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The third chapter of our journey through all the rookies and sophomores in the Nba is the Central Division. We already discussed the Atlantic Division and Southeast Division.
Sophomore: Jordan McRae
Rookie: Kay Felder
Jordan McRae was almost out of the Nba when, last March, the Cavaliers offered him an unguaranteed contract until 2017, and even then, he never really had much of a chance, playing 7.5 minutes in 15 games. But he worked hard behind the scenes and earned both a spot with the team and an invitation to the exclusive Summer Camp organized by LeBron James, who said: “The kid has been working so hard and ever since we got him he’s been soaking in the process. As long as he’s here I think it’s my duty to try to help him” (per Cleveland.com). And if LeBron wants to help, you have to jump at the opportunity. Will he receive more playing time? That will depend on J.R. Smith, among other things, but Mo Williams retired, so his minutes are up for grab. Oh and, he seems to be doing just fine.
Cleveland bought the 54th pick from the Atlanta Hawks and then selected Kay Felder, who signed a 3-year minimum contract with a partially guaranteed second year. The team clearly thinks Felder is a valuable addition, maybe not immediately but certainly in the future. The ex Oakland guard averaged 17.5 points and 7.8 assists in his college career and probably fell on draft night because of his diminutive size. Normally, he would challenge McRae for playing time, but the Cavs will be coasting through the regular season and they will both see the court.
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Sophomore: Myles Turner, Rakeem Christmas, Joseph Young
Rookie: Georges Niang, Nick Zeisloft
Myles Turner began his Nba career with plenty of doubts on his physical condition and his unusual running stance. After one season, expectations are sky high and some do think he is in the same conversation with Towns and Porizingis. However, that seems a bit out of proportion, especially if we consider his on court production: 10.3 points, 5.5 rebounds and a -3.7 Offensive Box Plus Minus. The potential is there, and the Pacers decided to trust him with a starting role at center, following Larry Bird’s idea to play faster than the slogging offense Vogel had in place. Indeed, Turner should benefit from a faster pace, since he can run the floor very well, but there are some concerns, first among them the fact that coach McMillan‘s teams were always efficient on offense but never really tried to “run”. Second, in the 30 games he started last season, Turner offensive rating was 16 points lower when compared to the 30 games he came off the bench, while his defensive rating was more or less the same. He will have to speed up his development, and improve that awful 27.3% from beyond the arc, because his every move will be under scrutiny.
Rakeem Christmas and Joseph Young will be in their second year of a contract that will pay them 4.3M in 4 years. They both went back and forth from the D-League and when given the chance this summer they showed they are still far from ready to be part of coach McMillan rotation. They will probably go back to the D-League, together with Georges Niang, who signed a 3-year minimum contract this summer, with only the first one guaranteed. Nick Zeisloft has a camp deal and will be waived before the season opener.
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Sophomore: Stanley Johnson, Darrun Hilliard, Boban Marjanovic
Rookie: Michael Gbinije, Henry Ellenson
Stanley Johnson‘s season was in line with what was expected of him. He flashed his potential on occasions, especially early on, he stayed engaged and committed on the defensive end, where he showed some growth as the season went on, and not much else. His season averages do not tell much, although he boasted he was the best rookie in his draft class and he tried to taunt LeBron James in the playoff. If anything, it proved that he is not scared of anything and that he has all the physical tools to be an elite defender in the league. With one season under his belt, his game should be much more effective on both sides of the floor.
Boban Marjanovic signed with the Pistons for 3 years and 21M. He will come off the bench behind Andre Drummond and will be the terror of every second unit he will face. One under-the-radar reason he was signed is to counter the hack-a tactic that is often employed against Drummond. Marjanovic is a 76.3% free-throw shooter, subbing him in would allow the Pistons to stay big with a 7-3 center while having five reliable free-throw shooters in the game. It would be better to keep the more talented Drummond on the floor, but the Serbian can be effective in short stretches. As for Darrun Hilliard, he will be out indefinitely with a lower back stress fracture.
Henry Ellenson was selected last June to grow into a stretch-four role, but it seems he is ahead of the curve already. Every scouting report saw Ellenson as too slow to guard modern power forwards and lacking any rim protection to play as the nominal center. He seemed he was in for a long rookie season when he went to Detroit and coach Stan Van Gundy, whose teams always had a strong defensive mentality. But in the few weeks of training camp, his coach said that “he is a good basketball player”, that “he’s got a chance to be really, really special” and that “[Van Gundy] wouldn’t have a problem putting him on the floor right now”. Well, it is hard to make an early evaluation during Summer League, but he did really well:
Michael Gbinije is off three good years in Syracuse and the Houston Final Four. He was the 49th pick last June and signed a 3-year contract that will pay him 2.5M, although only the first year is guaranteed. It will be hard for him to get playing time, but Reggie Jackson will be out for 6-8 weeks, leaving the guard rotation up in the air.
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Sophomore: Jerian Grant, Bobby Portis, Cristiano Felicio
Rookie: Denzel Valentine, Paul Zipser, Thomas Walkup
Bobby Portis had a good season, as in, he was not a negative, which is more than can be said for most of Chicago’s roster. He played 17.8 minutes in 62 games and averaged 7 points and 5.4 rebounds while trying too hard to show he could be effective. The renewed roster does not grant him any playing time, the only chance he has is improving his outside shot, which he did: he shot 45.5% from three-point range in Summer League. If the game slowed down enough for him and if that shot is legit, he will get his chance.
It’s hard to make a real assessment of Jerian Grant‘s role with the team. He was part of the package that the Knicks sent for Derrick Rose, and the Bulls obviously need a point-guard off the bench behind Rondo, but there are too many players at roster who want to have the ball in their hands. He has the body and the athleticism to be a factor on defense, and that at least should get him some minutes.
Felicio spent the season in the D-League and that’s where he is likely to stay. He is unlikely to be waived because he is the only other center at roster beside Robin Lopez, but he seems to be way behind the rest of the frontcourt, and that’s without considering possible small ball lineups.
Denzel Valentine might have found a team who needs his skills, assuming he can get over his knee issues. He is the only guard who can be a legit three-point threat, and he will benefit from the veterans on the team. He will certainly find a spot in the rotation, considering his skills and much needed shooting, but coach Hoiberg will have to balance it carefully because defense will be an issue.
Zipser signed for 4M in 4 years, but the ex Bayern Munich wing is unlikely to be on the court. The Bulls have two obvious starters and others who will compete for minutes behind them. He should not be underestimated though, he has plenty of top-level international experience in Europe, playing in the Euroleague and with the national team, he can spread the floor, attack close-outs and play defense. Thomas Walkup has a camp deal and will be waived.
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Sophomore: Rashard Vaughn
Rookie: Thon Maker, Malcolm Brogdon
Rashard Vaughn was a non-factor last season, despite playing 14.3 minutes in 70 games. He did not take many shots and when he did he was not efficient, being a general negative for his team. This year, given Middleton injury, he will have more minutes but he will have to show some improvement on his shooting to keep his spot.
Malcolm Brogdon might be the one taking Vaughn playing time. He signed for 3M in 3 years and if he had to be as efficient as he was in his last college season he might be a legit starter for a team hungry for three-point shooting. And he should be at least competent on defense with his long arms.
Thon Maker probably was the real surprise in the 2016 draft. He did not attend college and jumped directly from prep school to the Nba, with rumors about his real age and his raw potential that made him far from an immediate contributor. The Bucks raised some eyebrows when they picked him 10th overall, but he certainly fits their approach in the rebuilding plan: young, versatile and athletic players with incredibly long arms, even if they had to be very raw. The Bucks will not be good anytime soon, both because of the injuries that slowed down their growth (Parker in his rookie season, Middleton in the summer) and because players need time to grow, but when they will be ready they will terrorize the Nba.