The buzzword for Sophomore Week here at HP has been “expectations.” As Noam Schiller expertly pointed out earlier today, the gap between what a player does in his first season and what we expect of him in his followup performance is too often a veritable chasm. This is particularly the case when a player performs below expectation as a rookie, which in turn drags our perception of what they’ll do next into the darkest parts of the expectation abyss.
But what of the players who come into the league with their hair on fire, taking our hearts by storm? We project them to continue their march to the sea. We expect them to be world-beating conquistadors who can lead us to the golden streets of El Dorado. Yet few can maintain such a meteoric rise in the outset of their career — and when they fail to transform from Rookie of the Year to perennial MVP candidate in just a year’s time, the backlash begins.
Blake Griffin knows a thing or two about the tumultuous nature of our affection. After missing his original rookie year due to injury, Griffin got the professional equivalent of a medical red-shirt. Once healthy, Griffin let loose the hounds of war on a league he’d had a chance to study for a year while sitting on the bench in Los Angeles. He became one of just 23 players in the 3-point era to post a Win Shares/48 minutes greater than .150 in his rookie season. If there was one criticism to be leveled against Griffin, it was that his dominance was largely predicated on his otherworldly athleticism. Of course he was efficient, the thinking he went — all he ever did was dunk the ball and jump over everybody for rebounds! If he was ever going to become a superstar, he would need to broaden his game. Add a jumper. Work more from the post. Move the ball when the double team came.
Setting aside the absurdity of criticizing a player for taking high efficiency shots and making them at an obscene rate, it was a worthy process for Griffin to undertake. And he has, with atypical aplomb for a player of his relative level of experience. Griffin has improved every year that he’s been in the league. Though he’s added a jumper to his repertoire, his True Shooting Percentage has increased year over year in all three seasons. He’s taken to working with his back to the basket, especially against smaller defenders, and his footwork is something to behold. Perhaps most noticeable has been his work as a passer. Griffin is one of only 22 forward in the 3-point era to post an Assist Percentage greater than 19% in one of his first three seasons (last year, he was at 19.9%). He understands NBA defenses, how they’ll approach defending him and where the holes and seams will be as the defense goes through its rotations. And he’s finding the open man in turn. It’s been a spectacular upward trend for Griffin so far as he continues his ascension to superstardom.
Yet you’d never know it according to many, because his counting stats, in terms of points and rebounds especially, have gone down every year since his highlight reel rookie season. Some of that is due to a decrease in playing time as the Clippers have improved and been less dependent on him, but even his per-36 numbers are down ever so slightly. As a result, it’s become easy for many to ignore the growth in Griffin’s game. It’s a facile task to point to the box score and use it as evidence that he’ll never become more than what he was as a rookie. To those who choose to ignore the incremental development in his abilities and decision-making, Griffin has stagnated as a basketball player. To those who dabble in reality, he’s a far better player today than he was in his first year. And he was really, really good as a rookie!
Unfortunately, it’s an all too common reaction to a player who follows a spectacular first year with an equally spectacular second season. It’s not enough for a Rookie of the Year to put up similar numbers in the next year or two and develop the intricacies in his game; in order for that player to be considered on the path to superstardom, he must make “the leap” immediately after his rookie season. Otherwise, said player is simply perceived to have plateaued at an unacceptable level. The generation of expectations from an otherworldly rookie season leaves nowhere to go but down in the minds of too many observers. What was just yesterday celebrated becomes condemned. It’s production wrought by the weight of anticipation, “What have you done for me lately?” warped and twisted upon itself to the point that previous experience may as well be for naught.
Before too long, Kyrie Irving will likely be exceedingly familiar with this phenomenon. Irving was something of an unknown commodity coming into the league, as injuries limited him to just 11 games at Duke. We knew — or thought we knew, anyway — who he could be as an NBA player, but we didn’t know who he was quite yet. Without a sizable sample of college games from which to draw rigid conclusions, Irving’s entrance into the league harked back to a narrative of prep-to-pro, boom or bust potentiality. He quickly slayed the demons that doubted his arrival, posting an entirely enviable rookie season for a Cavs team that offered him little assistance on the court. For a point guard to play so well with so few options was the stuff of legend, and Irving’s rookie season was largely recognized as such.
Unlike Griffin, Irving’s points per game/per-36 actually improved slightly in his subsequent season. But his other counting stats, as well as his Effective Field Goal Percentage, took a marginal dip. Like Griffin, though, the fact that Irving didn’t go from thermonuclear detonation to Shiva, Destroyer of Worlds, in the course of his second season leaves him on the same road to Perdition that Griffin travels. Yes, he’d had a phenomenal rookie year, the thinking goes, but he’d not improved in any measurable way (at least, measurable by the box score) as Cleveland started to put a better team around him. The fact that he was able to maintain the lofty heights which he’d already attained, even as he combated several fluke injuries that limited his playing time and his abilities, without actually surpassing them opens Irving up to the same criticism. Yet once again, glances at the box score obscure the improvement in Irving’s game. His defense as a rookie left a lot to be desired; while he’s far from a lockdown defender at this point, he demonstrated a deeper understanding of schemes and of his responsibilities in them as a sophomore. He wasn’t always able to put that knowledge into action, but it was heartening to see him start to develop a better mind for his defensive capabilities. On offense, he seems even more comfortable navigating the jungle of limbs and torsos that separate him from his final destination at the rim, and he’s able to read a screen the same way you or I might parse Dr. Seuss. Until his career takes flight beyond the extraterrestrial bounds of his rookie season, however, it will never be enough. Because our expectations were already so sky-high, anything short of the stratosphere will be greeted with disappointment and disdain. For Irving’s third season to be deemed a success by those who would judge him so harshly, he must surpass our expectations, as fickle and mobile as they might be.
Mammas, don’t let your sons grow up to be Rookies of the Year. It’s a weird, dark, twisted fantasy beset by Cheshire cats ready to grin at the slightest misstep. Perhaps the best path to superstardom is to have the talent to take the league in the palm of your hands yet struggle to do so. To be Anthony Davis, mired in the quagmire of a mediocre, ignored team, sets the bar awfully low and allows future transcendence to become the narrative. To be Kevin Durant, playing out of position and in the wrong scheme, dampens expectations to the point that improvement becomes as inevitable as our unending awe at his rise to power. When a player comes into the league far from fully formed yet more than capable of doing immediate damage, the expectations take on a life of their own. Heavy is the head that wears the crown at a young age, and heavy is the blade we wield, ready to slay the usurper.