Not all rookies can be Karl-Anthony Towns, or Kristaps Porzingis, or Justise Winslow, or Willie Cauley-Stein…
…or D’Angelo Russell, or Devon Booker, or Myles Turner (damn, this draft class rules).
Despite some outstanding first-year performances this season, the reality when it comes to rookies is that they just don’t typically affect winning or improve their teams all that much. Adjusting to NBA life is a multi-year process in most young players’ cases, if the adjustment is ever made at all.
That theorem is, of course, put to the test from time to time when a great crop of lottery picks, like the one listed above, enters the league. Some first-rounders stand out thanks to their talent alone. The odd guy even puts together a historic, potentially Third Team All-NBA-worthy premiere season if that guy plays in Minnesota and is one of the most complete players to enter the league in over a decade.
While lottery picks sometimes make their mark at an unexpectedly early point in time, it’s rare for players taken after the lottery to make steady contributions in year one, and even more so for guys taken in the back half of the draft. Yet, this season’s final 30 picks yielded some overlooked gems: players who have either been rays of light for their sputtering franchises, or have provided meaningful minutes down the stretch for teams with serious playoff aspirations.
This one’s for every Tomislav Zubcic or Jon Diebler who could never quite turn his second-round status into an NBA cup of coffee. Here are three 2015 second-rounders who have shone in their rookie seasons.
*Note: Honorable mention goes out to 2014 Nuggets second-rounder Nikola Jokic, who currently leads all players from his draft class in VORP (Value Over Replacement Player) per Basketball Reference, in roughly half the number of games as his closest-contending classmates. Jokic should be strongly considered for the third spot on the Rookie of the Year ballot behind Towns and Porzingis, but he doesn’t fit in with the 2015 motif we’ve got going here.
SECOND ROUND GEMS:
Richaun Holmes, Phildelphia 76ers
Jahlil Okafor’s rookie season is difficult to evaluate. Off-court issues hung over the former Duke star as the Sixers searched endlessly for a win during the opening weeks of the season. As the criticism of his character settled down, Okafor put up predictably solid offensive numbers while staying true to his reputation as a subpar rebounder.
On a more concerning note: He didn’t exactly gel with fellow Sixers building-block Nerlens Noel, and had his season cut short by a knee injury. Do Sixers fans wish the team had selected someone like Kristaps Porzingis or Emmaneul Mudiay instead? Perhaps, but it’s not even close to the time where we should deem the 2015 third-overall pick’s career a disappointment or a success.
Okafor’s rookie classmate Richaun Holmes, on the other hand, is already playing with house money. There’s never a guarantee that a second-round pick will carve out a role in the NBA, but Holmes, last spring’s 37th pick, may have done so in just 51 career games – a stretch he has used to noticeably advance his game.
As is the case with most rookies, Holmes was skittish to kick off the season. In certain situations where a veteran big man’s movements would be almost robotically programmed, Holmes looked apprehensive. When called upon to screen for his guards, Holmes was often hesitant, and was subsequently over-eager to roll to the rim, rendering his picks somewhat ineffective. Here’s one such example from a November 2 game in Boston.
Holmes quickly sorted out those timing issues. His screen and roll movements have been far more fluid as the season has progressed to the point where he can do things like this:
One thing Holmes excelled at from the jump was using his athleticism to emerge from thickets of bodies to either crash the offensive glass or go up for easy buckets inside, sometimes at the same time:
Holmes is by no means a finished product. The ever-so-important jump shot the modern NBA demands still evades him for the most part. Most of the lift in his wonky shot comes from his arms; it’s so bizarre-looking that it prompted Utah Jazz play-by-play announcer Craig Bolerjack to refer to a Holmes three-point attempt as a “knuckleball” during a late-December game. He’s thrown a strike on just eight of 44 attempts this season.
Still, even if the jump shot never comes, Holmes has a bounciness to him that will always be valuable in a reserve big man. It’s impossibly hard to judge the defense of someone playing for a 9-66 team with the 25th-worst defense in the league, but Holmes’ 2.1 blocks per 36 minutes are at least an encouraging starting point on that end of the floor. It definitely doesn’t hurt that the Sixers’ NET Rating drops 9.7 points per 100 possessions (-2.5 to -12.2) when Holmes is on the bench, by far the most drastic on/off differential among Philly regulars.
Based on his physical tools, the smart money might be on him building off those positive (by Sixer standards) peripheral numbers, and beefing up his production from the modest 5.6-point, 2.6-rebound, 0.8-block stat line he’s put up this year. With the frontcourt situation in Philly so muddled, there may not be a long-term place for him on Brett Brown’s roster, but Holmes has certainly made the case that he belongs somewhere in the NBA with a strong outing in his first season.
Josh Richardson, Miami Heat
Plenty of factors have contributed to the Miami Heat turning around what looked like a second-straight entirely average season since the All-Star break. Even without its best player, Chris Bosh, Miami has managed to put together the fifth-best winning percentage in the league since February 19, going 14-7 in that 21-game stretch.
Allowing Goran Dragic to freewheel in a more up-tempo offense is probably the most important change the Heat have implemented during this run of success. Miami has added about four extra possessions per game after the All-Star break and gone from being the second-slowest team in the league to somewhere in the middle of the pack. Another change, one that helped facilitate that uptick in the Heat’s cadence, was sliding Hassan Whiteside to the bench. His numbers haven’t gotten any less startling in that reserve role; opposing second units have been demolished by the free agent-to-be.
Adding Joe Johnson after his buyout was another shrewd move by Pat Riley. The former albatross has injected a 40-plus-percent three-point shooting weapon to a roster that was drastically lacking in that area in the first half of the year. He hasn’t been alone in that regard.
Since finally carving out a regular spot in Erik Spoelstra’s rotation in the first game back from the break, 40th pick Josh Richardson’s shot has resembled the logo at Miami’s center court. It’s still an incomplete sample, but in the last 21 contests Richardson has connected on a ridiculous 58.5 percent of his threes. It’s not as though he’s been shy to put shots up; Richardson is attempting 3.1 long-range shots a game during a second-half surge that has seen him average 10.8 points, 2.6 rebounds and 1.8 assists a night.
Scorching accuracy like this is definitely out of character for the former Tennessee star. In four college seasons, Richardson never shot better than 35.9 percent from outside, with his career college average settling just under 32 percent. This hot streak will probably cool significantly at some point. We may have in fact seen the first signs of regression from Richardson on Wednesday night, when he went 0-for-8 from the field and missed all four of his three-point tries in an embarrassing loss to the Lakers.
However, even if Richardson comes back down to earth shooting-wise, he can still make an impact with his defense. While he still has a slightly negative effect on the Heat’s defense when he’s on the court (102.4 DEF Rating with Richardson on the court, 100.9 with him off), it’s not the type of drop-off you would typically expect from a rookie, let alone one taken in round two. Richardson is showing a growing propensity for nabbing steals, leading Miami since February 19 with 1.5 per 36 minutes. He’s becoming especially dangerous hawking balls when opponents are moving the ball in transition, jumping passing lanes like a safety or stealthily poking balls away from unsuspecting point guards:
A tumble back to earth is probably on the way for Richardson, but even if it is, you can’t take away the impact he’s had on the Heat over the last month and a half. Without Bosh, Miami easily could have plummeted out of a playoff spot, similarly to last year. With the help of Richardson’s strong rookie campaign, the Heat has instead established itself as one of the handful of teams that could find itself squaring off with Cleveland in the Eastern Conference Finals.
Norman Powell, Toronto Raptors
Toronto general manager Masai Ujiri has made some shrewd moves during his time with the Raptors. He turned Rudy Gay into a collection of bench pieces that helped power a 48-34 season in 2013-’14. Before that, he somehow managed to swindle a first round pick out of the Knicks for the expensive corpse of Andrea Bargnani; a pick that will likely land in the top 10 of this year’s draft.
Now, another decision is ready to enter the list.
The move Ujiri pulled off with Milwaukee on Draft Night 2015, in which he retrieved a 2017 first-rounder and the 46th-overall pick that night for Greivis Vasquez, will quickly climb his personal trade power rankings if Norman Powell, the UCLA product selected with that mid-second rounder, continues on his current trajectory.
After coming close to winning Summer League MVP, Powell faded into the collection of multi-year projects that dotted the end of the Raptors’ bench and D-League squad. With DeMarre Carroll and Cory Joseph brought in as free agents, DeMar DeRozan posting a career season, and Terrence Ross inking a new extension before the season, there didn’t appear to be many minutes for Powell to gobble up on the wings.
Instead, Powell opted to consume instructions provided by the Raptors coaching staff and Raptors 905 coach Jesse Murmuys until he was called upon to help. Carroll went for knee surgery on January 6. Since that time Powell’s role has continued to increase — he’s grown more comfortable operating in the Raptors’ system. It was always assumed Powell could provide at least adequate perimeter defense thanks to his explosive side-to-side movement and sneaky 6-11 wingspan that makes up for his 6-4 stature. That’s held true. In recent games he’s been tasked with guarding James Harden and Russell Westbrook. While both superstars put up gaudy stat lines against the Raptors, Powell’s individual defensive showings in both cases were promising.
He doesn’t even seem intimidated by such lofty assignments. He elaborated on guarding Westbrook after Toronto’s loss to Oklahoma City on Monday:
“I wanted to guard him. I think it’s really good for me. Right now being a rookie, being depended on playing defense, going up against the other team’s best player is gonna help me defensively. This is why I play the game, this is what I wanted. To guard the best players in the world and try to make it difficult for them and take them out of the game … I take it as an opportunity for me and a challenge for me to show what I can do.”
It’s with three-point shooting that Powell has really surprised. A mediocre 31.4-percent three-point shooter during his four-year run at UCLA, no one expected Powell to replicate the knockdown shooting Carroll typically provides. However, in nine straight games as a starter on the second-place Raptors, Powell’s offensive game has become increasingly impressive. In that span he’s averaging 10.4 points on a shockingly good 43.6-percent clip from long distance. Small sample alert, but impressive nonetheless.
In an offense based on Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan driving the ball to create spot-up looks on the outside, Powell’s steady shooting has helped maintain the identity of the Raptors’ offense, something the unreliable James Johnson had trouble doing during his 30 starts in Carroll’s absence.
Powell is learning to trust his shooting stroke:
“I’m really confident. Just being ready when DeMar or Kyle kick it to me, whether it’s late clock or just the flow of the offense, being ready to take open shots and show my confidence and just trying to pay off all the extra work I’m doing.”
“That’s gravy. It’s a good gravy, but it’s gravy,” said Raptors coach Dwane Casey of Powell’s three-point shooting. “We want him for his toughness. We tell him he has a green light to take the shots he works on – he works religiously on his jump shot. But he’s in there because of his defense, his toughness, his athleticism. But now that his three point shot is coming along it’s really helped us.”
Of course, that athleticism Casey referenced still comes out from time to time. An improved shot will keep Powell in the league a long time, but it’s the ability to do things like this that got him drafted in the first place:
Sweet crossover, better dunk. https://t.co/NIrbrph0ES
— NBA TV (@NBATV) March 31, 2016
Powell’s rapid emergence, just as the Raptors’ previously underpaid core is set to cash in handsomely on its next round of contracts, is a massive boost to Ujiri’s long-term plans. Having Powell under control for almost no money for four years will give the Raptors’ GM flexibility going forward. Powell’s play could make someone like Terrence Ross – whose three-year, $33 million contract will become quite tradeable once the poison pill distinction is lifted from it in July – an expendable part Ujiri can use to match salaries as part of a larger move to improve the team.
For now, though, Raptors fans can enjoy an unanticipated bounty at the wings as a critical playoff run approaches.