With the NBA’s regular season winding down, it’s time to acknowledge which promising second-year players stepped up in the 2015-16 campaign.
Just prior to the season, a panel of Basketball Insiders writers were asked to list the second-year player they were most intrigued by, which can be found here. ESPN.com’s Kevin Pelton and Chad Ford were also asked to chime in on the top sophomores about 20 games into the season and their rankings can be found here. Here’s a look at some of the top performing sophomores with the season coming to an end:
Andrew Wiggins, SG- Minnesota Timberwolves
20.8 PPG, 3.6 RPG, 2.1 APG, 45.9 percent FGs, 30.1 percent 3PT
After facing a great deal of criticism and scrutiny upon entering the league after a single season at Kansas and then being unceremoniously cast aside by the Cleveland Cavaliers in an effort to speed up their championship window, Wiggins finally appears to have settled into the speed, size and expectations of the game at this level.
While still far from a “great” shooter, the recently turned 21-year-old is up to a respectable range from the field, but must continue to improve from deep in order to keep defenses honest. His true shooting percentage -a statistic seen as more viable than others and features a combination of your two-point, three-point and free-throw attempts – is 54.3 percent, which is good for just 30th among shooting guards. He’s a solid on-ball defender on most nights and even above-average on others, but still appears to possess the ability to be one of the league’s premier perimeter defenders if he stays dedicated to being a force on that end.
Jabari Parker, PF- Milwaukee Bucks
13.9 PPG, 5.2 RPG, 1.8 APG, 49.5 percent FGs, 77.1 percent FTs
He’s simply not a stretch-four at this stage, although his jumper does appear more consistent. Parker literally averages less than half of a three-point attempt per contest (.4) and has made a total of just seven of his 29 attempts (24.1 percent). Contrary to some of the legitimate concerns about his athleticism (or lack thereof) when entering the league, Parker did appear to return this season with an added level of burst and an increased ability to finish at the rim and with traffic.
That added mobility and boost should eventually translate into Parker being a more consistent defender if he deems it important, which would certainly benefit him with so many of the league’s major scoring threats playing at both the forward positions.
Zach LaVine, PG- Minnesota Timberwolves
13.9 PPG, 3.1 APG, 2.8 RPG, 44.8 percent FG, 38.8 percent 3PT
After absolutely dazzling the basketball universe alongside fellow sophomore Aaron Gordon at the All-Star break, LaVine now finds himself at a place of needing to provide a “second act” aside from merely relying upon filling a wing and finishing in transition. He doesn’t shoot nearly enough free throws (78.8 percent on 2.5 attempts per contest) for someone with his athleticism and ability to get into the paint. You’d like to see him be able to create more off the dribble and get into the lane with the intention of scoring and attacking more consistently.
Similar to Jordan Clarkson, his best role might ultimately be from an attack position, but at the shooting guard rather than asking him to be the sole or main initiator. Also, like many of his peers, while he has all the physical attributes to be a quality defensive player, we’ll only see him reach his full potential on that end of the floor if he determines it is something that is vital to his overall progress.
Marcus Smart, PG- Boston Celtics
9.2 PPG, 4.2 RPG, 3.0 APG, 34.7 percent FG, 24.7 percent 3PT
To paraphrase an oft-used line from sports history, when it comes to Smart’s offensive game, he is who we thought he would be as a shooter. That isn’t to say he can’t still continue to develop and find at least a slightly more consistent shot, but that’s really not the area of his game we’re expecting to shine the brightest. Smart has battled injuries throughout his first couple campaigns, but remains a physical and athletic specimen as he attempts to adapt to playing perhaps the most competitive position in the game.
Smart is a disruptor on the defensive end as both an on-ball and weakside defender, as well as within the passing lanes. His strength permits him to compete with the bigger or stronger matchups, while his agility still allows him to make life difficult for the shiftier guards as well. While judging Smart’s effectiveness, consider the fact that unlike a majority of the players on this list, Smart is one of the leaders of a team that is currently battling for a playoff spot and could wind up as high as third in the Eastern Conference.
Gary Harris, SG- Denver Nuggets
12.3 PPG, 2.9 RPG, 1.9 APG, 47.1 percent FG, 35.7 percent 3PT
Harris is one of several members of the Nuggets who has really excelled within head coach Mike Malone’s system. After starting just six of the 55 games he saw action in as a rookie, Harris has certainly made the most of his increase in playing time (32.1 MPG, up from just 13.1 MPG in 2014-15) and expanded role under Malone.
He experienced major jumps in both field goal percentage (47.1, up from 30.4) and three-point percentage (35.7, up from 20.4). His true shooting percentage was actually 12th-best among shooting guards at 56.7 percent. Harris doesn’t get to the line all that much, but that’s partly due to 40 percent of his field goal attempts coming from beyond the arc. He’s an active defender who generally does a good job in the passing lanes, but could also take the next step as a player by dedicating even more time and effort to that end.
Rodney Hood, SG- Utah Jazz
14.8 PPG, 3.3 RPG, 2.7 APG, 42.8 percent FG, 36.5 percent 3PT
Put simply, Hood is every bit as good as most could have expected and better than some might have anticipated. While he showed signs of life when healthy as a rookie, Hood has quickly ascended into one of the league’s more promising, young swingmen. More than half of his field goal attempts (12.3 per game) come from beyond the arc (5.7 attempts per game), but Hood is also a fantastic free throw shooter (86.6 percent) on the occasions when he does draw the benefit of the whistle.
Hood can and likely will continue to improve on the defensive end, but the 23-year-old is far from a ‘sieve’ even at this point. Look for Hood to continue to excel within Coach Quin Snyder’s system and don’t be surprised to even hear his name mentioned in Most Improved conversations, if health permits, by this point next season.
Julius Randle, PF- Los Angeles Lakers
11.6 PPG, 10.2 RPG, 1.7 APG, 43.3 percent FG, 27.3 percent 3PT
Randle only played a total of 14 minutes during what would have been his rookie season (2014-15), but that didn’t stop him from showing clear signs of improvement for those who have watched his body transition and the early stages of his all-around progression over the past 18 months. For a 21-year-old who has already endured the disappointment of essentially losing his entire first year, multiple corrective surgeries (broken leg, screw removal from his foot), a lengthy rehabilitation schedule and the highs and lows of being removed and inserted into the starting lineup and general rotation several times this year, Randle still shows a tremendous amount of poise.
Randle continues to be a force on the boards and is already one of the better, young rebounders. His 34 double-doubles on the season are tied for 14th overall and while he leads the Lakers in boards, he’s also 10th in the league in rebounds per contest. A continued dedication to his jumpshot, right hand and countermoves within the paint are needed on the offensive end (and will likely come with time), but a dedication and focus on defensive principles both as an individual and team defender would actually place Randle comfortably within the discussion as one of the more promising young players.
Jordan Clarkson, PG/SG- Los Angeles Lakers
15.4 PPG, 3.9 RPG, 2.9 APG, 43.1 percent FG, 35.7 percent 3PT
After his First Team All-Rookie selection last season, it was a bit of a surprise to not see his name mentioned on very many of these lists or conversations heading into the year, but Clarkson has done a solid job of continuing to show his potential at this level as he enjoyed increases in most offensive statistical categories. The question moving forward will be whether he will continue to transition into a more efficient scorer rather than a volume-shooter who simply puts up points on a bad team.
The trouble with Clarkson is that it also remains a question as to which backcourt position will ultimately suit him best. Another legitimate concern is that he does not provide nearly the type of consistent and focused defensive effort you need to be effective as a backcourt player in this day and age. Like his teammate Randle, Clarkson shows a great work ethic and willingness to do what it takes to improve with the ball in his hands; but, like Randle and many other young players these days, Clarkson also needs to take as much pride in learning how to slow opposing players down as he does in scoring over them.
Clint Capela, PF- Houston Rockets
7.1 PPG, 6.3 RPG, 1.2 BPG, 57.9 percent FG, 38.6 percent FT
Look beyond the numbers – although, he’s actually quite impressive in that regard as well considering he only plays 19.3 minutes per contest – when judging Capela’s actual impact on this Rockets squad. He’s essentially the defensive catalyst off the bench and with their small-ball lineups. Capela not only contests well at and around the rim, he also manages to get deflections and almost a steal per game (.8) – which is impressive for a big man in very limited time on the court. His activity and defensive footwork also discourages opposing guards from attacking off the high screen-and-roll, which is absolutely vital for big men at this time.
His free throw shooting is abysmal, but it hardly becomes an overall issue for the team at merely 2.8 attempts per game. If Capela can continue to work on simple post and countermoves on the offensive end, then he could be a true force at the position for Houston. Especially in the event that Dwight Howard decides to move on via free agency this summer.
Elfrid Payton, PG- Orlando Magic
10.7 PPG, 6.3 APG, 3.6 RPG, 43.8 percent FG, 34.1 percent 3PT
Payton continues to be a ‘jack of many trades,’ but still remains a master of none as his second year comes to a close. That isn’t to imply that he hasn’t made somewhat significant strides as player, rather an honest assessment of where his game is currently. Whether Payton ever develops into even a serviceable scoring threat out of the backcourt, he can still impact the game in multiple other ways.
Although the numbers may look relatively identical, Payton does appear to be growing more and more comfortable as both a scorer and a playmaker at this level. Similar to Smart, Payton can also be a disruptor on the defensive end as he, too, has the size and length to battle against slightly bigger offensive players and the speed to stay with the quicker guards. He’s reportedly put in hundreds of hours working on his shot and form over the past year, so it will be interesting to see if he starts to enjoy some of the results moving forward.
Works in Progress:
Nikola Mirotic, PF- Chicago Bulls: He can certainly score and rebound fairly well for a big man who spends a lot of his time along the perimeter, but the Bulls need him to take another step forward heading into season three.
Jusuf Nurkic, C- Denver Nuggets: Nurkic has a ton of potential as a defensive presence with promising footwork and touch with the ball, but time will tell whether his body permits him to fulfill it.
Nerlens Noel, PF- Philadelphia 76ers: Noel may not provide much beyond put-backs and clean-up duty around the rim, but he still shows the signs of defensive brilliance that had scouts so excited a few years back when he’s healthy.
Aaron Gordon, PF- Orlando Magic: Appears ready to step beyond the mere showmanship and highlights – which are totally fine – and could continue to develop into a real player for the Magic quicker than you might anticipate.
Dante Exum, PG- Utah Jazz: By all accounts of those close to the team, Exum has transformed his body and should return with plenty to prove on both ends of the court once his surgically-repaired ACL is back at full strength.
With several of the NBA’s formerly great players of the past 15-20 years set to walk away from the game and so many of the current star players either exiting or on the back half of their individual primes, it will be nice to watch some of the younger, up-and-coming players develop into the league’s future stars.
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