Surveying sophomores set to take the next step this season
The best way to describe the first-year results of the 2012 draft class: scattershot. Without leaning on hyperbole at all, one can say that the top 16 picks in last year's draft included everything from "budding Hall of Famer" to "diddly squat," and all points in between. Is it possible for a range to get any wider than that?
Here's an examination of some of the most notable names in this year's sophomore class -- standouts, busts and others -- along with some thoughts on what will constitute progress in Year 2.
The (Future) Franchise
Anthony Davis: The Point Forward has already taken multiple rides on the Anthony Davis Hype Train this summer. The Pelicans' 20-year-old stud looked great during USA minicamp in Las Vegas, he ranked No. 41 in SI.com's Top 100 Players of 2014 list and he was singled out as a strong candidate to outperform his ranking in that list, even though he was the youngest player included in the top 50.
Davis is the advanced stats community's flavor of the month -- a designation that could wind up lasting indefinitely -- because his production as a teenager in his rookie year was exceedingly rare, and generally matched only by future Hall of Famers. Because Davis is a true two-way player and because he was so highly regarded in high school and so influential during his one season at Kentucky, the fact that his numbers are subject to sample size concerns has the tendency to make him even more intriguing. "Imagine what he will do in a full healthy season," the thinking tends to go, instead of wondering whether he can maintain his lofty efficiency standards.
As Grantland's Zach Lowe pointed out in naming Davis to his "All-Intriguing" team this week, there are potential areas of improvement on both sides of the ball. Davis can obviously expand his offensive repertoire (The Point Forward documented his comfort level shooting from 15 feet and out in Vegas) and he should become a more refined defensive product as he ages. In 2013-14, it's reasonable to expect Davis' awareness to take meaningful steps forward, and there's nothing on New Orleans' roster that will prevent him from getting as many minutes as he can handle at multiple positions.
If there's one development to bank on this year, it should be that Davis' positional versatility emerges as a talking point virtue. Against small-ball lineups, he should be able to handle the five; against more traditional looks, his length and athleticism will pose problems for many fours. Last year, because of the injuries and his limited minutes, Davis was one of the league's best-kept secrets. It seems incredibly unlikely that he will fly under the radar much longer.
The Aspiring All-Star
Damian Lillard: Forgive the reigning Rookie of the Year for coming off as a bit impatient. "Make the playoffs, I want to make the All-Star team, those are the top two things I want to do," Lillard declared at the Blazers' Media Day on Monday, opting to cut straight to the chase rather than beat around the bush. Lillard, 23, and the Trail Blazers are facing stiff competition in the Western Conference for both of those distinctions.
His award-winning rookie season was all about volume: He led the NBA in minutes and topped his class in a number of statistical categories. Credit where credit is due: Lillard has a keen eye for his own weaknesses and he's said the right things about making improvements. This week alone, he's pledged to cut down on his defensive laziness, exercise better shot selection (he shot 42.9 percent last year and relied heavily on long twos), improve his assist-to-turnover ratio (2.2 to 1 as a rookie) and get to the free-throw line more often (fewer than four attempts per 36 minutes). If he checks even half of those items off his list, he would position himself as a candidate to be a top-10 player at his position.
Portland clearly is not taking his talent for granted. A number of offseason moves -- signing sixth man Mo Williams and shooter Dorell Wright, drafting guard CJ McCollum -- were undertaken with the goal of making Lillard's life easier by surrounding him with weapons capable of making teams pay for loading up defensively on him.
The Freed Force
Andre Drummond: The online basketball community seemingly owes a debt of gratitude to Maurice Cheeks already. Why? Because the new Pistons coach immediately pledged to give more playing time to Drummond, a potential phenom in the making who was buried as a rookie under former coach Lawrence Frank. "I'm going to put him out on the floor for sure," Cheeks told the Detroit Free Press, in a statement that should make online writers from coast to coast giddy with the knowledge that they no longer need to come up with new ways to plead for the 20-year-old UConn product to be given a chance.
The Drummond Story seems fairly uncomplicated, whether he's directly pursuing a romantic relationship with iCarly star Jennette McCurdy on social media or crashing the glass to the tune of a 21.2 rebound percentage, which would have been among the league leaders if he had played enough minutes to qualify. This is a very big man, with a good sense of humor, who should evolve into one of the league's most dominant interior forces as long as he remains healthy. While he can't match Davis in the versatility department (and his free-throw shooting is abysmal), Drummond is firmly in the "potential future All-Star" discussion because so few players, regardless of age, possess his combination of strength, size and talent. It's high time the basketball world gets to enjoy that for more than 20 minutes a night, and progress in his second season is virtually assured as long as Cheeks keeps his word.
The Disappointing Detour
Michael Kidd-Gilchrist: It's easy to keep the faith in Kidd-Gilchrist's long-term potential even if his rookie year left something to be desired. "I set goals and I didn’t reach any of the goals that I set," the Bobcats' forward lamented to the Charlotte Observer this week, and you can see where he was coming from. As The Point Forward noted in our rookie grades, Kidd-Gilchrist's total lack of range and confidence in his broken shooting stroke limit his short-term growth curve, but all the long-term indicators -- his defensive acumen, his size, his intangibles -- remain off the charts. Charlotte has tasked assistant Mark Price to work on MKG's shooting form, but this looks like it will be a multi-year project, judging by his motion at the Las Vegas Summer League.
It's risky business playing basketball psychoanalyst on the Internet, but Kidd-Gilchrist's hitch seems to be exacerbated by his mental approach. Price has acknowledged that they are working through issues of confidence and frustration. One wonders whether the addition of veteran center Al Jefferson -- a proven low-block scoring threat -- might wind up having a big impact on Kidd-Gilchrist's development. While Jefferson's defensive problems will likely hold back the Bobcats in the standings, his presence goes a long way in relieving the pressure on Kidd-Gilchrist to generate his own offense or produce in isolation or under scoring pressure. The Bobcats ranked No. 28 in offensive efficiency last season, and while they might not climb all that much higher, every little bit counts when it comes to finding a comfort factor for Kidd-Gilchrist, who is still just 20. A successful Year 2 would find MKG doing what he does best -- defending his man, hitting the glass and getting out in transition -- and doing it with a newfound peace of mind.
The Radical Reclamation
Royce White: The words "diddly squat" in this post's introduction referred to White, of course, who never took the court for the Rockets last season and played only sparingly for the Rio Grande Valley Vipers, Houston's D-League affiliate. Go ahead and mock Austin Rivers for posting a -1.1 Win Shares, the second-worst mark in the league (besting only Suns forward Michael Beasley), but at least the Pelicans' guard logged more than 1,400 minutes and got a sense for what it will take to succeed at this level. White's only progress came in his negotiations with the Rockets over the treatment of his anxiety disorder.
Really, there might not be a better example of the adage that the NBA is a "league of second chances" than White, 22, a versatile forward with rare ball-handling abilities for a player his size. Relations between Houston and White were tense, sometimes ugly, and fans called for White's release on more than one occasion. Out of that drama came a new opportunity in Philadelphia, thanks to a July trade between the Rockets and the Sixers, now run by former Houston executive Sam Hinkie.
As TrueHoop laid out nicely in an interview with White this week, Philadelphia offers a clean slate and some distinct advantages. At the top of the list is its geography, as a host of NBA markets are within a reasonable driving distance from the City of Brotherly Love, cutting into the total miles that White, who has a fear of flying, needs to travel by air in a given year. Also on the list: a new coach in Brett Brown whose culture-building has appealed to White; a roster so devoid of talent and depth that White is guaranteed a legitimate shot at a meaningful role if he puts in the work and is able to manage the off-court issues; and a completely pressure-free environment as the Sixers pursue what will surely be one of the league's worst records. If White isn't able to take a step forward under these conditions, the flickering light of hope risks getting extinguished.
Others To Watch (For One Reason Or Another) Jonas Valanciunas (Raptors ... The Point Forward expects big things from the 2011 pick as he enters his second year), Bradley Beal (Wizards), Dion Waiters (Cavaliers), Harrison Barnes (Warriors), Jeremy Lamb (Thunder ... it's time to step up right now), Evan Fournier (Nuggets), John Henson (Bucks ... lots of intrigue), Jared Sullinger (Celtics), John Jenkins (Hawks), Thomas Robinson and Meyers Leonard (Blazers), Kendall Marshall (Suns ... a strong candidate to become the second 2012 lottery pick to be traded), Tony Wroten (Sixers), Austin Rivers (Pelicans ... things can only get better).