Three NBA players ready to bounce back after injuries shortened their rookie season
Injuries slowed the progression of these players but with a clean bill of health they're ready to have impactful sophomore years
The 2018 NBA draft class brought tons of excitement and optimism in their first year in the league, but there were also quite a bit of injuries to some of the top picks that derailed their rookie season. Injuries are always part of the game, but when it happens to a rookie, it can be crushing to know that all the hard work put into getting to the league gets derailed by an injury.
Of the 60 players drafted last year, 32 of them missed time due to injuries. It ranged from something small like tweaking an ankle, to full blown fractured bones or torn ligaments. Only Zhaire Smith and Michael Porter Jr., missed more than 50 games last season, with Porter sitting out his entire rookie year. Every rookie who missed a significant amount of time last season will try to have a bounce-back season, but there are three of them who everyone should keep an eye on. Only players who missed more than 30 games last season were considered for this list.
When the Chicago Bulls selected Wendell Carter Jr. with the No. 7 overall pick in last year's draft, it was widely seen as a solid selection. The big man out of Duke had an NBA-ready body, with a versatile post game and impressive ball-handling skills for someone of his size. He isn't the most athletic on the floor, but he makes up for that in other areas of the game. In the 44 games Carter played in before tearing ligaments in his left thumb on Jan. 15, he was stringing together a solid rookie season. He wasn't posting monstrous numbers like some of his fellow draftees, but he exhibited improvement over the course of the season.
Carter was used in the pick-and-roll game 23.6 percent of the time, per Synergy Sports, and he showed that he can be more than just a lob threat as a roll man. He developed a consistent runner at the top of the key, which, if he's able to turn that into a consistent mid-range game will elevate him to the next level. It's not unreasonable to think that Carter could average a double-double this season -- he was only three rebounds shy of that in his rookie campaign -- and potentially could've averaged that had he not missed time. He showed that he could be a reliable defender last season, and told reporters on media day that improving further on defense is one of his goals this season.
"I feel like I'm a really good defender, and I think I'm going to be even better this year, especially after the surgery and being able to move laterally a lot better," Carter said.
During the offseason, the Bulls hired Roy Rogers away from the Houston Rockets as an assistant coach, who's known for his development of young centers. He played an integral role in the ascension of Rockets' center Clint Capela, who after spending three season with Rogers on the staff, went from averaging seven points a game to 16 points and 12 rebounds a night. Carter has a higher floor than Capela did at his age, and has a more versatile skill set to work with. If Rogers could turn Capela into a potential All-Star, there's no telling what he'll be able to accomplish with someone of Carter's talents.
In Mo Bamba's first NBA game, he showcased just why he was so sought after in the draft. He hit 3s, blocked shots, put the ball on the floor and drove to the basket. It appeared as though the Magic had something really special. That though, ended up being his best game of the season. Bamba struggled to maintain consistency on the offensive end of the floor, and after sustaining a stress fracture to his left tibia, ended up missing the final 33 games of the season.
It might be a small sample, but Bamba displayed a solid foundation to work from last season. Coming into the league, Bamba was touted for being a difference maker on the defensive end of the floor. His height and wingspan mixed with his athleticism were a scary combination that, if given time, could be an impact player on a playoff team. Glimpses of that were shown throughout his rookie year, but it was also obvious that Bamba didn't have the strength or conditioning to hold his own against bigger opponents in the post. However, he reportedly added 20 pounds of muscle in the offseason, according to Magic writer John Denton .
If Bamba has truly gained a significant amount of muscle, it will go a long way in helping him guard players like Karl-Anthony Towns and Joel Embiid, and his commitment to continuing to improve in that regard is a positive sign for the Magic. His offense, however, is where he struggled the most in his first season in the league. Orlando trusted Bamba enough to shoot the 3 -- in fact, he was relegated to a spot-up shooter role in 22.7 percent of his possessions. He shot 30 percent from deep last season, which isn't great, but it's a good starting point. If he can develop a more consistent 3-point shot, he'll be a nightmare offensively.
Bamba's short rookie season wasn't what many had hoped for the No. 6 overall pick, but with a full year of NBA experience, and a more physically ready body heading into his second year, Bamba could make the same leap Jonathan Isaac made a year ago. His 15-point performance during his lone appearance in summer league was a good indication that he's taking steps in the right direction. If his shot continues to improve, Orlando will be reaping the rewards for years to come.
After tearing his meniscus in a preseason game, which pushed his NBA debut back to January, Lonnie Walker IV only appeared in 17 games for the Spurs. He spent most of his time -- when healthy -- competing for the Spurs' G League affiliate, but his offseason progress showed that he's ready to be step into a bigger role off the bench for this franchise.
Over two summer league games, Walker averaged 30 points and 4 rebounds on 58 percent from the field, and was basically getting whatever he wanted all over the floor. He showed his deep range, his ability to stop on a dime and pull up from mid-range and was crossing defenders left and right on his way to the basket. Obviously, he'll face much tougher opponents in an NBA game, but Walker's summer league performance proved that,
- he's much better than competing in the summer league, and
- he's ready to get quality bench minutes for Gregg Popovich.
Finding minutes in the Spurs' loaded backcourt that features DeMar DeRozan, Patty Mills, Derrick White, Dejounte Murray and Bryn Forbes is going to be tough for Walker. If he's able to gain Popovich's trust he could steal some minutes from an aging Marco Belinelli, and with his focus this offseason being on his 3-point shot, he can become a reliable shooter off the bench. After the Spurs pick up his team option for the 2020-21 season, it's clear the organization values him for their future. Walker may not see an increased role this season, but his improvement over the offseason shows that whatever role he has with San Antonio, he'll be far better equipped than he was a season ago.
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