NBA Sophomore Power Rankings: Our top 5 second-year players
With the 2022 NBA playoffs around the corner and several second-year players making a significant impact on contending teams, we decided to break down the 2020 draft class and rank the prospects based on how they’ve performed in their respective careers.
This isn’t a projection of what each player will look like when he’s at his peak, but rather a gauge of where they are right now, along with a look into what they can still improve upon to remain in this prestigious company and continue growing within the NBA ecosystem.
As a part of the process, I traveled to Memphis to sit down with Grizzlies rising star Desmond Bane to talk through his evolution from the 30th overall pick in 2020 to a key starter on the second-best team in the NBA. Bane hasn’t been the only 2020 draftee to outperform his respective draft slot so far, as two other players on this list were selected outside the top 10.
5. Tyrese Maxey | Philadelphia 76ers
Stats: 17.3 ppg, 4.3 apg, 3.3 rpg
A projected lottery pick to start his freshman season at Kentucky and a firm member of my top 10 by draft night, Maxey slid all the way to Philadelphia at No. 21, which has turned out to be a franchise-changing development for the Sixers. Not only did Maxey help the Sixers tread water during the Ben Simmons saga, but he has also now developed into the perfect short- and long-term fit alongside franchise pillars Joel Embiid and James Harden. We wrote about Maxey as a likely sophomore breakout back in November, but even his loudest supporters likely didn’t expect the 21-year-old to have such a consistent impact for a team slated for home-court advantage in the playoffs.
Throughout the pre-draft process, evaluators often referred to Maxey as an “undersized 2” while also pointing to his 29.2% 3-point clip at Kentucky and often sped-up style of play. Less than two years removed from those pre-draft questions, Maxey is now shooting 42.9% from 3 after connecting on a career-high eight 3s in a win over the Indiana Pacers on Tuesday. Known for his relentless work ethic and stellar approach to the game leading up to the 2020 draft, Maxey is now stepping into catch-and-shoot 3s with supreme confidence from well beyond the NBA line, while also punishing teams for going under screens with pull-ups, even creating space with step-backs due to his excellent footwork and balance. Among the 53 players to attempt at least 250 pull-up jumpers so far this season, Maxey is the 14th most efficient.
He gives Philly a totally different dimension in the open court as the perfect counterbalance to Embiid and Harden’s more methodical, isolation-heavy style of play (the Sixers rank 26th in pace). But when Maxey’s at the controls, he’s looking to unleash his elite end-to-end speed with regularity, and good things happen when he does put pressure on the rim as he’s the second-most efficient transition scorer in the NBA behind only Mikal Bridges.
In the half court, he’s a quick decision-maker who keeps the ball moving and is already excellent at “stampeding” or “running through the pass,” using his burst to attack gaps in the defense before the pass even hits his hands. He’s used to playing alongside other high-level guards given his experience next to Immanuel Quickley in college, and that has proven extremely valuable alongside Harden so far. While Maxey has shown progress as an on-ball decision-maker and proven he’s more than the “undersized 2” he was billed as coming into the NBA, the Sixers are 12.7 points per 100 possessions better when he’s at the 2 (20% of his minutes) as opposed to just 1.3 points per 100 possessions better when he’s playing point guard.
Whether on the ball or off, he has turned into one of the least turnover-prone guards in the league with a 3.68 assist to turnover ratio and a turnover percentage under 8%. For reference, only five players since 2000 have averaged at least 17 points per game with an assist-to-turnover ratio over 3.5 — Chris Paul (11 times), Chauncey Billups (twice), DeMar DeRozan, Gary Payton (twice) and Maxey. His defensive fundamentals and discipline can stand to improve, but Maxey is generally energetic on that end, which allows him to cover up some of his mistakes.
Maxey has exceeded expectations in a big way through his first two NBA seasons, and he has the type of motor, confidence and microwave scoring ability to win a game or two for the Sixers this postseason. Don’t be surprised to see the 21-year-old guard as high as No. 3 on this list at this time next season if he continues progressing.
4. Desmond Bane | Memphis Grizzlies
Stats: 18.3 ppg, 4.5 rpg, 2.8 apg
During my Virtual Film Session with Bane in October 2020, the then-TCU guard spoke about players such as Joe Harris and Danny Green as NBA templates for him, given his shooting stroke and strong — not long — physical profile with a football frame at 6-6, 215 pounds.
The 23-year-old is averaging 18.2 points, 4.4 rebounds and 2.8 assists in just 29.5 minutes per game as a full-time starter for the second-place Grizzlies, while cashing 43% of his 3s (seven attempts per game) and shooting 90% at the free throw line. Even to the ultra-confident Indiana native, the rapid growth of his game and early NBA success has come as somewhat of a surprise.
“I think I definitely have to a degree,” Bane says of exceeding his own expectations so far. “You get here and it’s like, ‘OK, I want to get to the NBA.’ Then you get on the floor and it’s like, ‘OK, what can I do to stick in the NBA?’ and I kind of proved myself last year. Then this offseason they really told me we think you can play with the ball in your hands, take your game to the next level and open up a few more things in your game and I took that into summer league, training camp and now here we are.”
Evaluators who scouted Bane in the Big 12 weren’t surprised he made 43% of his 3s as a rookie on an up-and-coming Memphis team. But few saw a near 10-point-per-game increase, nine games with 28-plus points and the evolution into far more than just a standstill shooter. Bane has turned himself into a scoring threat with the ability to create separation and sprint off staggers or pindowns into catch-and-shoot 3s, midrange pull-ups, downhill attacks or quick reads. Among players to use more than 700 off-ball screens this season, Bane ranks fifth in “points per chance,” according to Second Spectrum data, behind only Kevin Durant, Jaylen Brown, Jordan Poole and Patty Mills.
Bane has a sharp understanding of how nearly every team likes to guard every action. He knows his own personnel, referencing Brandon Clarke‘s preference to quickly slip screens rather than set them, Steven Adams‘ nuance in handoffs and John Konchar‘s ability to “run through the pass” rather than catch and shoot.
Bane is also tremendous at playing out of handoffs, understanding when to hit the big, how to set up his defender with jab steps or misdirection before sprinting into a handoff that either leads to an open 3, a midrange jumper, a paint attack, a snake back middle or a quick read. Among the 16 players to use at least 400 handoffs this season, Bane ranks third in the NBA in points per chance behind only Doncic and Seth Curry, and one spot ahead of Booker, a player Bane is studying closely. Bane’s ability to seamlessly dissect four to five different elements of a play is a clear driving force in his success so far.
“Steve-O [Steven Adams] hanging in the short corner and they’re playing drop coverage, so I know if I hit him, I’ll be able to get a corner 3,” Bane says.
He talked about Golden State’s and Houston’s switching, the Mavericks’ mix of pick-and-roll coverages from soft blitzes to hedges, and Chicago’s preference to take away the paint on dribble penetration. That knowledge, along with his ability to handle the ball, shoot off the dribble and make the necessary reads for an offense to function has allowed Bane to even play some point guard minutes when Ja Morant has been out.
After using just 2.6 ball screens per game as a rookie and ranking toward the bottom of the league in efficiency in those situations (0.72 points per direct), Bane is now up to almost 7.5 pick-and-rolls per game. He still ranks 108th out of 130 high-volume pick-and-roll players in terms of points per chance, but the simple fact that he has gone from a potential Harris/Green type of shooter to a player who can moonlight at point guard some and handle that much in pick-and-roll speaks to his development.
Bane can hit the roll man in stride and has shown the ability to hit shooters circling up, and even the weakside corner on occasion. He unleashed one behind-the-back pass to Kyle Anderson that led to an uproar of laughter upon review. But Bane is a perfectionist, regularly stopping clips during our film session to mention how he could have made a left-handed delivery off the dribble, rather than putting two hands on the ball and ultimately passing with his right.
“All my passes I make I put two hands on the ball,” Bane says. “So those can be live dribble passes, that way if I’m in trouble and I don’t like it I can just back it out and spread against a big like that.”
He mentioned wanting to continue growing in pick-and-roll, getting to the free throw line more and being able to get his own offense in isolation situations, as the majority of his 1-on-1 possessions end in tough step-back 3s, which he’s capable of knocking down with range. Bane has still grown exponentially since we evaluated him in college. He has turned his 3-ball into a real asset off movement. He has added comfort in ball screens. He’s unleashing a right-hand, right-foot floater even more. After playing in a system at TCU that valued mostly 3s and layups, he’s getting back to the elevation-style midrange jumper that was a big part of his game prior to college, which is a tool that gives him considerable upside as a shot creator. So where does Bane believe he should be ranked among his fellow 2020 draftees?
“The top, right there near the top,” says Bane. “I think if there was a re-draft and GMs across the league know what they know now, to say that I would be a top-five pick I think is definitely realistic.”
While Bane admits that he’s still proving himself and that the true test of a great player comes in the playoffs, it’s obvious now that he surely shouldn’t have fallen all the way to No. 30 on draft night. So what was it that scouts missed on with Bane?
“My willingness to improve,” Bane says. “My heart and passion and my love for the game. You play an 82-game season, it’s underrated how much you have to love the game to be able to (1) stick in the league and (2) be a high-level player in the league. You play every other day, traveling city to city. There’s a lot of distractions. You know basketball has to be at the forefront of your mind all the time.”
That has been the case for Bane thus far, and he has a chance to continue his stellar sophomore season during what could be a deep playoff run for a potential title contender, which could help earn him Most Improved Player honors, given his huge statistical jump and impact on winning.
3. Tyrese Haliburton | Indiana Pacers
Stats: 15.3 ppg, 8.1 apg, 4.1 rpg
Haliburton comes in at third on this list thanks to his combination of court vision, 3-point shooting, versatility, basketball instincts and overall efficient style of play at 22 years old. Haliburton has been outstanding for the Pacers since he was traded from Sacramento, as he’s averaging an impressive 17.4 points and 9.6 assists on 56% from 2 and 42% from 3 through 24 games. Although only six of those 24 games have resulted in a Pacers win — and late-season basketball for a bottom-tier team is a far cry from playoff competition — Haliburton is one of only four players since 2000 to average at least 15 points and eight assists while shooting over 50% from 2 and 40% from 3, joining Chris Paul, Steph Curry, and Steve Nash.
He’s not a slippery ball handler like LaMelo Ball, and he doesn’t have Anthony Edwards’ physical tools or isolation prowess, landing him behind the 20-year-old stars. His lack of power and wiggle with the ball show up at times when he’s forced to create his own shot against elite defenders, but he’s equipped with a shooting touch (both off the catch and the bounce), floater game and passing chops to remain incredibly effective while playing a ball-moving style that will make the Pacers more attractive down the line.
As he was in college, Haliburton remains an analytics darling and an efficiency star, which was on full display in a recent loss to the Boston Celtics as the 6-5 guard scored 30 points in 25 minutes on just 11 shots, cashing 30-foot pull-up 3s and feathery floaters against elite defender Marcus Smart. He’s the third-most efficient above-the-break 3-point shooter in the NBA, behind only Bane and Luke Kennard. Skilled reading the defense in pick-and-roll, he’ll be even more effective when the Pacers are healthy and equipped with a likely top-five pick in June’s NBA draft.
His defensive smarts and anticipation allow him to add value on that end of the floor even if he won’t be confused with a 1-on-1 stopper, which shows up against more physical guards and wings. In part due to his unorthodox shooting mechanics, upright style with the ball, affinity for against-the-grain jump passes and lack of physicality defensively, scouts and evaluators have long been confused by exactly how Haliburton’s game would translate to the NBA, evidenced by falling to No. 12 on draft night.
As he told ESPN in October 2020 leading up to the draft, “I do it in a different way. I don’t take tough shots. I don’t force bad things. I try to get the best looks at all times, and I think people aren’t used to that.”
Nearly two years and Halliburton is clearly one of the top young point guards with a basketball interface every coach dreams of. Halliburton has a chance to make an All-Star game or two by his prime, and he’s the exact foundational building block the Pacers needed in the backcourt.
2. Anthony Edwards | Minnesota Timberwolves
Stats: 21.1 ppg, 4.8 rpg, 3.8 apg
While his game-to-game production and consistency can still be a bit of an adventure, Edwards has proven himself as undoubtedly one of the brightest young stars in the league as the second-leading scorer on the playoff-bound Timberwolves. There was little question about Edwards’ scoring coming into the NBA. His 37-point outburst against Michigan State at the Maui Invitational in 2019 during his one season at Georgia was one of the most impressive individual performances I’ve ever seen live from a prospect. His combination of power, burst, bounce, ability to change directions with elite force and off-the-dribble shot-making ability gave him the upside of a future scoring champ. Even as a youngster, he could create his own shot at will, and that has been the case even against the NBA’s elite defenders. His knocks had more to do with his defensive effort, decision-making and ability to play efficient basketball on a winning team — he had never finished a season (high school, AAU, college and NBA) with a winning record until this season.
But after an uneven rookie campaign with extreme highs and forgettable lows on a team that finished 29-43, Edwards has answered several of those pre-draft questions this season. He’s averaging a relatively efficient 21.1 points on 51% from 2 and 36% from 3, making him one of only six players under 25 to reach those marks, joining Trae Young, Luka Doncic, Jayson Tatum and Darius Garland. Edwards is blending volume and efficiency better than in the past, largely because he’s shooting the ball at a much more consistent clip. He still settles for far too many off-balance isolation pull-ups, can kill offensive flow and doesn’t get to the free throw line like he could, as he’s one of only seven players to have attempted at least 500 above-the-break 3s. With that said, he ranks fourth in eFG% among those seven players, right behind Stephen Curry, Young and Fred VanVleet, and ahead of Buddy Hield, Donovan Mitchell and Tatum.
When he decides to put his foot on the gas, he’s as explosive downhill as any other guard in the NBA, especially considering his 230-pound frame and quick feet. Edwards continues to show growth as a passer, making one-handed deliveries and behind-the-back feeds more regularly than in the past. He still has catch-and-hold habits, but he’s starting to learn how to play out of quick-hitting actions more effectively as a key cog on a Minnesota team that ranks seventh in offensive rating.
Most importantly, he’s starting to show more signs of life as a defender. The Timberwolves are actually slightly better defensively when Edwards is on the floor, according to CleaningTheGlass, which would have been unthinkable a year ago. The off-ball relaxation and loss of focus are still way too common, left over from his rookie year when Minnesota finished 28th in defensive rating. But the Timberwolves have somewhat turned the corner on that side of the ball in Edwards’ second year, ranking 13th in defensive rating, while Edwards has given us glimpses of his lockdown potential.
Although there’s still room for improvement, he has shown he’s capable of putting the clamps on everyone from Doncic to Tatum to Devin Booker in a pinch, showcasing a rare combination of lateral quickness, length and power. If Edwards can put those defensive tools to use during a Timberwolves playoff run while maintaining efficiency and showing his ability to take over games, it’s not out of the question that he eventually becomes the best player from the 2020 draft class.
1. LaMelo Ball | Charlotte Hornets
Stats: 19.9 ppg, 7.6 apg, 6.6 rpg
Only three players under 21 have averaged at least 19 points, six rebounds and six assists over the course of a season since 2000 — Luka Doncic, LeBron James and Ball. Both Doncic and James blew those figures out of the water, but the fact that Ball is registering 19.9 points, 7.6 assists and 6.6 rebounds in 32.3 minutes over 72 games at age 20 on a team competing for the play-in tournament speaks to his talent and all-around impact on the Hornets.
After dazzling his way to Rookie of the Year honors one highlight pass at a time, Ball has continued to show his generational playmaking ability while boosting his 3-point percentage from 35% to 38% and steadying his assist-to-turnover ratio. The Hornets’ franchise point guard continues to deliver one-handed bullet passes and no-look deliveries very few players in NBA history have even dared to attempt, all while ranking ninth in the NBA in catch-and-shoot efficiency among players with at least 250 attempts thanks to an incredibly quick release and never-ending confidence. There’s a good chance Ball is the best passer in the world once he reaches his prime, and the fact that he doesn’t dominate the ball quite like most star point guards, and has the spot shooting and size to function in multiguard lineups bodes well for him and the Hornets long term.
Ball is still far from a perfect prospect. He remains a gamble-heavy defender on a Hornets team that ranks 24th in defensive rating and has now given up 144 points on back-to-back games against the Sixers and Heat. His pull-up jumper is still far less reliable and consistent than his catch-and-shoot 3, which has limited some in isolation situations, and he’s still evolving as a finisher and free throw generator. His basketball instincts, court vision, slick handle, deep range, floater touch and the fact that he has helped turn Charlotte into a potential playoff contender in back-to-back seasons, however, lands him at the top of this list.
Talent was never the question mark for Ball. The concerns revolved more around durability and winning impact. Ball is one of only three Hornets to appear in over 70 games this season so far, while ranking top three in points, rebounds, assists, steals and minutes. Edwards is on his heels, given his incredibly dynamic shot creation and growing two-way potential on a playoff-bound team, but Ball holds on to the top spot thanks in large part to his ability to make his teammates better.
Just missed the cut: Saddiq Bey | Detroit Pistons
The Detroit Pistons struck gold with Bey at 19th overall in 2020 as he has proven to be an excellent fit as a 6-8 floor-spacing wing alongside Cade Cunningham and already has a 50-point game to his name at just 22 years old. A scorer first and foremost, Bey isn’t quite as multifaceted as some of the names ahead of him on this list, but he was a tough omission given his productivity.
Mike Schmitz is an NBA Draft expert and a contributor to DraftExpress.com, a private scouting and analytics service used by the NBA, the NCAA and International teams.
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