10 NBA Rookies Who Must Improve Before Sophomore Season

Joshua J Vannuccini@@jjvannucciniSenior Analyst IIIMarch 13, 2014

10 NBA Rookies Who Must Improve Before Sophomore Season

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    Being drafted in the lottery is a blessing for NBA rookies. But it's also a curse.

    Every first-year player wants to come in and make an impact, only not everything goes to plan. Then, words like "bust" or "underachieving" get thrown around. It not only diminishes a player's psyche and morale, but the public perception of said player as well.

    On the other hand, these players have a responsibility to uphold as professionals with their teams. Coaches and general managers will exert a certain level of patience, but, as we reach the close of this season, that patience can wear thin.

    Here are a select few rookies who need to show improvement before next season, or they risk seeing their value diminish. 

Honorable Mention: Nerlens Noel, Philadelphia 76ers

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    Alex Brandon/Associated Press

    Nerlens Noel can't truly be included in this list, as he's sidelined recovering from an ACL tear.

    But simultaneously, the Philadelphia 76ers are banking on Noel having an impact next season.  The Sixers sent All-Star point guard Jrue Holiday to the New Orleans Pelicans for him, ultimately sending away a proven prospect for one yet to step onto an NBA court.

    It's hard to predict just how well Noel will play early on, and while it's a bit unfair considering his injury, he needs to be playing at a high level from day one.

Michael Carter-Williams, Philadelphia 76ers

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    Matt Slocum/Associated Press

    In the midst of such a dismal season, Michael Carter-Williams may be the only bright spot for the 76ers.

    He's a runaway for the Rookie of the Year award, with the Orlando Magic's Victor Oladipo really being his only competition for the award.

    Carter-Williams has put up 16.8 points, 5.6 rebounds and 6.3 assists, along with 2.0 steals in 34.4 minutes per game. His numbers are impressive for a rookie, yet his 39.5 field-goal percentage leaves a bit to be desired.

    MCW has also turned the ball over 3.8 times per contest this season, with 4.7 turnovers per game since the All-Star break. It should be noted that he's the only true ball-handler for Philadelphia, ranking No. 8 (tie) for usage rate among point guards.

    That puts him on the same level as Chris Paul and Tony Parker in terms of handling and distributing, thus MCW has done remarkably well for a rookie. 

    He's cemented his place as a starting point guard for his career, but his field-goal percentage and turnovers could both improve before next season. That isn't to say his value would drop if neither area was altered, but both remain things on which Carter-Williams has to improve.

Trey Burke, Utah Jazz

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    Matt Slocum/Associated Press

    The Utah Jazz have a very bright future with Trey Burke at the helm, and he's doing everything right as their point guard.

    Burke ranks second in assists amongst rookies, trailing just MCW, with 5.4 per game. The most notable thing about his ability to distribute is the fact Burke is committing just 1.8 turnovers per game. 

    It's terrific for Burke to have such care with the ball this early in his career, and he'll only improve going forward. But for now, Burke needs to focus on improving his scoring and shot selection.

    He's shooting 37.6 percent from the field and 33.6 percent from three, but a spectacular 91.1 percent from the free-throw line. Obviously, NBA competition is different to that of the collegiate level, but Burke did shoot 46.3 percent in his last season with Michigan before joining the Jazz.

    The majority of Burke's attempts, 72.6 percent to be precise, have come from outside the paint. He stands 6'1", so it's understandable to see a bit of hesitation in taking it to the rim.

    Burke has a great handle on the ball and, combined with the pick and roll where he's run 38.8 percent of the time in Utah's offense per Synergy Sports (subscription required), he should look to get to the rim a little more.

    Much like MCW, Burke's improvement only comes in areas that will inevitably improve over time. He's still a rookie and will ultimately improve as his career goes on regardless.

    But Burke can fast-track his progress by focusing on his offensive production and selection. 

Kelly Olynyk, Boston Celtics

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    Jim Mone/Associated Press

    Kelly Olynyk has played well for the Boston Celtics thus far, although his defensive contributions need improvement going forward.

    While Olynyk stands 7'0" and weighs in at 238 pounds, his presence on the interior isn't nearly as effective as other players at his size. Much of it is to do with Olynyk's mere 6'9" wingspan, resulting in few deflections (0.5 steals) or blocked shots (0.4 blocks).

    Per Synergy Sports, Olynyk is allowing 54.3 percent shooting in post-ups and 43.2 percent in spot-up shooting. He backs off far too often, giving opponents space to shoot or work their way inside.

    There's nothing he can do to somehow stretch his arms, but Olynyk can look to defend without being imposing with his length.

    Toronto Raptors forward Chuck Hayes, probably remembered more for his odd free-throw form than his actual contributions on the court, is a player Olynyk can look toward.

    Hayes stands just 6'6", despite playing down low, with a wingspan of 6'10" but remains one of the league's best post defenders. He's averaged just 0.4 blocks and 0.8 steals for his career, but he has kept opponents to 40 percent shooting in the post.

    Olynyk can follow a similar path and become a solid post defender without size or overwhelming strength. Staying at home and against his man is his best bet, as opposed to backing off or backing down and allowing shots over his outstretched arms.

    It would also help in avoiding foul trouble, as he's committing 3.2 fouls in 19.0 minutes per game. 

    He'll still have to contest shots, but at least Olynyk can limit position and movement as opposed to trying to alter or block attempts. 

Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Detroit Pistons

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    Kentavious Caldwell-Pope has a promising future as an off-guard. He just has to make his shots.

    KCP has started 40 of 63 games for the Pistons, shooting 39.6 percent from the field and 30.9 percent from three-point range. He's terrific playing away from the ball and finding room for open spots on the floor. His style of play very much resembles former Pistons guard Richard Hamilton. 

    Per NBA.com, 78.2 percent of Caldwell-Pope's made field goals have come assisted, with Brandon Jennings leading the pack with 43 total assists to KCP's 142 made shots.

    As seen in this video of his career-high 17 points on December 30, he has a great shooting form and release. The fact that the Washington Wizards repeatedly left him wide open may have something to do with his hot shooting, but there's no reason why KCP can't carry some level of consistency into every game.

    His minutes have dropped drastically, from 30.3 minutes in January to 9.9 minutes thus far in March. Kyle Singler has taken his place in the starting lineup, and Caldwell-Pope desperately needs to find his rhythm. 

    Unless he can find a consistent stroke, he risks being lost among the many one-dimensional reserve shooters the NBA has to offer. There's nothing wrong with that if that's all he has to offer as a pro, but he needs to make shots to have that level of interest from teams.

    Again, it's just his first year in the league, but KCP needs to come into next season with his shot falling.

Alex Len, Phoenix Suns

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    Big men always need more time to develop than wing players, but Alex Len has shown very little promise even this early on.

    Len was taken No. 5 overall in the draft, but has played an average of just 9.1 minutes per game. The Phoenix Suns took a chance on the 7'1" center, despite him undergoing surgery prior to the draft to stabilize a stress fracture in his ankle. 

    Len's only performance of note, which did come in a career-high 22 minutes, was a seven-point, 10-rebound night against the Milwaukee Bucks on Jan. 29. 

    His limited role with the Suns makes it difficult to really pinpoint an area of improvement, but Len's foremost focus should be avoiding foul trouble. 

    Len's fouling 1.9 times per game in his limited timespan on the court, which translates to 9.8 fouls per 48 minutes.

    His numbers would also equate to 11.9 points, 12.8 rebounds and 2.1 blocks, so Len has contributed in short spurts, but he lacks consistency early on, really only playing in garbage time.

    Len can contribute scoring-wise as well, but he needs to commit to posting up and scoring inside. He's just 3-of-17 on mid-range shots, but shoots 53.4 percent in the paint. 

    He might need a little more time as he's a frontcourt prospect, but Len has shown the ability to contribute, albeit in spurts. He just needs to avoid foul trouble, thereby enabling himself to contribute further and gain the trust of the Suns coaching staff.

Shabazz Muhammad, Minnesota Timberwolves

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    Once regarded as a premier NBA prospect, Shabazz Muhammad has just about dropped off the radar.

    He's only had some solid playing time as of late, never playing more than 10 minutes before February and March. Muhammad dropped a career-best 20 points on the Phoenix Suns on Feb. 25 (video), but his minutes have declined since.

    He's averaging 3.4 points on 40.9 percent shooting, but his biggest trouble would seem to be his lack of an outside shot. With Kevin Love and Nikola Pekovic taking up a ton of room inside, Muhammad's inability to hit threes limits just how effective he can be on the court.

    He's attempted eight three-point field goals (with one make) compared to 80 attempts inside the arc. Love's ability to knock down outside shots should play off Muhammad's scoring inside, but that hasn't been the case until lately, nor should it be.

    It's a general rule of thumb to have your big men closer to the rim than your guards, especially considering Love's supreme ability to rebound. Muhammad desperately needs to develop an outside shot, or a jump shot at the very least.

    According to NBA.com, he's shooting just 24.4 percent on jumpers. In addition, 52.8 percent of Muhammad's made shots have come unassisted yet he averages just 0.1 assists per game. 

    It would seem he's a bit of a black hole on offense, and that must change going forward for Muhammad. Otherwise he risks falling into obscurity among notorious score-first reserves who offer little else.

Otto Porter Jr., Washington Wizards

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    To be fair, Otto Porter Jr. won't really be in a groove until next season. He missed a huge chuck of his rookie campaign recovering from a hyperextended hip and has only played in 29 games this season.

    He's averaged just 8.8 minutes per game and has steadily improved, but he is still not at the level expected for his draft status. Porter Jr. was taken No. 3 overall by the Wizards, yet his production hasn't been up to par.

    Again, his injury has obviously limited his ability to adapt and adjust to the NBA level of play. But with almost 30 games under his belt, Porter Jr. needs to show some promise. 

    It's very unlikely Washington would lose patience after only one season, but Porter Jr. can't carry the same production into next season. He'll likely be thrust into the starting small forward spot, as Trevor Ariza's contract will come off the books after this season.

    It's likely Porter Jr. will be up to the task, but he hasn't shown it just yet.

Ben McLemore, Sacramento Kings

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    Ben McLemore was hailed as a potential No. 1 overall pick when he declared for the draft, but his poor showing in workouts saw his stock slip. 

    McLemore has proven to be a top prospect so far, averaging 7.8 points on 37 percent shooting and 32.4 percent from three-point range. Both numbers could be a little higher, but keep in mind it's still his first season.

    The biggest aspect for McLemore to focus on is just hitting his shots and remaining consistent. For instance, he hit 35.1 percent of his long-range attempts in December, before dropping to 29.3 percent and 23.5 percent through January and February, respectively.

    McLemore has then followed that up by hitting 38.1 percent in March, all the while averaging 9.6 points. Much like Caldwell-Pope, there isn't a definite way to go about keeping consistent, apart from being prepared and in rhythm for each game.

    He could also do with some improvement defensively, where McLemore is allowing 46.4 percent shooting by opponents. Per Synergy Sports, he's also allowing 53.7 percent in isolations and 49.5 percent in spot-up situations.

    McLemore has good size at the shooting guard spot at 6'5", so those defensive issues can also be attributed to this being his rookie campaign. 

    In any case, McLemore needs to keep at his craft and stay at home defensively. If he can do both, he'll be an elite guard for a long time.

Cody Zeller, Charlotte Bobcats

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    Cody Zeller has steadily progressed during his rookie campaign, but that doesn't mean there isn't room for improvement.

    Despite shooting 36.5 percent during November, Zeller has upped his production to 7.3 points and 5.1 rebounds in March. He's also shooting 58.6 percent from the field and 77.3 percent from the foul line this month, all in 17.7 minutes.

    While Zeller's production as of late is very encouraging, it needs to be a continuing trend into next season. He's very raw offensively, shooting just 39.7 percent on the season.

    Per NBA.com, Zeller is 35-of-151 on jump shots and 28-of-75 on layups, converting to 23.2 percent and 37.3 percent, respectively. According to Synergy Sports, he posts up a measly 3.8 percent of the time.

    Zeller is undoubtedly athletic, but he lacks the strength to have a presence in the paint. He gets pushed around down low, which would be indicative of his poor shooting percentage and unwillingness to post up.

    If Zeller is to make a true impact next season, he needs to hone in on improving his body. He can rebound on both ends, run the floor and pass well, but his physical strength (or lack thereof) isn't up to par for his position.

    Many big men succeed as finesse players who shy away from contact, but Zeller's athleticism and vertical makes that style difficult to pursue. If that's the case, he must focus on developing a reliable jumper and a handful of useful post moves as well.

    It truly comes down to what type of player Zeller wants to become.


Anthony Bennett, Cleveland Cavaliers

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    Of all the rookies this season, Anthony Bennett must improve the most before his sophomore season.

    His selection by the Cleveland Cavaliers at No. 1 overall shocked many, most notably Bill Simmons, and his lack of production has shocked many more. 

    Bennett is averaging just 4.1 points and 2.9 rebounds as the first overall selection, shooting just 35.2 percent from the field and 24.5 percent from three. As with many rookies, such as Porter Jr. or Len, Bennett came into the season after being injured.

    He underwent rotator cuff surgery before the draft and missed "all NBA pre-draft workouts, the NBA draft combine and summer league," per a report from ESPN.com.

    Things have only become worse for Bennett, as he'll miss three weeks with a strained left knee. 

    Without making excuses for him, Bennett has had a tough time going from recovery to immediately into the fray of the NBA style of play, never really getting a chance to adjust.

    Even so, Bennett will carry the burden of being a first overall pick with him for the rest of his career. Only, it would cease to be as heavy a load with some improvement.

    His offensive game hasn't worked for him so far, as he's shooting 23.9 percent on jumpers and 39.3 percent on layups. Per NBA.com, Bennett rarely defers from either attempt, with dunks being his next most-attempted shot (34-of-142 attempted jumpers, 11-of-28 layups and 5-of-9 dunks).

    Bennett's numbers did jump to 7.2 points and 4.8 rebounds in 17.4 minutes through February, and he shot 57.1 percent in four games before his injury in March.

    As unlikely as it might seem, Bennett will be just fine going forward. He still has a lot to prove, and a lot to improve on, but his skill set and style of play will eventually fit. It's just a matter of staying healthy for Bennett and keeping at it despite the naysayers.

    Bennett's numbers aren't that for a No. 1 draft pick, but they will be in time. He's shown the ability to score and rebound as this season has continued, with a slow start overshadowing his improvement.

    It's only a matter of time before he gets comfortable in the NBA, and with his team. And that can come as soon as next season.

    Highlights from Bennett's career-best 19-point, 10-rebound game on Feb. 11 against the Sacramento Kings.