How long a young player will take to develop is impossible to know, but the consensus seems to be that by their third year, most prospects need to show enough growth to be considered long-term pieces.
We saw that happen last season at every level. Anthony Davis became a star while Draymond Green’s performance turned him into a core player for the Warriors. On the lower end of the spectrum, Khris Middleton proved he could be a starter for the Bucks and Aron Baynes salvaged his NBA career on his last chance.
This upcoming year, a select group of players will face similar challenges. Here are four third-year players who are entering a pivotal season in search for an identity and what it’ll take for them to succeed.
Giannis Antetokounmpo has to prove he can score like a star
The Greek Freak is a tantalizing talent. Despite little experience playing high-level basketball, he showed flashes of greatness from Day 1 and the physical tools to revolutionize the way we see positions. Now after two years of experimentation, the Bucks need Antetokounmpo to show that he’s not just a versatile player, but a good enough scorer to be considered a two-way star.
Jason Kidd pushed the 20-year-old forward to test his ability to handle the ball last season, and while the results weren’t bad, the move prevented Giannis from focusing on improving on a weakness that’s holding him back: his outside shooting. Antetokounmpo shot a decent 35 percent from three as a rookie on 118 attempts before almost completely taking it out of his repertoire, launching only 44 in his entire sophomore season.
Antetokounmpo not being a threat from outside is a big problem for Milwaukee’s offense, as the starting lineup will feature two other non-shooters in Michael Carter-Williams and Greg Monroe. We’ve seen how that kills spacing and allows opponents to pack the paint:
EuroBasket gives the Bucks faithful plenty of reason for optimism. Giannis averaged over three three-pointers per game and connected on 38 percent of them. If he can do something similar next season, it’ll unlock his driving game and put him on the fast track to stardom.
Rudy Gobert needs to show everyone last season wasn’t a fluke
No one has as many eyes on him entering his third season as Gobert. After breaking out as a sophomore, everyone wants to know if both he and the Jazz simply got hot at the right time or if the high level of play they showed is sustainable. If it is, Gobert will become a perennial Defensive Player of the Year candidate and the Jazz could threaten to make the playoffs.
No one is expecting the French seven-footer to come in with a polished post game and a jump shot. The one area in which he can realistically stand to improve is his passing. Gobert started making the right reads as a dive man last season, which is a huge step in the right direction for him. The next step is to improve as an interior passer, and there were hints of that ability last year:
If he can hit Favors more consistently with those passes in tight quarter, Utah will have a viable big frontcourt in the age of small ball, as they both have the size, mobility and athleticism to shut down any offense.
Ben McLemore has to show he can be an elite role player
After struggling in all facets of the game in his rookie season, McLemore improved significantly as a sophomore but didn’t come close to matching the hype he received during the draft. It’s not his fault that some experts were throwing Ray Allen comparisons around when he was coming out of college, but shooting 34 percent from beyond the arc as a pro would’ve been disappointing for any top 10 pick who can’t create his own shot:
The good news is the additions to the Kings’ roster will allow McLemore to avoid the spotlight as he enters a crucial year in his development. All coach George Karl will need for him to do is to hit open shots and use his athletic ability to punish opponents on the break, another area in which he hasn’t lived up to his potential so far.
All McLemore needs to do in his third year is prove he’s the player everyone thinks he is. If he can defend well, hit threes and leak out for easy buckets, he’ll become a core piece for the Kings. If he can’t, shooting guard will become yet another position Sacramento needs to fill.
Trey Burke is fighting for his NBA career
Burke fancies himself a scoring point guard, but his low efficiency would make Dion Waiters blush. He’s a career 37 percent shooter so far and has connected on only 32 percent of his three-pointers. Being terrible at actually hitting shots doesn’t prevent him from launching them at a high volume, however. In fact, Burke was one of just 47 players who took at least 20 shots per 100 possessions (min. 2,000 minutes) last season and ranked dead last in True Shooting Percentage.
Fortunately for Burke, some of his problems stem from bad shot selection and should be easily solvable. He loves his pull-up jumper even though it doesn’t fall all that often, but he’s good shooting three-pointers from the corners. If he can be happy with a secondary creator role and spot up more as Gordon Hayward and Alec Burks create, he’ll increase his efficiency.
The real concern is finishing at the rim. Only three other rotation players (Deron Williams, Eric Gordon and Solomon Hill) shot a lower percentage on point-blank shots. That’s likely not going to improve since Burke is small and lacks strength and athleticism to finish against rim protectors. That’s why he needs to use his floater more.
The touch is there. Burke shot a mediocre 48 percent on those in-between shots, according to NBA.com/Stats, but that’s still very close to what he shot on layups. By varying his finishes, he could get big men off balance and improve his efficiency near the basket.
Since he’s a huge liability on defense, Burke needs to get better on offense. Taking easier shots is the only way he’ll be able to do that.
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The 2015-16 season will prove to be key to the progress of these players’ careers. Whether they deliver or not will also have an impact on the franchises that drafted them. There are no excuses. It’s time to produce according to expectations or see them lowered.