The sophomore boost is a wonderful thing in the NBA where raw rookie players are suddenly blessed with new skills and more minutes just in time for their second seasons. It’s kind of like the beginning of basketball puberty, but without the B.O., acne and “you’re not the boss of me, mom” type things that come with regular puberty.
The list below contains the players that are almost guaranteed to have success second seasons in the NBA.
Buddy Hield, Sacramento Kings
Say what you want about Buddy Hield, but he had a spectacular second half of the season with the Sacramento Kings, where he succeeded as the focal point of their offense, and unlike most rookies, his new role actually made him a more efficient shooter. In fact, when Hield was with New Orleans in the beginning of the season, he shot 39.2% from the field and 36.9% from three, for a true shooting percentage of just 50.2.
However, in Sacramento, Hield’s percentages rose to 48% from the field, 42.8% from three, for a true shooting percentage of 60%, and this was all while his points per game rose from 8.6 to 15.1. In Sacramento, Hield was given a chance to be a leader on his team offensively, and make plays for himself, rather than playing around Anthony Davis, and he actually flourished, leading their team in points per game, and true shooting percentage after the All-Star break. In Sacramento, Hield also kept up great three-point percentages on both off the dribble (44.8%) and catch and shoot opportunities (41.8%), which is actually really good. He’s not Stephen Curry, Vivek, but Hield can definitely be a great player in the NBA.
Next year, I expect more of the same from Hield in Sacramento, with the expected sophomore statistical boost.
Skal Labissiere, Sacramento Kings
This season, I saw both why Skal Labissiere was considered one of the best high school prospects in 2014-2015, and why he was considered one of the most disappointing college prospects in 2015-2016, however, I still feel like his 33 games this season still included more positives than negatives, but before that, I’m going to talk about the two major problems I have with Skal Labissiere and whether or not there is an easy solution to get rid of them.
First, his defense. To put it simply, Skal Labissiere is a trash defender. This is exhibited by his -.9 defensive box plus minus, and his 60% opposing field goal percentage at the rim. Skal seems to be a bit of a tweener defensively, as he is too slow to guard power forwards well, yet too weak to guard centers well. And unlike with some players, his defensive problems are not due to issues like laziness, low concentration or confusion, as Labissiere actually averages 13.5 contests per 36 minutes, which would be sixth in the league, and so it must be a physical problem, and in that case, the 7’0”, 225 pounds Labissiere should really look to put on some muscle in order to body with the bigs.
Secondly, although Skal Labissiere is a great mid-range shooter (I’ll rave about that later), for a stretch big, he really does not take many threes, which would be the logical place for his game to go. This season, Skal took just eight threes, and so if he extends his range to be able to hit that shot consistently, it would add a whole new dimension to his game.
However, with that all being said, Labissiere’s 33 game stretch in the NBA was more positive than negative due to his existing offensive capabilities. Skal is an elite mid-range shooter, shooting 52.2% from their, on 2.2 mid-range attempts per game, and still finished at the rim better than most with a 68.3% field goal percentage within three feet of the basket. With these statistics, Skal has shown a very high potential to excel as a pick and roll big man, and with Skal likely to be named starting power forward for the Kings’ next season, his 8.8 points per game and 4.9 rebounds per game are likely to improve.
Marquese Chriss, Phoenix Suns
In the same way that I am not going to understate how raw Marquese Chriss was starting off the season this year, I will not understate how solid he ended it off. Before the All-Star break, we saw a Chriss who looked somewhat uncomfortable with the NBA game. He took 2.4 three-point attempts per game but hit them at just a 29.7% and from two-point range, Chriss shot just 48.6%. Chriss was one of those guys who started, but played roughly 18.8 minutes per game in order to get reps, but was never really a guy who the Suns would use when it mattered most, playing just 159 minutes in the fourth quarter, which was eleventh on the team. But during the All-Star break, the team dumped PJ Tucker for two-second rounders and started relying more heavily on their young players, and that’s when Chriss started playing well.
After the All-Star break, Chriss averaged 12.7 points per game and 5.9 rebounds per game in 26.9 minutes per game on 49.8% from the field, 57.5% from two-point range and a solid 36% from three-point range, and when a player with Chriss’s athleticism can shoot 36% from three, it becomes very hard to stop. His true shooting percentage moved from 49.7% before the All-Star break to 58% after the break, and generally, he seemed a lot more poised on the basketball court.
If Chriss adds on his performance from after the All-Star break, who knows the limits to the player as athletic as him?
Willy Hernangomez, New York Knicks/Ivica Zubac, Los Angeles Lakers
Okay, I cheated by putting two players in one of the ten spots of this list, but the reason for that is that the reason why they will hopefully improve is not fully dependent on them. It depends on if the Knicks and Lakers are willing to take their losses and start their best center (Willy Hernangomez and Ivica Zubac) or if they would rather start the worse center that they are paying ridiculous amounts of money to play (Joakim Noah and Timofey Mozgov). And also “6 Rookies Whose Numbers Will Improve Drastically in Their Second Season” is a way better title than “5-7 Rookies Whose Numbers Will Improve Drastically in Their Second Season,” but due to the fact that these are two separate players, I will need to talk about them separately.
Let’s start with Willy:
Fun fact: Willy Hernangomez was the only player in the NBA this year with an assist percentage of ten percent or more (11.6%), a rebounding percentage of twenty percent or more (20.4%), a positive defensive box plus-minus (.6) and an effective field goal percentage of above 50% (53.4%). If these statistics prove anything, it is the well-roundedness and effectiveness of Hernangomez, but the statistics aren’t the only evidence that Hernangomez is well-rounded, as the way in which he scores is pretty well-rounded, as well.
Hernangomez has a 58.9% field goal percentage on pick and roll opportunities and a 61.6% field goal percentage from the post. But of course, Willy Hernangomez still needs to improve a couple of things in order to get better. He is a pretty poor pick and roll defender, due to his speed, and he was a poor shooter this year, shooting just 32.3% on mid-range jumpers and taking just 15 three-pointers. For Hernangomez to reach the next level, he definitely needs to improve these facets of his game, but for a rookie chosen with the 35th pick in the 2015 draft, he has shown a lot of potentials.
If Willy is given the opportunity to start, he could be a wonderful pegasus to Kristaps Porzingis’s unicorn, and if he does not, I really would not be too surprised, after all, these are the Knicks.
Ivica Zubac has not performed nearly as well as Hernangomez this year, but he still is in a similar situation, fighting for the starting center position with an overpaid underperformer, in Timofey Mozgov. Zubac did not have a spectacular year in the league last year either, but his second half was pretty solid, averaging 10 points and 4.5 rebounds per game in 20.3 minutes per game on 55.3% shooting. He also hit 50% of his mid-range jumpers, which is pretty good. And compared to Mozgov, Zubac comes out as the far better player, as Zubac is statistically superior to Mozgov in points per 36 minutes (16.8>13.1), rebounds per 36 minutes (9.4>8.7) blocks per 36 minutes (2>1), field goal percentage (52.9%>51.5%), win shares per 48 (.086>.048), defensive box plus-minus (.3>-.8) and opposing field goal percentage at the rim (50.9%<53.5%). To put it short, Zubac definitely outperformed Mozgov last season.
If Zubac wins the starting job over Mozgov, expect him to build on his second half numbers last year, due to his growing comfort in the NBA.
Caris LeVert, Brooklyn Nets
Caris LeVert quietly had a very solid second half of the season, despite just playing 23.8 minutes per game for the Brooklyn Nets. Averaging 9.8 points per game, LeVert was quite efficient offensively, shooting 48.2% from the field, 59.3% from two-point range, 34.1% from three-point range and a true shooting percentage of 57.9%, and if LeVert can maintain that two-point percentage, while hopefully improving his three-point shot on a higher usage percentage (16.6% this year), only good things can come for him. However, there is a big if, his sheer injury proneness. LeVert has had many problems staying healthy both in college and the pros with injury, suffering countless injuries to his foot and leg, and he even missed the first twenty games of the season recovering from a leg fracture.
But if LeVert stays healthy, there’s no telling what the 6’7” playmaker can do in his second year.
Taurean Prince, Atlanta Hawks
With Tim Hardaway, Jr., Paul Millsap and Thabo Sefolosha all possibly leaving the Atlanta Hawks in free agency this year, it’s likely that Taurean Prince, who has started at small forward for the team since late March, will earn a lot more than the 16.6 minutes per game he had this season. And with that possible doubling in minutes per game, Prince will likely produce much more compelling numbers than the 5.7 points per game and 2.7 rebounds per game. And hopefully, he will be able to have better percentages than the 39.9% from the field, 32.4% from three and 51.2% true shooting percentage he got this year.
Fortunately, Prince’s incredible defense almost makes up for his inefficient offense, as Prince had a defensive box plus minus of 1.5 this season, and Prince also has improved on the offensive end, getting his three-point percentage from 27.5% from before the All-Star break to 35.5% after it.
And so if Prince can maintain that level three-point shooting with a more disciplined offensive approach, Prince can have a very good sophomore year.