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What’s Next In The NBA For Utah State’s Neemias Queta?

Neemias Queta is gearing up for his second season in the NBA and could be primed for something big. The 7-footer from Portugal played three years at Utah State before he was drafted by the Sacramento Kings in 2021. In his debut season in the association, the center played just 15 games for the Sacramento Kings. Queta’s youth was combined with a positional logjam in the front-court in Sacramento that consisted of Marvin Bagley, Harrison Barnes, Richaun Holmes, Damian Jones, Alex Len, Chimezie Metu, Domantas Sobonis, and Tristan Thompson. This didn’t create an environment that facilitated an abundance of playing time for Queta, so he spent plenty of time in Stockton playing for Sacramento’s G League counterpart.

In Sacramento, Queta played 15 games and averaged 8 minutes per game. He shot 44.7% from the field and averaged 3 points, 2.1 rebounds, 0.5 blocks, 0.4 assists and 0.1 steals per game.

In Stockton, Queta played 14 games and averaged 28 minutes per game. He shot 60% from the field and averaged 16.4 points, 7.9 rebounds, 1.9 blocks, 1.8 assists, and 0.8 steals per game.

His 14 games in Stockton certainly showed talent and his 15 games for Sacramento certainly showed room for improvement. Talent and room for improvement are essential building blocks for an NBA rookie.

Going into his second year, the center could be on the verge of a breakout season. Based on league history and the fact that Queta has never had an off-season like this one, Queta should be prepared for a drastic improvement. The signs might already be showing. The season hasn’t started yet, but with Summer League in the rearview mirror, Queta has already had a chance to showcase some of his growth from last year.

Head coach of Sacramento’s summer league team Jordi Fernandez believes Queta has a future in the NBA. Fernandez said of Queta: “He’s improved. He is a good NBA player and he is part of our club and our future. His willingness to do the right thing is what matters the most. He’s a great, great guy, and all these guys love him for how hard he plays.”

This July, the big man signed a two-way contract with the Sacramento Kings, meaning, for the first time in his adult life, Queta will start and end an entire uninhibited off-season with the same team. After signing the contract, Queta promised to have a good season saying “I think I’ll be making big strides this year.”

His claim isn’t just possible, it might be the most likely scenario. Queta is certainly poised to utilize his first full offseason of training and preparation to follow the lead of centers that have come before him to make the next natural progression and step up his game in a big way for his second season.

For NBA players, the importance of the off-season is impossible to overstate. The season is physically and mentally taxing so players need that valuable time to rest, recharge and reload their bodies and minds. It is also a crucial time for players to improve their game. Many players return to their hometowns or college towns to take advantage of gyms and open courts. Other players meet up in hubs and scrimmage against each other. Players have the opportunity to study film to develop and fine-tune parts of their game in a way that’s not possible during the gauntlet of the regular season. Players work closely with coaches and trainers from their team as well as private clubs and organizations. Queta has never had that. Unfortunately for him, none of that is possible when a player doesn’t know his future, when he is hurt, or when the world is shut down.

Prior to his freshman year at Utah State, Queta was living in his home country of Portugal. Even with the help of Diogo Brito, Queta didn’t sign with the Aggies until August, just three months before tip-off. He arrived in Logan after classes had already started, missing summer workouts with the team. Even without much time to acclimate, Queta didn’t take long to have an impact. In game five, Queta had the team high in both scoring and rebounding in a 80-63 win against Saint Mary’s. That season, Queta’s 8.9 rebounds and 2.4 blocks per game led the team and his 11.8 points per game put him only behind Aggie Legend, Sam Merrill, and his 20.9 PPG.

After an impressive freshman season, Queta briefly entered the NBA draft and was invited to the NBA combine before deciding to go back to school. During the off-season, Queta represented his home country to compete in the FIBA Under-20 European Championship. While playing Queta suffered a sprained knee with kneecap dislocation. This, yet again, removed him from any off-season training in Logan. After missing the first nine games of the season, Queta made his season debut coming off the bench and playing 10 minutes in a 77-70 overtime win against Fresno State. He finally found himself back in the starting lineup in a 76-74 overtime win against USF. The next game, against the Florida Gators, Queta was injured again and was forced to sit out for the remainder of that game and two others. Although plagued by injuries, the season was a success for Queta and the Aggies who once again led the team in blocks, now averaging 1.7 per game. His scoring, again behind only Merrill, rose to an average of 13.0 PPG, and his rebounding, now behind only Justin Bean, fell to 7.8 RPG.

Queta’s injury-riddled second year ended with the NCAA Tournament being canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Finally healthy, Queta elected not to return to his home county, but to stay in Cache Valley to train and practice. This would prove very difficult. The same pandemic that robbed Queta of his post-season, now robbed him of his off-season. This was the third time in a row Queta’s off-season was derailed. Gyms and basketball courts were closed. Coaches and trainers couldn’t meet with players and the players couldn’t congregate on their own. For Queta, after being robbed of his two previous off-seasons and with the NBA in his sights, it was a nightmare scenario. Despite the pandemic related challenges, Queta was still able to stay in shape and improve his game. In 2020-21, Queta had his best statistical year yet. He averaged 14.9 PPG, 10.1 RPG, and 3.3 blocks per game, leading the team in each category. He was also second only to Bean in steals per game with 1.1, and with 2.7 assists per game, he outperformed many of the guards on the team and had fewer than only Rollie Worster and Marco Anthony.

Queta once again declared for the draft after completing his third and final year at Utah State. It was commonly speculated that Queta would be drafted, so it came as no surprise when the Sacramento Kings selected him early in the second round with the 39th pick. This happened on July 29th, which, once again, gave Queta little time to prepare for the upcoming season. He had just over two and a half months to prepare for the October 20th tip-off for the Kings.

Without ever having a full-season in his adult life, Queta has been forced to leave parts of his game underdeveloped. Now, Queta has all-year access to team personnel and facilities dedicated to helping him improve as a player. Instead of wondering what team he will be on or what role he will need to fill, Queta can focus on setting and achieving specific goals. Instead of nursing his body back to health, he can train and workout his already-healthy body to unlock new levels of his game.

That isn’t the only reason Queta should be expected to have a big year. It’s just the natural progression of NBA players to get better after their rookie year. Queta was especially raw because of previous hindrances, but he isn’t unique in leaving much to be desired after just one year in the league. The simple fact is that it’s hard for rookies to be successful and have a positive impact for their teams. Players have to improve or be cut. In today’s league, it is difficult to have a direct player comparison. With the rising popularity of the 3-pointer, even centers are being asked to shoot, which is something Queta doesn’t do. He has a unique build, and is surprisingly agile for a 7-footer. But, throughout the draft process and his rookie year, Queta, or at least his upside potential, has been compared in one regard or another to Andrew Bogut, Andre Drummond, and Hassan Whiteside among others. According to fivethirtyeight.com Robert Williams is the closest comparison with a player similarity rating of 60.

Using a wide array of player comparisons from both modern and historical eras, there is an obvious trend. Centers tend to improve after their first year in the league.

Bogut, Drummond, and Williams, like Queta, stayed with the same team between their first and second season. Whiteside’s early career is a little more complicated. After getting time in just one game his rookie season, Whiteside played one more year before leaving the NBA for two seasons, then returning to play for a different team.

Bogut, in his rookie year, averaged 28.6 minutes per game, playing all 82 games and starting in 77. He shot 53% from the field and averaged 9.4 points, 7.0 rebounds, 0.8 blocks, 2.3 assists, and 0.6 steals per game. In his second season, Bogut played in and started 66 games, averaging 34.2 minutes per game. He shot 55% from the field and averaged 12.3 points, 8.8 rebounds, 0.5 blocks, 3.0 assists, and 0.7 steals per game.

Drummond, in his rookie year, played 60 games, started in 10, and averaged 20.7 minutes played. He shot 61% from the field and averaged 7.9 points, 7.6 rebounds, 1.6 blocks, 0.5 assists, and 1.0 steals. In his second season, Drummond played 81, started in 81 games, and averaged 32.3 minutes per game. He shot 62% from the field and averaged 13.5 points, 13.2 rebounds, 1.6 blocks, 0.4 assists, and 1.2 steals per game.

Whiteside only played in one game during his rookie year so there isn’t enough data for that season to be relevant. His second season, Whiteside averaged 6.1 minutes per game, played 18 games, and didn’t start any of them. He shot 44% from the field and averaged 1.6 points, 2.2 rebounds, 0.8 blocks, 0 assists, and 0.2 steals per game. In his third NBA season, which happened after two years away from the league, he played 48 games, started in 32 and averaged 23.8 minutes per game. He shot 63% from the field and averaged 11.8 points, 10.0 rebounds, 2.6 blocks, 0.1 assists, and 0.6 steals per game.

Williams, in his rookie year, played 32 games, started in 2 and averaged 8.8 minutes per game. He shot 71% from the field and averaged 2.5 points, 2.5 rebounds, 1.3 blocks, 0.2 assists, and 0.3 steals per game. In his second season, Williams played in 29 games, started in 1, and averaged 13.4 minutes per game. He shot 73% from the field and averaged 5.2 points, 4.4 rebounds, 1.2 blocks, 0.9 assists, and 0.8 steals per game.

Each of these four players had an increase in minutes per game, FG%, PPG, RPG, and steals per game. Three of the four had an increase in APG. Two of the four had an increase in games played and games started. Only one player had an increase and one player had no change in blocks per game.

Although Queta proved more than proficient in steals and assists in college, those are not traditionally statistics that are important to centers in the NBA. Points and rebounds are generally the stats most centers are graded on, and for a rim-protecting big man like Queta, blocks are also a helpful measure of performance.

From his first to second year, Bogut improved his FG% by 3.77%, PPG by 31.85%, and RPG by 25.71%, but his blocks per game decreased by 37.5%. Drummond improved his FG% by 1.46%, PPG by 70.89%, his RPG by 73.68%, and his blocks per game didn’t change. From his second to third year, Whiteside, improved his FG% by 43.18%, PPG by 737.5%, RPG 354.55%, and blocks per game by 225%. Williams, from his first to second year, improved his FG% by 2.82%, PPG by 108%, PRG by 76%, but his blocks per game decreased by 7.69%.

These four players saw an average increase of 12.81% in FG%, 237.06% in PPG, and 132.49% in RPG. Despite only one player improving, and two players declining, the group saw an increase of 44.95% in blocks per game.

Whiteside had two years of experience and development in between his two seasons and is a bit of an outlier. Excluding Whiteside, the group still had an increase of 2.68% in FG%, 70.25% in PPG, and 58.46% in RPG, although they would also have a decrease of 11.30% in blocks per game.

Using these comparisons to find a trend extrapolated from his own rookie year, Queta would be projected to shoot between 45.90% and 50.43% from the field and average between 5.11 and 10.12 PPG and 3.16 and 4.88 RPG. Queta would need to buck the trend of decreasing blocks per game as well. At 0.5 blocks per game last season, there isn’t much room to decrease and a 44.95% increase would result in a projected average of just 0.72 blocks per game.

Queta’s Summer League stats could be an early indicator that all of this is already in motion and Queta is starting to actualize some potential. In the California Classic, Queta played in three games and averaged 24.3 minutes per game. He shot 53.3% from the field and averaged 12.3 points, 6.7 rebounds, 1.3 blocks, 1.3 assists, and 2 steals per game. He also had a +/- of 14.

In Las Vegas, he played four games and averaged 23.8 minutes per game. He shot 67.9% from the field and averaged 12.8 points, 6.5 rebounds, 2.8 blocks, 1.5 assists, and 0.5 steals per game. He also shot and made X 3-pointers had a +/- of 13

During last year’s Las Vegas Summer League, for example, Queta played five games and averaged 19.7 minutes per game while shooting 50% from the field and averaging only 5.0 points, 4.6 rebounds, and 1.0 blocks, 0.8 assists and 0.6 steals per game with a +/- of 9.

Based on Las Vegas Summer League alone, Queta’s performance has already improved dramatically. From the 2021 round to the 2022 round of Summer League he has achieved an increase of 35.8% in FG%,156% in PPG, 41.31% in RPG, 180% increase in blocks per game, and 87.5% in APG, but a decrease of 16.67% in steals per game. He also had a 44.44% increase in +/-.

If Summer League performance is any indicator of regular season performance, Queta could be on the verge of a breakout season. Using the difference between last year’s Summer League performance to this year’s to predict this year’s regular season relative to last year’s regular season shows that Queta is certainly on track to make strides this year.

Based on Summer League play, Queta would be projected to shoot 60.70% from the field and average 7.68 points, 2.97 rebounds, 1.4 blocks, 0.75 assists, and 0.08 steals per game with a +/- of -0.28

Reconciling the player comparison projections and the Summer League projections, Queta has a wide range of expectations. According only to player comparisons and summer league, he would be projected to shoot anywhere between 45.90% and 60.70% from the field with the number likely being closer to 50.43%. He could also be expected to average anywhere between 5.11 and 10.12 PPG with a higher likelihood at or around 7.68, between 2.97 and 4.88 RPG with a higher likelihood at or around 3.16, between .44 and 1.4 blocks per game with a higher likelihood around .72. He could also be expected to average around 0.75 or more assists per game with a range of 0.51 to 1.0 with a higher likelihood around 0.64 and 0.86 and around 0.08 or more steals per game with a range of 0.05 and 0.11 with a higher likelihood between 0.07 and 0.09 with a slightly higher chance to improve in steals per game than assists per game. His +/- would be projected to be around -0.28 with a range of -0.37 and -.019 with a higher likelihood between -0.35 and -0.21.

Matt George of the Locked On Kings podcast said “(Queta) would have to be a rebounding and shot blocking machine” to make the roster. With his RPG set to improve to anywhere between 2.97 to 4.88 and his blocks per game set to improve to anywhere between .44 to 1.4 it may seem like Queta isn’t quite on course to fit the job description as laid out by Matt George. This is one reason it’s so important to Queta to have not only a healthy off-season, but a full off-season with the same team. This allows Queta to have a better understanding of his role and cater his practice regimen to fit that role. Additionally, Queta’s biggest improvements have been and are projected to be in FG% and PPG which will help the big man’s case.

These projections could also be muted in a very significant way. Queta differs from the player comparisons in many ways, one of which being the fact that Queta’s game is still very raw. Because of international travel, injury, and a pandemic, Queta’s progress thus far has been hindered.

To be clear, Neemias Queta is currently on a two-way contract and expectations should be set accordingly, even if he does have massive amounts of untapped potential. A breakout year for Queta doesn’t necessarily mean an All-Star selection, a Defensive Player of the Year Award, a scoring title, or any other major accolades. Players in Queta’s position are playing for their next contract. They aren’t necessarily playing for MVP votes. For Queta, a breakout season could simply mean spending all or most of the season in Sacramento rather than Stockton, earning significant playing time, carving out a role for himself, and even earning a few starts. This would certainly put Queta on the path to playing a full NBA career.

Just by making it to a second season, history indicates that Queta could be in store for some drastically improved numbers. With a year under his belt Queta should follow the well-established pattern of improving his game in his second year. In recent years, Queta has also had a lot of potential gains taken from him by circumstance, and without major barriers this off-season, Queta could not only improve, but could see the biggest improvement to his game since his college and professional career began. The combination of putting his rookie year behind him and finally being able to have a full, healthy, and focused off-season with access to gyms, courts, coaches, and trainers could be the catalyst to major improvements and allow Queta to keep his promise of “making big strides this year.”

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