Smith, Sharpe, Mathurin: NBA sophomores to watch in 2023-24

Sports

All eyes will be on this season’s NBA rookie class — headed by No. 1 pick Victor Wembanyama — but don’t sleep on a whole list of second-year players to watch.

Before we get to them, let’s acknowledge the sophomores who already proved their star power. Orlando Magic forward Paolo Banchero, the 2022 top overall pick, made an immediate splash on his way to winning the Rookie of the Year award and playing for Team USA at the FIBA World Cup.

Utah Jazz center Walker Kessler and Oklahoma City Thunder forward Jalen Williams, who both earned All-Rookie honors, also proved their quality during successful debut seasons. Meanwhile, the Thunder’s Chet Holmgren will technically enter his second NBA season, but the No. 2 pick in the 2022 draft remains a rookie after sitting out last season with a foot injury.

Plenty of youngsters should take another step forward in Year 2. There are also several players who need to avoid the dreaded sophomore slump, while others are already feeling the pressure after falling short of rookie expectations.

With training camp coming up, our NBA insiders look at the second-year players to keep tabs on during the season.

1. Which sophomore is poised for a breakout season?

Ohm Youngmisuk: With so much uncertainty surrounding Damian Lillard, Shaedon Sharpe should have plenty of opportunity to take a leap forward for the Portland Trail Blazers. Sharpe averaged 9.9 points and 22.2 minutes, coming off the bench for all but 15 games. If Lillard is traded, Sharpe should take over as lead guard even with rookie Scoot Henderson‘s arrival. Sharpe gave a glimpse of his potential late last season, scoring at least 20 points in eight of his final 10 games.

Andrew Lopez: Tari Eason could thrive in new coach Ime Udoka’s system with the Houston Rockets. The 20th overall pick in the 2022 draft, Eason averaged 9.3 points and six rebounds while playing in all 82 games last season. Named to the NBA’s All-Rookie second team, Eason might not blossom into a 20-points-per-game scorer right away, but his presence will be felt on the defensive end. He was one of just two players last season with over 1,000 minutes and a steal and block percentage above 2.5%. (Chicago Bulls guard Alex Caruso was the other.)

Kendra Andrews: Last season, Indiana Pacers guard Bennedict Mathurin was second in the league in bench points per game (16.7) and was named to the All-Rookie first team. Imagine what he could do with a full year of NBA experience under his belt and playing as a starter alongside star guard Tyrese Haliburton. If Mathurin, who shot 32.3% from 3 last season, can get more looks and continue to improve his handle and playmaking, he’ll become a bigger threat in Year 2.

Tim MacMahon: Mark Williams made the Charlotte Hornets‘ decision to trade Mason Plumlee at the deadline look wise. The deal was done to open up the starting job for Williams, and he responded by averaging 11.7 points, 9.7 rebounds and 1.1 blocks the rest of the season, shooting 62.9% from the floor despite point guard LaMelo Ball missing the last six weeks. The springy, 7-foot-1 Williams will never be a primary offensive option, but he oozes potential as a lob-catching pick-and-roll partner who rebounds and protects the rim. Ask Miami Heat star Bam Adebayo; Williams had 18 points and 20 rebounds in a Feb. 25 win over the Heat.

Jamal Collier: Jeremy Sochan shows promise for the San Antonio Spurs, especially with the added prospect of playing next to Wembanyama. As a rookie, Sochan averaged 11 points and five rebounds while providing versatile defense. With more eyes on San Antonio this year and more opportunity to shine next to Wembanyama, Sochan has a chance to elevate himself among this class with a strong sophomore season.


2. Which sophomore has something to prove this season?

MacMahon: It’s understandable that Jabari Smith Jr. struggled as a teenager on a rebuilding team that lacked veteran leadership, but his offensive inefficiency (.475 effective FG% and more turnovers than assists) was glaring considering he was last season’s No. 3 overall pick. Smith made significant strides after the All-Star break and was dominant during his brief run with the Rockets’ Las Vegas summer league team. He should benefit from the addition of Fred VanVleet, who will provide the Rockets’ offense the structure and savvy it has been sorely lacking from the point guard position the past few years. Smith’s ceiling remains extremely high: a Rashard Lewis-like offensive threat with All-Defense potential.

Collier: Jaden Ivey‘s rookie season featured its share of ups and downs. His selection as the No. 5 overall pick led to a lot of excitement about the Detroit Pistons‘ young core, but once Cade Cunningham‘s season ended prematurely because of injury, the rest of the team floundered. Ivey was put into a larger playmaking role after Cunningham’s injury, and his shooting and turnover numbers dipped as a result. Cunningham should unlock some of Ivey’s scoring potential and give the second-year guard a chance to show his full array of skills without having to shoulder so much of the offense.

Lopez: TyTy Washington Jr. was the rare first-round pick who found himself looking for a job after his rookie season. In what ultimately became a five-team deal this offseason, Washington was traded by the Rockets to the Atlanta Hawks, then moved to the Oklahoma City Thunder before being released. Washington signed with the Milwaukee Bucks on a two-way contract but has to show he has staying power in the NBA. In 31 games last season with Houston, Washington shot 36.3% overall and 23.8% from 3.

Andrews: Dyson Daniels provided the New Orleans Pelicans with some pesky defense as a rookie but struggled mightily on offense. And heading into his second year with a presumably healthy New Orleans roster, it will be hard for him to get a lot of playing time if he can’t work on his offense. Daniels, the ninth pick in the 2022 draft, shot 31.4% from 3 and 65% from the free throw line. He also shot just 34.3% on catch-and-shoot 3s, which are the kinds of shots he will most likely see playing alongside Brandon Ingram, Zion Williamson and CJ McCollum.

Youngmisuk: Johnny Davis, the 10th overall pick in 2022, barely saw playing time until the final month of another lost season for the Washington Wizards, though he averaged 17 points and 5.6 rebounds in his last five games in April. But more was expected from the former Big Ten Player of the Year. Considering the Wizards are rebuilding, Davis might have some opportunities to show what he can do, but Jordan Poole leads a cast of young additions all trying to impress on a new team.


3. Name an under-the-radar sophomore who’ll be a key contributor.

Lopez: It feels like everyone on San Antonio’s roster but Wemby is going to be under-the-radar, but one of last year’s three first-round picks, Malaki Branham, could be poised for a jump. In his final 25 games last season, Branham averaged 13.7 points and dropped 20 or more seven times in that stretch. Branham will give the Spurs a nice scoring option on the bench as the team tries to figure out its best combination of players around Wembanyama.

Youngmisuk: Los Angeles Lakers vice president Rob Pelinka has been busy and has solidified a deep roster this offseason, and coach Darvin Ham has plenty of options surrounding LeBron James and Anthony Davis. But second-year guard Max Christie might be able to carve out a reserve role if he continues to defend well. The 35th overall pick in 2022, Christie has the tools to be a 3-and-D role player, displaying them during the summer league when he averaged 19 points, 6.3 rebounds and 50% shooting from 3.

Andrews: Jaden Hardy landed in the second round of the 2022 draft after a poor season in the G League, but he proved to be a weapon for the Dallas Mavericks and could be poised for a big role as Dallas looks to rebound from a 2022-23 season that spiraled down the stretch. He didn’t have a great start to the season, but the Mavericks’ trade for Kyrie Irving allowed Hardy to play with better spacing and, in turn, shoot the ball better. Hardy showed glimpses that he could be the third scoring punch Dallas needs and the first guard off the bench.

MacMahon: Peyton Watson, the final pick of the 2022 first round, played a grand total of 200 minutes — including the playoffs — as a rookie. The defending champion Nuggets need Watson to fill a rotation spot now after the free agency departures of Bruce Brown and Jeff Green and the torn ACL suffered by Vlatko Cancar. Members of Denver’s front office and coaching staff are optimistic that Watson, a 6-foot-8 wing, can make an impact with his energy and defensive versatility. Watson flashed that potential when the Nuggets were resting regulars late in the season, highlighted by an 8-point, 5-rebound, 3-block performance in a win over the Warriors.

Collier: AJ Griffin had a solid rookie season for Atlanta but didn’t get much playing time once Quin Snyder took over as coach and didn’t play at all during the team’s playoff run. But with John Collins traded to the Jazz this summer, playing time should open up for the 6-foot-6 forward. And when Griffin did play, he shot 39% from 3, a skill that will complement the Trae YoungDejounte Murray backcourt.

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