There's a tendency to assume that NBA players make tremendous jumps between their first and second years in the pros. The argument: with a year under their belts, they now understand what it takes to be a pro and how to adjust to the speed of the game.
This is definitely true... in some cases. In others, though, the opposite actually happens. As rookies, players are mysteries to other teams. They don't really know how they play and therefore don't really have any sort of way to properly prepare for their games. There's college game tape, of course, but the NBA is such a different game that much of that information ends up being useless. Rookies therefore often sneak up on teams and excel because nobody really knows how to scout them.
That changes dramatically in players' second year. Teams have a full year of tape to put in their scouting reports. Players have a year of experience they can use to attack their weaknesses. The process of taking what the league has learned and altering your game doesn't happen overnight. Often times, it takes a full season to process how to adjust to the league adjusting to you.
Throw in a lockout over the summer, and you can see why it's been a mixed bag for the 2010 NBA Draft class. Some players have made tremendous improvements, while others have stood still or even taken a step back. Let's take a look at which players have made major improvements and which players have not.
DeMarcus Cousins: Kings fans have to feel comforted by the growth Cousins has shown in his second season. Since Paul Westphal was canned for Keith Smart, Cousins hasn't had an emotional outburst that has proved detrimental to the team, shedding the image of him as a coach-killer. On the court, he's become a much more dominant rebounder and smarter help defender. He's taken 48 charges this season, 12 more than second-place Marcin Gortat. To continue to get better, Cousins will need to improve his conditioning and scoring efficiency, but he can certainly do that in time, given the strides he made on and off the court this season.
Greg Monroe: You could make the case that Monroe was playing at an All-Star level this season and would have been selected if he played somewhere other than Detroit. He's taken over a larger share of Detroit's offense and maintained his sparkling efficiency. He's finally starting to show the playmaking skills that made him so valuable at Georgetown, and he's also developed a decent face-up jumper to keep defenders honest when they guard him one on one. To continue to improve, he must learn how to position himself better defensively, especially since he's the last line of help.
Gordon Hayward: Last year, Hayward focused too much on trying to score and wasn't able to show off his other gifts. This year, he's learned that scoring isn't everything and is starting to impact the game in many more ways. While his shooting efficiency is down a bit, his PER is up to 15.5 because he's improved his passing, cut his turnovers and taken a larger share of the offense. He's been particularly good in transition, scoring an average of 1.34 points per possession on 161 opportunities, according to MySynergySports.com. He must become a better defender, but given his athleticism, that should happen in the future.
Avery Bradley: Bradley's emergence is one of the major reasons the Celtics look as dangerous as ever heading down the stretch of the season. Last year, Bradley couldn't handle the ball without Celtics fans freaking out about him committing a turnover. This year, he's become arguably the strongest perimeter defender in the league, locking down opposing small guards like nobody should be able to do in the no-handcheck era. Playing him off the ball with Rajon Rondo has also allowed the Celtics to take advantage of his ability to cut along the baseline for easy buckets. He must continue to improve his jump shot, but the signs are there.
Kevin Seraphin: A fouling machine that could barely stay on the court last year, Seraphin has made unbelievable strides in his second year. He may well be the most skilled post player in his class, tossing in lefty and righty hook shots over confused defenders. He must improve his rebounding and show he can do this for longer than a two-week stretch, but his emergence means the Wizards have much more ammunition in their frontcourt than anyone expected.
Nikola Pekovic: He's gone from being a complete afterthought to being one of the most efficient post scorers in basketball. He could always score in the post, but he's dramatically cut his turnovers, improved his stamina and learned how to play within a team setting. He's a bit limited as a player, but few youngsters do a better job of playing to their strengths.
Derrick Favors: It's hard to really judge Favors until he gets 30+ minutes and a starting role, something he won't get in Utah as long as Paul Millsap and Al Jefferson man the frontcourt. That said, he's gotten much better at finishing in the lane and is showing flashes of developing a back-to-the-basket game. He'll always be an excellent defensive presence, so it's no surprise that the Jazz are 4.2 points per 100 possessions better defensively with him on the court. He just needs to continue to develop that offensive game so he's not a self-check.
Paul George: I considered putting George in the "major improvement" category, but resisted because it still disappoints me that he doesn't post up more given his size and position. He should be able to punish shooting guards on the block, but only has a total of 55 post-up possessions, according to MySynergySports.com. Perhaps that's a product of his team, but it still bugs me. Nevertheless, George has improved as a spot-up shooter and offensive initiator, and his defense continues to be excellent.
Evan Turner: Turner spent all summer working on his jump shot, and it's made him a more dynamic and confident offensive player. He's been handed more responsibility and has still managed to improve his game. However, his production remains underwhelming given his draft position, and the fundamental problem of him being a point guard in a shooting guard's body remains. He'll have to figure out a way to adjust his game even more, because he'll never be able to play like he did at Ohio State.
Ekpe Udoh: His box-score statistics don't blow you away, but his development as a help defender is worth noting. Udoh's teams (Milwaukee and Golden State) are surrendering 8.3 points fewer per 100 possessions with Udoh on the court. While plus/minus data can be unreliable if used in an overwhelmingly cavalier way, it does confirm what I'm seeing with Udoh's help-side defense. He also continues to improve as an offensive threat, but must become stronger to make significant improvements in that area.
Trevor Booker and Jordan Crawford: The two other Wizards' second-year players have each made subtle improvements. Booker has upped his percentage on 16-23 foot jumpers from 18 to 34 percent, while Crawford has at least become slightly more efficient from the same spot (attempts are down, shooting percentage is up). They are both fundamentally the same players and always will be, but there has been some growth.
John Wall: Many people have opined that Wall has either "not gotten better" or "taken a step back." I think that's a bit unfair. He started off horribly, had a torrid stretch from late January to early March, then fell back again after the trade deadline. Wall's challenge is the very definition of the phenomenon we discussed at the top of this piece. Teams have learned he has no confidence in his jumper and adjusted their defensive schemes to play way off him. Not having a jumper has closed off Wall's driving and passing lanes, and he's struggling to adjust. Not everyone can use space as well as, say, Rajon Rondo, especially in their second year. Wall has also been victimized by poor teammates and having to carry too heavy a scoring and leadership role.
This summer is going to be a critical one for Wall. He must make that jumper passable enough to open driving lanes, and he must improve his defensive intensity. He'll have stretches where he locks players down and supplies incredible help defense, and he'll have stretches where he's victimized by a simple hesitation dribble. Improve those areas, and he'll have the kind of breakout next year that many expected he'd have this year.
Blake Griffin: Griffin's not having a bad year, but he's essentially been the same player as last year. With all the changes on the Clippers' roster, he's had to shoot more jumpers, and that's been a problem. He's shooting 36 percent on 16-23 foot shots, which is bad on its own, but even worse than you'd think because most of those shots are wide open. He's been able to maintain the other elements of his game, but to take the next step, he has to start making the defense pay for leaving him open.
Landry Fields: Fields' rookie year was a tale of two seasons, making it hard to measure his progress. If you judge him based on how he played in the second half of last year, he's gotten better, but he's still not at the level he was at before the Carmelo Anthony trade. Like most Knicks, he's fared better in their new small lineup, giving fans hope he can continue to be a good piece for the future.
Ed Davis: He surprised a lot of teams last year with his touch around the basket, so I think they've added more notes in their scouting reports to slow him down. While he's been a bit better recently, he's playing less minutes and scoring much less efficiently.
Patrick Patterson: An injury really slowed his progress. Last year, he played more inside and put up strong efficiency numbers. This year, he's drifted more out on the perimeter, and that has a way of making you score less efficiently. His injury also affected his lift, as all his shooting percentages around the rim are down. I'm confident he'll be better next year when he's completely healthy.
Al-Farouq Aminu: Going from the Clippers to the Hornets should have allowed Aminu to get more playing time. It hasn't really worked out, though. His minutes are slightly up, but the Hornets have found it difficult to fit his up-tempo game into their slow-down style. He may need another new team to reach his full potential.
Wes Johnson: He's followed up an underwhelming rookie year with an even worse sophomore year. Given that he has no real elite skills and that he's already 24 years old, it seems safe to declare that he's a bust.