drummond's dependence on easy shots stems from his role with the Pistons as the aforementioned big, athletic body. But much of it also falls on Drummond's shoulders. He's still incredibly raw, with a low-post game that remains in its infancy and a free-throw percentage (.409) that, as terrible as it is, represents an improvement over what he registered as a rookie (.371).
That's to be expected for a player of Drummond's profile. Young bigs take time to develop their offensive games, assuming they do at all (that means you, Dwight Howard). The sooner Drummond does, the better off the offensively challenged Pistons, at 24-36, will be.
For now, though, they have to be pleased with Drummond's progress and excited about his potential for the future.
Bradley Beal hasn't been a picture of perfect health this season, but the nine games he's missed mark an improvement over the 26 he missed as a rookie on account of a stress fracture in his leg and various other injuries.
Oh, and the kid has been pretty darn good when he's been on the court, too. The 20-year-old sharpshooter has knocked down 41.4 percent of his three-pointers and upped his scoring average to 16.8 points per game.
The spacing that Beal's shot provides has been a boon to the Washington Wizards as a whole, but particularly to John Wall. According to NBA.com, the All-Star point guard has shot 45.5 percent from the field and a solid 37.7 percent from three with Beal on the court, as opposed to 40.3 percent and 28.4 percent, respectively, when Beal has been out.
Not surprisingly, that pair has pushed the Wizards to another level in tandem. In the more than 1,200 minutes that Wall and Beal have played together this season, Washington has scored 104.5 points per 100 possessions (a borderline top-10 mark) and allowed 101.8 points per 100 possessions (a comfortably top-10 mark).
As a result, the Wizards, at 31-29, are well on their way to securing their first postseason appearance since 2008. And, with the young backcourt of Beal and Wall in place, this should be the first of many trips to the playoffs for D.C.'s NBA franchise in the years to come.
It's impossible to judge the efficacy of Dion Waiters' sophomore season without considering the totality of his effect on the Cleveland Cavaliers, both on and off the court.
According to ESPN The Magazine's Chris Broussard, Waiters was the central figure in an early-season near brouhaha in a closed-door meeting, during which he allegedly accused teammates Kyrie Irving and Tristan Thompson of playing "buddy ball" to both his exclusion and his dismay.
His on-court results haven't always been pretty, either, though he has morphed into a semi-reliable three-point shooter (.363). But his shot selection has left much to be desired, as has his inconsistent effort on the defensive end.
In truth, Waiters is probably best suited to serving as Cleveland's sixth man. The stats certainly back that up; through his first 49 games of the season, Waiters averaged 14.5 points (on 42.6 percent shooting) and 2.8 assists in 40 games off the bench, as opposed to 13.3 points (on 39.8 percent shooting) and 2.2 assists in nine starts.
Waiters has shown that he can be a key contributor as a reserve. He's topped the 20-point plateau 11 times coming off Cleveland's bench this season, including a 30-point effort back in December. But if Waiters is fated to forever be a super sub, the Cavs won't look any better for having spent the No. 4 pick in the 2012 draft on him, to say the least.
Instead of Waiters, the Cavs could've nabbed Harrison Barnes, a friend of Kyrie Irving's whose size and skills would've come in handy at small forward—a black hole in Cleveland before the acquisition of Luol Deng.
Instead, Barnes wound up with the Golden State Warriors as the No. 7 pick in 2012. The North Carolina product performed admirably as a rookie, contributing 9.2 points and 4.1 rebounds while shooting 43.9 percent from the field and 35.9 percent from three.
Barnes didn't truly announce himself, though, until the playoffs.
He became a crucial cog in the machinery that propelled Golden State to a six-game series with the San Antonio Spurs in Round 2. Barnes upped the ante to 16.1 points and 6.4 rebounds, with 44.4 percent shooting from the floor and 36.5 percent from beyond the arc. That run featured four games of 20 points or more for Barnes, after he hit that target just once in the regular season, and portended a full-blown breakout in 2013-14.
Unfortunately, that explosion has been slow to materialize, if it's come around at all. Barnes missed the first four games of the campaign and struggled to adjust to being Golden State's sixth man once he and the newly arrived Andre Iguodala were both healthy. Coming into Tuesday's action, Barnes had converted just 39.3 percent of his attempts as a reserve, as opposed to 44 percent as a starter.
There's been some noticeable progress in Barnes' game. He's shot better than 40 percent from three this season (.408) and has pushed his scoring average into double digits (10.1 points). The Warriors can only hope that Barnes finds his groove in time for another push through the postseason, be it as the team's top bench performer or as a starter in a newfangled lineup of some sort for head coach Mark Jackson.
Speaking of promising players passed up by the Cavs, Jonas Valanciunas has emerged as an important piece of the puzzle for the resurgent Toronto Raptors this season. The lanky Lithuanian, who was the fifth pick in the 2011 draft (Cleveland took Tristan Thompson fourth), spent another season overseas before joining the Raptors prior to the 2012-13 campaign.
Valanciunas' box-score stats (10.3 points, 8.5 rebounds, .508 from the field) don't pop off the page, though the 21-year-old has been nothing short of solid. He's shown flashes of skill in the low post and is picking up the nuances of NBA defense, to the point where he'll soon be a reliable rim-protector. According to NBA.com, Valanciunas has allowed a respectable 50.9 percent of his opponents' field-goal attempts at the cup.
He may not be the primary driver behind Toronto's 33-26 record this season, but his size, length, toughness and offensive competence can't be ignored.
It wouldn't have taken much for Jared Sullinger to improve upon on his rookie campaign. He averaged a modest 6.0 points and 5.9 rebounds in 19.8 minutes per game for the Boston Celtics in 2012-13 before succumbing to the very same back problems that caused him to "tumble" from a top-10 pick to the No. 21 spot on draft day in June 2012.
Sully has missed just five games so far this season, with 41 of his 55 appearances coming as a starter for the tank-tastic C's. So far, he's made good use of his newfound health and opportunity, contributing 13.1 points and 8.3 rebounds while showing signs of being the "poor man's Kevin Love" for which he'd been ticketed upon entry into the Association.
Sullinger is no superstar-in-the-making, but if he can be a steady inside-out contributor in Boston going forward, his selection as a late first-rounder will have been well worth it for the Celtics.
And then some.
After playing sparingly as a rookie, Terrence Jones has emerged in 2013-14 as a solid solution to the Houston Rockets' woes at power forward. The former Kentucky Wildcat shot 53.5 percent from the floor and contributed 12.7 points, 7.7 rebounds and 1.3 blocks in his first 49 starts.
This, after averaging 5.5 points and 3.4 rebounds in just 19 appearances with the Rockets last season. He's no sharpshooter (.297 from three), but Jones qualifies as the sort of long, mobile athlete Houston needs to complement Dwight Howard up front.
Most of all, Jones' cheap rookie deal is right up the alley of Rockets general manager Daryl Morey. Jones just turned 22, too, so further improvement from the young forward is not only possible, but also highly likely—if not entirely expected.
If team improvement were the only criteria in this discussion, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist would be within striking distance of an "A." His Charlotte Bobcats surpassed last season's win total a month ago, thanks to a stout defense of which MKG is a pivotal part. The 'Cats currently rank seventh in defensive efficiency, and have surrendered just 99.9 points per 100 possessions with Kidd-Gilchrist on the court, per NBA.com.
Trouble is, Charlotte is actually slightly worse off overall when Kidd-Gilchrist plays, due to the extent to which he drags down the offense. It's scored a measly 96.9 points per 100 possession with MKG in the lineup—a mark that would drop the 'Cats to 29th in offensive efficiency, just ahead of the floundering Philadelphia 76ers.
You don't have to search high or low to find the source of MKG's struggles. Just check out his shot chart, or watch him launch jumpers—if you dare. The 20-year-old couldn't shoot a lick when he first arrived in the NBA, and a summer spent practicing with noted sharpshooter and current 'Cats assistant Mark Price clearly hasn't helped.
It's a good thing Kidd-Gilchrist, the No. 2 pick in 2012, is still so young. Otherwise, his wayward jumper might already seem like a lost cause. In the meantime, surrendering two 60-point games in the same season—albeit to Carmelo Anthony and LeBron James—hasn't helped MKG's case.
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