While young players often make their NBA reputations in the Rookie of the Year race, it’s impossible to fairly evaluate them until after their sophomore campaigns. The transition between college and the NBA is the biggest jump players make in their careers. NCAA teams play 30 to 40-game seasons spread over five months; NBA teams (normally) cram 82 games into the same period of time.
Even players in powerhouse conferences like the Big East only face NBA-caliber competition once or twice per week, while they might face NBA players at their position a handful of times all season. At the next level, they’re facing NBA players every single night.
Against amateur competition, they can coast defensively because they are such superior athletes. There aren’t any 6’9, 275 small forwards with 40 inch verticals barreling down the lane in college, and there certainly aren’t any 6’11, 265 centers with 40 inch verticals annihilating weak shots at the rim. And while most dominated the ball their whole lives, unless they were drafted at the top of the lottery, NBA rookies have to learn how to be efficient off-ball role players.
The off court transition is just as huge: in college, players are coddled by coaches whose job status depends on keeping them on campus by developing a “family atmosphere” around their program. In the NBA, they are living on their own for the first time, thrust in an unfamiliar city half-way across the country, with highly-publicized seven-figure incomes that make them a target for con men and gold-diggers looking to make a quick buck.
By the time they hit the dreaded “rookie wall”, often for a team going nowhere full of veterans trying to pad their statistics in order to get one more contract, their first year has become mostly about survival.
Last season, my list of second-year breakout players (guys who did not play in the Rookie Game on All-Star Weekend) had Ekpe Udoh, Gordon Hayward, Avery Bradley, Kevin Seraphin and Devin Ebanks on it. Not all “broke out” like Bradley did, but I think all five will last in the NBA. Here are six players from the 2011 draft that could have breakout years in 2012-2013:
Tobias Harris: Harris has slipped under the radar since playing one season for a scandal-laden program at Tennessee and not getting consistent playing time as a rookie. However, there’s a reason he was ranked No. 6 in his high school class. At 6’8 225 with a 6’11 wingspan, he has serious mismatch potential, with the ability to punish smaller defenders on the block and take bigger ones off the dribble. He produced in the rare minutes he got in 2012: per-36 minute averages of 16 points, 8 rebounds and 2 assists on 47% shooting.
Like many combo forwards, Harris doesn’t have a natural defensive position, but Milwaukee has enough long and athletic players upfront to hide him on that side of the ball. At the same time, he can give them some much needed scoring ability in the front-court as well as a good nose for the basketball. The big question about his game is whether he can develop into a more consistent jump-shooter, but the fact the he is so young for his age (he turned 20 in July, making him younger than some players entering college) is encouraging.
Nikola Vucevic: Players with his size (6’11 260 with a 7’4 wingspan) and skill level tend to have long careers in the NBA. Vucevic is comfortable with the ball in his hands, moves decently for a big man and can step out and knock down a 15-foot jumper. He never got a consistent role in a Philadelphia team in a playoff race, but an Orlando team going nowhere fast will have nothing but time to develop his game.
He’s not a great athlete, so he’ll never be a defensive anchor, but his size could make him a decent individual defender in the post. To become a starting-caliber player, he’ll need to refine his offensive game and become more efficient in the half-court: he shot 45% from the field and 53% from the free-throw line as a rookie. If he does, he has the chance to be a Chris Kaman or even a Brad Miller type center.
Alec Burks: Few lottery picks have ever had a lower profile: Burks was a lightly-regarded three-star recruit out of high school, played two seasons on a Colorado team that just missed the NCAA Tournament and didn’t start a game in his rookie season in Utah. There are several holes in his game: as a rookie, he took less than 1 3-pointer a game and had a assist-to-turnover ratio barely over 1. However, he’s an athletic 6’6 195 slasher with a 6’10 wingspan who can create his own shot and get to the rim (37% of his shots were in the paint in 2012) fairly easily. There aren’t that many guards with that skill-set, even in the lottery.
Jimmy Butler: Butler isn’t great at any one part of the game, but he doesn’t have any glaring weaknesses either. In his final season at Marquette, he shot 49/35/78, was second in points, second in rebounds, fourth in assists, first in blocks and third in steals on a team that went to the Sweet 16. At 6’7 220, that should be enough for him to have a long NBA career, as he can be an effective player regardless of the type of lineup he’s in.
A No. 30 overall pick on a Bulls team contending for a title, he barely played as a rookie, but he’s impressed in Summer League and the pre-season. Buzz Williams’ system produces tough, hard-nosed players with the versatility and basketball IQ to play multiple positions (Wesley Matthews); Butler, once a lightly regarded junior college transfer, could be its next NBA success story. He’ll have every chance to earn a spot in Tom Thibodeau’s rotation on a Chicago team that desperately needs perimeter depth.
Jordan Hamilton: The polar opposite of Butler in many ways, Hamilton was a five-star prospect who came to Texas with a huge attitude and a one-dimensional game. After nearly driving Rick Barnes insane as a freshman, Hamilton developed into a more well-rounded player and put up better stats than Harrison Barnes did in his sophomore year at UNC: 18.6 points, 7.7 rebounds, 2.1 assists on 44/39/77 shooting. George Karl has never been comfortable playing rookies, but in his second season, the 6’7 220 Hamilton can give Denver some badly needed outside shooting on the perimeter.