The 2016 draft wasn’t exactly one of the most exciting classes in recent memory. Other than Ben Simmons and arguably Brandon Ingram, no one else in the 2016 draft was believed to have All-Star potential. There were some intriguing prospects, but after Simmons and Ingram, the draft overall was viewed as weak.
The class’ rookie year didn’t do much to disprove that notion. With Simmons out for the year because of a foot injury, the 2016 draft class failed to find a clear standout. The top candidates for Rookie of the Year were Joel Embiid and Dario Saric, both of whom were drafted two years prior, and Malcom Brogdon, a second-round pick. The fact that Brogdon was the first second-round pick to win the award spoke volumes for how unimpressive the 2016 rookie class was.
Year two, however, has been a vast improvement. The draft’s top picks have played much better, a few unknowns suddenly became vital contributors to their teams, and the class’ best players look like they could be potential superstars.
But which sophomores were among the best in their class this season? There were many players to choose from with so little spots, so ultimately the criteria for who the top ones were players who:
a. Played the best
b. Showed the most improvement
c. Played the biggest role in his team’s success
d. All the above
Before we start the list, here are the honorable mentions.
Buddy Hield: His numbers have been solid, but he hasn’t shown much improvement since his encouraging half-season with the Kings last year, though that’s not entirely his fault.
Malcom Brogdon: Brogdon hasn’t shown much improvement. He is important to the Bucks, but they haven’t shown much improvement either.
Caris Levert/Taurean Prince: Both have shown promise, but it hasn’t led to much this season.
Fred VanVleet/Pascal Siakam/Jakob Poeltl: These three have surpassed the very little expectation they had coming into the season with flying colors. None of them have high ceilings, but they have played an instrumental role in the Raptors’ success this season.
The Cream of the Crop
Kris Dunn: Dunn’s future in the NBA looked pretty bleak considering both his disappointing rookie season in Minnesota and his old rookie age, at 23. However, after Chicago traded for Dunn in the Jimmy Butler deal, it seems that Fred Hoiberg has unlocked the potential many believed Dunn had coming into the NBA.
Dunn’s numbers have skyrocketed across the board. From field goal percentages to points to assists, Dunn’s stats have all seen a drastic increase. Combine that with Dunn’s growing reputation as one of the league’s top perimeter defenders, and Chicago should be thrilled with his production.
Domantas Sabonis: Sabonis also struggled his rookie season, but this may have been because the Thunder misused him. When Sabonis was traded to the Pacers, he was put back into the role that made him thrive at Gonzaga. Instead of hanging around at the perimeter like in OKC, the Pacers have had Sabonis play more of an inside-out game. As a result, Sabonis has been terrific this season.
Victor Oladipo is the obvious answer when people ask why Indiana has exceeded expectations this season, but Sabonis’ contributions should not go unnoticed. Sabonis has doubled both his scoring and rebounding numbers now that he’s playing a role that he’s clearly more comfortable with. His dominance playing with the second unit should make him a valuable cog for Indiana going forward.
Jamal Murray: After his initial struggles his rookie year, Murray has gradually gotten a lot better over his first two seasons, which should excite Denver since the Emmanuel Mudiay era didn’t work out as well as they had hoped.
Murray has lived up to his billing both as a sharpshooter, shooting 38 percent from three and 45 percent overall, and as a scorer, averaging 16.7 points. What’s more is that he’s developed great chemistry with Nikola Jokic, and he’s played a crucial role in Denver’s playoff chase. Denver’s season has been uneven, and Murray’s defense leaves a lot to be desired, but he should be a staple to the Nuggets’ success for years to come.
Jaylen Brown: Last season, Brown was merely a luxury for the Celtics. When the team was fully healthy, they didn’t rely much on him much, so any good production from him was just gravy. Brown’s role increased considerably when the team traded Jae Crowder and Avery Bradley, then it increased exponentially when Gordon Hayward went down five minutes into the season.
In response, Brown has done a phenomenal job filling the void that Hayward left with his injury. Brown’s improved shooting and defense have played a key role in the Celtics getting the second seed in the east. Brown’s defense should not come as a shock, but since many questioned whether he would be an effective shooter coming into the NBA, Brown has also demonstrated his tireless work ethic.
Not bad for a guy who was mercilessly booed by the fans upon being drafted by the team.
Dario Saric: Saric is yet another testament to how effective the process has been in Philadelphia. Sixers fans waited patiently for Saric to come overseas, and in his first two seasons, they have been rewarded for their patience. Saric has been terrific since coming to Philly and is an instrumental part of their surprising run to the third seed this season.
Saric was heavily considered for rookie of the year last season, but one of his issues was his subpar shooting averages, both overall and from three. Saric’s improvements in both areas this season have made him the ideal complement to Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons as a stretch four. Saric’s improved shooting only boosts his case as the jack-of-all-trades forward that all teams want, but very few have.
Brandon Ingram: Before the 2016 draft, some scouts believed Ingram was a better prospect than Simmons. Unfortunately, Ingram looked about as raw as a raw prospect could be his rookie year. While he didn’t necessarily look bad, he looked like a long-term project. This season though, it’s been an entirely different story.
Month after month, Ingram continuously improved his play. Most notably, his 3-point shooting and his play-making made great progress. Adding those two abilities to his arsenal should make him the dangerous all-around threat that many scouts believed he would be. Ingram’s all-around improvement opens a lot of possibilities for the Lakers’ future. So much so that, if the Lakers wind up not getting Paul George or Lebron this summer, they won’t have to worry.
Joel Embiid: Even if it was a short sample, Joel Embiid showed the NBA world what he was made of last season. In just 31 games, Embiid showed Philly what they had been waiting for since 2014. Embiid is basically the prime example of what a modern big in the NBA should be. Talent-wise, he didn’t have much to prove, but the one aspect that remained in question for him leading up to the season was health.
Many doubted if Embiid could ever stay on the court, but, up until his untimely eye injury last week, Embiid was on pace to play 70 games this season. If this is a sign of things to come, then the process in Philly will be a wild success, and Joel “The Process” Embiid will be the center of a glorious new era in Philly.
For now though, “if” is the operative word.
Remember, this is more about who has looked better this season. Last season, Hield and Brogdon were deservedly on the NBA all-rookie first team. Pending on any fluke injuries, these should be the standouts among the 2016 class next season. What makes the NBA so much fun is the wild unpredictability to it.
In the NBA, Shift happens.
How D’Angelo Russell Fits Within The Golden State System
After acquiring D’Angelo Russell in a sign-and-trade, Steve Kerr and the Golden State staff will look to maximize his talents in their offensive system. The final product may take some time, but there is a reason to believe that he could thrive in the new role, writes Quinn Davis.
For the first time in four years, the Golden State Warriors will enter the campaign as underdogs to win the championship. After losing the 2019 NBA Finals to Toronto, Kevin Durant joined Brooklyn and will spend a season rehabbing his Achilles before chasing a championship with new teammate Kyrie Irving. During Game 6 against the Raptors, Klay Thompson landed awkwardly on a fastbreak layup attempt, tearing his ACL and leaving his status uncertain for the entire upcoming season.
The Warriors were able to marginally re-tool by turning Durant’s departure into a sign-and-trade with the Nets, receiving 2019 All-Star D’Angelo Russell, along with Shabazz Napier and Treveon Graham. Golden State also sent a protected 2020 first-round pick to Brooklyn as part of the deal, while Napier and Graham were flipped to Minnesota for cap purposes.
Of course, Russell is coming off his best season as a professional, having just led a feisty Brooklyn squad to the postseason with a barrage of pull-up three-pointers and nifty passing. He spent the season as the lead ball-handler for the Nets and was often asked to create shots for himself and others during his time on the court.
Now the young showstopper will need to coexist with Stephen Curry, a future Hall of Famer that happens to be a decent lead ball-handler in his own right. How head coach Steve Kerr fosters this relationship — and how Russell performs in the role — will be a major factor in the Warriors’ positioning come playoff time in the Western Conference. While it could take some patience, there is some reason for optimism in the Bay Area.
Since Kerr took over coaching duties in the 2014-15 season, the Warriors have been a bastion of ball movement. They led the NBA last season in both assists per game and assist percentage. Brooklyn, meanwhile, finished 21st and 18th in those respective categories.
When looking at just Russell, he was assisted on only 29 percent of his total shots, and just 53 percent of his three-pointers, putting him in the 91st and 96th percentile of those categories, per cleaningtheglass.com. Russell was liable to pull up from deep at any moment last season, one of the best among non-James Harden players at canning triples off the bounce.
Needless to say, Russell will not carry the same creative burden in Golden State. The gravity Curry creates, combined with the team affinity for passing, will lead to a plethora of catch-and-shoot opportunities — a skill in which the Ohio State product has shown proficiency on.
Per NBA.com, Russell hit a touch over 39 percent of his catch-and-shoot three-point attempts last season. For comparison, Klay Thompson shot just over 40 percent on these attempts.
This is not to say Russell can stand in as a Thompson replica — that’s an impossible task. Thompson had almost double the volume on those attempts, while his lightning-quick release allows him to shoot in tight spaces and when coming off screens. The majority of his catch-and-shoot three-pointers came from a standstill position as teammates found him with the extra pass. What Russell can do is provide the spacing necessary for Curry to operate, plus drill open looks when given the opportunity.
While Russell cannot perfectly emulate one of the best shooters ever, the Warriors could utilize him in ways they weren’t able to with Thompson.
Russell’s largely-successful stint as the creative orchestrator in Brooklyn will afford him plenty of chances to run the show this season as well. Even better, Russell may find it easier to create with a two-time MVP attracting multiple sets of eyes out at the three-point arc. Unsurprisingly, Curry shot a blistering 44.6 percent on catch-and-shoot threes, so Russell should see a less-crowded paint when he penetrates toward another patented floater.
Additionally, there’s the interesting wrinkle of using Curry as a screener with Russell running the pick and roll. Curry is a great screener for a guard and the Warriors have thrived with him off-ball, a decision that often leads to — you guessed it — freer looks around the three-point line. In the past, Golden State opted for Curry setting on-ball screens, mostly with Durant as the ball-handler. Those scenarios watch Curry slip the screens and dart to the three-point line, always leaving defenses in scramble mode.
Russell could slot into this role now, offering the ball-handling ability and pull up threat that Durant possessed. Last season, the Warriors scored 1.40 points per possession when Curry was the screener in a pick and roll, per NBA.com. They only had 0.6 of these possessions per game, but that is an elite number, and something they could look to for a basket in a close game. Kenny Atkinson, the Nets’ head coach, typically paired Russell with Spencer Dinwiddie and the fluid, intentionally confusing movement helped Brooklyn surprise the league over and over again.
It’s easy to picture Curry playing the role of Dinwiddie here, setting a screen for Russell to start the action, then relocating to the three-point line as Russell goes into a 1-5 pick and roll.
The Warriors are not only getting someone who could complement their stars, but also a player that could lead the offense when Curry is resting. This is where Russell’s experience from this last season in Brooklyn will be most useful.
In 2018-19, the Warriors had a paltry 100.6 offensive rating with both Curry and Durant off the court, per cleaningtheglass.com. The backup point guard position was usually manned by Quinn Cook or Shaun Livingston. Both were serviceable, but not without their limitations. Cook operated as more of a floor spacer and was not asked to create for teammates, while the savvy Livingston moved the ball but mostly looked to score in the post. Russell will provide the combination of shooting and point guard skills to control the floor and bend defenses.
Per NBA.com, the Warriors ran the fewest pick and rolls in the league last season. With Russell now in the fold, they could add some of that to their playbook for a little more offensive diversity. Russell showed a keen ability to manipulate a pick and roll last season and these clips show the type of playmaking he could bring to his new team.
Presumably, Kerr will want one of Curry or Russell on the court at all times, especially until Thompson returns. It’s also possible that Curry is asked to spend some time with the bench, with Russell and the remaining starters playing while the superstar rests. Either way, the staggering of their minutes will be an important puzzle for Kerr to solve this offseason.
There are still areas of concern for the Russell addition. While all signs point to easy offensive assimilation, it is not a foregone conclusion that Russell can slide into the role of secondary playmaker and floor spacer after a full, All-Star-worthy year as the lead dog. That said, Kerr has dealt with multiple stars every year and always passed with flying colors — on top of that, Curry is as selfless as they come. What might become a major concern for other teams may not even register as a speed bump for this Warriors franchise.
Still, there is also the other half of the game and Russell will not be able to replace what Thompson brought defensively. Although Draymond Green is a master at covering for teammates mistakes, a Curry-Russell backcourt could be problematic on that end. Even the impenetrable Green will struggle to plug every gap for this year’s iteration of the Warriors.
Notably, Russell did do a good job last season of not fouling, finishing in the 91st percentile in this category per cleaningtheglass.com. A 6-foot-10 wingspan allows him to contest well and swipe the ball from unsuspecting opponents.
If he can improve his off-ball instincts under the tutelage of the Golden State’ staff, and exert a little more energy on that end, he could mitigate some of those defensive concerns.
All in all, the positives easily outweigh any concerns here. Russell will bring extra playmaking to the Warriors that was sorely needed with the Durant departure, and he can also slide in next to Curry rather seamlessly.
There will be work to do for Kerr and his coaching tree, but his track record signifies that this could be a mutually beneficial relationship. If Russell keeps evolving at his newest hurdle — and the Warriors have a healthy Klay Thompson come playoff time — the fight for supremacy in the conference could be hotter than ever.
NBA Daily: Bobby Portis Ready For Anything After Hectic Offseason
Bobby Portis rightfully earned his first-ever NBA payday this summer, but he’s ready to settle in with the New York Knicks and play his role — whatever it may be — writes David Yapkowitz.
NBA free agency can be a stressful time for players, that often goes without saying. It can be a waiting game as teams put their time and resources into the big-name guys, while the rest of the league is left to twiddle their thumbs until the dominoes begin to fall.
This offseason was no different as Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard and Kyrie Irving, among others, hit the open market. For players like Bobby Portis, who was experiencing free agency for the first time in his career, the initial process can seem like a whirlwind.
At the start of the 2018-19 season, Portis was entering the final year of his rookie contract with the Chicago Bulls. As a player who has improved every year since he started playing regular minutes, Portis was in line for a solid payday this summer.
Before the start of the season, Portis and the Bulls were unable to agree on a contract extension, so Chicago moved him to the Washington Wizards at the trade deadline. Several teams were interested in Portis once free agency hit, but the young big man came to a quick agreement with the New York Knicks.
Although he made his decision in the early days of free agency, the entire process was still a little hectic for Portis.
“It was crazy, every day hearing the different teams that were interested in me, really not knowing what’s going to happen,” Portis told Basketball Insiders. “Luckily, on the first day of free agency, I was able to pick where I wanted to go and it was a blessing. It was just kind of crazy leading up to it though, hearing from different teams and just not knowing. But I’m blessed.”
For the past several years, the Knicks have been on the lower end of the NBA’s totem pole and they last made the playoffs back during the 2012-13 season. Since then, it’s been lottery season after lottery season with seemingly nothing to show for it.
Things look like they might changing a bit, however. This past season’s lottery finish yielded a highly-touted prospect in R.J. Barrett. Last summer’s draft brought them Kevin Knox and Mitchell Robinson. While Knox remains raw, Robinson emerged as a legitimate building block for the future.
They also struck gold with Allonzo Trier, who went undrafted last summer. And David Fizdale, who will be entering his second year as head coach, has brought with him the same no-nonsense attitude and solid culture that he had in Memphis. In fact, it was conversations with Fizdale that really helped sway Portis to the Knicks.
“Just the feel, they have a great coach in David Fizdale, they got a lot of young pieces out there I think I can come in and fit with,” Portis told Basketball Insiders. “I love that they signed Julius [Randle], that’s another guy that can bang and really play at a high level. I love everything David was talking about with me in the meeting that I had with him.”
Portis wasn’t the only big free-agent addition that the Knicks added to their roster, actually making a flurry of signings once the period got underway. They addressed some of their playmaking and shooting woes with the additions of veterans like Wayne Ellington, Reggie Bullock and Elfrid Payton. They also bolstered their frontcourt with Julius Randle, Marcus Morris and Taj Gibson.
To some pundits out there, the Knicks’ free-agent moves came across as a head-scratcher, especially their frontcourt signings. While Gibson will undoubtedly come off the bench, Portis, Randle and Morris each have strong cases to be the starting power forward.
All three have very similar skillsets in terms of versatile big men that can do a little bit of everything on the court. Portis admits that it’ll be a challenge at first when it comes to establishing roles and figuring out minutes in the rotation but, ultimately, he’s confident it will all figure itself out.
“It’s going to be competitive every day, it’s going to be a grind, it’s going to be difficult at first, but I think as things slowly progress, it’s going to go really, really well for us. I think we’re going to be really good,” Portis told Basketball Insiders. “We got a lot of guys who can do a lot of different things with the basketball.
“In today’s NBA game, you need a lot of guys who can stretch the floor, shoot the ball, put the ball on the floor and make plays for others. I think we have a lot of versatile guys on our team and I think that’s where our team is at right now.”
When it comes to his own role in the team, Portis is confident about what he brings to the table. As the offseason winds to a close, and training camp right around the corner, he’ll be entering his fifth year in the NBA. He’s still only 24 years old with his best basketball ahead of him.
With massive steps forward every campaign, Portis has officially established himself as a legitimate stretch big man who can thrive in the modern landscape. This past season, he put up career-highs of 14.2 points per game, 8.1 rebounds and 39.3 percent shooting from three-point range.
With other versatile big men on the roster, Portis is willing to adapt to whatever role the Knicks ask him to play.
“I bring energy, I love to score the basketball, I can score from all three levels. Driving the basketball, shooting the three, posting up, finding the mismatch, just being who I am,” Portis told Basketball Insiders. “I think I’ve done a good job since I’ve been in the league of being who I am, knowing my role on the team and playing it to a tee. I think I can hone in on any role that Coach Fizdale wants me to play.”
NBA Daily: Team USA Facing More Adversity Than Just On-Court Competition
Lots of current and future NBA stars pulled their names from consideration for the 2019 FIBA World Cup, but the bigger challenge comes from the game’s ever-increasing global presence. Drew Maresca examines how Team USA might be facing a perfect storm of adversity.
The 2019 FIBA Basketball World Cup is upon us. The World Cup takes place every four years with — usually — two years between it and the Olympics. But FIBA made some changes to the tournament last year, moves that included delaying the World Cup one year and announcing that it would become a broader qualifying event for the Olympics. In years’ past, only the winner of the tournament automatically qualified. The United States is looking to defend the gold after having won the past two tournaments in 2010 and 2014.
Basketball Insiders’ Douglas Farmer recently covered the potential free agency implications of players participating in Team USA. And while a select few NBA clubs will probably benefit from the synergy and friendships generated while playing with the roster, the team itself might struggle to maintain the gold standard – no pun intended – set by previous iterations.
Team USA has lost a good deal of the talent that it might have assumed to have on its roster as of a few months ago: Marvin Bagley Jr., Bradley Beal, Anthony Davis, Andre Drummond, De’Aaron Fox, Eric Gordon, James Harden, Montrezl Harrell, Tobias Harris, Damian Lillard, Kevin Love, Kyle Lowry, CJ McCollum, Paul Milsap, JJ Redick, Julius Randle , P.J. Tucker and Trae Young. Of course, this doesn’t take into consideration those who pulled their names from consideration prior to this summer.
The above-mentioned players opted out of Team USA for a variety of reasons, from load management to injuries and so on. But the overarching takeaway is that personal success and professional priorities take precedence over international basketball.
And that’s understandable. Many of the players who opted out have either experienced previous achievements with Team USA or are young enough to look ahead to future opportunities to do so.
But where does that leave Team USA this summer? Who is left to build around? Well, there’s Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Kemba Walker, Khris Middleton and Donovan Mitchell. Those five are probably the most talented players left on the USA’s roster. On paper, that group represents a dynamic and talented core that can compete with virtually anyone.
But that doesn’t guarantee success. First of all, there is a significant drop off in talent from previous years. During the most recent Olympics, Team USA had nine reigning All-Stars, but this current collection only has two – the lowest total since 1998, a lockout year for the NBA in which the professionals mostly opted out.
And the competition in the 2019 FIBA World Cup isn’t just anyone.
Sure, there is still talent on Team USA – albeit less than there was on past teams – but the real challenge for this team is the ever-increasing talent and competition overseas.
The competition being produced by Europe, Africa, Australia and Canada is far better than it’s ever been before. For reference, there were only 70 foreign-born players in the NBA at the start of the 2008-09 season, according to Basketball-Reference, the season that immediately followed the Redeem Team’s first-place finish in the 2008 Summer Olympics. That number jumped to 108 during 2018-19, representing an increase of more than 50 percent in only 10 years. In fact, 108 isn’t even the record for most foreign-born players on NBA rosters on opening night as that accomplishment belongs to the 113 in 2016-17.
Not only is there more foreign-born talent, that new competition is only getting stronger. There were only 17 foreign-born All-Stars in the 64 seasons prior to 2010; there have been 13 in the nine years since 2010 and three in 2018-19 alone.
But truly elite talent and volume are different. The NBA has crowned three different foreign-born MVPs over the past 14 seasons — Giannis Antetokounmpo, Dirk Nowitzki and Steve Nash — and only one during its first 48 years of existence (Hakeem Olajuwon).
And while there is more high-level international talent in the NBA than the league has ever seen, it’s undeniable that some countries produce significantly more of it. For example, there are far more NBA players from France, Canada and Australia than from China or Mexico – meaning that international talent is centralized in a select few countries.
Notably, as of 2018-19, there were 42 Canadian-born NBA players, 30 Serbians, 30 French, 25 Australians, 22 Croatians, 18 Germans, 17 Brazilians, 17 Nigerians and 12 Argentinians, among others.
So, obviously, Team USA has its fair share of competition. America still currently produces more top-tier talent than any other country — but without its best players available, the US could be in big trouble.
But this is a natural progression for a game that has become increasingly more global. According to the NBA, 127 current and former players and coaches visited 40 different countries this offseason to continue growing the game. And what’s more, 2018-19 NBA broadcasts reached one billion unique viewers. 35 percent of NBA.com visitors hail from outside of North America and NBA League Pass is available in 200 countries around the globe.
To call the NBA’s international footprint vast would somehow still undersell the sport’s rapid growth around the planet.
So it is logical to assume — while the United States will continue to produce elite players — that the rest of the world is on a more aggressive trajectory in creating their own other-worldly competitors. And it probably won’t be long before Team USA’s advantage on the hardwood becomes a thing of the past and other nations enter international tournaments as the favorite – regardless of whether the best in this country are participating or not.