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NBA AM: 2015-16 Breakthrough Candidates

While older players will naturally fall off, here are some players who could emerge stronger in 2015-16.

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Each NBA season routinely produces a new set of surprises. Some players’ production dramatically falls off the cliff while others rise to the occasion seemingly out of nowhere. Some are fueled by contract years. Others are beneficiaries of being dealt to a new environment. A few have improved supporting casts and willingly prosper in a leadership role.

Whatever the case, here are some guys who could be poised for a breakthrough season in 2015-16:

Otto Porter Jr., Forward, Washington Wizards
2014-15 Stats:
6.0 points, 3.0 rebounds, 45% FG, 34% 3PT (74 games)

Porter was selected with the third overall pick in 2013 but has yet to live up to his draft slot. Part of the reason for this is because Porter had the security blanket of Trevor Ariza and Paul Pierce occupying the small forward position for the emerging Wizards the past two seasons. Ariza and Pierce are no longer with the franchise and the team’s small forward position is Porter’s to lose. The third-year forward will have every opportunity to increase his minutes and productivity this season. Let’s see how he handles the new role.

Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Forward, Charlotte Hornets
2014-15 Stats:
10.9 points, 7.6 rebounds, 1.4 assists, 47% FG, (55 games)

Kidd-Gilchrist, selected with the No. 2 overall pick in 2012, has been productive during his first three seasons but has also missed 47 games the past two campaigns due to injury. Last summer, the Hornets signed free agent Lance Stephenson to help provide versatility on the wing, but now he’s gone. With Kidd-Gilchrist eyeing free agency next summer, you can expect a highly motivated player headed into training camp, which could lead to a breakthrough campaign.

Terrence Ross, Forward, Toronto Raptors
2014-15 Stats:
9.8 points, 2.8 rebounds, 1.0 assists, 41% FG, 37% 3PT (82 games)

The Raptors, who have made the playoffs the past two seasons, are waiting on Ross to take the leap in his game. The franchise invested $90 million this offseason in DeMarre Carroll and Cory Joseph but internal growth from Ross, who is still on a rookie scale contract, would really help the team improve. Ross has been productive since entering the league, but his output has declined significantly in the playoffs the past two seasons.

Ricky Rubio, Guard, Minnesota Timberwolves
2014-15 Stats:
10.3 points, 8.8 assists, 5.7 rebounds, 36% FG, 26% 3PT (22 games)

Rubio’s new deal finally kicks in and he will seemingly head into training camp with good health, so this may be the first season where Timberwolves fans get to see their floor general at full strength. Rubio possesses strong court vision, rebounds great for a lead guard and is a decent defender. But the team will need him to step into a bigger leadership role with a solid cast of young players brimming with athleticism and long-term potential. Rubio may not become a perennial All-Star but he has more than enough talent to become a nightly double-double threat and make a run at leading the league in assists at some point in his career.

Derrick Williams, Forward, New York Knicks
2014-15 Stats:
8.3 points, 2.7 rebounds, 45% FG, 31% 3PT (74 games)

Williams heads to New York armed with a two-year, $9 million deal. The Knicks have been rummaging for cap-friendly talent with upside and Williams is looking to finally find his niche in the league. Williams showed signs of coming into his own last season in Sacramento, but will now have to keep up the momentum in the Big Apple with a new set of teammates. The opportunity is there for the former No. 2 overall pick (2011), can he capitalize?

Harrison Barnes, Forward, Golden State Warriors
2014-15 Stats:
10.1 points, 5.5 rebounds, 1.4 assists, 48% FG, 41% 3PT (82 games)

Barnes has been extremely durable, missing just five contests since entering the league. But what makes Barnes further stand out from his peers is that he has put up truly respectable numbers on 50+ win teams and has a title to show for his efforts. Barnes is eyeing free agency next summer and a huge payday is on the horizon. Barnes is firmly entrenched as the Warriors’ starting small forward and three-year veteran is poised to continue making progress.

Perry Jones, Forward, Boston Celtics
2014-15 Stats:
4.3 points, 1.8 rebounds, 40% FG, 23% 3PT (43 games)

Jones spent the first three seasons of his career primarily glued to the bench behind Kevin Durant and Serge Ibaka in Oklahoma City. But in Boston the forward should be able to carve out a stronger role on a team full of younger players. Guys who get minutes at the pro level put up the numbers and Jones is finally in a position to get more floor burn in 2015-16.

Dante Exum, Guard, Utah Jazz
2014-15 Stats:
4.8 points, 2.4 assists, 1.6 rebounds, 35% FG, 31% 3PT (82 games)

There’s no doubt Exum struggled to adjust during his first NBA season. Many rookies do. What stood out was the fact that even amid the struggles Exum was in the Jazz’s rotation for all 82 games. This is an important note to consider. Sometimes the guys who get beat up the most as rookies come back the strongest. It is all about how Exum responds to being humbled. But he’s in a great spot for a rebound campaign.

Lang Greene is a senior NBA writer for Basketball Insiders and has covered the NBA for the last 10 seasons

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