NBA Sophomore Ladder: Joel Embiid Schooling Peers on Both Ends of Court
Last year's NBA rookie class is bouncing back.
A number of the sophomores are breaking out following quiet first seasons, including one who's found new life with a different team. It's a reminder not to prematurely judge players right out of college or from overseas.
Last year's Rookie of the Year isn't even in the top three on the early ladder.
These rankings reflect current play and not long-term potential.
10. Buddy Hield (Sacramento Kings, SG)
Fresh off a 27-point effort against the Los Angeles Clippers, Buddy Hield is giving the Sacramento Kings a scoring punch off the bench.
Though his overall performance has been inconsistent, he's been hot from three all season, making 44.0 percent of his 4.4 attempts per game.
He's making 50.0 percent of his catch-and-shoot opportunities, though he's less effective working off the dribble, converting just 35.0 percent of his pull-ups and averaging 1.1 free-throw attempts in 23.1 minutes.
Limited playmaking and defensive awareness also hurt Hield's value, but he's established himself as a dangerous shot-maker.
9. Dario Saric (Philadelphia 76ers, F)
Dario Saric's production has fallen across the board with Ben Simmons now a starter, but he still gives the Philadelphia 76ers both offense and versatility. And with Simmons out of action Saturday night against the Orlando Magic, Saric went for 21 points, seven rebounds and four assists.
On the season, he's making 1.6 threes per game, doing most of his work off the ball as a spot-up shooter (59.9 percent frequency).
His scoring, rebounding and assist numbers are down, but between his 10.3 points per game and toughness, Saric earns a spot on the sophomore ladder.
8. Pascal Siakam (Toronto Raptors, PF/C)
Pascal Siakam doesn't play 21.1 minutes a game for his scoring. He's earned a key role with his athleticism and effort, which translate to easy baskets and rebounds.
He beats opponents down the floor. Siakam earns himself 1.9 transition opportunities a game—more than many high-profile starters who receive full-time minutes—and he's converting them at a strong rate of 1.41 points per play.
Shooting 54.7 percent from the floor with a 16.31 player efficiency rating, Siakam plays to his strengths as a rim runner and finisher. And though he doesn't bring much to the table in terms of skill plays, he has hit nine threes in 18 games after making just one as a rookie.
7. Taurean Prince (Baylor, F)
Already the Atlanta Hawks' No. 2 scorer behind Dennis Schroder, Taurean Prince picked up where he left off last year when he averaged in double figures during the first round of the NBA playoffs.
So far this season, he's been most effective working off the ball, tied for third in the NBA in spot-up shooting makes per game (1.9). Converting at a 43.0 percent clip on 4.0 three-point attempts per game, Prince has been a dependable shot-maker.
Only 4.2 percent of his offense has come out of isolation, though, and he's generating just 0.65 points per play on 2.3 possessions per game as a pick-and-roll ball-handler, so he isn't doing much creating.
But he's also giving Atlanta relatively well-rounded production with his shooting, 5.1 rebounds, 2.5 assists and 1.4 steals.
6. Jamal Murray (Denver Nuggets, SG)
Inconsistency has hurt Jamal Murray, who has finished with single digits in scoring in nine games. The highs still outweigh the lows.
His 14.1 points per game rank fourth among sophomores, and that's with Murray only shooting 27.6 percent from three, a number likely to rise. Though known more for his jumper than athleticism, Murray has been better around the basket, shooting 65.8 percent inside 10 feet and a solid 48.7 percent on drives.
On the other hand, 396 players have a higher defensive real plus-minus than Murray's -1.31.
He's one of the more potent young guards in the league, but he still falls under the scoring-spark category, as opposed to being viewed as a reliable two-way starter.
5. Brandon Ingram (Los Angeles Lakers, SF): 11.86
This is starting to look like the breakout before the real breakout for Brandon Ingram, who's still only 20 years old. He's raised his scoring average to 14.7 from 9.4 and his field-goal mark to 45.1 percent from 40.2 percent.
And it's clear his ceiling goes much higher.
He's been most effective attacking the basket, ranking top 15 in points per game off drives (6.6), converting 51.1 percent of them. Ingram is also using ball screens to score, making 1.4 field goals a game as a pick-and-roll ball-handler.
Where he must improve is with his shooting, both from three (30.0 percent) and off the dribble (29.9 percent on pull-ups). Though capable of going for 20-plus points on any given night, it may take another year for his jumper to become a reliable weapon and for Ingram to emerge as a go-to option.
4. Malcolm Brogdon (Milwaukee Bucks, PG/SG)
Malcolm Brogdon came NBA-ready for the Milwaukee Bucks. Drafted at 23 years old, the question was how much upside there was.
Brogdon looks similar today as he did a year ago, making good passing decisions, knocking down threes and defending. He's shooting 47.8 percent inside the arc and 46.4 percent behind it.
He doesn't give the Milwaukee Bucks much out of isolation (4.4 percent of his offense), and his 0.85 points per play as a pick-and-roll ball-handler could be higher. But Brogdon, who makes under $2 million per year, has become a valuable three-and-D role player in Milwaukee.
3. Domantas Sabonis (Indiana Pacers, PF/C)
Credit the Indiana Pacers' scouting and front office for seeing beyond Domantas Sabonis' rookie numbers.
His player efficiency rating (19.6) is second among sophomores and top 50 in the league.
Only Myles Turner and Marc Gasol average more points as a pick-and-roll man than Sabonis (5.8). He's shooting 66.7 percent inside 10 feet and always had terrific hands and instincts, which he's used to grab 8.9 rebounds a game.
Sabonis' jumper also appears to be developing nicely. Though he hasn't quite added the three-ball, he's converted 43.5 percent of his catch-and-shoot opportunities, which makes up 30.6 percent of his offense.
2. Jaylen Brown (Boston Celtics, SF)
Jaylen Brown is challenging Sabonis for most improved sophomore.
He's excelled in a bigger role, having raised his scoring average nearly 10 points while shooting 46.6 percent from the floor. His jumper has been a key reason why.
Converting 42.9 percent of his catch-and-shoot attempts, 52.4 percent of his pull-ups and 41.5 percent of his threes, Brown has made major strides around the perimeter since his one-and-done year at California.
His signature explosive play has also translated to 4.6 points per game in transition, which ranks top 15 in the NBA.
With the top defensive real plus-minus among NBA shooting guards, Brown has established himself as one of the game's most promising two-way wings and a key piece for a title contender.
1. Joel Embiid (Philadelphia 76ers, C)
Fingers crossed, but Joel Embiid appears on track for his first full season.
Forty-seven games into his career, he's already one of the game's top two-way players.
Between his footwork and shot-making skills, Embiid leads the NBA in points per game in the post (9.0) by a wide margin over Kristaps Porzingis (6.8). And he's been dominant around the basket, shooting 71.4 percent inside 10 feet.
His scoring numbers should only improve once he starts making more spot-ups (27.5 percent) and threes (26.5 percent).
At the other end, opponents are shooting just 48.8 percent on Embiid. Only Hassan Whiteside has been tougher among players who defend at least 5.0 attempts per game.