Sitting on the bench early in an NBA career is no easy task. Routinely, sports media will heave colloquialisms about paying dues, learning the ropes, sitting and learning from the bench.
Plenty of veterans echo that, and the notion makes sense—though it’s also a completely biased position coming from those trying to protect their own jobs as well.
From a personal perspective, it’s an adjustment young athletes are making for usually the first time in their lives. These are the highest caliber basketball players on the planet who used to being the big shot in their college, high school and AAU programs. In a matter of months, they go from that top option to a healthy scratch, and the adjustment is truly humbling. Try placing yourself in those shoes at the tender ages of these athletes and perspective can change.
Now especially put yourself in their shoes on a playoff team, sitting behind veterans and rarely seeing the floor. Excuses and reasons abound for why they aren’t getting any serious burn. Coaches hide behind the thin margin for error for their teams while players wonder if veterans are really able to offer what they cannot.
There’s a short list of youngsters in this position, but there are a few guys that, at this point, we just want to see play (more). They enter this season as giant unknowns and question marks. Evaluating them is still difficult due to the small sample size we’ve been given.
D.J. Wilson, Milwaukee Bucks
How does a guy that averaged 18.4 minutes per game still find himself on a list of those that we are dying to see play?
D.J. Wilson’s trajectory has been up and down since the Milwaukee Bucks drafted him 17th overall in 2017. He is a long (6’10”) and mobile forward that shoots the three, is a solid defender and has guard-like skills that teams covet in their frontcourt youngsters. While Wilson’s role was admittedly as a seldom-used backup, he was both inconsistent with his production and clearly still raw. With the Bucks chasing a title and boasting the best regular-season record last season, his margin for error pushed him to the bench during the playoffs. He only logged ten minutes in non-garbage time, according to Cleaning the Glass.
But while the Bucks rested their main players down the stretch before that point, Wilson turned the final few weeks of the year into his best. Playing 22.9 minutes a night, he averaged 8.2 points, 5.8 rebounds and 1.8 assists while shooting 39.1 percent from three. That includes an 18 point, 17 rebound and four assist game against the Oklahoma City Thunder:
Wilson isn’t a high-volume scorer. He only averaged 11.4 points per 36 minutes, which a super low rate. What this game and other stretches proved, however, was that he is best as a small-ball 5. Flanking him with shooting and letting him roll or pop while shooters are around him can maximize his ability as a unique athletic threat that teams struggle to match up with.
The only issue: the center position does not have a clear path to minutes in Milwaukee, nor is it a position of need for many teams. Wilson’s not good enough to warrant playing a certain style around, but he’s too good and too intriguing to sit on a bench and do nothing at all.
Jarred Vanderbilt, Denver Nuggets
One of the stars of 2019 Summer League, Jarred Vanderbilt has a lot of buzz surrounding him. He’s an athletic prototype for frontcourt guys in the same way D.J. Wilson is, but he’s more explosive and a better defender. Unfortunately, injuries shortened Vanderbilt’s rookie campaign to only 69 minutes.
And now all buzz around his upside is likely, frustratingly going to halt during his second season.
The Denver Nuggets are chasing a top spot in the Western Conference and recently acquired Jerami Grant from the Thunder for a 2020 first-round pick. Grant, who plays the same energy 4-man role as Vanderbilt, is better, more polished and a veteran presence on a team that needs an athletic backup there.
With Nikola Jokic and Paul Millsap firmly entrenched as starters, Mason Plumlee still holding a spot as backup center and the continued intrigue of Michael Porter Jr. as a potential elite athlete, Grant instantly eats up any regular minutes designed for Vanderbilt.
The summer sessions and other glimpses of the Kentucky product prove he’s a legitimate pro and can (and will, someday) be a rotation player. The time that may arrive—at least in the Mile High City—could now be delayed by Denver’s timeline for winning and their shrewd moves this summer. It’s a shame that somebody has to pay the price for it, but Vanderbilt is likely to be that guy.
Melvin Frazier, Orlando Magic
Standing 6’6″ with a 7’1″ wingspan, Melvin Frazier’s frame makes him an intriguing wing prospect and a potential 3-and-D player. The bouncy lefty was the 35th pick by the Orlando Magic in 2018 but did not crack the rotation as a rookie. He actualy played only 44 minutes and did not knock down a trey.
Look at Orlando’s roster, however, and you’ll find a need for another 3-and-D wing to crack the rotation. There’s room for Frazier to grow into this role, but also legitimate skepticism about him being able to rise to the challenge.
During his three years at Tulane, Frazier only had one season shooting above 30 percent from deep. How much of the 3-and-D moniker he’s earned comes from optimism around his desired role due to that body type and athleticism?
On the other hand, Frazier entered his senior year at Tulane and re-worked the mechanics of his jumper, leaping from a sub-30 percent shooter to 38.5 percent his final year, attempting 3.5 per game. But he had his lowest three-point attempt rate in college that final year. For a specialty 3-and-D type of role player, that’s a trend that isn’t ideal. While his percentage rose with the Lakeland Magic in the G-League last season (a highly respectable 41.7 percent by going 15-36), his three-point attempt rate dipped once again, as Frazier only took 21.2 percent of his attempts from downtown.
So the theory of Frazier continues to clash with the reality of him. His path to minutes in Orlando revolves around the dependency of that stroke. But if he continues to take fewer and fewer treys, how will he find his way back onto the floor? He was also dealt some bad news when he missed the 2019 Summer League due to a stress fracture. Seeing improvements in the short-term is on hold, though that shouldn’t be a reason to overlook his ability to take a leap forward.
At this point, we just to see him live up to his potential. Then there’d be a 3-and-D wing with a seven-foot wingspan unleashed on the Eastern Conference.
Shake Milton, Philadelphia 76ers
Shake Milton is another one of those guys with prototypical combinations of size and skill for modern hoops. He’s essentially a 6’6″ point guard and possesses a 7’0″ wingspan. Whatever experiment with massive length and brilliant passers the Philadelphia 76ers are running, Milton is a piece that not only fits their mantra but has tested well in his limited minutes.
Through 27 G-League contests during his rookie year, he averaged 24.9 points, 4.9 rebounds and 4.9 assists, stroking 36.9 percent of his treys.
Yet, despite an impressive Summer League, the Sixers buried Milton on their depth charts. They signed Trey Burke and Raul Neto as backup point guards, both of whom could threaten Shake’s path for minutes behind Ben Simmons. With the emergence of wings Zhaire Smith and Matisse Thybulle, plus the acquisition of Josh Richardson, other minutes playing up a position could dissipate.
Hopefully, the Sixers realize what they have and give him a (pun intended) fair Shake.
Gary Trent Jr., Portland Trail Blazers
If Neil Olshey and the entire player development staff of the Portland Trail Blazers have proven one thing over the past decade, it’s that they know how to slowly bring along their youngsters and prod gradual but meaningful improvement.
Zach Collins has made incremental improvements in his first two seasons, and they were on display during the 2019 NBA Playoffs. Now-Miami Heat center Meyers Leonard went down the same path, and last year’s rookie Anfernee Simons is primed for a big season ahead. Guys like Pat Connaughton and Noah Vonleh have played themselves into meaningful roles and contracts elsewhere after being second-round picks and/or retreads.
After an impressive summer session, Gary Trent Jr. could be the next guy to join those ranks. He is another youngster that logged only a few minutes as a rookie but didn’t live up to his shooting moniker with the big league club. His role was stunted as a specialty scorer on a team where he’ll play behind Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum and Rodney Hood—three score-first options.
But Trent absolutely torched G-League competition in a limited sample. During the six games he played, Trent averaged 33.3 points while going 30-60 from three and bordering on a 50-40-90 shooting split. Is it only six games? Yes, but it is enough to cause a great amount of optimism about Trent bulldozing his way into the rotation as a sharpshooter next year.
He’s clearly too good to be in the G-League but will face a logjam at the wings blocking him from a large and consistent role. It’s a shame, because Trent may be one of the best-kept secrets in the NBA today.
Unless otherwise noted, all statistics are courtesy of NBA.com stats, basketball-reference or Synergy Sports Tech, and are current as of August 14, 2019.
Adam is a TBW staff writer and college basketball coach at Dickinson College. He loves watching for offensive schemes while specializing in individual skill development, shooting technique and coach-speak. Born in New Hampshire, Adam grew up as a Celtics fan but now claims to just love “good basketball”, which does not include mid-range jumpers.