With the New Year beginning, many of us are taking some time to think about how we can improve. The same is (or at least should be) true for some of the league’s brightest young talents. So with 2018 in the books, lets take a look at some of the best first and second year players across the NBA, where their games are strong, and where they could improve. This article focuses only on offensive performance, although there may be a defensive version coming soon.
To assess these players, I mapped out their performance in three key statistical areas:
- Effective field goal percentage: a measure of shooting efficiency that accounts for the point value of each shot.
- 3 point percentage: the percentage of attempted threes a player made (duh).
- Usage percentage: an estimate of the percentage of a teams possessions that player uses either by taking a shot, turning the ball over, or being fouled. It is used commonly as a measure of a player’s offensive workload.
- Free throw rate: a measure of how often a player gets to the free throw line
- Assist percentage: an estimate of how many of their teams baskets a player assisted on.
- Turnover percentage: an estimate of how many turnovers a player commits per 100 possessions. (Importantly I adjusted TOV% to align the directionality with the other measures i.e higher is better. I also weighted them by usage percentage to account for differences in workload. xTOV%= (1-TOV%)/USG%).
For each of these measures, I indexed the players by position. Lonzo Ball obviously dishes more assists than Deandre Ayton, but he’s supposed to. So the measure represented below are relative to the player’s position, how good they are given their role. These measures are percentiles so 0.5 means you’re league average and 1.0 means you’re literally the best. With that out of the way lets begin!
16 ppg, 9.3 rpg, 7.9 apg, 57.8 eFG%
You might not think the 2016 number 1 pick belongs on this list of first and second year players, but if the NBA thinks he was a rookie last year then that’s good enough for me. At this point I think I will always associate and compare Simmons with Jayson Tatum and Donovan Mitchell more than Brandon Ingram whether that’s fair or not. Early season struggles playing alongside Markelle Fultz and the recent addition of Jimmy Butler may have slightly dimmed Simmon’s shine around the league. But make no mistake, this dude is good. Simmons is absolutely elite at passing, scoring at the rim, and getting to the line (although he only shoots 59% when he gets there). But Simmons may have the most glaring weakness of any player in the NBA, as he hasn’t even attempted at three-pointer this year. The series against the Celtics last year revealed how debilitating that weakness can be against smart opponents with time to plan how they will exploit it. Simmons may be able to cement himself among the leagues elite without ever developing an outside shot, but if he ever does increase his range then the possibilities start to get fun.
Resolution: Cut down the turnovers a little and hit a three. Please. Just one.
19.6 ppg, 6.5 rpg, 5 apg, 51.7 eFG%
What else can be said that hasn’t already been said repeatedly by Luka stans on twitter. This kid can absolutely play. His current weaknesses are pretty typical of rookies: shooting efficiency and turnover rate, but even in those areas he’s right around his positional average. Luka’s ability to create his own shot belies his speed and his step-back three became an established signature shot faster than any other that I can remember. But as impressive as his ability to hit tough shots is, he still has room to improve on converting easier shots. Luka is shooting 55.5% on shots within 5 feet, which ranks 103 out of 130 players who have taken at least 100 such shots, per NBA.com. Still, Doncic has surpassed all expectations and is quickly ascending as one of the most entertaining players in the league.
Resolution: Get better at the rim.
18.3 ppg, 3.6 rpg, 7.7 apg, 51.7 eFG%
When Vlade Divac referred to the Kings as a “Young Superteam” this past summer, it was a bit of a leap. But it was nothing compared to the leap that De’Aaron Fox has made this year. Fox’s production has rocketed up across every category all while becoming significantly more efficient. He’s shooting 39.1% from three, attacking the inside, and consistently throwing passes like this:
The Kings’ success has been one of the stories of the year and Fox is right at the center of it. With Fox on the floor the Kings have a net rating of +2.1, but without him it plummets to -6.7 according to Basketball Reference. One nagging bad habit is his propensity for pull-up 2s, which comprise 29.4% of all of his shots. Fox hits only 39% of these, producing .78 points per shot which is… not great. Despite this Fox is still scoring efficiently overall and is looking like a complete offensive player.
Resolution: Cut down out the long-twos.
16.2 ppg, 6.6 rpg, 1.8 apg, 51.8% eFG%
After tearing through the playoffs last year, Tatum’s slowed down a little to start this season. His three point shooting has dropped off from 43% last season to 37% this year. Much was made earlier in the season of Tatum’s love of long twos, with some Celtics fans even claiming that Kobe ruined his game. Tatum’s numbers on pull-up twos are almost identical to those for Fox mentioned above. His frequency of pull-up twos has declined slightly in the last ten games, but not enough. Tatum is an incredibly smooth offensive player and I can’t imagine how frustrating seeing him settle for inefficient shots is for Celtics fans, especially since he’s shooting 62% at the rim.
Resolution: Cut down out the long-twos.
20.1 ppg, 3.5 rpg, 3.4 apg, 46.4 eFG%
With the Jazz struggling this year, last year’s ascendant rookie of the year has fallen out of many conversations around the league’s top young talents. Mitchell’s numbers are almost exactly what they were last season. At 29.3% from three he’s shooting a little worse, but it’s never been great. During year’s playoff series against the Thunder, Mitchell proved that he can lead an offense when the stakes are higher. But while much of being a rookie means discovering what you can do, future growth means learning to do it more efficiently. Mitchell’s high-usage, low-efficiency production will receive increasing scrutiny if he fails to improve. But Mitchell has already shown that he can do a lot, and he seems committed to the challenge.
Resolution: Do more with less.
Jaren Jackson Jr.
12.9 ppg, 4.6 rpg, 1.2 apg, 55.2 eFG%
Jaren has been awesome so far this year. Although most of his value comes on the defensive end, his effective (if not pretty) outside shooting raises his ceiling considerably. Jackson has already shown flashes of an ultramodern offensive versatility that could make him one of the most valuable players in the league. The hard part now is putting those pieces together on a nightly basis. But hey, he did this to LeBron:
Resolution: Get more consistent.
Solid Young Guys
18.7 ppg, 5.9 rpg, 2.5 apg, 53.4 eFG%
Kuzma has arguably looked the best of all the young lakers alongside LeBron this season, at least on offense. Kuzma has rounded his game out pretty well, although he’s been struggling from three. He shot 36.6% from deep last year and if he can get back up around there then he’s a real threat.
Resolution: Check the lost and found for his outside shot.
17.2 ppg, 7.5 rpg, 1.1 apg, 51.2 eFG%
Markkanen’s elbow sprain earlier this season doesn’t seem to have affected his stroke from three, as he’s shot 39.4% so far since coming back. But Markkanen’s overall shooting has been rough, at 41.2%. That his free throw rate also ranks low suggests that he needs to be more aggressive in attacking the paint. He showed flashes of being more than just a stretch four last season, but he will have to do so more consistently.
Resolution: Attack the paint and continue to prevent team mutinies.
17 ppg, 10.9 rpg, 2.2 apg, 60.5 eFG%
The number one pick has been quietly solid behind all the Doncic hysteria. But a dominant interior player absolutely has to get to the line more, especially since Ayton has been shooting a tidy 76.5% from the stripe.
Resolution: Get to the free-throw line more.
10.7 ppg, 7.0 rpg, 1.8 apg, 49.8 eFG%
Carter’s looked great on defense, but without any legitimate playmakers around him he’s struggled to find his way on offense. But Coach Boylen’s push ups should fix the Bulls Offense… Right?
Resolution: Make more shots and find a way to survive the season.
9.6 ppg, 5.1 rpg, 5.0 apg, 48.7 eFG%
Lonzo’s been a menace on defense and in transition so far this year. But his overall offensive game has been somewhat underwhelming. Playing alongside LeBron might account for that. In three games without Lebron, Lonzo has averaged 17.3 points and 8 assists. But while stepping aside for LeBron is acceptable, the turnovers aren’t.
Resolution: Less of this…
Marvin Bagley III
12.7 ppg, 6.1 rpg, 0.9 apg, 55.6 eFG%
Bagley over Doncic looks to become increasingly indefensible. But Bagley’s played ok on the upstart Kings. He could improve his passing, but that’s a lot to expect from a rookie big man. Unfortunately, expectations were raised unreasonably when King’s Coach Dave Joerger effectively referred to Bagle as the next Kevin Durant.
Resolution: Reenact that movie where KD switches bodies with a 16 year-old.
15.6 ppg, 2.9 rpg, 7.4 apg, 44.5 eFG%
So far Young’s passing has been exceptional. But Young will likely always be a minus on defense and in order to make up for that he needs to shoot much better. A big part of the reason is that over two-thirds of his threes have been off the dribble so far this season, with Young shooting only 25.4%.
Resolution: Work to get more catch-and-shoot threes.
12 ppg, 4.3 rpg, 0.9 apg, 44.6 eFG%
Knox followed up a rocky start to the season with a relatively impressive December in which he averaged 17.1 points on 40.3% shooting. You might think that second number isn’t too high and you’d be right! But it’s better than his season average of 37.4%… Knox has shot ok from three but everywhere else has been a disaster.
Resolution: Improve shot selection.
14.8 ppg, 3.1 rpg, 2.7 apg, 44.9 eFG%
Sexton’s doing his best to overcome criticism’s from veteran teammates that he “doesn’t know how to play basketball.” But the combination of his high-usage rate and near bottom of league shooting efficiency and assist rate is a magical recipe for the Cavs’ lottery odds.
Resolution: Drive the Cavs’ Tank for Zion
6.4 ppg, 4.7 rpg, 1. apg, 50.8 eFG%
With a 7-10 wingspan and a three-point stroke, the idealized vision of Bamba is tantalizing. But he’s was always a raw prospect and has struggled so far offensively in Orlando. Bamba might get there eventually, but it’ll take time.
Resolution: Reach for the stars because your arms might be literally long enough to reach them.
6.1 ppg, 2.0 rpg, 2.5 apg, 40.4 eFG%
I love Frank and defensively his potential is enormous. But that chart speaks for itself. His teammate/replacement Emmanuel Mudiay is a good reminder that growth can happen later than you expect. Here’s to hoping Frank can take similar steps.
Resolution: It’s a long list…
Here’s the full chart again, thanks for reading!