Every year, a handful of second-year players experience a sophomore slump where their play declines from the season before, but these four are avoiding that.
The 2016-17 NBA rookie class wasn’t that great outside of two or three players: Joel Embiid, Malcolm Brogdon and Dario Saric. A lot of high lottery picks underperformed for various reasons, whether it was situational (Jaylen Brown) or they were just unable to put it together (Brandon Ingram). Most first-year players have a hard time adjusting to the league because it’s significantly different than college. The pace at the professional level is quicker than the “amateur” level; your peers are more skilled and more experienced, and, for a lot of guys, it’s the first time they’ve ever not been the best player on the court.
Once year two rolls around, few people expect the players to stay the same. They either improve or experience a sophomore slump, with the latter being far more common. I can’t tell you why. It just happens. Maybe we’re subconsciously paying more attention to them and don’t realize they string a couple of bad games together. The coach sometimes has a role in that slump. Any rookie that has a solid inaugural season has earned a more prominent role on his team, and we’ve seen that from a couple of franchises. More minutes means more opportunity to do both good and bad things.
There have been a couple of guys this year that have just blown us away with their production, and major props to them for not being concerned about the dreaded sophomore slump.
Malcolm Brogdon, Milwaukee Bucks
2016-17 Stats: 10.2 points, 4.2 assists, 2.8 rebounds, 55.5 TS%, plus-2.7 net rating
2017-18 stats: 15.5 points, 4.8 assists, 1.9 rebounds, 61.5 TS%, minus-0.3 net rating
Giannis Antetokounmpo’s monstrous start to the season casts an enormous shadow over the rest of the team. Because of him, they tend to get overlooked. Malcolm Brogdon, however, has remained one Milwaukee’s most consistent options. His ability to command the offense is what earns him most of his minutes, but there’s more substance than that. Brogdon is a lights-out shooter from three, and that’s instrumental to what Milwaukee wants to do. To complement Giannis, the Bucks need a secondary ball handler who can space the floor and create offense. Without Brogdon, there’s reason to believe Antetokounmpo wouldn’t have gotten off to such a great start. The 24-year-old has earned praise thanks to his poise and decision-making, and those are the attributes that you get from guys who spend three or four years in college.
Milwaukee still needs a plan that better utilizes what Brogdon is capable of. After nine games, Jason Kidd hasn’t executed a game plan that’s beneficial to the team. Most of the time, it’s giving Giannis the ball and hoping he does something.
Jaylen Brown, Boston Celtics
2016-17 Stats: 6.6 points, 2.8 rebounds, 0.8 assists, 53.9 TS%, minus-2.2 net rating
2017-17 stats: 15.8 points, 6.6 rebounds, 0.9 assists, 56.3 TS%, plus-12.4 net rating
With Gordon Hayward’s injury, the Boston Celtics are reliant on two young players to rise to the occasion: Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. Both have been wonderful, Brown, however, has been one of the most impressive players in the league when you compare this year to his rookie season. Among players averaging at least 30 minutes a night, Brown’s net rating is eighth, ahead of guys like John Wall, James Harden and Russell Westbrook. The Celtics, as a team, help Brown’s rating, but he, as an individual, helps make the team more dynamic.
Brown has made a considerable leap offensively and is a threat that Boston’s opponents have to account for. He’s always had physical gifts, but his newfound three-point shot is what makes him a complete player. At 42.6 percent, Brown is 8.5 percentage points better than the mark he set as a rookie, and only Kyrie Irving (2.2) is averaging more makes per night than he is (2.0).
Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers
2016-17 Stats: 20.2 points, 7.8 rebounds, 2.5 blocks, 58.4 TS%, plus-3.2 net rating
2017-18 Stats: 20.5 points, 10.1 rebounds, 1.4 blocks, 58.8 TS%, plus-9.0 net rating
We fell in love with Joel Embiid after one season. So much so that he had a legitimate shot at bringing home the Rookie of the Year award despite playing 31 games. Now, in year two, Embiid continues to dazzle on a nightly basis. As a sophomore, his accuracy from downtown has suffered, but a vast array of post moves combined with an emerging mid-range jumper has made Embiid even more of a hassle to deal with. He’s big enough to shed defenders like their gnats on a windshield, but also agile enough to deal with anyone who’s the same size as he is.
The most significant jump from Embiid has come on defense. Last year, he was a menace around the rim, and that’s still true, but, overall, Embiid is a much scarier defender. He’s gambling more on the perimeter and is averaging 1.4 steals through eight games, but he’s also made an effort to be more present on the backboards, where he’s one of four guys to add 20 points to his 10 boards.
2016-17 Stats: 5.9 points, 3.6 rebounds, 1.0 assists, 46.9 TS%, plus-0.2 net rating
2017-17: 13.5 points, 10.3 rebounds, 3.0 assists, 65.7 TS%, plus-5.5 net rating
If there were an award for Most Surprising Player To Break Out After Being Utilized Properly, Domantas Sabonis would be in the running. His rookie season with the Oklahoma City Thunder was lackluster because the team had him playing an unusual role. Russell Westbrook was the offense last year but didn’t do a great job of helping the guys around him thrive. It’s eye-catching to see Sabonis’ numbers, but the Pacers have done an excellent job of putting him in spots to succeed. He’s shot just three triples this year, which is 0.3 a night; as a rookie, he launched 2.0 per game at a 32.1 percent clip, about the same as this year (33.3 percent).
The combined play of Sabonis and Victor Oladipo has reopened the debate about the Paul George trade. If the front office knew that they could maximize the talents of these two guys, good on them, especially Sabonis. I don’t know how many people saw him as a legitimate double-double guy, but he’s been that for the Pacers, and they’ve turned a nice amount of heads because of it.
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