For many young NBA players, the third year in the league is when they finally put it all together.
There’s an extremely steep learning curve for most rookies that makes immediate success elusive, depending on a player’s level of talent or the system they’re coming from. Sophomore seasons are often spent trying to implement the many lessons learned during a rookie year on the fly, and even if a player is lucky enough to enjoy first-year success, the “sophomore slump” is a well-known trope for a reason. Sustaining success at the highest level takes time to perfect.
Hence, the third-year is commonly when players put together their adjustments with their confidence, kind of the player development equivalent of “third time’s a charm.” Players have tried it as an unseasoned rookie, seen what changes worked and didn’t as a sophomore, then have a chance to bridge the gap between the two experiences. It was during their third seasons that Paul George made the leap as a two-way star, James Harden asserted himself far beyond his role as sixth man and Derrick Rose won his MVP.
This season’s crop of third-year players come from the 2013 draft class, an unheralded, unhyped group of guys who haven’t done much to change that perception. There have been a few flameouts, a few promising guys and maybe a couple who seem like they could legitimately become stars. Let’s take a look at some of the potential breakout candidates from the class of 2013, as well as a couple of its members who are looking to take their success to the next level.
Victor Oladipo, Orlando Magic, 2nd overall
During his first two seasons in the league, Oladipo has lived up to his billing as an explosive-but-raw wing talent, posting solid scoring numbers that have still been predictably inefficient. Part of that can be attributed to being a main perimeter scoring option on a below-average team, and part of it is due to Oladipo’s own shortcomings.
His jumper remains a work in progress, although he saw a very slight uptick in both his overall and three-point shooting, each almost two percentage points higher. Without a respectable outside shot, defenders will continue to play off Oladipo and dare him to finish on a contested drive, a ploy that isn’t helped by his backcourt mate, Elfrid Payton, who’s an even more woeful shooter. If he can garner a little more respect from defenders, he should be able to thrive as a finisher, given that Synergy graded him in the 70th percentile in the league in isolation situations at .91 points per possession.
That’s Oladipo’s primary objective, although he needs to improve his defense as well. Coming out of Indiana, the combo guard was an eager defender, but he wasn’t as dialed-in last season, and it showed any time opposing offenses decided to go right at him.
Otto Porter, Washington Wizards, 3rd overall
Porter was an afterthought as a rookie while he battled back from injury, but during his second season, when the Wizards needed a boost during the postseason, Porter surprisingly stepped up and offered Washington with some strong 3-and-D production.
Splitting time between the small- and power-forward spots, Porter shot 37.5 percent from three and tied for the best offensive rating on the team in the playoffs, per NBA.com. Despite his lean frame, he guarded both positions effectively as well. It was the kind of strong playoff showing that can build confidence and give young players a leaping-off point, especially since confidence was something Porter had struggled with a rookie year that was practically an injury redshirt.
He doesn’t project as a dynamic playmaker, but shooting and defense have never been more in style. With Paul Pierce no longer in the fold, Porter has a huge opportunity to prove himself as an integral, versatile piece on a team that has aspirations to make the NBA Finals.
C.J. McCollum, Trail Blazers, 10th overall
Like Porter, McCollum has battled multiple injuries during his first two years in the league, and like Porter, McCollum received an opportunity to play late last season and capitalized.
After Wesley Matthews went down and Arron Afflalo struggled and also got hurt, McCollum became an important part of the Blazers’ backcourt rotation. He didn’t disappoint, scoring 13.5 points per game and shooting 40 percent from three in the last 20 games of the season. He even notched a 33-point game during the first round of the playoffs against the grit-and-grind Memphis Grizzlies.
There will be high expectations for McCollum entering this season, and GM Neil Olshey has said that he’ll have opportunities to produce, including at point guard, presumably leading the second unit and spelling Damian Lillard. Expectations can be dangerous, and McCollum will have to worry about not getting injured first, but he seems to be a heady player who understands his role as well as the importance of learning from statistics, based on his interest in analytics in this Zach Lowe profile from April.
Even if he struggles to take the next step as a catalytic ball-handler in the NBA, he has a ton of promise to make an impact as a three-point shooter, provided he can learn how to defend better on the other end.
Shabazz Muhammad, Minnesota Timberwolves, 14th overall
After underachieving at UCLA and as a rookie, Muhammad was an afterthought for Minnesota prior to last season. He capitalized on his opportunity after Kevin Love was traded to Cleveland, however, and showed promise as a stretch 4 for the Timberwolves.
Muhammad showed off an unknown-but-impressive three-point stroke, shooting 39 percent on 1.3 attempts per game, and also worked as a post-up vehicle to create offense, passing and finishing around the rim effectively before a torn ligament in his finger ended his season prematurely.
This year, Muhammad has cut even more weight after his success in doing so last season and looks to be in great shape, which is a good sign for his maturity given his weight struggles of the past. He’s already shown to be a productive scorer at the NBA level, so it’s exciting to see what he can do during the course of a full NBA season, especially since he seems to be more focused and prepared than ever.
Muhammad has been an enticing talent since high school, and his third year in the NBA might finally be the moment he puts it all together.
Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks, 15th overall
The “Greek Freak” has been an NBA darling from the time he first set foot on the court, and last season he established himself as a freakishly long player whose athleticism and defense alone were good enough to make time for him.
Now, as the Bucks look to take the next step in their rebuilding effort, Antetokounmpo will have some pressure on him for the first time in his career. Milwaukee’s biggest issue has been scoring points the last few years, something they’ve begun to remedy by signing Greg Monroe, and Antetokounmpo will have to improve his offense with the rest of the team’s.
He hasn’t been a very effective jump-shooter during his first couple years, and that’s the part of his game he’ll be most focused on. Jason Kidd will surely get creative in running his offense through Monroe, and a jumper would go a long way in making Antetokounmpo an effective player off the ball.
It’ll be an interesting year for him, as his role will probably be directly diminished due to the addition of Monroe and return of Jabari Parker, but he’ll have more opportunities to make an impact on an overall improved offense, provided he can tweak his off-ball game the right way.
Rudy Gobert, Utah Jazz, 27th overall
Absolutely the steal of the draft to this point, Gobert turned into a one-man wrecking crew protecting the rim after Utah ditched Enes Kanter mid-way through last season. The Frenchman earned the nickname “Stifle Tower” and deserved it, blocking a ridiculous 2.6 shots per game after the All-Star break and leading the league in defensive FG% at the rim, per SportVU.
At 7-1 with an even longer wingspan and foot-speed to boot, Gobert represents the perfect combination of mobility, athleticism and shot-blocking technique. He even developed some nifty moves as a roll man and finished the season scoring 1.07 points per possession when featured in pick-and-roll situations, according to Synergy.
In that sense, Gobert is already an established force; this season will simply be his chance to take the next leap and prove that he can wreak havoc for an entire NBA season. Last season’s performance was no small sample size anomaly, so there’s little reason to believe he won’t, and depending on what kind of leap he makes, he should seriously be considered as an All-Star in the Western Conference, which would go a long way toward helping the Jazz capture a playoff berth for the first time since 2012.