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NBA PM: Top 5 Breakout Players in 2014-15

Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo is in line for a breakout season, but others are equally primed to do the same.

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Whether you’re a fan of the NBA in general or a player of the fantasy version of the sport, one of the most enjoyable parts of any season is discovering who the next big breakout stars will be. Last year it was Lance Stephenson, Isaiah Thomas, Terrence Jones and most of the Phoenix Suns, but this year’s crop should be just as interesting, with loads of young players ready to flirt with All-Stardom.

A couple of notes: we’re not looking at rookies, since they haven’t yet set a baseline for what kind of players they’re going to be. The breakout candidates on this list have been in the NBA for at least a year and have established a statistical baseline low enough to suggest that a major boost is coming. For that very reason, players like Bradley Beal and Andre Drummond won’t be on the list, either. There’s no risk in predicting that guys averaging 17 PPG (Beal) or 13 RPG (Drummond) just a year ago will be even more monstrous when they’re already pretty clearly on that trajectory.

All that said, the following players could be poised to breakout in a more traditional sense this upcoming season:

#5 – Jimmy Butler, Chicago Bulls – Last year was a down year for Butler statistically, but life is hard without Derrick Rose, especially for a defensive-minded shooting guard playing in an offense specifically designed to work around the skillset of Rose. Butler, already one of the best defensive wings in the league, should see an offensive boost this year as Rose gets him more open looks, and as the only real two-guard in the lineup, head coach Tom Thibodeau is probably going to get him pretty close to 40 minutes per game. Those minutes plus an improved roster could mean the long-awaited Butler breakout may finally occur. The fact that he could potentially be playing for a contact (if not extended) probably won’t hurt anything, either.

#4 – Derrick Favors, Utah Jazz – Favors has been a breakout candidate for a couple of seasons now, but the former No. 3 overall pick should finally find himself among the Western Conference’s most talented power forwards this season. He was drafted four years ago but he’s still only 23 years old, and under new head coach Quin Snyder, Favors should get the opportunity to work more outside of the paint, especially in pick-and-rolls with Dante Exum and Trey Burke. He broke 30 minutes a game for the first time last season, averaging 13 points and nine boards a game, but he was inconsistent and disappointing too often. Is this the year he finally grows up and helps anchor a young Utah team in need of leadership? Now feels like as good of a time as any.

#3 – Steven Adams, Oklahoma City Thunder – At some point there’s just no way to justify starting Kendrick Perkins over Steven Adams, who proved in his rookie season last year that he’s not only the clearly superior offensive player (then again, literally everybody in the NBA is a superior offensive player to Perkins), but also the superior rebounder. Adams also is about a million times more athletic and a great fit in the OKC starting lineup. All he needs is the minutes to prove he can do it full-time. Assuming that happens early in the season, he should be one of the more exciting young players in the Western Conference by the end of the year.

#2 – Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks – Watching Giannis Alphabet play is about as entertaining as basketball gets. His long frame and freakish athleticism make him an asset on both ends of the court, but as the youngest player in the league last year with relatively little professional hoops experience, Antetokounmpo was much too raw to make big waves immediately. This year, though, he’s working on his point guard skills (he’s 6’10” with a 7’3” wingspan) and with a year of experience under his belt he should exhibit a bit more polish. Jabari Parker might be the best player on the team, but Antetokounmpo’s unbelievable physical gifts make it hard to believe he won’t be a star sooner than later.

#1 – Jonas Valanciunas, Toronto Raptors – Valanciunas looked like he might have the opportunity to break out last season but came along a little more slowly than both he and the Raptors would have liked. Still, the year was a step in the right direction, as Valanciunas averaged 11.3 PPG and 8.8 RPG, and at only 22 years old he still has plenty of room for improvement. He’ll get plenty of burn in the Raptors frontcourt this season and could conceivably average a double-double for the first time in his career. If anybody on this list looks seasons for his first All-Star appearance, it’s probably him.

Honorable Mention

Tim Hardaway, Jr., New York Knicks – Ask almost-Knicks coach Steve Kerr how friendly the triangle offense can be for spot-up shooters. In a little over 20 minutes a game last season Hardaway averaged double digits in points for a team that really wasn’t all that impressive offensively. This year, with what should be a larger role and in an offense tailored to his skill set, Hardaway could easily pass up J.R Smith and Iman Shumpert as New York’s best option at shooting guard.

Gorgui Dieng, Minnesota Timberwolves – Dieng has a perfect situation set up for a breakout season, starting with the fact that he showed tremendous promise in the latter third of last season and ending with the departure of Kevin Love, the only player in the lineup keeping him from playing more minutes. Dieng will likely still come off the bench behind Nikola Pekovic, but he’ll play a heck of a lot more than the 13.6 minutes per game he put up last season. That should mean bigger numbers across the board, especially rebounds and blocks. This young man is an athletic specimen with a knack for defense, and with the right opportunity in Minnesota this year, he has a great chance to shine.

What other players deserve at least honorable mention? Are there other young prospects in line for a huge boost in production this year? Hit up the comments section or keep the conversation going on Twitter. Then, gear yourself up for the actual games and enjoy the entertainment that leads to discovering which of these young men will, in fact, break out in 2014-15.

Joel Brigham is a senior writer for Basketball Insiders, covering the Central Division and fantasy basketball.

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