Last season’s rookies have a lot of work to do. The 2016 NBA draft is widely regarded as one of the weakest in recent memory. With no. 1 overall pick Ben Simmons sitting out the entire season with a broken foot, there wasn’t much competition for Rookie of the Year. Malcolm Brogdon, a second-round pick of the Bucks, ran away with the award despite fairly pedestrian stats: 10.2 points, 4.2 assists, and 2.8 rebounds per game on 45.7 percent shooting. The only other players to get first-place votes were Joel Embiid (who played only 31 games) and Dario Saric (whose hot streak happened too late in the season). Both were drafted in 2014. The 2016 lottery picks were nowhere to be found.
A bad rookie season doesn’t have to define a player’s career. A lot of guys improve dramatically between their first and second seasons in the league. They are more comfortable as professionals on and off the court, and they get a full offseason with NBA coaches and training staffs to work on their game. Playing in the NBA can be a wake-up call for many young players. Their physical tools are no longer enough. Bad habits they could get away with at lower levels of the game get exposed. Even guys drafted in the lottery need to hone their craft to survive at the next level, much less succeed.
Just as important as coming back as different players in their sophomore seasons is coming back into different situations. Team context is huge for young players. Some guys need to change their position in the NBA, while others need a different role in the offense. One of the benefits of being a lottery pick is that teams will typically give those players more opportunities to show what they can do. They are more invested in their success than people taken later in the draft. If a second-rounder fails to impress, they may not get another chance.
The quarter mark of the season is a good time to check in one some of the notable players from the 2016 draft to see what, if anything, has changed.
Jaylen Brown has taken the league by storm in Boston, but progress has been more mixed for his peers.
Brandon Ingram, Lakers
For all the attention Lonzo Ball generates, the Lakers have become Ingram’s team. The no. 2 pick in the 2016 draft had an up-and-down rookie season, averaging 9.4 points a game on 40.2 percent shooting. The team revamped itself in the offseason, in part to clear salary cap space and in part to feature Ingram more in the offense. L.A. has four new starters this season, and they complement Ingram better than the guys they replaced.
Lonzo Ball is more of pass-first point guard than D’Angelo Russell, the lead ball handler from last season’s team. Larry Nance Jr. takes fewer shots than Julius Randle does, who is now coming off the bench, while Brook Lopez stretches the floor and creates more driving lanes than Timofey Mozgov does. All those changes have given Ingram more room to operate in the half court and more time with the ball. He has taken advantage of the opportunity, averaging 15.8 points, 5.6 rebounds, and 3.0 assists per game on 44.3 percent shooting.
The biggest change in Ingram’s game is that he’s attacking the rim more. He’s taking 51.6 percent of his shots within 5 feet of the basket this season, compared with only 33.2 percent last season, and he’s getting to the line more often. Changing his shot distribution has made him a more efficient player: His field goal percentage (40.3 percent to 44.3 percent) and true shooting percentage (47.4 percent to 50.7 percent) have spiked. An increase in usage usually means a decline in efficiency, but Ingram has reversed the general trend. If he can make a similar jump next season, he will be a star.
Getting to the rim is the first step for Ingram. The next is finishing more effectively. He’s shooting 64.3 percent within 3 feet of the rim, right under the league average of 65.4 percent. Even shooting that well is impressive considering his body type. At 6-foot-9 and 190 pounds with a 7-foot-3 wingspan, Ingram is all skin and bones. Defenders can bump him off his spots, and he struggles to finish through contact. The strength should come: Ingram is only 20 years old. He has everything else. He can elevate over smaller defenders, and he eats up space on shot blockers when they are rotating over to contest his shot. As he becomes stronger, he will either finish through Michael Carter-Williams on plays like this or draw the foul:
Ingram was known as a shooter in college, but he shot only 29.4 percent from 3 as a rookie. Luke Walton asked him to de-emphasize the shot this season. Ingram cut his number of 3-point attempts per 36 minutes of playing time nearly in half, from 3 to 1.7. It’s what Jason Kidd did with Giannis Antetokounmpo and Jabari Parker in Milwaukee. He wanted them to focus on scoring inside first, and then build up the rest of their game.
The Lakers are laying the first piece of the foundation down with Ingram this season. There’s a lot of work to do before they are finished.
Dragan Bender, Suns
The Suns still don’t know what they have in Bender. Phoenix exiled its starting point guard and fired its coach in the first week of the season, and Bender is one of several young players who have been lost amid the chaos. He is playing seven minutes a game more than last season, but he’s not doing much with the additional playing time. His per-36-minute averages are down from his rookie campaign, when he was one of the worst players in the NBA. Bender has the worst net rating of anyone on the Suns roster. Phoenix is minus-15.4 when he’s on the court, and only minus-1.3 when he’s off.
The Kristaps Porzingis comparisons were inevitable for an athletic European 7-footer with perimeter skills, but Bender is a different type of player. He doesn’t have KP’s strength or explosiveness, or the offensive game to take advantage of mismatches against smaller defenders. He’s more of a cerebral player who can spread the floor and help facilitate the offense. The problem is that all Bender does is shoot 3s: 64.5 percent of his career shots are from beyond the arc. If there’s a bright spot for Bender this season, it’s that at least he’s knocking them down. He’s shooting 32-for-90 from deep (35.6 percent) after going 28-for-101 (27.7 percent) as a rookie.
The Suns need to find a new role for Bender. They have used him mostly as a power forward, where he has not been able to use his size to his advantage. Bender moves well for a 7-foot-1 player, but he’s not fast enough to keep up with smaller players at the 4. A player with his skill set would be more valuable at center, where he could open up the floor and take slower defenders off the dribble. Bender has the rim-protection ability to make it worth a shot. He has a career block rate of 2.8 percent, and opposing players are shooting worse at the rim against him than against Tyson Chandler. According to stats.NBA.com, they have a field goal percentage of 57 percent in 3.4 attempts against Bender a game, and 60.2 percent in 4.7 attempts against Chandler. Bender has some real defensive potential. He had four blocks all over the floor in a game against the 76ers in December:
Unfortunately for Bender, the Suns already have too many centers. Chandler is making $13 million a season, and he is backed up by Alex Len, the no. 5 pick in the 2013 draft, and Greg Monroe, who came over in the Eric Bledsoe trade. That doesn’t even count Marquese Chriss, another second-year big man who could play as a small-ball 5. Like so many bigger players in the NBA who can no longer play the 4, Bender is a victim of a numbers crunch upfront. He may eventually play at the 5 in Phoenix: Len and Monroe will be unrestricted free agents this summer, and Chandler has only one more year left on his deal. But until Bender moves to the 5, his game isn’t likely to change much.
Buddy Hield, Kings
There have been two different versions of Hield this season. He’s averaged 10.3 points on 35.4 percent shooting in seven games as a starter, and 13.4 points on 50 percent shooting in 18 games as a reserve. It took Dave Joerger a while to find a rotation that clicked. The Kings got off to a brutal 1-6 start, and Hield was part of four different starting lineups in that stretch, none of which were effective. Sacramento has a more respectable 8-12 record since moving Hield to the bench, where he has found some chemistry with rookie point guard Frank Mason III. The two have a net rating of plus-9.8 in 232 minutes together, the highest for any two-man unit the team has used regularly this season.
The move has helped Hield in two ways. He’s facing less-talented defenders, and his role has been simplified. Hield plays on the second unit with Mason and fellow rookie guard Bogdan Bogdanovic, capable playmakers who can run the offense and score out of the pick-and-roll, two areas where Hield has struggled. He has never averaged more than two assists per game in college or the NBA, and he’s in only the 38th percentile in the league as a ball handler in the pick-and-roll this season. Coming off the bench, Hield can jack shots as much as he wants, which is when he’s at his best.
Hield is too one-dimensional to be an effective starter at this stage in his career. He is one of only five players in the NBA who average more than 10 points per game, but fewer than four rebounds, two assists and 1.5 free throw attempts. Josh Richardson is the only starter of the five, and he’s a defensive specialist. There’s a long list of things Hield can’t do right now: He doesn’t create much offense for his teammates, he doesn’t get to the free throw line, he doesn’t rebound particularly well, and he’s a one-position defender without the quickness to defend 1s or the size to defend 3s. A player with his frame (6-foot-4 and 214 pounds with a 6-foot-8 wingspan), athleticism, and shooting ability will have a long career in the NBA, but he has to expand his game to be more than a sixth man.
Domantas Sabonis, Pacers
Sabonis is the poster child for how much a young player’s situation matters. He barely looked like an NBA player with the Thunder, but he’s blossomed into a key contributor for the Pacers, one of the most surprising teams in the league this season. Despite playing only an extra 4.5 minutes per game, Sabonis has doubled his averages in points (12.1), rebounds (8.5), and assists (2.1), and his field goal percentage has shot up from 39.9 percent to 54 percent. He had some monster games with Myles Turner out: 18 points and 12 rebounds against the Heat, 22 points and 12 boards against the Spurs.
The key for Sabonis was changing positions, not teams. He was forced to play as a stretch 4 next to Steven Adams and Enes Kanter in Oklahoma City; 83.5 percent of his minutes as a rookie came with one of those two on the floor. The percentages have flipped this season. He has played 16 percent of his minutes with Myles Turner, and he’s the only traditional big man in the game the rest of the time. It’s much closer to the role he had in college, where he was one of the best interior players in the country. Sabonis is on pace to take 36 3s this season after taking 159 as a rookie, and he has quadrupled his offensive rebound rate.
The problem with playing Sabonis on center comes on defense. He has the size (6-foot-11 and 240 pounds) but not the length (6-foot-10.5 wingspan) to protect the rim. He has blocked only seven shots this season, and the Pacers’ defensive rating is five points lower with Turner at center. Turner is a developing shooter who is taking 2.6 3s a game this season, so there is a chance the two could learn to play together on offense. Nate McMillan may not want to experiment much with Indiana making a playoff push, but the team needs to figure out whether Sabonis and Turner can work together, or if Sabonis tops out as a good backup 5. The good news for Indiana is that’s still better than what he seemed to be in Oklahoma City.
Taurean Prince, Hawks
The Hawks are resetting this season, and no one has benefited from a fresh start more than Prince, the no. 12 pick in last year’s draft. He has played nearly as many minutes in 26 games this season (841) as he did all of his rookie season (981). With Tim Hardaway Jr. and Thabo Sefolosha gone, Prince is now the full-time starter at small forward. He’s putting up excellent all-around numbers for a second-year player: 13 points, 5.3 rebounds, 2.5 assists, 1.1 steals, and 0.6 blocks a game on 45.2 percent shooting. Most impressively, he’s shooting 42.1 percent from 3 on four attempts per game. Draw up a 3-and-D wing in a lab and they will look a lot like Prince. Watch him fight over two screens and recover to block his man’s shot at the rim:
At 6-foot-8 and 220 pounds with a 6-foot-11 wingspan, Prince has the size and athleticism to match up with all but the biggest wings in the league. Like all young players, he is still learning the fine points of playing defense at the NBA level, but the physical tools are there. He is getting better, especially in defending the ball handler in pick-and-rolls. One thing to track with Prince is how often Atlanta uses him as a small-ball 4. Eight of the 10 most frequently used lineups he appears in feature two traditional big men, and he could be a more dangerous offensive player if he’s moved up a position.
Prince was drafted to be a role player on offense, but the lack of talent around him has given him the freedom to spread his wings. He has shown flashes of an intriguing all-around game: He had eight assists in a game against the Kings and five assists in a game against the Knicks. The most encouraging sign for Prince is that he’s making more plays without turning the ball over more. His assist rate has increased by four points, while his turnover rate has slightly declined. He’s making the most of his opportunity, and he looks like a building block for the future in Atlanta.