The best thing about freshmen is they become sophomores, as an old college coach used to say. And one of the best things about NBA rookies is that the best of them come back as second-year players. With a lot of experience, some familiarity with the league and a greater sense of where they fit and how they can help their teams.
That development, from the first season to the second, could have a significant impact on the balance of power in the NBA in 2022-23, considering how deep the Class of 2021 was last season. Toronto Raptors forward Scottie Barnes beat out the Cleveland Cavaliers’ Evan Mobley and the Detroit Pistons’ Cade Cunningham for Kia Rookie of the Year, but the race at the top was tight and all three had compelling cases.
But this was no top-heavy crop. In fact, as it became apparent how notable the talent level and contributions of the new arrival were, the weekly Rookie Ladder here at NBA.com made an unprecedented adjustment: We added two rungs, from 10 to 12, to keep tabs on the deserving new guys. Even with that change, three or four players got snubbed each week.
With that in mind, here are 16 NBA sophomores ready to shine this season (listed in alphabetical order):
Scottie Barnes, Toronto Raptors
Barnes wasn’t just the ROY — he was a surprise, nabbed at No. 4 by the Raptors when most mock drafts had Jalen Suggs slotted in there. The Florida State product impressed not just with his production — 15.4 ppg, 7.5 rpg, 3.5 apg — but his versatility. He is part of coach Nick Nurse’s crew of 6-foot-9 switchable defenders, able to guard any of three or four positions. His ball skills enable him to fill a point-forward role, too. It’s no wonder that any chatter about a Kevin Durant-to-Toronto trade invariably had Barnes mentioned as a key piece.
Cade Cunningham, Detroit Pistons
Take a hard look at the numbers Cunningham put up last season: 17.3 ppg, 5.5 rpg, 5.6 apg. Among active players, only LeBron James, Luka Doncic and Cunningham reached those thresholds as rookies. The excitement around the Pistons isn’t just that Cunningham will improve individually — there’s room for that in his 41.6% shooting (and 31.4% on 3-pointers). It also is based on the development of similarly young teammates and a new backcourt partner in rookie Jaden Ivey, projected as a dynamic tandem for the next 10 years.
Ayo Dosunmu, Chicago Bulls
The Bulls last season might have preferred Dosunmu to have had a lesser impact, since his playing time soared mostly because of injuries to Lonzo Ball, Alex Caruso and others. But there should be no lid kept on him now, given the second-rounder’s performances when pressed into service. Goran Dragic is on board now, but Ball’s knee has been slow in healing, so the Chicago native and University of Illinois product should get opportunities again. He was drawing raves for his offseason work, on the court and in the weight room.
Chris Duarte, Indiana Pacers
Duarte started strong last season, a nod to his age (24) and four seasons at Oregon. He tailed off due to Health and Safety Protocols and a toe injury, but still looms large in Indiana’s backcourt plans. A stint with the Dominican Republic national squad was part of Duarte’s offseason regimen. The No. 13 pick in 2021 will be stronger in Year 2, too.
Josh Giddey, Oklahoma City Thunder
Giddey wasn’t pleased when he got plugged into the NBA’s All-Rookie second team, but that was inevitable when he played in only 54 games and none after Feb. 24. All he needs is to stay healthy to become a driving force for the Thunder. It’s not just about his all-around game — 12.5 ppg, 7.8 rpg, 6.4 apg — it’s how much his savvy play, excellent vision and daring passes elevate his teammates. With respected shooting coach Chip Engelland in the house now, that area of Giddey’s game (41.9%, 26.3% from the arc) should perk up some.
Jalen Green, Houston Rockets
Green, the No. 2 pick in 2021, didn’t succumb to some inconsistent and inefficient performances early in the season. He worked with Houston’s coaches and patiently let his talent emerge, earning him a strong second half and rise to first team All-Rookie status. So he’ll start this season with the confidence he earned. In an interview with CNN Philippines, the 6-foot-4 guard shared his summer agenda. “I’ve been working on decision making, tightening up my handle, and knowing what shots I want to get on the floor,” Green said. “Getting comfortable getting to my spots and just rising up. Catch-and-shoot.”
Bones Hyland, Denver Nuggets
Hyland shouldered more responsibility than most folks expected, stepping into the void for Jamal Murray and giving the Nuggets a boost at both backcourt spots. With the trade of Monte Morris and Will Barton to Washington for Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Ish Smith, Hyland figures to be Denver’s sixth man, able to score by attacking the rim or bombing from afar.
Herbert Jones, New Orleans Pelicans
Jones helped salvage an otherwise downward season for the Pelicans, making his defensive presence felt in steals, deflections and contested shots. The No. 35 pick from Alabama perked up offensively as well as he gained experience, averaging 10.6 ppg after Dec. 1 (vs. 6.4 ppg prior to that). “Herb grew up,” teammate CJ McCollum said. “He had the talent, he had the ability. Now he had the stage to kind of show what he had to offer.” Another Pelicans newbie in line for a bigger role: point guard and defensive pest Jose Alvarado.
Jonathan Kuminga, Golden State Warriors
At a minimum, Kuminga’s rookie season of 16.9 minutes per game didn’t get in the way of the Warriors accomplishing their overarching goal of a championship. But he didn’t just develop, he contributed while Golden State “laid his foundation,” as coach Steve Kerr called it. He was aggressive and versatile as a scorer (19.8 points per 36 minutes), and there were nights when his size and strength, even at 19, made him the best option defensively. Now all that experience he gained on the floor and on the side can make him an even bigger part of the repeat plan. Same with Moses Moody, who averaged 27 ppg in the Las Vegas Summer League, if he can earn bigger minutes.
Tre Mann, Oklahoma City Thunder
As the young Thunder continue to develop, Mann has the tools and opportunity to become a steady contributor and solid sixth man (along with the name for a strong award campaign). He wasn’t shy in his rookie season (15.5 shots per 36 minutes for 16.5 ppg) and his long-range shooting (36%) covered for his overall accuracy (39.3).
Davion Mitchell, Sacramento Kings
Mitchell arrived to a crowded, sitting-room-only backcourt, but the Kings’ trade of Tyrese Haliburton and a De’Aaron Fox injury opened some opportunity. There still is stout competition for minutes with the addition of Malik Monk and Kevin Huerter. And Mitchell’s shooting (41.8% overall, 31.6% deep) needs work. But it’s a good bet new coach Mike Brown will embrace the defensive skills of the young guy nicknamed “Off Night” for how he guards opposing scorers.
Evan Mobley, Cleveland Cavaliers
After holding the top spot on the Rookie Ladder for much of the season, Mobley got leapfrogged by Barnes in close ROY balloting when the Cavs’ young forward missed five of their final seven games. But being an All-Rookie selection and getting consideration for All-Defensive honors spoke to his value, as did his cornerstone work at both ends. He reportedly was a sponge in learning his lessons, good or bad, and he displayed a veteran’s consistency and demeanor. His challenges this season include extending his shooting range and looking more often for that shot.
Alperen Sengun, Houston Rockets
Sengun was a per-36 darling, getting his 9.6 points, 5.5 rebounds and 2.6 assists per game in about 20 minutes. With Christian Wood off to Dallas and Daniel Theis gone, too, the Turkish big man might get more run. Concerns about his defense, particularly rim protection, are fair but his pass-first smarts could really help all the young talent around him bloom.
Jalen Suggs, Orlando Magic
Trying to develop both Suggs and Cole Anthony, dynamic point guards drafted one year apart, was going to be tough enough. Suggs’ thumb fracture early and ankle injury late cleared the decks for Anthony but didn’t help the rookie or suggest long-term answers. They might work as a tandem, but Suggs’ offensive game (shooting, turnovers) is considerably behind his defensive impact. Getting healthy and staying available are his first and second priorities for now.
Cam Thomas, Brooklyn Nets
Thomas averaged 27.4 points in five Summer League games in Las Vegas, no shocker considering he averaged 27 points there in 2021. But the score-first point guard did boost his assists from 2.0 to 4.2 (though he shot 27.3% on 3-pointers). What his second season holds isn’t clear, given lingering uncertainty over Durant’s whereabouts. Durant and Kyrie Irving took on Thomas as a project last season, for whatever that’s worth. Defending and setting up teammates are his ripest areas for improvement.
Franz Wagner, Orlando Magic
Showing up is 90% of life, they say, and staying healthy is a skill. Wagner wasn’t perfect last season but his 79 appearances topped all rookies and only Barnes logged more minutes. The 6-foot-9 forward took some glare off the lottery pick (Suggs) drafted three spots ahead of him, and now Wagner will be counted on to caulk around No. 1 pick Paolo Banchero’s learning curve. He’s got playmaking skills and he’ll likely boost his free-throw attempts now that the refs know his game.
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