Many guys taken at the top of the 2012 NBA draft were thrown into the fire at the start of last season. Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Bradley Beal, Dion Waiters and Damian Lillard were all contributors and starters for their squads last season and although they’ll be expected to do more in their sophomore campaigns, their roles as starters will remain the same. The same goes for guys like Maurice Harkless and Andre Drummond, who were given more expansive roles in the middle of last season for their bottom-tier teams.
On the other hand, there’s a group of youngsters who didn’t see big-time minutes in their rookie years, but will be given a chance to carve out important niches for their teams this season. Due to management shifts, coaching swaps or personnel changes, these seven second-year players will be given a chance to win important roles in camp and have successful, progression-proving seasons.
Here they are (in order of wingspan-to-height ratio … just kidding … or am I?):
Terrence Ross, Toronto Raptors
Projected Role: Backup Shooting Guard/Offensive Focal Point of the Second Unit
Rookie Stats: 6.4 ppg, 41% FG, 17 mpg
Ross was a slightly surprising pick at eighth overall for the Raptors in 2012, but he made a name for himself in his rookie season as a high-flyer, although his overall offensive ceiling as a scorer is higher than anyone else on this list. With Masai Ujiri coming over to the Raptors this offseason, the Dinosaurs will be out of “OK, let’s sling together some veterans to play alongside the youngsters to try to make a run for the playoffs” mode and into “let’s build a long-term winner” mode. Ross and Jonas Valanciunas will be the heart of Ujiri’s rebuilding process and Ross could be the reason that Rudy Gay gets moved again this season (Denver seems like a feasible option to me). Ross has a great offensive game from top to bottom. He’s crafty, has a high release point on his jumper and with a year in the weight room under his belt, he’ll be better equipped for the NBA grind this season. Ross could have an outside shot at Sixth Man of the Year and Most Improved Player this season, and although his open-court dunks will be featured in highlight shows, his improvement in the half-court game will be more telling about his progress.
John Henson, Milwaukee Bucks
Projected Role: Third Big Man
Rookie Stats: 6.0 ppg, 4.7 rpg, 13.1 mpg
I’m a big fan of this former Tar Heel. I’m in his corner all the way and I’ve gone as far as to say the Milwaukee Bucks are a legitimate playoff contender with their three-man inside rotation serving as the backbone of their squad. Henson is going to be a very solid offensive player once he fills out, as his moves and footwork in the post are already highly polished. Defensively, his length could make him a stud and if you couple his defensive game with Larry Sanders’, no one is going to want to stroll into the lane against the Bucks this season. Staying on the court might be an issue for Henson, who missed 19 games last season, but if he comes to camp thicker, I have faith he’ll be able to stay remotely healthy and effective all year. Henson’s role as a third big man in the Eastern Conference is a great way to ease him into the league and it’ll help him gain confidence on the block. It will be interesting to see if the Bucks go with any three-big lineups this season, which could be extremely potent on both ends of the floor and could also be a great way to get Henson some more minutes without sitting starting bigs Larry Sanders or Ersan Ilyasova for extensive periods.
What Jeremy Lamb does this season will prove the staying power of the Oklahoma City Thunder as an elite team in the Western Conference. With Harden as their sixth man, they could have won a title and I think they would have had a rematch with the Miami Heat last season with Kevin Martin as their sixth man if Russell Westbrook didn’t get taken out by a gritty Rockets point guard. I think Lamb will be perfect for the sixth man role, but not in the same way that James Harden was. Lamb can do everything you want your wing to do, although he won’t be able to be the main creator of the second unit like Harden did (which shouldn’t be a problem because Reggie Jackson will be on the court with him). Lamb has a smooth offensive game, with a knack for scoring and most importantly, he can play his game without interrupting the flow of the offense. I believe in Sam Presti as a general manager and although I would have tried to dump Kendrick Perkins and keep Harden, he still was able to buy a year for Lamb to spend mostly in the D-League improving (by getting Martin in the same trade), a few draft picks and a guy who might provide a long-term solution as a sixth man in Lamb. I don’t think the Thunder will miss a beat this season, although someone a little closer to the team begs to differ.
Terrence Jones/Donatas Motiejunas, Houston Rockets
Projected Role: Either Starting Power or Rotational Big
Rookie Stats: Motiejunas: 5.7 ppg, 2.1 rpg, 12.2 mpg, 44 GP, 14 GS; Jones: 5.5 ppg, 3.4 rpg, 1.0 bpg, 19 GP
The Rockets are going to do some frontcourt experimenting in training camp this year and both Jones and Motiejunas will be given a chance to win the starting power forward job for the right to play next to the best center in basketball, Dwight Howard. Jones had a nondescript rookie season with the Rockets, failing to make it into the rotation until the last 15 games of the season. Motiejunas, on the other hand, was given the role of starting 4 once the Rockets traded Patrick Patterson last season, but was benched after a handful of poor games. Motiejunas might be a better fit next to Howard, as his traditional European-big-man-with-some-guard-skills-and-shooting-ability style and his legitimate size (nearly seven feet and lanky as hell) might make for a successful fit next to Houston’s bratty-but-superb center. Jones’ game might be most useful in the second unit for Houston, where he should join Jeremy Lin and Omer Asik in what could be a very potent bench for the rising Rockets. Like last season, there will be a lot of shifting and readjusting at the 4 in Houston this year, and I have faith that coach Kevin McHale will be able to find the right combinations for the Rockets frontcourt that will lead to successful starting and second-string units. That being said, if Omer Asik is really in Houston’s future plans (I don’t think he should be or is), then either D-Mo or T-Jones (that’s what Matt Bullard calls them) could be stuck riding the pine again this season (or could be featured in a package that would bring back a better starting point guard or power forward).
Thomas Robinson, Portland Trail Blazers
Projected Role: Backup Power Forward/Third Big Man
Rookie Stats: 70 games, 4.8 ppg, 4.5 rpg, 15.1 mpg (Sacramento and Houston)
Robinson had a wild rookie season. Halfway through the year, Houston stole him from the Sacramento Kings for Patrick Patterson and Toney Douglas (a trade I lamented), but ultimately decided to deal him (instead of moving Motiejunas and/or Jones) for a couple European bigs and two future second-round picks. Now, Robinson will enter his second season already a journeyman. However, Robinson is a great fit in Portland, as the team will be willing to experiment with LaMarcus Aldridge’s frontcourt partner after the departure of J.J. Hickson. I think Robinson got moved for one reason: he’s really undersized. Forget the fact that he’s listed at 6’9″; the guy looked 6’7″ on the court and doesn’t have plus athleticism or length, making him an unlikely future starter. In Portland, he’ll be coming off the bench faster than Meyers Leonard (notice he’s not on this list) and as a rebounder with some scoring chops, he’ll add some much needed depth to a young Blazers team. Robinson will never evolve into a top-tier starting power forward, but he should be decent as a third big man, which is a vital role that needs to be filled for every team in the league (and even more vital for a team like last year’s Blazers, who had the most pathetic bench in recent history).
Evan Fournier, Denver Nuggets
Projected Role: Backup Wing (20+ minutes per game likely pre-Gallo’s return)
Rookie Stats: 5.3 ppg, 49% FG, 40% 3pt, 11.3 mpg, 38 games
Denver chose to patch up their offseason subtractions (Andre Iguodala, Kosta Koufas, Corey Brewer replaced with Darrell Arthur, J.J. Hickson, Randy Foye and Nate Robinson) instead of shedding some experienced rotational pieces (Wilson Chandler and Andre Miller) for future help. Whether Denver is making the right decision or not will be determined by the improvement of their younger players and Fournier will be one of the guys given an expanded role this season. Fournier looks like a pretty crafty scorer and playmaker (similar to Alexey Shved) and even though the Nuggets have four guys in Ty Lawson, Andre Miller, Robinson and Foye who will be fighting for minutes at the two backcourt spots, Fournier should still see a decent amount of burn, especially early in the year as Danilo Gallinari is rehabbing his injury. Denver has proved they know how to share the ball, and they also have a number of capable scorers, which should help Fournier ease into his expanded role without having to take on any main-playmaker duties. Although his sample size from last season is small, his percentages show his ability to be an accurate scorer/shooter, and he did score in double digits six of Denver’s last nine regular-season games last season.
Note: I was kidding about the wingspan-to-height ratios … Or was I?
Thanks for reading, folks. Comments welcomed and encouraged.
Topics: Denver Nuggets, Donatas Motiejunas, Evan Fournier, Houston Rockets, Jeremy Lamb, John Henson, Milwaukee Bucks, Oklahoma City Thunder, Portland Trail Blazers, Terrence Jones, Terrence Ross, Thomas Robinson, Toronto Raptors