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Five Unheralded Second-Year NBAers Ready for Their Close-up

Dejounte Murray’s ACL tear has altered the course of the Spurs’ future, especially that of sophomore guard Derrick White. But San Antonio’s potential starting point guard isn’t the only player due to see a spike in productivity in Year 2.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Derrick White went from afterthought to indispensable in one afternoon. The no. 29 overall pick in last year’s draft became the only healthy point guard on the Spurs roster after the team announced Monday that Dejounte Murray had torn his ACL. Patty Mills can handle the position in a pinch, but he’s more of a pure scorer. San Antonio needs White, who spent most of his rookie season in the G League, to make the same leap Murray made last season, when an injury to Tony Parker put him into the starting lineup as a raw second-year player.

Late first-round picks rarely play much as rookies. Players taken in that range usually join veteran teams in playoff contention. Few head coaches in win-now mode will play inexperienced players ahead of more established veterans. They don’t have the patience to bring a young player along slowly and let him play through his mistakes. It doesn’t matter how good a player is if they aren’t given the opportunity to play.

Their opportunities often come in Year 2. Even the best teams in the NBA need to see if their investments can play. The financial incentives are huge. A good player on a cost-controlled rookie deal can fill the same role as a free agent for a fraction of the price. The Spurs paid Kyle Anderson, whom they took at no. 30 overall in 2014, $2.2 million last season. The Grizzlies are paying him $8.6 million this season.

There are starting-caliber players like Anderson available at the end of the first round in every draft. It just isn’t clear who those players are until several seasons down the line. Here are five second-year guys with a chance to make a big jump this season. They could all fill an important role in their team’s rotation after sitting on the bench for most of their rookie campaign.

Derrick White, San Antonio Spurs

White has been on a meteoric rise the past four years, from Division II to Colorado to the NBA. He’s a late bloomer (he turned 24 in July), more than a year older than Murray. He should be able to play big minutes right away. White has an NBA-ready body and good size for his position (6-foot-4 and 190 pounds with a 6-foot-8 wingspan). If Murray had stayed healthy, White would probably have had to play a small role on the wing next to Mills on the second unit. Now, according to Jabari Young of The Athletic, he’s in line to run point in a supersized starting lineup without much floor spacing.

Murray and White are different types of players. Murray, one of the best athletes in the NBA, is an elite perimeter defender with a shaky jumper (although he had reportedly improved on his shooting in the offseason) who is at his best when slashing to the rim. White is only an average athlete by NBA standards. He needs the threat of his 3-point shot to open up driving lanes. He’s a confident shooter who averaged 6.1 3-point attempts per game in the G League but only made them at a 32.9 percent clip. He dominated the ball at that level, and the Spurs are hoping he will be more efficient in a smaller role in the NBA.

White should be able to take care of the ball and spot up off LaMarcus Aldridge and DeMar DeRozan, which is all a point guard has to do in a lineup with two high-usage isolation scorers. Replacing Murray with White should improve the Spurs’ floor spacing in the half-court, but it will come at a huge cost to their defense. San Antonio’s defensive rating last season went from 98.0 with Murray to 105.1 without him. He was one of their only good defenders, and head coach Gregg Popovich will have to change their identity on the fly around White.

Cedi Osman, Cleveland Cavaliers

Osman has far bigger shoes to fill than White. The 23-year-old from Turkish-Macedonian spent his rookie season as a sparingly used energy player but will enter Year 2 as LeBron James’s replacement as the Cavs’ starting small forward. He was effective in the rare times he got on the floor last season. Osman’s not great at any one thing, but he can do a little bit of everything: He’s an NBA-caliber athlete at 6-foot-8 and 215 pounds, and he can shoot 3s, put the ball on the floor, and make plays for his teammates.

Osman was the no. 31 overall pick in the 2015 draft, and he might have gone higher if he hadn’t spent an extra season in Europe. He was smart enough to not kill the Cavs when he was out on the floor. They had a better net rating when he was on the floor as a rookie (plus-2.7 in 672 minutes) than they did as a team (plus-1.0). Osman was one of LeBron’s favorite teammates in Cleveland, even receiving an invitation to train with him in Los Angeles. He has the talent to stick in the NBA. This season is his chance to prove he can be a starter.

The Cavs will give Osman as much offensive responsibility as he can handle. They asked LeBron to do everything offensively last season, and the only playmaker they added in the offseason was rookie point guard Collin Sexton. They have a lot of spot-up shooters and rim-runners, and not many players who can set them up with open shots. It wouldn’t take much for Osman to lead the team in assists; he’s currently second on the Cavs in the preseason at 2.7 per game.

Terrance Ferguson, Oklahoma City Thunder

Oklahoma City isn’t close to full strength on the perimeter at the moment. Russell Westbrook is recovering from knee surgery, while Andre Roberson won’t be back from a torn patella tendon until at least December. Ferguson, the no. 21 overall pick in last year’s draft, would have had a minor role in the rotation if both were healthy. Now he gets a chance to show what he can do in a bigger one.

Ferguson took a winding road to the NBA. One of the most highly touted recruits in the class of 2016, he skipped the NCAA and spent one season in Australia before being drafted. He played 763 minutes as a rookie and wasn’t asked to do much beyond spot up at the 3-point line and stay out of the way. The Thunder need more from him this season. He’s their best shot at a two-way player at the 2.

Ferguson is longer (6-foot-7 and 190 pounds with a 6-foot-9 wingspan) and more athletic (check this highlight reel of his best dunks) than Alex Abrines, and he has a better looking outside shot than Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot. He has no problem letting it fly from deep, averaging 5.7 3-point attempts per 36 minutes of playing time as a rookie, although he shot only 33.3 percent. On paper, Ferguson is exactly the type of wing OKC has always needed to complement Westbrook. He’ll raise the team’s ceiling if he can translate those skills to the court.

Sterling Brown, Milwaukee Bucks

Brown’s modest contributions as a rookie slipped through the cracks on a Bucks team that gave 24 different players minutes. He fell out of the rotation in the playoffs but showed enough to create optimism about what he could do under new head coach Mike Budenholzer. Brown, the no. 46 overall pick in the 2017 draft, fits the mold of the smart, versatile wings who thrived under Budenholzer in Atlanta.

The younger brother of former NBA player Shannon Brown, Sterling is a knock-down shooter who shot 45.1 percent from 3 on 2.1 attempts per game in four years at SMU. He slipped in the draft because he lacked elite athleticism, but his thick frame (6-foot-6 and 232 pounds with a 6-foot-10 wingspan) allows him to match up with bigger players. Brown, who turns 24 in February, is the rare rookie who came into the league ready to contribute on both ends.

Brown has missed the first few games of the preseason with a hamstring injury, which could push him out of a crowded perimeter rotation at the start of the season. However, with Budenholzer playing Giannis Antetokounmpo in smaller lineups with more shooting around him, there should be opportunities for a 3-and-D player like Brown. He could develop into into a key contributor by the time the playoffs roll around, possibly even closing games.

Frank Jackson, New Orleans Pelicans

Jackson, the co-MVP of the McDonald’s All American Game in 2016, was seen as a future star in recruiting circles before a disappointing freshman season at Duke. New Orleans took him with the no. 31 overall pick in last year’s draft knowing he needed surgery on his ankle, and they shut him down for the year after the surgery in September before the 2017-18 season. Jackson is a virtual unknown among even hardcore NBA fans, but he has more talent than most players in his situation.

He’s a classic sixth man, a gunner with the size of a point guard (6-foot-3 and 205 pounds with a 6-foot-8 wingspan). A healthy Jackson should be able to score in the NBA. He won the dunk contest at the McDonald’s All American Game, and he shot 39.5 percent from 3 on 3.6 attempts per game at Duke. His problem in college was that the Blue Devils already had Jayson Tatum, Luke Kennard, and Grayson Allen. They didn’t need another perimeter scorer. They needed Jackson to be a traditional PG, a role he wasn’t comfortable with.

Jackson has less talent around him on the perimeter in New Orleans than he did at Duke. The Pelicans’ offensive dynamic is bizarre: Jrue Holiday is the team’s only player under 6-foot-9 who can create his own shot off the dribble. The Pelicans are thin in the backcourt, and they are counting on Elfrid Payton to replace Rajon Rondo at point guard. Jackson, in theory, is a better fit next to Holiday. Holiday has the size to run point while defending wings, which would allow Jackson to defend point guards without distributing the ball. Jackson could become a bigger and more explosive version of teammate Ian Clark. A New Orleans team that needs perimeter firepower should give him a shot.