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We finished our evaluation of the rookies and sophomore in the Eastern Conference last week (if you need to catch up just follow these links for the Atlantic, Southeast and Central Division). It is now time to move to the Northwest Division and check if everything is well with the top of the 2015 rookie class.
Oklahoma City Thunder
Sophomore: Cameron Payne, Josh Huestis
Rookie: Domantas Sabonis, Alex Abrines, Semaj Christon, Alex Caruso, Kaleb Tarczewski
Cameron Payne‘s rookie season went more or less as expected. Being point-guard on a contending team that already has Russell Westbrook and DJ Augustin was not easy, but Payne was good enough to allow coach Donovan and GM Sam Presti to trade Augustin at mid-season. He came into the Nba as a player with great feel for the game and good potential as a shooter and floor leader, skills he did showcase from time to time, for example in here
and in here.
The stars on the team inevitably limited his touches and minutes on the floor in their rush to the Eastern Conference Finals, and of course he had a prolonged adjustment period early on, after missing his first training camp with an injury. His averages, adjusted per 36 minutes, are enough to inspire some optimism (14.6 points, 4.4 rebounds and 5.5 assists) and OKC can only hope he will improve that 32.4% from three.
Josh Huestis was the 29th pick in the 2014 draft, agreed to sign in the D-League for his first season, and is now starting his second year in the Nba. As a first round pick his contract is guaranteed but he is unlikely to crack the rotation, in part because the roster is loaded at his position and in part because he didn’t exactly took the D-League by storm in his two seasons there, the first as a D-League player the second as an assignment to the Oklahoma City Blue. He is an athletic wing who might develop into a good shooter, but he played 55 minutes with the Thunder.
Domantas Sabonis was the 11th pick in the 2016 draft for the Orlando Magic but his rights were immediately sent to the Thunder in the trade that shipped Serge Ibaka to Orlando. The Lithuanian is a very good player, arguably one of the few rookies who could have an impact in a playoff-bound team (and a contender, back when Durant was still around). He will fit right in on defense, and he already proved he can be extremely effective on that side of the ball in the European tour the Thunder had in preseason. His help defense and switches were perfectly timed and he was active on the passing lanes and in the post. He will be another strong presence on the boards for OKC and collect rebounds on the weak side on offense when defenses will be forced to collapse on Westbrook’s drives to the rim. But Sabonis is a good passer from the elbows, and if he had to show a reliable jumper from the high post, he has a real chance to be in the starting five and in the conversation for Rookie of the Year.
Alex Abrines was the 32nd pick in the 2013 draft and moved to the Nba after four seasons with top European club Barcelona. He has the physical tools and the talent to be part of the rotation, but he is unlikely to play relevant minutes from the very start. He certainly has experience in the most important competitions in Europe, and the fact that he will not be a starter should help him transitioning to the Nba game, but he will still struggle. The risk that he might end up like Nikola Mirotic in Chicago is real. The other rookies will be waived at the end of the training camp.
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Portland Trail Blazers
Sophomore: Pat Connaughton, Grant Jerrett
Rookie: Jake Layman, Tim Quarterman
Connaughton rode the pine the whole season, playing a grand total of 143 minutes, mostly garbage time. He came into the league as a shooter but the ex Notre Dame guard never had a chance and the way owner Paul Allen spent his money this summer does not suggest there will be much playing time for him or fellow guards Tim Quarterman and Grant Jerrett (camp-deals for both of them). Truth is, the Blazers rotation in the backcourt was decided long ago and, barring injuries, there is no room available.
The only rookie who might find minutes on the floor is Jake Lyman. Portland’s frontcourt, while overcrowded, is not as set in stone as the backcourt. The ex Maryland forward was picked in the second round by the Orlando Magic and sent to Portland for a 2019 second rounder and 1.2M. He shot 39.6% from beyond the arc in his senior year and at 6-9, he is the prototype of the modern stretch-four. For him to crack the rotation, he will have to keep his shooting efficiency and be good on defense.
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Sophomore: Dante Exum, Raul Neto
Rookie: Joel Bolomboy
Dante Exum will be in his second year, after staying sidelined in what would have been his sophomore season with a torn ACL he suffered while playing for the Australian national team in the summer of 2015. Doctors cleared him for full contact practice weeks ago, but he will have to get back in rhythm after staying away from a real game for so long. His rookie season had bright spots and terrible holes. He averaged less than 5 points and 2.5 assists per game, which is not ideal for a starting point-guard, but the Opponents Offensive Rating was 5.4 points higher when he was on the bench, while the Jazz’s Offensive Rating was pretty much the same. It is his defense that won him the starting spot in the lineup and forced Trey Burke to come off the bench. As for the offense, he was a non factor, playing off the ball most of the time and will do so next season. The Jazz hope he kept his athleticism and that he improved on his outside shot.
Raul Neto was the player the Jazz hoped could replace Exum for the season the Australian was injured, but he ended up losing his starting role. His impact on defense was good but his performances did not satisfy coach Quin Snyder. He will be the third PG at roster in the upcoming season and will not find much playing time but he showed he can be the first backup for a playoff team.
Bolomboy was the 52nd pick in the 2016 draft for the Jazz. He is likely to make the roster but he will spend most of his season with the Salt Lake City Stars in the D-League.
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Sophomore: Emmanuel Mudiay, Nikola Jokic
Rookie: Malik Beasley, Jamal Murray, Juan Hernangomez
Mudiay‘s season had a terrible start but he improved his game and was under-the-radar good by the end of the year. Up until December, he was everything that could be expected from a rookie that could not shoot playing the most technical position in the league and the one that has more talent throughout the league. From January onward, his performances did improve, raising his offensive rating by 18 points from November (80) to March (98) while posting a not-awful 47.9% True Shooting percentage in March. Not the kind of numbers that will win games, but the growth should at least be a good sign. His defense went south during this offensive growth, but only a few rookies can be effective on both sides on the court in their first year. Mudiay is on a very young team and has all the time in the world to grow into the player he can be.
Gary Harris injury will keep him off the court for about two months, leaving the window opened for both Malik Beasley and Jamal Murray, who will be part of the rotation from the very start. Some did argue that Murray should be the starting PG for the team, but that is unlikely to happen right away, not when judgments are based on Summer League and preseason. Also, Murray started the season as PG at Kentucky but was moved to shooting guard because he was more effective off the ball and Tyler Ulis was a better playmaker.
Nikola Jokic was the third best rookie last season behind only Karl-Anthony Towns and Kristaps Porzingis. The team was much better with him on the floor, based on any kind of statistics, basic or advanced, individual or team wise. The team was terrible in the minutes Jokic shared with Nurkic, but while spacing was an issue, that was also a matter of inefficiency of the team’s perimeter players. Jokic is still a huge talent with tons of untapped potential and, if he will repeat himself in his sophomore season, the Nuggets have a future All-Star around which they can build.
Juan Hernangomez was chosen because of his stretch-four potential and his rebounding instincts. The adjustment period and the logjam at the power-forward spot will not allow him to translate to the Nba his 34.2% three-point shooting which, average as it is, would still help the Nuggets space the floor.
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Sophomore: Karl-Anthony Towns, Tyus Jones, Nemanja Bjelica
Rookie: Kris Dunn
Karl-Anthony Towns rookie season by the numbers: 18.3 points, 10.5 rebounds, 2 assists, 1.7 blocks, 34%(!) three-point shooting, 55.5% True Shooting percentage, 8.3 Win Shares, 0.151 Win Shares per 48 minutes (league average is 0.1), and Rookie of the Year after collecting all of the rookie of the month award. Many things could be said about Towns and his season but we’ll stick to two: one, Towns will be a transcendent player, arguably he already is, a perennial All-Star and potentially a future Hall of Famer; two, it is early to talk about titles and parades, the coaching change, together with general growth from Towns, Wiggins and the other players, might get the team to the playoff, but it seems highly unlikely as of now. And Towns might need one more year before dominating the league.
Minnesota @Timberwolves stud @KarlTowns puts in work to prepare for the new NBA season! pic.twitter.com/dCaVlBgQVl
— NBA (@NBA) 11 ottobre 2016
Bjelica had a strong start to his season, but an injury forced him to miss a few weeks and when he came back he was not the same. His game seems to be a perfect fit beside Towns, but he is likely to come off the bench. Also, age is not on his side: he is 28 now, while the core of the team is 23 and under, but if he will earn the trust of coach Tom Thibodeau he will become an important piece of the rotation, unlocking a potential five-out lineup that can still feature two 7 footers.
Tyus Jones was never a factor in his first season. He spent the first half in the D-League and only played when Andre Miller was traded, coming off the bench. It is unlikely he will get playing time this season, considering the abundance of young guards at roster and the addition of number 5 pick Kris Dunn. The ex Providence will be the first PG off the bench, at least early on, despite some rumors suggesting he might be the starter from day one. His work ethic will get him to learn Thibodeau’s defense quickly and, if he will improve on his outside shooting, he will likely be the PG of the future for the Twolves. Until then, he will be free to terrorize opposing second units. It will be interesting to see if coach Thibodeau will try to play Rubio and Dunn in the same lineup, with Dunn playing off the ball, a role he is more suited for than Rubio, and that would open up interesting combinations on defense. Minnesota is expected to collect many more wins than last season, and Dunn will have to prove he is a starter for a playoff team and a potential contender. Not that there are any questions about his talent or work ethic.