NBA Sophomores and Juniors Primed for Big Seasons in 2015-16
Sometimes, it can take a year or two for young NBA players to find their rhythm.
Much of the time, prospects just need a season to build some confidence and comfort with the game's new speed and athleticism.
In other cases, it comes down to opportunity. Without control of where they land in the draft, many players end up on teams with no clear openings.
After relatively slow starts to their careers, we expect these second- and third-year youngsters to break out following strong finishes to 2014-15, encouraging preseasons this October and a clear role waiting for them to fill.
Otto Porter, Washington Wizards, SF
All signs point to a big year for Otto Porter, who emerged during last year's playoffs after a rookie season slowed by injuries.
Porter carried the momentum into the preseason, strengthening his case as a major breakout candidate.
He's shooting 60 percent from the floor this October heading into Friday's game, averaging 12.5 points in 24.8 minutes. Porter has been on fire early from the perimeter, where he's hit seven of 12 in the mid-range and six of 12 from downtown.
In terms of the eye test, he looks like a forward who deserved to be taken No. 3 in a previous draft. We've seen his versatility start coming to life, following flashes of coast-to-coast takes, stop-and-pop jumpers, spot-up threes and successful cuts to the rack.
With Jared Dudley offering little off the bench and rookie Kelly Oubre clearly a few years away, Porter could be looking at a serious workload and full-time minutes. Playing regularly alongside John Wall, Bradley Beal and Marcin Gortat should only expedite Porter's development.
Aaron Gordon, Orlando Magic, SF/PF
Assuming Aaron Gordon can stay on the floor, his sophomore year should have a lot more highlights than his rookie one did.
Regardless of how little stock you put into summer league, Gordon's performance was both eye-opening and convincing. He looked like a different player. Gordon appeared to have refined his ball skills and jumper based on the 21.7 points he averaged and his 6-of-12 shooting from deep.
While those numbers won't carry over or lead to isolation touches, Gordon should be able to capitalize more frequently in this year's offense.
Still, it's his defensive versatility and potential that hold the most value to coach Scott Skiles. Gordon should be locked into regular minutes, which should naturally translate to easy buckets (fueled by athleticism) and a gradual rise in offensive confidence.
After the 2015-16 season and heading into Year 3, I'd expect Gordon's value as a two-way, do-it-all forward to be sky-high.
C.J. McCollum, Portland Trail Blazers, SG
C.J. McCollum's 2014-15 playoff outburst looked more like a sign than a fluke—especially with the preseason he's had to follow up.
We saw glimpses of takeover ability during last April's first round, when he erupted for 77 total points over the final three games (25.7 per game) against the Memphis Grizzlies.
And he's played with that same confidence this October in a featured role (27.4 percent usage rate), averaging 18.3 points per game.
McCollum compensates for a lack of size and explosiveness with a terrific handle, an advanced perimeter arsenal and a high basketball IQ. Though it's his one-on-one scoring and playmaking ability that fuel his upside, he's flashed the versatility to generate offense whether playing on or off the ball. The fact he's such a threatening spot-up shooter (41.6 percent on catch-and-shoots last year) helps him fit right in alongside Damian Lillard.
Wesley Matthews, Steve Blake and LaMarcus Aldridge's departures ultimately helped open the door for McCollum, who'll finally get a crack at regular minutes. He's played fewer than 16 minutes a game in each of his first two NBA seasons. This year, it shouldn't be long before McCollum emerges as one of the team's go-to options.
T.J. Warren, Phoenix Suns, SF
Between the season that's under his belt and P.J. Tucker's offensive limitations, T.J. Warren should be looking at a much bigger role in 2015-16.
Given the Phoenix Suns' ball-dominant backcourt of Eric Bledsoe and Brandon Knight, Warren's style of play also seems like an ideal fit. Last year, 73.8 percent of his offense came off one dribble or less.
Though capable of working one-on-one, he doesn't need isolation touches to score. Warren is at his best moving without the ball and finishing off cuts, putbacks and transition opportunities. His body control and instincts are both unusually good.
The fact he's shot at least 52 percent for three straight seasons—one as a college freshman role player, another as a go-to sophomore and the third as a rookie reserve in Phoenix—highlights his efficiency and ability to adapt.
After averaging 18.7 points in summer league, he's logging 13.7 points in 25.3 minutes during October. With the same type of workload during the regular season, look for Warren to experience similar success.
Marcus Smart, Boston Celtics, PG/SG
Playing with Isaiah Thomas and Avery Bradley, Marcus Smart appears on track to establish himself as a coveted, two-way impact player, though we might not see consistent offensive production.
He was an animal in summer league (16 points, 4.2 assists, 2.4 steals), and he's been efficient in preseason, shooting 45.8 percent with 21 assists and seven turnovers.
Smart dished out nine dimes in 27 minutes against the New York Knicks Thursday night, showing improved feel and vision facilitating off pick-and-rolls and penetration.
No matter how little he improves as a shooter and mid-range scorer, his pressure defense, passing instincts and motor still hold plenty of value. But assuming he makes some strides with his jumper, pull-up game and floater, Smart should be looking at a breakthrough sophomore campaign.
Dennis Schroder, Atlanta Hawks, PG
It might not be a big year for Dennis Schroder statistically, but it should be with regard to his value across the league.
This could be the season he establishes himself as a starting-point-guard-in-waiting.
He's made gradual strides and looks poised to put it all together in season No. 3. Schroder is also coming off an encouraging summer, having averaged 21 points and six assists for Germany in EuroBasket 2015.
Jeff Teague's presence limits his upside in Atlanta, but there should be enough room in this year's rotation for Schroder to fully showcase his scoring and facilitating abilities. Given the unlikelihood the Hawks choose to eventually pay both guards significant long-term money, it wouldn't be shocking to see teams reach out with trade proposals for the third-year playmaker.
Schroder even recently told the German outlet Bild (h/t Sport1.de and E. Carchia of Sportando, via Dan Feldman of NBC Sports): "My goal is to start as point guard. If this doesn’t happen, I will look for other opportunities."
We expect Schroder to maximize his stock in 2015-16—even if his production remains relatively the same—and consequently generate buzz from around the league.
Rodney Hood, Utah Jazz, SG/SF
A terrific rookie-year finish and productive 2015-16 preseason could mean bigs things ahead for Rodney Hood.
He responded to regular minutes last April, when he averaged 16.7 points during the final month of the season. Meanwhile, he's had a few impressive outings this October, having gone for 21 points against the Los Angeles Lakers, 23 against the Oklahoma City Thunder and 15 on six shots against the Portland Trail Blazers.
The early advanced numbers highlight his balanced offensive attack: nine buckets at the rim, eight in the paint (outside restricted area), five in the mid-range and seven behind the arc.
Hood's game ultimately revolves around shot-making, but he's become so much more than just a straight up-and-down shooter, having developed the ability and versatility to create looks off spins, runners, fallaways and post-ups.
He's also an underrated passer and playmaker, thanks to a good-looking handle and some vision.
The Utah Jazz should be able to play him at multiple spots on the floor, whether it's at the 2, the 3, alongside Alec Burks or behind him. Expect his 8.7 point-per-game average to jump into the double digits during his sophomore season.
Stats are current as of Oct. 22.