Rookie seasons are responsible for high expectations, but many players fail to take the next step in their sophomore seasons. For some players, their games become stagnant. Others regress and have to build themselves back up.
There is a sophomore wall that some players run into, and it can be startling initially. What matters is that teams and fans don’t give up on these young players and help them prepare for their third seasons in the league, which is when we truly learn how good a player can be.
While I won’t talk too much about what the three players discussed in this article can become in their third seasons and beyond, I do expect these three players will run headlong into the sophomore wall. Whether it be for developmental issues or a drop in production, the 2019 NBA season will be a frustrating experience for these three second-year players.
Deandre Ayton C, Phoenix Suns
The forgotten rookie behind Luka Doncic and Trae Young, Ayton had a solid first season in the NBA. The 2018 first overall pick averaged 16.3 points, 1.8 assists, and 10.3 rebounds per game while playing 30.7 minutes per contest in 71 games. He finished the season with 1,159 points and 729 rebounds. Ayton was named to the 2018-19 All-Rookie 1st Team.
Unfortunately, Ayton lacks the versatility that is highly sought after by NBA teams in the modern era. While he’s athletic and a strong paint presence at 7-1, 250 lbs., he only attempted four three-pointers all last season. He missed all of them. Ayton also isn’t a dynamic or impactful passer. He’s not a great rim protector either. Hassan Whiteside, who was benched late in the season and only played 1,674 minutes compared to Ayton’s 2,183, more than doubled the rookie’s total number of blocks.
While these are all areas that Ayton can focus on developing, he has shown minimal aptitude for most of them. Frankly, Ayton will have to work for several years to reach an All-Star level, if that’s even a possibility for him. There isn’t an area of his game that he can build up significantly in one offseason. Therefore, I expect his production to stagnate and maybe even decrease this season as defenses adjust to cover his known strengths.
Marvin Bagley III F, Sacramento Kings
On a young Kings team that was looking for proof of concept last year, Bagley was a strong offensive contributor. In 62 appearances, he averaged 14.9 points, one assist, 7.6 rebounds, and one block per game. He finished the season with 923 points and 471 rebounds. Bagley was named to the 2018-19 All-Rookie 1st Team.
For a 6-11 power forward, Bagley has incredible agility and fluidity. This lends itself to his offensively minded nature and allows him to score from a range of areas and moves. A lot of larger power forwards can’t even keep up with him. His athleticism also contributed to 2.6 offensive rebounds per game (ORPG), a number higher than Joel Embiid’s 2.5 ORPG. Bagley is also willing to attempt threes, which is a good sign. Even if he shot them at 31.3% last season, at least there’s something to build on there.
The question with Bagley is how much of his rookie production was empty stats that came in garbage time or simply when the Kings were just trying to score in non-competitive games. What do his numbers truly represent?
Bagley has his fair share of problems. He’s an inept passer who will lock into a move or mindset and miss open passing lanes as a result. These issues, plus his tendency toward isolation offense makes him stick out rather than blend into the Kings’ offensive scheme. His defense is mediocre, and his overall defensive awareness is on the negative side of the spectrum.
2019 will be a season of growing pains for Bagley. He has a lot to catch up on, especially defensively, and his offensive game needs to adapt so it can work in the flow and spacing of the modern NBA. I expect Bagley’s scoring totals will increase next season, but I don’t anticipate strides in any other area of his game. In 2019, he’ll be a decent rebounder and a good scorer but will hurt the Kings with underdeveloped aspects of his game. Things may improve in Year 3 though.
Miles Bridges F, Charlotte Hornets
On an awkwardly put together Charlotte team with no real hope for significant success, Bridges didn’t separate himself from the organization’s swarm of mediocre players. The ultra-athletic 6-7 small forward averaged 21.2 minutes, 7.5 points, 1.2 assists, and 4.2 rebounds in 80 games last season. Those averages equated to 597 points, and 323 rebounds.
There’s nowhere to go but up for Bridges, right? Wrong. Just because he’ll see a lot more action this coming season doesn’t mean that his game has improved. Right now, his development is stuck in an uncomfortable position.
Bridges may have all of the physical tools to succeed in the NBA and the base of what could be a reliable three-point shot, but he’s playing on a team thrown together with little regards for effective roster building. It’s just a terrible scenario for a raw prospect like Bridges to be in. There’s no rock for him to fall back on.
The Hornets in general lack facilitators and passers. Bridges spent a lot of his rookie season playing isolation basketball. He’s not a prolific passer and his court vision hasn’t matured to the point where’d I expect that to change this year. That might work in Year 3, but not this coming season. Bridges also has decent handles, but he’s not good enough to act as a point-forward, even if the Hornets asked him to do so.
I expect Bridges to get a larger volume of shots up this coming season that will result in his averages and season total numbers rising, but there won’t be a lot of crucial development in his play. Unfortunately, a lot of that is based on the team’s roster, the organization, and other players who have failed to develop under Charlotte’s watch.
Bridges still has a lot of potential, but he’ll still be a very raw prospect in 2019. Even as his volume of attempts and production increases, his efficiency will suffer thanks to being placed in an unforgiving situation by the Hornets organization.