As we sit and watch the rookie class of 2015 become the draft of the infirmed and underperformed, the sophomore class of 2014, the group without a star, has begun to show that perhaps they have more going for them than was initially thought. While Giannis Antetokounmpo is perhaps this draft’s sole shot at superstardom, players like Ben McLemore, Victor Oladipo, Steven Adams, Nerlens Noel and Kentavious Coldwell-Pope have shown that they are able contributors at this level. And while the aforementioned players were high picks for a reason, the surprise is that last year’s seemingly paltry draft has seen the emergence of some lesser regarded sophomores in their second year of NBA play. So while 2014 may still become a draft that didn’t have a bright star to shine the way, here are a few players that may provide just enough ambient light to help teams get to their winning destination.
[Player: Shabazz Muhammad – While Muhammad was the 14th selection in the draft, he was considered an enigma, and was thought to be more of a project. Thusly Muhammad barely saw the floor last year for the lowly Wolves, but with the departure of Kevin Love, Chase Buddinger’s injuries, and the T-Wolves in full-on youthful rebuild, Muhammad has seen an upswing in his playing time. Muhammad has responded by playing inspired basketball, and displaying a motor and work ethic that had been in question the past couple of years.
Coming out of college Muhammad’s skillset was that of an undersized power forward in a small forwards body, as the former one-and-done Bruin made his living on the block and lacked a perimeter game to force defenses to stay honest. At UCLA Muhammad consistently ran to the block and used his superior strength to abuse physically smaller small forward, and while he continued to try this approach in the little floor time he saw during his rookie campaign (81% of Muhammad’s total field goal attempts were from the left baseline or at the rim) Muhammad’s inability to force defenses to guess, or "stay honest", allowed NBA defenders to key in on his post-ups, making him an easy scouting report.
In year two Muhammad has responded by developing a perimeter game that, while still a work in progress, now forces defenses to stay honest. Muhammad has already made more threes (16) than he attempted last season (11), and is shooting a very respectable 42%. Muhammad’s three point shooting has forced defenses to defend him out to the perimeter which allows Muhammad to get into the teeth of the defense as defenses run out, which is where Muhammad makes his money (he’s shooting 61% at the rim, compared to just 49% last year), as it allows him to utilize his strength advantage over smaller two guards.
Muhammad may only be a fringe starter, or 6th or 7th man, but he’s now proving that he has a viable skillset at the NBA level, and big two guards are always desired. He could develop into an Aaron Mckie style of contributor if he decides to continue to develops his defensive habits.
Dennis Schroeder – In 2014 Schroder was introduced to the physicality and elite athleticism that the NBA game has to offer and early returns on the German product were shaky at best. Schroder played only 49 games for the Hawks last season, as he spent a portion of his first season in the D-league, and when he did play he was relatively ineffective in his on-court opportunities. Schroder’s numbers in the 13.1 minutes per game he played were less than impressive, 3.7 ppg, 1.6 apg, and 38% from the field, and for a point guard with exceptional quickness and an inconsistent jump shot (he’s 18 of 82 from distance for his career), Schroder settled for far too many perimeter shots with only 34% on his shot attempts coming at the rim, while he did shoot a reasonable 51% on those attempts, and just 28% from everywhere else on the floor.
This season though, Schroder has been as surprising as his Atlanta team. The lighting quick point guard has figured out how effective he can be by using his combination of quickness and slight build to hide behind screens before attacking while playing the pick and roll game. In half-court sets Schroder looks like a completely different player, confidently coming around screens and getting to the teeth of the defense to either create for himself (Schroder now takes half of his attempts at the rim, and is shooting 58% on those attempts) or his teammates. Schroder’s assists per game have increased from 1.9 per game last season to 3.3 this year, and his usage percentage has seen a healthy increase from 19% last year to 25% this season as Atlanta has grown confident in the sophomore’s ability to run the offense while Jeff Teague rests. Schroder has reinforced this confidence by posting 8.5 points per game and boosting his PER from 5.8 last season to 14.9 this year, or just.1 less than the recently traded Rajon Rondo.
Rudy Gobert – While the Jazz are mired in yet another losing season, there have started to be some positive signs from Utah’s nucleus of youthful players, perhaps no more impressive than the emergence of Frenchman Rudy Gobert. While Utah invested heavily in lottery picks Enis Kanter and Derrick Favors, Gobert, who was just the 27th selection last season, has been as impressive as either of his score first lottery counterparts. Unlike Favors and Kanter who each take over 30% of their shots outside of the paint, Gobert is taking over 97% of his shot attempts in the painted area (down from 99% last season). Gobert’s commitment to the paint has helped him find himself in great position for lobs and offensive rebounds, and the "Stifle Tower" is the only player amongst the three who protects the rim defensively, thusly earning him more minutes than typically seen by a third bigman in a rotation with two other still developing young players; especially players coming at their respective cost.s
In 2015 Gobert has seen his numbers jump across the board as he’s now averaging 6.0 points per game (up from 2.3 last season), 6.6 rpg (up from 3.4), 1.9 blocks per game (.9), and an impressive 63% from the field (48.6%). As already documented here, Gobert has double-double potential written all over him as his per 36 minute averages of 11.3 points and 12.4 rebounds make him the only big in Utah’s rotation averaging double-digit in both scoring and rebounding per 36 mins., though Favors isn’t far off. But what makes Gobert so valuable is his ability to post these figures, while rarely touching the basketball, though part of this is due to his very raw post-game. Gobert’s usage percentage of 13.3 is significantly lower than Kanter’s (24.8), and Favors (22.5), and while that is largely due to the other two players being better skilled offensive players, it makes Gobert a coaches’ and teammates’ dream, as he does the dirty work without demanding much on the offensive end.
Gobert will probably never be an offensive star, but his length, motor, and rebounding could foreshadow a very high level glue guy, in the mold of a rich man’s Robin Lopez, or a less athletic Tyson Chandler.