The NBA’s Top Sophomores
The 2016 class did much better in its second year, but several of its players stood out among the pack this season, writes Matt John.
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.
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