There wasn’t a lot of excitement for the 2015 draft class. Hopes were extremely high for the very best prospects but expectations were a lot more modest for everyone beyond the top five. A lot has changed for these five picks after their rookie seasons.
Here’s a revision of what they did in their first year, what happened to them and how things are looking up for their immediate future.
All stats were researched at NBA.com/stats/ and at basketball-reference, unless when the specific source is stated.
1. Karl-Anthony Towns, Minnesota Timberwolves (2,627 minutes, -2.4 paced-adjusted plus-minus, 22.5 PER)
Expectations over what sort of impact a first-year player can have on a team are often overstated. There a very few players who can truly come in, take ownership of a team and turn everything around. Towns is one of the few exceptions.
The 20-year-old just had one of the best offensive seasons by a rookie ever, posting averages of 23 points on 59% true-shooting and 13.1 rebounds per 36 minutes. More impressive, perhaps, was the way he did it too.
Towns had shown potential at Kentucky for maybe one day developing into a complete player on offense. Then he stepped into the league and was pretty close to that right away.
Despite playing most of his first year as a teenager, Towns proved able to score from the post, charging to the rim or stopping on a dime and hitting step-back jumpers out of face-up drives, on pick-and-pops from mid-range, playing above the rim as a target for lobs on the pick-and-roll, nailing spot-ups from three-point range, crashing the offensive glass for tip-ins and putback dunks, assisting cutters or outside shooters with his back to the basket and playing high-low from the top of the key.
Now, mind you, the Timberwolves won just over a third of their games.
Part of the problem was the context.
Minnesota didn’t know its future star was already ready to be a star right away. So it planned according to the expectation that Towns was going to take some time developing into the focal point of an offense. It built a team with four other prospects under the age of 24 and three veterans past the age of 34. Only Ricky Rubio, Gorgui Dieng and Nemanja Bjelica were in their primes.
The team also didn’t add many three-point shooters to leverage Towns’ presence into even more value. Furthermore, interim coach Sam Mitchell didn’t seem to understand the importance of the three-point shot in today’s game.
It speaks a lot to how good Towns was on offense (and Rubio as an organizer, as well) that the Timberwolves managed to finish the season 11th in scoring per possession while making the second fewest three-point shots in the entire league.
The other part of the problem was defense, and Towns played a role in it.
He showed flashes of dominant play on that end as well but was not any sort of a difference maker.
Towns has the agility and the length to keep pace with smaller players driving at him on the pick-and-roll and shut them down at the rim. But his impact as a rim protector was marginal, as he saved just 1.01 points per 36 minutes according to nyloncalculus.com’s Rim Protection metric.
Towns also allowed 0.90 points per possession on post-ups, one of the dozen or so worst marks in the league among players who guarded at least 100 such possessions.
Many criticized Mitchell when he started pairing Towns and Dieng more often midway through the year, then kept them together most of the time after the All-Star break. But he had clearly identified Dieng was needed to stabilize the defense in a way Towns was not yet prepared to do so on his own.
According to nbawowy.com, the Timberwolves allowed 1.184 points per possession in 777 minutes with lineups that had Towns in but none of Dieng, Kevin Garnett, Adreian Payne and Nikola Pekovic out there with him. They went on to allow just 1.103 point per possession in 1,129 minutes with Towns and Dieng together – a mark that will never be confused with the early-2010s Pacers, but a less leaky defense nonetheless.
That’s probably what informed Tom Thibodeau’s decision to spend some money on Cole Aldrich and Jordan Hill, despite the fact they still have Dieng under contract and the right to retain him in restricted free agency in the summer of 2017. Even if Garnett and Pekovic never play another minute, it seems safe to assume Towns will not play many minutes without another prototypical big close to the rim any time soon.
That will be frustrating to watch in the era of smallball. The logical conclusion should be to have Towns playing as a center and stressing opponents from every spot on the floor, regardless of what’s his role in a given play, and opening up the lane for dribble penetrators and cutters.
But Thibodeau prioritizes the defense and the surest way to build the best defense still is by having a fortress barricading the front of the basket. Towns has not yet shown he can be that fortress all on his own.
2. D’Angelo Russell, Los Angeles Lakers (2,259 minutes, -11.8 pace-adjusted plus-minus, 13.2 PER)
Russell was evidently not provided the best environment to succeed in his first year as a pro. Kobe Bryant’s farewell tour sabotaged much of the Lakers’ season and Byron Scott didn’t organize the team particularly well once the nonsense dialed down a bit midway through the year.
There are also rumors that Russell was a particularly immature 19-year-old. There are no specifics to his childish behavior easily available to find, other than his secretly recording Nick Young talking about how he managed to cheat on his girlfriend and then having that video leak out.
On the court, Russell was OK towards the end of the season. He averaged 19.8 points and 4.4 assists per 40 minutes after the All Star break but did so on 40.1% shooting and against 3.3 turnovers per 40 minutes. Lineups with him on the floor allowed 110.3 points per 100 possessions.
Russell’s top skill at Ohio State was his shot creation out of the pick-and-roll. That hasn’t been as much of a killer in the NBA as first thought, as he averaged just 0.71 point per possession attempting a shot off a ball-screen and turned it over on 20.1% of such possessions last season.
But I think it’s fair to pin the issue of inefficiency on the ecosystem, though. LA’s only true stretch big man on the roster was Ryan Kelly; he logged just 470 minutes, a chunk of them as a wing, and missed 32 of his 37 three-point shots. There were a few times Scott did experiment with Bryant as the tallest wing on the floor in a four-out lineup, but the vast majority of the time the Lakers had two big men near the paint, permitting the defense to clog up driving lanes.
Russell is not blameless either, of course. There were plenty of times where it seemed clear he decided the moment he crossed half-court that he was going to launch a pull-up three-pointer off the high ball-screen no matter what. But that’s something that he can be reasonably expected to grow out of over time, especially because Russell has not shown to be a particularly selfish player in terms of looking off teammates.
He has, in fact, proven himself a very good passer on the move, showcasing nice vision coming off the screen and spotting cutters diving to the lane or weak-side shooters rotating into open spots. If Luke Walton in fact plans on installing a similar offense to the Warriors, I don’t think he’ll find a problem having Russell hit all the moving targets.
And, as mentioned by many, Russell also projects to be a good fit as the igniter of that sort of offense. Aside from proving able to make split-second reads on the move, he’s shown he can make pull-ups. Russell doesn’t have lightning speed coming off the screen and has a bit of a set shot but is crafty enough using change of speeds to get wherever he wants on the court and get good enough separation to get his shots off. Russell converted just 35% of his 439 pull-ups in his first year as pro, including just 33.1% from three-point range, but the hope is a more disciplined shot selection under the influence of a more organized system can improve those.
Other concerns raised were interior scoring and defense.
As mentioned previously, Russell didn’t have many clear paths to the basket to score there in bunches but his numbers are nonetheless unimpressive. He shot just 56.3% within five feet, had 15.3% of his such attempts blocked and earned just 3.5 free throws per 40 minutes.
Russell is not a particularly sick athlete but that was already known at around draft time. He can’t attack the basket with much explosiveness but his touch on non-dunk finishes is OK, especially on floaters from the in-between area. Therefore, it’s unclear if that’s a weakness that will end up mattering yet.
But the defense concern identified a year ago has translated into a problem in the pros. Russell has length to crowd passing lanes and overwhelm opposing point guards, who tend to be smaller than him on most nights. But he doesn’t play with much energy trying to navigate over screens and it’s unclear if he has enough lateral quickness to guard these smaller guards, who tend to be much quicker than him, on a nightly basis.
Aside from the fact the Lakers allowed 110.3 points per 100 possessions with him on the floor last season, opponents averaged 1.13 points per possession in isolation against Russell – the third worst mark in the league among players who guarded at least 50 such possessions.
Despite the fact one full season has come and gone, it’s still unclear if the Lakers are good for Russell or if Russell was a wise investment by the Lakers. That’s because last season was such a circus and essentially worthless that it’s impossible to accurately state one way or the other. Russell has shown some good, has shown some bad and the Lakers are making some changes. It’s a clean slate from now on.
3. Jahlil Okafor, Philadelphia 76ers (1,591 minutes, -15.3 pace-adjusted plus-minus, 17.1 PER)
Okafor’s first year as a pro was mostly hurt by optics and context.
The 20-year-old was caught on video having a fight with a Celtics' fan on a night out in Boston, news of his fine for driving over the speed limit went viral in a way these things don’t tend to go viral with many other guys in that profession and then the 76ers lost 72 out of 82 games.
But with the exception of the off court incidents, Okafor’s rookie season turned out to go exactly as it was expected to.
Philadelphia made a jaw-dropping decision to invest in Okafor. It did go in line with Sam Hinkie’s process that, at that stage in their development, the 76ers should be drafting the best player in a vacuum available and then figure out the fit later, regardless of whether that player was injured or if there was a position overlap with a previous investment.
So Hinkie took Okafor, ignoring the fact that his style of play (slower, post-up oriented) went exactly against what they were attempting to implement the previous two seasons (faster, pick-and-roll heavy).
Having a diverse set of options can be important but it has to make sense under a cohesive identity. Fitting Okafor into the direction they planned on pursuing before his arrival was always going to be challenging, especially considering that what they had built prior to him getting there wasn’t that solid to begin with because they never invested on a lead ball-handler long enough for things to stick.
So when you look at it that way, having the privilege of hindsight on your side too, it’s easy to understand how Okafor not only made no positive impact on this team, the team actually regressed after his addition.
Okafor looked like a dominant one-on-one scorer on most nights. He can set deep position against bigger behemoths like Robin Lopez and Timofey Mozgov, create separation to get his hooks off over either shoulder, take any center in the league off the dribble from above the foul line all the way to the rim or stop on a dime and hit short pull-up jump-shots.
His averages of 0.87 point per possession in isolation and 0.85 on post-ups don’t scream dominant but are solidly above average and are decent enough when you consider the ecosystem he was a part of. Philadelphia had a lot of shot takers but not a lot of shot makers around him, so Okafor didn’t often have free paths to the basket or a ton of space to work with.
Nik Stauskas and Robert Covington started the season injured and spent the entire year playing catch up with regards to their percentages. Isaiah Canaan and Hollis Thompson are fine open-shot shooters but neither has acquired any gravity yet. Jerami Grant regressed.
There is also the fact that Okafor shared the court with Nerlens Noel for 694 minutes. Brett Brown tried arguing that the two are so young and still in a developmental stage that he couldn’t just close the door on the small chance they could fit together. That’s a valid point.
But it became fairly obvious fairly quick that it wasn’t working, at least not with these many other question marks around them, especially considering the man signed to organize everyone, Kendall Marshall, took far longer to recover than anticipated. And as imagined, Philadelphia’s offense died when the two centers were in together, averaging just 0.925 points per possession – according to nbawowy.com.
That’s not to say Okafor was not directly responsible for any of the problems that caused Philadelphia’s regression. All the concerns raised with regards to his defense one year ago materialized in his first year as a pro.
Okafor remains either an inattentive, an unintuitive or an irresponsible help defender. According to nyloncalculus.com, he cost the team -0.15 points per 36 minutes as a defender closer to the rim. That’s while far more limited guys from an athletic-standpoint like Dirk Nowitzki, Frank Kaminsky and Josh McRoberts managed to rate positively.
Okafor was also a negative as a defensive rebounder. Despite his combination of length and athleticism, he collected just 17.8% of opponents’ misses – a below average mark for someone his size.
Brown actually tried having Okafor defend perimeter-oriented big men some midway through the season, maybe to see if more of a demand would incentivize to work harder, but that didn’t work either. As an indirect result, Noel had to guard away from the basket for most of last year and the team had no carryover from the 11th-ranked standing in defensive efficiency the year before.
Now Hinkie is gone but his process does not appear to have been cut short. Maybe Philadelphia had a problem having people accept their money (which is entirely possible) but for the most part, they appear to have made a conscious decision to sit out most of the free agency frenzy. Jerry Bayless, Gerald Henderson and Sergio Rodriguez were signed but they all project to play bit roles.
The team is expected to look completely different than the previous year once again, though. All that losing earned the 76ers the top pick in the draft. They invested it on Ben Simmons, who is one of the most ball-dominant players ever seen. And the cornerstone of the entire process, Joel Embiid, is now expected to be ready to go on opening night too.
Okafor didn’t fit this team last season and now he is somehow even more of a fish out of water. No real substantial improvement in shooting has been made, the team actually added worst perimeter defenders and more guys that need the ball to maximize their impact and diminish the blow of their weaknesses.
Bryan Colangelo is probably having a really hard time finding a fair deal to send Okafor away and he should be more reluctant to take a loss on a trade than the average decision maker because his reputation was damaged by his tenure in Toronto and most people presume he only got his current job because of nepotism. But the logical conclusion here seems clear: Okafor won’t be a part of this franchise much longer. There’s just not much sense in it.
4. Kristaps Porzingis, New York Knicks (2,047 minutes, +0.4 pace-adjusted plus-minus, 17.7 PER)
Everyone was upset when the Knicks drafted Porzingis fourth overall.
New York fans who were not familiar with him immediately assumed he was the next big European bust and booed him as his name was announced by Adam Silver. People familiar with his ability immediately assumed the Knicks were going to screw him up, as they have no track record of being able to develop someone with his sort of potential over the last two decades.
One year in, things are going far better than anticipated.
The first big concern raised was how Carmelo Anthony was going to react to Porzingis, a seven-foot-three shooter without the sort of physical profile that suggested he was going to be able to make an impact in the NBA right away. That turned out to be no problem at all. Anthony has been said to be helpful every step of the way and they are said to have developed a bond.
The next concern was whether Porzingis had the skill-set to fit in the triangle. That also turned out to be not much of a problem, at least when you consider the limitations of the triangle within the modern era of basketball.
As expected, Porzingis didn’t have the strength to set deep position consistently but his ability to make shots from any spot made up for the fact he was often pushed off to the high post or the wing.
His post game is still a bit mechanical, as he has no power moves yet and is often looking for one of two moves; a turnaround fadeaway jumper to the left or a routine of two dribbles, bang bodies with the opponent to set him up one way then launch a hook going to the opposite side.
But the results were solid, if not necessarily amazing. Able to shoot over about anyone who is not immediately in his air space, Porzingis averaged 0.82 points per possession on post ups.
He also flashed some development in his floor game, proving able to take escape dribbles and make one- or two-dribble pull-ups at a decent rate. Porzingis also passed the ball far better than he had demonstrated playing for Sevilla the previous two years.
He impressed some with his offensive rebounding early in the season, towering over multiple defenders for some highlight-worthy putback dunks here and there but Porzingis was not an actual impact player on that area, collecting just 7.1% of New York’s misses when he was on the floor and scoring just 36 points on putbacks all season.
His impact as an outside shooter was undersold a bit, though. Porzingis hit just 33.5% of his 242 three-point shots last season but demonstrated he can make not only standstill shots but also be put in the pick-and-pop and come off screens as well; plays opposing big men struggle to defend.
He nailed 46.7% of his 150 catch-and-shoot two-point jumpers. There’s real opportunity here for a coach with a modern mindset to leverage the threat of his shooting to a greater degree by having him set his screens or curl around picks set for him beyond the arc.
According to nbawowy.com, the Knicks averaged 1.145 points per possession in 477 minutes with Porzingis in but none of Robin Lopez, Kevin Seraphin, Kyle O’Quinn and Louis Amundson out there with him. He’s shown he catch lobs, but mostly in transition or cutting weak-side, nothing out of the ball-screen because there was always another big man drew by Lopez or Seraphin or O’Quinn preventing a clean path to the basket.
The logical conclusion to Porzingis’ development is having him play center more often, as he’s demonstrated he can be a real difference maker who can stress the opponent from anywhere on the court if the ecosystem around him is right.
The resistance to just running towards that direction right now regards his defense. Those lineups with Porzingis at center allowed 1.114 points per possession and permitted opponents to collect 26.9% of their misses.
Porzingis was a very good face-up defender in his first year. He proved himself able to keep pace from the foul line down with smaller players driving at him out of the pick-and-roll and even on straight isolations. He was also attentive to his responsibilities coming off the weak-side in help-defense, averaging 2.6 blocks per 40 minutes and ranking in the top 20 in nyloncalculus.com’s Points Saved Per 36 Minutes metric.
The problem was in individual matchups against true centers. Without the physical development to put up much on a fight, Porzingis struggled defending the post and boxing them out on the glass. He collected just 20.7% of opponents’ misses when he was on the floor and opponents averaged 1.06 points per possession against him on post-ups – the second worst defensive mark among players who guarded at least 100 such possessions.
But with all of that said, it’s become unclear if it’s reasonable to expect Porzingis to build upon what can be considered a very successful first year. New York made a lot of changes in personnel, changes that suggest they’ll approach the game in a more modern fashion. But Phil Jackson is still in charge and still says he wants to see the triangle through, which he feels hasn’t happened yet, but while also saying Jeff Hornacek will have autonomy to run the team as he sees fit. It’s all very confusing to decipher from the outside.
Based on how he dealt with Channing Frye and Markieff Morris in Phoenix, Hornacek’s arrival should be a cause of optimism for Porzingis. It suggests the offense will leverage the threat of his shooting more often and he’ll spend a fair share of his time at center.
Robin Lopez was sent to Chicago in the deal that brought the team Derrick Rose but Joakim Noah was signed to protect Porzingis from tougher matchups at the start and end of games. That’s the optimistic view, at least.
It might be entirely possible the plan is for the two to share the court for 29 minutes per game in a more traditional setting. But even if that’s the case, Noah’s passing adds something to the table that Lopez couldn’t, though he will present some of the same challenges from a spacing-standpoint that Lopez raised or perhaps even worse ones if he, in fact, can no longer even make layups.
Rose, in his prime, was the sort of attacking guard Hornacek maximized in Phoenix by packaging dribble drives with screens set by a shooting big man like Porzingis. But it’s unclear what Rose can be counted on to be anymore. He was terrible for most of last season then OK at parts of it towards the end. More concerning, perhaps, was the fact his shot selection suggested he still saw himself as the sort of guy who should be out there trying to carry a team, which is evidently no longer the case anymore.
Anthony was pretty great last season, passing the ball like he’s never had before. Then he was once again magnificent with the United States Olympic Team as a spot-up gunner. Maybe he was more prepared than anyone thought to assist the transition towards having Porzingis as the building block of the next great Knicks team. But now that they are supposed to be contending for a playoff spot all of a sudden, it’s probable he’ll go back to doing a lot of dribbling again.
There should be more clarity with regards to what exactly is New York’s plan for developing Porzingis. And I think they did some to suggest they have a vision here. But Jackson’s presence and this sudden investment on guys past their primes still cloud things a little.
5. Mario Hezonja, Orlando Magic (1,413 minutes, -0.1 paced-adjusted plus-minus, 9.4 PER)
Hezonja had the least impressive first year of the players drafted in the top five.
Concerns regarding off ball defense and ball stopping that had him nailed to the end of the bench at Barcelona also limited his playing time in Orlando. But one could argue the Magic didn’t provide him a clear path to success either.
Orlando has consistently struggled with continuation in the Rob Henigan era. It doesn’t follow a clear path for more than a single season. First the plan was to develop Victor Oladipo similarly to how Oklahoma City developed Russell Westbrook but then they really wanted Elfrid Payton a year later, suddenly Evan Fournier seemed like a keeper but then the chance to get Tobias Harris emerged, Aaron Gordon was going to be their Blake Griffin but now they’ll try to turn him into Paul George.
Hezonja got lost in the shuffle. Scott Skiles arrived and brought with him expectations that this team was, as of that point, playing for wins. The 20-year-old wasn’t ready to contribute to a team seeking wins at the Euroleague level and he wasn’t ready to contribute to one at the NBA level.
Maybe if Hezonja was part of a well-built team with a clear structure in place, with some understanding that some mistakes were par for the course, he could actually have had more of an impact right away. Hezonja can drill spot-up looks. He proved he can create against a scrambling defense and make tough shots against NBA-caliber competition. And he possesses the combination of size and athletic ability that should translate into at least decent individual defense when he is engaged.
The problem is Orlando was not that well-built, Skiles did not tolerate Hezonja getting caught ball-watching or struggling to navigate over picks, not all that many good looks were created for him and the looks he created for himself were too tough too often to assume they could be a reliable source of offense. As a consequence, he averaged fewer than 18 minutes per game on 79 appearances.
Hezonja remains a more interesting player in theory than in reality but his defenders still have a case if they argue he hasn’t yet been put in the best position to succeed; the principal aspect of that being having the chance to stay out on the court long enough.
And, amazingly, it’s unclear if next season will be the season that happens.
Skiles split because he felt like doing so and Frank Vogel was hired. That could have been an opportunity for the organization to restructure itself and reset its expectations. But then it traded Victor Oladipo and the 11th pick in the draft to Oklahoma City for Serge Ibaka.
That could have been fine. Orlando could have been building a three-man rotation of Ibaka, Gordon and Nikola Vucevic upfront, with the two athletic forwards making up for Vucevic’s terrible defense. They would finish games with Ibaka and Gordon. Vucevic would be annoyed but then they could let him go when the situation turned too exhausting to manage. His contract should not be that hard to trade.
But then Orlando made everything too confusing to understand by signing Bismack Biyombo. Vogel subsequently told Zach Lowe their plan is to play Gordon as a wing now. And all of a sudden Jeff Green is involved as well. There should be no expectations for Green at this point but I assume Orlando has some sort of plan for him, given they are paying him $15 million next season.
All of this suggests Hezonja is just kind of there now. Oladipo and Harris are gone but Fournier was retained and now Gordon is a wing, so those are probably the two starters. Green is probably going to end up playing because coaches always have to wait and see for themselves that he can’t play before they eventually give up on him and he’ll probably play as a wing because the frontcourt already might not have enough minutes available for Biyombo, Ibaka and Vucevic as it is.
Hezonja should get some of leftover minutes on the wing, considering Vogel doesn’t like to stagger lineups a whole lot, but it should be mentioned that not even this is by design, as the Magic actually traded for Jodie Meeks to be in consideration for minutes here but it turns out that he is still injured and it appears they didn’t know the full extent of it.
It seems evident there is no clear path for Hezonja to break out in Orlando, at least not next season. He’ll have to force his way into a larger role, probably by hitting tough shots at a greater rate than he’s proven able to do so by now.
 A leap I think we should hold off making.
 Six-foot-nine wingspan.
 Other than the fact it was good for them to lose a ton and keep their draft pick.
 Despite the fact he averaged 23.3 points per 40 minutes as every bit of the post-up scorer he was touted to be from day one.
 Seven-foot-five wingspan.
 Even if he did built the foundation of what has become this current winning team.
 For reference: the Pistons ranked second in the league in offensive rebounding percentage, collecting 27% of their own misses.
 Assuming Noah can still hold up physically, after spending the last two seasons dealing with meaningful injuries.