From Duds to Studs: NBA Sophomores Ready to Break Out
NBA rookies typically struggle as they adjust to play at the sport's highest level. The game is that much faster, requires significantly more discipline and can punish players for even the tiniest of mistakes. It doesn't help that many are thrown into the proverbial fire so they can learn on the job.
But the 2016-17 rookie class was particularly putrid.
A few players arrived as legitimate studs. Malcolm Brogdon won Rookie of the Year, while Joel Embiid and Dario Saric also drew first-place votes. Buddy Hield didn't have that honor, but he still impressed after the New Orleans Pelicans traded him to the Sacramento Kings in February. Each member of that young quartet will be ineligible here, since they inarguably weren't duds during their initial campaigns.
Still, the rest of the first-year crop struggled—some more than others, of course. And as NBA Math's total points added (TPA) metric helps show, this was the lowest the rookies had sunk in quite some time:
- 2016-17: Rookies accumulated minus-2,995.46 TPA and averaged minus-33.66 TPA per player.
- 2015-16: Rookies accumulated minus-1,738.12 TPA and averaged minus-23.81 TPA per player.
- 2014-15: Rookies accumulated minus-2,414.58 TPA and averaged minus-29.45 TPA per player.
- 2013-14: Rookies accumulated minus-2,198.8 TPA and averaged minus-28.19 TPA per player.
- 2012-13: Rookies accumulated minus-2,438.71 TPA and averaged minus-31.27 TPA per player.
To find a rookie class with a lower total score, you have to travel back to 1990-91, when Derrick Coleman won Rookie of the Year while he, Gary Payton, Kendall Gill, Keith Askins, Lionel Simmons and Ian Lockhart were the only young men to finish with positive TPAs. The journey back to find a set of first-year players with a lower average TPA is shorter, but it still takes you all the way to 2002-03.
Thanks to a dearth of top-end players and plenty of overmatched contributors logging major minutes for rebuilding squads, last year's class was historically bad.
But reasons for optimism still exist. Whether because of changing roles or skill sets that will allow for second-season explosions, each of these eight rising sophomores should make the transition to the "stud" category in 2017-18.
Jaylen Brown, SF, Boston Celtics
Jaylen Brown's value to the Boston Celtics comes from his ability to leverage his immense physicality into actual production. The skill elements of his game aren't quite there yet, but he's so relentlessly gritty and overpowering that he still manages to overcome more experienced contributors.
Not many statistical projections loved this California product as he prepared to enter the NBA, but his rookie season should've shown why the eye test is so vital. Not many players have this much speed and strength wrapped in the same package, and fewer still pair that with the mentality necessary to thrive on the preventing end.
That's why Brown was guarding LeBron James as a rookie in the 2017 Eastern Conference Finals. It's why, a few months later, he was tasked with slowing Philadelphia 76ers rookie Markelle Fultz during summer-league action. Suffice it to say, covering those two players requires vastly differing skills, and this 20-year-old has them.
But his offense has held him back thus far, and that's what needs to change for a true breakout.
According to NBA Math's Play-Type Profile, the 6'7", 225-pound small forward added value as a cutter and a post-up shooter during his rookie season. Everywhere else, he was a glaring negative, likely because his jumper was broken and he frequently dribbled his way into traffic. This offseason, however, has shown signs that could change.
The shooting percentages weren't there in summer league (40 percent from the field and 30 percent from downtown in Las Vegas and Utah combined), but the aggression was. Looking at percentages in exhibition play is often an erroneous task, and it's far more important that Brown seemed comfortable initiating sets and creating his own looks.
If and when this former Golden Bear shows signs of two-way production, head coach Brad Stevens will have no choice but to hand him more minutes.
Juan Hernangomez, SF/PF, Denver Nuggets
Juan Hernangomez wasn't truly a dud during his rookie season; he just didn't spend enough time on the floor (13.6 minutes per game) to leave an indelible impact. If you dug below the per-game numbers, you already saw the profile of a player making a largely positive impact.
Per 36 minutes, the Spanish forward averaged 13.0 points, 8.0 rebounds, 1.2 assists, 1.3 steals and 0.5 blocks while shooting 45.1 percent from the field, 40.7 percent from downtown and 75.0 percent at the charity stripe. He rarely turned the rock over, and defense stood out as his one true weakness. Bigger players could simply overpower his 6'9", 230-pound frame on the interior.
But in quiet fashion, Hernangomez developed into one of the Denver Nuggets' most dangerous off-ball weapons. Whereas some players specialize either as off-ball snipers or timely cutters, the rookie forward was able to fill both roles.
With a clean shooting motion that allows for a quick and high release, he scored 1.1 points per possession (PPP) as a spot-up shooter, leaving him in the 77.8 percentile. Meanwhile, his 1.4 PPP as a cutter placed him in the 79.4 percentile.
Even stagnation in those areas would be wonderful news for the Nuggets as they prepare to charge up the Western Conference standings.
But they can also expect Hernangomez to develop on defense now that he's accustomed to the speed of the NBA game, potentially using his quickness to become one of the few players on this roster capable of jumping passing lanes to force turnovers. Pair that with increasing skill on the ball as he plays minutes at the 3 out of necessity, and he could be in for a leap after a tremendously overlooked rookie season.
Willy Hernangomez, C, New York Knicks
Yes, Juan and Willy Hernangomez are a pair of Spanish brothers preparing to enter their sophomore seasons. No, they don't expect to be as impactful as Pau and Marc Gasol.
Not yet, at least.
"Being the next Gasols is impossible," Juancho recently said, per FIBA.com. "Just like being the next Juan Carlos Navarro is impossible. And [the Gasols] are the two best players at FIBA EuroBasket. Pau is [a] 37-year-old and still one of the best players in Europe. He's like a big teacher or a big brother to all of us. It's impossible to be like Gasol."
Learning from those two premier bigs will benefit both brothers but especially the New York Knicks big man. Willy was far more of an interior player during his rookie season in the Big Apple, and it wasn't hard to see the influence of his mentor when watching his advanced defensive positioning and timing around the hoop.
But perhaps most impressively, he already displays an impressive arsenal of post moves and a willingness to flash his skill from the perimeter. Though he played only 18.4 minutes per game, the Knicks used him in myriad roles and likely rejoiced as he posted a 19.0 player efficiency rating and a positive defensive box plus/minus—numbers only 11 other qualified rookies have matched in the last 20 years.
Because of his foot speed and comfort playing outside the painted area, Hernangomez can work at center without pushing Kristaps Porzingis away from his preferred role. And that's big because it means New York can start its two most promising players simultaneously and watch them develop as complements to one another.
Brandon Ingram, SF, Los Angeles Lakers
Thanks to his shooting woes, Brandon Ingram's rookie season bordered on disastrous, even if the weakness of the 2016 class still allowed him to make All-Rookie Second Team. He knocked down only 40.2 percent of his shots during live action, connected on just 29.4 percent of his looks worth three points and struggled at the foul stripe to the tune of a 62.1 percent clip.
According to NBA Math's offensive points added, only two players were less valuable on the scoring end: Domantas Sabonis and Bismack Biyombo.
But a few factors indicate Ingram was just learning on the job and should still be considered a future star, none of which are more important than his roster situation.
Of course this small forward was going to struggle as a teenager when surrounded by a complete dearth of established offensive talent. Defenses could already key in against him because they didn't have to pay much attention to Luol Deng, Timofey Mozgov, Nick Young or D'Angelo Russell, with whom he shared the court most frequently. Sure, they had to worry about spot-up jumpers from the notorious Swaggy P, but they still weren't dragged away from sending help defense in Ingram's direction.
That changes now that Lonzo Ball, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Brook Lopez are playing in Tinseltown. Further growth from Julius Randle and Larry Nance Jr. will assist the former Duke Blue Devil's development as well.
Secondly, Ingram improved throughout the year. After the All-Star break, he averaged a more respectable 13.2 points, 3.9 rebounds and 2.5 assists per game while hitting 47.5 percent of his field-goal attempts. His tweaked jumper should continue to pay major dividends when he's granted more space, and that will happen soon as the Lake Show climbs back toward respectability.
Thon Maker, C, Milwaukee Bucks
Thon Maker played sporadically during the first half of his rookie season, began to emerge after the All-Star break and then showcased the dizzying diversity of his skill set in a six-game playoff series against the Toronto Raptors. The numbers aren't that impressive, but the well-rounded nature is unimpeachable.
During that first-round loss, Maker averaged 5.8 points, 3.2 rebounds, 2.0 assists, 0.8 steals and 1.8 blocks per game while shooting—grits teeth—just 38.7 percent from the field and 20.0 percent from downtown. That last part doesn't exactly help prove the point, but no one has said the 20-year-old center is efficient at this stage of his career.
He can just do a ton of different things. In fact, Giannis Antetokounmpo may not be the only unicorn in Milwaukee. As The Ringer's Jonathan Tjarks pointed out, Maker has some unique elements to his game:
"The most intriguing aspect of Maker’s game is his ball skills. He's not the next Kevin Durant as the mixtapes made him out to be, but he can put the ball on the floor and get by bigger defenders when they crowd him. A 7-footer with a jumper, handle and quick first step is almost unguardable, and Maker showed flashes of all three as a rookie."
Nothing Maker does yet is too developed. He can be overpowered on the blocks, doesn't always finish plays around the hoop after cutting into space and misfires far too frequently from the perimeter. But at this stage of his career, merely having the ability to venture into all of these areas is a massive positive.
Just imagine if even one of the skills truly clicks during his sophomore season.
Dejounte Murray, PG, San Antonio Spurs
Dejounte Murray's breakout will take place through sheer necessity.
Though Tony Parker might return from the devastating injury to his left quadriceps earlier than anticipated after initial time frames pegged him to debut around the start of January, according to French site LCI (h/t Jeff Garcia of News 4 SA), the French point guard is little more than a shell of his old self. Painful as it may be to admit, he was a liability on both ends of the floor during the 2016-17 campaign, and he'd be best served in a minimized role that allows him to use his energy in quicker bursts to get to his preferred spots within the half-court set.
And that means Murray should be the starting point guard. Patty Mills is still best served as a spark off the bench, while Derrick White is a raw backcourt player in need of seasoning before he contributes to a contending team.
But even if the situations are reversed and Mills is a member of the opening quintet, Murray will still play the minutes necessary to justify a breakout.
The 20-year-old remains sushi raw. He failed to impress during summer-league action against lesser contributors, struggling with his shot inside and out while missing open players with off-target feeds. But the Spurs know this, and head coach Gregg Popovich will instead find a way to maximize his defensive talents while largely playing through other positions on offense.
At 6'5" with a 6'9 ½-inch wingspan, per DraftExpress, the rising sophomore has the physical profile necessary to stifle smaller backcourt defenders and switch on screens. And if that size helps him excel in the drive-and-kick game while he cleans up his turnover issues, he could become a new franchise centerpiece.
Murray already showed an ability to keep his eyes up while driving into traffic, and the Spurs aren't exactly wanting for spot-up shooters. Last year, only the Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers scored more points per possession in those situations; continuing down that avenue will just make the up-and-coming guard's life that much easier.
Jamal Murray, PG/SG, Denver Nuggets
Confidence is possessing extreme confidence in abilities you can back up. Cockiness is having the same hubristic attitude but failing to make good on the promises. There's a big difference.
Jamal Murray's shot selection often pushed toward the cockiness frontier during his rookie go-round, but it will fall into the realm of confidence going forward. No matter how many off-the-dribble jumpers he attempts, no matter how frequently he creates his own shots off the bounce, no matter how often he tries to make the most of a lightning-quick release, he actually can make the shots.
The numbers, of course, don't actually back this up. Not after he slashed just 40.4/33.4/88.3 throughout his first season with the Denver Nuggets. He wasn't particularly adept as a pull-up marksman either, posting an atrocious effective field-goal percentage of just 39.8 percent.
But this is about development rather than prior production, and Murray's big outings showcase an ability to hit plenty of extraordinarily difficult looks.
Just take his 30- and 27-point explosions, both of which occurred in the final four games of the season, as examples. In those contests against the New Orleans Pelicans and Oklahoma City Thunder, respectively, he put on shot-making clinics, thriving both off the bounce and after receiving feeds from his teammates.
Now, his life gets easier with free-agent signee Paul Millsap giving the Nuggets another tremendous passer out of the frontcourt who can get him uncontested buckets around the basket. Couple that with the expected improvement based on the ease and confidence with which he shoots, and he might serve as a legitimate X-factor in Denver's quest to end a playoff drought that dates back to 2013.
Taurean Prince, SF, Atlanta Hawks
Though summer league showed the Atlanta Hawks shouldn't try to run their offense through Taurean Prince at this stage of his career, the playoffs were even more telling. Except in a direct contrast, they were a positive reflection on the 23-year-old small forward's growing skill set.
In six games against the Washington Wizards, Prince posted 11.2 points, 5.3 rebounds, 1.3 assists, 0.3 steals and 0.2 blocks per contest while shooting 55.8 percent from the field. The three-point stroke hadn't yet come around, but that's fine.
Maybe it does. The up-and-coming wing did hit 37.6 percent of his downtown launches during his four-year career at Baylor, so it's not inconceivable that something clicks and he excels when granted open opportunities in head coach Mike Budenholzer's movement-heavy schemes. Even if it doesn't, though, Prince can capably contribute in plenty of different areas.
He'll be the starting small forward in 2017-18, tasked with flitting around the half-court set and watching for openings. As a rookie, he scored a whopping 1.45 PPP off cuts (86.5 percentile), and that ability to pick his spots wisely isn't going anywhere. If he can add some better spot-up work and pick the right lanes in transition, scoring somewhere around an efficient 13 points per game is by no means out of the realm of realistic possibilities.
But Prince's true breakout should come defensively, where he can leverage his quickness to stick with athletic shooting guards and his growing strength against forwards. He was already impactful in the box score on the less glamorous side, becoming one of 12 qualified players to average at least 1.6 steals and 1.0 blocks per 36 minutes.
Discipline when tracking shooters through off-ball screens would go a long way, but Prince is already on the path to bigger things, if for no other reason than his growing role for the rebuilding Hawks.
Adam Fromal covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @fromal09.