The NBA offseason holds the potential for glorious, glorious change. Contenders are made, players are moved, and coaches find new homes. Rookies are still relatively unknown commodities, injured players are slated to return, and the courting of free agents takes center stage. It's an environment that inspires hope for even the most dismal franchises, and thus lends optimism to all kinds of NBA ventures.
This makes it a perfect time to attempt to identify some of the players poised for a breakout season. A new year means new opportunities, and whether they were buried in the depth chart, just starting to find themselves, or traded to a new team, the five players showcased in the slides to come have a chance to reach new levels of NBA relevance in the upcoming campaign.
Klay Thompson has already established himself on the NBA radar with his tremendous performance at the tail end of the regular season, but the rising sophomore has plenty left to show and a team framework that should provide for his future success.
During his cameo at the Las Vegas Summer League, Thompson showed off a scoring game that put him several classes above his peers; it's fairly blatant when a player is too good for Summer League competition, and despite being a relatively un-hyped second-year player, Thompson absolutely fit the bill.
That said: if we were relying on an April showcase and a Summer League performance alone, there may be reason to approach Thompson with a bit more skepticism. Yet with the way that the Warriors have fleshed out their roster over the last few months, they've both provided Thompson with a stable framework and allotted minutes to ensure he gets his due. Golden State has some talented wing players, but based on the way they've essentially built around the assumption of his playing time, it's likely that Thompson will step into a more functional team and provide more meaningful production this season.
Scoring is a big part of that, but what makes Thompson such a perfect offensive complement to Steph Curry is his ability to create off the dribble. Curry is a very talented player, but an inescapable hybrid of scoring and playmaking. Curry is simply at his best when he's able to access both parts of his game, and Thompson allows him to do just that. More playing time next season should result in an expanded opportunity to play off of Curry, and a chance to make a splash in the league-wide sense.
Jeff Teague has long shown signs of being a capable offensive initiator, yet due to the orientation of Atlanta's offense, he was often denied the opportunity.
No more; with Joe Johnson now a Brooklyn Net, Larry Drew's most convenient excuse for taking the ball out of Teague's hands is now gone. I suppose Drew could play the newly acquired Devin Harris for major minutes if he was particularly insistent on denying Teague his due, but in all likelihood Teague will see a slight uptick in playing time and a significant change in his offensive responsibilities.
That's all it'll take for him to significantly improve his production in a few key areas. Johnson not only controlled the ball for many possessions, but also created stagnation in the offense with his tendency to over-dribble. Removing that element from the equation allows Teague to not only increase his overall productive volume, but actually gives him a better chance to create with the benefit of a full shot clock. Catching the ball on the wing with six seconds on the shot clock doesn't exactly offer all that many options, and in the season to come Teague should see the very nature of his possessions expanded both in quality and quantity.
It might be cheating to select a rookie for this kind of list, but I'll blur the lines and pick Donatas Motiejunas, rules be damned.
The Rockets rookie (originally selected in 2011) is a bit of an unknown given his international seasoning, but his summer showing demonstrated a surprisingly versatile skill set and an appealing mobility. Motiejunas is no stiff, and in filling in at both power forward and center for Houston this season, he should have ample opportunity to demonstrate his ability to run the floor and score from a variety of angles.
We're looking at a very useful NBA player, and considering that Motiejunas is a listed seven-footer, that's rather notable. He hasn't been ushered to the big leagues on size alone, and early indications point to him having rather promising pro-level potential. That's big for a Rockets team in search of either assets or building blocks, and Motiejunas figures to be a part of Houston's future in one way or another.
Jerryd Bayless' career thus far has been one of fits and starts, and just when he was starting to develop some sustainable momentum last season, he was sidelined by an assortment of minor injuries.
Yet even after learning to control his game a bit, Bayless still didn't figure prominently into the Toronto Raptors' long-term plans; they allowed Bayless to walk in free agency, and he landed in Memphis on a two-year deal that will slot him as a scoring sub to replace the outgoing O.J. Mayo.
That's an ideal role for Bayless, who is a steady ball-handler, aggressive driver, and flexible "combo guard." His style and overall level of production may not make him an ideal candidate for major minutes or a starter's responsibilities, but in coming off the bench Bayless can hone in on specific goals and spell either backcourt position. This is a terrific landing spot for him, and although the Grizzlies' offense isn't the most freewheeling in the NBA, Bayless should have ample opportunity to attack opponents with his burst speed and widening court vision.
Even if Goran Dragic improves only marginally next season, he's likely to "break out" simply by virtue of playing more minutes. In his return to Phoenix, we can readily expect Dragic's per-game numbers to mimic his per-36-minute numbers—the very same ones that have projected him to be a quality, starting-caliber player since his second season in the NBA. This is the kind of role that Dragic's game merits, and although the Phoenix Suns may not have seen such promise in the 26-year-old guard when they traded him away to the Rockets in February of 2011, all's well that ends four-year, $34 million contract, I suppose.
Dragic has the benefit of being familiar with his new coach, his new team's offensive system, and many of his teammates. Phoenix even imported a little slice of Houston in claiming Luis Scola off of an amnesty waiver, bridging some of what made him successful under Kevin McHale with the shooting and energy throughout the roster that originally provided for Dragic's emergence in Phoenix.
He'll have control, a level of familiarity, and the kind of playing time worthy of his talents. With all of that accounted for, it'd be far more surprising if Dragic doesn't have a career year according to all the basic counting statistics, even if this is the opportunity he was trending towards all along.