NBA Players Who Haven't Earned the Hype
More than any other sports league, the NBA relies on individual superstars to drive interest.
In some cases, these stars continue to rise above expectations and live up to the hype. In others, the narrative surrounding the player outstrips their development, which eventually leads to disappointment.
The following players—all of whom are 27 or younger—are either in the middle of their prime or still years away from it. But whether due to high-priced extensions, All-Star nods or award buzz, each has yet to live up to the hype he's already received.
Let's pump the brakes on these young hype darlings and sift through some noticeable flaws that may bring them back to earth.
The Charlotte Hornets replaced Kemba Walker by signing Terry Rozier to a three year, $56.7 million deal this offseason. While Rozier would put together a career-best season, second-year guard Devonte' Graham garnered more nationwide attention with his early-season burst.
On Dec. 20, B/R's Jonathan Abrams called Graham "an early front-runner for the league's Most Improved Player award." Three months later, Kansas Jayhawks head coach Bill Self dubbed his former player a future All-Star, per The Athletic's Roderick Boone.
His long-range shooting made him only the fourth Hornets player ever to convert 200 made threes in a season, as he continually pressured zone defenses and pick-and-roll defenders who drifted under.
Graham's offensive impact was next-level. The Hornets were 11.3 points per 100 possessions better with him on the floor.
But Graham does have a notable weakness that opponents will exploit: He can't get to the rim.
The 6'1" guard took only 18 percent of his shots at the rim, which ranked in the ninth percentile leaguewide, and only 14 percent in the short-mid-range. His 2.4 shots per game within the restricted area ranked outside of the top 75 guards in the NBA.
Graham may be able to improve his downhill tenacity with more NBA experience. But for now, his 49 percent (11th percentile) and 32 percent (24th percentile) conversion rates at the rim and in the short mid-range, respectively, are underwhelming.
As defenses began to counter his primary weapon, Graham's three-point accuracy plunged to 33.7 percent over his last 30 games, well below the league average (35.7). That helps explain why he shot only 38.2 percent this season, wildly below the 46 percent league average.
There's plenty of reason to be optimistic about Graham moving forward, but let's wait to see how he responds to defenses pressuring him before we dub him a future All-Star.
After breaking out in 2018-19 and signing a four-year, $94 million extension with the Sacramento Kings over the offseason, Buddy Hield entered this season with sky-high expectations. Instead, he experienced minor dips in his scoring average and shooting percentages, and he ranked 17th among shooting guards in real plus-minus (59th overall in the NBA).
De'Aaron Fox's 19-game absence didn't help Hield's cause. He shot 42.1 percent from three with Fox on the floor compared to 37.5 percent with his point guard off. But the Kings needed more from their soon-to-be highest-paid player.
With Fox and 2018 No. 2 overall pick Marvin Bagley III sidelined for extended time, Hield should have taken the reins of the Kings' offense. Instead, his usage and assist percentages spiked while his points per shot attempt plunged.
In a five-game stretch from Dec. 20-28 (all losses), Hield averaged 13 points per game while shooting 28 percent overall and only 24.4 percent from deep. One month later, head coach Luke Walton benched him in favor of Bogdan Bogdanovic.
"Double him, send multiple guys at him, give him different looks," one Western Conference assistant told Forbes' Sean Deveney. "Be physical; he does not like contact."
When at his best, Hield is a complementary, high-volume scorer who can attack opponents from the perimeter and playmake for teammates at a passable level. At his worst, he is an inconsequential threat and liability on the defensive end.
Starting next season, he'll be paid like a star. Given his age—he turns 28 in December—it appears less and less likely that he'll ever become one.
Upon arriving in New Orleans, Brandon Ingram became one of the NBA's most versatile scorers en route to his first All-Star nod.
His ability to operate as a pick-and-roll ball-handler or roll man makes him an unpredictable defensive assignment. Only seven players bested his numbers this season (23.4 points, 5.6 rebounds and 4.8 assists), even though he was sharing touches with Jrue Holiday, Lonzo Ball and (eventually) Zion Williamson.
But as well as Ingram played offensively, he struggled on defense.
Opponents routinely punished and confused Ingram in the pick-and-roll, as he lacks the wiggle to shed screens or the lateral foot speed to roll over. In transition, opponents put him on his heels using his awkward length to their advantage.
The Pelicans needed Ingram to operate as a small-ball 4 during Derrick Favors' early-season absence, which did not go well. They gave up 115.5 points per 100 possessions with Ingram at the 4, which ranked in the 18th percentile leaguewide. During their 6-22 start, Ingram had the second-worst plus-minus of any Pelicans rotation player (minus-5.8) ahead of only Lonzo Ball, who was later benched to move Kenrich Williams to the 4 and move back Ingram to the 3.
During clutch minutes, which NBA.com defines as a game within five points in the final five minutes, Ingram shot only 36.1 percent overall and 28.6 percent from three while boasting a minus-3.8 plus-minus. Among players who played in 10 or more such games, Ingram's minus-34.7 net rating ranked in the bottom 10.
The Pelicans hit their stride once the starting unit returned to full health, but Ingram's defensive shortcomings and subpar play in the clutch suggest he has plenty of room to grow before he deserves to be considered a superstar.
The Denver Nuggets are young, explosive and led by a 25-year-old MVP candidate in Nikola Jokic who is on path to become the best passing big man of all-time. However, it's hard to take them seriously as a legitimate threat to Milwaukee and both L.A. teams until they find a second legitimate star.
The Nuggets signed Jamal Murray to a five-year max extension this past summer, which suggests they believe he can become that missing piece. The early returns haven't been great, though.
He averaged 18.8 points, 4.8 assists and 3.9 rebounds in 2019-20, which is virtually identical to his regular-season production from the year prior. However, his on-court effect was demonstrably different.
Weaving his path to the rim (75th percentile) and the mid-range (86th percentile) remains Murray's bread and butter, but his three-point stroke (34.5 percent) plunged to the 39th percentile leaguewide. Through the first 40 games of the season, Murray shot only 43.5 percent from the floor and 32.2 percent from deep, both of which were well-below league average.
"I've played decent up to this point, but I feel I can do a lot better," he told ESPN's Stephen A. Smith in mid-March.
Decent isn't good enough. If Murray doesn't become an All-Star-caliber player, his max contract could impede the Nuggets from taking the next step.
Can Andrew Wiggins revive his career with the Golden State Warriors? CEO Joe Lacob and head coach Steve Kerr seem to think so.
"We made the decision ... that Wiggins would be the better fit for us [than D'Angelo Russell]," Lacob told Tim Kawakami of The Athletic. "And we think it's a great fit, actually."
Following a 30-point loss to the Rockets on Feb. 20, Kerr went so far as to call Wiggins "underrated":
"He's an excellent defender," he said. "... Now that I've seen him play, I feel like people have focused now the last couple years on everything Andrew can't do that they've forgotten all the things that he can do. People have said he's overrated now for a couple years. He's become underrated because you look at what he does, you look at his size, you look at the way he defends. Guy's a damn good NBA player, and it seems like people have forgotten that."
The 2014 No. 1 overall pick has played 454 regular-season games and more than 16,000 minutes. While he proved ill-equipped to be the Robin to Karl-Anthony Towns' Batman in Minnesota, he'll be no better than a third option behind Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson in Golden State.
However, Wiggins' usage rate has never been below 22 percent. While he could focus on defense, off-ball movement, setting screens and camping out behind the three-point line in a lower-usage role, he is a career 33.2 percent shooter from deep who shouldn't attempt a high volume of such shots. He also finished a hideous 449th among 514 players in defensive real plus-minus in 2018-19, though he's improved to 196th in 2019-20.
In 2017-18, the Timberwolves won 47 games with Towns and Jimmy Butler as the closest things to Nos. 1 and 2 options Wiggins has experienced. He still ranked in the 77th percentile in usage and fell to the 25th percentile in points per shot attempt and ninth percentile in assist-to-usage ratio.
Kerr referred to Wiggins as an "excellent defender" but every metric, including the eye test, tells us otherwise. Kerr wants us to focus on what Wiggins can do, but those aren't the tools the Warriors need to compete and elevate the roster.
Instead of shifting Wiggins into a new role, the Warriors may attempt to package his contract with some valuable draft assets. Why not move a likely top-five pick in 2020 plus Minnesota's top-three-protected 2021 first-rounder for a player more suited to fill this role and vault them back into contention?
Giannis Antetokounmpo would be the obvious target. If Milwaukee trades the Greek Freak, Khris Middleton would be a great consolation prize. Other options could include Aaron Gordon or Myles Turner.
Wiggins should continue to develop as he reaches his prime (he is just 25 years old), but his skill set isn't what Golden State needs in 2020-21.
Trae Young has quickly emerged as one of the NBA's best playmakers.
In only 141 games, Young collected more points, assists and rebounds in his first two seasons than anyone in NBA history not named Oscar Robertson. He was the only player to average 29 points and nine assists this season, and he already boasts the ability to shoot from anywhere on the floor, a la Stephen Curry or Damian Lillard.
With Young on the floor, the Atlanta Hawks outscored their opponents by 8.4 points per 100 possessions this season. He ranked fourth in offensive real plus-minus among who played at least 10 games, trailing only James Harden, Giannis Antetokounmpo and LeBron James.
While Young is Atlanta's offensive centerpiece, we can't hide his glaring shortcoming: He's the league's worst defensive player.
Young's diminutive 6'1", 180-pound frame puts him at a clear disadvantage on defense. However, his lack of effort and recognition are of equal concern. Young will lose his cover in off-ball situations and often fails to fight over screens with the aggressiveness needed to dissolve a set.
The Hawks can afford to be patient with their collection of blue-chip young prospects. But if Young continues to hemorrhage points on defense, his generational playmaking may prove to be largely empty calories.
Preston Ellis covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter (@PrestonEllis).