NBA PM: Sophomores to Keep an Eye On
Some players are ready to contribute from the moment they enter the league while others take some time to get acclimated to the NBA. Last year, there were several rookies who were able to make an immediate impact on their new team.
Kyrie Irving was sensational in Cleveland and lived up to the hype that comes with being the top pick. Ricky Rubio took over the starting point guard job in Minnesota and had the Timberwolves battling for a playoff spot before injuries ruined their season. Kawhi Leonard (San Antonio Spurs), Kenneth Faried (Denver Nuggets), Norris Cole (Miami HEAT) and Iman Shumpert (New York Knicks) became key contributors on playoff teams. Brandon Knight (Detroit Pistons), Klay Thompson (Golden State Warriors), Isaiah Thomas (Sacramento Kings) and MarShon Brooks (Brooklyn Nets) earned starting jobs and averaged double figures.
These players were put into situations that allowed them to be successful. However, some players don’t get the opportunity to play right away and some need a year of experience under their belt before they’re ready to become significant contributors. While players like Irving and Rubio are ahead of schedule and have already become household names, they are the exceptions. Most players from the 2011 NBA Draft class are still trying to find their footing, and last season was especially difficult for rookies since the lockout canceled summer league, shortened training camp and limited practice time.
There are plenty of other talented players who are entering their second year that could be poised for a big season if given the opportunity. Here are some sophomores to keep an eye on this season:
Tristan Thompson, Cleveland Cavaliers
The Cavaliers are expecting Thompson to take on a larger role this year and start at power forward. Last season, Thompson came off of the bench for the majority of the season, but was moved into the starting lineup for the final 25 games of the year. However, the 6’9 Thompson was playing out of position, starting at center alongside Antawn Jamison. Now, with Jamison no longer in Cleveland, Thompson will start at the four with Anderson Varejao returning from injury to start at the five. Last season, Thompson showed glimpses of brilliance once his minutes increased and the Cavs are hoping he picks up right where he left off. The 21-year-old scored in double digits 24 times last year and averaged 10.4 points and 7.5 rebounds after moving into the starting five. Thompson is one of the franchise’s cornerstones and they’re hoping he’s even more productive in his second season as he returns to his natural position and receives more minutes and touches.
Bismack Biyombo, Charlotte Bobcats
Last season, Biyombo was the youngest player in the NBA and, at times, it showed. That’s expected when a teenager with very little experience is matched up against grown men. However, as the season went on, Biyombo showed progress and was moved into the starting lineup last February. He showed why the Bobcats selected him with the seventh overall pick in last year’s draft, recording 10 double-digit scoring games, 11 double-digit rebound games and 10 games in which he blocked four or more shots. Biyombo has been working hard this summer, training on his own and then playing in the Las Vegas Summer League. He’ll enter the season as Charlotte’s starting power forward and will only continue to develop. If the last few months of the 2011-12 season are any indication, Biyombo’s development could be ahead of schedule and this may be the year that he begins to make huge strides and realize his full potential.
Nikola Vucevic, Orlando Magic
After trading Dwight Howard to the Los Angeles Lakers, Orlando doesn’t have an experienced center on their roster. Nikola Vucevic may enter the season as the Magic’s starting center, even though he’s only started 15 games in his career. Vucevic spent last season with the Philadelphia 76ers, averaging 5.5 points and 4.8 rebounds after being selected with the 16th overall pick in last year’s draft. At the very least, Vucevic will play a large role in Orlando since the only other center on the roster is fellow second-year player Gustavo Ayon. There are definitely minutes for Vucevic in Orlando and he’ll have every opportunity to succeed. The Magic want to follow the Oklahoma City Thunder model, and they’re expected to play their young talent from day one and let them learn on the job. That means the 21-year-old Vucevic may win the starting job over the 27-year-old Ayon.
Jimmy Butler, Chicago Bulls
The Bulls are confident that Jimmy Butler is ready to become a key reserve for them this season. Chicago parted ways with Ronnie Brewer and Kyle Korver this offseason in large part due to financial reasons, but those decisions were much easier to make with Butler on the roster. Many within the organization believe that Butler is ready to contribute and back up Luol Deng at small forward after being selected with the 30th overall pick in last year’s draft. Last year, Butler impressed the coaching staff during practices and limited playing time, and his coming out party during the Las Vegas Summer League turned heads as well. The Bulls knew that he was an excellent perimeter defender, but they wanted to see what he could do on offense. They put the ball in Butler’s hands and he didn’t let them down, averaging 20.8 points and 6.5 rebounds in Las Vegas. Butler played in just 42 games last season and averaged 8.5 minutes, but both of those numbers will likely increase significantly this year. Tom Thibodeau loves what Butler brings to the table, especially on the defensive end. Also, Butler is very close with Derrick Rose. The two 23-year-olds, who were born just three weeks apart, spent a lot of time together last year and should have some chemistry when Rose returns from injury.
Josh Selby, Memphis Grizzlies
When the Grizzlies drafted Josh Selby with the 49th overall pick in last year’s draft, they knew he was going to be a project. After spending just one year at Kansas, Selby was very raw and had some growing up and developing to do before he could be a significant contributor. Last year, Selby was buried on Memphis’ depth chart behind veterans, playing in just 28 games and averaging 8.5 minutes. This year, Selby may become part of the rotation, playing some minutes at the one and two. The 21-year-old guard was extremely impressive during the Las Vegas Summer League, earning co-MVP honors with Damian Lillard of the Portland Trail Blazers. Selby averaged 24.2 points per game in Las Vegas, but he also proved that he could run the team’s offense and get his teammates involved. After sitting on the bench for much of last year, Selby’s number may be called this season.
Alec Burks, Utah Jazz
Burks was arguably the most impressive player in the Orlando Summer League. The 21-year-old was unstoppable during the week-long event, averaging 17.2 points and dropping 31 points in one of the games. He was able to score in a variety of ways and he really impressed the coaching staff. Last year, Burks played in 59 games, but he didn’t record a single start and his minutes were limited for much of the season. This year, he should have a bigger role, even though Utah signed veteran shooting guard Randy Foye this offseason. Burks was the 12th overall pick in last year’s draft and it’s only a matter of time until he becomes a key piece for the Jazz.
Tobias Harris, Milwaukee Bucks
Entering this offseason, Harris made it his goal to bulk up, expand his game and earn a spot in Milwaukee’s rotation after playing just 42 games and averaging 11.4 minutes last season. The 20-year-old was one of the first players to start working out at the Bucks’ practice facility and he has gained 10 lbs. of muscle. Harris has also been trying to improve as a defender by practicing against teammates and studying Milwaukee’s system. Harris’ hard work paid off in the Las Vegas Summer League, where he averaged 20.8 points and 7 rebounds. Coaches were impressed with Harris’ development and he’s hoping his progress will lead to an increased role this season. During training camp, he’ll have to battle for minutes against Mike Dunleavy and Luc Mbah a Moute. After training hard all summer, Harris is ready for the challenge and looking forward to the competition.
Nolan Smith, Portland Trail Blazers
Last season, Smith was buried on the depth chart behind veterans Raymond Felton, Jamal Crawford and Jonny Flynn. He played in 44 games, but averaged just 12.1 minutes. Once it became clear that Portland was heading to the lottery, Smith’s minutes increased and he played well during the final month of the season. Entering his second season, there will be more minutes for Smith. Felton, Crawford and Flynn have all left as free agents and while the Blazers will start rookie Damian Lillard at point guard, Smith may be one of the first players off of the bench. Portland signed veteran point guard Ronnie Price to mentor Lillard and Smith, but it’s unclear if he’ll be ahead of Smith on the depth chart. Smith will battle for the second string job during training camp, but he should be a rotation player either way. Because the Blazers are in the midst of a youth movement, Smith should finally get the opportunity to show what he can do when given consistent, meaningful minutes.
Jordan Hamilton, Denver Nuggets
With Andre Iguodala, Danilo Gallinari, Wilson Chandler and Corey Brewer on the roster, it doesn’t seem like there are many minutes for Hamilton in Denver. However, Nuggets head coach George Karl spoke highly of Hamilton during the Las Vegas Summer League and, even if he doesn’t play a lot this year, he’s definitely part of their long-term plans after they used the 26th overall pick in last year’s draft on him. The Nuggets made it clear to Hamilton that he was the leader of the team in Las Vegas and they wanted to see how he would respond. Not only did he fill the stat sheet – averaging 19.2 points, 6.4 rebounds and 3.6 assists – but he also displayed the leadership skills that the coaching staff and front office wanted to see. Throughout the week, his body language and communication with teammates improved and the Nuggets were pleased with his progress. Hamilton will be able to compete for minutes during training camp and he hopes to crack the rotation. Whether that happens remains to be seen, but the 21-year-old is worth keeping an eye on going forward.
Free Agency Updates: At this point in the offseason, there aren’t many free agents remaining on the market. However, there were several players who inked new deals today. Here’s the latest:
• Anthony Tolliver has signed a one-year deal with the Atlanta Hawks. Tolliver will sign for the veteran’s minimum, which will pay him $915,852. Tolliver, who spent last season with the Minnesota Timberwolves, was also considering offers from the Phoenix Suns, Indiana Pacers and Washington Wizards among other teams. Last season, the 27-year-old power forward averaged 4.1 points and 3 rebounds in 51 games with the Timberwolves.
• Marquis Daniels has signed a one-year deal with the Milwaukee Bucks. Daniels will sign for the veteran’s minimum and his deal will be fully guaranteed. Last season, Daniels played for the Boston Celtics, averaging 3.2 in 38 games. The 31-year-old was buried on Boston’s depth chart, but he should have a role in Milwaukee as Monta Ellis’ back-up. The 31-year-old is entering his tenth season in the NBA.
• Dan Gadzuric worked out for the Philadelphia 76ers today and will likely receive a training camp invite. The 34-year-old spent last season with the New York Knicks, but only appeared in two games. This offseason, he was traded to the Portland Trail Blazers as part of the Raymond Felton trade, but the Blazers waived him shortly after. Gadzuric is entering his eleventh season in the NBA and has averaged 4.7 points and 4.4 rebounds over the course of his career.
• Rasheed Wallace has been working out with the New York Knicks at their practice facility and it sounds like the team would be willing to give him a look. However, the 38-year-old hasn’t decided if he wants to come out of retirement and resume his career. Wallace last played during the 2009-10 season for the Boston Celtics, averaging 9 points and 4.1 rebounds in 79 games. The veteran big man has considered a comeback on several different occasions, but has decided against it each time. This would be Wallace’s 16th season in the NBA and his sixth team.
• Josh Howard is in Philadelphia this week to work out for the 76ers. Howard may be the best free agent remaining on the market and he has also drawn interest from the San Antonio Spurs, Minnesota Timberwolves, Charlotte Bobcats and Utah Jazz this offseason. Last season, the 32-year-old played 43 games for the Jazz, averaging 8.7 points and 3.7 rebounds. Howard has been weighing his options for several weeks now. He’ll likely have to settle for a deal worth the veteran’s minimum.