Just like in high school, it often proves true in the NBA that freshman year can be a bit rough. By the time the sophomore year hits, however, a more experienced class can make impressive leaps in maturity and production.
This season's crop of second-year breakout stars confirms such a trend, with Trae Young and Luka Doncic becoming first-time All-Stars while both in the top 15 on the Player Rater -- which is a standard deviation model that values statistical dominance and diversity. We even find the underrated efficiency of Shai Gilgeous-Alexander sitting 29th in the league on the Player Rater, while the scoring prowess of Collin Sexton sees him at 50 overall. Even the undrafted Duncan Robinson emerged as an elite shooting specialist.
A year ago, most pundits deemed the 2019 NBA draft as particularly shallow, going as far to label it a "two-player class" in that Zion Williamson and Ja Morant appeared to be the only truly bankable stars of the collective. Roughly 65 games into the 2019-20 campaign, we've learned that while it might ring true, it has proved somewhat deep in that several surprisingly productive role players have emerged.
Having ranked the 2019 rookie class for fantasy purposes this past fall, and with this current NBA season in legitimate jeopardy, I'll contextualize the group's fantasy stock heading into their sophomore seasons. With a blend of what we've learned this season and what we might project for the future, here are the top-10 sophomore fantasy basketball prospects for the 2020-21 season.
1. Zion Williamson, New Orleans Pelicans
Despite playing just 19 games and 565 minutes during an injury-shortened debut season, Williamson paced the 2019 draft class in scoring by a whopping six points per game, while his win-shares-per-48-minutes rate -- an advanced statistic used to determine how much a player contributes to a given win -- rivaled the likes of Jayson Tatum and Paul George.
If next season he can produce more impressive defensive rates than the 1.3 stocks (steals and blocks combined) he has this season -- which seems reasonable, considering he averaged 3.9 stocks at Duke -- Williamson can pay off what is likely to be a second-round ADP in drafts next fall. After all, the list of players to ever average at least 23.5 PPG while shooting at least 58.9% from the floor with at least 6.8 RPG (as Zion did in this season's abbreviated run) includes only Wilt Chamberlain, Charles Barkley, Shaquille O'Neal, Kevin McHale, Amar'e Stoudemire, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
2. Ja Morant, Memphis Grizzlies
Speaking of historic statistical company, Morant joins just Young, Allen Iverson, Damon Stoudamire, and this guy Magic Johnson as NBA rookies to ever average at least 17.5 PPG while dishing out 6.9 APG and swiping at least 0.9 SPG.
With a surprisingly strong shooting percentage from the floor for a rookie guard sporting a robust 26.2% usage rate (percentage of team plays he consumed), Morant's ceiling is impressively high. Don't be surprised if Morant's passing prowess sees him make a sizable leap in assist rate next season, akin to Young's progression. Like Williamson, a spike in steal rate would be a welcomed element for Morant's fantasy stock, as he's likely to creep into the fourth round (or even higher) of drafts next season.
3. P.J. Washington, Charlotte Hornets
This one might prove bold and a bit surprising, but consider that Washington joins only Paul Pierce's Rookie of the Year opus from 1998-99 among NBA freshman to ever average at least 12.2 PPG, 5.4 RPG, 1.5 3PG and 0.8 BPG. Washington also nearly averaged a steal per game in his first season with Charlotte and hit 37.4% of his 3-point attempts. On a Charlotte team that will need his scoring and rebounding production to swell in his sophomore season, Washington is a fun 3-and-D forward to target in the middle rounds next season.
The rare rookie to surface as fantasy-relevant in a role off the bench, White became just the second Bulls rookie ever -- joining some guy named Michael Jordan -- to deliver consecutive 30-point games and the first rookie in league history to make as many as seven 3-pointers off the bench in multiple games.
In his past nine appearances of his rookie season, White impressively averaged 26.1 PPG and flashed impressive playmaking (4.4 APG) during this stretch. While his shooting rates could prove volatile as a sophomore, White's ability to create his own shot, particularly beyond the arc, could prove profitable for fantasy purposes.
5. Brandon Clarke, Memphis Grizzlies
The Gonzaga product leads the class in win shares this season by a wide margin, thanks to ranking fourth overall in the NBA in true shooting percentage -- a measure of shooting efficiency that takes into account field goals, 3-point field goals and free throws. While there is real traffic ahead of him in the frontcourt with Jonas Valanciunas and Jaren Jackson Jr. as starting fixtures, Clarke should earn a larger (just 21.7 MPG as a rookie) and more rewarding role in Year 2.
I ranked Darius Garland fifth among rookies heading into the season, but a glaring lack of shooting efficiency and defensive pop saw him lose some luster as he transitions into his second year. Porter Jr., meanwhile, surged after returning from injury in January to slash for 14.2 PPG, 3.4 RPG, 2.9 APG, 1.9 3PG and 1.5 stocks per game in 28.1 MPG during a 14-game stretch through early March. I trust that KPJ can secure a starting role on the wing for the Cavs heading into Year 2, signaling impressive untapped upside for the USC product.
Second in total points among rookies (behind only Morant) and third in dimes, the undrafted Nunn was a waiver-wire wonder this season and could continue to shine as a fixture in Miami's deep rotation. Even if he moves to the pine next season, the likely departure of Goran Dragic from the roster signals a busy role for this versatile playmaker.
With MPJ, it's all about durability, as he proved productive in 21.4 MPG in January with 12.3 PPG on a scorching 63.6% true shooting clip in 15 appearances. The health risk is inherent with Porter Jr., but both minutes and touches should increase for this uniquely talented combo forward as he heads into his second year on the floor after enduring a red-shirt campaign in 2018-19.
9. Tyler Herro, Miami Heat
A shooting savant with unlimited swagger, it's reasonable to project Herro to increase his scoring from this season's 12.9 PPG to roughly 15 PPG next season. A lack of playmaking and defensive rates curbs his fantasy ceiling to a degree, but Herro could follow in teammate Robinson's footsteps and emerge as a useful 3-point specialist as a sophomore.
After a slow start to his rookie season, Reddish flourished in the 2020 portion of the campaign in averaging 13.3 PPG, 1.9 3PG and 1.7 stocks in 27 games. While De'Andre Hunter was the higher pick in the actual draft, I'm more bullish on Reddish's fantasy stock, given he flashed impressive scoring and defensive prowess down the stretch for a young roster prepared to afford him a rewarding, high-usage role next season.
Worthy of discussion
You might be wondering where New York's RJ Barrett fits into this mix, but I must say he was uniquely inefficient as a scorer and playmaker despite earning tons of minutes and touches for the Knicks as a rookie. Maybe I'm criminally low on both Barrett and Minnesota's Jarrett Culver, but I will need to see real growth from both players before buying.
Golden State's Eric Paschall might deserve a spot in the rankings, given such an impressive rookie season, but the gobs of minutes and touches that drove the second-round Villanova product to such success this season could be tougher to come by for a healthy Golden State roster next year.
Philly's Matisse Thybulle can compile steals, blocks and possibly 3-point production at uniquely high rates, but his lack of offensive polish could keep him from playing enough minutes. This said, if the team makes a coaching switch next season, it's possible a bigger role could unleash Thybulle's rare defensive ceiling.
The Pelicans sport impressive youth beyond Williamson in Jaxson Hayes, who sits second in the class in total win shares, and Nickeil Alexander-Walker. Hayes remains raw, but the potential for a high shooting percentage and strong block rate could see him mimic the success Clarke enjoyed for Memphis. Alexander-Walker, meanwhile, remains buried a bit on the depth chart, given Jrue Holiday, Lonzo Ball and Josh Hart are ahead of him in the pecking order. Speculative shares of Alexander-Walker remain intriguing, though, given strong collegiate and summer league splits.
The Wizards' Rui Hachimura remains unpolished on offense, but he did lead the class in rebounding this season and maybe he can improve as a transition scorer when paired with John Wall's playmaking next season.