Predicting the Biggest Breakout Candidates of the 2015 NBA Playoffs
Some NBA players thrive when the lights turn the brightest. We see it nearly every postseason—whether it's Kawhi Leonard emerging from the San Antonio Spurs' team-oriented landscape to steal the show last year or Paul George cementing himself among the game's best all-around threats in 2013.
In reality, it's still the same game. But anyone who's ever watched playoff basketball knows that certain players rise to the occasion and some crumble under the pressure of the biggest stage.
This postseason, a number of young role players will have the opportunity to make their statements to the national audience. Think about Nate Robinson's 2013 run as a Chicago Bull without Derrick Rose, and Draymond Green's seven-game output that earned him a starting job this season.
Some players are bound to emerge from their everyday roles to unexpectedly take over a game, or even a series. These aren't necessarily the Kawhi Leonards of the league that can certainly take home a Finals MVP trophy, but rather players that can either (a) emerge from their current roles and contribute significantly more in the playoffs, or (b) take newfound regular-season success and apply it to the postseason for the first time.
It's part of why the NBA playoffs are so fun to watch. But who are the most likely candidates to break out this year?
Terrence Jones, Houston Rockets
Houston Rockets forward Terrence Jones has been through an injury-riddled 2014-15. The 23-year-old has appeared in just 28 games this season, a year after emerging as a reliable starter for Houston to go along with James Harden and Dwight Howard.
With Omer Asik and Chandler Parsons gone this season, Jones was expected to continue his development and fill an even bigger role in 2015.
Injuries have hampered him to this point, but after recovering from nerve issues and a partially collapsed lung, the 6'9", 252-pounder is back in the lineup—and producing as expected.
Obviously, in a much smaller sample size, Jones' stats are nearly identical to the ones he posted last year as a sophomore. His minutes are up slightly from 27.3 to 27.4, he's scoring 12.1 a game (exactly the same), grabbing 7.0 boards (up from 6.9) and accumulating 1.8 blocks a night (up from 1.3).
The issue isn't whether he can contribute when he's out there—it's whether he can simply stay on the floor. Jones is clearly a great asset for the Rockets to have on the offensive end of the floor. With Harden possessing the ball most of the time and Howard clogging the lane, Jones can even shoot the three at a league-average clip (a career-best 35.5 percent this season).
On the other end, in ESPN.com's defensive real plus-minus, he ranks 24th among 96 qualified power forwards.
The comparison isn't flawless, but if Jones can manage to stay on the floor, there's reason to believe he could be this Houston team's Draymond Green—doing the dirty work, being versatile on offense, guarding multiple positions defensively.
If Jones can wrap up the regular season without missing time and handle a heavy workload this postseason, he's a player who can impact a game in ways opponents may not expect.
C.J. McCollum, Portland Trail Blazers
The Portland Trail Blazers were desperate for a role player to step up in the wake of Wes Matthews' season-ending Achilles injury, and C.J. McCollum has given them a pleasant surprise.
In his 14 games since entering the rotation full time on March 13, the 23-year-old has averaged 10.7 points over 20.9 minutes a night, while shooting 49.2 percent from the field and 42.9 percent from three-point range.
In last year's postseason, Matthews accounted for 12.4 of Portland's field-goal attempts per night. Arron Afflalo will help make up for some of those this year—he's attempted 9.2 per game with the Blazers this season—but the onus will fall on McCollum to hit big shots if Terry Stotts entrusts the second-year pro with a legit role.
Against playoff teams since March 13, McCollum has shot 25-of-47 (53.2 percent) from the field—including 10-of-17 (58.8 percent) from three.
At a lanky 6'4", 200 pounds, defensive assignments should theoretically pose issues for McCollum. But ESPN.com's real plus-minus ranks him 14th out of 98 qualified shooting guards in defensive RPM.
It's a reach to expect McCollum to rise to Kawhi Leonard levels of stardom in this postseason. But he's shown the potential to expand his role and play a key factor in the Trail Blazers' current fortune. That's significantly more than what his expectations were a month ago.
Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks
The basketball world has been waiting for Giannis Antetokounmpo of the Milwaukee Bucks to officially break into stardom for the last two seasons. With his freakish athletic ability and insanely long frame, it's important to remember that the second-year pro is still only 20 years old.
But with the Bucks likely competing in the playoffs this season—a year after going 15-67—Jason Kidd's young corps will get valuable postseason reps. More importantly, in the No. 6 seed, they may have a chance to take on a potentially Derrick Rose-less Bulls team, or the struggling Washington Wizards or Toronto Raptors.
With a breakout performance from Antetokounmpo—the team's most intriguing specimen—a playoff series victory wouldn't be out of the question.
He's increased his field-goal percentage from 41.4 in year one to 49.7 this season. Per 36 minutes, he's averaged 4.6 more points a night than last season. His 6.7 rebounds per game are second on Milwaukee only to center Zaza Pachulia.
For Triangle Offense, Drew Corrigan wrote more about Antetokounmpo's strength's this year:
The improved shooting efficiency is credit to Giannis learning where he needs to attack from the floor. His shooting percentages from up to 16 feet from the basket have all increased, with his percentage at the rim rising from 57 percent to 66 percent. He’s most effective from less than 10-feet away from the rim, where 70 percent of his offense comes.
Of course, his most impressive area remains in transition, where Antetokounmpo is producing 1.17 PPP, and his And-One Frequency (4.1 percent), trumps James Harden (2.8 percent) and rivals Russell Westbrook (4.2 percent). Though, he scores in transition 60.8 percent of the time, which does outlast Westbrook, Harden, Gordon Hayward, etc. Antetokounmpo is also scoring on nearly 70 percent of his cuts.
This particular Buck still has plenty of developing to round out his game, but his regular season has shown signs of a big-time breakout in the near future—possibly as soon as this postseason.
Jimmy Butler, Chicago Bulls
It's been an incredible year for Jimmy Butler—one that has established his placement among the game's best shooting guards. But we've yet to see the Chicago Bulls swingman put up such stellar performances in the postseason.
He's made significant gains this season—from averaging 13.1 points last year to 20.1 points in 2014-15. His field-goal clip has increased from 39.7 to 46.0, his three-point clip has climbed from 28.3 to 35.7, and his percentage from the line has improved from 76.9 to 84.1.
Defensively, Butler is still a positive, even if he has dropped off a bit from last season. He ranks 28th in ESPN.com's defensive real plus-minus among shooting guards and has come away with 1.8 steals per night for Chicago.
Derrick Rose is reportedly set to return to the Bulls lineup in time for the postseason, according to Nick Friedell of ESPN Chicago, though that return date is still up in the air. Regardless of when Rose makes his comeback, it's unlikely he can be the same Rose that led Chicago to the playoffs in 2012—effectively the last time the point guard played in a full postseason.
With Rose's workload in question, it could be on Butler to handle a bulk of the ball-handling in the Chicago backcourt. And if his postseason is a continuation of this regular season, Butler will easily cement himself as one of the best at his position—and perhaps one due for an expensive new contract this summer.
Klay Thompson, Golden State Warriors
Much like Jimmy Butler, Klay Thompson has posted a season very few could've expected based on his career output prior to 2014.
Thompson went from being Stephen Curry's less capable backcourt mate in 2013-14 to a fellow All-Star in 2014-15. He's put up 21.5 points per game in his fourth season, on career-bests 46.0 percent shooting from the field and 43.0 percent from beyond the arc.
Already with an MVP candidate point guard, the Golden State Warriors never were desperate for Thompson to make this leap. But his surge this season is a huge reason why the Dubs have already locked up the league's best record.
In the postseason, a lineup with multiple stars is almost necessary to compete for a title. Whether Klay has reached that status yet can be debated, but if he makes a habit of going on his trademark hot streaks in the playoffs, there will be nothing left to debate.
In fact, if Golden State does march to the NBA Finals like so many pundits predict, Thompson will likely need to provide that All-Star-level assistance to Curry. His 16.4 points per game last playoffs—shooting a pedestrian 36.4 percent from three-point range—wasn't enough to get the Warriors out of the first round against the Los Angeles Clippers.
Thompson's regular season has eliminated any doubt as to whether the team made the right move in keeping him through all the Kevin Love trade rumors last summer. But if the 25-year-old can take this regular-season success and turn it into postseason results, it will be the exact transformation that could determine the track of a young player's career.
Unless otherwise noted, all statistics courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com.