The Road to Stardom: Year 1
The third NBA season is typically when a player goes from getting his feet wet to becoming the basketball star everyone expects him to be. Some players fully realize their substantial upside during this time and make the transition to elite status. Stepping out the shadows of obscurity and taking their place as one of the best players in the NBA is a process and doesn’t happen overnight.
As part of a three-part series, we will look at three leading men – Nikola Jokic, Devin Booker and Karl-Anthony Towns - who are entering their third seasons in the league and transitioning from untested rookies to upper-echelon NBA superstars. In Part I of this series, we cover their early beginnings and their first seasons in the league.
The Unknown Prospect – Nikola Jokic
On the night of the 2014 NBA Draft, the Denver Nuggets were dealt a fortuitous hand when they landed a talented, if raw, center who had the ability to play with his back to the basket and serve as a tantalizing passer out of the low post. If you were thought I was talking about Nikola Jokic, you would be wrong, as Denver was initially more interested in the 16th overall pick in the draft that turned out to Jusuf Nurkic, a center from Bosnia. Even in his own draft class, Jokic was a lightly-regarded selection who was thought to need multiple developmental seasons in Europe before making an NBA roster.
Leaving Mega Vizura after the 2014-2015 season, Jokic impressed enough during that year’s summer league to carve himself a spot on the opening-night roster. An accomplishment in and of itself, Jokic didn’t stop there, earning substantial minutes by the All-Star break. By the end of the season, and with Nurkic failing to gain a stronghold on the starting center job, Jokic flourished down the stretch and finished the season with respectable averages in points (10.0), rebounds (7.0) and field goal percentage (51.2), earning him a third-place finish in Rookie of the Year voting and a place on the NBA All-Rookie First Team.
Boom-or-Bust – Devin Booker
It’s a bit puzzling when the sixth-man of one of the best college teams declares himself for the NBA Draft, and more alarming when he’s still a freshman. In a nutshell, that’s where we find Booker, who played in all 38 games for the University of Kentucky and averaged 10 points in just over 20 minutes of action per game. A sharpshooter, Booker shot 41.1 percent from beyond the arc, with many draft pundits comparing Booker to a Gordon Hayward-type player entering the league. Despite not being a guaranteed top-10 choice, Booker showed enough in college (SEC All-Freshman team selection and 2nd team All-SEC) to still be a lottery selection in going to the Phoenix Suns with the 13th overall selection.
Not coming into the league with as much hype as some of his fellow Wildcats, Booker had a less-ballyhooed rookie year in the desert. Initially a backup behind veteran Eric Bledsoe, Booker didn’t become a full-time starter until late December of his first year. Being on a poor team like the Suns probably cost Booker some exposure, but with his play speaking volumes for him, as well as getting praise from the likes of Klay Thompson and Dwyane Wade, Booker finished the year on high note. He became the first Suns player selected to the All-Rookie First Team since Amare Stoudemire in 2003, and averaged 13.8 points per game, while still maintaining a respectable three-point percentage at 34.3 percent.
The Can’t-Miss-Talent- Karl-Anthony Towns
Despite not playing substantial minutes in University of Kentucky head coach John Calipari’s system, Towns showed plenty in his time in Lexington to be selected as a Gatorade National Player of the Year and the SEC Freshman of the Year in 2014. During his only season at Kentucky, Towns played in just over 20 minutes and averaged 10.3 points and 6.7 rebounds per game. Perhaps saving himself for the NCAA Tournament, Towns played better during the postseason, which vaulted him past fellow post player, Jahlil Okafor, in the top selection in the 2015 NBA draft. Already a talented offensive player, Towns was thought to have the higher ceiling of the two big men as he continued to add offensive moves to his game, as well as being a versatile defender and rim protector.
Joining another young and tantalizing player in Andrew Wiggins, the Minnesota Timberwolves made Towns the number one overall selection, and the seven-footer went to work. Getting off to a strong start to the season, Towns averaged 16 points and 10.4 rebounds per game before a lull in the coming months cooled him off a bit. Despite that short reprieve, Towns was still named as the Western Conference Rookie of the Month for November, the first in three straight months he would earn the award. As a testament to the rare athleticism Towns has at his disposal, he became the biggest, tallest and youngest competitor in the NBA Skills Challenge to win the event, beating out All-Star guard, Isaiah Thomas, in the finals of the skills contest. Even more impressive, Towns would continue to dazzle and finished his first season in the NBA with a sparkling 18.3 points per game average, to go along with 10.5 rebounds, while shooting 54.2 percent from the floor.
While the road may have been different for Jokic, Booker and Towns, each one showed something special in their rookie seasons that had each of their respective teams looking to bigger and better things coming in Year Two. With the rest of the league now put on notice due to the ability of each player, how would each of them respond with to adversity and expectations in their sophomore season? Would they crack under the weight of having a heavier load to carry, or would they shine brighter with more lights focused on them? Find out next week where each of our players’ paths lead.