NBA Players Entering Now-or-Never Seasons
Even NBA lottery picks need multiple years to get acclimated. But some are running out of time.
For these struggling young players, the level of urgency varies by case. But this coming year will still be a make-or-break season for their overall value.
Teams may start to lose confidence in these once-highly touted draft picks who could be playing for their 2020-21 salaries.
Note: Only lottery picks were considered.
Malik Monk, Charlotte Hornets
Despite Malik Monk's stardom at Kentucky, there were enough questions about his NBA fit that led to his slide outside the top 10 in the 2017 draft. But his perceived value took a bigger hit in 2018-19 as he received DNPs as a second-year player on a lottery team.
Failing to make a big jump in 2020 may not put his career in jeopardy, but his second contract won't reflect a traditional lottery pick's.
Known for scoring and shot-making out of college, Monk offers little outside of jump-shooting, and his jump-shooting hasn't been reliable. His three-point mark fell to 33.0 percent from 34.2 percent last season. He shot under 40.0 percent from the floor, again, while adding minimal value as a passer (1.6 assists to 1.2 turnovers), rebounder (1.9 per game) or defender. Charlotte was better last year when Monk wasn't on the floor.
With the Hornets forced into tank mode by Kemba Walker's decision to leave, Monk's development should be a priority this year in Charlotte. The front office needs to know what it has in the No. 11 pick before deciding whether to make another commitment.
A poor season would likely lead to Charlotte moving on and teams around the league losing faith in Monk's trajectory and potential impact.
Thon Maker, Detroit Pistons
Thon Maker's value has been all over the place since he surfaced as a teenage public figure—from prodigy early in high school to predraft question mark after skipping college to a shocking No. 10 overall pick, rookie playoff contributor for the Milwaukee Bucks and now a backup in Detroit entering a make-or-break season.
Still a mediocre shooter and rail-thin big, Maker has yet to average more than 20.0 minutes per game for either team he's played for.
The 7'1" center shot 37.3 percent after joining the Pistons last season. The idea of a switchable big is appealing, but that alone can't carry his value through all the offensive inefficiency and lack of physical presence inside.
Thoughts of a high-upside prospect have faded. His identity as a reserve is solidifying. But at this point, Maker's NBA money-making skill or strength still isn't clear. Backing up Andre Drummond and Blake Griffin, he'll have one last shot to prove his worth in the final guaranteed year of his rookie contract.
Dragan Bender, Milwaukee Bucks
The No. 4 pick in 2016, Dragan Bender had an uneventful three years in Phoenix before the Suns declined his option.
He never averaged more than 6.5 points or shot better than 45.0 percent on a bad team that offered opportunities. He'll have one last shot, now with a title contender, though he won't have a fully guaranteed contract to work with.
At this stage, it's become obvious Bender isn't an NBA scorer. His shooting will ultimately play a major role in determining whether he offers any value to the Bucks or another team. Bender finished his third season at 21.8 percent from three.
Hopeful coaches and fans could look to his 2017-18 season, when he shot a respectable 36.6 percent from deep while playing all 82 games. Last year, he was also significantly more efficient inside the arc, converting 68.8 percent of his two-pointers.
But questions over his inconsistency, toughness and lack of improvement have cast a dark cloud of doubt over Bender. Failing to earn a role in Milwaukee, which seems more likely than not, will presumably lead to the veteran heading back overseas.
Josh Jackson, Memphis Grizzlies
Two years after drafting Josh Jackson ahead of De'Aaron Fox, Jonathan Isaac and Lauri Markkanen, the Phoenix Suns traded him in a small salary dump.
His value plummeted from 2017 to 2019, a stretch that saw his team lose 124 games in two seasons.
The bigger concern may be back-to-back seasons with a true shooting percentage below 49 percent.
He's made little progress last season with his jump shot and touch, from behind the arc (32.4 percent) to the free-throw line (67.1 percent). And he's not an efficient creator, finishing 2018-19 with averages of 2.3 assists to 2.2 turnovers while ranking in the 14th percentile out of isolation and the 40th percentile as a pick-and-roll ball-handler.
Phoenix was better last year with rookie Mikal Bridges on the floor.
At this stage, it's difficult for a coach to pinpoint what Jackson adds to the lineup outside of athleticism.
Now in his third season, if he can't find a role on a Memphis Grizzlies team whose wings include Dillon Brooks, Grayson Allen, Jae Crowder, Kyle Anderson and Bruno Caboclo, Jackson could have a tough time generating much interest from other teams around the league.
Markelle Fultz, Orlando Magic
For a No. 1 overall pick to get traded at the deadline in his second season, there has to be extreme concern and doubt.
The Orlando Magic didn't have to give up much for Markelle Fultz, whose value is already down to the equivalent of Jonathan Simmons, a top-20-protected first-round pick and a second-rounder.
He's played 33 games in two seasons since the Philadelphia 76ers traded up to No. 1 for him in 2017.
We're still at a point when it's news if a video surfaces that shows Fultz making a jump shot in practice.
Regardless of who or what deserves blame—a shoulder injury, shot doctors, Fultz himself—teams will begin losing confidence if he doesn't contribute in Orlando, where he has a terrific opportunity on a playoff team that needs an upgrade at point guard.
There still isn't a timetable for Fultz's return, however, and though he's only 21 years old, there needs to be a rising sense of urgency to start producing.