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NBA Sophomore Check-in: Who Is Winning Year 2?

The 2017 draft class still promises to be one of the best in recent memory. But progress is never linear in this league. Here’s how some of the most notable members of the class are improving or backsliding.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

An NBA scout recently told me he’s fed up with the criticism of Cavaliers rookie point guard Collin Sexton and the impatience his teammates and fans have expressed during Sexton’s first month of professional basketball. “When will people learn?” he wondered. Rookies who enter the league as ready-made stars are the exception, not the norm. The scout acknowledged that a rookie’s production can obviously be predictive of his future success, but it’s the progress that does or doesn’t occur during the ensuing seasons that matters more. With that long view in mind, let’s check in on what’s changed with some of the league’s top sophomores, starting with a player who went through a lot of what Sexton is dealing with now.

De’Aaron Fox, Kings

There were a few things we knew Fox could definitely do at the pro level when the Kings drafted him with the fifth pick in 2017: make smart decisions in the pick-and-roll, move at teleportation speeds from one side of the court to the other, and play hard on defense. What we didn’t know is whether he’d be able to score efficiently from any level of the court. Fox’s rookie season was a struggle; he shot only 30.7 percent from 3 and overall scored only 0.75 points per possession in the half court, per Synergy, a comparable number to Cameron Payne and Tyler Ennis.

The 2018-19 season has been a different story. For the first time this decade, the Kings actually look like a competent team, and it’s largely thanks to Fox, who is averaging 18.7 points, 7.1 assists, and 4.4 rebounds per game. Behind Fox’s progress is his improved at-rim scoring. Getting to the basket has never been an issue for Fox, given his blurring speed and silky crossovers, but his million-dollar moves were followed by too many 10-cent finishes last season. Fox got stronger this offseason, which has helped him stay balanced on drives and absorb contact.

Fox is drawing fouls on 16.1 percent of his half-court possessions, which nearly tops all guards so far this season and ranks about the same as DeMar DeRozan. Instead of straight-up avoiding contact, he’s using more wrong-foot and off-hand finishes to get his shot off. He’s a superb athlete in space, but he’s never been someone who explodes in traffic. These finishes (predicated on skill) are what Fox needed to take the next step.

Fox is stylistically similar to Mike Conley Jr., so it makes perfect sense that he also honed his floater to score over length when he can’t get all the way to the rim. Behind Fox’s surge is also hot 3-point shooting; he’s hit 44.2 percent of his 3s so far this season and looks more comfortable off the dribble.

I’m cautiously optimistic about Fox’s shooting progress. He’s still struggling from the line (67.8 percent), and his mechanics aren’t different. But he got stronger, which could help him generate more power from his legs. The fact that he’s actually taking shots is also a sign of confidence; just two seasons ago at Kentucky, he barely attempted any at all.

Either way, the next step for Fox is to improve his shot selection. About 20 percent of his field goal attempts come from deep midrange, which is roughly the same number as his 3-point attempts, according to Cleaning the Glass. Fox should start taking more 3s and attacking the rim even more frequently to further enhance his scoring ability. But so far, so good. He’s already come a long way from the player he was the past two years.

Jayson Tatum, Celtics

Jayson Tatum can hit miraculous 3-pointers that you’d expect to see from a Kobe Bryant highlight reel.

Tatum is also a skilled at-rim finisher who twirls his arms around to score like he’s an action figure, and has the hops to fly over the top of opponents on dunks like he did against LeBron James in last season’s Eastern Conference finals.

So why is a player so talented taking so many midrange jumpers? Tatum often dribbles into pull-up 2s early in the clock instead of taking a side-dribble into a 3. It’s an understandable habit for a young player who has studied and trained with Kobe. This season, 28 percent of Tatum’s shot attempts have come from the 2-point range outside of 14 feet, which leads all players for his position, according to Cleaning the Glass. The pull-up is part of Tatum’s fabric; it’s what makes him a potentially lethal scorer in end-game situations. But the same shot-making inclinations that allow for comparisons to all-time greats are the same inclinations that put blinders on his game.

These early-clock 2s are the shots Tatum needs to eliminate from his diet in favor of more drives to the basket, where he can finish, draw fouls, or make plays for someone else.

Tatum has improved his passing accuracy since entering the league, and he’s more cognizant about looking for his teammates. This season, he’s passing more often and his assists are up. But there’s so much more room to grow immediately if he stops settling.

If Tatum can start making more plays attacking the basket with a score-first mentality and delivering a pass, then we could soon be looking at a complete player. Tatum is going through growing pains early this season, but diverging more from the Kobe formula could further elevate his play and raise the ceiling for the struggling Celtics.

OG Anunoby, Raptors

A “win-now” mentality can mean taking your eye off the future, but new Raptors head coach Nick Nurse has found time for player development. When Kawhi Leonard is off the floor, or once the Raptors build a big lead, Nurse sometimes shifts OG Anunoby away from spotting up and into a ballhandling role.

Anunoby didn’t hit pull-up 3s like this before; he missed all three of his attempts during two college seasons at Indiana, according to Synergy. Back then, there was an awkward transition from his dribble into his shot, which was a function of how loose his handle used to be. A lot has changed in a short amount of time, and his mechanics look much smoother now. The results haven’t always been pretty, though.

Anunoby won’t fool anyone into thinking he’s Steph Curry. He may have gained in fluidity, but speed is still an issue. There is still a delay in the changeover from his dribble into his shot, which gives defenders a larger window to heavily contest or block his release, like in the clip above. But the 21-year-old forward, who entered the league as a raw shot creator, has clearly worked to tighten his handle, and he’s been rewarded by Nurse with a chance to improve on the court through trial and error.

Even the mistakes are encouraging. Above, he throws in a hesitation, attacks, then has an idea of where to whip the pass. It just doesn’t land. Anunoby didn’t move this fluidly in college, or even last season, when he was still working his way back into athletic form after recovering from ACL surgery in 2017.

Anunoby has become a solid spot-up shooter and is already a stellar defender for his age. He’s making steady strides handling the ball. The odds are he won’t become a guy that’s relied on at the end of the clock—Anunoby is more likely a Shane Battier than a Kawhi Leonard. But that’s a compliment: Battier is a championship player. Regardless of Anunoby’s ceiling, we’re witnessing a player and coach work to maximize his game.

Malik Monk, Hornets

Malik Monk was locked in Steve Clifford’s doghouse last season. The no. 11 pick didn’t log more than 28 minutes in a single game; Markelle Fultz is the only other lottery pick who played less. Clifford was coaching to win games, so it’s somewhat understandable he didn’t play a rookie over veterans. Monk also just wasn’t good; if he were, he wouldn’t have been sharing reserve minutes with fellow youngsters Treveon Graham and Dwayne Bacon. New Hornets head coach James Borrego has been giving more opportunity to Monk, who’s been a mixed bag over his 23.2 minutes per game.

Monk was a lottery pick for his fearless shooting off screens, off the dribble, or using dribble handoffs. But for a prospect lauded prior to the draft for his shooting and athleticism, Monk’s shooting hasn’t impressed (33.3 percent from 3), and neither has his at-rim finishing (54.8 percent in the restricted area). On the season, Monk is averaging 12.5 points on a 50.3 true shooting percentage. Monk’s scoring efficiency is worrisome; he’s looking more like a young Gerald Green than a young Zach LaVine, a popular predraft comparison. But Monk is 20 and there’s plenty of time for him to become a more explosive scorer. What’s been promising of late is his passing.

Monk displayed playmaking potential as a freshman at Kentucky and made slick passes in the pick-and-roll. But now he’s making quicker reads and delivering the ball with accuracy off the dribble. At 6-foot-3 with a skinny frame, Monk is an undersized 2-guard, so it’s important that he becomes more comfortable with facilitating. Borrego has done a good job furthering that progress by putting the ball in his hands in dynamic situations that allow him to make decisions to shoot, drive, or pass. Monk needs the chances on offense to prove he can be a plus NBA player; because the proof probably won’t ever be in his turnstile defense.

Borrego and new general manager Mitch Kupchak didn’t choose Monk. For that matter, Clifford didn’t want him either; he pushed for Donovan Mitchell to be the pick, as I reported before. But the the Hornets and Borrego are doing the right thing in seeing just what Monk is capable of with extended minutes. He may never match his predraft hype, but he can still be an impactful player who lights up defenses as a dynamic shooter and makes some plays for teammates.

Zach Collins, Trail Blazers

You know a team really loves a player when it trades up for him. That’s what the Jazz did to nab Donovan Mitchell, and what the Blazers did by dealing no. 15 (Justin Jackson) and no. 20 (Harry Giles) to the Kings for no. 10 to select Zach Collins. Mitchell and the Jazz understandably received all the praise last season for their proactiveness. The Blazers front office deserves credit too. Collins is one of the NBA’s best young big men at defending in space.

Collins stays seated in his stance, moves his feet to mirror the opponent, and contests every shot. It’s rare for such a young player (Collins turns 21 this season) to display such advanced fundamentals and quickness moving laterally, never mind one who is 7 feet.

Damian Lillard said recently that Collins has Defensive Player of the Year potential, and the path is there for him, especially if defensive analytics improve in the public forum. Collins can block shots, but his game is more predicated on positioning—like past winners Joakim Noah and Marc Gasol. Maybe we will enter an age where advanced analytics can grade the process (shot alterations, shots prevented) rather than solely relying on results-based stats like blocks and steals. Nonetheless, unlike some players, Collins clearly enjoys playing defense—sometimes too much.

Collins plays only 21.4 minutes per game, partially because of the bad fouling habits he’s still trying to break. At Gonzaga, he’d attempt to block shots or reach instead of relying on his good positioning to make stops. He’s gotten better at that. You’ll see Collins stick his arms straight up to contest a shot rather than swiping at the ball. But he still has a ways to go, like most young bigs. Collins gets called for 5.1 fouls per 36 minutes, one of the worst rates among the 236 players to log at least 200 minutes. It’s one thing to produce in limited minutes; the big step is doing it for heavy minutes every single night.

If Collins improves his discipline to match his fundamentals by the end of the season, he could start and finish over center Jusuf Nurkic, who logs 24.9 minutes per game. While Nurkic is a stronger rebounder and interior scorer, Collins can defend the perimeter, protect the rim, and shoot 3s—all more valuable skills for today’s pace-and-space style. It’s only a matter of time until Collins, despite his youth, becomes the primary enforcer Portland needs.

Jarrett Allen, Nets

Drafted 12 spots after Collins was Allen, who the Nets were praying would fall to them on draft night. Their prayers were answered, and now Allen is delivering by averaging 11.4 points, 7.8 rebounds, 1.9 blocks, and 1.8 assists in 26.4 minutes per game. Allen has also been tremendously efficient with at 62.6 true shooting percentage. Those are impressive numbers for his age (20), but he’s not just an analytics darling. He’s a legitimate thrill to watch:

Allen isn’t afraid to put his body on the line. In the Nets season opener, he committed to challenging Blake Griffin, who looked like he wanted to commit a felony on the rim; he blocked him so cleanly that Griffin was left looking around wondering what the hell just happened. Allen displayed subpar instincts and defensive awareness as a Texas freshman, but he’s improved at choosing his spots to attempt blocks instead of chasing every shot.

Allen gets lost sometimes, but he has better sense this season for when to attempt a block or box out. That discernment, and level of comfort as the back line of Brooklyn’s defense, has enhanced the single most important trait for any stopper: effort.

I love this stuff. Allen hustled back on defense and had the awareness to not only spot Paul Millsap driving but the fundamentals to alter his shot. This would’ve been a bucket against many other big men. But Allen brings it. The young big is becoming a stabilizing force for the feisty Nets.

Josh Jackson, Suns

Jackson has been abysmal. He’s shooting 25 percent from 3, 47.1 percent from the line, and averaging more turnovers (2.7) and fouls (2.4) than assists (1.5) and rebounds (2.0). Suns head coach Igor Kokoskov has decreased Jackson’s role because he has other young players more deserving of opportunity. It’s not just that Jackson, 21, has been slow to develop on offense. It’s that his defense, a defining trait that made him a top prospect, has been equally disastrous.

At Kansas, Jackson was an energetic defender who dove for loose balls, fought through screens, rebounded, and never gave up on plays. That hasn’t been the case with the Suns. Jackson has lost his discipline; he too often reaches and falls out of his stance, which opens the door for ball handlers to blow by him on their way to the rim.

Defending Russell Westbrook at the point of attack generally means conceding one of two options: allow the blow-by drive, or allow a pull-up jump shot. The decision should be simple; Westbrook is one of the league’s best drivers, and, by the numbers, an average pull-up shooter. Yet, Jackson opts to aimlessly swipe at the ball with Westbrook way behind the 3-point line, which compromises his positioning and allows Russ the opportunity to explode straight down the lane. Against Dennis Schröder, Jackson is lackadaisical as he tiptoes around a screen and allows Schröder to attack and score. It’s not like Phoenix was out of these games: They trailed by fewer than 15 with a lot of time left to play. Defensive lapses have been an issue for Jackson no matter the time or situation. Jackson plays like his mind is elsewhere, which was rarely, if ever, the case at Kansas.

Jackson wasn’t without any predraft flaws on defense; he has short arms (6-foot-10 wingspan) for his height and a skinny frame (200 pounds). Though he looked large on the college floor, he’s undersized by NBA standards, and it has hurt his performance. Rudy Gay makes Jackson look like a pipsqueak high schooler stumbling onto the court by accident.

I’m not giving up on Jackson, but his future as an offensive player has never been murkier. I’ve never felt confident about his jump shot becoming consistent. Jackson lacks touch, his mechanics are still shaky, and he struggles from the line. That’s forgivable if his playmaking begins to manifest (it hasn’t) and he figures it out again on defense. But nothing is working now. Jackson is a zero on offense and a sieve on defense. The Suns are 2-11; with a 2019 draft class defined by its wings and forwards, Jackson will soon have even more competition for playing time. He needs to seize his opportunity now before it runs out.

Markelle Fultz, 76ers

The Fultz saga has been worse on my nerves than when Scar murdered Mufasa in The Lion King. I’m still hopeful for a happy ending, but the situation isn’t ideal with the Sixers. Fultz remains a disaster scoring the ball anywhere outside the restricted area, and his defense has been almost equally troublesome. What hasn’t been dreadful is Fultz’s passing. Fultz can still squirm to the rim using hesitations, spins, and crossovers, then locate open shooters and cutters.

Fultz, at this stage, needs the ball in his hands. How many touches can he possibly get alongside Ben Simmons and Jimmy Butler?

I wish Fultz played in a less pressurized role for a smaller market team. But who needs a point guard enough to invest in Fultz? Most teams are either stable at the position or already have a player they’re developing. The major appeal of Fultz as a prospect was his ability to play alongside other ball handlers. If he regains his shooting, he can fit into any offense with any type of personnel. Lottery-bound teams like the Suns and Magic should at least think about making an offer.

Donovan Mitchell, Jazz

We already know that Donovan Mitchell is good; he’s a bucket-getter and a competitive defender who would’ve won Rookie of the Year had it not been for Ben Simmons. But despite all the accolades, Mitchell’s passing remains as underrated as it was at Louisville. Mitchell is averaging 4.5 assists per game, an uptick from 3.7 last year. The subtle differences show up on film.

Mitchell has gotten even better at using hesitations to keep defenders off balance in the pick-and-roll. It’s the natural progression for any guard: Learning to use pace can take time, but Mitchell is adapting quickly. It’s a stark change from his college years, when Mitchell displayed passing potential, but lacked court vision and his handle was looser. Now, he has the poise of a full-time point guard. Whether he is targeting Rudy Gobert for lob dunks or spot-up shooters from 3-point range, he makes accurate passes with velocity. He’s also gotten better at delivering under pressure.

Forget the dunks and big shots: This is my favorite play Mitchell has made this season. He’s become such a scoring threat that Dallas traps him to force the ball out of his hands. Mitchell doesn’t panic. He dribbles until he finds a crease to fire a crosscourt rocket to the opposite corner, where Dante Exum is ready to unleash a 3. Watch Mitchell crouch, then pump his fist as the shot falls through the net: He knows he just made a baller play.

Mitchell is still learning. But he has shown more than enough skill to handle a heavier playmaking role if the Jazz decide to move on from Ricky Rubio in the offseason. Maybe then, this side of his game will be as acclaimed as the rest of it.