This time a year ago, the NBA's rookie class was putting the finishing touches on one of the weakest combined campaigns in recent NBA memory. While Rookie of the Year Brandon Roy posted a strong season, he was the only rookie to average more than 12 points or 30 minutes per game. Fully half of the lottery picks failed to play even a thousand minutes.
Early on this season, it became apparent that year two would be better for the class of 2006. While the lottery has still yielded several non-contributors, Ronnie Brewer and Rajon Rondo have emerged as starters on contending teams, while Jordan Farmar is playing a key role off the bench for the Lakers. Memphis' Rudy Gay has joined Portland's duo of Roy and LaMarcus Aldridge as a potential future star.
Statistically, the improvement from year one to year two is obvious. The 28 players drafted in the first round of the 2006 NBA Draft who played in the NBA last season totaled 12.4 Wins Above Replacement Player as rookies by my rating system. This year, the same group has combined for 31.0 WARP. Projected to a full season, they would post 41.3 WARP--a 234.6% improvement over their rookie performance.
Only part of that step forward is attributable to the fact that Adam Morrison, who rated as the league's least valuable player in 2006-07 at -6.4 WARP, has not played this season after tearing his ACL during the preseason.
In their second year, the first-round sophomores have both played more minutes--about 20% more than they did as rookies--and improved their per-minute performance. Weighted by minutes played, the group has posted a .478 player winning percentage, up from .439 as rookies.
Those numbers are only meaningful in the context of typical performance. So, again looking at players drafted in the first round who came immediately to the NBA, here are how the various classes have rated as rookies and as sophomores dating back to the 2000 NBA Draft.
Class Yr1 Yr2 Class Yr1 Yr2
2000 -2.8 28.1 2000 .391 .455
2001 29.6 56.0 2001 .465 .472
2002 15.0 23.9 2002 .432 .449
2003 23.9 75.0 2003 .453 .506
2004 34.3 62.7 2004 .470 .494
2005 33.7 49.3 2005 .465 .471
2006 12.4 41.3 2006 .439 .478
While improvement in a class' second season is a given, the magnitude of the gain is not always dramatic. The 2002 crop of rookies sticks out in my mind because I wrote a column for Hoopsworld.com during their second season about how these players had not developed as quickly as expected. Looking at several years, that group stands out as an outlier, the class that improved less from year one to year two than any other. (While Nikoloz Tskitishvili is synonymous with "bust" and we're not likely to hear from guys like Curtis Borchardt again any time soon, the downturn was largely temporary. Yao Ming and Amaré Stoudemire have always stood out from the class of 2002, while Caron Butler has bounced back from an injury-plagued second season and Tayshaun Prince broke out in the playoffs during his sophomore campaign.)
When we look at this year's sophomores, their improvement is hardly unprecedented, but impressive nonetheless. Their combined value as measured by WARP, disappointing as rookies, is now nearly on par with the 2005 group. Their per-minute rating has improved to rank third, trailing just the classes of 2003 and 2004.
In part, improvement was to be expected given where this year's sophomores were a year ago. Still, I find it remarkable how few examples there are of the so-called "sophomore slump," which sees impressive rookie performance fail to translate in year two. Only three of this year's sophomores could really be put in that category.
- Randy Foye, Minnesota. Foye only qualifies if you want to consider injury a form of sophomore slump. A stress reaction in his left patella forced Foye to miss the season's first 43 games. Since returning in late January, Foye has not played as well as he did as a rookie, but that's understandable given how much time he missed. Assuming Foye is past his injury issues, he should be able to get back on track.
- Renaldo Balkman, New York. Balkman's energetic play as a rookie won over many of the skeptics who criticized Isiah Thomas for overdrafting him with the 20th overall pick. However, he hasn't quite been able to match last year's work so far this season. Balkman's defensive rates are down across the board: From grabbing 16.4% of available rebounds to 13.1%, from getting steals on 2.8% of opposing possessions to 2.0% and from blocking 3.3% of opposing shots to 2.8%. Add in a drop-off on offense, and Balkman has rated near replacement level, a big decline from last year, when he was one of the most effective rookies on a per-minute basis.
- Sergio Rodriguez, Portland. Rodriguez's dazzling play as a rookie may have captivated fans, but it didn't entirely win over Blazers coach Nate McMillan. With Portland signing Steve Blake to go along with Rodriguez, Jarrett Jack and occasional Brandon Roy minutes, the Blazers have a crowd at the point. While Rodriguez has played in 56 games, rarely has he seen extended minutes. He has not shot the ball as well this season, but more disconcerting is a drop-off from 9.1 assists per 40 minutes to 6.7 this season. I still like Rodriguez's potential, but he may not be right for McMillan, who prefers a slow pace and wants his point guards to think like doctors--first do no harm.
With the rest of the sophomores moving forward or at worst standing still, the class of 2006 has already begun to redeem itself. The lesson of the players drafted in 2000 is worth noting. That year's group was not ready to contribute at the NBA level, which resulted in Mike Miller winning Rookie of the Year with numbers that were pedestrian by ROY standards. The first round of that draft did not produce any star players (Michael Redd, taken in the second round and also a non-factor as a rookie, was clearly the best player drafted), but at least a dozen players have been regular starters over multiple years at some point in their careers.
Between Roy (who already has as many All-Star appearances as any 2000 first-rounder), Aldridge and Gay, the current sophomores have demonstrated more star potential, and I'm still not entirely convinced Tyrus Thomas might not enter that group at some point. Despite a lottery with several players unlikely to be major contributors, this class need not be remembered as a disappointment.
That a rough start to NBA careers can be overcome as quickly as year two ought to be a useful lesson for one important group--this year's rookies. While Greg Oden missing his entire rookie season due to microfracture knee surgery is surely a factor, barring a late surge this year's rookies don't project to even match the substandard performance of last year's group.
Class Yr1 Yr2 Class Yr1 Yr2
2006 12.4 41.3 2006 .439 .478
2007 3.5 ? 2007 .422 ?
Odds are we'll be able to tell a similar story about their improvement this time next season.
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Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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