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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.

Matt John

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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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NBA PM: The Wizards Are Good Now?

The Washington Wizards went from 5-15 to 13-18 out of nowhere. Much improved from their early-season play they make a run? Dylan Thayer examines.

Dylan Thayer

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After the swap of John Wall and Russell Westbrook, the Washington Wizards did not look like they were going to be a playoff team. 20 games into the season, the team found themselves at 5-15 with trade rumors constantly buzzing. At one point, they even had the worst record in the NBA, while looked like a trade of Westbrook, Bradley Beal or even both was a certainty with the team was set to pivot into a true rebuild.

Now, all of a sudden, Washington has the look of a team that could make the postseason play-in game. 8-5 in their last 13 with wins over the Boston Celtics, Denver Nuggets, Portland Trail Blazers and Los Angeles Lakers, the Wizards have started to climb the conference, now just 2.5 games back on the Charlotte Hornets for the East’s eighth seed.

But what’s changed? Let’s take a step back and look at what exactly made them start the season out so slowly.

Early in the year, the former MVP Westbrook was playing through a left quad injury. He wasn’t nearly explosive with the ball as he’s always been, settling for low-percentage jumpers and outside shots, perhaps the biggest weakness in his game. Between the injury and COVID-19 postponements, Westbrook and many other Wizards were away from the court for a significant time — the whole team was in flux.

Then, on Valentine’s Day, the team took the floor in Boston and destroyed the Celtics; the 104-91 final doesn’t truly reflect that, but at one point the Wizards led by as many as 25. A national game beatdown, their play led into the best stretch the Wizards have seen this season.

Westbrook, over his injury, looked like his former explosive self. He’s posted six triple-doubles since, while he came within a point or assist of doing so in three other contests. And, back on the court, the entire team was also able to spend some time together, which allowed them to further jell as a unit and build some momentum toward future games.

It was a surprise when Beal came out and said he did not want to be traded from Washington, with more than a few curious as to how the NBA’s leading scorer could be satisfied with such subpar play from the rest of his roster. But he “shared a consistent viewpoint” with the team, according to Shams Charania, as to what they have done to build around him. The Wizards’ clear leader, Beal has signaled he’s in it for the long-haul, while additions like Westbrook should only serve to solidify that commitment.

Beyond their two stars, the Wizards roster has also stepped up in their most recent stretch. Sophomore Rui Hachimura has proven capable alongside the star-duo in the first unit, while Robin Lopez has stepped up in the absence of Thomas Bryant, who was lost for the season to a torn ACL. Deni Avdija and Garrison Matthews have both flashed as well, with Matthews shooting 41.3 percent from three and even earning a starting role.

If they can sustain their recent success, Washington could easily make the postseason in an underwhelming Eastern Conference. In fact, the tightly-packed nature of the East — while they’re 2.5 games behind Charlotte, just four games separate the Wizards and the fourth seed Celtics — should only serve to benefit Washington in their quest for their first postseason berth since the 2017-18 season. And, if the Wizards want to bolster their team for a playoff run and look to buy at the deadline, they certainly have the pieces to make some interesting moves. With most of their draft capital for the foreseeable future, along with some interesting contracts they could flip for more win-now type players, anything could happen.

The Beal-Westbrook, while it started rough, has not nearly been as bad as most people would think. For the team, the 2020-21 season has proven more promising than they may have thought and, if they can continue to elevate their game, don’t be shocked to see the Wizards on the big stage come May.

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NBA Daily: Should Toronto Add A Big?

The Raptors have started to thrive with their small-ball lineup. But, with some intriguing options available, should they look to add a traditional center?

Ariel Pacheco

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After a rough start to the season, the Toronto Raptors have hit their stride. They are now .500 and the fifth seed in the Eastern Conference. They’ve tinkered with their lineups for a variety of reasons, but mostly due to inconsistent play at the center position until coach Nick Nurse decided to just play small.

Aron Baynes’ play has been a huge disappointment. Brought in to be a serviceable replacement for Marc Gasol, but his play has dropped off after a career year with the Phoenix Suns last season. The starter to open the season, Baynes lost his job after failing to produce; his 35 percent three-point percentage from a season ago has dipped to an abysmal 23 percent in 2020-21. Alex Len was also signed to give the Raptors solid minutes but similarly disappointed, as he played just seven games in Toronto before he was released. Len’s defense was an issue and that left the Raptors with only one other candidate at center.

Enter Chris Boucher, who has easily been the best big on the roster. Despite his thin frame, Boucher has been an effective defender on the inside and, while Nick Nurse has been reluctant to start him, Boucher has become one of the NBA’s best bench players, averaging 13 points, 6.5 rebounds and 2 blocks per game. He’s also shooting 44 percent from three despite the unique form of his jump shot.

That said, since Nurse won’t start Boucher, the Raptors have turned to a starting five of Kyle Lowry, Fred VanVleet, Pascal Siakam, Norman Powell and OG Anunoby. It’s turned their season around and was a group often turned to last postseason. Versatile and easily switchable, defensively, the lineup can also provide significant firepower on offense. Together, they’ve posted a net rating of plus-11.1 in 51 minutes, per NBA.com, Toronto’s best among groups with at least 50 minutes together.

Pascal Siakam, who struggled to start the season, has benefitted from the lineup in particular. Spending more time than ever this season at the center-spot, the Raptors’ versatility has ensured Siakam a favorable matchup in almost any situation, which has helped both his efficiency and overall production.

With that in mind, should Toronto look to add a more traditional center?

In short, yes — but only if the price is right. Boucher has been excellent and, while he’s struggled, Baynes can still impact the game in short spurts, especially on the defensive end. There are certainly some intriguing names available, such as DeMarcus Cousins and Andre Drummond, but neither would seem to be a great match for Toronto. 

Cousins, once at least a passable defender, has become a huge liability. Injuries have sapped his ability and Cousins would not only struggle to stay in front of quicker guards but would provide little rim protection. Offensively, he’s shooting 33 percent from the three-point line, below the league average. Cousins has also struggled to finish around the rim this season, as he’s only made 44 percent of his attempts in the restricted area, per NBA.com.

Andre Drummond is a more intriguing option, but only if he were to buy-in. Drummond is an elite rebounder and the Raptors, dead last in rebounds per game, could certainly use help on the glass. The issue with Drummond, however, is that he’s always tried to do too much on offense, which isn’t his strength. If he could settle into a role, rather than try to be the focal point of the offense, he could be a great fit — that said, he has yet to do that in his nine NBA seasons, so there’s little reason to believe might now. Adding him after a potential buy out, rather than trading for him, might make a Drummond gamble worth it for Toronto.

Their best lineup will always be their small lineup and should give them a chance against just about anyone. But the Raptors, if only to eat minutes throughout the rest of the regular season, will likely need to acquire another center at some point. As for the postseason, being able to throw some size at players like Joel Embiid, Domantas Sabonis, Julius Randle and Bam Adebayo could prove integral to Toronto’s success as well.

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The Future of ‘Sexland’ in Cleveland

The Cleveland Cavaliers young duo of Collin Sexton and Darius Garland started hot but now find themselves in the back of the Eastern Conference standings. What does this mean for the Cavs’ future and for the viability of ‘Sexland’ long-term?

Zach Dupont

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When the 2020-21 season began, the Cleveland Cavaliers were among the hot topics in the NBA. The Cavaliers burst out of the gate with a 3-0 record and even claimed a convincing 118-94 win over the Philadelphia 76ers. This hot-start was primarily due to the play of their young guards Collin Sexton and Darius Garland. Before long, teammate Larry Nance Jr.’s ‘Sexland’ moniker started catching on quicker nationwide.

Since then, and in part thanks to a brutal schedule, Cleveland has faltered, falling to 13th in the Eastern Conference with a record of 14-21. The Cavaliers’ direction has become clear during this challenging season; they’re trying to get younger and better suited for the future. Made evident through their actions this season, like sidelining Andre Drummond until they find a trade partner and acquiring Jarrett Allen from the Brooklyn Nets in the massive James Harden trade.

In terms of a successful rebuild, the first point of discussion has to be about star guard Collin Sexton. Now in his third season, Sexton leads the Cavaliers in scoring, putting up 23.8 points per game and doing so efficiently with a 58 true shooting percentage. Sexton has already proven that he’s a legit NBA starter, but can he lead a playoff-caliber team with his scoring? Sexton’s three-point shooting is already at a high level, hitting on 39.2 percent so far and 40 percent this season, but what he offers off the dribble is what will elevate him to superstar status.

Sexton is shooting 46 percent on pull-up jump shots this season and 48 percent on step-back jump shots, per NBA.com. Compared to the rest of the league, Sexton is 14th in the NBA in field goal percentage on pull-up jumpers, among those who shoot more than five per game. This scoring puts Sexton in elite company with the likes of the NBA’s best scorers, better even than Paul George, Jaylen Brown and Stephen Curry. Sexton is also a skilled finisher at the rim and, despite being just 6-foot-1, the guard has a field goal percentage of 60 from within five feet of the rim.

Sexton’s game is not without issues though, some of which hold him back from being an elite offensive engine. Perhaps Sexton’s biggest weakness on offense is his lack of passing skill. With Drummond – and his 30 percent usage rate – no longer playing, Sexton now has the greenest of lights and sports a 26.7 usage rate. Sexton’s offensive package of dribble pull-ups and attacking the rim naturally means he needs to have the ball in his hands, but his assist percentage of 20.3 is 107th league-wide. So far, Sexton isn’t a player who creates many shots for his teammates and that might hinder some of the overall development.

Sexton’s partner in crime is second-year guard Darius Garland. The Vanderbilt alum operates as the feature distributor, leading the team in assists per game at 5.9. Like Sexton, Garland is a shooting-oriented guard with 288 of his 398 shot attempts coming on jumpers. Further, Garland struggles to get offense generated at the basket. And worse, he’s only shot 107 layups all season and tallied a 53.2 percent field goal percentage from within five feet from the rim.

Incapable of reaching the free throw line, Garland only shoots 1.8 free throws per game, 123rd in the NBA. Of course, Garland is a more willing passer than Sexton but still has the same shoot-first mindset, which puts the Cavaliers in an odd spot.

If Garland improves to become a consistent 40+ percent three-point shooter and Sexton unlocks the ability to shoot from deep at a truly elite level, the pair could have a real dynamic shooting threat. On the flip side, running two undersized guards, neither of whom are elite offensive playmakers, could be a recipe for disaster… and that’s often been the case this season.

The Cavaliers have the second-worst offensive rating in the NBA at 105.4, beating out only the Oklahoma City Thunder. This inadequate offensive production isn’t all on Sexton and Garland, as Cleveland’s lack of depth –some due to long-term injuries – and poor shooting outside of their guards, has them 24th in field goal percentage and 27th in three-point percentage. While Sexton and Garland are both talented offensive weapons, the duo hasn’t thrived together as an offense. 

Playing the undersized backcourt has problems offensively, but defensively it’s been an issue as well. Garland and Sexton are both 6-foot-1 and sub-200 lbs, making them two of the smaller players in the league. In short, Cleveland has the 10th-worst defensive rating in the NBA at 113.7. This combination of lousy offense and lackluster defense gives them a net rating of -8.3, the worst league-wide. 

It’s safe to say that Sexland isn’t currently working down in Cleveland, but that doesn’t mean the franchise is destined for failure. The Cavaliers are a very young team and three of their everyday starters are younger than 22 years old – Sexton, Garland and newcomer Isaac Okoro. If you include Allen, that’s four, despite the massive payday he’s due this upcoming summer.

Kevin Love, Taurean Prince, Cedi Osman and the currently-injured Larry Nance are all serviceable rotation players, but the rest of the roster leaves a lot to be desired. Until their next high lottery selection, the likes of Dylan Windler, Okoro, Allen and Prince will be given every opportunity to grow and succeed.

While the ‘Sexland’ pair may not be a serious competitor right now, the former is a talented player with All-Star potential and the latter has dangerous sixth-man written all over him. Sexton took a huge leap this season compared to last and, if he continues to improve, it’s not unreasonable to think he could be competing for All-NBA awards and championships down the line.

Garland’s shooting potential and ability to pass would make him a quality option on any second unit. Of course, he owns the potential to be a reliable starter himself, just not on a team that already stars a different 6-foot-1 point guard.

Although ‘Sexland’ will struggle with many of these enduring factors moving forward,  Cleveland has managed to build an impressive group of young players and will only continue to add to this core over the coming years.

Cleveland is far from competing right now, but the groundwork has been set for a competitive team to emerge from this core one day in the future. 

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