Projecting the NBA's Top 5 Breakout Players at Every Position
How boring would the NBA be if everyone stagnated year in and year out?
This sport is massively entertaining—in part, at least—because of the ebbs and flows. Players regress as they get older or move into less advantageous schemes. And, more importantly for our purposes, others break out, reaching new levels to provide dramatic benefits to their squads.
Maybe they're due for increases in playing time. Maybe schematic shifts unlocked their potential. Maybe they've been trending up and are due for some serious recognition.
Whatever the individual cases may be, these five non-rookies and non-sophomores at each position are ready for bigger things in 2017-18.
5. Dante Exum, Utah Jazz
It's now been just three years since the Utah Jazz used the No. 5 pick of the 2014 NBA draft on Dante Exum, though injuries wiped away an entire season and leave him entering his third true campaign in Salt Lake City. The Australian point guard is still only 22 years old, giving him plenty of time to continue living up to his immense potential.
Exum was a much more confident defender last year, learning how to recover against spot-up shooters and dash around off-ball screens to keep up with his assignments. Once he figures out the nuances of pick-and-roll coverage and stops treating on-ball picks like brick walls, he'll finally be leveraging his physicality into unabashedly positive play on the less glamorous end.
But it's on offense where his breakthrough should come. Exum's shot might no longer be broken after he knocked down 52.4 percent of his field-goal attempts and 41.7 percent of his triples in three games at Utah Summer League. Those numbers will regress against stiffer competition, but even minor strides as he continues to develop his all-around play will allow him to serve as one of the NBA's top-tier backups for the Jazz.
4. Delon Wright, Toronto Raptors
This breakthrough may occur out of sheer necessity.
Kyle Lowry is 31 years old and needs to lessen his regular-season responsibilities so he can avoid falling apart during the playoffs. Cory Joseph is now functioning as a backup 1-guard for the Indiana Pacers after an offseason trade. And that leaves Delon Wright spearheading the second unit while serving as Lowry's primary relief.
The 25-year-old may not be much of a shooter, but he's a confident player with the ball in his hands. He should thrive while running pick-and-rolls with Jonas Valanciunas, as well as pick-and-pops with Serge Ibaka. Moreover, he can leverage his 6'5" frame into quality defense, even crossmatching within the backcourt to alleviate some of DeMar DeRozan's responsibilities.
Obviously, Wright isn't taking over Lowry's job. But don't be surprised if Toronto feels comfortable that it's found its point guard of the future by the end of the 2017-18 campaign.
3. Patrick Beverley, Los Angeles Clippers
Patrick Beverley's breakout won't be a statistical one, so much as a shift in perception that finally recognizes him as the upper-tier player he's become. The Arkansas product thrived during his time alongside James Harden and the Houston Rockets, but he'll be viewed as a leader for the Los Angeles Clippers.
Working with DeAndre Jordan gives him the oop-finisher necessary to throw plenty of easy alleys. Playing with Blake Griffin will allow him to spot up on the perimeter and wait for the defense to be sucked in toward the power forward before connecting on a catch-and-shoot jumper.
Plus, he gets to shift back to his natural position.
Few players were better in a three-and-D role last year than Beverley, who placed No. 2 among point guards in ESPN.com's defensive real plus/minus (ironically enough, behind only Chris Paul—the man he's replacing) while ranking in the 80th percentile for spot-up points per possession (PPP). Those jobs should be even easier in his new home, given the unorthodox distribution of Griffin and Danilo Gallinari and the ease of defending with Jordan cleaning up the interior.
2. Reggie Jackson, Detroit Pistons
Perhaps poised for a bounce-back season after his disastrous 2016-17, Reggie Jackson is a risky choice here. He still isn't fully cleared for basketball activities while recovering from knee tendinitis, though head coach Stan Van Gundy has said, per Vince Ellis of the Detroit Free Press, "He should be good to go for the start of camp."
This is the right approach, standing in stark contrast to what the Pistons did last summer. By pushing Jackson to participate as fully as possible, they may have hindered his recovery and forced him to spend much of the actual season hobbling around. His defense was atrocious because he couldn't keep up with opposing guards. He didn't possess as much bounce, and his quick first step was anything but.
But Jackson has broken out before, to the point that he was in the All-Star conversation during the 2015-16 season. If he heals fully, there's no reason he can't reenter that tier. He just might not need to, as Duncan Smith of Piston Powered pointed out:
"If Jackson’s rehab does the trick and he can return in good form, he doesn’t need to be a fringe All Star to help this team like he did in 2015-16. He had his best three-point shooting season last year, and he took a higher percentage of his shots from long range than in any season since his second year in 2012-13.
"He can be used off ball more, with Avery Bradley being used as a primary facilitator, taking some of that focus off him and allowing him to spot up and move off screens. He doesn’t need to be the first, second and third options for both scoring and facilitating, as Bradley is more than adequate at both and Tobias Harris established himself last season as a go-to scorer on this team."
1. Jeremy Lin, Brooklyn Nets
A healthy Jeremy Lin is a dangerous force, especially now that he's surrounded by far more talent than has previously joined him during the opening salvo of his Brooklyn Nets career. D'Angelo Russell and Allen Crabbe give him shooters to whom he can pass, and the Timofey Mozgov-Jarrett Allen combination, while no Brook Lopez, can set hard screens to free Lin for aggressive drives toward the hoop.
Though "Linsanity" wasn't evoked in 2016-17, he had the best offensive season of his career during the 36 games in which he appeared. The three-point stroke came around, he continued to minimize turnovers and he kept excelling as a PnR ball-handler.
That should remain true in 2017-18, just with the luxury of more health and better talent to take pressure away. It's a deadly combination for one of the league's more underrated floor generals, and it should finally allow Lin to be viewed by the national audience as more than a one-year flash in the pan.
5. Norman Powell, Toronto Raptors
Norman Powell still doesn't have the luxury of a starting spot with the Toronto Raptors, and that won't change for a while after the offseason addition of C.J. Miles. But beginning games on the pine won't prevent him from showcasing the skills he's slowly been developing throughout his first two professional seasons.
Shooting 32.4 percent from beyond the arc in 2016-17 should be viewed as an aberration, especially because Powell spent his time improving in almost every other offensive area. He grew tremendously as a secondary ball-handler who could capably score out of the pick-and-roll, learned how to use screens more advantageously and even chipped in with the occasional post-up of a smaller player.
Now, just watch what happens when he mixes that with regression to the mean as a spot-up marksman.
4. Rodney Hood, Utah Jazz
Someone has to pick up the scoring slack after the departure of Gordon Hayward, and Rodney Hood is the most likely candidate.
A disciplined player who moves at his own pace and rarely forces drives into traffic, Hood has upped his per-minute scoring average each year of his career, topping out at 16.9 in 2016-17. Now, he's set to play far more minutes as the starting 2 for a lineup that needs scoring production from the wings.
But it's the spot-up work that's most exciting now that he's playing alongside Ricky Rubio. George Hill was a tremendous point guard (when healthy) in Utah, but he's not the same type of distributor as the man replacing him. The switch should benefit Hood quite substantially, getting him more clean looks after he scored an even point per possession (58th percentile) last year.
3. Evan Fournier, Orlando Magic
Let's take a quick gander at two sets of statistical lines.
In the first, Evan Fournier averaged 18.0 points, 2.7 rebounds, 2.1 assists and 1.0 steals while shooting 44.6 percent from the field, 37.5 percent from downtown and 77.8 percent from the stripe. In the second, he posted 13.6 points, 2.2 rebounds, 1.6 assists and 1.2 steals per game while slashing 43.8/36.8/82.6. And don't be fooled by the diminished numbers in the latter line, since he played just 22.6 minutes per contest.
That first set showed how Fournier played last season after the All-Star break, and the second represents his work for France in five EuroBasket outings.
His confidence is only growing.
2. Tony Snell, Milwaukee Bucks
Look, there's a reason the Milwaukee Bucks were confident enough to hand Tony Snell a four-year deal worth $46 million less than a year removed from getting him for nothing more than Michael Carter-Williams. The former New Mexico standout just needed a chance, and they gave him one.
Much like Fournier, Snell started to catch fire at the end of the 2016-17 season. He began to post bigger point totals, then carried over his flamethrowing to the postseason, in which he connected on half his field-goal attempts and 51.6 percent of his triples in six games against the Toronto Raptors.
Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton, Malcolm Brogdon, Greg Monroe and Jabari Parker will continue to gobble up plenty of scoring opportunities, likely preventing Snell from throwing up too many gaudy figures in the point column. But he'll break out as a three-and-D wing who makes up for his lack of volume with extreme efficiency, thanks to his dual knack for finishing plays at the rim and from outside the rainbow.
1. Gary Harris, Denver Nuggets
Talk about landing in a perfect situation.
Gary Harris started his trek toward the top tier of the 2-guard rankings in 2016-17, and he now finds himself in an ideal situation to flat-out explode.
On offense, the soon-to-be 23-year-old thrives both cutting to the hoop and spotting up on the perimeter. He scored 1.39 PPP in the former situation to finish in the 77th percentile, displaying remarkable synergy alongside Nikola Jokic, who was able to leverage his passing talents into plenty of perfectly timed feeds around the hoop.
Pair that with 42 percent shooting on deep attempts from Harris, and you have a terrific combo that's only going to get deadlier with Paul Millsap's passing entering into the equation.
But Harris should grow even more on defense with Millsap cleaning up behind him. He was often tasked with taking on the toughest assignments for Denver in 2016-17, and that experience will serve him well now that he has the luxury of an interior defender who can mitigate the impact of mistakes around the arc.
5. Justise Winslow, Miami Heat
With a working shoulder, Justise Winslow is poised to build upon the success he showed during his sophomore season before injuries limited him to only 18 games. He's still never going to develop into a three-point marksman, but that's perfectly fine.
Though Winslow struggled with his shot, he still displayed improvement in many areas throughout that 18-contest stretch. He was comfortable operating with the ball in his hands (3.6 assists per 36 minutes doubled the mark he earned as a rookie) and knocked down the occasional touch attempt near the hoop that will eventually become essential to his growth.
"It's up to him," team president Pat Riley said of Winslow's starting role, per Barry Jackson of the Miami Herald. "He was short-circuited by the wrist and the shoulder. Justise is going to compete like crazy to start. The great thing about [head coach Erik Spoelstra], is when we come into training camp, it's open."
Winslow isn't a lock to start yet. But by the time 2017-18 is over, his expanding offensive game and lockdown defensive abilities will have pushed him firmly into that role.
4. Robert Covington, Philadelphia 76ers
Fans seemed to turn on Robert Covington early in the 2016-17 season as he bricked one shot after another from beyond the arc. But that won't be the case going forward.
First, his value is easier to recognize now that he's spent a year serving as one of the league's better defensive presences. ESPN.com's defensive real plus/minus (DRPM) had a wide gap between him and every other qualified small forward last season, and the eye test backed up that statistical conclusion. Covington may not have made an All-Defense squad, but he deserved serious consideration and should again as we move forward.
But his shot should also return. He'd knocked down between 35.3 percent and 37.4 percent of his triples during each of his first three campaigns, making the 33.3 percent in 2016-17 feel like little more than an aberration.
Expect him to gain recognition as a three-and-D stud now that he's surrounded by even better passers in Markelle Fultz and Ben Simmons who will also drag defensive attention toward the interior and away from his preferred locations.
3. Kelly Oubre, Washington Wizards
This is all about what we saw from Kelly Oubre during the playoffs.
After filling such a small role throughout the regular season, he actually played less frequently but did far more with his time on the floor. While the Washington Wizards beat the Atlanta Hawks and fell to the Boston Celtics, he averaged 5.8 points, 2.3 rebounds, 0.3 assists, 0.8 steals and 0.4 blocks while shooting 42.6 percent from the field and 36.7 percent from downtown.
Those numbers aren't that impressive. But they're steps in the right direction for this 21-year-old small forward, giving Washington confidence that he can fill a larger role.
The Wizards still desperately need more production from their non-starters, and Oubre is in position to help them on both ends of the floor. Not only should he serve as a de facto sixth man, but he could slot in at the 3 in smaller lineups that also feature Otto Porter and Markieff Morris.
2. Khris Middleton, Milwaukee Bucks
A healthy Khris Middleton could be the piece who pushes the Milwaukee Bucks far closer to the top of the Eastern Conference.
The 26-year-old swingman has individually showcased every tool in the books throughout his brief NBA career, but he's never been closer to putting them all together. He can function as a secondary ball-handler (or tertiary, when both Giannis Antetokounmpo and Malcolm Brogdon are on the floor). He can excel in a spot-up role, especially after shooting 43.3 percent on 3.6 triples per game last year. He's also a versatile defender capable of guarding multiple positions.
He can excel in a spot-up role, especially after shooting 43.3 percent on 3.6 triples per game last year. He's also a versatile defender capable of guarding multiple positions.
He's just an all-around asset in position to fill a major role for a team with talent scattered throughout the roster.
1. Andrew Wiggins, Minnesota Timberwolves
Andrew Wiggins' per-game numbers in 2016-17 were fantastic: 23.6 points, 4.0 rebounds, 2.3 assists, 1.0 steals and 0.4 blocks. How, then, can he possibly experience a breakout?
Well, the volume was there. The efficiency wasn't. Most all-encompassing metrics actually show that, thanks to his sub-standard shooting percentages, lack of contributions in non-scoring areas and woeful defense, Wiggins was one of the NBA's least-valuable players. ESPN.com's RPM had him sitting at No. 262 overall, while NBA Math's total points added, which factors in volume (unfortunately for below-average contributors), slotted him at No. 483. Only 486 players suited up in the NBA last year.
But this is the season that should change.
Wiggins has Jeff Teague, Jimmy Butler and an ever-improving Karl-Anthony Towns to help him shoulder the scoring responsibilities, which should help him make strides in other areas. Butler in particular can take on some tough defensive assignments and help Wiggins grow as an off-ball stopper.
The eye test and the analytics should start to meet in the middle during the 2017-18 campaign.
5. Harrison Barnes, Dallas Mavericks
Much like Wiggins, Harrison Barnes should see the actual value start to match the elevated per-game figures this time around. He scored plenty of points for the Dallas Mavericks during his inaugural season with a non-Golden State Warriors franchise, but middling percentages and trouble making an impact elsewhere hindered his overall game.
Now, Barnes is more comfortable in a go-to role. He has more talent around him after Dirk Nowitzki's return to health, the addition of Dennis Smith Jr. and the improvements of Seth Curry and Yogi Ferrell. He'll also get to focus on playing quality defense against 4s—his better slot in the lineup—while taking more efficient looks.
Everything is set up for him to become the player his per-game scoring average wanted him to be.
4. Aaron Gordon, Orlando Magic
Are the Orlando Magic finally done experimenting with Aaron Gordon at small forward?
He played a career-high 63 percent of his minutes at the 3 in 2016-17—and even dabbled at shooting guard in ultra-sized lineups—as they unsuccessfully tried to turn him into a Paul George clone. But the roster construction is different now, no longer featuring an unabashed logjam of big men.
Gordon should actually feature as the starting power forward, freeing him to use not only his raw athleticism and cutting ability but also the skills he gained during his time attempting to fit in on the wings. Don't be surprised if he turns into a complete matchup nightmare for opposing frontcourt players, finally displaying the versatility the Magic have always believed he possessed.
3. Larry Nance, Los Angeles Lakers
Julius Randle may be the Los Angeles Lakers' starting power forward, but Larry Nance is actually their best option at the position. Sooner or later, they'll realize it and act accordingly. And please note that it's "best option" not "best player."
Randle's triple-double habits are tantalizing, but Nance fills a greater need now that the Purple and Gold have scoring coming from other spots in the lineup. Though he's an atrocious shooter who needs to spend plenty of time in the gym lofting up countless attempts, his work around the basket and on the defensive end could make him invaluable.
Last season, Randle knocked down 65.1 percent of his looks from inside three feet, as well as 36.8 percent from between three and 10 feet. Those numbers stood at 70.0 and 47.8, respectively, for Nance. While Randle finished No. 75 among power forwards in ESPN.com's DRPM, Nance used his springiness and instinctual interior work to sit at No. 11.
It's time for head coach Luke Walton to recognize this and give Nance a chance to demonstrate his value.
2. Derrick Favors, Utah Jazz
"Can't wait to see what happens when I'm not playing on one leg," Derrick Favors tweeted in March, responding to a stat about how frequently his shots were being blocked during the 2016-17 campaign.
Maybe that was a slight exaggeration. He did literally have two legs. But Favors clearly wasn't operating at 100 percent last year, slower to run down the court in transition and ultimately succumbing to IT band syndrome—a malady that stems from overuse and can be rather crippling.
Back at full strength, he should break back out into the fringe All-Star candidate he'd become before his seemingly painful injury. Favors can become a terrific defender alongside Rudy Gobert while thriving in the PnR game with Ricky Rubio. He can morph back into a strong finisher who loves completing put-back attempts with aplomb.
He's broken out before. Now, he can do it again.
1. Kristaps Porzingis, New York Knicks
Regardless of what happens with Carmelo Anthony, the New York Knicks' offense should finally be centered around Kristaps Porzingis. And that's terrifying for the rest of the NBA.
Though New York would obviously prefer to have someone better than Ramon Sessions as the starting point guard, moving on from Derrick Rose will be terrific for the big man's development. He won't have to watch as possessions are commandeered, but can instead display the full extent of his unicorn-ness—just as he's doing during EuroBasket.
In four games for Latvia, he's accumulated countless highlight-reel plays while averaging 21.0 points, 5.8 rebounds and 1.8 blocks. Better still, he's slashed 49.2/37.5/87.0. The NBA will surely provide tougher competition, but would you be too surprised to see him replicate—or improve upon—those numbers while spending more time on the floor?
I didn't think so.
5. Cristiano Felicio, Chicago Bulls
The Chicago Bulls clearly believe in Cristiano Felicio after handing him a four-year pact worth $32 million this offseason.
Now, just watch as he eventually becomes the team's starting center. Robin Lopez currently fills that role, but it wouldn't be at all surprising to see Felicio take on a larger job when Chicago descends to the bottom of the Eastern Conference hierarchy and has its sights set on Michael Porter Jr., Luka Doncic or Marvin Bagley in the draft.
Felicio is a truly fantastic rebounder who can thrive on both the offensive and defensive glass—a trait not every great board-crasher possesses because the two ends require vastly different skill sets. He's an improving defender who knows how to leverage his physicality, and his thunderous slams off the roll should eventually make him popular with the franchise's fanbase.
Maybe the Brazilian big man won't morph into a star. But it's possible to break out into a solid starting option, as well.
4. Frank Kaminsky, Charlotte Hornets
Per Sam Perley of Hornets.com, Charlotte Hornets general manager Rich Cho saw some distinct improvement from Frank Kaminsky toward the end of his sophomore season:
"He did start playing a lot better in February and then he got hurt a little bit. His play went down and then he got back to full strength and started playing better. I think he started getting a lot more confident. You could see it in his play. [He] was a lot more assertive and aggressive. Hopefully, that'll carry over to next season."
Kaminsky still needs to work on finishing around the hoop, but his shooting acumen and understated passing ability worked to his advantage after he got healthy and comfortable. From February on, he averaged 14.6 points, 4.9 rebounds and 2.5 assists while shooting 41.6 percent on field-goal attempts and 36.0 percent on his three-point tries.
Charlotte's center rotation is more crowded after the arrival of Dwight Howard, but the Hornets could also buck convention by going with super-sized lineups. Kaminsky's game should work next to either Howard or Cody Zeller, which bodes well for his continued ability to earn run.
3. Jusuf Nurkic, Portland Trail Blazers
Jusuf Nurkic struggled immensely while suiting up for the Denver Nuggets, failing to work with Nikola Jokic or thrive alone in the starting lineup. He just didn't seem motivated until the midseason trade to the Portland Trail Blazers kicked him into gear.
From that point forward, he started flashing skills that had previously been dormant. He protected the rim quite nicely behind Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum. He showcased a desire to work as a secondary distributor and hit cutters as they burst toward the basket—something he was rather hesitant to do with his limited touches in the Mile High City.
Everything worked, and he reinvigorated Rip City while averaging 15.2 points, 10.4 rebounds, 3.2 assists, 1.3 steals and 1.9 blocks in 20 games. If he's able to maintain those numbers and his two-way effectiveness, he'll quickly leap up the center hierarchy and affirm the celestial status he looked capable of achieving in 2016-17.
2. Dewayne Dedmon, Atlanta Hawks
When Dewayne Dedmon was on the bench or out of uniform during his final year with the San Antonio Spurs, the team allowed 105.4 points per 100 possessions—an impressive number, but only good enough to rank behind the Spurs' season-long mark (103.5), the Golden State Warriors (104.0) and the Utah Jazz (105.3).
When he played, the defensive rating plummeted to 100.1, pushing San Antonio well ahead of the field.
Dedmon could work with any combination of teammates. If he played next to Kawhi Leonard, he was more content to settle in on the interior and deter opponents from entering his domain. If the Spurs threw out a weaker bunch of backcourt and wing defenders, he was comfortable icing pick-and-rolls before recovering and—if necessary—contesting shots from behind.
But he only played 17.5 minutes, thanks in large part to head coach Gregg Popovich's creative rotations and ability to glean quality play from everyone. He'll have no such limitations with the Atlanta Hawks. Plus, they use a similar defensive scheme under Mike Budenholzer, who was previously a Popovich pupil.
1. Clint Capela, Houston Rockets
Last season, Clint Capela scored 1.14 PPP when rolling to the hoop, which left him in the 73rd percentile. He used the play so frequently, though, that he still managed to add more value in that scenario than all but a dozen players throughout the league, per NBA Math.
Expect him to get even better in 2017-18.
James Harden was an elite facilitator in the pick-and-roll. But now, Chris Paul is also a member of the Houston Rockets, and he's an even more deft distributor. Almost every set should begin with Capela running to the top of the key and setting a screen, then waiting for the opportune moment to dive toward the basket.
The 23-year-old center already shot 64.3 percent from the field last season, but he should move into DeAndre Jordan territory with both Paul and Harden feeding him the rock. Every look will be an efficient one, and the ease with which he generates his offense should leave him with more energy with which to thrive on the other end.
Adam Fromal covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @fromal09.