Being an NBA rookie is a lot for anyone to handle. Whatever your skills and talents, there's a learning curve to coping with the challenges of holding on to a roster spot in the world's best basketball league.
The trappings of fame and fortune. The speed, precision and physicality of a man's game. The grind of an 82-game schedule and the injuries and fatigue that so often follow. The push for playing time from behind proven pros.
All of that tends to turn a promising prospect's debut campaign into an uphill climb. Some scale it just fine. Others are slower to ascend.
To get a feel for how the 2015 draft class is coming along, we've sorted the top 15 picks according to the progress they've made on that journey—from those at the bottom, who might need another map (or better health) to find their way up the mountain, to those closer to the top, who've already put the rest of the Association on notice.
Emmanuel Mudiay, PG, No. 7 Pick, Denver Nuggets
The word "lost" is a loaded one when applied to Emmanuel Mudiay.
On the one hand, he's been lost to a right ankle sprain since Dec. 11. On the other, he looked lost more often than not when he was on the court for the Nuggets prior to that injury. He's still fourth in the league in turnovers per game (four) and ranks dead last in field-goal percentage (31.1 percent) among players who've averaged at least 20 minutes per night, per NBA.com.
There's nothing Mudiay can do to turn those frowns upside down until he's healthy again.
Willie Cauley-Stein, C, No. 6 Pick, Sacramento Kings
Willie Cauley-Stein's boat is similar to Mudiay's. Injuries have limited him to two appearances in the Kings' last 16 games.
But Sacramento is in no rush to feature its youngest former Wildcat. The Kings already have an All-Star and Coach Cal acolyte in DeMarcus Cousins starting at center, with Quincy Acy playing the part of Reggie Evans 2.0 at power forward and Kosta Koufos coming off the bench.
As confused as Cauley-Stein can be on the court at times, he may wind up even more lost in Sacramento's shuffle than anything else.
Mario Hezonja, SF, No. 5 Pick, Orlando Magic
Mario Hezonja's inconsistency isn't anything extraordinary for a rookie, especially one fresh from overseas. He's been held scoreless three times in his last six outings and eight times overall in 2015-16.
Nights like those are to be expected for a 20-year-old who gets three or four shots per game—unless the Magic are stuck in a garbage-time contest, in which case Hezonja gets to run around with Orlando's cleanup crew.
Myles Turner, C, No. 11 Pick, Indiana Pacers
Myles Turner returned from a fractured thumb in the nick of time for the Pacers. With Ian Mahinmi and Jordan Hill dealing with their own injuries, Turner was thrust into major minutes as Lavoy Allen's backup at center.
In his diary for NBA.com, the native Texan admitted he wasn't at his sharpest, despite feeling good physically following a 21-game sabbatical:
My timing was a little off, with some of the plays we were running. But other than that it wasn't that bad. Missing all that time wasn't necessarily too much of a disadvantage. I actually felt pretty fresh out there. A lot of the guys, or most of the guys, in the league are probably tired at this point. They've been going for about six or eight weeks now. A lot of guys' bodies are tired and I'm a little more fresh.
Indiana will need its promising big man to find his flow if it's to emerge as a legitimate challenger to the Cleveland Cavaliers in the East.
Glimmers of Hope
Stanley Johnson, SF, No. 8 Pick, Detroit Pistons
Shooting wasn't Stanley Johnson's forte in high school or college and hasn't become so in the pros. Through his first 36 games with the Pistons, the Los Angeles native shot just 38 percent from the field (32.6 percent from three).
There have been some bright spots for Johnson amid that muck. During a four-game stretch in December, he averaged 12.8 points on 47.6 percent shooting, including a blazing 57.1 percent from three.
"The idea is to get off quality shots," Detroit head coach Stan Van Gundy said in late December, per MLive.com's Aaron McMann. "He's gotten better with it. He has. His shot selection has gotten better. He's more willing to make plays for other people."
Frank Kaminsky, C, No. 9 Pick, Charlotte Hornets
Frank Kaminsky's been riding the rookie roller coaster in the month since Al Jefferson went down with a knee injury. After a strong start to December, his shooting percentages have dipped precipitously.
Maybe Frank the Tank hit the proverbial wall. Or, perhaps competing against teams with established talent up front (i.e., the Memphis Grizzlies, Los Angeles Clippers, Toronto Raptors, Oklahoma City Thunder, Golden State Warriors and Phoenix Suns) has taken its toll on the former collegiate player of the year?
Either way, the Hornets will need sharper shooting out of Kaminsky to snap their five-game skid and get back on track in the Eastern Conference.
Trey Lyles, PF, No. 12 Pick, Utah Jazz
Trey Lyles' days as a starter in Salt Lake City could soon be coming to a close. Rudy Gobert is back from his knee injury, Derrick Favors will return from back spasms at some point, and both will occupy the top spots in Quin Snyder's frontcourt once they're ready.
In the meantime, Lyles seems to be soaking up all he can from his experience as a starting power forward in the NBA—particularly against the Houston Rockets. The 20-year-old Kentucky product notched his first double-digit scoring game against visiting Houston on Monday. Three days later, he tallied nine points, nine rebounds and one vicious dunk in Space City.
Kelly Oubre Jr., SF, No. 15 Pick, Washington Wizards
For the first month or so of the season, the bulk of Kelly Oubre's NBA experience was limited to the waning moments of blowouts and whatever time he could get with the Wizards' VR headsets.
Injuries have since thrust the former Kansas Jayhawk into more prominent duty, with some promising results. He played his way into Randy Wittman's starting lineup by piling up 18 points in a 19-point loss to the San Antonio Spurs and averaged 8.6 points and 5.8 rebounds while shooting 53.6 percent from the field (75 percent from three) during his five-game stint as one of the team's top wings.
"I feel great on the court. Nothing is really going through my mind but just playing and my assignments," Oubre told the Washington Post's Elliott Smith. "Before, I was not making the right read and coming out of the game. It's a great feeling to be on the court, but I'm just here to help everybody win, help everybody get better."
Cameron Payne, PG, No. 14 Pick, Oklahoma City Thunder
Since sliding past D.J. Augustin on OKC's depth chart, Cameron Payne has single-handedly improved the performance of the Thunder's second unit by nearly nine points per 100 possessions.
|OKC's Second Unit|
ESPN.com's Royce Young got into the nitty gritty of Payne's peer-to-peer impact:
Payne, though, has started to unlock the Thunder's depth. Kanter is now the focal point of the second unit, with the offense flowing through him (he's currently eighth in the league in PER). The sharpshooting Morrow is getting more looks (12.6 3-point attempts with Payne per 100 possessions, up from 9.3 per 100 with Augustin). And now the often inefficient Waiters has less offensive responsibility.
If Payne proves a potent backcourt partner for Russell Westbrook, he could be closing out games with OKC's stars before season's end.
Figuring It Out
D'Angelo Russell, PG, No. 2 Pick, Los Angeles Lakers
This Lakers season may be more of a Kobe Bryant farewell tour than prologue to a promising future, particularly in general manager Mitch Kupchak's mind. But that hasn't stopped D'Angelo Russell from making strides, one step at a time.
And neither has Byron Scott's decision to bring him off the bench. In some respects, Russell has been better as a reserve, without having to spend so much time deferring to the Mamba.
That split worked to his—and nearly the Lakers'—advantage during a 118-115 loss in Sacramento. With Bryant watching from the sideline, Russell led L.A.'s thrilling comeback from a 27-point deficit with a career-high 27 points before limping off with a sprained right ankle.
"Y'all ain't seen nothing yet," Russell said afterward, per ESPN.com's Baxter Holmes. "That's all I'm going to say. ... The world hasn't seen anything yet."
Justise Winslow, SF, No. 10 Pick, Miami Heat
Most of Justise Winslow's stats (5.5 points, 4.8 rebounds, 1.2 assists, 40.2 percent shooting) won't blow anyone away, let alone put him in the running for Rookie of the Year.
But getting playing time is more than half the battle in the NBA, especially for rookies. To that end, Winslow, whose 26.9 minutes per game are the most of any Heat reserve, is already a rousing success. As NBA.com's Scott Howard-Cooper pointed out, Eric Spoelstra already seems to trust the Duke product in crunch time:
He has been hurt, having recently been sidelined three consecutive games by an ankle injury, and grinding gears on his shot for about a month. Then on Monday, one night after returning, in a tight game against a good team, the Heat leaned on Winslow for 11:57 of the fourth quarter and all five minutes of overtime.
Devin Booker, SG, No. 13 Pick, Phoenix Suns
The chaos swirling around the Suns has been a pit for the organization as a whole but a ladder for Devin Booker to showcase the sweet stroke that made him a lottery pick in the first place. Since Eric Bledsoe succumbed to a season-ending knee injury, Booker has started six times and averaged 13.6 points on 46.3 percent shooting in seven games.
Booker's defense remains suspect, and Phoenix lost all five of his starts before Jeff Hornacek put Ronnie Price in the starting lineup against Charlotte on Wednesday. But for Booker, the NBA's youngest player, the future looks bright, even if the Suns are already setting.
Karl-Anthony Towns, C, No. 1 Pick, Minnesota Timberwolves
What can't Karl-Anthony Towns do?
He's second among rookies in scoring (16 points per game) and shot-swatting (1.8 blocks), first in rebounding (9.4 boards) and top-10 in the entire league in double-doubles (17). All the while, the New Jersey native has flashed an effective low-post game and a smooth shooting stroke from seemingly every spot except the short corners.
Pretty good for a 20-year-old who's not just a hoops head. As Towns told GQ's Myles Brown:
Off the court, I'm different, though. I don't like watching basketball when I'm not playing. Unless it's to learn and watch tape, I try to stay away. I love the game and everything about it, but I like to be in my Zen. I just like to be home doing other things than just basketball. Sometimes it overloads my mind.
Jahlil Okafor, C, No. 3 Pick, Philadelphia 76ers
No center, regardless of how gifted or skilled he may be, can truly thrive in the NBA without a guard to get him the ball. It's no wonder, then, that Jahlil Okafor has been so much more efficient and effective with Ish Smith as a Sixer.
In five games since returning from a two-game suspension—during which Philly poached Smith from the New Orleans Pelicans—Okafor has converted 57.6 percent of his field goals while averaging an outstanding 25.3 points and 9.3 rebounds per 36 minutes.
According to NBA.com, Okafor's been an even more potent scorer than that during his minutes next to Smith: 26.6 points per 36 minutes on 61.3 percent shooting.
Kristaps Porzingis, PF/C, No. 4 Pick, New York Knicks
The Kristappening began with Kristaps Porzingis pounding the offensive glass for rim-shattering putbacks. Then, the Knicks rookie became Porzingawd-like once his jumper started dropping.
Now, the lanky Latvian is playing a more complete game, fortified by fantastic interior defense. According to NBA.com, Porzingis has held his opponents to 47.6 percent shooting at the rim—a top-20 mark among those who've faced six or more such attempts per game across at least five appearances.
As ESPN.com's Luke Knox recounted, the switch flipped for Porzingis before the end of his first month in the NBA:
The Knicks played the Rockets on Nov. 21, and up to that point, Porzingis had registered no more than two blocks in any of his 13 NBA games. But on that night, he swatted seven Houston shots (to go with 24 points and 14 rebounds), and his defensive numbers have improved significantly since then.
Before Nov. 21, Porzingis averaged just over a block per game. Since then, he's swatted 2.3 shots every time he takes the floor.
All stats accurate as of games played Jan. 8, 2016.
Josh Martin covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter.