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Don’t Give Up on These 10 Prospects Just Yet

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The NBA community is a cruel, cruel world. Social media, sound-bite culture and the need to succeed means that players are christened “superstar” or “wash-out” faster than ever before. Nowhere is this more apparent than amongst the young guns of the Association. The next face of the franchise can become the worst selection ever in a matter of games. Sometimes this is justified. But many prospects are written off way too soon when stats show there is still hope for a meaningful basketball career. This piece will cast a fair eye over each NBA draft going back to 2013 and nominate two players from each class that shouldn’t be cast aside. Only lottery picks will be considered for review, since they are the ones given high expectations. Some can barely be called prospects anymore. But the guys below should not be titled “draft bust” quite yet.

2013 NBA Draft

Photo Courtesy of Fox Sports

Photo courtesy of Fox Sports

Alex Len, Atlanta Hawks

Taken with the fifth overall pick by the Suns, Len never got much of a shot at playing time. He’s always been a superb rebounder, as he’s averaged at least 13 rebounds per 36 minutes in every season of his career. By last year, Len began to show some shooting touch within 16 feet, and he finishes well at the rim. He’s not a great when considering his large frame, but he’s not a big negative. Len’s PER was a remarkable 19.4 last season, he’s still just 25, and now he has a clear path to starting minutes on a tanking Hawks team. On a cheap contract, I predict Alex Len to surprise some people.

Nerlens Noel, Oklahoma City Thunder

The Thunder got a steal when they signed Noel to a two-year deal worth less than $4 million this offseason. Like Len, Noel has been a strong rebounder his whole career, and has never posted a defensive rating higher than 103, which is amazing. Noel was second in Rookie of the Year voting his first season, but the center logjam on the Sixers led him to being traded. Terrible offseason negotiations fostered terrible relations with the Dallas Mavericks, hindering his value. But Noel was still a solid on-court presence. He’s had a PER above 15 in every season he’s played. Now on the Thunder, Noel should rise through the depth chart and possibly supplant Dennis Schroder as OKC’s sixth man. He’s still only 24 years old, and his off-court blunders have overshadowed his on-court performance.

2014 NBA Draft

Photo courtesy of NESN

Photo courtesy of John Sokolowski, USA Today Sports 

Andrew Wiggins, Minnesota Timberwolves

Many readers are probably rolling their eyes at this choice. And admittedly, Wiggins has a very difficult game to like. He’s an extremely disgusting defender, an inconsistent shooter, and still a poor passer and rebounder. “Maple Jordan” looks lost and lazy too often. But wait before passing judgement.

Watching how Tom Thibodeau coaches is painful. He uses Wiggins as a spot up shooter, a horrible designation, and played him at small forward 82% of the time, when Wiggins would be more helpful offensively and defensively as a shooting guard. On top of that, every clutch play Thibodeau draws up is an isolation to Jimmy Butler, who for all his strengths is not a great iso-ball player. Meanwhile, Wiggins has shown his ability to be cool in the clutch on multiple buzzer-beaters. He still possesses insane athleticism and scoring ability at the rim, and did marginally improve his defense this year. While most of the jury is out, I am going to continue to believe in Andrew Wiggins.

Elfrid Payton, New Orleans Pelicans 

The rest of the 2014 draft’s lottery picks seem to be locked into their fates. Jabari Parker was the only other wild card to me, but his injuries have been so derailing that it is hard to view his trajectory. Payton is by no means a high-level point guard, but he passes and rebounds well. He was shooting 37% before being traded from the Magic and had a PER of 18. New Orleans took a calculated risk by signing him to just a one-year, $3 million deal. An offseason of getting used to New Orleans, plus the chance to pass to Anthony Davis, may help Payton become a viable starting point guard.

2015 NBA Draft

Photo courtesy of Slam Online

Photo Courtesy of Getty Images

Willie Cauley-Stein, Sacramento Kings

Cauley-Stein seems doomed to be passed by some of Sacramento’s other first-round centers. The oldest of the group, Cauley-Stein was given lots of playing time last season, and he was fairly productive. He averaged 12.8 points and 7.0 rebounds while playing passable defense and posting a 17.6 PER. Cauley-Stein’s shooting is weighing him down, as he barely made 50% of his field goals (not great for a center) and shot only 61.9% from the line last year. He’s still a big center at 7 feet, 240 pounds, and while he won’t be a team’s anchor, he still could fill Sacramento’s starting spot alongside Marvin Bagley III.

Trey Lyles, Denver Nuggets

Taken 12th overall, Lyles struggled his first two years, but finally broke through on the Nuggets’ bench. A signature stretch 4, Lyles shot 56% inside the arc and 38% beyond it last season. He averaged 18.7 points and 9.0 rebounds per 36 minutes, though his defense was poor. The Nuggets’ reserves are not particularly deep, so Lyles should get more opportunities this year as primary backup to Paul Millsap. If Millsap gets injured again, Lyles could get a quality chance to prove himself.

2016 NBA Draft

Photo Courtesy of Yahoo Sports

Photo Courtesy of the Associated Press

Thon Maker, Milwaukee Bucks

Maker had a noticeable sophomore slump last season, particularly in his shooting. His field goal percentage dropped from 46 to 41 percent, and his three-point percentage dropped from 38 to 30. Maker started only 12 games but played much more than last season, and his stats didn’t make huge improvements. However, it’s important to note that Maker was a risk at his selection and he’s still extremely raw. At 7’1″ but only 216 pounds, Maker can be more impactful if he bulks up and finds his stroke again.

Dragan Bender, PF, Phoenix Suns

As the fourth pick in the draft, Bender had high expectations that he was never going to live up to. Labeled a skinnier Porzingis, Bender was and is still much too raw to assume that type of role. However, his shooting improved greatly last year with an uptick in minutes. While he still can’t rebound or defend, Bender’s shooting stroke was his biggest asset coming into the league, and it’s nice to see it finally show up. He’s making more strides than classmate and former teammate Marquese Chriss.

2017 NBA Draft

Photo courtesy of USA Today

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports

Markelle Fultz, Philadelphia 76ers 

Fultz just went through the strangest rookie season in recent memory. He lost his stroke, his shoulder movement, his confidence, and his status as best in class. While the past year will no doubt hurt Fultz’s career arc, he’s still a #1 overall pick that did show quickness and fluidity in his limited minutes. The idea of Fultz is a huge need for the 76ers, and they need to trust that he can get back on track to his Hall of Fame ceiling. To label Markelle Fultz as a bust after one bizarre year is simply unfair to him and his journey.

Jonathan Isaac, Orlando Magic

Injuries also sidelined Isaac for most of the 2017-18 season. But when he did play, he showed the exact flashes that were expected of a raw but enticing prospect. Isaac shot fairly well from long distance (34.8%), but only 39% on twos, yet also 76% from the line. He rebounded as expected (5.6 per 36 minutes), which is mediocre but not awful. He averaged a block and a steal in just 20 minutes per game while posting a 104 defensive rating, which is very promising. Next season Isaac may be stuck on the bench behind Aaron Gordon, or the Magic may try him at small forward. Either way, he deserves much more playing time, and assuming he’s healthy, should take a nice leap.

2018 NBA Draft

Photo courtesy of Getty Images

Photo courtesy of Getty Images

Everyone, All Positions, All Teams

Fans and mainstream sports sites are notorious for bashing prospects after a single summer league game. It’s disgusting. Trae Young, Marvin Bagley III and Jerome Robinson are the main victims this year, but they’re just part of a long trend. Observing and criticizing a summer league performance is fine. Pointing out what rookies played well or poorly in summer league is absolutely fair. But placing season or even career-defining labels on someone before they even play meaningful minutes is disrespectful. That’s wishing for a player to have a bad career, consciously or subconsciously. That’s wrong. Wait a year, a month, even a week into the regular season before making such a wild claim. But give the rookies a chance first. They deserve it.

All statistics courtesy of Basketball Reference and NBA.com.

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About Ethan Fuller

Hailing from Portsmouth, NH, Ethan is a journalism student at Boston University and writes about the Celtics for TLSM. His chief basketball teams are the Celtics and Minnesota Timberwolves. Ethan is also a still-growing ultimate frisbee player.

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