Each season everybody seems to make a big fuss over the rookie class as they make the jump to the big time. There are one-year wonders and more than a few newcomers that just wash out at the highest level of the game. But the real judgments can often not be made until Year Two when the ones who come back and get better show they’re here to stay. We’ll take a look at the top NBA sophomores:
Never mind the relentless travel, the grueling schedule and the upgraded talent level in the nightly competition. Often the hardest thing to handle in a young player’s jump to the NBA is the expectation from everyone else. The 7-footer had enough of them as a 19-year-old following his one season at Kentucky and cleared every bar in his rookie season with the Timberwolves. Almost from the moment he broke out of the starting gate with a double-double in his first pro game against the Lakers, Towns was the clear leader for Rookie of the Year honors and became just the fifth unanimous winner in the 32 years, joining Damian Lillard, Blake Griffin, David Robinson and Ralph Sampson. All he’s done to follow the opening act is take the next step up the ladder by becoming an even more commanding force in the middle of the Timberwolves lineup. He’s taken his scoring average from 18.3 to 24.8 and rebounding from 10.5 to 12. On March 8 he became the second-youngest player, after Dwight Howard, to ring up 100 double-doubles. His 109 double-doubles puts him on a short list behind only Howard, Andre Drummond and Shaquille O’Neal at age 21. The question isn’t whether he’ll be a superstar, but only how great.
As difficult as it’s been to try to watch the Knicks over the past two seasons, just imagine how bad things would be without the big man from Latvia. If there is one thing Phil Jackson can hang his hat on during his time as team president, it’s the decision to take the 7-foot-3 power forward with the fourth pick in the 2015 draft. He’s got the size, agility, deft moves around the hoop and shooting range to become the foundation of a bright future in New York. That is, if the Knicks can ever get past the soap operas involving Carmelo Anthony and Jackson’s insistence on running the triangle offense that frustrates his players and chews up coaches. In a league and a game where power forwards have become stretch-4s with their ability to shoot, Porzingis is already the leading practitioner in his second season and all-around talent who won the Taco Bell Skills Challenge at 2017 All-Star Weekend in New Orleans. He’s averaging 18.1 points, 7.2 rebounds and shooting .357 from behind the arc.
While the Suns bandwagon might still have training wheels, there’s no worry since the 20-year-old Booker is the one driving them forward. The baby-faced one had already staked his claim as an offensive force through his first two seasons in the league. But on March 24 in Boston he took a leap into the history books, joining legends Wilt Chamberlain, Kobe Bryant, David Robinson, Elgin Baylor and David Thompson on the short list of players who dropped 70 points in a game at some point in their career. At 20 years and 145 days, Booker became by far the youngest to smash through that historic barrier. It wasn’t until two months into his rookie season that the 13th pick in the 2015 draft became a full-time starter for a Phoenix team that is building over from the ground up. But it didn’t take him long for the ex-Kentucky Wildcat to show that he was the real thing and an All-Rookie first team nod. Now he’s come back to take a huge step up, bumping his scoring from 13.8 to a team-high 21.9 and is shooting 36 percent on 3-pointers.
Three years ago, he was a 19-year-old trying to carve out a spot on the senior team with Mega Basket in the Adriatic League and did enough to attract the attention of the Nuggets, who made him a second-round pick (41st) in the 2014. After one more season in Europe, he joined the Denver summer league team and stuck in the NBA in 2015, making this his sophomore season. After the Nuggets tried a big man combo with Jusuf Nurkic that didn’t quite work, they traded Nurkic to Portland and committed to the 6-10 Serbian who is one of the best passing big men in the league and has worked his way into the conversation for Most Improved Player this season. He’s averaging 16.5 points, 9.8 rebounds and 4.9 assists to show off his all-around skills. Jokic has six triple-doubles this season, trailing only Russell Westbrook, James Harden and LeBron James this season. It’s also the most triple-doubles by a center since Hall of Famer David Robinson hung up five in 1993-94. At 22, he’s the anchor of the Nuggets’ building project.
In just two seasons, Larry Bird has gone from having to defend selecting Turner with the 11th pick in the 2015 draft to proclaiming that he has the potential to become “maybe the best player in franchise history.” Before we ask Reggie Miller, Mel Daniels, George McGinnis and even Paul George to move back a space or two in the line, we’ll need to see continued growth and, of course, longevity. But the 6-11 center who spent one season in college at Texas has proven to be a workaholic who wants to keep improving. He doesn’t have much of a low post and, in fact, often looks uncomfortable in the paint. But in today’s game a big man who can hit turnaround jumpers and take his shot out to the 3-point line can be just as valuable. He still needs to add strength to handle opposing big men at the other end of the floor. But Turner is a very good help defender and averages two blocked shots per game. He’s improved his passing , converts free throws at an 80 percent clip, and averages 14.3 points and 7.1 rebounds per game. Still just 21, Turner has a lot of years to live up to Bird’s hype.
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