Last season the Rookie of the Year debate was alive and well with a handful of names. Ben Simmons and Donovan Mitchell dominated the conversation, but players like Kyle Kuzma, Jayson Tatum and Lauri Markkanen received plenty of traction as well. All of these athletes had incredible rookie campaigns and clearly deserved the praise heaped on them.
Simmons – as we all know – went on to win the coveted Rookie of the Year award. Despite certain fan bases sharing their grievances about Simmons’ eligibility, he was clearly deserving of the trophy.
All of the aforementioned players are having varying levels of success in their respective second-year campaigns, but by no means have any of them dropped off. What got lost in the noise of last season was just how many solid rookies were developing their games for this season.
While Mitchell and Simmons were already starring for their respective teams, a handful of other players were learning about and taking in life as an NBA player, slowly honing their craft and developing certain aspects of their game.
This season, we’ve already seen a handful of players who have come into their own during their sophomore campaign. Let’s take a look at some of the late bloomers and see how they are attributing wins to their respective team’s records.
One of the most surprising players on this list is the second-year player out of Kentucky. Touted with gobs of potential and landing high-up in the lottery, many expected Fox to put up big numbers his rookie year. While he did average 11.6 points and 4.4 assists a night, he struggled to provide any sense of hope for his future. He shot just 41.2 percent from the field and an even more abysmal 30.7 percent from three. He had a net rating of -10.1, only better than two other lottery picks in Josh Jackson and Malik Monk.
Fast forward one year and Fox looks like the front-runner for the Most Improved Player award. It is truly remarkable how much better he looks this season. It’s not just as if he’s improved certain aspects of his game; he has literally improved every aspect of his game.
Fox is now averaging 17.9 points, 7.3 assists, and 1.5 steals a night. He’s doing that on 47.7 percent shooting and, more importantly, 38.7 percent from three. He now has a positive net rating of 2.8 and is second on the team in scoring. He’s leading the Sacramento Kings in assist percentage, he’s second in usage percentage and third in steal percentage.
These numbers are certainly not getting lost. His name is being talked about in high regard throughout the league, with some even pointing to him as potentially the best player from the 2017 draft class. Bill Simmons had Kevin Durant on his podcast just this last week and said, “He’s a possible All-NBA guy in a couple years.” Durant agreed with the sentiment.
It’s no wonder the Kings are touting the record they are. We are fairly deep into the season already and the Kings are two games above .500. The surprise play of Fox is a huge reason why.
The second-year player for the Atlanta Hawks is having an incredible year and most people don’t even know about it. Most of that can be attributed to two things. First, the Hawks are really bad. Second, Trae Young is getting most of the national attention, with him leading the NCAA in both points and steals last season, it is easy to tell why.
Collins is currently second in scoring from the 2017 draft class at 18.6 points a night and he’s doing so with 58.6 percent shooting from the field. He’s averaging 9.5 rebounds a game and even adding 2.4 assists. He’s the only sophomore to average these marks and is on a short list of only nine players league-wide to post them. Of those nine, six are all-stars.
His defense isn’t quite where it should be (DRTG north of 109) but much of that can be attributed to the state of the Hawks in general. Collins clearly has the length and athleticism to be an ideal defender in today’s league. As long as the Hawks continue to re-tool their roster, Collins should develop into quite the force on both ends of the court.
While Adebayo isn’t incredibly flashy on the offensive end, his defensive numbers have been quite impressive. He’s one of eight players from the 2017 class to post a DRTG below 100 and he’s only one of two that have played more than 20 games. He’s the only one on the list to surpass 20 minutes a night. Needless to say, Bam is in a class of his own on the defensive end.
In players who have played at least 15 games, he ranks first in defensive rebound percentage and seventh in block percentage. Similar to Collins, he is long and athletic so he can guard the wing about as well as he protects the rim.
While his defense is the more impressive part of his game, his offensive abilities are still very much a positive. For one, he posts a positive net rating. He averages eight points a night on 55.2 percent shooting. He’s a plus from the free throw line at 71.3 percent. And on a team with a losing record, he still manages to post a positive 1.3 plus-minus.
Morris’ season with the Denver Nuggets has seemed to age like fine wine. Through mid-November, he was averaging 9.1 points and 3.9 assists on 47.2 percent from the field and nearly 40 percent from three. From mid-November until now, he’s bumped those numbers up to 11.7 points and 4.3 assists on 50 percent from the field and a blistering 51.4 percent from beyond-the-arc.
The crazy part about the play of Morris is the fact that he only played in three NBA games total last season. He spent the majority of his time with the Rio Grande Vipers of the NBA G-League developing his game. That development has paid off because he is attributing in a big way to the injury-riddled Nuggets. He’s notching almost 25 minutes a night and averaging 48.4/45.3/77.8 splits on the season.
He’s a 4.5 plus-minus – second best out of the entire 2017 rookie class – and is posting a ridiculously impressive 6.15 assist to turnover ratio. That leads the entire league by over an entire point!
There are also only four players in the league posting a better net rating, and only one of those players averages more minutes a night.
This list of players was really interesting to compile. You hear about some of them on a nightly basis, but their campaigns were relatively quiet – and in some cases non-existent – during their rookie years. This goes to show that oftentimes players need time to develop. Even then, there have been plenty of examples of elite athletes, even All-Stars, who have taken longer than two seasons to fully come into their own.
As the season goes on, look to see second (and even third) year players continue to improve. Some guys get it instantly. For some, it takes a little while longer.
But if teams are willing, and smart enough, to be patient, it can usually pay off to a large degree.