The NBA learning curve is different for everyone.
It took Giannis Antetokounmpo four years to win the Most
Improved Player award that signaled his rise to stardom. Cameron
Payne was all but finished in the league before he signed with the
Phoenix Suns and emerged as a key contributor in the team's run to
the NBA Finals last season. Andrew Wiggins is an All-Star and a
core piece for the Golden State Warriors; he needed six years and
two changes of scenery to get there.
Development takes time. And while those trendy, eye-popping
"leap" moments are exciting, the blossoming often overshadows the
buds that precede. Watching a young player start to fit the pieces
together before the final puzzle takes shape is one of the true
joys of being immersed in basketball.
Dozens of NBA talents are in the budding stage. Three have
caught my eye on the spreadsheets and on the screen, and I'd like
to highlight their promising growth while they still fly under the
JONATHAN KUMINGA, GOLDEN STATE WARRIORS
When the Warriors drafted Jonathan Kuminga and Moses Moody in
the lottery, I (and likely several others) presumed the latter
would be the first to stamp his presence in the rotation. Moody is
showing promise in the G League, but it's Kuminga who has made the
leap so far. He's quite literally cutting open his niche on one of
the league's best teams.
Since Feb. 1, the No. 7 overall pick has averaged 14.6 points in
just over 25 minutes per game. He's been a terror inside, making
73.7% of his shots within 5 feet of the basket. Those looks
typically come off some spectacular cuts and finishes.
According to Synergy, 13.6% of Kuminga-involved plays include cuts.
He's making an impressive 70.5% of his cutting field goals. The
spatial awareness and timing on some of these are simply
jaw-dropping for a rookie in an offense that requires constant
off-ball focus. Kuminga is a simply nasty dunker too.
The thunderous dunks and full-speed finishes make up most of
Kuminga's rookie highlights. However, he's quietly hitting a
respectable 37.9% of his catch-and-shoot threes over the past month
as well. He's not nearly a polished offensive player yet; Kuminga
has logged more turnovers than assists in every month this season,
and isn't a pull-up threat. However, his NBA-ready cutting and
finishing already make him an asset off of the Warriors' top
Kuminga's game was supposed to be a long-term investment. He
doesn't turn 20 until October, and appeared extremely raw in his
first pro stint with G League Ignite last season. For him to
already be a rotation-caliber contributor is just one of the many
pleasant surprises with this year's Golden State squad.
ALEKSEJ POKUSEVSKI, OKLAHOMA CITY THUNDER
Aleksej Pokusevski might have been the single worst NBA player
in 2020-21. His season was extremely poor on both ends, and outside
of a couple of late-season outliers, Pokusevski rarely looked
poised doing much of anything on the court.
Prior to February, the 20-year-old had been in and out of the
active rotation this season with similar struggles, and spent time
with the G League affiliate OKC Blue — where he still didn't play
That's what makes the past month so interesting. In 10 contests
since Feb. 1, Pokusevski is averaging 10.8 points and 6.4 rebounds
in 24.5 minutes per game while shooting 40.0% from long range. It's
been by far the best 10-game stretch of his young career.
There are a few layers to his improved efficiency. Pokusevski
has made 38.7% of his catch-and-shoot threes and appears in rhythm
off the catch. However, per Second Spectrum tracking data, he's
also 9 of 16 (small sample size alert) on shots where he's taken
3-to-6 dribbles. He's finishing 62.0% of his attempts at the rim,
per Cleaning the Glass; while it isn't anything to write home
about, it's also 10 percentage points better than his rookie
In this reel alone you will see:
- A one-dribble, deep, pull-up triple
- A slip to an and-one finish
- A wacky dribble drive to a pull-up from the elbow
- A hesi into a lefty finish
- A sweet backdoor cut
Since Feb. 1, Pokusevski has logged a 12.8% turnover rate (about
league average), down from a ghastly 16.4% rate up through the end
of January. He's also logged a 2.6% block rate on defense, which
ranks in the 80th percentile among bigs, and a 1.6% steal rate
(78th percentile). Pokusevski still has defensive lapses, but the
activity appears to be way up, and he scarcely commits
We're setting some low bars with Pokusevski, and that's okay.
OKC is playing the longest of long games by developing an extremely
skinny, 7-foot microwave playmaker. Year 2 was about seeing if he
could turn flashes into NBA-caliber skills, and over the last
month, Pokusevski seems to be catching up. He still doesn't turn 21
until December. The Thunder have plenty of time to be patient with
their super-ceiling prospect as he works through the complexities
of the NBA.
COBY WHITE, CHICAGO BULLS
White appeared to have been lost in the Bulls' radical offseason
upgrades with Lonzo Ball, Alex Caruso and DeMar DeRozan joining
the fold. Where would the 2019 seventh overall pick fit in as a
score-first guard on a roster with at least four other guards and
wings ahead of him in the pecking order?
But the 22-year-old has not only settled — he's thriving with
less pressure to lead the offense. White's usage rate is a
career-low 20.1%, per Cleaning the Glass, but he's averaging 116.5
points per 100 shot attempts — in the 83rd percentile among combo
White has been on a heater since February, making a scorching
48.7% of his threes with a 62.4% True Shooting percentage. Despite
moving in and out of the starting lineup as Chicago battles
injuries, he's appeared unflappable. White is drilling 42.3% of his
catch-and-shoot threes this season, up 6% from last year, and
taking more of those shots than ever.
The synergy is palpable between White and DeRozan. Per the NBA's
tracking data, White received 13.6% of his passes from the new
Bulls star in February (second-most on the team behind Nikola
Vucevic) and knocked down a whopping 63.6% of his three-pointers
that came off a DeRozan dish.
His job is straightforward: get in an open spot on the
perimeter, be ready when DeRozan draws help and make the shot. Some
of these plays might look simple, but notice how DeRozan doesn't
hesitate to dish it off when he sees defenders collapse away from
White, and White doesn't hesitate with his quick trigger.
Chicago has lessened the creation burden on White; 64.7% of his
made field goals have come off an assist this season compared to
just 50.7% in 2020-21. It's resulted in a serious efficiency
(Scroll right to see full table on mobile)
White is trending away from being that prototypical lead guard
fans may have expected when the Bulls initially selected him;
there's nothing wrong with that. He's showing that he's still a
valuable piece to Chicago's long-term future by blending his
offensive game with the stars on the roster.
THE OUTLIERS (a.k.a. other random interesting numbers I
find in the void):
- Mark Cheung made this free, insightful app that
compares how 2-man duos fare in their shot and assist location
spreads when they share the court. I highly recommend messing
around with it.
- SIS Hoops has started rolling out some of its data from the
season, and this one caught my eye. DeMar DeRozan is an absolute
- I think the Celtics have the makings of a great basketball
team, but even I've been surprised at how highly some models out
there feel about their title odds. Zach Kram wrote a phenomenal
article at The Ringer about why
the numbers love Boston and what they could be overlooking.