NBA Sophomores in Desperate Need of Bounce-Back Seasons
A rough rookie season isn't the worst thing in the world. But after two years of no improvement and minimal contribution, teams start to lose faith.
There were a number of players from that 2013 NBA draft class who underachieved relative to where they were selected. And now they'll have to deal with the pressure that comes in year two.
With spots in their respective rotations up for grabs, the opportunity will be there for a number of sophomores who are looking to take that next step this season. These are the guys who must capitalize.
Anthony Bennett, Cleveland Cavaliers
Whether you agree with it or not, the fact that Anthony Bennett was even in the "worst No. 1 pick ever" conversation makes this a must-bounce-back year for him.
There's really no way to sugarcoat it—Bennett was flat-out awful as a rookie, having averaged 4.2 points on 35.6 percent shooting and 24.5 percent from downtown.
But stats aside, Bennett just didn't look like he belonged, and that's what was scary. He averaged 1.8 fouls in 12.8 minutes a game, appearing overweight and heavy on his feet.
Offensively, he couldn't seem to settle into a position, which raised questions as to whether the Cavaliers drafted a tweener.
The good news is that Bennett looked sharper in NBA Summer League action this July after missing it last year following shoulder surgery.
But he'll really need to carry it over into the regular season, whether it's in Cleveland or Minnesota, depending on if the Kevin Love trade winds get ahold of him.
Otto Porter, Washington Wizards
Otto Porter accomplished very little as a rookie, having averaged just 2.1 points in 37 games. He started behind the eight ball last year after suffering an injury in summer league. And he was never able to really establish any rhythm upon his return with a team whose chemistry seemed to build by the month.
He's certainly picked up some rhythm heading into his sophomore year—Porter just averaged 19 points a game in summer league, looking like the same highly touted prospect scouts had loved a year before.
Though it was just six games, Porter shot 38.9 percent from downtown, a noteworthy development, considering he made just four of 21 three-pointers as a rookie.
The Washington Wizards replaced Trevor Ariza with 36-year-old Paul Pierce in the offseason. Porter should view this year as an audition to be Ariza's long-term replacement, which could end up being a fairly high-profile job alongside John Wall and Bradley Beal.
Porter failing to step up as a second-year player and former top-three pick just wouldn't be a good look.
Cody Zeller, Charlotte Hornets
Cody Zeller had some nice moments for himself down the stretch last year, but they couldn't salvage a season that saw him shoot 42.6 percent. He shot 62.3 percent as a freshman at Indiana and 56.4 percent as a sophomore.
The NBA's length and athleticism clearly got to him last season. Zeller didn't exactly help himself—he made just 26.2 percent of his jump shots as a rookie.
And without the strength to bang down low for buckets, he'll need that jumper to start falling.
Zeller also averaged 2.1 fouls in just 17.3 minutes, finding himself out of position or a step behind a bit too often. He'll likely improve defensively with the more reps he gets, but if he can't capitalize offensively with Charlotte's second unit, those reps might not be there.
And don't forget the Hornets just drafted power forward Noah Vonleh in June. Zeller needs a breakout year to keep from falling behind in the rotation.
Alex Len, Phoenix Suns
Alex Len committed 68 personal fouls and converted 33 field goals as a rookie. He only played 8.6 minutes a game after missing the offseason and roughly half the regular season recovering from foot surgery and battling soreness.
Len was the No. 5 pick last year, right ahead of Nerlens Noel at No. 6. There should be some major pressure on him to contribute as a sophomore now that his feet appear to be healthy.
And the minutes will be there, with Miles Plumlee and Markieff Morris being the only staples in Phoenix's frontcourt.
Another injury-plagued season or unproductive year could turn off fans who might be wishing the Suns went with Noel in 2013.
Ben McLemore, Sacramento Kings
Ben McLemore entered his rookie year with the reputation as being a sharpshooting scorer, only he shot just 32 percent from downtown and averaged 8.8 points a game. He never really found any consistent rhythm as a rookie.
McLemore will obviously have to shoot it much better than he did last year, especially when you consider his jumper was his bread and butter coming in, having nailed 42 percent of his threes as a freshman at Kansas.
But he also struggled getting to the basket off the bounce without a strong left hand or handle (1.7 free-throw attempts per game), and when he did, he shot just 15.1 percent in the paint.
McLemore will have to develop that in-between game that allows him to score in the mid-range (between the interior and perimeter defense). According to NBA.com, he only hit 10 pull-up jumpers all season.
The Kings just drafted Nik Stauskas, another 2-guard whom everyone knows can shoot. The pressure is now on McLemore to take that next step and hold down the position.
Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Detroit Pistons
Kentavious Caldwell-Pope was pretty mediocre last season in Detroit, where he shot 39.6 percent from the floor and 31.9 percent from downtown. His shot just wouldn't fall, having made just 29.5 percent of his jumpers.
Considering the Detroit Pistons ranked No. 29 in the NBA in three-point shooting last season, and they've got three frontcourt starters who play mostly inside the arc, this team is going to need Caldwell-Pope to start connecting from outside.
He also took just 61 free-throw attempts and dished out 55 assists in 80 total games last year. He'll ultimately have to become a bigger threat off the dribble, but let's not get ahead of ourselves here—before anything else, raising that jump-shooting percentage should be his No. 1 priority.
Shabazz Muhammad, Minnesota Timberwolves
After falling out of the No. 1 overall conversation down to No. 14 in the 2013 draft, Shabazz Muhammad spent his rookie year on the bench and in the NBA D-league. And now he needs to bounce back.
The problem? He's not a good-enough scorer to make up for the other things he does poorly. Muhammad isn't much of a defender (0.7 steals per game in college) or rebounder, and he's clearly not a playmaker, having racked up just 27 assists in 32 games at UCLA and just six assists total in 288.6 minutes last year for Minnesota.
Unfortunately, based on summer league, not much appears to have changed.
ESPN's analytics guru Kevin Pelton labeled (subscription required) Muhammad as his most disappointing veteran in summer league:
Muhammad's decent-looking averages of 14.3 points and 6.5 rebounds per game obscure how inefficient he's been as a scorer. Muhammad has shot 33.3 percent from the field, including a 1-of-10 effort. And per usual, he's barely made a dent in the rest of the box score, handing out two assists in four games.
If you're not going to pass, rebound or defend, you have to be a darn-good scorer or shooter to make it in this league. With a team option on his contract in 2015-16, Muhammad will really need to prove his offensive worth next season.
Dennis Schroeder, Atlanta Hawks
Though expectations should have been tempered to begin with, we just didn't see that many flashes from Dennis Schroeder as a rookie.
He only got 13.1 minutes a game last season, when he shot just 38.3 percent and 23.8 percent from downtown, and averaged 1.9 assists to 1.1 turnovers.
Schroeder didn't show much in terms of his command at the point—length, contact and ball pressure appeared to have flustered him in the half court.
“I challenged him to be more efficient, to take care of the ball, mix up his pick-up points (on defense), sometimes it’s full court sometimes it’s half court, but first and foremost it’s to keep his team organized on both sides of the ball,” Hawks summer league coach Darvin Ham told Pro Basketball Talk's Kurt Helin.
He's only 20 years old, but we at least need to see some improvement this year in terms of his comfort level running an offense.
Beating out Shelvin Mack for backup duties should be Schroeder's immediate goal moving forward.
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