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NBA AM: Top Sophomores Entering 2015-16

Who are the NBA’s best sophomores to keep an eye on this season? Basketball Insiders’ experts weigh in.

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The 2014 NBA draft featured one of the most hyped up classes in recent memory. Many of the top players in the class had been on the NBA’s radar for years, dating back to their early high school days, and plenty were projected to become stars in the league.

However, a large number of injuries limited the group last year. Lottery picks such as Jabari Parker, Joel Embiid, Julius Randle, Aaron Gordon, Marcus Smart, Noah Vonleh and Doug McDermott got hurt and missed varying chunks of time during their respective rookie seasons.

Unfortunately, entering this season, there have already been two more devastating injuries to top-five picks from the 2014 draft. Dante Exum, who played all 82 games in his rookie season, will be sidelined for the season after tearing his ACL while playing for the Australian national team this summer. The other bad news is that Embiid may miss another full season after having an additional surgery on his right foot.

Hopefully there are significantly fewer setbacks for this class moving forward and we get to see what these prospects can do when they’re playing at full strength. A number of the players in this class have shown flashes of star potential and it’ll be interesting to track their production as sophomores.

With that said, we asked our experts Jessica Camerato, Lang Greene and Alex Kennedy a simple question: Who are the top second-year players to keep an eye on entering the 2015-16 NBA campaign? Here’s what our writers had to say:

Andrew Wiggins

The 20-year-old Wiggins won the Rookie of the Year Award last season and is poised to be the NBA’s top sophomore in his second year. There is plenty of talent in his class, but not everyone is a centerpiece of their team like Wiggins. The focus of the Minnesota Timberwolves is developing their young talent and building a foundation for the future. Wiggins is a focal point in that long-term plan.

Last season, Wiggins ranked first among all rookies with 16.9 points per game – five points ahead of second-ranked Jordan Clarkson. Wiggins started in all 82 games for the Timberwolves and played a team-high 36.2 minutes per game.

It’s also worth noting that Wiggins performed considerably better as the season progressed too, averaging 23.3 points, six rebounds, four assists and one steal in the final month of the regular season. He looked more comfortable and confident by the end of the 2014-15 campaign.

Wiggins also has a huge advantage over some other sophomores since he has the luxury of being surrounded by future Hall of Famer Kevin Garnett and veteran leaders Tayshaun Prince and Andre Miller. These players will help him – on and off the court – as he continues to develop and mature.

Milwaukee Bucks small forward Jabari Parker had the early edge over Wiggins last season before suffering an ACL injury. While he also should be a driving force on his team, there will likely be a transition period as he returns to the court and rebounds from his injury. Wiggins can hit the ground running, using the momentum from his rookie campaign to have another impressive year.

– Jessica Camerato

Jabari Parker

While Andrew Wiggins was running away with the Rookie of the Year award last season, Jabari Parker was hard at work in a rehab facility far from the bright lights of the NBA stage. Parker, of course, is coming off of a torn ACL that ended his rookie campaign after just 25 games.

Prior to the season-ending injury, Parker was averaging 12.3 points, 5.5 rebounds and 1.2 steals per game and he had led the Milwaukee Bucks to a 13-12 start (a record that’s very impressive when you consider they had won just 15 games total in the previous season).

The Bucks successfully withstood Parker’s season-ending injury, winning 41 games and making the playoffs as the sixth seed in the Eastern Conference. This has led some to doubt the forward’s importance to the team, but make no mistake: Parker’s return to form will be an integral part of the Milwaukee’s plan for growth this season.

For comparison, Wiggins will enter the season as Minnesota’s offensive focal point and arguably their best player, but the team is years away from making a serious playoff run in the Western Conference. The Bucks, on the other hand, should be one of the top eight teams in the Eastern Conference (and they may even compete for a relatively high seed).

Parker hasn’t been fully cleared to return to action yet and his status for the season opener is still up in the air. However, the second-year forward is in a great situation and will have every opportunity to succeed and have a strong bounce-back year. He’s surrounded by a talented young core and, perhaps most important, his production will mean more than someone like Wiggins’ since the Bucks should be a playoff squad.

By default, once Parker is in game shape and back to 100 percent, he will be making the biggest impact of any sophomore – even if Wiggins’ numbers are slightly better.

– Lang Greene

Elfrid Payton

First off, let’s make something clear: As of right now, Andrew Wiggins and Jabari Parker are on a tier of their own when it comes to the best players from the 2014 class.

Wiggins was phenomenal last year, proving to be an excellent two-way player for the Minnesota Timberwolves and silencing his doubters who said he couldn’t be a franchise player. Parker was very impressive in his limited action too, and I think he will help take the Bucks to the next level this season since he can be the go-to scorer they desperately lacked once he went down with his torn ACL last year.

Wiggins and Parker clearly have a ton of potential and seem poised for stardom. It’s safe to say that they would still be the first two players off of the board if we were to do a 2014 re-draft today.

With that said, I believe that Orlando Magic point guard Elfrid Payton is someone to keep a close eye on this year because he could be primed for a monster sophomore campaign too.

Anyone who watched Payton last season saw him improve mightily with each passing month. In the 26 games after the All-Star break, he averaged 11.1 points, 8.3 assists, 5.4 rebounds and 2.1 steals. He became a nightly triple-double threat and his late-season play was so impressive that he finished fourth in Rookie of the Year voting.

In March, Payton recorded back-to-back triple-doubles (a 22-point, 10-assist, 10-rebound, four-steal performance against the Portland Trail Blazers and then a 15-point, 12-assist, 10-rebound, two-steal outing against the Dallas Mavericks). He became just the seventh rookie in NBA history to post back-to-back triple-doubles. Payton’s two triple-doubles led all rookies and tied for fourth-most in the NBA among all players, and he had a handful of other games where he just barely missed out on the feat.

He also made huge strides with his jump shot. Early in the year, Payton would rarely look for his own shot outside of the paint. However, by the end of the season, he was hitting mid-range jumpers with some consistency and he actually shot 42.9 percent from three-point range in April and attempted nearly one three each game. After continuing to work on his shot this offseason, he should show even more improvement in that aspect of his game, making him even tougher for opposing teams to contain.

By the end of the season, Payton was much more comfortable on the court, his chemistry with his teammates was great and he looked like a very good floor general. Now, after working extremely hard this summer, the 21-year-old should pick up right where he left off and have a strong sophomore campaign. He also seems poised to improve as a leader, as he has earned the trust of his teammates and is much more comfortable barking at veterans now than he was as an inexperienced rookie.

Bringing in Scott Skiles as Orlando’s new head coach should be great for Payton as well, since Skiles is a defensive-minded former point guard. Since Payton is a pesky defender who irritates opposing ball-handlers and is unselfishly always looking to make the right play, Payton and Skiles should work well together. I also believe Payton will be able to learn more from Skiles than he did last year from Jacque Vaughn, who often seemed in over his head as Orlando’s head coach.

And as Lang pointed out in his argument for Parker, Payton may actually be playing for something this year since the Magic have repeatedly said that they have postseason aspirations. It’s going to be tough for them to crack the top eight in the Eastern Conference, but everyone around the organization is talking playoffs (including Payton, who reiterated the team’s goal when he appeared on a recent episode of the Basketball Insiders podcast). At the very least, Orlando should show improvement and be in the battle for the eighth and final seed.

Again, Payton isn’t on the same level as Wiggins or Parker at this point in time, but he has certainly shown glimpses of brilliance that suggest he could be a very special player and he’s my dark horse sophomore to watch during the 2015-16 season. Last year, he outplayed his draft position (finishing fourth in Rookie of the Year voting after  10th overall pick) and I wouldn’t be surprised to see him take the next step in his development this year.

P.S. Nerlens Noel deserves some honorable mention love in this conversation too. He averaged 13.1 points, 10 rebounds, 2.3 blocks and 2.1 steals after the All-Star break last year and he has looked solid in the preseason. As I recently wrote, putting Noel alongside Jahlil Okafor should do wonders for him since the two big men complement each other well and Noel should do very well at power forward. Noel was drafted in 2013, but he’s technically a sophomore due to his rookie-year injury. Don’t be surprised if, like Payton, he turns heads this year too.

– Alex Kennedy

Which sophomore are you most excited to watch entering the 2015-16 NBA campaign? Which second-year player needs to step up and play well for their respective team? Leave your thoughts in a comment below.

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