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Philadelphia 76ers

Ranking the NBA's best second-year players: how Ben Simmons stacks up with Donovan Mitchell, Jayson Tatum

The NBA has a talented group of second-year players.
The NBA has a talented group of second-year players. (Getty Images)

When it comes to on-the-floor talent, the NBA is in a great spot.

10 different players have scored 50 in a game this season, tied for the most 50-point scorers in a single season in NBA history.

Perhaps more surprising?

None of them are players in their second season. Last year's rookie class was one of the strongest in recent memories with many players that fit the profile of a future All-Star.

Before we get into the final push of the regular season when playoff races, draft positioning and awards chatter takes over, we wanted to check in on this year's class of sophomores to rank who has played the best this season.

This is not a debate about who will be better in three years or who you'd rather have moving forward. We're simply answering the question: who has been better this season?

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We'll begin with the biggest names that missed the cut.

Honourable Mention

Lonzo Ball, PG, Los Angeles Lakers: There aren't many young players more polarizing than Ball whenever it comes to projecting his future in the league. Ball was in a tough spot entering the season from the very beginning. Not only was he asked to adjust alongside LeBron James, who essentially operates as a defacto point guard for long stretches, Ball was also relegated to the bench at the start of the season after the Lakers decided to go with newly signed veteran Rajon Rondo. Though Ball would eventually get his starting spot back thanks in part to Rondo's early-season suspension, he never really had the chance to make his mark on a Lakers team struggling to find an identity. Add in health issues and shooting struggles, which compounds the fit playing off James, and it almost feels like a lost season for the Lakers young playmaker.

Markelle Fultz, PG, Orlando Magic: I'm bringing up Fultz only to drive home the point that two years in, neither of the top two picks in the 2017 draft are playing like one of the top 10 players in their class. Much like Ball, I'm still a believer in Fultz and think the change of scenery could work wonders for reviving his confidence now that he's in Orlando and away from all of the attention and pressure in Philadelphia. How he returns for Year 3 will be one of next season's most interesting subplots.

Jonathan Isaac, PF, Orlando Magic: It's difficult to say what to make of Isaac, who entered the league with so much raw potential. There are stretches where he looks like a future Defensive Player of the Year that can knock down threes and there are stretches where he looks simply lost. Situationally, he's in a complicated spot trying to get reps on a team that features All-Star big man Nikola Vucevic and Aaron Gordon, not to mention rookie Mohamed Bamba, who is currently out for the season but figures prominently into Orlando's longer term plans.

Bam Adebayo, C, Miami Heat: Adebayo ranks third among all second-year players in win shares despite coming off the bench for the majority of the season. Though he's been starting more of late, it's telling that Adebayo has played over twice as many fourth-quarter minutes as Hassan Whiteside. He's a player to watch and potential breakout player if given the opportunity for a bigger role.

Dennis Smith Jr., PG, New York Knicks: A wildly intriguing player moving forward with the bounce to quite literally jump off the screen, DSJ has certainly had his moments. The biggest questions moving forward, especially after he didn't fit next to Luka Doncic in Dallas, will be if Smith can co-exist next to other players that need the ball and if he can positively impact winning. If the New York Knicks strike big in free agency, how Smith learns to operate as a second or even third option will be worth monitoring.

10. Bogdan Bogdanovic

Bogdan Bogdanovic

Don't sleep on Bogdan Bogdanovic.

While it's easy to lose sight of him when gushing over the bright future of the Sacramento Kings with De'Aaron Fox (more on him in a bit!), Buddy Hield and Marvin Bagley III, Bogdanovic has all the makings of a future Sixth Man of the Year type who can stroke it from anywhere and even operate as a primary playmaker with second units. His shooting percentages have dropped in his second season, but make no mistake, he is an absolute gamer.

The 26-year-old Serbian may be on the front end of his NBA career, but he's already a seasoned veteran after starring in Europe for five seasons in the Euroleague. Together with Nikola Jokic, Bogdanovic will keep Serbia as an international hoops powerhouse for years to come.

9. Monte Morris

In hindsight, it's somewhat incredible that 50 players were selected ahead of Morris in the 2017 NBA Draft. Sure, he was a four-year college player without an obvious All-Star type of ceiling. But he is a steady playmaker who broke the NCAA record for assist-to-turnover as a freshmen before then breaking his own record again as a senior.

That same steady hand has translated to the next level as he has a career assist-to-turnover ratio approaching 6:1, insane given that only two players - Muggsy Bogues and John Paxson - have a career rate better than 4:1.

Morris keeps the Denver Nuggets humming whenever he comes in as the team actually has a better net rating with him on the floor. Toss in the fact that he's shooting over 40 percent from three and it's easy to see why Denver loves him. According to ESPN's Real Plus-Minus, Morris already ranks among the 15 most impactful point guards in the entire league.

8. Kyle Kuzma

Kyle Kuzma has shown an ability to explode for monster performances in ways that few in this class have. Among all second-year players, only Donovan Mitchell has had more 30-point games, all the more impressive considering that unlike Mitchell, Kuzma is not his team's first option and at times, not even his team's second option.

During LeBron James' 17-game absence spanning just over a month in December and January, Kuzma was the team's leading scorer at 21.5 points per game on over 18 attempts. It was more of a product of volume, however, as he shot just 43.4 percent including 28.4 percent on 7.3 3-point attempts per game.

The Lakers also ranked 26th in offensive rating over that stretch with Kuzma carrying the load.

Though he's certainly capable of getting hot, Kuzma is not a consistent knock down shooter as he's connecting on just 31.0 percent of his attempts from beyond the arc this season, down from 36.6 percent as a rookie.

Nobody questions his floor: he certainly has game and can be an important piece on a good team. The biggest questions with Kuzma moving forward relate to whether he can become efficient enough of a scorer to play a leading role. Is he a second or third banana that can sniff an All-Star game? Only time will tell!

7. Jarrett Allen

Jarrett Allen blocks anyone and everyone.

Though his shot-blocking numbers might not jump off the page, Allen - who turns 21 in April - projects as a defensive anchor for years to come. So far this season, he's holding opponents to 56.3 percent shooting at the rim, better than the likes of Anthony Davis, Clint Capela, Al Horford and Steven Adams, who all carry sterling reputations on the defensive end of the floor.

In a league trending small in which teams routinely only play one true big, it's imperative to have players like Allen that can almost single-handedly shut down the paint.

Offensively, Allen plays to his strengths and feasts around the rim. Over two-thirds of his shots have come within three feet, where he's shooting over 73 percent, better than Joel Embiid, DeAndre Jordan and Nikola Jokic.

He might never be a volume scorer, but he brings significant value at an area of need for every winning team.

6. Jayson Tatum

If this were a ranking of second-year players based on their potential moving forward, Tatum could have been first. In terms of projected value, he's among the most promising young players in the entire league, someone that can become the league's best shooting guard and potentially win a scoring title.

But that's not what this ranking is for.

If you stripped away the name on the back of the jersey and with it the memory of his magical postseason run as a rookie, Tatum's had a somewhat underwhelming season in his second go around relative to expectation. He's averaging 16.1 points per game on 45.5 percent shooting including 36.5 percent from beyond the arc, down from 43.4 percent as a rookie. That's more in line with how he shot from distance in his one year at Duke and probably closer to his actual ability.

The more troubling aspects of Tatum's game is that he's taking more contested long twos and getting to the line less often. It's an area where not only has he not shown growth, but has actually regressed. Simply put, he's far too talented to be attempting just three FT attempts per game.

Of course, the basketball context matters tremendously and on a team stacked with offensive talent, Tatum was likely never going to fully blossom this season anyways. That's before delving into the litany of other issues and drama swirling around the Boston Celtics.

Make no mistake, Tatum's future is incredibly bright and he certainly has the ability to someday become a perennial All-Star. That he ranks sixth on this list has far more to do with how well his fellow second-year peers have looked thus far than it does with any sort of referendum on Tatum's talent.

5. Lauri Markkanen

After missing the first 23 game of the season with an elbow injury, Lauri Markkanen got off to a relatively slow start once he returned to the lineup.

Back-to-back 30-point games in December foreshadowed a dominant stretch that would soon follow and make that slow start feel like an eternity ago. Over a 20-game stretch from the middle of January and on into March, The Finnisher averaged just under 23 points and 12 rebounds per game.

That he shot well from distance over that span shouldn't be a surprise given his reputation. Where Markkanen really raised eye brows was a new-found aggression.

In his first 21 games of the season, Markkanen averaged just over two free throw attempts per game while not attempting more than five in any of them. In his dominant 20-game run, he nearly tripled the rate at which he got to the line as he took 5.5 per game while converting 89 percent of them. That's a version of Markkanen that we hadn't previously seen and one area of his game that will go a long ways towards finding out whether he's the next Ryan Anderson or the next Dirk Nowitzki.

4. Donovan Mitchell

Like some others on this list, Mitchell got off to an underwhelming start. Fresh off an extended playoff run that included a win over the Oklahoma City Thunder in the first round in which he outplayed Russell Westbrook, Mitchell entered the year with visions of grandeur on a team many thought had a chance to finish with the second-best record in the Western Conference.

It didn't go according to plan from the jump as Utah underwhelmed and Mitchell struggled to strike the balance between hunting for his own shots on a scoring-starved team and setting the table for the rest of his teammates. Through the end of December, he was shooting just 41.1 percent, which ranked 27th among the 28 players scoring at least 20 points per game, ahead of only Tim Hardaway Jr.

He's been a different player since the calendar flipped to January, ranking among the league's top 10 scorers ahead of guys like Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and Devin Booker. The production has matched the hype in part because Mitchell's exploits have led to wins. Only the Golden State Warriors have a better record in the West than the Utah Jazz since Jan. 1.

The only reason that Mitchell is not higher on this list and perhaps even atop this list is that it took until January for this version to take shape.

3. John Collins

When the Atlanta Hawks drafted Collins with the 19th overall pick in 2017, they couldn't realistically imagine that less than two years later he would already be a walking 20-10 force that suddenly looks like the next Amar'e Stoudemire.

This isn't supposed to happen with the 19th pick in the draft, a spot where you're trying to nail rotation players or specialist off-the-bench types. Collins is far more than that.

He's one of just five players averaging at least 24 points and 11 rebounds per 36 minutes. The others on that list? Giannis Antetokounmpo, Joel Embiid, Karl-Anthony Towns and Anthony Davis, all of whom are "build your entire franchise around this dude" type of players.

Perhaps the most exciting part of that company for Hawks fans is that Collins is also the most efficient of the five. He's a good free throw shooter, a good 3-point shooter and a good finisher inside, resulting in the highest true-shooting percentage of that group.

The biggest questions moving forward: can he make a leap defensively and can his play lead to winning basketball? He currently ranks 93rd among 95 qualified power forwards in Defensive Plus-Minus, not exactly flattering yet not surprising for a young player on a young team. The second question is starting to bear some fruit as the Hawks have been nearly eight points per 100 possessions better with him on the floor, one of the best figures on the team.

2. De'Aaron Fox

For a hot minute it looked like De'Aaron Fox might lead the upstart Kings to an unlikely playoff berth and thus ending an elongated playoff drought that will now be 13 seasons long.

Nevertheless, there's plenty of room for optimism in Sacramento and it all starts with Fox.

He might be the league's fastest player with the ball in his hands, he's an explosive finisher that won't hesitate to dunk on anyone and he's a more than capable shooter, which enables him to excel off the ball. He also has some of the fastest hands in the league, which makes him a load as an on-ball defender. Throw in the fact that he's a heady player with an incredibly high basketball IQ and a competitive fire that burns red hot, and it's not difficult to imagine Fox ultimately emerging as the best player from this class.

1. Ben Simmons

After winning Rookie of the Year last season, Ben Simmons became the only second-year player to make this year's All-Star team.

He's scoring, rebounding and assisting at Oscar Robertson-like levels that are nearly unprecedented for a player this early into a career.

Apart from the surface-level statistics, it can't be overstated how Simmons was given the reins of a Finals contender and then asked midseason not once, but twice to incorporate yet another high volume, All-Star calibre player into the fold.

That would be hard for a 15-year, perennial All-Star veteran let alone a 22-year-old still trying to figure out his own place in the game.

You can make the case that given the roster talent on the Philadelphia 76ers and his role in squeezing out as much as possible that Simmons is the single most important player heading into the postseason. There's a ton riding on his ability to push the right buttons for a team that's dreaming big yet on the verge of an offseason in which several major pieces can leave.

Where Simmons goes from here or what he ultimately becomes is a mystery. Just know that right now, at this point in time, he's the top man among a deep crowd of incredibly talented second-year players.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA or its clubs.

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