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.
NBA Daily: What Should the Raptors Do at the Trade Deadline?
The Toronto Raptors are surging. Bobby Krivitsky examines whether they’ve been good enough to keep their current core intact or if they should take a different approach at the trade deadline.
After losing eight of their first 10 games to start the season, the Toronto Raptors have won 14 of their last 23 matchups, surging to fifth in the Eastern Conference.
The Raptors had to quickly recharge during a truncated offseason, get acclimated to a new setting and adjust to Aron Baynes and Chris Boucher stepping into the void left by the departures of Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka. Despite all of that, they’re scoring the 10th-most points per 100 possessions, are 13th in defensive rating and have the ninth-best net rating in the NBA.
Through Toronto’s ups and downs this season, they’ve been able to count on Fred VanVleet. After signing a four-year, $85 million contract to remain with the Raptors, the fifth-year guard from Wichita State has once again taken his game to a higher level. He’s averaging 20 points, 6.7 assists and 4.5 rebounds — all career-bests — and eighth in the NBA with 1.7 steals per contest. It’s discomforting to imagine where this team would be if he had left.
Then there’s Pascal Siakam, who’s finally shaken off a rough second-round series against the Boston Celtics last postseason and thawed from an icy start to his 2020-21 campaign. Siakam is averaging 20.1 points, 7.5 rebounds, 4.8 assists, and 1.2 steals per game. One of the main reasons for his turnaround has been Siakam’s growth as a facilitator: those 4.8 assists represent a career-best. And, with the Raptors shifting more towards small-ball, Siakam is thriving working off a screen from guards, spotting where the defense is vulnerable and taking advantage of it.
Another crucial component of Siakam’s improvement is him playing with more energy on the defensive end. Effort can only take a defender so far, but when that individual is 6-foot-9 with a 7-foot-3 wingspan and has the strength, quickness and intelligence to guard positions one-through-five for varying amounts of time, doing so can have a significant impact on the outcome of the game.
While Siakam’s production has more of an impact on the Raptors’ ceiling than any other player on the team, Kyle Lowry, alongside VanVleet, establishes Toronto’s floor. Lowry, who turns 35 in March, is averaging 18 points, 6.5 assists, 5.5 rebounds, and 1.2 steals per game this season. He remains the heart and soul of the team. That makes it even more impressive that, despite losing him to a thumb injury during a Feb. 16 matchup against the Milwaukee Bucks, Toronto went on to win that night and again two days later, stretching their winning streak to four games (including a victory over the Philadelphia 76ers).
One major change stemming from the Raptors playing small more often is Norman Powell entering the starting lineup. He’s started his last 17 games and is averaging a team-high 21.8 points, 3.8 rebounds and 1.4 steals. During that stretch, the sharpshooting Powell is also knocking down 44.4 percent of his 6.4 threes per game and shooting 51.2 percent from the floor. Toronto has won 10 of those 17 games.
Powell gives the Raptors more offensive firepower, allows them to play faster and, when they don’t have a traditional center on the floor, has made it easier for them to switch on defense. It’s an adjustment that’s worked so well for Toronto, even in Lowry’s absence, Baynes came off the bench while DeAndre’ Bembry joined the starting lineup.
So, with the Raptors finding their footing and the March 25 trade deadline inching closer, what’s Toronto’s best course of action? That decision revolves around their plan with Lowry.
Lowry, whose $30 million deal is set to expire after the season, is interested in playing at least two more seasons at a similar value, per Keith Pompey of the Philadelphia Inquirer. Are the Raptors willing to meet those demands, paving the way for the franchise icon to spend the remainder of his career with them? Secondly, the Raptors aren’t a title contender right now, which could lead to the two sides working together to send Lowry to a team meeting that criteria by the trade deadline, which also happens to be his 35th birthday.
If it comes to that, Pompey listed the 76ers, Miami HEAT and Los Angeles Clippers as Lowry’s preferred destinations, noting the North Philadelphia native would like to return to his roots. For the Raptors to go through with trading the six-time All-Star, it would likely take multiple first-round picks and promising young players along with any contracts included for salary-matching purposes to be expiring after this season.
Considering Toronto’s current place in the NBA’s hierarchy, if Lowry intends to leave for a title contender or the Raptors aren’t willing to meet his contractual demands, it’s clear what they should do at the deadline. Trading Lowry isn’t going to net Toronto the return necessary to vault them into the league’s top tier, but it would still figure to serve them better in the long term, even though the Raptors’ resurgence suggests if he’s still on the team after Mar. 25th, they’re once again going to be a difficult out in the playoffs, and they could go as far as the Eastern Conference Finals.
If they want to play the long game, it would also make sense for them to trade Powell, who has an $11.6 million player option he’s likely to decline in the offseason. Granted, he’ll be 28 next season, so it’s not as if re-signing him would be short-sighted.
There’s nothing wrong with preserving the possibility Lowry never dons another team’s jersey — and parting with a franchise icon is never easy. But trading Lowry may be the best bet for the franchise’s future, while it would neither change the fact that the team will someday retire his jersey, nor would it take away from his legacy. In fact, doing right by him and giving Lowry another opportunity to compete for a title may just be the best parting gift the Raptors could give him while also strengthening their own long-term outlook.
NBA Daily: Don’t Forget About Romeo Langford
Once a top-five high school recruit, Romeo Langford has yet to make an impact in his brief NBA career.
As a highly-touted high school prospect, Romeo Langford found himself at the fifth spot in the 2018 ESPN Top 100. His play earned him a spot in the 2018 McDonald’s All-American Game among big-name recruits such as Zion Williamson, and after a very successful high school career, the five-star shooting guard decided to take his talents to Indiana over both Kansas and Vanderbilt.
Langford’s time as an Indiana Hoosier was short-lived as he only spent one year with the team before declaring for the draft. He played in thirty-two games despite tearing a ligament in his thumb. His shooting percentages reflected this injury as he shot a meager 27.2 percent from three and 44.8 percent from the field, per Sports-Reference. Both of these percentages were not reflective of the electric, efficient scorer he was at New Albany High School.
Selected with the No. 14 pick in the 2019 NBA Draft by the Boston Celtics, there was a lot to be excited about. For starters, the Celtics were able to draft a player just inside the lottery who many thought would be a top-five pick before the 2018-19 NCAA season. They were also able to get a resilient player that grinded through his injury and was still able to pace the BIG 10 in freshman scoring with 16.5 points per game. The potential with a healthy Langford is there, and that’s what led to him being a Boston Celtic.
During a 2019 interview with Boston.com, Celtics head coach Brad Stevens spoke highly of their rookie.
“If they would have been more on the national radar, and he would have not hurt his thumb, he probably would have been even more discussed,” Stevens said at the Celtics practice facility. “He’s a guy we were all well aware of before his first game at IU.”
If it was not clear by this quote, big things were expected from the former Indiana Mr. Basketball.
Unfortunately, his first season on the Celtics was not much of one to write home about. Across 32 games, he managed to average only 2.5 points with 1.3 rebounds in 11.6 minutes per game, often finding himself with Boston’s G League affiliate, the Maine Red Claws.
This should not be a big indicator of how things will end up for Langford though – as flourishing Charlotte Hornets star Terry Rozier was also an afterthought off the Celtics’ bench in his first season, even though many people saw his future potential. In a Feb. 7th matchup with the Atlanta Hawks, Langford made the most of a starting opportunity, dropping 16 points on 5-for-11 shooting, including 2-for-5 from three-point range, and 3 blocks. Later, he would then undergo season-ending surgery to repair the scapholunate ligament of his right wrist during the team’s playoff run in the bubble.
As the 2020-21 season heads towards the All-Star break, Langford has yet to suit up as he still is recovering from surgery. But according to a report by NESN, Langford should be healthy enough to return following the pause.
This then leaves the question: where does Langford fit on the Celtics roster, if at all? Amidst a disappointing start to the season, many fans and people around the Celtics have begun to sound the alarm. When the owner even comes out to 98.5 The Sports Hub and acknowledges the fact that the young Eastern Conference finalists are not currently a contender, there should be plenty of reason to panic.
The Celtics’ troubles have been all over the place this season, but the one that seems to be the most glaring is the lack of explosive scoring outside of Kemba Walker, Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum. There has been some great play off the bench by Payton Pritchard and Robert Williams, but players like Grant Williams, Jeff Teague and Semi Ojeleye have struggled to be consistent factors.
As the Celtics continue to look for splashes in the trade market, there is a lot of uncertainty around Langford’s future as the team now seems to lack tradable assets outside of the core.
Despite his long injury, Langford is still a much more desirable piece than Javonte Green or Grant Williams. Moving on from Jeff Teague may be a route that the Celtics opt to take as well because he has failed to make much of an impact off of the bench, and this would open up playing time to test out a 100 percent healthy Langford.
Langford could bring a great burst of energy off the bench for the Celtics if healthy, and so exciting to see how he fits alongside the outstanding rookie point guard in Pritchard. With Langford on the second unit, it would open up the floor for Tatum as he would have another solid scorer to kick the ball out to.
Could Langford end up being the guy that fixes the bench scoring problem for the Celtics? Only time will tell, but based on his high school and collegiate careers, he very well might be 𑁋 if he’s still on the team past the deadline.
NBA Daily: Luke Walton’s Uncertain Future
Could this be it for Luke Walton in Sacramento? David Yapkowitz examines.
There’s one big question surrounding the Sacramento Kings this season: what, exactly, will become of head coach Luke Walton? Walton, in the second year of a four-year deal he signed back in 2019, has often headlined the group of coaches that are thought most likely to be let go next.
Brought in by the previous regime, Sacramento’s situation has changed considerably since they brought in Walton. Former general manager Vlade Divac has since stepped down and been replaced with Monte McNair. And, often, new management will look to build their team, coaching staff included, in their own mold — that’s nothing really against the current personnel, just that different voices sometimes have different visions and want to construct a team within that vision.
If the team plays well, the new management team may be inclined to ride it out with the current staff. In a somewhat recent example, when Masai Ujiri first took over in the Toronto Raptors front office, the Raptors started surging in the standings and Ujiri held on to Dwane Casey for a while before ultimately replacing him with Nick Nurse. Casey had been hired by former executive Bryan Colangelo.
The Kings are in an interesting scenario in that, despite being a perennial bottom-dweller, expectations have existed for the team for over a decade now, the main expectation being that they would eventually improve beyond that bottom-feeder status. Now, that expectation may be more warranted than ever, as Sacramento has some seriously talented pieces in place, including franchise cornerstone De’Aaron Fox and Rookie of the Year contender Tyrese Haliburton.
In fact, just a few weeks ago, the Kings looked like they might actually be turning things around. On a four-game win streak, with wins over the Los Angeles Clippers and Boston Celtics, they looked like a different team.
Since then, unfortunately, they’ve reverted to the Kings of old. Now, they’re on an eight-game losing streak, their first such skid since 2019.
There are plenty of good teams in the Western Conference and, because of that, at least a couple of them are going to be on the outside looking in come playoff time. Of course, it can be hard to fault teams that show consistent effort and improvement. But that just hasn’t been the Kings, for quite some time now.
The main area of concern for the Kings where they haven’t shown real improvement is on the defensive end. They were already among the bottom half of the league on that end before their most recent skid, while it’s been significantly worse during their last eight games.
It’s always a possibility to bring in a defensive-minded assistant to help with that end, much like Sacramento tried to do on offense this past offseason. To spark the team on that end of the court, the Kings added Alvin Gentry to Walton’s staff and for the most part, it’s worked out: Sacramento is 12th in the league in scoring, up from 22nd last season. They’re also shooting better from three-point range while playing at a quicker pace.
But in order to win in this league, you need to do it on both ends. And that’s something the Kings haven’t shown the ability to do.
Sacramento is allowing 119.6 points per game, dead last in the NBA. Their defensive rating of 118.7 is also last. And, at this point, simply adding an assistant might not do the trick; at this point, it might just be easier (and more effective) for management to simply cut ties with Walton and set up a new staff under a new head coach.
Walton’s popularity and potential as a head coach first piqued during the 2015-16 season with the Golden State Warriors. When he stepped in for Steve Kerr, who took leave from the team to recover from back surgery, Walton guided the team to a 24-0 start and a 39-4 record upon Kerr’s return. While the Warriors were in their second of what would be five-straight runs to the NBA Finals and had a strong foundation already in place, Walton’s involvement in the feat can’t be discounted, while it opened the league’s eyes as to his potential as a head coach.
But later, during Walton’s years as head coach of the Los Angeles Lakers, the team showed slight, if minimal improvement each year at best. In fact, those Lakers were similar to these Kings in that they were a young team with no real experience just trying to get better. And, obviously, it’s much easier to look good when you already have an established unit.
Coaching in the NBA is a tough and often thankless job. When things go right, they get little credit. When they go wrong, the blame lies almost squarely on their head. As with players, sometimes a coaching situation just isn’t the right fit for either party; maybe this Kings’ roster just isn’t built to maximize Walton’s system.
That said, in this particular case, it would probably be best for the Kings to ride the current situation out. Sacramento has shown some improvement from last season and Walton deserves some credit for that. He’s shown constant faith and trust in his rookie, Haliburton, while he has Fox playing at a near All-Star level and Richaun Holmes looking like one of the NBA’s best in the painted area (and an absolute steal, given his contract).
Going forward, it’s worth rolling the dice and seeing if they can’t end this skid and get back to their strong play earlier in the year. Further, it might not be that great an idea to make such a radical structural change halfway through the season when your team might still have a realistic shot at the postseason.
That said, should the team continue to struggle, then it would be wise to revisit the matter in the offseason. If they do, it wouldn’t be much of a reach if McNair decides that two years is enough and that he wants to bring in a head coach of his own choosing.