6 min read

The sophomore…surge?

The sophomore…surge?
Stephen Dunn/Getty Images North America

We’ve all heard of the sophomore slump and while it does exist in every sport at every level of competition, the NBA is an intriguing case study for the opposing phenomenon of the sophomore slump: The Sophomore Surge.

(By the way, it was really hard to not title this the sophomore Serge, but I resisted.)

You see rookies are known, if not even expected, to do two horrible things in their rookie season. They take unbelievably ill-advised and often rushed shots, thereby plummeting their FG%, AND they turn the ball over so much that coaches round the world simultaneously smack their foreheads and yearn to call for a sub.

Are there exceptions to this rule? Well, of course—but not really. I mean of course there are exceptions in that not everyone is going to suffer from both and some will do better in these categories than others but, pretty much across the board, a rookie is going to take better shots and take better care of the ball more in their second-through-retirement seasons than they will in their rookie season. In fact, I’ll go out on a very short limb and say it should come as no shock to any of us that professional basketball players get better the more time they have to play professional basketball up until that no fun thief known as age steals their youth and physical prime.

It’s called experience and adapting to the speed and level of play of the Association. So why all the references to the sophomore surge? Well, seeing as the Thunder are still one of the youngest teams in the league and have a core consisting of players all under the age of 23, we have witnessed that “jump” from the rookie season to the sophomore season in terms of production and development. In fact, we’ve also seen the jump (via Durant) from sophomore stud to junior All-Star and MVP candidate (though please don’t expect all Thunder players to make that jump).

And since there are three rookie pieces that are as essential to the Thunder’s rise to the next stage of competing for a championship, the sophomore surge of Serge, Harden and Maynor will greatly affect the current and futures success of this team.

So what can we expect?

Well, for starters, you might not want to expect the same dramatic jump that you saw from Durant, Westbrook and even Green make for the Thunder’s newest sophomores. And here’s why…

If experience is the most important component of that surge from wide-eyed, bushy tailed rookie to a little more seasoned sophomore, then minutes played is a pretty big factor. The more a rookie has time out on the court at the highest level of basketball, against the best competition, the faster that experience piles up.

And that’s kind of the problem. Take a glance at what Durant, Green and Westbrook averaged their rookie seasons versus the surge they experienced in their sophomore seasons.

Rookie Westbrook: 15.3 points, 5.3 assists, 4.9 rebounds, 1.3, steals, 3.3 turnovers, 39.8 FG%, 27.1% 3PT in 32.5 MPG
Sophomore Westbrook: 16.1 points, 8.0 assists, 4.8 rebounds, 1.3 steals, 3.3 turnovers, 41.8 FG%, 22.1% 3PT (ouch) in 34.3 MPG—

Rookie Durant: 20.3 points, 2.4 assists, 4.4 rebounds, 1.0 steals, 2.9 turnovers, 43.0 FG%, 28.8% 3PT in 34.6 MPG
Sophomore Durant: 25.3 points, 2.8 assists, 6.5 rebounds, 1.3 steals, 3.0 turnovers, 47.6 FG%, 42.2% 3PT in 39.0 MPG

Rookie Green: 10.5 points, 1.5 assists, 4.8 rebounds, .60 steals, 2.0 turnovers, 42.7 FG%27.6% 3PT in 28.2 MPG
Sophomore Green: 16.5 points, 2.0 assists, 6.6 rebounds, 1.0 steals, 2.2 turnovers, 44.6 FG%, 38.9% 3PT in 36.8 MPG

Now I bet the first thing on your mind is, “Hey, Durant and Green’s turnovers went up and Russ shot worse from 3 PT range than in their rookie seasons.” And yes, that is all true. However turnover rate is a more accurate representation of their improved ability to take care of the ball in their sophomore seasons as Durant and Green played a good chunk more minutes in their second years than in their first and Russ averaged the same turnovers in more minutes.

In other words, their turnover rates improved, as did their shooting save Russ’s depressing 3 PT% (remember, we’re talking OVERALL shot selection…just keep telling yourself that, I have to).

But did you happen to catch the italicized stats there at the end of each year? Minutes Per Game. Green had the lowest with 28.2 MPG in his rookie year, whereas both Durant and Westbrook were comfortably over 30 MPG.

Now take a look at the rookie statistics for the Sophomore Three (that’s right, everyone’s naming trios now so count me in) from last year.

Rookie Harden: 9.9 points, 1.8 assists, 3.2 rebounds, 1.1 steals, 1.39 turnovers, 40.3 FG%, 37.5% 3PT in 22.9 MPG

Rookie Ibaka: 6.3 points, 0.1 assists, 5.4 rebounds, 1.3 blocks, .93 turnovers, 54.3 FG% in 18.1 MPG

Rookie Maynor: 4.7 points, 3.3 assists, 1.6 rebounds, .49 steals, 1.05 turnovers, 41.8 FG%, 31.0% 3PT in 15.7 MPG

So you see the problem? Not a single member of the Sophomore Three logged at least 25 minutes a game. Heck, Westbrook logged twice as many minutes as Maynor, Durant nearly did the same as Ibaka and only Harden was even close to the lowest minutes member, Jeff Green, but still logged almost 20% less minutes than Green did.

In other words, Westbrook got twice the experience of Maynor, Durant almost did compared to Ibaka, and Green got 20% more experience than Harden.

So this spells doom, right? Eh, not so much.

While it’s absolutely important for the players to get minutes in terms of their development, there are a few other things that can be even more valuable when it comes to experience. One of the most important factors just so happens to be the playoffs. And luckily for the Thunder’s newest trio, they got to experience that invaluable factor against the defending and soon-to-be-repeating World Champs.

Here’s their numbers from that experience:

Playoff Harden: 7.7 points, 2.5 rebounds, 1.8 assists, 1.0 steals, 38.7 FG%, 37.5% 3PT, 84.2 FT% and 20.0 MPG

Playoff Ibaka: 7.8 points, 6.5 rebounds, 2.0 blocks, 57.1 FG%, 70.0% FT and 25.5 MPG

Playoff Maynor: 3.7 points, 1.5 assists to .83 turnovers,  1.5 rebounds, 30.0 FG%, 16.7 3PT% and 81.8 FT% and 12.7 MPG

I’m not saying that experience cancels out an utter lack of minutes played, but it helps. A lot. Those are numbers they put up in the highest pressure situation, against the best team in the NBA during their rookie seasons folks.

But not only does that experience help, competing for playing time on a competitive, almost always in every game they play, postseason caliber team does as well, instead of logging the majority of your minutes when the game’s already been decided and you’re totally outclassed by your opponent.

So it’s definitely possible for Serge, Harden and Maynor to experience a surge comparable to Durant, Westbrook and Green’s (in the context of their roles and playing time, don’t quote me as saying they’ll all explode next year). But what would a reasonable surge even look like?

Well just after the season ended I did a special three-part installment on the Necessary Development of these three players and forecasted their next season totals if they all experience a Durant/Westbrook/Green-ian surge in the context of their roles on the squad. As of today, I still agree with myself, for the most part, and think it’s completely possible (notice I didn’t say probable) that a marked improvement will be seen as follows:

Sophomore Harden: 15 points, 4.5 rebounds, 3.5 assists, 1.25 steals, 45.5 FG%, 40.3% 3PT and 31.5 MPG (lowered a bit from the forecast but I think 31+ MPG is the only way he sees such a surge…and honestly, if he doesn’t see those minutes, why pick him third overall?)

Sophomore Ibaka: 10.5 points, 11.2 rebounds, 2.0 blocks, 56.1 FG%, 72.5% FT and 30.1 MPG (man I hope his minutes is at least this, if not more, but Aldrich, Krstic, Green, Collison…you get the idea)

Sophomore Maynor: 6.5 points, 4.5 assists to 1.2 turnovers, 2 rebounds, .75 steals with 44.0 FG%, 38.9 3PT% and 79.0 FT% and 20.0 MPG (I think we’ll start seeing some more Maynor/Westbrook backcourts more often when the Thunder goes small, which is how he’ll get this many minutes)

Now is it entirely possible that none of the three even approach these numbers? Of course.

But if they can come somewhere reasonably close to this type of production next season, I think the Thunder will be an incredibly scary team who will absolutely challenge for home court in the playoffs.

Only about 100 days before the last week in October! Not that I’m counting.