Which NBA Rookies Will Break out as Sophomores?
The pessimist's view of this season's NBA rookie class is that there aren't any studs in it.
Dario Saric and Malcolm Brogdon are battling it out for Rookie of the Year by default because Joel Embiid, only technically a rookie because he missed his first two seasons due to injury, is injured again. And neither Saric nor Brogdon project as stars.
But there's a more optimistic way to frame all this, and it's a whole lot more fun.
There aren't any studs in this season's NBA rookie class yet.
That one little word, italicized for maximum profundity, means a lot. Was Stephen Curry a beast in his first season? Was Giannis Antetokounmpo? Jimmy Butler?
Nope. Nope. Nope.
So this year's crop has time to develop, and that growth could show up as soon as next season.
Whether based on signs of promise this year or the possibility of expanding roles in 2017-18, we're going to see second-year leaps. We always do.
These are the rookies with the best shots at major breakthroughs next season.
Jamal Murray, Denver Nuggets
Jamal Murray offers one of those rare instances in which you should start with the eye test and go from there.
Putting numbers second is dangerous, and we can't ignore the Denver Nuggets rookie hitting just a hair over 40 percent of his field goals with a month left in his first season. But watch Murray move around the floor with a better-than-you-imagined handle, marvel as he creates shots from difficult angles and catch yourself thinking, "that's something Stephen Curry would do" two or three times a game and, well...you really don't need to worry so much about the stats.
Murray has an undeniable Curry-esque quality to his game, insofar as it's possible for a rookie to resemble a two-time MVP.
He slithers around the court, fires off effortless threes on the move, finishes creatively inside. Plus, he drilled nine threes in the BBVA Rising Stars game on the way to an MVP award of his own. The similarities are there. You can't ignore them.
If it's numbers you want, note Murray has improved since the All-Star break. His averages of 11.6 points and 36.3 percent shooting from deep are both improvements over his pre-break stats. It's also now clear that a shooter with Murray's form and pedigree makes more sense alongside Nikola Jokic than a penetrator like Emmanuel Mudiay.
When Murray gets the minutes next year, expect a fantastic sophomore effort.
Jaylen Brown, Boston Celtics
If you wanted to get conservative, the safest bet would be on Jaylen Brown's increasing his posterizing dunk count by a factor of, say, threefold.
Even if the finer points of his game don't come around, the Boston Celtics forward should see enough extra minutes as a sophomore to bang down a few more highlight hammers on opponents' heads. Still, we're probably underselling Brown by focusing on his dunks.
The Cal product has a confidence and competitiveness that should serve him well going forward—as long as teammates and critics lay off him a bit. He'll chirp at stars, dig in defensively against several positions and take challenges personally.
Even if we haven't seen much of the on-ball shot creation that defined his offensive game in college, we know that's in there somewhere, too. Chances are he'll get more opportunities to show it next year.
Brown has been one of Boston's best three-point shooters since the break, and all of his per-game averages are up as he's earned an extra six minutes of playing time per game.
Because the Celtics are primed for a deep playoff run and have such depth at the wing spots, Brown hasn't had much of a shot to show his full game. But he's getting comfortable as the year winds down, and playoff experience will prove valuable to his growth.
Skal Labissiere, Sacramento Kings
This nod could have gone to teammate Buddy Hield, who already has a clear-cut NBA skill. But banking on Hield's becoming a 40 percent three-point shooter next year isn't nearly as intriguing as dreaming about what Skal Labissiere might become.
Because where Hield's top-end projection feels like that of a specialist, Labissiere's is something more.
Attach all the caveats you like, but scoring 21 of his career-high 32 points in the fourth quarter of a win over the Phoenix Suns on March 15 was a huge deal. Labissiere showed off the quick feet, soft hands and shooting range that made him an elite prospect.
The pedigree and raw, unteachable talent are real.
So is the desire to learn.
"He's made it a point to sit next to me and ask me questions," veteran guard Garrett Temple told Sactown Royalty. "He asks me what I see on the court, and I really try to explain to him situations when we're both on the bench if I see a problem with the person at his position, a mistake they made or things of that nature. I try to tell him what we want to happen in that situation, and he's done a great job. He's a sponge, man."
Similarly encouraging, the 7-footer has now shown resilience in two straight seasons. Overwhelmed as a college freshman, Labissiere lost minutes and draft stature in the first half of his lone Kentucky season. But he quietly came on as he got more comfortable and settled into a niche (more mid-range jumpers, fewer post-ups) that suited his game. He even blocked six shots in a tournament contest last March. It wasn't enough to help his draft stock, but Labissiere was trending up after first falling flat as a collegian.
This year, the story's the same.
After toiling in the D-League, Labissiere is seeing minutes and showing results.
He'll need to get stronger, and the Kings had better not mess around with him as a small forward. This guy has the skill to become a top-end stretch-5 as he adds bulk.
We'll see that start to happen next season.
Caris LeVert, Brooklyn Nets
As much as anything, we should want Caris LeVert to be a breakout candidate—if only for the sake of a franchise that isn't long on hope.
Fortunately, LeVert, picked 20th by the Indiana Pacers and sent over in exchange for Thaddeus Young, looks like a keeper.
With a solid handle and surprising shiftiness for a 6'7" wing, LeVert profiles as a valuable non-point guard playmaker. Even if his 1.9 assists per game this season don't show it, he has the tools and instincts to create. Brooklyn's offensive rating is about six points per 100 possessions better when LeVert's on the floor.
He's up to nine points per game on 50.9 percent shooting since the break, so the scoring touch is coming along nicely. Of his 16 double-digit scoring nights, six have come in March.
Patrick McCaw, Golden State Warriors
Patrick McCaw may have no choice but to break out next season.
The Golden State Warriors could easily lose free agents Andre Iguodala and Shaun Livingston if Kevin Durant opts out and re-signs a max deal. If KD takes less than the max, the Warriors can stay ever so slightly under the cap and use Bird rights on Iguodala and Livingston to go back over it.
But expecting a superstar to take a discount seems risky, so major minutes on the wing could fall to McCaw. He's shown signs of being ready, and he has the endorsement of the guy he might replace.
"His mind is at a higher place than most basketball players. Just in general, not just his age, but overall," a typically contemplative Iguodala told reporters. "He takes everything with the right perspective. He's going to be a good player."
McCaw is a ball hawk with incredible hands and terrific anticipation. Offensively, he's unselfish and capable of hitting open threes, having posted eight games so far with two or more made triples. We saw him feature a more complete repertoire in summer league play, when he averaged 15.8 points and 2.2 assists, and his willingness to fill a limited role this season also speaks to his maturity. He can do more.
Adding strength is a must; the willowy McCaw gets bulldozed by even midsized shooting guards. That'll come, though. What's already there—the court sense, diverse two-way skills and nose for the ball—hints at a big second season in an expanded role.
Denzel Valentine, Chicago Bulls
This one feels a little bold considering Denzel Valentine's dramatically improved shooting accuracy since the break still has his overall field-goal percentage on the wrong side of 40.
But hey, he wouldn't be the first Michigan State product with tweener size and a strange package of all-around skills to make good after a tough start to his career.
Draymond Green averaged 2.9 points and 3.3 rebounds while shooting 32.7 percent from the field as a rookie. Measured against that, Valentine's 5.0 points, 2.7 rebounds and 35.4 percent shooting don't look so bad.
Valentine isn't the same kind of player Green is, but there's a shared intelligence and willingness to adapt that bodes well for his development. Green embraced the power forward spot and made his name on D. Valentine is similarly specializing by becoming a high-volume three-point shooter.
He's at 38.3 percent from long range since the All-Star break, and a whopping 72.2 percent of his shots this season have been threes. Until he develops an off-the-dribble game that makes use of his excellent passing sense, Valentine may just be a specialist.
That's fine because he's already shown us how quickly he can develop single skills. As a freshman at Michigan State, he hit just 28.1 percent of his 1.6 three-point tries per game. After adding volume and improving efficiency in every season, he shot 44.4 percent on 7.5 attempts as a senior.
If the Chicago Bulls roster makes a little more sense next year, Valentine could be a floor-stretching weapon.
Marquese Chriss, Phoenix Suns
Full disclosure: I was hesitant to list Marquese Chriss here because it's hard to be sure he'll ever develop the feel and court sense necessary.
If the Phoenix Suns wind up competing for a playoff position next year, Chriss' deficiencies in those areas could prevent him from expanding his role. As it turns out, it's kind of important to have a clue where your man is on defense, and actually trying for rebounds once in a while matters.
That said, the numbers are hard to ignore lately.
Chriss is still a poor scheme defender, but he's making a cosmetic impact by blocking 1.5 shots per game since the break. He's also drilling a ridiculous 40 percent of his triples in that span, and the Suns have put the ball in his hands as a decision-maker once in a while.
If you were building a next-gen stretch-4 in a lab, you'd wind up with a player who looked and moved exactly like Chriss, a 6'10" Superball of a human being. His physical tools are the most impressive of any player we've discussed to this point and any we'll mention the rest of the way.
With just a smidgen of improvement on the mental side, Chriss could explode.
Dejounte Murray, San Antonio Spurs
Do you really want to bet against the San Antonio Spurs getting something right?
Against developing an asset to prolong their two decades of dominance?
Against turning raw tools into production?
Dejounte Murray is out with a groin injury at the moment, and his overall stats before getting hurt didn't blow anyone away. Averages of 3.5 points and 1.3 assists don't scream "breakout."
But the main knock on the then-19-year-old coming into the draft was his outside shot, and he's at a tidy 39.1 percent from deep in limited minutes. The sample's small, but Kawhi Leonard wasn't much of a shooter coming out of college either.
Tony Parker's decline is ongoing, and Patty Mills may be gone in free agency this summer. Murray is clearly the heir apparent at the point in San Antonio, and until he proves he's not going to become a quality starter for the next 10 years, it's best to assume that's exactly what he'll be.
Willy Hernangomez, New York Knicks
There are a few forces working against Willy Hernangomez, not the least of which being his brother, also a rookie, performing well for the Nuggets. Gaining notoriety might be tough with the potential for confusion and/or the possibility of fans not realizing there are actually two Hernangomezes.
There's also the issue of Kristaps Porzingis and Carmelo Anthony occupying minutes ahead of him up front. The former is wholly justified and sensible, while the latter, considering the New York Knicks' need to develop a new core around KP, is...less so.
Joakim Noah is in the way, too, but what are the odds of his staying healthy and producing next year?
Hernangomez is in the midst of a breakout. He's at 11.2 points and 9.7 rebounds during the month of March—highlighted by 24 points and 13 boards on Saturday against the Spurs. As the game slows down for him, his skillful post game and terrific rebounding chops are producing better and better results.
"At the beginning, everything was new to me," Hernangomez told Yaron Weitzman of Bleacher Report. "I still have to do a much better job of it, but now we've played teams multiple times, I feel more comfortable and try to anticipate (the defense's movements) more."
Whether he fits long term alongside Porzingis in a highly skilled, defensively sketchy 4-5 combo is a question for another day. For now, Hernangomez appears primed to take a big step next season.
Brandon Ingram, Los Angeles Lakers
It's not easy to find rookies with overall numbers like Ingram's who turn out to be great. In fact, it's hard to find rookies with overall numbers like Ingram's, period.
Let's keep it simple: Only one other rookie, Adam Morrison, has averaged as many minutes per game as Ingram while posting a player efficiency rating under 8.0. That's inauspicious, to say the least.
Ingram has shown major progress as the Los Angeles Lakers season spirals down the drain. Before patellar tendinitis knocked him out, he was averaging 13.5 points and 4.1 rebounds on 51.7 percent shooting in March.
Ingram is going to get every opportunity to develop next year, and he's still so young that professing him a bust feels wrong. Remember, Morrison was 22 in his rookie season. Ingram is only 19.
Even if Ingram's overall numbers are a disaster, all that matters right now is the flashes of upside. He's provided those lately, scoring 18 points against the Cleveland Cavaliers on March 19, then following it up with 21 against the Clippers on the 21st. He made more than half of his shots in both games.
Another way to look at it: Ingram's production has been so woeful this season that a move toward league-average play as a sophomore would constitute a legitimate leap forward.