Sophomore Surprises: Who could impress in 2019-20?

Miles Bridges is one of a handful of players who seem to be primed to take a step this season.

The 2018-19 All-Rookie First Team featured the top-five picks from the NBA Draft — DeAndre Ayton, Marvin Bagley III, Luka Doncic, Jaren Jackson Jr. and Trae Young. The last time that happened was more than 34 years ago, in 1984-85, when Hakeem Olajuwon, Sam Bowie, Michael Jordan, Sam Perkins and Charles Barkley lived up to the hype.

No busts. No duds. No costly, franchise-altering draft day decisions came out of the 2018-19 class.

But what about the players who dropped in that draft? What about the players who faced unknown expectations last season and have unknown roles heading into this upcoming campaign?

Sophomore year is here, meaning pleasant surprises are on the way. Last season, it was De’Aaron Fox, who raised his field-goal percentage from 41.2 percent to 45.8 percent and assists per game from 4.4 to 7.3. The season before, it was Domantas Sabonis, who went from 39.9 percent to 51.4 percent in shooting and 3.6 to 7.7 in rebounding from Year 1 to Year 2.

In Fox’s case, he took on a new role as the lead point guard in place of the traded George Hill. In Sabonis’ case, he joined a new team and plugged into a system that was more compatible for his skillset.

Here are the top-five sophomore surprises that could surface this season…

SF Miles Bridges (1st round, 12th overall pick out of Michigan State)

Who will be the best player in Charlotte? Kemba Walker and Jeremy Lamb are gone. Nicolas Batum and Terry Rozier have never been first options. Cody Zeller and Marvin Williams do NOT form a formidable frontcourt.

So, that leaves second-year head coach James Borrego with Miles Bridges, a high-flying forward who participated in the Slam Dunk Contest last year and shot nearly 40 percent from 3-point range in his first year at MSU. Bridges is explosive and primed for a starting role, with these jams from the Las Vegas Summer League justifying his case…

Bridges made half of his shots and averaged 13.5 points in the 2019 Summer League, ranking third behind Dwayne Bacon (15.0) and Devonte’ Graham (14.3). During the regular season, the 6-foot-7, 225-pound frame of Bridges helped him to 4.0 rebounds over just 21.2 minutes, making his per-36-minute average 6.9 rebounds.

If Bridges can improve upon his 32.5-percent 3-point percentage, then his production and overall role will increase immensely.

C Mitchell Robinson (2nd round, 36th overall pick out of Chalmette High School)

DeAndre Jordan is in Brooklyn, so it’s time for second-year head coach David Fizdale to unleash Mitchell Robinson as a starter. The Knicks signed Bobby Portis and Taj Gibson, but both of those guys spent the vast majority of last season as second-stringers. Julius Randle should start, but never has he been a center and never will he be a blockade to Robinson’s workload.

Robinson led all rookies in blocks (161) and blocks per game (2.4) despite playing just 20 minutes per night. Jaren Jackson Jr. placed a very, very distant second in both of those categories (82 blocks, 1.4 blocks per game). Couple Robinson’s rim protection with the highest shooting percentage in last season’s rookie class (69.4 percent) — and he might be a jump shot away from stardom…

The bulk of Robinson’s shots came within 0-to-3 feet (90.4 percent), a trend that could make it tough for the Knicks to stretch the floor in today’s era of positionless basketball. Regardless, Robinson’s window to significant minutes is open and there are a number of valuable, veteran presences around him, too.

SG Lonnie Walker IV (1st round, 18th overall pick out of Miami)

Dejounte Murray is returning from a season-ending ACL injury and DeMar DeRozan has shifted more into a small forward position than shooting guard. The Spurs still have solid depth in the backcourt, but Walker IV battled a meniscus tear suffered during the preseason and never got the playing opportunity that an 18th overall pick would typically get in his rookie campaign.

Recency bias would say Walker IV deserves rotational minutes, as he tied Frank Jackson for the Las Vegas Summer League lead in points per game with 30.0. But that figure came in just two games against first- and second-year competition, and Walker IV has never played more than 26 minutes in an NBA game.

With that said, he shot 38.5 percent from 3-point range last campaign and has continued to work on that shot this summer…

The Spurs are in the midst of arguably the most competitive Western Conference in the last decade, and all they could do this offseason was trade for DeMarre Carroll, re-sign Rudy Gay, name Tim Duncan an assistant coach and draft Luka Semanic and Keldon Johnson. If they fall out of contention or need a shooting spark, then Walker IV will get his chance.

SG Anfernee Simons (1st round, 24th overall pick out of IMG Academy High School)

Simons didn’t play much in the NBA or G League in 2018-19, but his potential has flickered when that rare chance to shine has presented itself. After point guard Evan Turner was traded to the Hawks for small forward Kent Bazemore, the door has opened for Simons to get playing time at the very least moving forward.

It started with a 37-point, nine-assist and six-rebound effort against the Kings on the last day of the regular season. Simons played all 48 minutes, and wowed the Trail Blazers enough to get a taste of the postseason stage, too. He furthered that momentum into the Summer League, where he averaged 22 per game on 56 percent shooting…

The problem with Simons is that he’s still more of an unknown than a rotational player. He was the first American player to go to the NBA after high school since 2005. Portland will want to see more from him, especially with no other true point guard on the roster besides Damian Lillard.

SF Troy Brown Jr. (1st round, 15th overall pick out of Oregon)

The Wizards still need a GM and, just as importantly, they still need a starting small forward. Kelly Oubre Jr. was dealt long ago and Trevor Ariza is now in Sacramento. C.J. Miles could be a fit at SF, but his streaky shooting abilities make him more of a sixth man. Brown Jr. was one of the youngest players from the 2018-19 draft and spent most of his time in the G League. A starting job would be ambitious, but who else could head coach Scott Brooks possibly start?

After sitting out 30 of the team’s first 59 games, Brown Jr. played the remainder of the year in starter and bench roles. He scored as many as 24 points, tallied as many as 10 rebounds and assisted as many as five times. He didn’t dominate or impress enough to lock in a job for 2019-20, but a highlight like this one below have potentially made him a part of Washington’s long-term vision…

Brooks has never coached a rebuilding team, and surrounding Bradley Beal with guys like Ish Smith, Rui Hachimura, Thomas Bryant and Brown Jr. is going to come with its challenges. John Wall is likely out for the year, too. There won’t be any pressure to make the playoffs, so opportunities across the roster will come early and often, particularly with Brown Jr.

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