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.
NBA Daily: Jaylen Brown Set To Return For Celtics
The Celtics finally got some good news on Thursday. Jaylen Brown’s return is imminent.
Finally, some good news for the Boston Celtics.
Jaylen Brown is set to return to action.
Brown has been M.I.A. since sustaining a concussion during the team’s 117-109 victory over the Minnesota Timberwolves back on March 8, but has traveled with the team to Portland and is expecting to return to the lineup on Sunday when the Celtics do battle with the Sacramento Kings.
As the Celts gear up for a playoff run, which they hope will result in them ending LeBron James’ reign atop the Eastern Conference, they’ve picked the wrong time to run into injury issues. Along with Brown, both Kyrie Irving and Marcus Smart have each been conspicuous by their absences, and the team could certainly use all of their pieces as they attempt to enter the postseason on a high note.
Fortunately for Boston, with the Toronto Raptors leading them by 4.5 games in the standings and the Celts ahead of the Cleveland Cavaliers by a comfortable six games, Brad Stevens’ team is enjoying the rare situation of having a playoff seed that appears to be somewhat locked in.
Still, with the team only able to go as far as its young rotation will carry it, Brown addressed the media on Thursday.
“I’m feeling a lot better. I’m just trying to hurry up and get back,” Brown said, as quoted by Celtics.com.
“I’m tired of not playing.”
Stevens is probably tired of him not playing, too.
As we head into the month of April, playoff-bound teams and conference contenders begin to think about playing into June, while the cellar-dwellers and pretenders begin to look toward the draft lottery and free agency.
What’s funny is that in the midst of the Raptors and their rise out East, the Celtics and their dominance has become a bit of a forgotten storyline. When Gordon Hayward went down on opening night, the neophytes from the Northeast were thought to be a decent team in the making whose ceiling probably wasn’t anywhere near that of the Cavs, the Raptors and perhaps even the Washington Wizards.
Yet through it all, with the impressive growth of Jaylen Brown, impressive rookie Jayson Tatum and the rise of Irving as a franchise’s lynchpin, the Celtics stormed out the games to the tune of a a 17-3 record. What made the strong start even more impressive was the fact that the team won 16 straight games after beginning the season 0-2.
Although they weren’t able to keep up that pace, they began the month of February having gone 37-15 and turned a great many into believers. With their spry legs, team-first playing style and capable leader in Irving, the Celtics, it was thought, were a true contender in the Eastern Conference — if not the favorite.
Since then, and after experiencing injuries to some of its key cogs, the team has gone just 11-8.
In the interim, it seems that many have forgotten about the team that tantalized the Eastern Conference in the early goings of the season.
Brown’s return, in one important respect, will signify a return to Boston’s prior self.
With Marcus Smart having recently undergone surgery to repair a torn tendon in his right thumb, he is expected to be out another five weeks or so, meaning that he’ll likely miss the beginning of the postseason.
As for Irving, although reports say that his ailing knee has no structural damage, everything the Celtics hope to accomplish begins and ends with him. FOX Sports 1’s Chris Broussard believes that it’s no slam dunk that Irving returns to action this season, but he’s in the minority. This team has simply come too far to not give themselves every opportunity to compete at the highest level, so long as doing so doesn’t jeopardize the long term health of any of the franchise’s cornerstones.
Make no mistake about it, the Celtics are far from a finished product. With their nucleus intact and flexibility preserved, they will have another offseason with which to tinker with their rotation pieces and plug away at building a champion.
But here and now, with what they’ve got, the Celtics are much closer than any of us thought they would be at this point.
And on Sunday, when Jaylen Brown rejoins his team in the lineup, to the delight of the Boston faithful, the Celtics will be that much closer.
Winslow and the Miami HEAT Are “Believing in Each Other”
Justise Winslow discusses the all-around team effort of the Miami HEAT with Basketball Insiders.
The days of LeBron James in Miami are over. Chris Bosh isn’t there anymore, either. No more Ray Allen or Shane Battier. Dwyane Wade is back, but he’s not “Flash” nowadays.
Actually, check the entire Miami HEAT roster; there’s no superstar. They have an All-Star in Goran Dragic, even if he was the third alternate. But during this most recent playoff push, the HEAT don’t have a worldwide household name to plaster all over billboards as a reason for their success.
With 10 games remaining until the playoffs, Miami doesn’t have a player averaging more than 33 minutes per game. Instead, they have 11 players who average at least 20 minutes a contest. Their approach is that of a deep rotation, and its led them to a 39-33 record and the 7th seed in the Eastern Conference. All while the rest of the league is star-driven.
One of those key cogs to the Miami machine is third-year wing, Justise Winslow. A former top-10 pick out of Duke, Winslow is enjoying most efficient season so far for the HEAT. To him, the fact that his squad isn’t littered with names like LeBron and Steph doesn’t make a difference.
“I think our team is extremely confident in each other,” Winslow said. “I think that’s a big thing is that we all believe in each other. We play to each other’s strengths, and most importantly we’re a defensive-minded team. We hang our hats on the defensive end, and that’s really what gets us going as a team.”
Winslow isn’t exaggerating. The HEAT is seventh in the NBA in defensive rating. Head coach Erik Spoelstra harps on the team’s defensive scheme and preparation. Without a go-to scorer capable of getting the team 30 any given night, Miami needs to do their job as a collective unit on the defensive end of the floor night in and night out.
“Each night the coaching staff preaching to us that we have enough, no matter who is in the lineup,” Winslow said. “So it’s just about going out there and executing and putting together a good game of 48-minute basketball. I think our belief in each other that we have enough to get the job done is key.”
In the current NBA landscape, a lot of the playoff contenders are centered around players with big resumes and bigger names. As a result, the HEAT get lost in the shuffle of the national conversation from time to time. Their culture of togetherness and slight from the media outside of their city could make for the perfect “chip on the shoulder” recipe. Or so you would think. Winslow doesn’t believe the chatter, or lack thereof, matters any to Miami.
“We don’t pay too much attention to that,” Winslow said. ‘We’re so focused, and locked in on our team, and each other, and trying to win each game. For us, it’s about having the respect of your peers, of the other team. I think every night no matter who we have or who’s healthy, I think teams know we’re going to be a tough, physical team. Guys in this league don’t want that, you don’t want to have to play against a Miami HEAT team that’s going to be physical, that’s going to get into your body, that’s going to make you play a hard, 48-minute basketball game.”
Because of the HEAT’s brand of basketball, an 82-game season can be grueling. For Winslow, keeping his body right throughout the grind is important to him. After dealing with a few injuries last season, and ultimately being shut down for the year last January to undergo right shoulder surgery for a torn labrum, Winslow was determined to make sure he kept his body in check throughout his comeback so he would be available for a long playoff run.
While his numbers aren’t flashy, Winslow is showing improvement. His 49.3 true shooting percentage is the highest of his career, along with shooting nearly 43 percent from beyond the arc, Winslow made strides in arguably the biggest knock against his game since coming out of college.
Because NBA players have the freedom to form partnerships with whichever companies they’d like, Winslow made the choice to strike up a partnership that he felt would not only help him off the court but more importantly, on it as well.
“My partnership with MET-Rx has been great,” Winslow said. “They’ve really helped take my game to the next level with all their nutritional supplements, and the Big 100 bar. So, for me, I’m always looking for ways to stay off my feet, but also get in the best shape possible and this was just a great way to help.”
The grind of the NBA season is also eased for playoff teams by a veteran presence. So, when the HEAT brought back franchise legend Wade at the trade deadline, their locker room suddenly had a face and feel of someone who’s been there before. A player who reached the pinnacle, with the very team that traded for him nonetheless.
Getting Wade back to Miami was crucial for the team’s playoff run down the stretch, and more importantly for Winslow, who benefited greatly from his time with the future Hall of Famer when he was fresh out of college.
“First and foremost, it was great to get him back,” Winslow said. “Just the role that he played in my career as a rookie, and everything I learned from him. But then also, just the energy and positivity that he brought to the locker room, and also the community of Miami, the city of Miami as a whole. It was a much-needed energy boost, and good vibes that he brought back for that post All-Star break push for playoffs. So, it’s just been great having him back, and it’s kind of rejuvenated the team and the locker room, and just the city in general.”
Wade is the MVP-caliber player he once was this time around, though. But that’s okay. This version of the Miami HEAT is charging toward the postseason with a team-first mentality.
NBA Daily: The Road Ahead for Michael Porter Jr.
Michael Porter Jr. is an elite prospect, but questions surrounding his back will determine his landing spot in the NBA.
The Road Ahead for Michael Porter Jr.
While some of the highly thought of college players have made their intentions on declaring for the 2018 NBA Draft known, Missouri’s Michael Porter Jr still hasn’t made his proclamation. Most people in NBA circles believe he’ll be in the 2018 NBA Draft class—you’d be hard-pressed to find someone who doesn’t think he’s in.
Back in November, the Missouri staff was somewhat vague and guarded about Porter’s condition until it was announced that he’d have back surgery on a couple of problematic discs in the lumbar area of his spine. The procedure is called a microdiscectomy and by all accounts was a success.
Porter missed virtually all of his college season but opted to play in the post-season for Missouri, who got eliminated fairly quickly.
There were certainly a lot of ugly things about Porter’s game. He looked out of shape, and certainly wasn’t the overwhelming dominating force he’d been in high school. Some executives applauded his decision to play, even though he wasn’t at a 100 percent. Some pointed to that fact that too many college players play it safe and that’s not always viewed positively. Almost no one Basketball Insiders spoke with was holding the less than stellar outing against him. In fact, most had far more positive things to say than negative. There was one resounding theme from the NBA executives who spoke about this situation—none of it matters until they see his medical.
Assuming Porter does as expected and hires an agent and enters the draft, the next challenge he’ll face is how open he wants to be to teams looking at drafting him.
In recent years, NBA teams have not shied away from using high draft picks on injured or recently injured players. Once a team can get a sense of how the player is recovering, they can make a value judgment.
Agents often use this information and access to the player to help steer their client to the situation they deem most favorable. While fans and outsiders often get caught up in the pick number a player ultimately lands at, more and more agents are concerned with fit, especially for a player that may need time to get back to 100 percent.
Most agents would want to steer their client to a team with favorable medical staff, a team with a proven track record of patience or more importantly, a team with the best chance at a long and fruitful career.
This won’t be good news for some team that could end up in the top 10, as it’s more likely that Porter isn’t made available to everyone. NBA executives will tell you, they can certainly draft him if they wanted to, but most teams won’t draft a player if their medical staff doesn’t sign off, and without information and access how can they do that?
There is a significant financial difference in going third in the draft ($5.47 million) and 10th ($2.964 million) – but several agents commented that the short-term money shouldn’t drive the long-term decision, especially if the player isn’t 100 percent. The fit and situation typically trump everything in these situations.
Another concept to consider is while Porter did play, there are questions about whether he’ll host a pro-day, take part in private team workouts or simply let his body of work drive his draft value.
Almost no one who spoke about this situation believed Porter would take part in the NBA Draft Combine in Chicago, as he’d have to subject himself to the medical testing that’s part of that event.
The common perception on Porter is he’s a top-five talent, although it seems more likely that his camp is going to try and work the process to ensure he lands in a favorable situation. That could mean he falls out of top-five selections, simply because he and his agents choose to.
There is still a lot that needs to play out for Porter, including his announcement that he will enter the draft. But given where things stand with him, it’s more likely than not he’s coming into the draft, and it’s more likely than not he’ll have a lot of questions NBA teams will want to understand before his real draft position is clear.
The NBA Draft Lottery will be held in Chicago this year and is scheduled for May 15th. The annual Draft Combine, also in Chicago, gets underway on May 16th.
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