Last week I wrote about several of this season’s most improved players. It’s a lot harder to define and then identify the exact opposite: players who’ve improved the least. The entire premise is based on other people’s expectations, which are ultimately subjective.
In a 35-game sample, how do you parse the difference between a shooting slump or an adjustment period and stagnation or regression? A lot of players aren’t even asked to notably expand their roles or evolve their skill sets from one year to the next. Everyone loves a steady hand.
But disappointment also exists. Here’s a look at five players who’ve either taken a step back, failed to take advantage of a new opportunity, or simply not shown the type of growth that’s reasonable to expect based on their age, teammates, and other surrounding factors. Similar to last week’s most improved column, this piece is more focused on established names who, for whatever reason, have left their teams wanting more, as opposed to guys navigating the second or third season of their careers. Let’s dive in.
Jordan Poole, Washington Wizards
There’s a massive difference between “talented” basketball players and “good” basketball players. The former describes Poole, whose pure skill and creativity could fill a lake. His footwork, craft, range, touch, and speed made some people think he was on an All-Star trajectory just a couple of years ago, when he came a hair short of 50/40/90 splits while averaging 17 points per game during Golden State’s latest title run. The Warriors could not have won it all without him. But the further they went, the less essential he became.
After that postseason, Poole’s hypnotic ability stopped overshadowing some red flags that should not have been ignored in the first place. He was porridge on defense. His decisions were flabbergasting. And his bluster poisoned an ecosystem that runs on selflessness and insight. Fast-forward to now—one humongous contract, unforgettable punch, and stunning trade later—and the 24-year-old is a laughingstock; now that he’s on the opposite coastline, away from Steph Curry’s halo effect, Poole’s most damaging instincts have ruined the artistry that was once appealing, if not useful.
So many NBA players are inflated by a powerful degree of self-belief. They can’t function, let alone succeed, without it. Poole’s might be the most irrational, in all the worst ways. According to Synergy, there are 64 players who’ve run at least 50 isolation plays that have ended in a shot, pass, or turnover this season. Poole’s 0.68 points per possession on those plays ranks 64th. And yet, he’s addicted to turning a team game into a solo act. Here he recklessly waves off a screen that would have engaged 36-year-old Joe Ingles so that he can take Gary Harris one-on-one instead:
He’s somehow averaging fewer shots than last year, with lower usage and assist rates. The result: 16.3 points per game and an effective field goal percentage that ranks dead last out of 95 players who’ve logged at least 900 minutes this season. That’s 40.7 percent from the floor and 31 percent from behind the arc, splits terrible enough to make his $123 million contract extension radioactive.
Perhaps all this means he was never good enough to headline a list of least improved players in the first place, but Poole’s inability to apply all that talent in a situation that isn’t asking him to sacrifice any of it is hard to compute.
This could’ve been a time for him to lead and contribute his talent to a worthy cause. Poole in Washington could’ve been a kid in a candy store. Instead, the Wizards have been outscored by 343 points when he’s on the court this season. 343!! That’s by far the worst in the league. It’s also not a coincidence.
Zion Williamson, New Orleans Pelicans
Despite never shooting outside the paint or bringing adequate defensive awareness every night, Zion still has the ceiling of an MVP candidate. His combination of power, explosiveness, and finesse can’t even be controlled by opponents that know, exactly, what his intentions are every time he touches the ball. But instead of realizing that potential, Zion has played only 59 games since 2021 and is nowhere close to how great he could be. He’s also, somehow, barely registering in the NBA zeitgeist, reduced to a peripheral figure, marginalized by production that doesn’t drop jaws like it once did.
If you’ve ever seen Zion take off from the dotted line, glide through the air, and simultaneously creep between and crash through shot blockers at the rim, you might wonder why that doesn’t happen a dozen times in every game. Maybe more. There’s no stopping Williamson when he’s focused. He stomps and soars and pulverizes in an unprecedented form. Creator of shock waves and sonic booms. He could average an efficient 30 points per game someday. He could finish top 10 in assists, too.
But this year, on an impressive Pelicans team that’s advantageously placed him at the 5 more than ever before, he won’t make the All-Star team. He’s scored 30 or more just three times in 30 games—his 21.8 point average ranks below Bam Adebayo, Terry Rozier, and Kyle Kuzma—and he’s yet to tally a double-digit assist game.
Even if Zion is the opponent’s primary concern at any given moment, Brandon Ingram is currently New Orleans’s best player. For the first time in his career, Williamson’s team sports a more efficient offense when he’s on the bench. His usage, PER, and free throw rate have never been lower. When he’s the nominal center, his field goal percentage at the rim is somehow lower than when he’s beside the paint-clogging Jonas Valanciunas.
Zion can still be electric, and there are times when he brings it on defense in ways that make you wonder why he can’t do it all the time (physical condition notwithstanding). But there are too many nights when he doesn’t take over, consistently burst to the rim, or show an ability to use his right hand against defenses that bait him to do so. Total command—posting up, flying off a dribble handoff into the paint, setting a ball screen and then diving to the rim, running his own pick-and-rolls—should be his reality. And it can still happen someday soon. But as great as it is to see him healthy this season, at 23 years old, another jump would have been plenty reasonable.
Jusuf Nurkic, Phoenix Suns
It’s silly to disparage a player’s body of work that, on the whole, hasn’t been terrible because of one poor night. But maybe the most unsettling performance I’ve seen any important player have this season was on December 5, when the Suns were eliminated from the in-season tournament by the Los Angeles Lakers. In it, Nurkic finished with just three points, three shots, and four personal fouls. He went 1-for-4 from the free throw line and, as a 7-foot-tall man who weighs nearly 300 pounds and is nicknamed the Bosnian beast, hesitated almost every time he touched the ball in or around the paint:
It spoke to issues that have plagued Nurk most of his career but are particularly glaring on his new team, with stakes higher than anything he’s experienced before. Sometimes this reluctance works in his favor. Very few centers can process action and make a pass on the move like this:
But even though a Kevin Durant 3 is better than Nurkic challenging Anthony Davis at the summit, the Suns can’t realize their full potential until Nurkic consistently capitalizes on the advantages created by his star teammates. Call me old-fashioned, but this read isn’t it:
The sequence ends with an open corner 3 launched by one of the greatest shooters of all time, but the process behind it is a little troubling. Advantageous four-on-three playmaking is something Nurkic can do well enough. But whether he’s rolling to the hoop or punishing a rotating low man as two defenders blitz Durant, Devin Booker, or Bradley Beal, the Suns—a team coming off of three straight seasons in which it ended dead last in at-rim shot frequency—could stand for more force inside:
It’s not easy to be a big man on a team that has no traditional point guard, but Nurkic shouldn’t be less efficient in Phoenix than he was the past two years in Portland, with his lowest effective field goal percentage since 2019. According to NBA.com, 36 centers have attempted at least 100 shots inside the restricted area this season, and only Andre Drummond and Jaren Jackson Jr. rank below Nurkic’s 59.0 field goal percentage. He doesn’t create any space on the perimeter, either. Pretty much all of his 3s are wide-open attempts—and he’s made just 27.5 percent of them.
Nurkic’s impressive on/off splits belie any warts. Phoenix’s backup center situation has been a disaster and—despite the team’s injury woes—only 45 of Nurkic’s 953 minutes have come without at least one of Booker, Durant, and Beal on the court. There’s still plenty of time for this team to get healthy, jell, and look like the contender it was constructed to be. For that to happen, Nurkic needs to become a more dependable and less tepid scoring threat.
Deandre Ayton, Portland Trail Blazers
We now move to the player Nurkic replaced in Phoenix, a center who’s yet to show his new team the DominAyton that was promised. Ayton is averaging a career-low 13.1 points per game (down from last year’s 18.0) and making a career-low 54.8 percent of his 2-point shots, to go along with a career-low free throw rate. There might not be another player in the entire league who settles more frequently or needs less to feel satisfied on any given possession.
He’s a very good midrange shooter but can get a bit too antsy putting them up, even when guarded in space by a smaller defender.
This season, Ayton’s first since leaving the Suns, represents a significant step back. His turnover rate is nearly double his assist rate. He’s shooting 67 percent at the rim, which is way down from last season’s 79 percent.
After Ayton notched a win against his former team, one of his few highlights this season, Devin Booker gave what can be described as a backhanded compliment when bringing up his former teammate’s energy. “He played extra hard tonight,” Booker said. “I seen that, and my challenge for him is to play like that every night.” By and large, his effort still varies from night to night. The examples are numerous. On this play, he jogs back while his man sprints. He then doesn’t recover to the paint, where two Warriors (including his man) are:
This clip against the Jazz is more egregious:
Ayton’s current teammates are less seasoned than his former running mates in Phoenix. They don’t all space the floor. Sometimes they miss him on a duck-in or look the other way when he puts his hand up to signal a lob, knowing if he gets a deep post touch, there’s a decent chance he’ll cough the ball up (dribbles in traffic are his enemy) or fail to go up strong.
Ayton also doesn’t always recognize what’s happening around him. Here he is committing an offensive foul on Jaren Jackson Jr. despite Shaedon Sharpe standing at the top of the arc with Bismack Biyombo on him—the obvious mismatch Portland should exploit in this situation.
Ayton’s offensive responsibilities haven’t expanded in what was expected to be an opportunity for him to showcase different areas of a seemingly restricted skill set and—six years into a career that’s already yielded a max contract—become the productive franchise anchor Phoenix thought it was getting atop the 2018 draft.
Mikal Bridges, Brooklyn Nets
This is not an indictment of Bridges’s value or ability. Including him on a list that also has Poole and Ayton is no attempt to denigrate a malleable, steadfast, two-way cog who would literally be embraced by any team. Consistency is a rare jewel that should be applauded at every turn. Few bring it like Brooklyn’s best player.
But the massive jump he took last season has distorted exactly what Bridges is; in a Nets uniform, he ended the 2022-23 season contributing an efficient 26.1 points a game with a remarkable 30.3 percent usage rate (literally double what it was during Bridges’s last full season with the Suns), hinting he could be a lot more than just the high-end role player he was in Phoenix. Instead, while evidently miscast as a first option, the 27-year-old hasn’t taken any noticeable steps forward.
Bridges’s accuracy at the rim is down. His effectiveness from the midrange—where he made over 50 percent of the seven pull-up 2s he launched per game on the Nets (a star quality) last season—has decreased. The volume and accuracy are down, but the degree of difficulty is up, with a whopping 71 percent of his midrange shots being unassisted—numbers that speak to the challenge of having the ball in his hands more than anyone else on such a disjointed roster.
Some of this critique is based on expectations that were probably a little high to begin with. As great as Bridges was down the stretch last season, expecting him to carry so much offensive responsibility for an entire season wasn’t reasonable. Still, there was room for him to expand as a pick-and-roll playmaker or become someone who can get to the free throw line a bit more than he does. Anyone who averages a modestly efficient 21.2 points and is willing to assume difficult defensive responsibilities each night is good. But Bridges has room to evolve and isn’t doing so.
Honorable mentions: Darius Garland, Jaren Jackson Jr., Andrew Wiggins, Terance Mann