Leading up to the 2012 draft, everyone knew Anthony Davis was the prize of the class, thanks to his terrific freshman season at Kentucky. This was the classic "one-man draft." But two things have since happened that no one expected: (1) Davis has already become a superstar and (2) the class actually has three great players, possibly four.
With several potential All-Stars and a depth of starting-level talent overall, the class of 2012 is shaping up to be a pleasant surprise that looks even better when compared to this year's rookie crop.
Who are the top second-year players in the NBA today? Let's take a look. And remember, this ranking is based on where these guys are today, not where they were yesterday or where they will end up one day.
The big three
1. Anthony Davis, Pelicans
Davis does not have a consistent shot yet, nor does he have a plan in the post. But even without those two significant skills, he might already be one of the top players in the game. That should scare the "tank" into almost every team in the league that does not have a legit superstar.
His elite-level talent as a transition finisher, his production rolling to the rim off ball screens, and his triple-threat impact on defense (blocks, steals and covering space) will lift him into All-NBA consideration, potentially as a first-team forward.
2. Andre Drummond, Pistons
Drummond is almost Davis' equal as a player if we look only at his impact in the half court, where his size and agility continue to remind people of Shaq. He simply dominates in the paint by having the proper mindset, which is to force opponents to deal with his big body in front of the rim all game long.
He'd be even more effective if his teammates looked for him more often, which they will learn to do with more film study and coaching. This will result in better production for Drummond and the Pistons as the season unfolds.
Drummond is not the full-court threat Davis is, but he is one of the top rebounding centers in the game today and will compete for All-NBA honors at center for the next decade.
3. Damian Lillard, Trail Blazers
If we redrafted this class, there would be a debate about whether Davis or Drummond should go No. 1. But the No. 3 pick would be easy. Lillard is just better than any other player in this class except for the two guys above him on this list. He has the rare gift of being a world-class shooter and an extremely skilled ball handler, and he plays with poise and aggressiveness simultaneously.
Lillard will never be the athlete that guys like John Wall or Russell Westbrook are, but it's just as unlikely that those players will ever match Lillard's shooting skill. He is good enough to be the starting point guard on a title team while being one of its top-three players.
4. Jared Sullinger, Celtics
There's the Big Three in this class, and then there's everyone else -- guys who can start and be good players for their teams, but are not yet stars in any way. As of today, Sullinger leads this second group, though he remains below the radar thanks to Boston's struggles as a team.
Sullinger isn't great at any one thing yet (he's just 21), but he's good or very good at a lot of things. He can hurt defenses in the post or out on the floor as a shooter. He is a beast on the offensive glass. And he plays with strength and a high basketball IQ. His potential would grow a great deal if he can change his body a la Kevin Love.
5. Terrence Jones, Rockets
A nonfactor last season and the first two weeks of this season, Jones has emerged as a strong player on a contending team in the West. The Omer Asik drama has helped Jones, who is now starting for Houston and playing as if he plans to be in that spot for a long time.
Houston wants a power forward who can help Dwight Howard rebound and who can make 3s so Howard has more space to operate in half-court sets. Jones is the answer. Not only can he rebound and shoot 3s, but he also brings athleticism and basketball savvy as a scorer, using scoops and hooks appropriately or adding subtle fakes and changes of pace.
6. John Henson, Bucks
Henson is probably the least-appreciated player in this class, perhaps even by his own team. He is a top-five shot-blocker in the league (per 48 minutes) and, even though he isn't rebounding as well as he did last season, is still solid on the glass. Plus, he finishes shots in the paint at a high rate and makes easy plays as a passer.
Henson is about to turn 23 but has the body of a 20-year-old, which makes it likely that he will improve a great deal and be a legit starter in the NBA for a decade-plus.
7. Bradley Beal, Wizards
As expected, Beal is learning how to be an excellent shooting guard. His long-range talent is his best tool, but he can also have a big impact moving without the ball, excelling in the transition game, and becoming a reliable scorer in the Wizards' pinch-post/handoff action.
He's not yet effective as a pick-and-roll player, or in isolation (two areas that John Wall handles for the team). But Beal is long, strong and just 20 years old, so we can expect plenty of improvement from him in those areas and on defense.
8. Patrick Beverley, Rockets
Beverley is ferocious, athletic and powerful. How many other point guards not named Russell Westbrook could you say that about? And Beverley, while not gifted as a passer, is a willing and careful distributor who makes few mistakes, so the ball still flows to Dwight Howard and James Harden all game long when Beverley is in charge of the offense.
Beverley has a good chance to earn All-Defense honors at season's end and is shooting well from the 3-point line. He isn't a good pick-and-roll player yet, but playing alongside Harden means he doesn't have to be.
9. Jonas Valanciunas, Raptors
Just 21 years old, Valanciunas is already OK at most things, but he is very good at scoring with one-on-one post moves. And every team needs a post player who can score down on the blocks.
He has a terrific left hand and attacks his post-ups with an excellent plan, looking for a sweeping hook in the middle but always ready to counter baseline with a hook. He can face up and make shots, too.
Valanciunas is growing as a defender and a rebounder, though a bit more slowly than the Raptors would like to see.
10. Miles Plumlee, Suns
Plumlee wins the award for most improved player from this class so far. He was a benchwarmer for the Pacers last season, but is now posting double figures in scoring or rebounding almost nightly.
There is nothing special about Plumlee's game, other than his overall size, athleticism and heart. But he is beginning to show signs that he can attack defenders with some jabs and a quick step and draw fouls, which is great. If he can just get better at making free throws, his game will rapidly improve.
11. Andrew Nicholson, Magic
Nicholson is one of those rare big men who has a plethora of moves and skills, but he is currently not the master of any of them. He is creative in the post, setting up defenders for right- or left-handed hooks, or for scoops under the raised arms of his defender. And he has a smooth-looking perimeter jumper that he is confident in. But he is not making his shots often enough to be an efficient scorer. He is also forcing the issue too often and not kicking the ball back out for a better shot or a re-post.
12. Harrison Barnes, Warriors
Barnes is the fourth player in this class who has star potential, which he showed in the playoffs last season. And he likely would be closer to reaching that level if the Warriors hadn't added Andre Iguodala this past summer.
An elite athlete with size, great shooting skill and a post game that can be dynamite in time, Barnes is currently figuring out how to use his tools in a backup role. But it would not be a surprise to see him in the top five of this list by early spring.
13. Tony Wroten, 76ers
Quick, fast, strong and long, Wroten rates as an elite athlete at point guard in every category except pure jumping ability. He also has good anticipation skills and a good sense for where the ball should go. The problem is Wroten just can't make perimeter shots. If he could, he'd be a starting-level point guard who has the ability to be a plus defender.
He's the perfect guard for a tanking team because he'll help his team lose now but win later if he develops. He'll pair beautifully with Michael Carter-Williams in Philly if either of them learns to shoot.
14. Jae Crowder, Mavericks
When Crowder is making 3s, something he has improved upon since last season, he becomes an integral player for Dallas. But when he isn't making 3s, then it becomes a struggle for him. He is a competitive and hardworking player on the court, but he lacks quickness and ball skills, which becomes more apparent when his shot is not falling.
The good news for Mavs fans is that he gives a great effort at all times and thus becomes helpful in the transition game for the second unit. Dallas likes to play fast, and Crowder helps them accomplish that.
15. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Bobcats
Unfortunately for MKG, it looks as if he'll always be known as the guy Charlotte drafted instead of Andre Drummond. Kidd-Gilchrist is basically an energy guy right now, which is not what you expect from the No. 2 overall pick, who was picked before a franchise-level center (Drummond), an excellent shooting guard (Beal) and a star point guard (Lillard, though Charlotte does have Kemba Walker).
MKG entered the league with little ability to shoot or create shots for himself other than in transition, and that is still an issue. The good news is he is just 20 years old and certainly can get a lot better on offense over time. Plus, he still has All-NBA potential on defense.
16. Jeremy Lamb, Thunder
Lamb is exactly what it appeared he would be when he came out of UConn -- a terrific pure shooter who can make catch-and-shoot shots and other shots that come from moving without the ball. His lack of ball skills and his high center of gravity, though, keep him from being more elusive off the dribble and thus keep off the free throw line.
17. Draymond Green, Warriors
Green is a good energy player despite lacking quickness and speed. That's because his effort, toughness and basketball IQ score very high.
This season he is making more 3s, adding huge value to what he did for Golden State as a rookie because now he can play alongside the Warriors' other shooters who lack Green's power and benefit from his rougher style of play.
18. Brian Roberts, Pelicans
Roberts quietly had an excellent rookie season after starring in Europe and is doing more of the same this season. His role is slightly smaller thanks to Jrue Holiday's arrival, but Roberts is having an even better season shooting 3s, and his assist-to-turnover ratio is better than 4-to-1, which is outstanding.
For a team in the playoff hunt in the loaded West, it helps a great deal to have a role player like Roberts who has experienced the intensity of the pro game for years.
19. Maurice Harkless, Magic
Harkless has probably experienced the biggest fall of the sophs since their rookie season. That's because the NBA game is unyielding for someone who can't shoot, and that is the problem for Harkless. Free throws, jump shots, 3s -- all are a mess for him right now.
He is still an effective slasher who draws fouls, and his length and athleticism help him get at least one steal or blocked shot in almost every game. But until he gets his shot figured out, he'll be leaving a ton of unfulfilled potential on the bench.
20. Thomas Robinson, Trail Blazers
In this class, only Kidd-Gilchrist has been a bigger disappointment than Robinson, who was the fifth overall pick. Before the draft, Robinson thought he should be the No. 1 pick, which is laughable now, but at least he has found a way to make an impact for one of the league's best and most surprising teams this season.
Robinson's role in Portland changes nightly -- some games he's a serious contributor, some games he gets just a few minutes -- but his effort has been solid. His poor free throw shooting, however, curbs some of his potential to play more.