Each year, a group of players – some expected, others not – leaps from the previous season to the next and becomes part of the daily discourse around the NBA.
They don’t need to become stars, although some do, but rather core contributors moving from role to role. A bench warmer can rotate and solidify as a sixth man. A rotating player can put in enough effort and be rewarded with a starter spot. It’s about climbing the ladder.
This season will be no exception. In fact, given the quality of recent draft classes, it should come as no surprise that a few sophomores are stepping out and kicking things off.
The following list will include players under 25 with five years of service or less.
Kira Lewis, New Orleans Pelicans
It’s fair to wonder if Lewis will strike as a New Orleans pelican, given the level of competition there is for the ball. Zion Williamson and Brandon Ingram will both take a large number of shots, as will Jonas Valanciunas and Devonte ‘Graham.
However, Lewis is a quick and penetrating leader who can break through dribbling defenses and reach the basket. Although he weighs just 170 pounds, his shake-and-bake game is quick and determined, which should help him secure a stable playing time behind Graham.
The advantage of Lewis is that he would have to suffer additional burns when injuring his teammates, and with Williamson once again notched, there may be room for additional playtime if this theme reappears later in the season.
Even without injuries, it would be up to the Pelicans to use Lewis as the first keeper off the bench, even ahead of recently acquired Tomas Satoransky to maximize an offensive bench flow. If they don’t, teams who need to create plans will likely be looking to release him on their team.
RJ Hampton, Orlando Magic
There is no doubt that Hampton has its work cut out for it. With Jalen Suggs, Cole Anthony and Markelle Fultz, in good health after ACL rehabilitation, all fishing for minutes at the two available guard posts, competition will be fierce for the second year off guard.
However, there is cause for optimism.
Not only will Hampton have a chance to establish himself while Fultz is out, but he’s also 6’4 with a 6’7 wingspan that could see him gain a position when Orlando gets small. This would optimize the handling of the ball for the young team and give Hampton the opportunity to play against many elite athletes at guard posts, all of whom put a lot of pressure on the defense.
For Hampton, it’s about shooting and being able to position yourself with precision behind the three-point line. These chances will come and its 50% accuracy from the corners, although on a small volume, could become an important piece of the puzzle.
De’Anthony Melton, Memphis Grizzlies
According to FanDuel’s Most Improved Player Ratings, Melton is not on the list of players who should be candidates for the award by the end of the regular season, and it could end up looking like an oversight in about three months.
Melton is already one of the best two-way young guards in the NBA and has enjoyed a steady but unspectacular rise in his first three seasons in the league. Now entering his fourth year, it should come as no surprise that Melton is positioning himself as a borderline starter and makes the final season of playing him just 20 minutes per game a distant memory.
With Grayson Allen, who started 38 of his 50 games, now in Milwaukee this means that there is now competition for the non-guard position. While Dillon Brooks likely has the indoor track, Melton’s three-point shot (41.2%) and more refined all-around play could convince head coach Taylor Jenkins it’s time for some more stability in the game. the main unit.
Even though Melton doesn’t break the starting lineup, nothing in his career so far indicates he’s slowing down. If anything, each year indicates the exact opposite.
Devin Vassell, San Antonio Spurs
Spurs don’t always want to give their rookies an important initial role. In reality, which sometimes even includes veterans.
But for the 2021/2022 NBA season, Spurs are finally running out of excuses. Finished LaMarcus Aldridge and DeMar DeRozan and that means more minutes, more shots and more opportunities present themselves for the youngsters of the squad.
No one should benefit more than Vassell, who was selected 11th overall in 2020 and who was projected to be “NBA ready” to come into the league. Instead, Vassell averaged just 17 minutes per year, hitting barely 1,000 minutes per year.
Vassell is never going to be a top-tier superstar, but his defensive and ball-shooting skills project him on a long career ahead of him, especially when he faces off against star-studded players, of whom Spurs are still somewhat short.
Vassell should get a good 25 minutes per game from the start and put his three-point shot to good use, something DeRozan offered very little.
He should work well alongside Dejounte Murray and Keldon Johnson, both of whom are physical players who like to carry the ball to the edge.
This is the year Vassell can carve out a long-term role for himself.
Furkan Korkmaz, Philadelphia 76ers
This isn’t Korkmaz’s first rodeo, so many will probably wonder why he makes this list.
The 24-year-old has reached this point in his career, where he has played just enough playoff games (21) and just enough career minutes (3,380) with the same team to feel a sense of ownership of the to come up.
Korkmaz is, unsurprisingly, a shooter who isn’t going to give the Sixers much. But that doesn’t have to be a problem, as filming is going to play an increasingly important role for these Sixers afterwards. they move Ben Simmons.
With Seth Curry becoming more assertive in last season’s playoffs and with Joel Embiid dominating the paint, the Sixers can use every ounce of what Korkmaz offers, especially at 6’7, allowing him to flow between positions. and participate in both small and large queues.
Korkmaz has hit 39% of his 4.9 nightly three-point attempts over the past two seasons, often needing to be overloaded when the Sixers went to formations that weren’t exactly in favor of spacing.
With Simmons now in the past, the Sixers will be leaning into spacing and expanding the pitch further, which will benefit Korkmaz who could make a run for the starter if properly triggered offensively.
Hoping the Sixers don’t buy someone out of a Ben Simmons business for him, in order to keep him from shining.
RJ Barrett, New York Knicks
Is it cheating to include a top player who already seems on track to make a few All-Star games in the near future? Maybe, but rest assured, Barrett deserves a mention here.
With 17.6 points and 5.8 rebounds per game, Barrett is the most accomplished player on the list, but there is still plenty of potential in the 21-year-old.
Now entering his third season, Barrett will have more responsibilities while enjoying the luxury of spacing provided by Evan Fournier and Kemba Walker. Barrett will now be able to seamlessly switch between being a self-creator who benefits from the new spacing and the guy who prepares his two new teammates for the shots.
While he might not end up leading the team in scoring (that seems pretty much locked in for Julius Randle), Barrett could see a role that makes him flourish in a general setting where he is asked to do a little bit of everything, without feeling pressured to take on too much offensive responsibility on your shoulders.
This year’s Knicks roster and his diverse skillset might be the best thing that could have happened to his career.