The 2016-17 NBA season is just about a week away from starting. Another new class of rookies will be making their debuts, and it will be time once again for pundits to debate over the boom-and-bust potential of these NBA newbies. But as most sports fans know, it takes several years before one can definitely say whether a player, regardless of pro sport, will turn out to be a bust or not.
Consider the case of Steve Nash, for instance. By the end of his fourth NBA season, he had potential bust written all over him. But his numbers rose exponentially and his play improved dramatically in his fifth season, and right now his Basketball Hall of Fame induction is only a question of when. Likewise, Chauncey Billups only started living up to his potential in his sixth NBA season. And on the flip side of things, it took five decent-at-best seasons for Michael Olowokandi before most fans realized that the Kandi Man "kan't."
In this list, we will be looking at 15 NBA players, most of whom are entering their fourth or fifth seasons after becoming lottery picks in the draft. Mostly, the jury is out on these young men, though some are already on some all-time busts lists. Either way, 2016-17 may prove to be the "put up or shut up" season for many of these NBA players.
15 DERRICK WILLIAMS
This may sound like an odd choice considering Derrick Williams, the second-overall pick in the 2011 draft, IS already considered a bust by many, with no hope of turning the corner as he enters his sixth NBA season. He hasn't been very productive despite spending most of his career as a backup on some bad teams, and has been wildly inconsistent, oftentimes alternating 20-plus-point games with those where he goes one-for-something from the field.
Looking on the bright side, he's just 25 years old, and if Chris Bosh's NBA career (or at least his time with the Miami Heat) is indeed over, he may get a look at PF. That is, if he isn't outplayed by hard-working journeyman Luke Babbitt.
14 MICHAEL CARTER-WILLIAMS
Who said Rookie of the Year winners are automatically disqualified from bust status? Robert Griffin III is teetering close to it in the NFL, if not already there, and back in the early-‘80s, another NBA point guard, Phil Ford, made a free fall to mediocrity after winning Rookie of the Year in 1979 and having two solid seasons thereafter. Going back to the present, MCW’s stats have been steadily declining since he won top rookie honors in 2013-2014, and while he does provide some good defense and size at the one, his shooting, especially from long range, is just too erratic to put him in the top half of NBA point guards.
Earlier this week, Carter-Williams was traded to the Chicago Bulls, and by the looks of things, he’s going to see his stats decline even further as the presumptive backup to Rajon Rondo. Unless, of course, the youngster can eclipse the veteran.
13 MICHAEL KIDD-GILCHRIST
Unlike his Kentucky teammate Anthony Davis, who went first-overall in 2012, second-overall pick Michael Kidd-Gilchrist (yes, another Michael with a hyphenated surname) has found NBA stardom elusive. Injuries have stalled him for the most part, but even when healthy, MKG has mostly been a glorified role player for the Charlotte Bobcats/Hornets, standing out due to his hops and his defense, but not excelling in any other aspect of the game.
Kidd-Gilchrist missed all but seven games in the 2015-16 season due to shoulder surgery, and he’s since seen his starting small forward job go to another disappointing second-overall pick, Marvin Williams. It’s going to be a battle of glorified role players at the three, and if the younger Kidd-Gilchrist fails to unseat Williams, he may soon establish himself as one of the more disappointing lottery picks of 2012.
12 NIK STAUSKAS
The starting shooting guard job was Nik Stauskas' to lose on an abysmal Philadelphia 76ers team in 2015-16. He lost it. Despite starting off his second NBA season on a solid-enough note, Stauskas’ inconsistency kicked in early, as this once-feared long-range bomber with the Michigan Wolverines proved streaky and unreliable, even for the NBA’s worst team by a longshot.
With the Sixers still expected to suck big-time in 2016-17, Stauskas will get more chances to win the starting two spot, though he now has to contend with serviceable vet Gerald Henderson, aside from threes-and-D guy Hollis Thompson. If he fails to make an impact, it may be time to give up on Sauce Castillo’s prospects as a capable NBA two-guard, though that nickname will always be a memorable one.
11 NOAH VONLEH
As one of the few 2014 rookies in this list, Vonleh has been one of the more disappointing ones in his two NBA seasons. Obviously, Portland’s coaching staff likes him well enough, and his defensive ability appears to be the best part of his game. But you aren’t supposed to average just 3.6 points, 3.9 rebounds, and a shade above 15 minutes per game if you’re your team’s starting power forward.
In his sole college season for Indiana, Vonleh had some flashes of offensive potential, and even came close to hitting 50 percent from beyond the arc. His offense against NBA big men is far from consistent or effective, however, and he’ll need to work on that if he wants to avoid earning bust status for being a ninth-overall pick-turned defense-and-hustle specialist.
10 ALEX LEN
Could this be the year Alex Len finally becomes a solid starter or better at the five spot? The chances seem fairly good for the 7’1” former Maryland Terrapin. As a Phoenix Suns rookie, he was held back by injuries, and he didn’t exactly set the world on fire in his second year as a part-time starter. His third year saw him put up some good per-36 averages in points and rebounds as he made big improvements to his game, though he still couldn't win a full-time starting job.
The timing hasn’t been this good for Len, as Phoenix’s starting center last year, Tyson Chandler, is now 34 and entering his 16th pro season, with his numbers on the decline. Among the players on this list, he's arguably one of those with the best breakout potential, and could become a consistent double-double guy with at least a block and a half per game, should his minutes go up to the 30-per-game mark.
9 DION WAITERS
It seemed like a mistake at first when Dion Waiters declared for the 2012 NBA draft as a sophomore, and he did shut up some critics with two decent seasons for the Cleveland Cavaliers. But it’s been downhill since then, and as a member of the Oklahoma City Thunder, he had been riding the bench, with OKC coaches favoring Andre Roberson, a tough defender who hardly scores, but does what he’s asked and works his tail off.
Waiters’ attitude problems have been at the forefront of his descent to mediocrity, and it might not be too late for him to turn things around with Miami. Can he take advantage of Dwyane Wade’s move to the Chicago Bulls? Not if he can’t hold off another hard-working, defensive-oriented type, 2015 second-rounder Josh Richardson.
8 AUSTIN RIVERS
Not even playing for his dad on the L.A. Clippers can change the belief that Austin Rivers is a tweener through and through – not consistent enough on offense to be a good two-guard (to say little of his subpar free throw shooting), lacking the mindset to be a capable point guard. Sure, his defense is shaping up to be one of the better parts of his game, but if you look at the big picture, Rivers hasn’t been able to walk the walk when it comes to his public declarations of wanting to be one of the NBA’s most improved players.
Rivers is only 24, and still has time and potential to become more combo guard than tweener. Or he could even become a late bloomer like the man expected to keep starting ahead of him in 2016-17 – J.J. Redick. But he’ll need to make more improvements than the ones he’s made on defense since his rookie year in 2012-13.
7 TERRENCE ROSS
Remember the time Terrence Ross burned the L.A. Clippers with 51 points and ten three-pointers? That could have been the start of something big for the eighth overall pick in the 2012 draft. Two seasons later, Ross lost his starting shooting guard job with the Raptors, and while he still played about half a game on average, there were no more fluke performances like the aforementioned explosion from January 2014. He’s still deadly from long range, but dreadful in almost every other aspect of the game that doesn’t involve scoring or shooting.
With DeMar DeRozan and DeMarre Carroll entrenched at the two and three spots respectively, Ross needs a trade and more improvement on the defensive end (or even rebounding worthy of a guy who stands 6’7”) to escape his presumptive bust status.
6 CODY ZELLER
If it’s any consolation, he’s once again the Zeller brother with more upside. The fourth overall pick in 2013, Cody Zeller has made gradual improvements in his three years in the NBA, and he’s one of those few centers with good, consistent 50-75 potential from the field and from the line respectively. But he also has role player written all over him, as every other aspect of his game is painfully average at best. That’s not what you’d expect from a lottery big man entering his fourth pro season.
Aside from Zeller, the Charlotte Hornets have Roy Hibbert and Spencer Hawes at power forward and center, two players who aren’t even 30 years old yet but seemingly washed-up. Frank Kaminsky is also in the picture at the four and the five, and while still inconsistent, he does have lots of promise. That's not exactly the best big man rotation out there, but can Zeller stand out in this collectively mediocre group, now that he's drawing closer to put-up-or-shut-up time?
5 MEYERS LEONARD
Instead of emerging as a rare center who combines mobility and three-point shooting with above-average scoring and rebounding, Meyers Leonard’s main NBA claim to fame may be looking like a 7’1” version of Justin Bieber. Injuries have played their role in his slow development as a Portland Trail Blazers center/forward, but so has apathy on the defensive end and an inconsistent game overall. Oftentimes, it looks like this giant of a man is too comfortable stepping out for treys, and that was especially true in 2015-16, where over 50 percent of his shot attempts were from beyond the arc.
Seven-footers who can shoot from outside are valued in the NBA, but as long as Leonard continues to shy away from the paint and play poor defense, he’ll remain stuck on the bench in his fifth season in Portland.
4 BEN MCLEMORE
The next Ray Allen isn’t supposed to average less than eight points a game as a starting shooting guard in his third season. But Ben McLemore, who got lots of comparisons to the sweet-shooting future Hall of Famer ahead of the 2013 draft, regressed big-time in his third season with the Sacramento Kings, and mainly started in 2015-16 because the Kings didn’t have too many alternatives at the two aside from him. Guess it’s safe to say that Jesus Shuttlesworth he’s not.
What does the future hold for McLemore now that Arron Afflalo is in Sac-Town and likely to start at SG in the 2016-17 season? Unless he has an explosive start to the new season or gets a change of scenery via trade, McLemore may end up as one of the most disappointing rookies of 2013.
3 JOEL EMBIID
The only player in this list who has yet to play an NBA game, Joel Embiid missed all of his first two seasons due to a foot injury and a subsequent setback to his recovery. And while a bad 2016-17 rookie campaign won’t exactly qualify Embiid as an NBA bust just yet, there’s always the fear that he might reinjure that right foot of his, and that such a re-injury may jeopardize his prospects of NBA stardom (or merely having a productive NBA career for that matter) going forward.
With Nerlens Noel at power forward and Jahlil Okafor at center, Embiid won’t be pressured into big minutes as a rookie. But the key thing people are hoping for here is that he avoids further injuries, because if he doesn’t, he may end up as the next Greg Oden, instead of the next Hakeem Olajuwon.
2 THOMAS ROBINSON
Being a seemingly polished college big man from a top-flight program with ideal size for his pro position doesn’t ensure one of NBA success. Just ask Thomas Robinson, who followed up a decorated career with the Kansas Jayhawks with a highly underwhelming NBA career thus far. Not only did he fail to beat out the painfully average Jason Thompson for the starting PF job as a Kings rookie in 2012-13, he also got less playing time than the way-undersized (6’6”) Chuck Hayes. He’s since bounced around and come off the bench for Houston, Portland, Philadelphia, and Brooklyn, and hasn’t done much better despite being a good per-36 guy on the boards.
For 2016-17, T-Rob will be suiting up for the Los Angeles Lakers, and barring any miracles or severe injuries to frontliners, his subpar offensive AND defensive game almost ensures that he’ll be backing up Julius Randle and Timofey Mozgov (yes, even him) at the four and five spots respectively.
1 ANTHONY BENNETT
We can’t blame you if you already consider Anthony Bennett a bust, and probably one of the worst first-overall picks of all time. In three seasons, he’s played for three teams, all as a reserve, and last season saw him average a pathetic 1.5 points as a deep reserve for the Raptors. So what awaits him in 2016-17 as he prepares to suit up for the Brooklyn Nets, his fourth team in four seasons?
At this point in his career, Bennett is an absolute bust, no question about it. But he just might have a chance to be productive for once, provided he beats out the hard-working Trevor Booker and the savvy veteran Luis Scola for minutes at the four. Both aren’t starting material at this point in their careers, so Bennett could theoretically pull off a surprise and get the starting job. But his poor work ethic and lack of motivation are huge concerns, and he’s still a long shot at best to turn a corner and live up to at least half of his once-immense potential.