After an exciting crop of rookies entered the league last season, many have become elite second-year players. Jayson Tatum and Donovan Mitchell both looked like stars as rookies last year. I won’t write extensively on either one due to the coverage they already received last year and the fact neither one improved significantly this year. Ben Simmons won’t be mentioned either because he was drafted in 2016. While those three have maintained their great play from last year, three second-year players have surprised me. Plenty sophomores have played well but who has been the best of the 2017 draft?
Kyle Kuzma – 18.3 PPG (48/31/78), 5.7 RPG, 2.2 APG
The 27th pick in 2017, Kuzma has managed to improve as a player while adjusting to playing with LeBron James. LeBron has marginalized many players due to his ball dominance and ability to do it all himself. This has led to players, most famously Kevin Love and Chris Bosh, falling from stardom and becoming a spot-up shooter. Kuzma has looked more comfortable in this off-the-ball role than Bosh or Love and has excelled this season. When shooting from behind 16 feet, 97% of Kuzma’s baskets have been assisted. Additionally, he has excelled as a cutter, being assisted on 66% of his shots at the rim.
This has been an impressive season for Kuzma as both his scoring output and efficiency has increased. Rarely does a player improve both significantly in one season, but Kuzma has done it. He has increased his shooting percentage from 45.0% to 48.4% and his scoring from 16.1 points a game to 18.3 points a game. Not only has he improved as a player, but he has learned how to play with LeBron.
Kuzma has played nearly 900 minutes this season with LeBron, the most out of anyone on the Lakers, and they have a positive 7.3 net rating together. Their synergy while on the court has led to a lot of success for the team. Individually, Kuzma has also played a big role in the Lakers wins. He is currently third highest on the team in win shares, behind only JaVale McGee and LeBron. Many doubted if the team would even make the playoffs in the West, and despite a recent losing streak, the team is 4th in the conference.
De’Aaron Fox – 18.1 PPG (48/40/72), 7.4 APG, 1.6 SPG
In a shock to many NBA fans, the Sacremento Kings have been actually good this season. A critical part of their success has been De’Aaron Fox. I would argue Fox has been the best of the best from the 2017 draft class. Despite not having any teammates that could even be considered all-stars, Fox allowed the Kings to compete for a playoff spot in the West (the Kings currently hold the 7th seed). Although I seemed over-eager in my earlier article about the Kings, Fox has made them look like a playoff team. Whether they will be able to hold on throughout the grueling 82 game schedule remains to be seen. Yet, the point still stands. The incredible play of Fox in his sophomore season has turned the Kings into a respectable team.
Fox’s speed has been a major reason for the King’s recent victories. He has an extremely high individual pace of 106.6. Also, the King’s 103.8 pace is the 2nd highest in the league, compare that to the previous season where they were dead last at 94.9. This change of pace has revitalized their offense (King’s offensive rating jumped from 103.7 to 110.7). Without Fox at the helm, I don’t think the Kings would see any success.
Fox has also improved as a player in many ways. He is shooting 40% from three this season, a 10% increase from last year. Along with his improved shot, Fox has been much more effective around the basket. He is shooting 73% around the rim and has over doubled his free throw attempts from last season (2.7 to 5.6). These improvements have made him a much better scorer, raising his points per game from 11.6 to 18.1 in just one season. To compliment his scoring, Fox has become a true floor general. He appears much more confident and seems to have control over his speed. While his 3.2 turnovers per game aren’t great, his 7.4 assists per game counteract that flaw. Overall, Fox’s major improvements to his game, as well as his value to his team, make him, arguably, the best of the 2017 draft class.
John Collins – 18.5 PPG (58/22/70), 9.9 RPG, 2.5 APG
Although his team hasn’t had the same success as Fox or Kuzma, Collins has been incredible. His athleticism makes him an elite finisher and great alley-oop target. On the season, he’s been finishing 74% of his shots at the rim while being assisted on 77% of them. He is one of the best players in the pick and roll and is able to punish smaller players for switching on to him. While he isn’t a great three point shooter yet, he has good form and is willing to take them. Obviously, 22% from three isn’t great, but because the fundamentals are there I would expect it to improve over time. Overall, Collins has one of the most well-rounded offensive game.
Besides his pick and roll game and three-point shot, Collins has shown many more facets to his offensive game. Primarily his ability to run in transition and attack the basket off the dribble. He benefits from the Hawks playing at the fastest pace in the league as he can constantly run ahead for easy finishes. Also, when playing in the half court, Collins is great at attacking a closeout or defenders that play off of him. Once he has a head of steam it’s nearly impossible to stop him from finishing. He is still only 20 years old, but he could become one of the most offensively talented bigs in the NBA. His combination of athleticism and skill is rare for a second-year player and makes him one of the best in the 2017 draft.
Honorable Mentions: Bam Adebayo, Lauri Markkanen, Monte Morris, OG Anunoby
Who do you think was the best of the 2017 draft? Comment below!