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Monday, November 7, 2011
Who will be top NBA junior in '11-12?

ESPN.com and the TrueHoop Network

Stephen Curry and Tyreke Evans
Tyreke Evans reigned as a rookie in 2009-10, but has Steph Curry already shot to the top of the class?

With two full seasons under their respective belts, how will last season's leading sophomores fare in their third campaigns?

After surveying the NBA's freshmen and sophomores, our 5-on-5 panel members pick who they think will finish the season in the top five among the league's third-year players.


1. Who will be the fifth-best "NBA junior" in the 2011-12 season?


Henry Abbott, ESPN.com: Ty Lawson. The young Nugget is an explosive athlete, a worthy quarterback and an efficient shooter. That's a nice enough combination that whenever I watch Denver -- remember watching basketball? -- I'm rooting for them to play him more. The Nuggets' offense is undeniably at its best when he's on the floor.

Dan Feldman, PistonPowered: Jrue Holiday. Holiday progressed more than anyone not in discussion to win last year's Most Improved Player (and more than several in contention for the award). Players' growth curves tend to flatten each season as they approach their ceiling, but because Holiday spent most his time at UCLA playing off guard, he has more room to grow than average.

Spencer Wellesley Percy, Queen City Hoops: James Harden. It's time for Harden to become a starter fort the Thunder, or at least get the 30-plus minutes a night that he deserves. Harden is a perfect Robin to Durant's Batman in OKC. As he showed in the playoffs, Harden is ready to produce like we always knew he could.

Noam Schiller, Hardwood Paroxysm: Ty Lawson. After backing up Chauncey Billups became sharing the stage with Raymond Felton, the former UNC speedster now has the point guard position all to himself and should be able to fully capitalize. Lawson is a both an elite shooter and passer, giving him a substantial edge over fellow '09 point guards Brandon Jennings and Darren Collison.

Royce Young, Daily Thunder: Ty Lawson. Tough call for No. 5 between Lawson and Jrue Holiday. But I went with Lawson because he's the more explosive playmaker. Holiday is steady and his numbers improved mainly because he averaged nearly 10 more minutes a game. But Lawson has the chance to be the best point guard from the entire class. Now that the Nuggets are his to run, we might see that happen next season.


2. Who will be the fourth-best "NBA junior" in the 2011-12 season?


Henry Abbott, ESPN.com: Tyreke Evans. If this long offseason results in a sweet jumper and less predictable moves in the lane, he should be at the top of the list. But until then, his lackluster roster combines with his mediocre set of tools for dealing with double-teams to make watching him frustrating, given his amazing combination of size, strength and skill.

Dan Feldman, PistonPowered: Ty Lawson. Few players can match his speed and shooting ability, and he defends well for his size. If it weren't for the last three words of the previous sentence, he'd probably be No. 1 on my list.

Spencer Wellesley Percy, Queen City Hoops: Brandon Jennings. Although he has been an inconsistent shooter early in his career, his field goal percentage rose slightly last season (from 37 to 39) and I believe that trend will continue. Jennings would benefit drastically from another guard who can score at a high rate to take some of the load off his shoulders.

Noam Schiller, Hardwood Paroxysm: Stephen Curry's raw numbers rival those of anybody on this list, and I believe he's but one or two years away from becoming an elite player. But once one accounts for the pace-induced inflation that comes with playing for Golden State and the horrendous defense, Curry falls just short of the top three.

Royce Young, Daily Thunder: DeMar DeRozan. Who was the top scorer in this class last season? OK, Stephen Curry. But who was No. 2? It was DeRozan. He put up 17.4 a game and did it on a solid 46.7 percent shooting from the field. He still has to develop into more than just a slasher, but DeRozan really has the chance to be a strong 20-point scorer for the foreseeable future.


3. Who will be the third-best "NBA junior" in the 2011-12 season?


Henry Abbott, ESPN.com: James Harden. It's hard to argue that Kendrick Perkins has helped the Thunder all that much. He has been hobbled, benched or both for much of the Thunder's best moments. It's impossible to argue, however, that the trade wasn't good for the Thunder, mainly because Jeff Green's absence sets Harden free. Is there another player this young who inspires so much confidence on the drive?

Dan Feldman, PistonPowered: Serge Ibaka. The Memphis Grizzlies demonstrated how to exploit Ibaka, an otherwise-effective defender: Have Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol on your team. Fortunately for Ibaka, few other teams can do that, and he'll continue to show his defensive prowess. Although his shooting improvement was overrated, his reduction in turnovers was even more underrated.

Spencer Wellesley Percy, Queen City Hoops: Marcus Thornton. After he was traded to Sacramento last season, Thornton was the most productive scorer in the entire class, averaging 21.3 points in 27 games. Whether or not you believe his numbers are a product of being on a bad team, the guy can flat-out score and is quite versatile.

Noam Schiller, Hardwood Paroxysm: Serge Ibaka. Though I think Ibaka's defensive reputation has been blown out of proportion after he topped the league in total blocks last season, he's an extremely valuable asset when roaming the weak side -- and his jumper, underrated to begin with, looked much better while he played for EuroBasket tourney-winner Spain. Another gem from Thunder GM Sam Presti, together with the next guy on my list.

Royce Young, Daily Thunder: Tyreke Evans. He was the undisputed Rookie of the Year from this class, but a disappointing sophomore season marred by a toe injury is what keeps him from topping this list. Evans played in just 57 games last season and saw his averages dip across the board. He pretty much permanently moved to shooting guard, and with the addition of rookie Jimmer Fredette, Evans will stay there. He's still probably the best player from this class, but he's got to stay healthy to reclaim that.


4. Who will be the second-best "NBA junior" in the 2011-12 season?


Henry Abbott, ESPN.com: Serge Ibaka. Being that big, mobile and active is breathtaking, and international play over the summer suggests he has developed a reliable jumper, too. No joke: If he can protect the rim like a madman, and punish you for leaving him on offense, he'll be one of the West's most important playoff big men for years to come.

Dan Feldman, PistonPowered: Tyreke Evans. Evans deservedly won Rookie of the Year, but he regressed last season. How much can that be blamed on his plantar fasciitis? If a lot, there's no reason to believe Evans can't at least match his rookie form.

Spencer Wellesley Percy, Queen City Hoops: Tyreke Evans. Evans can expose about any defensive matchup at his position by going to the basket, but he's a very streaky shooter. He will become easier to guard down the road without a better outside game.

Noam Schiller, Hardwood Paroxysm: James Harden. It took some time for Harden to reach his comfort level in the NBA, but he exploded in the 2011 playoffs, sporting a ridiculous true shooting percentage of 63.4 and elite playmaking skills. After Kevin Durant in '10 and Russell Westbrook in '11, Harden could be the third consecutive OKC guy to make an All-Star leap.

Royce Young, Daily Thunder: James Harden. The numbers never blow you away. And for the first half of last season, Harden seemed headed for the "disappointment" label. But after GM Sam Presti shipped away Jeff Green, the bearded one stepped up. Harden averaged almost 15 points a game, became one of Oklahoma City's top offensive weapons and got legit consideration for the league's top sixth man. He was good enough last season that Thunder fans were seriously asking things like, "Who would you rather have running the offense late in a close game: Harden or Westbrook?"


5. Who will be the best "NBA junior" in the 2011-12 season?


Henry Abbott, ESPN.com: Stephen Curry. New coach, new owner, roster in flux ... there are a lot of unknowns. But what's known is that Curry has the best combination of shooting touch and court vision in the class, which gives him a chance to be a little Steve Nash-y. If Curry can achieve a fraction of that -- and if Monta Ellis departs, putting the ball in Curry's hands all night, every night -- he's the pick of this litter.

Dan Feldman, PistonPowered: Stephen Curry. He's more athletic and a better playmaker than I ever thought he'd be in the NBA. Everyone knew he could shoot, but he's proved that he can handle the league's physical play and handle point guard duties. Very little will separate Curry and Evans this season.

Spencer Wellesley Percy, Queen City Hoops: Stephen Curry. This kid can do it all -- extremely dangerous scorer at the basket, can shoot the lights out, and is evolving into a better distributor as a PG. The one part of Curry's game that may always be mediocre is his defense. But his offensive production and the versatility he displays in getting it done clearly give him the highest upside of any player in the junior class.

Noam Schiller, Hardwood Paroxysm: Tyreke Evans. Reke's impressive rookie campaign seemed like a distant memory last season, but plantar fasciitis has long been a death sentence for penetration-based guards. As the season drew to a close, that otherworldly skill at getting to the rim was back. Add a reportedly improved jumper and some maturity, and you get a re-breakout of a third year.

Royce Young, Daily Thunder: Stephen Curry. He's been described as an offensive savant, and I really don't think there's a better way to put it. Nothing about Curry's game really screams at you, but the guy just scores and makes it look pretty easy. He's one of the league's top pure shooters, he can run an offense, and he creates for himself or for others. He's not a defensive force, but he's never really needed to be.