Predicting the Next Wave of Breakout NBA Stars

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesFeatured Columnist IVJuly 20, 2022

Predicting the Next Wave of Breakout NBA Stars

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    Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

    While it's difficult to watch former greats age out of their primes, the NBA always replaces fading superstars with new ones.

    The players covered here are primed to shine brighter than ever in 2022-23, and a few of them might even go on to define the next decade in the league.

    We've disqualified anyone who's made an All-Star team, which removes players like LaMelo Ball, Dejounte Murray and Darius Garland who would otherwise belong here. It should go without saying that an All-NBA nod also removes a player from consideration. Those guys have already broken out.

    We want young, ultra-talented candidates who've hinted at superstar upside but who haven't quite achieved it yet. Inclusion here means we think that will change in the upcoming season, when their production will spike as they become hot topics in the NBA discourse and constant presences in highlight reels. Those last two parts are important; a superstar has to combine the steak and the sizzle.

    These are the players who'll soon collect awards, accumulate cultural clout and gain widespread acclaim. None of them will be unfamiliar, but they'll become ubiquitous as they bust out during the upcoming season.

Honorable Mention

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    Set Number: X164099 TK1

    Jordan Poole, Golden State Warriors

    Strong performances during a title run tend to draw attention, and Poole's postseason averages of 17.0 points and 3.8 assists on a 50.8/39.1/91.5 shooting split certainly captured some eyeballs. Ditto for his fourth-place finish in Most Improved Player voting and highlight-heavy style.

    Unfortunately for Poole, who's a good bet to crack 20 points per game off the bench this year, an All-Star nod isn't realistic—not with multiple veteran guards and wings ahead of him in the rotation who've already achieved that status. Expect Poole's efficiency to climb and his defense to improve after it was so consistently exposed in the playoffs. He should be the favorite to win Sixth Man of the Year.


    Jalen Green, Houston Rockets

    Green closed his rookie season on a heater, averaging 22.1 points on 58.9 percent true shooting after the All-Star break.

    We have to take that 24-game run with a grain of salt, as Green accumulated stats on a tanking Rockets team that rarely got the opponent's full attention. Still, the 20-year-old has all of the high-rise lift and straight-line burst you could want in a scoring guard, and his late-season efficiency gains have to mean something.


    Scottie Barnes, Toronto Raptors

    Slotting Barnes here might cause some regret. The reigning Rookie of the Year enjoyed a second-half stat spike much like Green's, only Barnes put up his post-break averages of 17.7 points, 7.7 rebounds and 3.7 assists on 58.1 percent true shooting for a Raptors team that was actually trying to win games.

    With that said, Barnes might be a touch overrated as a defender and still comes with concerns about his jumper. All of that late-year production came with a 27.4 percent three-point hit rate (30.1 percent overall).

    There's little doubt Barnes, entering his age-21 season, is going to be a star eventually. But year-over-year progress doesn't always trend up uninterrupted.

Cade Cunningham, Detroit Pistons

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    Cade Cunningham's game comes with polish and craft that bely his one year of professional experience. We're leaning on those attributes to justify his spot here over Barnes, who beat out Cunningham for Rookie of the Year.

    It's just easier to envision the type of superstar Cunningham is poised to become, because we've already seen Luka Doncic do it.

    Yes, we need to pump the brakes when invoking that name. Nobody is saying Cunningham will become the league's apex young player this season. Doncic is one of one, but Cunningham shares the MVP candidate's ability to get wherever he wants on the floor, whenever he wants. Size, patience and intelligence make him an ideal primary playmaker.

    Shooting may be the swing skill for the 2021 No. 1 overall pick, and there's every reason to be bullish on Cunningham's potential in that area. He tweaked his form prior to last season, raising his release point and focusing on quicker catch-and-fire sequencing. Though Cunningham shot only 31.4 percent from three on the year, his mechanics looked smooth and should continue to improve as he gets more reps. His 84.5 percent accuracy rate on free throws also suggests his long-range mark will rise.

    An ankle injury slowed Cunningham's start in 2021-22. This year, he'll hit the ground running and never look back.

    Hot-Take 2022-23 Stat-Line Prediction: 22 points, 8 assists and 8 rebounds per game with a 47/37/85 shooting split and a Most Improved Player award.

Anthony Edwards, Minnesota Timberwolves

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    We're going alphabetically here, but Anthony Edwards would have been No. 1 if we were organizing players by their highest likelihood of reaching superstar status.

    If anything, Ant is already in that category in the off-court sense. He's been winning press conferences with his charisma since he was a teenager, and his scene-stealing performance in Hustle demonstrated his understanding of showmanship. Bet on this being the year Edwards' Q score and statistical production explode in tandem.

    Coming off averages of 21.3 points, 4.8 rebounds and 3.8 assists in his age-20 season, Edwards smoothed some of the rough edges off his game. He bumped his assist percentage all the way up to the 88th percentile at his position and was more active on defense, ranking in the 83rd and 86th percentile in block and steal rate among wings, respectively.

    With downhill explosion that is second to none and the ability to elevate over defenders of all sizes, Edwards is bound to become a foul-drawing force as well. Considering he's just barely started the process of figuring out how to channel his unparalleled athleticism, the production and efficiency to this point are astounding.

    Remember, this is a player whose physical tools graded off the charts before he got access to the NBA's top-flight training and development apparatus—one who, by his own admission, didn't even know what truly hard work looked like.

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    If Edwards hones his shot selection and gains a better understanding of how to leverage all of his physical gifts, he's going to take the league by storm.

    Hot-Take 2022-23 Stat-Line Prediction: 27 points, 5 assists, 5 rebounds and an All-NBA nod.

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Oklahoma City Thunder

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    Issac Baldizon/NBAE via Getty Images

    Quietly and in short, injury-interrupted bursts, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander has been building toward superstardom for the last three seasons. Nobody has paid much attention to the rebuilding Oklahoma City Thunder during the last two years of that span, so SGA's gorgeous game and stellar production have flown under the radar.

    That's about to change.

    Thirteen players have averaged at least 21 points, five rebounds and four assists with a true shooting percentage of at least 57 across the last three years. Twelve of them were All-Stars, and eight made All-NBA teams in that span. Six are past MVPs.

    Gilgeous-Alexander is the one entry on that list with none of those distinctions, although the stats suggest he's among peers. Missed games and loads of losses during OKC's teardown partly explain his exclusion, but they also indicate what might be possible if Gilgeous-Alexander stays healthy and the Thunder start to play better basketball.

    The most prolific driver in the league during each of the last two years, SGA is only going to pierce the paint more often with improved talent on the floor. The Thunder will have dangerous spacing around him, especially if rookie Chet Holmgren is the real deal. Josh Giddey is already among the league's most daring and creative passers, which should also lead to a few more easy looks than Gilgeous-Alexander has enjoyed in the past.

    If aesthetics matter in the superstar conversation (which they often do), you won't find many candidates with a prettier game than Gilgeous-Alexander. He has incredible touch around the rim and knows how to vary his pace to keep defenders off-balance. SGA's game doesn't just look good, either. It's also effective.

    Among players who averaged at least four isolation possessions per game last season, the only ones who scored more efficiently were DeMar DeRozan, Luka Doncic, Kevin Durant and James Harden.

    SGA has played a lot like a superstar in obscurity since 2019. This is the season that he makes everyone take notice.

    Hot-Take 2022-23 Stat-Line Prediction: 25 points, 7 rebounds, 7 assists and threatens 50/40/90.

Tyrese Haliburton, Indiana Pacers

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    Upon joining the Indiana Pacers at the trade deadline, Tyrese Haliburton gave everyone a sneak preview of what he could do with the keys to an offense.

    In 26 games with Indy, he averaged 17.5 points and 9.6 assists while shooting 50.2 percent from the field and 41.6 percent from long distance. Nobody sustained those averages over the full 2021-22 season, and it'd be asking a lot for Haliburton to keep up that pace in 2022-23. It does seem reasonable, though, to assume he'll increase his counting stats as his percentages drop a bit during a full year in a high-usage role.

    Best of all, Haliburton's individual numbers were tied to team success. His minutes on the floor coincided with a positive overall differential and an increase of 3.3 points per 100 possessions on offense.

    Haliburton isn't a jaw-dropping athlete, and his thin frame means he's usually at a strength disadvantage. But those limitations add to his appeal, as he's had to figure out ways to be effective despite them. The result is a unique game built on craft and resourcefulness—one supported by the kind of accurate shooting that requires no deeper look to appreciate. In both years of his career to date, Haliburton has hit over 40 percent of his threes.

    On defense, the 6'5" guard anticipates actions well and seems to delight in deceiving opposing offenses. It's not uncommon to see Haliburton bait the other team into thinking a pass is safe, only to then bolt into the picture for a steal.

    Maybe he'll never be a shutdown on-ball defender, but Haliburton can be a terror away from the play. Defense isn't generally a prerequisite for stardom, but Haliburton will generate highlights on that end as well.

    Hot-Take 2022-23 Stat-Line Prediction: 23 points, 10 assists, an All-Star nod and comes even closer to 50/40-90 than Gilgeous-Alexander.

Evan Mobley, Cleveland Cavaliers

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    The Cleveland Cavaliers had two first-time All-Stars last year in Darius Garland and Jarrett Allen. Evan Mobley will join that club this coming season, possibly while establishing himself as the best defensive player in the league.

    Mobley will not satisfy the "sizzle" requirement like Edwards, but if Tim Duncan and Kevin Garnett qualified as superstars largely on the strength of their defensive impact (and in spite of the trope that big men just don't capture fan interest like guards and wings), Mobley can absolutely follow suit.

    Those are unfair comparisons to invoke, but Mobley deserves them. He averaged 15.0 points, 8.3 rebounds, 2.5 assists and 1.7 blocks as a 20-year-old rookie, figures never before produced by a player so young. The age-20 seasons of Dwight Howard and Shaquille O'Neal make the cut if you remove the assists from the equation and trim blocks down to 1.0 per game, but the point should be clear: We've never seen anyone quite like Mobley.

    It isn't just the counting stats or averages that distinguish Mobley, and we don't have to filter for age to see he's special. His plus-2.3 Defensive Estimated Plus/Minus ranked in the 96th percentile last season and was identical to that of Robert Williams III, who probably would have won DPOY had the Boston Celtics started the season using the scheme that unlocked his dominance in the second half.

    If Mobley is already on the short list of the league's top defensive weapons, imagine what he'll be capable of when the game inevitably slows down for him.

    Mobley's five-position switchability and elite rim protection make him among the most plug-and-play frontcourt pieces around. There's no way to scheme him off the floor. And as the vision that led to those 2.5 assists develops, ideally along with the shooting range Mobley flashed at times during his rookie season, he could easily become one of the most complete offensive frontcourt players in the NBA.

    Past comps suggest it, and the on-court evidence of last season only support the case: Mobley looks very much like a true generational talent. He could become a superstar as early as next season and still have miles of growth ahead.

    Hot-Take 2022-23 Stat-Line Prediction: 19 points, 13 rebounds, 4 assists, leads the league in blocks and wins Defensive Player of the Year.


    Stats courtesy of NBA.com, Basketball Reference and Cleaning the Glass. Accurate through 2021-22 season. Salary info via Spotrac.

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