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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.

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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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