6 Former NBA Lottery Picks Facing Make-or-Break Seasons
Time is running out for six former NBA lottery picks.
At some point, youth alone won't keep certain players afloat. Once high-profile prospects selected either in the 2014 draft or after, each has received opportunities through multiple seasons. The results, both in box scores and on the eye test, have raised doubt over their potential and fit.
Failing to make a big jump may not automatically end each of the following players' careers—though it could for some. For others, it may destroy their second-contract value entering 2019 free agency.
Emmanuel Mudiay, New York Knicks
There was hope that a change of scenery would help jump-start Emmanuel Mudiay's career after two-and-a-half seasons of brutal inefficiency with the Denver Nuggets.
It didn't work. The 2015 No. 7 pick shot 36.8 percent last year with the New York Knicks, and he missed 37 of his 46 three-point attempts and averaged 1.9 turnovers in 22.4 minutes per game.
Of 101 point guards, Mudiay ranked No. 100 in ESPN.com's real plus-minus.
His shot hasn't improved, which limits his scoring ability and potential to work off the ball. That means he needs it in his hands. But through three seasons, he hasn't proved worthy of dominating decision-making responsibilities.
With Frank Ntilikina capable of moving to shooting guard, minutes will be available for Mudiay. But if he can't add value to a backcourt that features Ntilikina and Trey Burke, it's tough to imagine a team would give Mudiay another chance.
Jahlil Okafor, New Orleans Pelicans
Jahlil Okafor has experienced one of basketball's most devastating downfalls. He's gone from consensus No. 1 high school recruit, U17 FIBA World Cup MVP, McDonald's All-American Game MVP, ACC Player of the Year, First Team All-American and national champion at Duke to signing a partially guaranteed contract with his third team in four NBA seasons.
After spiraling out of favor with the Philadelphia 76ers and failing to capitalize on his chance with the Brooklyn Nets, 2015's No. 3 pick could be on his last NBA life.
Injuries and conditioning share some blame, but the real issue has been his fit in an evolving league. Okafor hasn't adapted. His inability to play outside the paint hurts offensive spacing. And without instincts in rim protection or pick-and-roll coverage—and no switchability around the perimeter—Okafor can't play play long stretches as a defensive anchor.
With interchangeable bigs or at least centers who can either stretch the floor or protect the rim at a premium, Okafor is in danger of being phased out of the new space-and-pace NBA. He'll need to become an Enes Kanter type for the New Orleans Pelicans if he wants them to pick up the second year of his deal.
Noah Vonleh, New York Knicks PF/C
This could be the end of the line for Noah Vonleh if he can't make a good impression on the New York Knicks. The offers failed to roll in this offseason before he agreed to a one-year, $1.6 million deal 24 days into free agency.
Already on his fourth team since being drafted No. 9 in 2014, Vonleh hasn't expanded his faceup, off-the-dribble scoring ability. He also hasn't added a three-ball and doesn't have enough core strengths to prop up his value. Rebounding isn't enough.
Bigs must typically either stretch the floor and shoot, or protect the rim. Those who don't do either better be tough scorers inside the arc. Vonleh hasn't developed any identity through four NBA seasons.
This next one could be his last unless he establishes a specialty. He'll have his chance as Kristaps Porzingis rehabs from his torn ACL and the Knicks prioritize their young players' development.
Nik Stauskas, Portland Trail Blazers
The No. 8 pick in 2014, Nik Stauskas is on thin ice as he plays for his fourth team and works on a one-year, $1.6 million deal.
He won't have any margin for error with the Portland Trail Blazers. They added guard Seth Curry to back up Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum, and they acquired promising shooting guards Anfernee Simons and Gary Trent Jr. on draft night.
Through four seasons, Stauskas hasn't featured sharp enough three-point accuracy to offset his inefficiency inside the arc. Lacking strength, explosiveness and length, the 6'6" guard has struggled to blow by and attack or separate and convert in the mid-range, as he never shot better than 34.8 percent on pull-ups, per NBA.com.
The Sacramento Kings drafted him for his all-around offense—not just his shooting—out of Michigan. In 2013-14, he averaged 17.5 points and 3.3 assists per game and got to the free-throw line 204 times for the Wolverines. But his creating and off-the-dribble scoring hasn't translated against NBA athletes.
To carve out a role in Portland and attract more interest next summer, he'll need to build off last year's 40.4 percent three-point percentage for the Brooklyn Nets and emerge as a reliable shot-making specialist.
Cameron Payne, Chicago Bulls
Cameron Payne has played just 113 games through three seasons since the Oklahoma City Thunder drafted him No. 14 in 2015.
Reoccurring foot injuries have made it difficult for him to build a rhythm. Now healthy, he'll have an opportunity to prove himself behind Kris Dunn.
A well-rounded scorer, shooter and passer out of Murray State, Payne played the best ball of his career through 25 games last season with the Bulls. He averaged 8.8 points and 4.5 assists per contest on 38.5 percent shooting from three in 23.3 minutes a night.
Will his feet hold up for an entire season? He'll need to show they can before restricted free agency arrives next summer.
Stanley Johnson, Detroit Pistons
The value of Stanley Johnson's second contract could be in jeopardy if he doesn't make a significant jump this year.
His player efficiency rating has been below 10.0 in each of his three seasons, according to Basketball Reference. Had Johnson been a 2018 free agent, it would have been difficult for a suitor to find an area he excels in.
Despite a solid mix of strength, length and athleticism—physical traits that suggested he was one of the safer picks in 2014—the 6'7" Johnson has struggled to score inside the arc, as he's never finished above 44 percent on twos. And after shooting 30.7 percent from three as a rookie, he's seen his accuracy fall in each of the past two years.
Questionable decision-making and shot selection, along with a regressed jumper, has led to a make-or-break year for 2014's No. 8 pick.
Johnson will have every opportunity to prove himself this season for the Detroit Pistons, who lack standout wing options.
Recruit rankings provided by 247Sports.