6 NBA Players Who Must Make 'The Leap' in Their Third Season

Josh Martin@@JoshMartinNBANBA Lead WriterNovember 14, 2015

6 NBA Players Who Must Make 'The Leap' in Their Third Season

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    Darren Hauck/Associated Press

    Don't listen to Littlefinger. The Climb isn't all there is. In the NBA, the Leap comes next.

    After scaling the Rookie Wall. After surviving the Sophomore Slump.

    In the careers of so many of the league's greats, Year 3 was the key.

    It was the year Michael Jordan and Kevin Durant first led the league in scoring. The year Russell Westbrook starting putting up points like a superstar sidekick in Oklahoma City. The year Kobe Bryant became a full-time starter for the Los Angeles Lakers. The year LeBron James made his playoff debut. The year Anthony Davis graduated from "The Future of the NBA" to "The Brow of the Here and Now."

    A poor draft in 2013 has left the Association short on candidates with the talent and the platforms to spring to that all-important next level. Anthony Bennett, the No. 1 pick that year, is onto his third team in as many seasons. Alex Len and Ben McLemore—the Nos. 5 and 7 picks, respectively—have seen their starting spots usurped by more experienced teammates. Nerlens Noel, No. 6 from that crop, is technically in his second go-round, after missing what would've been his inaugural campaign while recovering from knee surgery.

    For juniors in today's NBA, there's plenty of pressure to perform. Come next July, they'll be on the clock for rookie-scale extensions, with restricted free agency awaiting those who can't come to terms on a new deal by the end of October 2016.

    For these six, making the leap from promising prospect to bona fide NBA stud carries with it the added burden of helping their respective squads do the same in the standings.

Victor Oladipo, SG, Orlando Magic

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    John Raoux/Associated Press

    There was a lot for the Orlando Magic to like about Victor Oladipo when the Maryland native left the Indiana Hoosiers for the NBA in 2013. He was a feisty ballhawk on the perimeter, enough so to earn Defensive Player of the Year honors from both the Big 10 and the National Association of Basketball Coaches (shared with Utah Jazz center and former Kansas Jayhawk Jeff Withey), who balanced out his stifling ability with a burgeoning offensive game.

    But what made Oladipo a worthy choice at No. 2, even in a weak draft, was the eye-popping trajectory of his skill and the drive behind his year-over-year jumps.

    "We felt that [the improved production] really speaks to his work ethic and his ambition and his drive in the summer to make himself into a player," Magic general manager Rob Hennigan explained after the 2013 draft (via SB Nation's Evan Dunlap). "We like the fact that those spikes occurred because we felt it was indicative of a relentless ambition to get better."

    That ambition carried into the NBA, where Oladipo made first team All-Rookie in 2013-14 before upping the ante—to 17.9 points, 4.2 rebounds, 4.1 assists and 1.7 steals—in Year 2.

    This season, the Magic have (finally) started to show some signs of life, four-and-a-half years after Dwight Howard last dribbled a basketball in Orlando. 

    And not necessarily because of Oladipo. Aside from the triple-double he posted in a double-overtime loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder—and the clutch threes he hit at the end of regulation and the first overtime period—the 23-year-old swingman seems to have taken a step back this season. According to ESPN, Oladipo's field-goal percentage (.382) ranks 113th out of 125 players qualified for the league lead in that category. Among three-point shooters, his mark (.279) is 89th...out of 100.

    It may be a few games before he has a chance to sharpen those percentages. Oladipo suffered a concussion on Wednesday after taking an elbow to the head from Lakers forward Metta World Peace, and according to the Orlando Sentinel's Josh Robbins, there's no timetable for his return.

    What is clear is that the Magic, for all their up-and-coming talent, won't sneak into the playoffs without a healthy and efficient Oladipo sharing the backcourt with Elfrid Payton Jr.

Otto Porter Jr., SF, Washington Wizards

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    Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

    In the time it takes a baby to grow its first tooth, Otto Porter Jr. has gone from a flat-footed punchline to a key contributor for the Washington Wizards.

    There was at least one critical step between that infamous blunder and the Porter of today, who has scored 13.4 points on 53.7 percent shooting through his first seven games in D.C. this season. The No. 3 pick in the 2013 draft first showed signs that maybe—just maybe—he wouldn't be another bust during Washington's run to the second round of the 2015 playoffs. During his 10 postseason appearances, he averaged 10 points and eight rebounds while knocking down a respectable 37.5 percent of his threes in 33.1 minutes off the bench for the Wizards.

    Long-time Wizards fan (and ex-Grantlander) Andrew Sharp was more than pleasantly surprised, especially after watching Porter sleepwalk his way through the regular season as Paul Pierce's understudy:

    Then the playoffs happened, and we all had our faces melted. Playing in space, with a smaller lineup — and also just playing, which he didn’t do much in the regular season — turned him into a different player. And if that’s where it would have ended, then it’d be a good story. Whatever, cool, Otto Porter can play in the NBA.

    Now that Pierce is in L.A., Porter's been free to spread his wings in a starting role. With Bradley Beal bothered by a sore shoulder, the Wizards may need Porter to soar if they're to snap out of their early funk and fight their way into the Eastern Conference's elite. 

C.J. McCollum, SG, Portland Trail Blazers

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    As with Porter, injuries and positional logjams largely kept C.J. McCollum under wraps through his first two seasons as a pro.

    And, like Porter, McCollum busted right through the Saran and opened plenty of eyes with some dazzling postseason play. The No. 10 pick in 2013 parlayed a productive stretch to start the month of April (17.3 points on 55.8 percent shooting, 44 percent from three in seven games) into some prolific performances (25.7 points on 60.9 percent shooting, 64.7 percent from three) during the final three games of the Portland Trail Blazers' first-round loss to the Memphis Grizzlies.

    McCollum has cooled off since then, but not by much. Through his first nine games as a starter, the Lehigh grad has poured in 20.9 points on 46 percent shooting (40.4 percent from three) in 34.7 minutes, including a career-high 37 points in Portland's opening-night win over the New Orleans Pelicans.

    It helps that McCollum's path to shots and minutes has been so clear this season. The departures of Wesley Matthews, Arron Afflalo and Nicolas Batum this past summer left the Blazers with a gaping hole on the wing that McCollum has done well to fill. And with All-Star forward LaMarcus Aldridge off to San Antonio, Portland was pining for a skilled sidekick to take some pressure off Damian Lillard, the team's lone returning starter from last season.

    To that end, McCollum has already stepped up to the plate in a big way. The more he can keep swinging for the fences, the longer the Blazers can stave off sliding into the basement of the Western Conference.

Steven Adams, C, Oklahoma City Thunder

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    Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports

    The Oklahoma City Thunder are stacked at seemingly every spot on the floor, but nowhere more than in the middle. Every one of their bigs has a distinct role to play.

    Serge Ibaka, the shot-blocker and pick-and-pop shooter. Enes Kanter, the highest-paid sixth man in the league. Nick Collison, the long-time bodyguard for Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. Mitch McGary, the talented kid buried on the bench.

    And then there's Steven Adams, the nasty New Zealander who might be the most important of them all. So far, the 22-year-old is off to a solid start in OKC. He's converting his scoring chances, however limited, at a 62.9-percent clip while grabbing 5.6 rebounds and 2.1 blocks in just under 25 minutes a night.

    Adams isn't a skilled offensive player by any stretch, but on a Thunder team loaded with scoring talent, he doesn't have to be. More than anything, what OKC needs from its physical Kiwi is reliable screening and finishing in the pick-and-roll, strong rebounding, sturdy rim protection and plenty of his signature irritation.

    On the last front, Adams has yet to make too many new enemies. But on the other counts, he's making progress for OKC. According to NBA.com, Adams is averaging 1.14 points per play in the pick-and-roll, grabs 40 percent of his rebounds against contests from opponents and successfully defends about half the shot attempts he faces at the rim.

    Those are all steady marks, but leave plenty of room for improvement, and not much time in which to achieve it, given the Thunder's title-contending timetable. It's one thing for Adams, as the last piece left in OKC from the James Harden trade, to do his part to soften the overall blow of that deal three years later.

    What's more important is that he put his abilities to good use as the Thunder pursue a championship and, in the process, sway Durant to stay.

Giannis Antetokounmpo, F, Milwaukee Bucks

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    Chris Humphreys-USA TODAY Sports

    Giannis Antetokounmpo isn't just the most important third-year player on the Milwaukee Bucks (sorry, Michael Carter-Williams); he's their most important player, period...full stop...end of statement.

    Since sitting out the season opener while serving a one-game suspension, the Greek Freak has been on a stat-sheet-stuffing rampage for the Bucks. He scored 20 points or more in four of his first five games, including a career-high 27 in his debut against the Washington Wizards, and has shown off a much-improved outside stroke (35.3 percent from three).

    Not to mention his bigger, stronger 6'11" frame.

    "This year, early on in the season, he's been pretty close to dominant," said Boston Celtics coach Brad Stevens (via MassLive.com's Jay King). "He's been very good. He presents a lot of challenges and, again, it's the same old deal, they are playing big at the 3 and he's improving his shooting, but he's a great cutter and a great offensive rebounder, great transition player, and then at the 4 he's a versatile guy and they don't lose anything from a length standpoint at the 4 and they become quicker."

    In other words, Antetokounmpo is quickly becoming the all-court menace the Bucks thought he could be when they spent the No. 15 pick on a teenager from the lower levels of Greek basketball—and he's still three weeks shy of being able to buy himself a six-pack of Milwaukee's Best.

    To truly take the Bucks to the next level, Antetokounmpo will have to grow up in a hurry. The team has done well to stack its ranks with young talent, from Carter-Williams and Jabari Parker to Greg Monroe and Khris Middleton. But Antetokounmpo stands above them all, ready to actualize his potential and strike fear into the hearts of Eastern Conference foes along the way.

Rudy Gobert, C, Utah Jazz

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    Ron Schwane/Associated Press

    Technically, Rudy Gobert doesn't belong on this list. He made "The Leap" last season, when the Utah Jazz installed him as the starter at center following Enes Kanter's ouster at the trade deadline. From that point on, the Jazz sported the stingiest defense in the NBA and finished out the 2014-15 season with a 19-10 record. 

    But the tethered rise of Gobert and the Jazz came long after the team had, for all intents and purposes, been shut out from playoff contention. There was no pressure on him and the team to put an imminent end to Utah's relatively brief postseason drought.

    That's not the case this season. Utah's collection of precocious kids has grown together into a competitive club, with Gordon Hayward and Derrick Favors expected to lead the way past April and into May.

    "This year was a good experience for everybody," Hayward said at the end of the 2014-15 schedule (via the Associated Press' Kareem Copeland). "The next step is to be consistent. We have to make sure to bring it every single night, and that's a hard thing to do in the NBA, especially for younger guys." 

    Gobert, the No. 27 pick in 2013, is among those younger guys; he doesn't turn 24 until June. Right now, his impact on Utah's hopes is subject to the health of his gimpy left ankle.

    Prior to that setback, though, Gobert had been doing his part to keep the Jazz's defense among the four best in the Association. According to NBA.com, he's limiting opponents to 31.6 percent shooting at the rim—the best mark in basketball among those who've challenged at least five shots per game in no fewer than three contests and far better than his league-leading 40.5-percent mark from 2014-15.

    Stats are accurate as Nov. 12's games. 

    Josh Martin covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter.

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