Each season, a number of players “break out.” For some, that means making the transition from good to great. For others, they go from not playing to becoming a significant contributor on their team. At the end of the day, breaking out is when a player clearly takes their game to the next level.
Last season, Portland Trail Blazers shooting guard C.J. McCollum was perhaps the best example of a breakout player. He went from averaging 6.8 points in 2014-15 to 20.8 points last season. His point total increased by 305 percent, and he won the NBA’s Most Improved Player award after helping Portland surprisingly make the playoffs and advance to the second round.
Which players could be poised for a breakout campaign in the 2016-17 season?
We asked a number of our Basketball Insiders writers to pick a player they believe will have a breakout season and explain why. Check out the picks below and add your thoughts in the comment section:
Alex Kennedy: Myles Turner, Indiana Pacers
Myles Turner got better and better throughout his rookie year with the Indiana Pacers, culminating in his excellent first-round playoff series against the Toronto Raptors. In seven games, the 20-year-old center averaged 10.3 points, 6.4 rebounds and 3.3 blocks in 28.1 minutes.
I expect him to pick up right where he left off when his sophomore campaign begins. Turner recently shined as a member of USA Basketball’s Select Team, an experience that allowed him to receive instruction from Gregg Popovich, learn from some of the best players in the NBA and – most importantly – increase his confidence. I recently interviewed Turner and he predicted that he’d make big strides next season, and I completely agree with him.
(By the way, I was tempted to go with Angry Russell Westbrook here since we all expect him to have a monster year following the departure of Kevin Durant. But I figured we’re focusing more on younger guys who have yet to really emerge so I went with Turner. Still, it’s fair to say that Angry Westbrook is going to break out since he will almost certainly take his game to another level. And I can’t freakin’ wait).
Ben Dowsett: Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets
Jokic may already have broken out on some level in his rookie season, but he flew mostly under the radar for a Denver team not good enough to challenge for the playoffs but not bad enough to inspire much attention.
At just 20 years old most of the year, Jokic already showcased many of the skills needed for an offensive fulcrum in the frontcourt: the shooting chops to keep defenders honest, the height to see the floor and the sort of passing touch rarely seen in guys his size. He became one of just four rookies in league history listed at 6’10 or taller to assist on at least 18 percent of team baskets while on the floor, joining only Blake Griffin, Tony Kukoc and Lamar Odom on that prestigious list.
With a three-point stroke that should improve along with the margins of his game and his overall strength, Jokic is primed to bust out and gain national recognition as one of the top young bigs in the game.
Eric Pincus: D’Angelo Russell, Los Angeles Lakers
D’Angelo Russell should have a big year with the Los Angeles Lakers. He’ll have a lot more freedom playing for head coach Luke Walton than he did under Byron Scott last year. Russell has clearly grown as a player over the past year. His first Summer League was a disaster, but in Las Vegas this past month, Russell was one of the better players on the court. With the gravity of Kobe Bryant off the court, Russell will make big strides this season.
Oliver Maroney: Devin Booker, Phoenix Suns
Devin Booker’s breakout may have already started if we count his showing at the Las Vegas Summer League, where he averaged 26 points, 6.5 assists and five rebounds. Booker is clearly feeling very confident and this could be an indication of what’s to come in his sophomore season.
Mid-way through last season, Booker moved from the bench to the starting lineup on the Suns and he performed extremely well. Everyone around the Suns organization has positive things to say about Booker, who possesses incredible physical tools as well as a great work ethic.
“[He doesn’t seem] like a 19-year-old,” said Irving Roland, one of his player development coaches from last season. “I see him being an All-Star in the next few years. Definitely going to be one of the best two-guards in this league for a while.”
As a rookie, Booker averaged 13.8 points, 2.5 rebounds and 2.6 assists and he’ll be looking to improve those numbers this season. With his maturity, skill set and desire to be great, Booker seems to have star potential.
Moke Hamilton: Justise Winslow, Miami HEAT
Without Dwyane Wade, Joe Johnson and Luol Deng, the Miami HEAT have likely gone from Eastern Conference contender to lottery team. In it all, though, there will be immense opportunity for many of the team’s younger pieces and players. Mainly, all eyes should be on Justise Winslow.
Selected with the 10th overall pick in the 2015 NBA Draft, Winslow was believed by many to be the latest prize stolen by Pat Riley. Last season, with the aforementioned veterans above him on the depth chart and in terms of touchs, Winslow’s numbers belied the intangibles that he brought to the game. In May, Winslow was quoted as saying that he wanted the HEAT to eventually be “his” team and now, as the expected starter at small forward, he will lead the youth movement that is unfolding in Miami. With Goran Dragic, Dion Waiters, Tyler Johnson and Hassan Whiteside, Winslow has been working meticulously during the offseason with the goal of emerging as Erik Spoelstra’s new rock.
Based on what we have seen, it’s easy to imagine that Winslow will improve upon his pedestrian output from his rookie season. In 28.6 minutes, he scored 6.4 points, grabbed 5.2 rebounds and dished out 1.5 assists. In all likelihood, the minutes and production will increase dramatically this coming season and he is certainly a player who appears in line for a breakout campaign.
Jabari Davis: Rodney Hood, Utah Jazz
Rodney Hood had a spectacular second year with the Utah Jazz. The 23rd pick in the 2014 NBA Draft almost doubled his scoring total from his rookie campaign, jumping from 8.7 points to 14.5 points per game – while improving his field goal percentage.
Hood’s big emergence came after the All-Star break, when he scored 20 or more points seven times. But it’s not just his scoring that makes Hood so impressive. Rodney’s ability to drive and create off the dribble is also underrated. While his defense needs improving, his creativity and vision are solid.
The Jazz need Hood to continue his development and produce on the perimeter if they’re going to make the playoffs next season. Hood has obviously been impressive as he’s progressed in each of the first two years, but I think he still has another level he can reach.
A breakout campaign from Hood would be excellent for Utah, not only because they hope to make the playoffs next year but also because the team has big decisions to make next summer. With Gordon Hayward, George Hill and Shelvin Mack all becoming free agents after this upcoming season, Hood improving would show the Jazz that they can rely on him more if one or more of those players decide to leave.
Lang Greene: Nikola Mirotic, Chicago Bulls
The third season will be the charm for Mirotic with the Bulls. The frontcourt was a crowded place for big men in Chicago last season, but the departures of Joakim Noah and Pau Gasol in free agency this summer will undoubtedly open up minutes for Mirotic.
The forward improved his three-point accuracy from 32 percent as a rookie to 39 percent last season. The addition of slashing guards Rajon Rondo and Dwyane Wade in free agency should lead to even more opportunities on the perimeter for Mirotic to thrive, especially now that the logjam has been cleared up.
Jesse Blancarte: Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Charlotte Hornets
Michael Kidd-Gilchrist was taken with the second pick in the 2012 NBA Draft and has established himself as one of the NBA’s best wing-defenders. Unfortunately, injuries have limited Kidd-Gilchrist to just 62 total games over the last two seasons.
If Kidd-Gilchrist is close to 100 percent healthy entering the upcoming season and has worked out some of the kinks in his jump shot, I expect him to have his best season yet. He is already a strong slasher, finishes well around the rim and, of course, is a monster on defense. With some added range and experience, Kidd-Gilchrist has the chance to be this year’s breakout player.
Tommy Beer: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks
Amazingly, the Greek Freak is still just 21 years old and has only started to scratch the surface of his vast potential. In the second half of last season, when Milwaukee began to lean on him heavily, Giannis posted some incredibly impressive numbers.
Over the final 29 games he played in, Antetokounmpo averaged 18.7 points (while shooting over 50 percent from the floor), 8.8 rebounds and seven assists per game. He also chipped in 1.4 steals and 1.9 blocks per game during the season-closing stretch. Bucks head coach Jason Kidd has said Giannis will handle point guard duties for Milwaukee next season, and the sky is the limit for this kid.
Cody Taylor: Dennis Schroder, Atlanta Hawks
With Jeff Teague out of the picture, Schroder becomes the man tasked with running the Atlanta Hawks’ offense. The writing had been on the wall now for some time for Teague, and Schroder will finally get his chance to prove himself as a starter. Schroder started just six games last season for the Hawks during the regular season, but still averaged a career-high 11 points, 4.4 assists and 2.6 rebounds per game. Now that he’ll become the full-time starter, those numbers figure to climb even higher. The timing couldn’t be better for Schroder, as he’s set to become a restricted free agent next summer.
Aaron Gordon, Orlando Magic
With Orlando parting ways with Scott Skiles and adding Frank Vogel, Gordon could have a big year. Vogel has talked about using Gordon more and putting him in situations to succeed in the open court.
His athletic ability and versatile skill set make him very intriguing. His outside shooting, fundamentals and decision-making must continue to improve, but he’s an incredible athlete who can make plays on both ends of the court. Last season, Gordon averaged 9.2 points and 6.5 rebounds in 23.9 minutes per game as a rookie. In his 37 games as a starter, those numbers increased to 11.1 points, 8.2 rebounds and 2.2 assists.
It’ll be interesting to see what Gordon can do in his third season, especially since Orlando has added Serge Ibaka, Bismack Biyombo and Jeff Green to their front court. Still, at 20 years old and with so much talent, Gordon has to be mentioned when discussing potential breakout players.
Clint Capela, Houston Rockets
Capela is undeniably going to see more time on the floor with Dwight Howard and Terrence Jones no longer in Houston. Capela has progressed in many ways since entering the league in 2014.
Last season, the 22-year-old’s progression was on display as he averaged seven points, 6.4 rebounds and 1.2 blocks in just 19.1 minutes per game. This year, he has a chance to become a starter and take his game to the next level.
A Few Good Free Agents Left
David Yapkowitz looks at several free agents still remaining on the market ahead of the season.
The start of the 2017-2018 NBA season is finally here, and teams are required to have their 15-man roster (plus two possible two-way contacts) finalized. Every year there are players that are left off a roster. Some are younger guys who maybe haven’t proven they belong in the league just yet. Some are older veterans looking for that one final hurrah.
A few of these players might take open gigs in the G-League or overseas in hopes of attracting the attention of NBA front offices as the year goes on. Others remain at home, working out and waiting for that call that might never come. And sometimes, the waiting and anticipating pays off as playoff teams come looking for veteran help and tanking teams are on the hunt for unrealized potential.
For most of the veteran guys, their opportunities will likely come later in the season when teams gear up for the playoffs. Here’s a look at a few of the top veteran free agents left that could certainly help a team at some point during this season.
Since being traded from the Golden State Warriors to the Boston Celtics three year ago, Lee has adapted to his new role as a veteran big man helping to anchor second units. He is no longer the automatic double-double machine and borderline All-Star he once was, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t have anything left in the tank.
He didn’t really fit quite right in Boston, but in his stops with the Dallas Mavericks and San Antonio Spurs, he still showed he can be a solid contributor off the bench. In 25 games with Mavericks in the 2015-2016 season, Lee put up 8.5 points per game on 63.6 percent shooting while pulling down seven rebounds per. With the Spurs last year, he averaged 7.3 points on 59 percent shooting to go along with 5.6 rebounds. For a playoff team that needs a little big man depth, he is a solid option.
Much was made about Williams’ disappearing act in the Finals last year, and rightfully so, but lost in all the chatter was the actual solid job he did with the Cleveland Cavaliers leading up to that point. Once in the conversation for best point guard in the league, injuries and poor play in Brooklyn sort of made Williams a forgotten man. The Nets bought out his contract and he joined his hometown Dallas Mavericks.
After a so-so first year in Dallas, Williams looked rejuvenated last year to the point that he actually drew some interest around the trade deadline. With the Mavericks looking to get younger and head closer to that rebuilding path, they cut Williams and allowed him to join a contending team. Over the final 24 games of last season, including four starts, he averaged 7.5 points per game on 46.3 percent shooting, 41.5 percent from the three-point line, and 3.6 assists. Of course, his Finals performance is all anyone cares to remember, but if a team needs a veteran backup point guard, they could do a lot worse.
Last season in Indiana, Ellis posted some of the lowest numbers of his career since his rookie season. Heading into a rebuilding year, the Pacers waived Ellis and his name barely came up in free agent rumors during the summer. At his best, Ellis was a borderline All-Star talent who could put up points in a hurry. Despite his reputation as a gunner, Ellis was a bit of an underrated playmaker and was never as bad defensively as most made him out to be.
He never really seemed to find his groove in Indiana. In his first year with the Pacers during the 2015-2016 season, he posted 13.8 points per game, down from 18.9 the previous year in Dallas, and his shooting dropped from 44.5 percent from the field to 42.7 percent. His playoff numbers with the Pacers were down even more than his regular season numbers, despite exploding in the postseason a few years before with Dallas. His starting days are almost assuredly behind him, but as a sixth man type scorer bringing energy off the bench, he’s probably better than a lot of the players currently in that role.
The Brazilian Blur’s best days are behind him, but similar to Ellis, he can still help a team in need of additional scoring punch off the bench. It was only two years ago that he was a key contributor off the Warriors bench. Firmly on the rebuilding track, the Suns waived Barbosa during the summer. Despite still being a capable player, his name also rarely came up in the free agent rumor mill.
He didn’t play all that much last season for a Phoenix Suns team that is clearly rebuilding, but he still was able to average 6.3 points per game in only 14.4 minutes per. His role on a rebuilding team would be a veteran mentor, but for a playoff team, he’s not a bad option. He showed that he can still play at the NBA level despite losing a step or two. Perhaps later on in the season when teams start looking for playoff help is when he may find his phone starting to ring.
The former No. 2 overall pick in the 2011 draft hasn’t quite lived up to the expectations that come with being drafted that high. He’s only averaged double figures (12.0) in scoring once in his career and that was during the 2012-2013 season. When he came into the league, he didn’t really have much of a set position. He was a tweener, somewhere in between small forward and power forward. That was prior to the changes occurring in today’s NBA with more of a premium on stretch big men.
During Williams’ time in Cleveland last season, he played in 25 games and averaged 6.2 points per game. What stood out most, however, was his shooting. He shot 50.5 percent from the field, including 40.4 percent from the three-point line, both career-highs. Shooting from long range was always a bit of a weakness for him and prior to last season, he had never shot higher than 33.2 percent from downtown. He also didn’t register much chatter by way of free agent rumors, but if he can reproduce shooting percentages like that, he fits right in with the direction of the league.
With league rosters pretty much set, there likely won’t be much roster movement, if any at all, for the next few months. Teams are looking to see how their new summer acquisitions work out. But after a few months of real game action, other roster needs start to become more apparent. Don’t be surprised if come the new year, teams start knocking on a few of these player’s doorsteps.
NBA PM: The Wizards Are “More Than Ready” For A Big Year
Washington Wizards shooting guard Bradley Beal says his team is “more than ready” for the start of the NBA season.
With several teams in the Eastern Conference taking a step back, the Washington Wizards will be one of the beneficiaries due to roster continuity. Shooting guard Bradley Beal, one of several key Wizards signed to a long-term contract, said the team is “more than ready” for the season and has large expectations.
“This is going to be a big year for us,” said Beal after a Monday practice. “We’re healthy. There’s no excuse for us [not to] get off to a good start.”
Beal added that, while health is a key for the entire roster, it’s especially important for him after struggling with injuries in the past.
“It’s really a confidence booster, realizing my potential, what I can be, the type of player I can be when I had a healthy season,” said Beal of last year’s campaign. “That’s probably what I was more proud of than anything, playing 70-plus games and then playing in the playoffs every game.”
In Basketball Insiders’ season preview for the Wizards, we noted that Beal was Washington’s most efficient ball handler in the pick and roll last season. Beal said that creating for teammates is something he’s worked on in the offseason and will continue to be a point of emphasis.
“That was great for me and the strides I made throughout the year, working on my ball handling, working on creating for other guys and getting my own shot,” said Beal. “Those are the primary things I’m focused on … being able to create better, getting guys easier shots than before, getting more assists and improve everywhere.”
Wizards coach Scott Brooks said after Friday’s preseason finale in New York that he’s been encouraged by the ball movement he has seen since the start of camp.
“I thought a lot of good things happened in training camp,” said Brooks. “The ball movement was outstanding. Guys were sacrificing for one another on the offensive end.”
One thing that should help the ball movement of the second unit is the arrival of backup point guard Tim Frazier, who missed most of the preseason due to a strained groin. Frazier had nine assists and no turnovers in his preseason debut against the Miami HEAT.
“I feel very comfortable with Tim,” said Brooks. “He finds corner threes, which we like.”
Beal added that one area he hopes to improve, both individually and as a team, is rebounding.
“I think I only had like three rebounds [per game] last year,” said Beal. “I obviously love scoring the ball. That’s something I never worry about. I want to continue to fill up the stat sheet a little bit more and contribute to the game in different areas. I think rebounding was something that hurt us a little bit last year.”
The Wizards host the Philadelphia 76ers to open the season Wednesday, and Brooks said it will take a team effort to defend emerging star Joel Embiid.
“He’s a problem,” said Brooks after Sunday’s practice. “His athleticism is off the charts. We’re going to have to do a good job of staying in front of him. You’re talking about a guy that can put the ball on the floor, that can get to spaces and spots that normally a 6-10 guy doesn’t.”
With a revamped bench, roster continuity and good health entering the season, the Wizards look like a team that could challenge the Cavaliers, Celtics and Raptors for supremacy in the East. Beal certainly seems to think so.
NBA Opening Night Storylines
Hours before the 2017-18 season gets set to tip off, here are some storylines to follow for Tuesday’s games.
The long summer is over. We finally made it. NBA opening night is upon us.
Rejoice, hoop heads.
Because the NBA is a perfect concoction of chaos at all times, Tuesday’s opening night slate has some can’t-miss built in headlines that the entire league is going to be glued to.
With a new year set to begin, everyone is on the same page. Whether that page includes the likes of Kevin Durant and Steph Curry or Doug McDermott and Tim Hardaway Jr. is a different story. But still, Tuesday marks day one for all teams and as it stands they’re all equal.
As we get set to sit down and dissect these opening game matchups on Tuesday, let’s highlight the most intriguing storylines that will be followed for the rest of the season. There’s nothing like watching a story grown in the NBA from its inception, right?
Boston Celtics vs. Cleveland Cavaliers — 8 p.m. ET (TNT)
This is the game we’ve all been waiting for since late June, when Kyrie Irving let it be known to Cavs owner Dan Gilbert that he wanted out from under LeBron’s shadow.
Three years of NBA Finals appearances, the greatest comeback in basketball history, and a ring to show for was all Irving wanted to walk away from. For him, he felt it was his time to shine.
And because the NBA is the perfect mix of beautiful insanity, it would only make sense that Irving would get dealt to the very team that is jostling for position to unseat the Cavs and King James.
The Irving-led Boston Celtics will have to wait a grand total of one second in the new NBA season to begin their matchup with their point guards old teammates and the team that stands in between them a Finals appearance. With Gordon Hayward and Irving together for the first time against meaningful competition, there’s no better way than to check their fit from the jump than by challenging the conference champions in their building.
But Irving’s homecoming isn’t the only storyline heading into the first game of the season. There are some changes on Cleveland’s end as well.
While the main return for Irving — Isaiah Thomas — won’t be suiting up for the Cavs anytime soon due to injury, there are still plenty of new faces to keep an eye on Tuesday night. First and foremost, Flash is in town. After having his contract bought out by the Chicago Bulls, Dwyane Wade joined forces with his buddy in The Land in hopes of recapturing some of the magic that led them to two championships in South Beach.
By teaming up once again, James and Wade provide some of the best chemistry in the league. Yes, Wade isn’t the player he once was when he and James were winning rings. But something is to be said for knowing exactly where someone will be on the court at all times, and that’s the trait exactly that Wade and James share.
Along with Wade, James and the Cavs are hoping to get some type of resurgence from Derrick Rose and Jeff Green off of the bench. Once Thomas returns to the court for Cleveland, this is arguably the deepest team James has ever been around in Cleveland.
Even with Irving and Hayward on board, Boston will be relying on some role players of their own — namely Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. The back-to-back third overall picks will occupy most of the time at the forward spots opposite of Hayward. As the season moves on, the development of both of these wings will be crucial to how dangerous the Celtics can be past their two star players.
Tuesday night will be must-see television at Quicken Loans Arena. New eras for the Eastern Conference heavyweights are about to begin.
And as James told ESPN’s Rachel Nichols, “The Kid” will be just fine.
Houston Rockets vs. Golden State Warriors — 10:30 p.m. ET (TNT)
On the Western side of the basketball landscape Tuesday night, the potential conference finals matchup will see its first act when the revamped Rockets head to the Bay Area.
Last season at this time, the basketball world was bracing for what the Warriors would look like after adding Kevin Durant to a 73-win team. And as expected, they dominated. Not even LeBron James could put a stop to them, managing just one win in their finals bout.
This year brings in more of the same questions. Can anyone stop the Warriors? Will Golden State just steamroll their way to another championship, effectively sucking the fun of competition out of the entire league?
Well, a few teams this offseason did their best to try and combat that narrative. One of them being the Rockets, who they added perennial all-star point guard Chris Paul to their backcourt.
Putting Paul in the same backcourt as superstar James Harden has the potential to create some of the biggest headaches for opposing teams. The constant ball movement and open looks the two star guards can provide are nearly endless.
While the league swoons over the Warriors’ ability to hit shots from well beyond the arc, it should be noted that it was Houston last year that led the NBA in three-point shooting, not Golden State. It’s certainly not wise to try and go toe-to-toe with the Warriors at their own game, but if there’s ever a team equipped to do it, it’s Houston. Tuesday night will provide a nice preview look at how things in the Western Conference could shake out in the coming months.
Aside from the barrage of scoring that will take place in this matchup, what would a big game be for the Warriors without a little Draymond Green trash talk?
After Rockets head coach Mike D’Antoni told ESPN that, “You’re not gonna stop them. It’s just not gonna happen. They’re not gonna stop us, either,” Green clapped back with a comment of his own, as he always does.
“I don’t know how serious they take defense with that comment,” Green said. “But they added some good defensive players.”
It’s true, the Rockets aren’t considered a defensive stalwart by any means. Last season, Houston was 26th in points allowed, compared to second in points scored. Green may be onto something when it comes to questioning how serious his opponents take defense.
That being said, last year’s Rockets didn’t feature Paul. Even at the age of 32, Paul is still one of the league’s best on-ball defenders. And no matter his age, he’ll always possess that competitive fire he’s been known for over the last 12 years.
Going up against the Warriors at Oracle is usually nothing short of impossible, but if there’s going to be a team to challenge their supremacy this season, we’ll get a good look at how they stack up on night one.
With all of this in mind, let’s not forget that the world’s best league is finally back in action. Give yourself a pat on the back, you made it. Now, go enjoy some basketball.