After strong rookie seasons, which sophomores are poised to take the next step?
With the NBA offseason in full swing, now is an opportune time to look ahead at second-year guys who may take the next step. After the rookie class put together a solid season a year ago, it’s time to look at a few sophomores who may take the leap from a good rookie to a great NBA player.
Caris LeVert of the Brooklyn Nets is the type of all-around player who could blossom into a polished, indispensable player in today’s NBA. At 6’7” and barely north of 200 pounds, LeVert has all the physical tools to become a positionless player in a league that is skewing heavily toward these types.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise to many college basketball fans that LeVert could be due to break out. His draft stock was much higher than his eventual slot at No. 20 overall, but multiple foot injuries while at Michigan tempered expectations a bit.
In his rookie season, LeVert averaged 8.2 points, 3.3 rebounds, and 1.9 assists in just 21.7 minutes per game while posting a 1.86 assist/turnover ratio (AST/TO). He showed an ability to get to the rim and to hit threes at a decent rate (32%). The next step in his development will be to raise his three point percentage to the mid-to-high 30s to keep defenders honest. His quick first step will be much more effective if defenders are rushing out to guard the three point shot.
LeVert’s Season Shot Chart (courtesy of vorped.com)
With newcomers D’Angelo Russell, Allen Crabbe, and DeMarre Carroll in Brooklyn, the Nets should have more options on offense than last season when they were the worst team in the league. The extra space that these new guys create should free up LeVert to work as an off-the-ball shooter and back-door cutter.
With less responsibility comes less pressure and more confidence for him to make the most of his touches. Another year under developmental guru Kenny Atkinson should help as well, as should the fact that Brooklyn doesn’t own its own draft pick this year again, which means there is no need for tanking — a practice that often hurts current players’ psyches. His play earned him the nickname “Baby Durant,” and should that prove even remotely true, Brooklyn has got themselves a great player.
As we go from one end of the NBA hierarchy to the other, the Spurs’ young point guard Dejounte Murray looks like another player with all the potential and support to become a star for years to come.
After playing just one season at the University of Washington, Murray was selected No. 29 overall by the San Antonio Spurs as a project the organization could help mold into a successful NBA player. Playing in just 38 games last season, Murray averaged only 3.4 points and 1.3 assists in 8.5 minutes per game while shooting a good percentage from the floor (43%) and three (39%). It was in the postseason, however, that coach Gregg Popovich relied more on the rookie following Tony Parker’s season-ending injury.
In the postseason, Murray’s minutes nearly doubled and his points, assists, rebounds, and steals all jumped as well. His 6’5” frame at the point guard position helped him body up opposing point guards on both ends of the floor and create his shot over the top. His height advantage also helped him see the floor well at just 20 years of age.
With more time in the league, he should improve upon his 1.26 AST/TO, or else coach Popovich will bench him quickly. With a year under his belt, playing for the Spurs, and the increased opportunity with Tony Parker’s ongoing rehab, we should see more of this in 2017-18.
Buddy Hield is the latest slick-shooting young gun poised to lead a successful rebuild in Sacramento, but unlike Ben McLemore, Nik Stauskas, and Jimmer Fredette before him, Hield looks poised to deliver on his promise.
Selected sixth overall by the New Orleans Pelicans, Hield is a streaky shooter who the club was hoping would find open shots alongside Anthony Davis in the Big Easy. But this plan was soon abandoned as Hield was included in the midseason trade for DeMarcus Cousins, and found his way to Sacramento where the opportunities in a post-Cousins world were plentiful.
Chances are good that Hield has a breakout year with a full season in Sacramento, where there are few expectations of contending. Following the trade, Hield raised his scoring from 8.6 to 15.1 a game, his rebounding from 2.9 to 4.1 a game, his FG% from 39% to 48%, and his 3PT% from 37% to 43%. Hield will also be maturing into his physical prime more than any other player on this list as he is set to turn 24 years old in December. Many players peak in their mid-to-late twenties, so Hield has the most potential to reach another maturity level during this upcoming season.
Hield’s Season Shot Chart (courtesy of vorped.com)
A full season with more opportunities should yield results like March 2017 when Hield took home Rookie of the Month honors, and displayed a sweet stroke coupled with a polished scoring aptitude.
Another Murray with a chance at a big year is Denver’s Jamal Murray. Taken with the seventh overall pick in last year’s draft, Murray is a sweet shooting guard from the University of Kentucky.
During his rookie season, Murray averaged 10 points a game, shot 47% from the field and 33% from three in 21.5 minutes per game. And, Denver’s star-studded front court this upcoming season should do wonders for Murray’s ability to shoot the ball and have consistent open looks.
Nikola Jokic and new Nugget Paul Millsap are two of the best passing bigs in the NBA. With amazing court vision and veteran instincts, the two should provide the Nuggets’ backcourt with plenty of open opportunities this season, and that bodes well for Murray. While he is a 29% three point shooter on pull-up attempts, that percentage shoots up to 38% when he is able to catch and shoot from three. This will be the case often as Jokic and Millsap get doubled in the post and look to kick out to open shooters.
Murray’s Season Shot Chart (courtesy of vorped.com)
Murray needs to improve his defense (along with the rest of the team) in order for the Nuggets to taste the playoffs again, as his +1 Net Rating leaves something to be desired on that end of the floor as he is giving up almost as much as he produces on the offensive end. Millsap’s arrival should help a lot of the young guys with defensive intensity and floor spacing on the other end to open up Murray for what he does best.
The second-year player with both the biggest upside and the biggest unknown is Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid. Taken with the third overall pick in 2014, Embiid sat out the first two full seasons of his career, making last year his official rookie season. However, during the course of the year, he only played in 31 games.
Much of this was precaution due to his previous injuries as he didn’t play in a single back-to-back, but it most likely doomed his bid for Rookie of the Year. If his averages were over the course of a full schedule, he would have probably been an All-Star let alone Rookie of the Year.
In those 31 games, Embiid put up staggering numbers. He averaged 20.2 points, 7.8 rebounds, 2.1 assists, 2.5 blocks, shot 47% from the field and 37% from three - all in just 25.4 minutes per game.
He proved to be the prototypical rim protecting big man while also being the 7’ stretch center. We know he can play, but his continued development and ability to stay healthy are the biggest keys to the 76ers’ success.
With exciting No. 1 overall picks Ben Simmons and Markelle Fultz coming into the fold, Embiid is still the undisputed most vital piece to the puzzle. Should he merely replicate his stats over the course of, say, 70 games this year, he will undoubtedly be the best sophomore of the class.
After promising rookie seasons, these five NBA sophomores are ones to keep an eye on for their second season. All are in different positions regarding their team’s contention status so some will have more rope to work with (LeVert, Hield, Embiid) than others (Murrays), but all figure to be a part of their respective teams future plans.
As the NBA season gets underway in a little over a month, we will get a better look at the promising potential of these five young players. If they can build upon their rookie seasons, there is reason to believe these will be the future All-Stars of the NBA.
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