The NBA's Top Candidate for a 2nd-Half Breakout at Every Position
Outside of established NBA superstars, are there any players more exciting than breakout candidates?
These rays of hope can be the final piece to a championship puzzle, a second-tier team's secret to unlocking a playoff bid or the reason for bottom-feeders to believe that better days are ahead.
The former group is probably the one most affected by these players, as those teams are the ones who can afford the growing pains often associated with guys lacking a consistent track record. They are also the clubs most in need of production, so unproven players don't typically lack offensive chances.
These don't have to be young players, as anyone significantly topping his previous level of success can be considered a breakout performer. That being said, it's impossible to populate this list without accounting for upside. With the 2014-15 season halfway in the books, it's easier to hold out hope for players who have struggled to find consistent opportunities as opposed to those who have squandered theirs.
There are different reasons to believe that each player on this list could be on the verge of a breakthrough. Some are demanding bigger roles in the rotation by the way they have played. Others have seen their situations improved through trades—either by receiving a needed change of scenery or seeing the departure of players previously ahead of them on the depth chart.
With those parameters in place, these are the top breakout candidates at each position on the floor.
Point Guard: Marcus Smart, Boston Celtics
With a supercharged motor, a generous dose of defensive tenacity and the fact the Boston Celtics spent the No. 6 pick to get him, Marcus Smart was never going to hurt for playing time.
But it's the strides he's made as a shooter that earned him a spot here.
No longer buried behind assist machine Rajon Rondo, Smart has started to break out of his shell. In the 16 games he's played since the trade, Smart has tallied 7.3 points (on 43.7 percent shooting from the field, 42.4 percent from distance) and 4.0 assists in 25.6 minutes per game. When Rondo was still in Beantown, Smart went for only 5.9 points (on .333/.270 shooting) and 1.5 assists in 16.4 minutes a night.
Smart left Oklahoma State with a suitcase full of intangibles. The 6'4", 220-pound guard flashed size, speed, strength and intensity that cannot be coached, plus an unwavering "will to win," as Bleacher Report's Daniel O'Brien noted last summer.
Smart still has all of those weapons in his arsenal, but the rookie has hinted at a bright future with the confidence he has found in his jump shot.
"That was the biggest knock on my game coming into the league was I couldn't shoot really," Smart said Jan. 13, per MassLive.com's Jay King. "Over the last 12 or 13 games, I think I've been shooting the ball pretty well. And I've been in the gym every day."
That extra work is paying off, and the results should only get better from here. Boston recently jettisoned backup floor general Jameer Nelson then waived his replacement, Nate Robinson. With only swingman Evan Turner and 34.9 percent-shooting Phil Pressey still around to battle for backcourt minutes, Smart should feast on his opportunities ahead.
Honorable Mention: Elfrid Payton, Orlando Magic
The Magic are finding their identity, and that process is the direct result of lengthening Payton's leash.
The point guard is averaging 33.4 minutes in January, a month in which Orlando has played at the third-fastest pace. He has had three point-assist double-doubles over his last 16 games and flashed legitimate triple-double potential with his January production (11.3 points, 6.7 assists and 5.0 rebounds).
Shooting Guard: Dion Waiters, Oklahoma City Thunder
Is it foolish to buy into Dion Waiters after two-plus seasons of disappointment with the Cleveland Cavaliers? Or might it be wise to believe that he has found the perfect situation with the Oklahoma City Thunder to unlock his full potential?
Clearly, we're willing to bet on the latter. And we aren't the only ones subscribing to that theory.
"Through five games...Sam Presti's move to buy low on the Dion Waiters stock looks like a stroke of genius," wrote Anthony Slater of The Oklahoman. "In Cleveland, one of the biggest criticisms of Waiters was his lack of consistency. ... But that certainly hasn't been a problem in OKC."
As Slater cautioned, it's still too early to say with any conviction how this is going to play out. But it's hard not to take notice of what the explosive shooting guard has done over his first five games with his new team.
Waiters struggled through a four-point, 1-of-9 shooting effort during his OKC debut. But in the four games since, he has gone for at least 15 points each time out while drilling 50.9 percent of his field-goal attempts and 46.2 percent of his long-range looks.
Thunder coach Scott Brooks gives his players a ton of offensive freedom—quite possibly too much. But Waiters has taken advantage of that long leash to flash his impressive isolation game. More importantly, he's done a better job of choosing his spots, attacking when the driving lane is open and deferring to his teammates when it isn't.
Most impressive, though, is the consistent defensive effort he has displayed. Brooks will live with offensively challenged 2 guards to get some defense at the position (see: Thabo Sefolosha before, Andre Roberson now), but Waiters has quickly proved capable of providing both.
Honorable Mention: Justin Holiday, Golden State Warriors
Playing on the league's deepest team and behind its best backcourt puts a cap on how high Holiday can climb. But since getting his first real look Dec. 22—and responding that night with 18 points in 20 minutes—he has expanded this group's collection of athletic, versatile perimeter defenders.
He's also compiled a .466/.405/.765 shooting slash over that stretch, hinting he could provide more offense if needed.
Small Forward: Andrew Wiggins, Minnesota Timberwolves
The light bulb above No. 1 overall pick Andrew Wiggins is starting to turn on with frightening regularity. Frankly, this is a hurdle some scouts felt the 19-year-old may have needed multiple seasons to clear.
"He's just not polished enough to put up consistent offensive results in the half court," Bleacher Report's Jonathan Wasserman cautioned of Wiggins last summer.
Wiggins was a very good player at Kansas last season but rarely a dominant one. He topped the 25-point mark in only five of his 35 games at the collegiate level.
As scary as this sounds, Wiggins may have already found whatever he was missing. He has three games of 25-plus points in January alone, a month in which he has averaged 21.0 points a night while coming dangerously close to the vaunted 50/40/90 shooting slash (.478/.394/.860).
And despite shouldering such a heavy offensive load, Wiggins continues to thrive in the areas where scouts expected him to excel. Already this month, he has either set or matched career highs in points (31), assists (five), steals (four) and blocks (three).
"It's almost astonishing his confidence level," Wolves coach Flip Saunders said, per Jerry Zgoda of the Star Tribune. "He just keeps continuing to get better and amaze and do everything, whether it's offense, blocking shots, rebounds."
Wiggins has the perfect platform to continue stuffing stat sheets. He has logged 32.9 minutes per game on the season and 37.7 in January. The Wolves (7-33) can live with his occasional stumbles, though those are coming fewer and farther between.
Honorable Mention: Jae Crowder, Boston Celtics
Crowder's duct-tape skills are quickly proving valuable for the rebuilding Celtics. Midseason demolitions can tear teams apart, but the gritty, energetic forward has helped hold it together.
His defense and intensity likely earned his promotion to Brad Stevens' starting lineup, but Crowder's offensive rise (7.3 points on 47.8 percent shooting in Boston) has been the most encouraging aspect of the move.
Power Forward: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks
It's hard to pin down Milwaukee Bucks sophomore Giannis Antetokounmpo to one position. The only role he seems to fill with consistency is that of a matchup nightmare.
But the Greek Freak has seen more time at the 4 than any other spot. He has the mindset and mobility to thrive away from the basket, but his 6'11" frame and 7'3" wingspan make him a capable candidate for frontcourt minutes.
No matter where he's slotted, he has superstar potential. Players rarely come around with this combination of length, skill and athleticism, let alone ones who supplement all three with insatiable energy.
He has yet to discover a consistent three-point stroke (20.0 percent this season, 32.2 percent for his career), but to his credit, he doesn't try to force the issue (0.6 long-range attempts per game in 2014-15). Under Bucks coach Jason Kidd, Antetokounmpo has made a concerted effort to aggressively attack the basket and maximize the effectiveness of his superhuman reach.
"His foundation is getting stronger," Kidd said, per Charles F. Gardner of the Journal Sentinel. "He's learning how to play without having to score the ball, say shooting threes or shooting jump shots. He can live at the free-throw line. Some of the top players in this league, that's what they do."
The sophomore is starting to compile box scores as unique as his build. He is one of only 16 players averaging at least 11.0 points, 6.0 rebounds, 2.0 assists, 0.5 blocks and 0.5 steals. Limit that list to guys shooting at least 50 percent from the field, and the Greek Freak is left standing with only the likes of Kevin Durant, Marc Gasol, Nikola Vucevic and Al Horford.
With Jabari Parker out for the season (torn ACL) and Larry Sanders lost to a 10-game suspension for violating the league's anti-drug program, Antetokounmpo should have all the minutes and offensive touches he can handle.
Honorable Mention: Cody Zeller, Charlotte Hornets
The Hornets are quietly playing themselves back into the playoff picture, having won seven of their last eight games. But even if Charlotte stumbles again and opts to tear down this roster, Zeller should continue playing a major role.
The skilled 7-footer is entrenched in this franchise's present and future, and he's playing some of his best basketball of the season (8.3 points on 50.0 percent shooting, 5.3 boards, 2.1 assists in January).
Center: Rudy Gobert, Utah Jazz
Who said NBA centers were going out of style? Truth be told, this was the hardest position to pick—not due to a lack of talent but rather an abundance of it.
Jusuf Nurkic (Denver Nuggets), Alex Len (Phoenix Suns) and Hassan Whiteside (Miami Heat) have all shown enough to deserve some consideration here. But Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert still stands above the crowd.
At 7'1" tall, he usually does.
Gobert has freakish length, even by the NBA's supersized standards. His go-go-gadget arms cover a whopping 7'8.5" of ground, per DraftExpress. That all adds up to a massive 9'7" standing reach, which is further bolstered by a 29" max vertical leap.
If that sounds like the ideal makeup of a disruptive defensive center, well, that's exactly the type of player Gobert has become. He's averaging an absurd 4.2 blocks over his last nine games while seeing 31.0 minutes a night. For context, that blocks average would rank as the 12th highest in NBA history.
Incredibly, Gobert might leave a bigger imprint on the attempts he doesn't reject. Opponents have shot a paltry 37.3 percent at the rim against him, per NBA.com. Of all players facing at least five such shots per game, no one else has held shooters below 40 percent.
"He's a unique player in his ability to protect the rim and block shots," Jazz coach Quin Snyder said, per Mike Sorensen of the Deseret News.
But Gobert isn't only a rim protector. Over that same nine-game stretch, he's also put up 10.0 points on 61.5 percent shooting, 9.2 rebounds, 1.9 assists and 1.2 steals.
Gobert is getting harder to sit by the second.
Honorable Mention: Hassan Whiteside, Miami Heat
This is what happens when a long, athletic 7-footer starts to figure things out. Whiteside, a former second-round pick who spent the past two seasons overseas, has learned that less can be more.
He has focused his energy on providing simply an above-the-rim presence underneath, and the results have been nothing short of brilliant: 11.1 points on 70.6 percent shooting, 7.8 rebounds, 2.9 blocks over his last 10 games.