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New Year’s Resolutions for NBA’s Top Rookies

Oct 7, 2015; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Minnesota Timberwolves center Karl-Anthony Towns (32) dribbles the ball after making a steal in the second half against the Oklahoma City Thunder at Target Center. Oklahoma City Thunder won 122-99. Mandatory Credit: Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports
Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

The NBA learning curve can be mighty steep for rookies, but the 2015 draft class is handling it fairly well.

The first overall pick, Karl-Anthony Towns, looks like the next step in basketball’s evolution toward all five players having guard skills. Kristaps Porzingis could be a 7’3″ mix between Dirk Nowitzki and Andrei Kirilenko. And Jahlil Okafor may be the last of a dying breed of traditional post-up big men.

It’s not all good, of course. Each of the top 10 picks from this past summer has plenty to work on. And seeing as it’s the time of year for goals and resolutions, we have a few here.

NO. 1: KARL-ANTHONY TOWNS – Better Finishing in the Pick-and-Roll

There are very few things to quibble over when it comes to Towns’ rookie year. His shot chart is as green as the outfield in a baseball stadium, he protects the rim and leads all rookies in Player Efficiency Rating (PER).

There is one area where he struggles, though. Towns is in the 37th percentile for roll men in the pick-and-roll, generating 0.92 points per possession.

If he becomes a more respectable weapon there, defenses will have to collapse on his rolls, leaving Andrew Wiggins and Zach LaVine with more room to operate on the perimeter.

The key could be half-rolls for Towns. He’s already one of the best mid-range shooters in the NBA. If he catches the ball on the roll and sees that the paint is clogged, he might want to stop and pop from 10-15 feet.

NO. 2: D’ANGELO RUSSELL – Better Shot Selection

D’Angelo Russell has spent his rookie season in a system that doesn’t really capitalize on his strengths (or any Lakers’ strengths, for that matter).

When he’s on the floor with Kobe Bryant, he generally has to just watch and wait for Kobe to shoot. When he’s on the floor without Bryant, he has to create for himself.

He’s struggled with the latter. Russell is in the 17th percentile in points generated from isolations this season and his effective field goal percentage (eFG%) on the 5.3 pull-up jumpers he takes per game is just 36.5.

On the other hand, he’s actually been fairly effective as a catch-and-shoot option. He takes 3.4 catch-and-shoot jumpers per game, with an eFG% of 55.1.

Perhaps the holiday season would be the perfect time for Russell to approach Bryant and show him these numbers. Maybe Kobe’s in a giving mood and might be more likely to pass out of his isolations.

If not, Russell may have to settle for improving on his pull-up shot and waiting for a new coach or system that affords him more catch-and-shoot opportunities.

NO. 3: JAHLIL OKAFOR – Embrace Modern Offense

The number of red flags on Okafor seems to increase every week, but the one that’s clearly most concerning is that it’s just hard to play winning basketball when he’s on the floor.

For all his size and skill around the basket, Okafor is still a massive net negative for the Philadelphia 76ers.

Philly’s Offensive Rating (OffRtg) is 9.2 points better, its Defensive Rating (DefRtg) is 6.4 points better and its Net Rating (NetRtg) is 15.6 points better when Okafor is on the bench. He’s dead last in the entire NBA in ESPN’s Real Plus-Minus.

He’s caught a lot of flak for his defense, but his offense may be the bigger problem. The traditional post-up just isn’t an efficient possession, especially when the player executing it is shooting less than 50 percent.

Okafor’s attempted 159 shots out of the post this season, and has hit just 72. He’s generating 0.83 points per possession out of the post, which puts him in the 46th percentile. For context’s sake, this season’s average three-point attempt is generating 1.05 points.

As a roll man in the pick-and-roll, Okafor is generating one point per possession, but he’s only taken 55 such shots. It’s time for him to look to score more out of the pick-and-roll and set up teammates out of post-ups.

NO. 4: KRISTAPS PORZINGIS – Take More Threes

Like Towns, there really isn’t a whole lot to complain about with Porzingis (other than maybe a lack of playing time, which isn’t his fault). Fully embracing the role of a stretch 4 or 5 would help, though.

He’s only shooting 33 percent from three this season, but he’s still scoring more points per shot on those attempts than he is on two-pointers.

Right now, only 24.1 percent of his shot attempts have come from downtown, a number he could increase to 35-40 percent. The more he takes from out there, the more he’ll pull opposing bigs away from the paint.

NO. 5: MARIO HEZONJA – Work on Point Guard Skills

Positionless basketball is all the rage in the NBA these days, making big “point guards” who can defend three or four positions even more valuable.

To that end, the Orlando Magic appear to be transitioning 6’8″ Mario Hezonja to the 1, which is where he said he’s most comfortable, according to the Orlando Sentinel‘s Josh Robbins:

That’s my natural position. I played it the whole time in Croatia and a little bit in Barcelona, so I don’t have problems at all with that. I’m really thankful to Coach for that, and we’ve been practicing like that for awhile now.

If Hezonja can improve his playmaking ability (his Assist Percentage sits at just 9.2), the Magic could have another versatile wing/guard to play with Victor Oladipo and Elfrid Payton.

Nov. 13, 2015 - Sacramento, CA, USA - The Sacramento Kings' Willie Cauley-Stein (00) takes a rebound against the Brooklyn Nets' Thaddeus Young (30) as teammate DeMarcus Cousins (15) looks on at Sleep Train Arena in Sacramento, Calif., on Friday, Nov. 13, 2015 (Photo by Hector Amezcua/Zuma Press/Icon Sportswire)

Nov. 13, 2015 – Sacramento, CA, USA – The Sacramento Kings’ Willie Cauley-Stein (00) takes a rebound against the Brooklyn Nets’ Thaddeus Young (30) as teammate DeMarcus Cousins (15) looks on at Sleep Train Arena in Sacramento, Calif., on Friday, Nov. 13, 2015 (Photo by Hector Amezcua/Zuma Press/Icon Sportswire)

NO. 6: WILLIE CAULEY-STEIN – Improve Free-Throw Shooting

Hack-a-[insert bad free-throw shooter’s name] is being used more and more each season and Willie Cauley-Stein is in danger of becoming a target.

He’s shooting just 51.4 percent from the line, something he’ll need to drastically improve to stay on the floor with DeMarcus Cousins for extended minutes.

NO. 7: EMMANUEL MUDIAY – Know Your Limitations

A rookie season is a good time to make mistakes, but some boundaries would help Emmanuel Mudiay.

At this point, there’s really nothing he does well. He’s taking 12.7 shots per game and shooting 31.1 percent. That’s the worst field-goal percentage of the three-point era for a player who qualified for the minutes leaderboard and attempted at least 12 shots per game (there have been 2,182 such seasons).

He’s also averaging as many turnovers as made field goals.

All this translates to Denver playing much better when Mudiay sits. If he becomes better aware of his limitations in 2016, his efficiency will increase.

NO. 8: STANLEY JOHNSON – Improve Three-Point Stroke

Stanley Johnson has the body and athleticism to be a prototypical 3-and-D player, but he’s shooting just 32.5 percent from deep this season.

If he can pull that number up around league average (35 percent), he could start taking minutes from Marcus Morris and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (who are also struggling from downtown).

NO. 9: FRANK KAMINSKY – Hit the Boards

There are 25 players this season who are at least seven feet tall and qualify for the minutes leaderboard. Frank Kaminsky’s rebounding percentage of 9.6 ranks 24th.

When you’re that big, you have to be able to contribute a bit more on the glass.

NO. 10: JUSTISE WINSLOW – Improve Three-Point Stroke

The careers of Johnson and Justise Winslow could mirror each other in a lot of ways. Both have the size and athleticism to be that 3-and-D guy who can play three or four positions. Both need to improve their perimeter skills to truly be viable options.

Winslow is taking nearly two threes per game, but hitting just 25 percent of his attempts. He’ll be a very valuable part of Miami’s core if he can pull that percentage up to 35-36.

Andy Bailey is on Twitter @AndrewDBailey.

Stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com and NBA.com, and through games played on Dec. 29.

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