By Josh Martin , NBA Lead Writer
Like a caterpillar turning into a butterfly, the process of transforming a prospect into a bona fide NBA rotation player requires nurturing, time and patience—much more for some than for others.
Karl-Anthony Towns? He was practically a star for the Minnesota Timberwolves from day one. He improved, though, as the 2015-16 season went along until he was not only the runaway Rookie of the Year favorite, but also one of the top performers at his position.
The same goes for Stephen Curry, LeBron James, Kevin Durant and any number of other stars among today’s elites.
But there are those in that group who needed time to find their respective games at the highest level.
Paul George became an All-Star in his third year. Ditto for Chris Bosh. DeMar DeRozan waited five years for his showcase debut. His backcourt mate, Kyle Lowry, went eight years and played for two other teams before he found his rhythm with the Toronto Raptors.
The following 10 youngsters—three oft-injured honorable mentions and seven others drawn from the last three drafts, all listed in alphabetical order—might never reach that level in the Association. But if they’re going to find consistent roles as pros—be it as average rotation contributors or franchise fulcrums—the 2016-17 season will be a crucial time to find their niches.
Joel Embiid, C, Philadelphia 76ers
After two years derailed by foot injuries, Joel Embiid might finally be ready to contribute for the Philadelphia 76ers. The No. 3 pick in 2014 didn’t partake in summer league this year, but he did travel with the team to practice and has been hard at work on his frame and game in anticipation of his pro debut this fall.
With his size, strength and burgeoning skill, Embiid could be a major factor in Philly for years to come. But that won’t happen if he can’t stay healthy—at least long enough to push Jahlil Okafor and Nerlens Noel out of the picture.
Dante Exum, G, Utah Jazz
Dante Exum’s 2015-16 season was over before it began. The No. 5 pick in 2014 tore his ACL while competing for Australia last summer.
Exum’s return to action for the Utah Jazz remains an open question. Head coach Quin Snyder told the Deseret News’ Jody Genessy, “We don’t really have a specific timetable on that as far as where he is, but I know he’s missed playing.”
The Jazz aren’t waiting around for Exum to recover. This summer, they swapped out the No. 12 pick for George Hill and signed Joe Johnson in free agency. Between those two, Shelvin Mack, Raul Neto and starting wings Gordon Hayward and Rodney Hood, Exum will have no shortage of competition to push through if he’s to make an impact once he’s healthy.
Terrence Jones, PF, New Orleans Pelicans
Injuries have cost Terrence Jones a lot of playing time and money. The former Houston Rockets forward has played more than 50 games in a season just once as a pro.
Hence, the New Orleans Pelicans were able to scoop him off the scrap heap this summer on a one-year contract for the league minimum. That’s a massive bargain for a player who, when healthy, offers tremendous length and versatility on the defensive end and is competent from the perimeter offensively (31.4 percent from three for his career).
“I wanted an opportunity to play for a team that is young and defining itself, but could still compete right away,” Jones told Basketball Insiders’ Oliver Maroney. “I wanted a larger role, where I could really compete and help a team win.”
A reunion with fellow Kentucky Wildcat Anthony Davis, with whom he won the national championship in 2012, could boost Jones’ morale as well—so long as he avoids another setback.
Anthony Bennett, PF, Brooklyn Nets
Add Anthony Bennett to the long list of low-risk bets the Brooklyn Nets have made this summer. According to ESPN.com’s Mike Mazzeo, the Nets signed Bennett to a two-year deal at the league minimum after watching him at a veteran minicamp this offseason.
“We have been excited to watch Anthony’s progress this summer with his national team and look forward to the opportunity of having (head coach) Kenny [Atkinson] and his staff work with him to continue his development,” Nets general manager Sean Marks said, per Mazzeo.
The pro road has been a winding one for Bennett. The No. 1 pick in 2013 struggled with injuries and conditioning as a rookie with the Cleveland Cavaliers. Come 2014, he wound up with the Minnesota Timberwolves as part of the package that brought Kevin Love to Cleveland, but he failed to find better footing with a new team. Last season, he latched on with his hometown Toronto Raptors, but he managed just 84 minutes in 19 appearances.
At 23 and on his fourth team in four seasons, Bennett might already be staring down a do-or-die moment in his NBA career. The Nets aren’t exactly brimming with top-notch talent at forward, so there should be an opportunity there for him to catch on.
Bennett will likely never live up to his draft status. But at his size (6’8″, 245 lbs) and with his inside-out skill set, he could find a comfortable niche as a burly combo forward in the right situation.
Tim Hardaway Jr., SG, Atlanta Hawks
Sharing a name with a former NBA All-Star can be a tricky burden to bear.
Tim Hardaway Jr. would know. His first three seasons in the NBA were less than stellar—with or without his dad’s solid career as a point of comparison.
During his two seasons with the New York Knicks, Hardaway Jr. shot just over 40 percent from the field and was regularly ridiculed for playing lackadaisical defense. The No. 24 pick in 2013 shot better last season with the Atlanta Hawks (43 percent) but saw his role reduced in terms of both minutes and shots.
The competition for playing time on the perimeter won’t be any less stiff for Hardaway Jr. this season. The Hawks re-signed Kent Bazemore, traded for Baylor’s Taurean Prince, drafted DeAndre’ Bembry out of St. Joseph’s and already had Kyle Korver and Thabo Sefolosha on the wings.
If Hardaway Jr. is going to make his mark before he hits restricted free agency next summer, he’ll have to do so not like his father did at the point, but as the sharpshooter and athletic scorer he was touted as coming out of Michigan.
Ben McLemore, SG, Sacramento Kings
It didn’t take long for the Sacramento Kings to show fading faith in Ben McLemore. A year after the Kings spent the No. 7 pick to pluck McLemore out of Kansas, they crowdsourced their way to Nik Stauskas at No. 8 in 2014. The following summer, they tried (and failed) to lure Wesley Matthews to California’s capital, settling instead for Marco Belinelli.
McLemore has once again been shoved aside this offseason with the additions of Arron Afflalo, Garrett Temple and Syracuse’s Malachi Richardson.
Like so many young players to come through Sacramento in recent years, McLemore has been victimized by rudderless ownership, which has spawned the sort of incessant instability that has trickled down through management, coaching and the locker room. He came into the organization under Michael Malone, continued with Tyrone Corbin as the interim replacement and finished last season with George Karl shouting from the deck of a sinking ship.
To his credit, McLemore has improved his three-point shooting year over year, with a respectable 36.2 percent mark this past season. And though he’s been maddeningly inconsistent on the court thus far, McLemore, at 23, isn’t yet a lost cause.
He’ll be among the many misused assets hoping to find the right role under new Kings head coach Dave Joerger. For the team to make its first postseason appearance in 11 years, it will need all of the perimeter production and athleticism in transition it can squeeze out of McLemore.
Marcus Smart, G, Boston Celtics
There are worse things than being the next Tony Allen. Marcus Smart could do worse than spend a dozen years in the NBA as an All-Defensive performer who can’t shoot a lick.
The No. 6 pick out of Oklahoma State in 2014 already has the latter part down pat. After suffering a nasty hand injury in summer league last year, Smart shot significantly worse from the field for the Boston Celtics in 2015-16 than he did as a rookie:
FGA FG% 3PA 3P%
2014-15 7.1 36.7% 4.1 33.5%
2015-16 8.7 34.8% 4.0 25.3%
Smart, though, has never been known for his shooting. Rather, it’s his bulldog mentality and ability to lock up opponents on the perimeter that have carried him to this point.
On that front, Smart is already an impact player. According to ESPN.com, he ranked seventh among all point guards in defensive real plus-minus last season—just ahead of Goran Dragic and Russell Westbrook.
For the second year in a row, Smart’s poor shooting didn’t preclude him from playing a significant role for the C’s in the postseason. In six games against the Atlanta Hawks, he averaged 12.0 points, 4.5 rebounds, 3.0 assists and 2.5 combined steals and blocks.
Still, for Smart to become a bona fide game-changer in Boston, he’ll have to sharpen his shot and ball skills enough to justify playing major minutes next to Isaiah Thomas and Al Horford.
Nik Stauskas, SG, Philadelphia 76ers
Playing in summer league for the third straight year isn’t usually a good sign for any player’s NBA prospects, much less those of a former lottery pick.
Nik Stauskas, the No. 8 pick in 2014, decided to pass up an opportunity to play for Team Canada during its attempt to qualify for the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro in favor of joining the Philadelphia 76ers in Las Vegas.
Per the Detroit Free Press’ Orion Sang, Stauskas was disappointed but knew he had things to work on:
With the time commitment, it wasn’t in my best interest to participate. I felt like I had a lot of things to improve on to get to where I want to be as a professional basketball player. It was a tough decision to say no to Team Canada because I see myself playing with them in the future. I just felt like this summer was very important and I had some things to take care of.
Among those things is getting his jump shot up to snuff. A sharpshooter during his time at Michigan, Stauskas has yet to sniff 40 percent from the field as a pro.
An offseason spent strengthening his body should help Stauskas better withstand the rigors of the Association’s 82-game schedule. But he no longer figures to have much margin for error as a playmaker, with highly touted rookies Ben Simmons and Dario Saric set to arrive in Philly and veterans Jerryd Bayless, Gerald Henderson and Sergio Rodriguez now in the fold.
If Stauskas is going to stick with the Sixers, he’ll have to do so with the jumper that got him to the pros in the first place.
Noah Vonleh, PF, Portland Trail Blazers
Noah Vonleh made productive use of his time with the Portland Trail Blazers in Las Vegas. In four summer- league outings, the No. 9 pick in 2014 averaged 12.0 points, 8.8 rebounds, 1.2 assists and 1.6 combined steals and blocks per game.
But Vonleh wasn’t pleased with his performance in Sin City.
“No, I’m not too happy with how I’ve played,” he said, per the Oregonian’s Mike Richman. “I rebounded the ball well, but there’s just some things that I want to have translate for next season so I can get some playing time. Like reading the play, doing the right thing.”
The fact Vonleh was there at all speaks to how far he still has to go as an NBA player. The Indiana product averaged a mere 3.6 points and 3.9 rebounds in 15.1 minutes last season despite starting 56 times in 78 appearances for the Blazers.
There should still be an opportunity for Vonleh to play significant minutes at power forward next season. None of Portland’s bigs—between Al-Farouq Aminu, Ed Davis, Meyers Leonard, Mason Plumlee and free-agent signee Festus Ezeli—grade out as the be-all and end-all at either frontcourt position. For his part, Vonleh will be young for a third-year player (he turns 21 in late August).
That said, Vonleh understands how important it will be to spend the rest of his offseason preparing to make another leap forward in his game come 2016-17.
“I got a lot of time to vacation many years to come down the road,” Vonleh said, per Richman. “I gotta get in the gym and get right.”
Cody Zeller, PF/C, Charlotte Hornets
Last season, Cody Zeller proved he can be the starting center on a playoff squad. He started 58 times after Al Jefferson underwent knee surgery in the fall, with the Charlotte Hornets going a respectable 33-25 therein.
Whether Zeller can handle that job for a full season—or whether the Hornets trust him to—is another story. By Game 3 of Charlotte’s first-round bout with the Miami Heat, he had lost the gig to rookie Frank Kaminsky. Come October, Roy Hibbert will join that same fray. Spencer Hawes should garner some playing time as a three-point-shooting pivot as well.
Where does that leave Zeller, the No. 4 pick in the 2013 draft? For now, recovering from a sore right knee that prevented him from scrimmaging against Team USA with the Select Team. Later, possibly looking up at Kaminsky and Hibbert on the depth chart—not necessarily in that order.
That is, unless Zeller can show that his superior athleticism, mobility and physicality all make him a better fit for Charlotte’s style as a floor-spreading operation on offense and a steady, sturdy Steve Clifford scheme on defense.