1 Thing Every Top 2014-15 NBA Rookie Must Improve in Training Camp

Daniel O'Brien@@DanielO_BRFeatured ColumnistAugust 29, 2014

1 Thing Every Top 2014-15 NBA Rookie Must Improve in Training Camp

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    The 2014-15 NBA rookies have worked hard to reach this threshold of their basketball careers, and only the final stage of preparation awaits them.

    There are so many areas a young prospect must address as he joins the pro ranks. What's the one thing each player must focus on improving during training camp?

    For many rookies, it's a tangible skill, such as post-up offense or long-range shooting. For others, their main issue to resolve is between the ears. The mental aspect of the game is daunting, and training camp is an opportunity for them to work on their decision-making and grow comfortable collaborating with new teammates.

    We broke down the top 10 draft picks and highlighted the one facet of the game they should upgrade.

    *Includes Nerlens Noel, a top-10 pick (No. 6) from 2013 who missed the 2013-14 season.

Elfrid Payton (No. 10 Pick): Jumpers off the Dribble

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    Jump shooting is something you can fine-tune anywhere. But until you practice with and against NBA-caliber players, it's tough to create and make shots at a high level. That's the case for Orlando Magic point guard Elfrid Payton.

    His outside shot noticeably improved in the months leading up to the draft, but shooting drills in workouts don't always translate to in-game scenarios and all of their variables.

    During summer league, he hit a few catch-and-shoot attempts and some dribble pull-ups, but he's not a dynamic jump-shooter yet. Those dribble pull-ups were simple plays when he had space to operate.

    What he must work on is effectively mastering step-backs, side-step jumpers, crossover pull-ups and mid-range turnarounds—all in the middle of traffic.

    "Payton needs to continue to improve using his dribble more effectively to make space for his jumper," said Ed Isaacson of HoopsHabit.com.

    The ability to generate shots and frequently make them would go a long way in Payton's efforts as a legitimate scoring threat and a foundational piece for the Magic. 

Noah Vonleh (No. 9 Pick): Getting to the Right Spot (On Offense and Defense)

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    Steve Clifford and the Charlotte Hornets won't make Noah Vonleh a star by the end of this year. There are too many aspects of his game that need polishing.

    They can't magically turn him a consistently effective low-post scorer or top-notch defender in just a couple weeks. The young power forward shows promise when it comes to footwork and shooting touch, so his productivity and efficiency will eventually come around.

    What he really needs to focus on during camp is getting into position and quickly sliding into place on offensive sets and defensive rotations.

    Spencer Percy of Queen City Hoops explained that, at this stage, positioning is more important than ball skills: "Vonleh shot a putrid 28.4% in Vegas, but I’d rather him already possess the skill of how to get to his spots, and then let the finishing touch follow."

    Every day of training camp, he needs to work in five-on-five scenarios to be in the correct place: quickly carving out low-post position, flashing to the high post when needed, setting screens without skipping a beat, etc. He must also identify optimal defensive locales in order to avoid unnecessary fouls (he committed 5.6 per game during summer league).

    Vonleh won't master it all this autumn, but he must grow as comfortable as possible with where he should be on the floor.

Nik Stauskas (No. 8 Pick): Defense

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    The determining factor for Nik Stauskas' playing time in 2014-15 will likely be defense. Although the Sacramento Kings drafted him for his shooting prowess and all-around offensive finesse, he will need to prove that he can supply respectable stoppage to warrant substantial minutes.

    During Sacramento's Las Vegas title run, the Michigan product left something to be desired on that end of the court. He didn't embarrass himself, but you could tell he lacked full confidence and sharpness.

    "I can see why Stauskas will struggle, initially at least, with defense in the NBA," said Sactown Royalty associate editor Greg Wissinger. "A step behind, sags off his man a little too much."

    During the preseason, he needs to focus on footwork, move quickly and play a strong, tough brand of defense. After summer league, Stauskas noted that physicality would be a point of emphasis.

    "For me, I think embracing the physicality is gonna be the one thing I improve on,” Stauskas told reporters. “So moving forward, that’s something that I’m looking forward to working on.”

    If he can defend assertively and stay in front of opponents, he'll have plenty of opportunities to show how valuable he is on the other side of the ball.

Julius Randle (No. 7 Pick): Pick-and-Pop and Elbow Jumpers

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    There's no doubt Julius Randle has been working on his jumper this summer.

    When Los Angeles Lakers training camp rolls around, his task will be to fluidly find that shot in pick-and-pop scenarios as well as opportunities from the mid-post and elbow.

    NBA defenses know that he can drive effectively to the rim, and they also realize his mid- and long-range consistency is somewhat suspect. Many opponents are going to collectively wall off the lane and give him the jumper or sink down on potential pick-and-rolls (thereby daring him to pick-and-pop).

    His task is to understand how to effectively execute those outside shots. Lakers assistant coach Mark Madsen noted that while Randle is talented, he needs time to learn how to use his aggressiveness within LA's sets (h/t Lakers.com):

    "We'd love to get the ball to Julius at pretty much all different spots on the court because Julius can do so much...It's just understanding NBA sets, understanding the NBA defenses and getting a feel for the level of competition."

    Randle shot 35 percent on two-point jumpers at Kentucky and 17 percent on three-pointers, according to Hoop-Math.com. The Lakers would love to see him upgrade both those numbers and keep defenses honest.

Nerlens Noel (No. 6 in 2013): Back-to-Basket Offense

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    Philadelphia 76ers center Nerlens Noel is not useless offensively. Not even close.

    While defense is certainly his calling card, he's not the type of big man who can only score on tip-ins and point-blank opportunities. He's actually got a nice floater he can use with either hand, and he can face up and drive at the rim to put the ball off the glass. Noel has a good feel for the game and made some nice passes during Orlando Summer League.

    That being said, he needs to keep working on his back-to-the-basket repertoire. Most of his buckets right now come off one-dribble face-up drives or energy points around the hoop.

    He did a fair amount of post-up work in college, but Eliot Shorr-Parks of NJ.com reminds us that it was "pretty awkward, and pretty ineffective." He's improved a bit since then, but not enough to employ a steady diet of back-to-the-basket attempts.

    The rebuilding Sixers will need some regular offense from him in 2014-15, so he's got to get used to posting up off the secondary break or half-court sets. Brett Brown should test him frequently throughout October.

Marcus Smart (No. 6 Pick): Shot Selection

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    Summer league was a good experience for Marcus Smart, and USA Basketball training camp was probably even better. The Boston Celtics draftee showed the instincts and talent of a high-end playmaker, and you can tell his defense will be terrific.

    Aside from continuing to polish his ball skills (which he's presumably been doing all summer), Smart must develop greater shot selection within coach Brad Stevens' system.

    It might be a tricky endeavor for him, as he'll probably spend time at both the point and at the 2-spot. He'll need to get a feel for playing off the ball when Rajon Rondo is running the show, and he'll work on making sound decisions when he's the main facilitator.

    Smart showed the propensity to force up unnecessary contested jumpers during summer league, and that's a product of his confidence and aggressive nature. Stevens and his staff will have to monitor how the rookie approaches various sets.

    As for the jumper itself? It's pretty solid when he takes balanced shots. Jay King of MassLive.com explains:

    You might say, Smart shot just 29.4 percent [during summer league]! He kept firing threes even though a lot of them missed! His jumper needs work! Well, he's a 20-year-old rookie who needs work, but has good form and can knock down shots when he gets his feet set.

    The more he hunts for high-percentage opportunities in training camp, the more dangerous he'll be.

Dante Exum (No. 5 Pick): Playing off the Ball

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    Whether he likes it or not, and whether it's the best move or not, Utah Jazz rookie Dante Exum will be spending a lot of time as the off-guard in 2014-15.

    He's naturally a playmaker and is accustomed to being the primary ball-handler, but Quin Snyder will likely use him alongside Jazz sophomore Trey Burke. The Australian speedster served as Burke's 2-guard for much of summer league, and the results were inconsistent and a bit awkward.

    In order to make the most of his situation, Exum must learn how to move without the ball, demand the rock and knock down shots once he gets it.

    He needs to work hard and collaborate with Burke throughout the preseason, and he must find ways to get the ball in space and utilize his size and athleticism. Exum can still be a creator even if he's not the original initiator of the offense.

    Intrinsically tied to his off-guard duties is perimeter shooting. Training camp is the perfect opportunity to put his experiences from the FIBA World Cup to use, and hopefully he'll connect more consistently when the season tips off.

Aaron Gordon (No. 4 Pick): Game-Speed Jumpers

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    During predraft workouts and shooting drills, Aaron Gordon's outside jump shot looked smoother and more effective than it did at Arizona.

    In summer league with the Orlando Magic, it wasn't as pretty.

    Gordon struggled to convert everything except for dunks, as the power forward couldn't connect from mid-range or beyond the arc. He shot 35 percent from the field and went 0-of-10 from three-point range.

    He's got to get more comfortable creating and making shots against NBA defenders. B/R NBA Draft Lead Writer Jonathan Wasserman explains that Gordon's shooting tapers off when defenders turn up the heat on him.

    "He's capable of making open shots, attacking open lanes or dribbling on the open floor," said Wasserman. "But when guarded or challenged, Gordon struggles shooting, beating his man and handling the ball in tight spaces."

    In training camp, he's got to work on fluidly delivering contested jumpers during scrimmages and drills. Hitting the occasional jumper as a rookie will be a nice boost for himself and the Magic.

Jabari Parker (No. 2 Pick): Not Settling for Jumpers

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    Leading up to training camp, Jabari Parker's biggest priority is sculpting his body and improving his explosiveness. That will help his defense and offensive aggressiveness.

    Once he enters camp, however, the one thing he must improve is avoiding settling for jumpers.

    The Milwaukee Bucks' draft prize shot just 42 percent from the field during Las Vegas Summer League, including 18 percent on three-point jumpers. He attempted way too many 17-20 footers; those long two-pointers are the least-efficient type of shot in basketball.

    Parker knows he has to make better decisions moving forward, as he indicated to Charles Gardner of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

    "It's seeing different areas of the floor I can be most decisive," Parker said. "It's just being crisp, being a little more efficient."

    The Bucks are counting on the youngster to be their offensive cornerstone of the future, so he must learn how to attack defenses to find the optimal shot for his squad. Sharpening his defense is also essential, but Milwaukee is counting on him to smartly carry a sizable chunk of the offensive load.

Andrew Wiggins (No. 1 Pick): Game-Situation Footwork and Stance

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    It's one thing to work on ball-handling and scoring moves by yourself during the offseason. It's quite another to demonstrate effective maneuvers and footwork in high-level drills or five-on-five scenarios.

    Without a proper stance or effective footwork, it's impossible to maximize dribbling ability and shooting potential. Once Minnesota Timberwolves newcomer Andrew Wiggins improves his situational footwork, his ball skills will flourish sooner.

    Doug Eberhardt of SBNation.com broke down the youngster's sloppy posture and made some suggestions for training camp:

    ...He's often not in an athletic basketball position: sitting down, bending with his knees, back straight and balanced. This is the ready position that makes players quicker and more explosive...I'd have Wiggins making runs from the center of the court to the corner while establishing a ready position to catch the ball and shoot in my drills...we are going to practice setting his footwork to prepare for those down screens. I'll emphasize the need to establish a lower body position and come hard off the screener's shoulder and hip.

    Eberhardt goes on to explain that Wiggins' movements are too upright and rigid and that he needs to grow comfortable driving to his left. He's not going to transform overnight, but a month of hard work during T-Wolve's training camp will go a long way to making him a more effective offensive weapon.

    There's not much wrong with his jump shot, and his ball-handling will inevitably improve. Honing his footwork will expedite the upgrades in both areas.

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