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2014-15 NBA Sophomore Spotlight

Who are some second-year NBA players that are having surprising breakout seasons? Cody Taylor takes a look.

Cody Taylor

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Last year’s NBA rookie class was dominated by the likes of Michael Carter-Williams, Victor Oladipo and Trey Burke, as evidenced by their placement in the Rookie of the Year voting. Those players benefited from being in situations that allowed them to play big-time minutes out of the gate, which strengthened their numbers and led to ROY consideration (and the actual award for Carter-Williams).

While Carter-Williams, Oladipo, Burke and late-comer Giannis Antetokounmpo have proven to be the stars of the class, there have certainly been some other standout players as well. As the class continues to get more experience in the NBA, more players are starting to break out due to being more comfortable and in some cases due to bigger opportunities.

Here’s a look at some of those sophomores who are beginning to breakout:

Solomon Hill, Indiana Pacers:

The story of the Indiana Pacers has been well-documented to this point. Paul George suffered a freak leg injury over the summer, Lance Stephenson moved on to Charlotte, David West has missed time with an injury and George Hill has yet to play in a game due to a knee injury. Those issues have caused the Pacers to rely on lesser-known players like Chris Copeland, Donald Sloan, Lavoy Allen and, yes, Solomon Hill.

Hill has already played more minutes this season in 19 games than he did in all of last season when he appeared in just 28 games for the Pacers. Hill has made the most out of his opportunity this season and has averaged 11.6 points, 5.5 rebounds and 1.8 assists per game versus the 1.7 points, 1.5 rebounds and .4 assists per game he put up last season. He is currently tied for fifth in scoring among qualified sophomores this season and is seventh in rebounds. His best game came back on Nov. 8 when he dropped 28 points, six assists, three steals and one assist. Several games later, he hit a game-winner to beat the Charlotte Hornets. The 23rd overall pick in last year’s draft, Hill has shown the ability to play both sides of the floor and has become a valuable player for the Pacers.

Isaiah Canaan, Houston Rockets:

The Rockets may have lost out on players like Chris Bosh and Carmelo Anthony during free agency over the summer, but they’ve still managed to be one of the best teams in the Western Conference. Great performances from role players Tarik Black, Kostas Papanikolaou, Donatas Motiejunas and Isaiah Canaan have helped them jump out to a 14-4 start. With a need for bench scoring, Canaan has been given the opportunity to play and like Hill in Indiana, he has made the most of it.

Canaan bounced between the D-League and NBA last year and didn’t receive consistent playing time. This season, Canaan has played in more minutes than he did last season and has already accumulated nine starts through his first 14 games. In an average of 22 minutes per game, Canaan is averaging 9.6 points, 1.9 rebounds and 1.7 assists per game while shooting 43 percent from three-point range. Canaan is a scoring threat for the Rockets each time he steps onto the court with his ability to get hot from three-point range, as he showed in his 24-point performance against the Sacramento Kings on Nov. 26, a game in which he went 6-of-10 from deep.

Dennis Schroder, Atlanta Hawks:

The 17th overall pick in last year’s draft has really come on as of late and is another sophomore benefiting from increased playing time and a higher comfort level on the court. Schroder hasn’t seen as big a jump in minutes as Hill and Canaan, but he is playing much more efficient than he did last season. Schroder has increased his scoring output from 3.7 points to 9.3 points per game and is averaging a full assist more, but the biggest jump has come in his efficiency rating. Schroder posted a PER last season of just 5.81, but has increased that number to 20.27 this season. Schroder has improved to 11th in the class in scoring, compared to being ranked 29th last season, and he has the highest PER of any second-year player.

A major part of his improvement has to do with playing with more confidence and earning the trust of Hawks head coach Mike Budenholzer. Schroder is playing much more meaningful minutes and played so well in a recent win over the Boston Celtics that Budenholzer elected to leave him in over starting point guard Jeff Teague in the fourth quarter. Schroder responded by scoring 10 of his 15 points in that quarter. It also helps that Schroder has improved his field goal percentage from 38 percent to nearly 54 percent this season. Schroder’s ability to come in and provide the Hawks with quality minutes off of the bench is a big reason why the Hawks are currently in third place in the Eastern Conference.

Ben McLemore, Sacramento Kings:

McLemore is beginning to play up to his potential this year, after not playing like a top-10 pick last season. He came into the NBA with a reputation for being a quality college shooter, but those skills just didn’t translate as he shot just 37 percent from the field and 32 percent from three-point range as a rookie. This season, however, McLemore has found his touch and is shooting very confidently. In 18 games, McLemore’s shooting percentage stands at 47 percent while his three-point shooting is up to 40 percent. His improved shooting numbers have boosted his points per game up nearly three points to 11.7 per game.

While he has improved significantly on offense, his defense has improved as well. Oftentimes, McLemore looked lost on defense last year and gave up a lot of easy looks to opponents. This season, McLemore’s opponents are shooting just 31.7 percent from three-point range as opposed to 40.5 percent last season. McLemore is also limiting his opponents’ two-point field goals, which are down from 54 percent to 45.3 percent. McLemore has become a completely different player this season and the difference has been night and day. It’s no coincidence that he has started in all 18 games thus far and his Kings are looking like a possible playoff team in the competitive Western Conference.

Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Detroit Pistons:

The Detroit Pistons are obviously struggling and they haven’t gotten the immediate jump start from new head coach Stan Van Gundy that many expected. The Pistons are 3-16 so far and are just a game and a half up on the last-place Philadelphia 76ers. Given the rough start, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope has been one of the few bright spots for the Pistons.

After an impressive outing in the Orlando Summer League over the offseason and a productive start to this season, Caldwell-Pope has been given a much larger role in the offense and has increased his scoring from 5.9 points to 12.4 points per game. His 5.9 points per game last season ranked him 14th among his class, but now his 12.4 points per game leads the class among qualified players. A preseason knee injury could be part of the reason his overall shooting percentage has dipped a bit, but his three-point shooting has improved in an offense that ranks 28th in efficiency.

Which sophomores have impressed you this season? Leave a comment below!

Cody Taylor is an NBA writer in his fourth season with Basketball Insiders, covering the NBA and NCAA out of Orlando and Miami.

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NBA Daily: James Harden on the new All-Star Format and Chris Paul Being Snubbed

James Harden shared his thoughts on the new All-Star game format and teammate Chris Paul not being selected as an All-Star

James Blancarte

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NBA Commissioner Adam Silver made a bold decision to alter the All-Star game format. By allowing the two highest voted players in each conference to be team captains, Silver did away with tradition and the usual West versus East format. While there were a few complaints about the switch, fans were seemingly more vocal about the decision to not televise the selection of players by the team captains.

Well, the results are in and praise for new format has been nearly universal. With players more invested in the new format, and perhaps the $100k per player bonus for the winners, the effort level was up, plays were being drawn up and executed and defense made a surprise appearance in an exciting game that came down to the final possession.

2018 NBA All-Star and Houston Rockets guard James Harden spoke about the All-Star game and the new format.

“I think it is exciting. You get an opportunity, you know, for a mixture of guys to play on the same team together. We’re trying to win though, it’s competitive,” Harden stated. “Obviously, the All-Star game has a lot of highlights but we’re trying to win, we’re going to go out there and prove we’re trying to win.”

Harden, who played for Team Stephen, did not get the win. However, Harden also made it clear that playing in the this year’s All-Star game meant even more having grown up in Los Angeles.

“To be able to play in the big boy game means a lot. I grew up, especially being from LA, you grew up watching Kobe, watching Shaq every single year. You see how fun, you see how exciting it was,” Harden said. “Now to be here, to be in the city is more special.”

While Harden made it a point to talk about what it means to play in Los Angeles, another factor he seemed excited and appreciative about was being the first player picked for Team Stephen.

“Man, that’s a great feeling. Just because in middle school I was the last pick. So, to be the number one pick in the All-Star game, that’s what the swag champ is for,” Harden said.

Harden wasn’t universally positive about All-Star Weekend. Specifically, he was not happy about being the only Rockets All-Star – especially considering Houston’s standing in the Western Conference playoff race.

“I have a lot to say about that. What are we talking about? Everyone knows Chris Paul is with the Rockets and the Rockets have the number one [record]. How does that not happen?” Harden asked rhetorically. “It’s frustrating. I know he’s frustrated. He never brings it up. That’s why I did say what I said. He’s never going to bring it up. But, I’ll defend for him. He should be here with me in LA as an All-Star.”

Harden had some success as he led his team in minutes and logged 12 points, eight assists and five rebounds. He spoke after the game and confirmed the reconfiguration of the All-Star game produced a competitive game and a fun product for the fans.

“Felt great. I hope all the fans enjoyed [the All-Star game] as well. It was very competitive. Guys got after it from the beginning of the game. Usually All-Star [games] there are a lot of dunks, a lot of freedom. Tonight was intense,” Harden said.

Harden was not wrong with his conclusion that there was less freedom. With less freedom and better defense played, Harden went 5-19 from the field and 2-13 from three-point range while finishing the game without a single free throw attempted. The lack of free throws may have irked Harden, who is renowned for his ability to get to the line (9.9 free throw attempts per game this season). Adding to that frustration, Harden had the opportunity to put his team ahead with a three-pointer late in the game but failed to connect on the shot. Unsurprisingly, Harden expressed his disappointment with the result.

“I was pissed we lost. I’m still mad,” Harden stated.

On the final play of the game, while ignoring Harden, Curry kept the ball with the chance to tie the game. Curry dribbled into a LeBron James/Kevin Durant double team. Curry wasn’t able to get a shot off and Harden was left with his hands up waiting for a pass and a chance to win the game that never came.

Looking toward next year, Harden was asked if as a possible captain he would prefer to have the player selection two weeks before or right before the game. He thought about it and then smiled.

“Probably right before the game,” Harden answered.

Commissioner Silver has spoken on the subject and is sending strong signals that next year’s selection will be televised. That will potentially add another layer of excitement to the new All-Star game format, which is already paying off for the NBA.

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Mitchell Taking Things Day-By-Day, But Loving ‘Whirlwind’ Experience

It’s been a special year for the Utah Jazz rookie sensation.

Spencer Davies

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Four-and-a-half months into the first season of his NBA career, Donovan Mitchell has accomplished some incredible things.

He won back-to-back Rookie of the Month honors between this past December and January. He leads his class with 19.6 points per game and nearly 17 field goal attempts per contest. Due much in part to his contributions, the Utah Jazz are the hottest team in the league, riding an 11-game winning streak after falling far below the .500 mark.

To top all that off, he won the slam-dunk competition just a few days ago in an event for the whole world to see. All of this has been nothing short of amazing for the 21-year-old, and even he didn’t see this coming.

“This whole thing’s just been a whirlwind for me,” Mitchell said at All-Star weekend of his first-year experience. “Just enjoying the process. There are games where I’m just like, ‘Wow this happened’ or ‘Wow that happened’ and it’s a credit to my teammates and the coaching staff and the organization for believing in me.

“Without them, none of this would be possible, so I really thank them for giving me this opportunity.”

Believe it or not, Mitchell wasn’t always so sure about where his life would go. He played for a couple of seasons at Louisville and ended up declaring for the 2017 NBA draft, a night where the Jazz stole him away from every other team by executing a deal with the Denver Nuggets to land the 13th overall pick in Salt Lake City.

“I tell people all the time this wasn’t my plan,” Mitchell said at All-Star weekend. “After two years of college, being here for All-Star and even being in the NBA wasn’t entirely my plan, so I’m just taking it one step at a time, one day at a time, praising God for this opportunity he’s given me.”

So far, Mitchell is picking things up on the go. As he keeps improving and solidifying his game on the court, he’s also bettering himself mentally.

“If I just continue to be humble and continue to learn, that’s the biggest thing is learning and understanding the game,” Mitchell said. “I make the joke that it’s easy to study film and watch all the games when you don’t have five classes to study for throughout the day. So it’s been fun and I’m just taking it day by day.”

It’s pretty awesome that he’s doing what he’s doing with friends by his side. Most of us think of this class of rookies as a special group because of their talents as players, but it’s a tight-knit inner circle of friends who are enjoying every second of life in the NBA together.

Kyle Kuzma, John Collins, De’Aaron Fox, and Dennis Smith Jr. are friends Mitchell mentioned that he’s been close with for a while, and to see all of their hard work culminate so quickly at the Rising Stars game in Los Angeles is something special.

“I’ve known a lot of these guys, pretty much everybody on this team since high school for the most part,” Mitchell said. “Kinda hanging the same way we did in high school just a lot more cameras, a lot more downtime, bigger city.

“It’s fun. Just gotta treat it like it’s fun, go out there and just be kids. Live a dream of ours since we were younger.”

After the weekend he had, Mitchell accomplished that goal.

Whether the next chapter in his career has a Rookie of the Year award written into it or not, we’re seeing spectacular things from the one they call “Spida.”

And it’s about time people are taking notice.

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NBA Daily: Tobias Harris Thrives at Every Stop

Tobias Harris was traded yet again, but thankfully for the Clippers, he’s gotten better every stop he’s made.

Joel Brigham

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When Tobias Harris was a 19-year-old rookie for the Milwaukee Bucks, he faced a lot of the same issues that other 19-year-old rookies before him had faced, most notably the ones dealing with a lack of playing time.

He only saw the floor in 42 games, playing on 11 minutes per contest when he did get out there.

Despite that, it was somewhat of a surprise that the Bucks gave up on his talent so early in his career, trading him to the Orlando Magic just 28 games into his sophomore season as part of a trade for J.J. Redick.

The Magic immediately tripled his minutes, and he’s never been a 30 minutes-per-game guy ever since. He also has never said a negative thing about any team he’s ever played for. As far as he’s concerned, every opportunity is a blessing and a learning experience.

“I didn’t look at Milwaukee as a team giving up on me. I looked at it as Orlando valuing me and seeing me as a piece of the puzzle,” Harris told Basketball Insiders during All-Star Weekend, where he participated in the three-point contest.

“The NBA is about opportunity, so when you get the opportunity you have to make the most of it. Going from a rookie not playing to where I’m at now, it takes a lot of hard work, focus and determination,” he said. “You have to have the confidence in your own self, to understand you can break through in this league.”

And break through he did, in large part because those first 18 months as a professional were so challenging.

“Adversity helped me to work hard,” he said. “I always envisioned myself as a primetime player in this league. I have a ways to go to get there, but that’s the best part about me. My best basketball is ahead of me, and adversity has helped me get there. It’s motivated me, and I want to be the best player I can be. I’m trying every single day to fight for that.”

This season, most of which came as a member of the Detroit Pistons, was a career-best for Harris.

Between the Pistons and L.A. Clippers, Harris has averaged a career-high 18 points per game, and while he wasn’t voted to the All-Star Team this year, his name popped up in the conversation. He’s never been closer.

It was bittersweet for him, though, leaving a Detroit team he liked so much.

“My favorite part was being around those guys [in Detroit],” he said. “It was a great group of guys and a great coaching staff. Coach Van Gundy is a great coach. At the same time, when I first got there, we had a chance to make the playoffs and we got in the playoffs. That was nice for me, to put that pressure on myself and get it done.”

Now, he’s ready to accept his next challenge in Los Angeles with the Clippers.

“I look at every new opportunity as a new chance,” he said. “My first trade from Milwaukee to Orlando was a situation where I just wanted to prove myself to the league. When I was traded from Orlando to Detroit, it was a situation where I wanted to help the team get to the playoffs, and that’s similar to this one here, too… I really like the group of guys that are on this team. I like our demeanor and our approach, so after the break I look forward to building that chemistry and moving forward.”

Of course, moving forward is all he’s ever done.

After everything he’s proven to date, it seems like a given that he’ll continue to make strides with his new team.

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