Correcting the course for five struggling sophomores
By Rob Mahoney
Every rookie season begins in a rosy blur of hope and expectation, but obviously not all incoming players can succeed on the professional stage. For some, a humbling collision with reality only takes a single year (or in some unfortunate cases, even less than that); the NBA is filled with highly skilled players and world class athletes, and though many incoming rookies previously thrived against collegiate or international competition, the rigors of NBA play often expose weaknesses and diminish strengths in short order.
That frequently leaves a handful of second-year players lost or discouraged as they enter Year Two, and has sent many once-promising prospects into a career-altering tailspin. Today we look at a handful of players at risk for such a turn — those who underwhelmed in various ways in their first NBA seasons, and demand a course correction of sorts.
Jimmer Fredette, Sacramento Kings: It’s exceptionally hard to defend the performance of a shoot-first guard who converted just 38.6 percent of his field goal attempts in his rookie season, and even harder to defend a player like Fredette who can’t seem to defend anyone else. Fredette may need to be hidden on defense for his entire career, and considering the rather significant trouble he encountered in his attempts to initiate offense last season, that may lock him into a razor-thin margin of NBA utility.
Where was the player who snuck past and shot over multiple defenders during his senior season at BYU? One would think that Fredette’s ball-dominant style in college would translate into competent ball-handling at the NBA level, but some of Jimmer’s biggest offensive problems were the result of his limitations off the bounce. That’s dreary news for a player whose most marketable skill was shot creation, and a rough break for a Kings franchise that used the No. 10 pick in the 2011 draft on the promise of Jimmer’s scoring ability. So much so that Sacramento — who fortunately cashed in on the far more promising Isaiah Thomas with the 60th pick in the same draft — has to already be moving to salvage rather than develop.
Fredette likely only has this season to convince the Kings otherwise. Defensive aptitude won’t suddenly occur to him overnight, but should Fredette manage to create anything for Sacramento’s offense this season, Kings head coach Keith Smart may be compelled to stick it out with his underwhelming guard and hope for the best. But anything resembling a repeat performance (or anything akin to Fredette’s desperate ball-stopping at the Las Vegas Summer League) would surely relegate Fredette to a role as a token end-of-the-bench gunner.
Chris Singleton, Washington Wizards: Singleton already looks to have a promising career as a defender, but the jury’s still out on whether his offensive play will ever allow him to play significant minutes in a winning rotation. The immediate returns were indeed that dire, and if Singleton can’t find little ways to contribute offensively, he may quickly wind up a specialist.
To his credit, Singleton did manage to convert threes at a rate just below league average. The only problem was that he required absolutely optimal conditions in order to secure those makes. Any kind of close out from his defender, the slightest fumble of the catch, or even an unexpected draft in the arena threw Singleton’s shot off-course, and squandered his lone source of offense.
Yet somehow, a miss was hardly the worst-case scenario when Singleton caught the ball beyond the three-point line. That distinction was reserved for the mess that ensued whenever Singleton attempted to put the ball on the floor to drive past an incoming defender. As it turns out, a poor handle, subpar passing skills and unimpressive finishing ability doesn’t translate to a potent driving threat. Singleton clearly lacks the tools to counter drive against opposing defenses at the moment, but also lacks the restraint to pass up what initially seems like a good opportunity. There’s room in rotations across the league for defensive-minded players with marginal offensive roles. But general managers are far less interested in growing defensive players (Remember: Singleton isn’t exactly a defensive standout just yet.) who struggle to play efficiently within their own limitations.
Marcus Morris, Houston Rockets: Morris’ rookie performance smelled strongly — and foully — of a player with much to prove. For some players, that desperation makes for an inspired result. For others (and particularly in Morris’ case), it winds up being a horrible burden. Morris’ entry into the game was typically followed by a forced attempt or several, often in the form of showy step-backs or fadeaways that Morris really had no business taking. Out of players who averaged 14 or more shot attempts per 36 minutes last season, none posted a lower effective field goal percentage (31.5 percent) than Morris. He’s not a bad shooter — and certainly not as bad as that mark would suggest — but struggled mightily under the weight of his own audacity.
There’s some hope yet for Morris, both as a mid-range shooter and a post-up wing. But he’ll need to find a way to curb his bad habits rather quickly, as the Rockets’ newest rookie imports have him outclassed in both raw scoring ability (Jeremy Lamb) and box score versatility (Terrence Jones, Royce White). One can only hope that the pressure of the rotation doesn’t compound Morris’ shot-happy tendencies, but given what we’ve seen out of his ill-advised chucking thus far, there’s not much reason to view Morris’ immediate future with any optimism.
Tristan Thompson, Cleveland Cavaliers: Unlike the other players featured on this list, Thompson brings to the table one elite NBA skill right off the bat: offensive rebounding. It’s from that knack for seeking out offensive boards that almost all of Thompson’s production stemmed. A good chunk of Thompson’s points came off of put-back tries and the big man averaged 4.9 free throw attempts per 36 minutes thanks to recovering the ball so close to the rim. His already low field goal percentage was salvaged by quick finishes and Thompson’s stellar offensive rebounding numbers help to compensate for his subpar defensive rebounding marks. To get so much mileage out of one facet of the game is truly impressive, but one can already begin to guess what that means for the rest of Thompson’s underdeveloped game.
Thompson is 21 and plays like it, but he can’t stay raw forever. If he’s to carve out a place in the Cavaliers’ long-term core alongside Kyrie Irving (who has bounded around the learning curve without waiting for Thompson to follow), he’ll need to find new ways to produce offensively and a new philosophy to draw from defensively.
A fundamental problem with Thompson is that he draws so much of his game from his length and athleticism — a habit that can get him in trouble in a league filled with skilled and clever players. Thompson hardly gets as much mileage out of his quickness as he did in college, or as he should in the pros; he’s consistently late on rotations, fairly lazy in guarding the pick and roll and doesn’t do any early work in defending the post. Thompson puts himself and his team in a rough spot by relying on his natural gifts to salvage plays at the last possible moment, and can’t realistically draw on those resources forever. Something will have to come along, and whether it’s his face-up game, mid-range stroke or defensive approach matters little at this point. Thompson simply needs to build his game out one facet at a time, and not lean so heavily on a single, successful dimension.
Jan Vesely, Washington Wizards: Vesely approaches the game with the best of intentions, but his hustle-heavy style often gets him in trouble. Providing help on defense is one thing, but over-rotating is another thing entirely. Rather than commit to a certain opponent or even an identifiable set of principles, Vesely has the habit of flocking to wherever he thinks he’s needed on the court — while lacking the instincts to correctly inform that tendency. He plays with a ton of energy, but tends to use much of it when he honestly shouldn’t, and doesn’t yet have the technical skills to make up for his errors in judgment.
That’s a bit of a problem for a hustle player with the potential to be much more. We’ve seen Vesely’s motor, athleticism and willingness to improve. But for now he’s simply an energy player, and risks fading into the journeyman ranks if he doesn’t cobble together a fall-back skill set. At this point, fixing his miserable jumper would be a stretch, but Vesely could definitely stand to work on the timing of his cuts and the discrimination of his defense. Even improving his economy of movement would be a bit step forward, albeit one that Vesely — who often appears to be restless in his defensive responsibilities — might struggle to pick up. There’s a useful player here somewhere in here, but one hidden beneath layers of hard wiring.