The top of the 2020 NBA draft class has already surpassed expectations. Executives regularly questioned the reliability of potential stars at the top, pointing to the perceived uncertainty surrounding prospects such as Anthony Edwards (Minnesota Timberwolves), LaMelo Ball (Charlotte Hornets) and James Wiseman (Golden State Warriors).
Edwards is already one of the league’s top scorers at age 20, offering a remarkable blend of burst, power, off-the-dribble shot-making and never-ending confidence to go along with his superstar charisma. Ball has emerged as a future face of the NBA with his dazzling passing, deep shooting and infectious style of play, while Wiseman has been sidelined with injuries and hasn’t lived up to lofty expectations when he has been on the floor.
Aside from breakout rookies such as Tyrese Haliburton, Saddiq Bey and Desmond Bane, who has shined brightest through the first 15 games of the season and why is there room for optimism for a handful of second-year players moving forward? Here’s a look at five breakout sophomores, each bringing a different superpower to his respective organization.
Tyrese Maxey, guard, Philadelphia 76ers (No. 21 overall)
Pre-draft Maxey skeptics often pointed to his streaky shooting and sped-up style of play when arguing against his status as a projected top-10 pick during most of his freshman season at Kentucky. While we so often praised his competitive nature, spirit and shot creation potential, many labeled him an “undersized two-guard.” Less than 80 games into his NBA career, Maxey has silenced nearly all of his critics, shining as the new starting point guard for the Philadelphia 76ers with Ben Simmons sidelined. Maxey is one of the hottest guards in the NBA over his past five games, averaging 22.8 points, 4.6 rebounds, 5.0 assists, 1 steal and 1 block on 54% shooting from 2 and 48% from 3. For reference, only two players in the NBA are averaging at least 17 points and 4 assists on 50+ shooting from 2 and 40+ from 3: Maxey and Kevin Durant.
Was really impressed with Tyrese Maxey's approach to the pre-draft process. 6am workouts, two-a-days, got himself a chef. He stayed ready and it's showing early on in his rookie season. The Kentucky guard went for 39 PTS, 7 REBS and 6 AST in 43 MIN today. pic.twitter.com/Rs3ziXdxym
— Mike Schmitz (@Mike_Schmitz) January 9, 2021
How has the unexpected first-round pick gone from an energetic rookie reserve to the Sixers’ biggest bright spot so quickly?
1. Punishing “unders”
After Maxey shot 30% from long range as a rookie, teams have darted under ball screens against him nearly as much as any other guard in the league this season. But Maxey is punishing those unders, now shooting 41.3% from distance on 46 total attempts. Among the 11 guards that team regularly go under screens on (at least 50 times), Maxey is generating the most efficient offense at 1.2 points per chance, tied with Trae Young, according to Second Spectrum. Maxey is far more willing to let it rip when teams dare him from 30 feet, and he’s also adept at “racing” these unders, using his speed to eat up open space into a creative finish at the rim — he’s posting a 76.5 eFG% in the restricted area, according to Second Spectrum.
2. Elite floater game
Maxey’s improved pull-up shooting is forcing teams to second-guess their scouting reports from a season ago, as opponents are starting to fight over the top of screens more recently. This has played into Maxey’s hands, allowing him to unleash his best weapon: the floater. Among the nine players to attempt at least 30 floaters so far, Maxey is the most efficient in the NBA, posting a 59.4 eFG%, 8% better than Dallas Mavericks guard Luka Doncic, who ranks second. Combine his now-steady pull-up 3 with his elite floater, top-end burst, smooth midrange game, comfort finishing off of either foot with either hand, and you have one of the more dynamic young pick-and-roll guards in the NBA. Maxey has always been a blur in the open court and a load when he gets downhill, but sharpening his ball-screen attack has played a big role in his sophomore success.
3. Taking care of the ball
While Maxey still struggles to make complex deliveries to the weakside and isn’t going to recognize pick-and-roll defenses like Phoenix’s Chris Paul or Atlanta’s Trae Young, he’s limiting mistakes as the Sixers’ lead guard. Maxey is one of only 10 NBA starters with an assist to turnover ratio of at least 3.2, joining names like Paul, Haliburton and Portland’s Damian Lillard. Even with some of his shortcomings as a “true point guard,” Maxey always shined in film room settings, being able to talk through every pick-and-roll read necessary to run a team. Given his experience playing in multi-guard lineups in college, he keeps the ball humming side to side, can play off of closeouts and has run the show by making the simple play. The game can still slow down for Maxey, but his overall energy on both ends is contagious. It’s going to be hard to keep Maxey off the floor even if Simmons does return at some point, especially because his style of play fits in most lineups. Even if some of his success has come out of necessity with center Joel Embiid and forward Tobias Harris missing time this season, Maxey has risen to the challenge in a big way and clearly belongs among the top-10 prospects in the 2020 draft class.
Cole Anthony, point guard, Orlando Magic (No. 15 overall)
Only three under-25 players in the NBA are averaging at least 20 points, 5 rebounds and 5 assists this season: Luka Doncic, Ja Morant and Cole Anthony. Known for huge box score games dating back to high school, it’s no surprise Anthony, Orlando’s leading scorer, has reached double digits every game so far this season while topping 30 twice. But it’s his steadily improving efficiency and willingness to simplify his game that is most encouraging.
In 47 games he played as a rookie, Anthony ranked third in dribbles per touch (5.67) and fourth in average seconds per touch (six seconds) behind Lillard, Young and Doncic, according to NBA.com. It’s one thing to dominate the ball when you’re an All-Star, but Anthony was one of six regular starters to post a true shooting percentage under 50 last season.
Fast forward to this season and Anthony is pounding the ball far less (4.59 dribbles per touch, ranking 19th) and making quicker decisions (5.13 seconds per touch, ranking 14th). Now playing alongside ball-movers such as Jalen Suggs (before his injury) and Franz Wagner, Anthony’s pick-and-roll usage is down from 51% of his possessions to 37% so far, giving him more opportunities to use his speed and shot-making prowess against a shifting defense.
Less is clearly more for Anthony and we’re starting to see what he can look like when he doesn’t have to live off of tough shots he creates for himself. Anthony is getting out in transition with more regularity, taking over twice as many catch-and-shoot jumpers as a season ago (40% from 3 on 9.1 attempts per 40 minutes) and playing off of pitches with bigs like Mo Bamba and Wendell Carter Jr. — both of whom are shooting over 35% from 3 — more effectively and decisively. He’s taken advantage of Wagner’s tremendous feel as a cutter, spoon-feeding him with live-dribble deliveries after getting a piece of the paint.
The Magic are a whopping 40.2 points per 100 possessions better when Anthony is on the floor as opposed to off, by far the widest margin in the NBA. They’re scoring 30.6 points per 100 more and giving up 9.6 points per 100 less. Although 469 minutes is still a small sample and Anthony has some shortcomings as a decision-maker, his impact has been felt this season, even with the Magic sitting at 3-11. It remains to be seen what Anthony looks like when point guard Markelle Fultz returns and as Suggs finds his footing, but in the interim, he has taken steps in simplifying his game, making him that much more effective under first-time coach Jamahl Mosley.
Devin Vassell, forward, San Antonio Spurs (No. 11 overall)
Drafted one spot ahead of Haliburton and before Bey and Maxey, Vassell’s rookie season with the Spurs didn’t quite live up to lofty expectations analytics models had for the rangy wing. But with a more compact shooting stroke, added confidence off the bounce and more of a consistent impact defensively, Vassell is turning into one of the most intriguing under-22 wings in the NBA, potentially following the path that helped earn fellow rangy Phoenix Suns wing Mikal Bridges a $90 million contract.
Praised for shooting 42% from distance in two seasons at Florida State, Vassell’s long, cocked-back release didn’t translate to the NBA as a rookie, as he converted just under 35% from 3 (Bridges made 34% of his 3s as a rookie, albeit a much older one). But through his first 13 games of this season, all off the bench, Vassell is knocking down 41% of his triples. Vassell is posting a blistering 78.0 eFG% on 1.9 corner 3s per game, making him the third-most efficient corner 3-point shooter in the NBA behind only Joe Harris and Grayson Allen (25 attempts minimum). Vassell’s quick trigger has made him far more dynamic as a 3-point weapon, allowing him to get up 7.7 triples per-40 minutes as opposed to just 5.6 from a season ago, allowing him to distort defenses out of quick-hitting actions.
The glimpses of versatility he’s shown puts him well ahead of a wing like Bridges at the same age. He’s proven capable of playing off of pindowns, handoffs and ball screens to either rise up in midrange (where he’s incredibly effective), stride it out to the rim or drop off a pass to the big, making him a tough cover when paired with his shooting and already-stellar cutting.
An instinctual defensive playmaker averaging 1.7 steals and 1 block per 40 minutes, Vassell has the length to bother point guards and lead shot creators such as Oklahoma City’s Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, who he helped hold to 14 points on 16 shots in a recent bout, even blocking an SGA pull-up 3. If Vassell can continue adding value defensively and not remain a corner 3 specialist, but also show the ability to score and facilitate out of quick-hitting actions like he has of late, there should be optimism he can follow in the footsteps of a wing like Bridges, with an even more expansive offensive tool kit to build off of.
Obi Toppin, power forward, New York Knicks (No. 8 overall)
Toppin became the best player in college basketball because of his energetic rim runs and explosive rolls to the basket, shooting a remarkable 70% from inside the arc thanks to an ideal blend of urgency, bounce and touch, with almost all of his minutes coming at the 5. Toppin’s 39% clip from distance his sophomore season at Dayton was the cherry on top of his true NBA skill — his energy.
Toppin spent most of an inconsistent rookie season as a perimeter-oriented 4 for the Knicks, either spaced out to the corner or picking and popping. According to CleaningTheGlass.com, 39% of his shots came from 3, with just 45% at the rim. As a result, Toppin generated 1.7 free throw attempts per 40 minutes, had his ups and downs on defense, shot 30.9% from 3 and didn’t live up to expectations as a 23-year-old rookie drafted eighth overall to his hometown Knicks.
Although he’s made just two 3s (on 19 attempts) this season, Toppin is back to his bread and butter that made him a fan favorite in college, terrorizing opposing defenses with his speed and activity as a dynamic dive man. Toppin’s become a bench sparkplug for the 8-6 Knicks, energizing Madison Square Garden every time he’s on the floor. With Toppin on the court, the Knicks play an up-tempo style, scoring 15.8 more points per 100 possessions than when he sits. He’s built great chemistry with point guard Derrick Rose, featured in far more empty-side pick-and-rolls, allowing him to utilize his ability to slip out of screens quickly, explode off the ground to catch lobs and whip the ball to an open teammate if he catches in the short roll. Even when he shares the floor with bigs Taj Gibson or Nerlens Noel, they’ll space them out to the short corner to give Toppin more of a runway as the dive man. They’ll also use him as a roller in double-drags next to center Mitchell Robinson, using his quickness to dart behind the defense for lobs.
Of the 114 players to have set at least 75 screens this season, Toppin is generating the second-most points per chance, behind Golden State’s Draymond Green, according to Second Spectrum. In the modern 4 role he played last season, Toppin’s upright handle, tight hips and streaky shooting were exacerbated. But when he’s able to play in space against shifting defenses without having to use too many dribbles, he’s a real weapon. His elite straight-line speed is finally being utilized with more regularity, and his feel for functioning as the roller has helped him post a 74.4 eFG% in the restricted area. He ranks 15th in the NBA in 2-point percentage and is attempting 6.0 free throws per 40 minutes.
While the jumper and defense are still a work in progress, Toppin has rediscovered his offensive identity, and all it took was the Knicks picking up on what made him so dynamic at Dayton.
Deni Avdija, small forward, Washington Wizards (No. 9 overall)
As one of his biggest pre-draft advocates, dubbing him the ‘steal of the draft’ when he was selected ninth overall, even I’ll admit Avdija hasn’t lived up to expectations as a floor-spacer (32% from 3) and secondary playmaker through the first 67 games of his NBA career. But the glimpses of defensive versatility we saw with Maccabi Tel Aviv have come to life and then some, as the 6-foot-9 forward has quickly evolved into one of the NBA’s most effective isolation defenders and a key contributor to Washington’s Eastern Conference-leading 11-3 record.
Once a target who teams would regularly bring into the action and attack, Avdija is now coming off the bench to check everyone from Giannis Antetokounmpo to Jaren Jackson Jr. to Kevin Durant to James Harden to Brandon Ingram. He’s even found some success staying in front of guards such as Ja Morant and Fred VanVleet for stretches.
Among the 13 players to defend at least 45 isolations so far this season, Avdija ranks first in “points per direct,” according to Second Spectrum, ahead of names like Evan Mobley and Bam Adebayo. Playing the coveted combo forward position that every NBA team is searching to fill, Avdija has turned himself into a true defensive asset, using his combination of solid quicks, strength and improved discipline to check four to five positions on any given night, even throwing up the patented “X” after he gets stops. He’s using his sheer size, reach and instincts to block 1.7 shots, collect 1.3 steals and snag 8.4 defensive rebounds per 40 minutes.
Wizards forward Deni Avdija continues his stellar defensive season with the big block at the rim against Josh Hart in transition. Avdija has been a lot of fun to watch on the defensive end this year. pic.twitter.com/ZoSUDUfvEY
— Mike Schmitz (@Mike_Schmitz) November 16, 2021
According to CleaningTheGlass.com, the Wizards allow 10.7 fewer points per 100 possessions when Avdija is on the floor while holding opponents to a lower percentage and forcing more turnovers. Often penalized for his physicality last season, Avdija has benefited from the way the NBA is now officiated, using his strength and anticipation to deter drives to the rim. While defense has become his calling card partially out of necessity, Avdija is starting to show more signs of growth offensively as well, shooting 40% from 3 over his past five games while making heady reads against scrambling defenses.
He’s far from the top-5 prospect I thought he’d be, but the 20-year-old Avdija has become a valuable rotation piece and fan favorite on the hottest team in the NBA, while making the Wizards 20.5 points per 100 better when he’s on the floor. If he can start knocking down spot 3s with higher volume, fine-tune his handle and get more comfortable around the rim as a finisher, Avdija may be able to evolve into more than just a versatile defender.
All statistics as of Tuesday morning.
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