With the 2013-14 NBA season on the horizon, we’re taking this week to look at the players we love who are headed into their second year in the league. For most, if not all, of these players, expectations are either sky high or at rock bottom. And at the end of the year, what we know about them will likely be far removed from what we thought headed into this season.
The choice of Sophomore Week wasn’t a random grab for content on our part (OK, maybe). You won’t get Ending-Their-Rookie-Contract week or 10 Year Veteran week. Every now and then, a draft class can be so unique that it deserves a collective retrospective a certain number of years following their NBA inaugurations, but in those cases the appeal is due to the specific players involved, not an inherent appeal about the length of their careers.
Sophomores have that appeal. We’ve seen enough of them to familiarize ourselves with their games and personalities, in contrast to unknown rookies who we may only recognize from grainy Draft Express videos. On the other hand, they have an entire learning curve looming ahead. There is still so much that we don’t know about what their NBA careers will end up including, about how they will eventually fit in with which teams. They’re just old enough to establish that initial jittery bout of emotion, while remaining just new enough to allow creativity with our expectations.
Of course, that creativity is still somewhat limited by what we saw in year one. Or, in some cases, very limited. A rookie’s debut performance can vastly influence how we feel about the sequel, especially if it contrasts our pre-draft expectations. This makes sense – college careers (and, to a lesser extent, European careers of those young enough to be draft-eligible) are so short, and the talent discrepancy between their best and worst participants so wide, that a single NBA season teaches us much more about the player than anything that came before it. But even so, it seems that whenever our initial forecasts are proven wrong, we tend to grossly overcompensate, as if us misjudging a situation based on almost no evidence is some intellectual mark of Cain.
Examples are scattered throughout last year’s draft class. Anthony Davis was a consensus #1 overall pick because of his potential to be a Hall of Fame level defensive contributor; after struggling on that end during a somewhat underwhelming rookie year, however, improving defensively seems like his top concern, provided he is even acknowledged by the speaker. Andre Drummond and Harrison Barnes disappointed us in college do to a perceived lack of fire and dynamism, respectively, before blowing away low expectations and solidifying their commonly regarded status as future cornerstones. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist’s jump shot looked so horrifically broken that it’s almost hard to imagine him as a valid NBA contributor even though he was initially drafted as an athletic, defensively and physically gifted hard worker. Thomas Robinson was considered one of the surest things in the draft before he was traded twice within a calendar year, both of which were bad situations for different reasons, and is now labeled a bust with his career still in its diaper phase. And if you need to see a definition of overcompensating for an opinion but lack the dictionary to do so, all you need to do is go to your local watering hole and patiently wait for the patrons to start discussion Dion Waiters (full disclosure: it may take a while).
Most of these overcompensations have somewhat mitigating factors, as pointed to me by our affable Vafa-ble (so sorry). Davis is somewhat under discussed because his then-Hornets were not a very appealing bunch last year, and the defense is a concern because, simply put, it’s a concern. Drummond and Barnes were worrying prospects because of personality traits that were either proven as non-existent (Drummond’s apathy) or less crucial in the role they’re expected to play in the NBA (Barnes’s aggression in creating his own offense). MKG’s offense wouldn’t have seemed nearly as bad as it did last season had he played on a team that could afford to ask for offense from literally anybody else. Robinson really was pretty bad. I won’t say anything about Dion Waiters because I hate getting yelled at.
If it seems that our emotional input when discussing a player is directly inverted to his experience in the league, that may just be because rationality hasn’t had enough time to settle in. The longer a career, the more evidence we have to prove he is what he is, and the less variance future outcomes have. If Giannis Antetokounmpo is a complete unknown because no one has ever seen him play organized basketball, analysis of Steve Nash borders on tautology. “He kind of plays like Steve Nash” is both accurate and meaningful, because we know exactly what Steve Nash is. “He kind of plays like Giannis Antetokounmpo” is entirely dependent on what your brain projects when you here the young tongue-twister’s name.
Perhaps it make sense that our expectations of sophomores consist of volatile swings rather than meticulous tracking of progress. After all, rookie seasons can be easily swept under the small sample size rug without so much as a hint of intellectual dishonesty – they’re short, incredibly circumstantial, and are a hotbed for such maladies as inconsistency and underperformance. The NBA game is so very different from any other level of basketball that it seems almost idiotic to judge a player before their adjustment period is complete, and that period can take anywhere from scarce minutes to several years depending on the player.
If rookies are the girl at the bar, and veterans are the girl you grew up with, sophomores are the girl you just started taking class with, a month into your first semester. The hard part is over because the universe forced an introduction upon you, but other than that? Who knows? She may be your wife or she may be out of your life in 2 weeks. It’s a singular point of uncertainty that will soon be gone. Even though it may not be as unscathed as what came before it, nor as fulfilling as what it precedes, it should be cherished.