Projecting Top 10 Breakout Players During 2018-19 NBA Season
Unchecked optimism is ingrained into the start of each NBA season. Everything is peachy keen for every team if the injury bug doesn't hit. All of them have at least one player poised for a career year, a breakout and/or a dalliance with stardom.
For most, this idealism is nothing more than false euphoria that will be weeded out by regular-season reality checks. For others, the buzz is warranted. Stars, fringe stars and afterthoughts-turned-building blocks come out of nowhere every season. Attempting to suss them out is an early-October rite of passage.
Ours begins now.
To add a smidge of structure, we're removing rookies and sophomores from consideration. Making measurable strides following two or more years in the league is more impressive.
Not everyone on this list is scheduled for a jump to megastardom. We're looking for footnotes fated to become household names—and, yes, also the occasional transition into All-Star territory.
Jaylen Brown, Boston Celtics
Age at Start of 2018-19: 21
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 14.5 points, 4.9 rebounds, 1.6 assists, 1.0 steals, 0.4 blocks, 46.5 percent shooting
Jaylen Brown set the stage for this nod last season, most notably fleshing out his bag of offensive tricks to include more volume, a consistent three-point stroke and a little off-the-dribble pizzazz. He took this progression to even greater heights during the Boston Celtics' postseason push, which he'll use as a springboard into 2018-19, as Bleacher Report's Adam Fromal wrote:
"While [Kyrie] Irving and Gordon Hayward were watching in street clothes, he averaged 18.0 points, 4.8 rebounds, 1.4 assists, 0.8 steals and 0.6 blocks per game in the playoffs, doing so while shooting 46.6 percent from the field, 39.3 percent from downtown and 64.0 percent at the stripe."
"If the Celtics need someone who can control a possession and create his own look, Brown is there. If they need a spot-up threat, he's ready on the wings, waiting to use his impressive and replicable form to splash sphere through nylon for three points. If they need a defensive stop, he can parlay his physicality and instincts into solid work against myriad positions, often switching along the perimeter to fit in perfectly with the Beantown schemes."
Role reduction is a ubiquitous danger in Boston. Brown's rise was empowered in part by Hayward's absence. Dynamics will shift with him and Irving at full strength alongside Al Horford, Terry Rozier and, most of all, Jayson Tatum.
Brown is adaptable enough to ignore the complications tied to the Celtics' depth. Over half of his offensive possessions last year came as spot-ups and in transition. He's more accustomed to working off the ball than even Tatum.
Lateral output would still leave the door open for a career year. Brown has that much room for growth on defense. His range extends beyond typical swingmen and covers routine, oft-effective tussles with the Donovan Mitchells and Kevin Durants of the league. What Brown may lack in offensive counting stats will be more than offset by All-Defensive rumblings.
Dante Exum, Utah Jazz
Age at Start of 2018-19: 23
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 8.1 points, 1.9 rebounds, 3.1 assists, 0.6 steals, 0.2 blocks, 48.3 percent shooting
Doubting the Utah Jazz is good for the soul. Pretty much everyone—myself included—has been quick to crown them a contender for the Western Conference's No. 2 seed.
And why not? Utah owned the NBA's best net rating for more than half of 2017-18. A healthy Rudy Gobert and Ricky Rubio, a more seasoned Donovan Mitchell and more open-ended access to terrifying small-ball arrangements should go a long way.
Except, what if it doesn't? What if the Jazz are the ritzier version of the 2016-17 Miami Heat, a team that bet on a half-year surge being indicative of its new normal?
Maybe the Jazz are above this distrust. They sure seem to be. Their defense and ball movement are the real deal. Neither Gobert nor Mitchell is a flash in the pan. And yet, the latter is entering the regular season as a sophomore lifeline after Utah's quiet summer. He could regress relative to last year's eruption. (Before you get mad, the same could be true for Tatum.)
Other conditions of the Jazz's identity could burn out. Ricky Rubio might not flirt with league-average efficiency from three. Jae Crowder-at-the-4 lineups may be evicted from cloud nine. The absence of a clear No. 2 scorer could hamstring an offense that failed to crack the top 10 in points scored per 100 possessions during its peak run.
Dante Exum is the swing piece. His health is essentially the Jazz's free-agency addition. Mitchell's encore efforts are more pivotal to maintaining last year's standards, but Exum's development is Utah's flavor enhancer. And he's up to the occasion.
Exum is already there on defense. He made life hell on James Harden in the postseason and has the size and length to comfortably rove between point guards and wings. No one should expect him to down threes at his preseason clip (66.7 percent), but he's more than his shaky jumper on offense. He's cleared 67 percent shooting at the rim two times in three seasons, and he looked more under control initiating half-court actions during his limited run last year.
Better ball-handling alone is Exum's ticket to substantive playing time. Mitchell needs an attacking partner in crime. For all of the questions about his range, Exum is just that. If he starts hitting some runners or sniffing a 33 percent success rate from distance, Utah will give off juggernaut vibes.
Buddy Hield, Sacramento Kings
Age at Start of 2018-19: 24
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 13.5 points, 3.8 rebounds, 1.9 assists, 1.1 steals, 0.3 blocks, 44.6 percent shooting
Buddy Hield quietly pieced together a strong sophomore campaign. If the preseason is any indication, he looks poised to deliver a quality follow-up performance.
Nothing about his game is particularly flashy, which is sort of the point. He didn't do anything last year that suggests he was playing above his head. He improved without exploding. He offered offensive consistency outside of sudden stardom.
The Sacramento Kings' overcrowded pecking order could get in the way of Hield making a massive leap, but he's armed to withstand their vague chain of command even if he doesn't rejoin the second unit following Bogdan Bogdanovic's return. He survived amid comparable disarray last year.
After an October to forget, Hield shot 52.6 percent on catch-and-shoot threes and 37 percent on pull-up triples from Nov. 1 through the end of the season (73 appearances). Toss in his slightly expanded usage within pick-and-rolls, and he has given Sacramento someone who effectively straddles the line between volume hub and plug-and-play accessory.
That brand of player shouldn't fall off as the Kings work to incorporate Marvin Bagley and Harry Giles into their rotation. Hield is so much more than a shooter, but his marksmanship alone can be the grounds for a rise. Kyrie Irving, Kyle Korver, Kevin Love, JJ Redick, Klay Thompson and Anthony Tolliver(!) are the only other players who put down more than 40 percent of their threes on at least seven attempts per 36 minutes.
It helps that Hield isn't a defensive train wreck. He isn't a lockdown safety net by any means; he won't make complicated reads or basket-saving plays from behind. But he works hard in space, and his 6'4" frame stands up to some of the bigger non-star wings.
Brandon Ingram, Los Angeles Lakers
Age at Start of 2018-19: 21
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 16.1 points, 5.3 rebounds, 3.9 assists, 0.8 steals, 0.7 blocks, 47.0 percent shooting
"Look out," LeBron James told ESPN.com's Dave McMenamin with regard to Brandon Ingram. "I think he's next."
Is anyone out there brave enough to go against the King's latest decree? Well, you shouldn't be. Ingram has become an obligatory inclusion in these exercises not because LeBron demands it, but because he deserves that near-universal trust.
A majority share of his potential used to be rooted in the eye test. It still is in many ways.
Ingram has a great feel for the game when probing defenses in the half court. He isn't always totally comfortable reacting to and finishing through traffic, but he leverages his lanky gait to reach his spots almost at will. That fluidity is atypical for someone standing 6'9", and it has afforded him rosy projections even when the quantitative doesn't quite align with the visceral.
That changed last season. Ingram's numbers started to match up with aesthetics. He closed the 2017-18 season averaging 16.0 points, 5.3 rebounds and 4.8 assists while canning 47.1 percent of his threes over his final 25 games, a stretch in which he was largely used as the Lakers' offensive lifejacket.
Upping his outside volume and adding an operable pull-up jumper are the next steps in Ingram's development. They're about the only things separating him from stardom. He needs to be more of a constant presence on defense as well, but he is already disruptive off the ball and has shown hints of improvement in one-on-one situations.
Playing with James should get Ingram over the hump. He'll have more space to attack in face-ups and pick-and-rolls, and any extra three-point looks should come as higher-efficiency standstill opportunities.
He is, in fact, next.
Caris LeVert, Brooklyn Nets
Age at Start of 2018-19: 24
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 12.1 points, 3.7 rebounds, 4.2 assists, 1.2 steals, 0.3 blocks, 43.5 percent shooting
D'Angelo Russell is the most popular breakout pick on the Brooklyn Nets' roster. It isn't hard to see why.
Attempting difficult shots is an art form on its own, and Russell plays offense with zero fear. His from-scratch nerve will render him a one-man ecosystem if his efficiency ever catches up, and the Nets have granted him latitude without strings. Among all players who have appeared in at least two preseason tilts, only three are averaging more field-goal attempts per 36 minutes.
Caris LeVert still checks in as the Nets' more appealing breakout option. He has more layers to his game. He doesn't boast the 20-points-per-game cachet of Russell, but he has the on-ball speed to separate from defenders and manufacture high-end looks for himself and his teammates.
Brooklyn continues to plumb the depths of LeVert's playmaking instincts. He finished third among the team's rotation players in assists per 36 minutes last season and is getting more reps as the primary setup man in the preseason.
Convincing LeVert to finish more plays himself is paramount to the Nets' future. Someone with his first step should be open to firing more pull-up jumpers. He has asserted himself in preseason action, but that small sample doesn't override the regular deference he's shown through his first two years.
Experience and repetition tend to facilitate aggression, so LeVert may soon carry himself like a lead option. Then again, the Nets don't need him to be that player. They have Russell to be their source of fierce volume.
LeVert's value is more well-rounded and spills over to the defensive end. He's hyperactive on most half-court possessions; he led all Brooklyn players who made at least five appearances last season in deflections per 36 minutes. And while LeVert usually pesters the toughest backcourt assignment—impressive in and of itself—his roughly 7-foot wingspan allows for matchups against bigger wings.
Don't be surprised if he finishes 2018-19 as the Nets' MVP.
Jamal Murray, Denver Nuggets
Age at Start of 2018-19: 21
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 16.7 points, 3.7 rebounds, 3.4 assists, 1.0 steals, 0.3 blocks, 45.1 percent shooting
Twenty percent of the league's general managers picked Jamal Murray as the most likely player headed for a breakout this season. No one else received more than 10 percent of all votes (Ingram and Tatum).
That says something.
Murray's offensive panache sometimes gets lost in the whirlwind that is the Denver Nuggets offense. They have so many players who can make things happen with the ball in their hands, and everything revolves around their Serbian superstructure, Nikola Jokic.
The Nuggets have not developed Murray as a floor general out of necessity and by design. And the variance in his role compared to those of other starting point guards will only mushroom with Will Barton joining the starting lineup and Isaiah Thomas sponging up minutes and touches off the bench.
That shouldn't scare anyone away from purchasing Murray stock. He has struck a balance between complementary scoring and conventional attack mode. His effective field-goal percentage on catch-and-shoot looks last season (62.2) was in line with Klay Thompson's mark (62.4), and he banged in more than 36 percent of his pull-up threes over his final 15 games.
Imitating a combo guard works for Murray. He can take another step toward offensive stardom without demanding an expanded role. But the Nuggets may give him one anyway. Their depth beyond the starting lineup is not a given.
Denver could need Murray to log more time away from both Barton and Jokic. That's fine. Murray doesn't play game-changing defense, but the Nuggets scored north of 109 points per 100 possessions last year when he ran the show without Barton or Jokic, according to Cleaning the Glass. He's equipped to handle more solo stints.
Taurean Prince, Atlanta Hawks
Age at Start of 2018-19: 24
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 14.1 points, 4.7 rebounds, 2.6 assists, 1.0 steals, 0.5 blocks, 42.6 percent shooting
Late-season experimentation did wonders for Taurean Prince's career arc last year. With the Atlanta Hawks tanking and Dennis Schroder watching from the sidelines, Prince was awarded more control over the offense.
He responded with a months-long detonation.
Between Feb. 1 and the end of the season, Prince averaged 17.6 points, 4.3 rebounds, 3.2 rebounds and 1.2 steals while shooting 37.9 percent on 7.3 attempts from behind the rainbow. Atlanta's offense remained bottom-five material during that stretch, but his efficiency amid increased volume was a revelation.
The same goes for his secondary ball-handling, only more so. Prince committed turnovers on 27.3 percent of his pick-and-rolls, but his mistakes will wane with repetition, and he made ball protection a priority over the summer.
"I stayed locked in on my mechanics. Also, I worked on my ball-handling," he told HoopsHype's Alex Kennedy. "I just want to be tighter with the ball because then I can get to my spots."
Opportunity shouldn't be too much harder for Prince to come by this season. The Hawks have Trae Young, but they need on-ball threats to maximize his movement and range away from the action. Kent Bazemore and Jeremy Lin won't cut it on their own, and even if they do, neither is a part of Atlanta's big picture.
Prince's defense will balance out whatever voids wind up sticking in his offensive repertoire. He can hang with both 2s and 3s, and lineups that deploy him as a small-ball 4 should survive on defense if the Hawks extract any sort of consistency from the center rotation.
Josh Richardson, Miami Heat
Age at Start of 2018-19: 25
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 12.9 points, 3.5 rebounds, 2.9 assists, 1.5 steals, 0.9 blocks, 45.1 percent shooting
Josh Richardson's breakout candidacy is not contingent upon him remaining with the Miami Heat. He has reportedly been offered to the Minnesota Timberwolves as the headliner in Jimmy Butler trade talks, according to the New York Times' Marc Stein.
If Tom Thibodeau ever gives up on re-re-recruiting his disgruntled wing, Richardson could have a new home. Whatever. He'll buy some winter coats and deal with it. His defensive intensity translates anywhere.
Richardson is the Marcus Smart of people who are taller than Marcus Smart. He can guard four positions, including some bulkier 4s, without getting steamrolled.
Good luck finding a better shot-blocker at Richardson's size. He's unafraid to step in and contest looks around the rim, and he's among the best in the business at derailing jumpers on close-outs.
Challenging him is often an exercise in futility. He takes a certain pride in busting up entire plays from all angles. Only six players standing 6'6" or shorter have ever matched his steal (2.3) and block (2.4) percentages from last season: Tony Allen, Charles Barkley, Eric Bledsoe, Gar Heard, Michael Jordan and Dwyane Wade.
All-Defensive team buzz is a formality no matter where Richardson plays. His offense is a touch more dependent on his environment. He's a dependable shooter—he hit 38.8 percent of his spot-up threes last year—and the Heat have let him dabble in pick-and-roll creation.
Establishing himself as a higher-octane offensive weapon gets harder with a healthy Dion Waiters in the mix. It would be even tougher within Minnesota's constrictive spacing. Richardson is malleable enough to make everything work. And if nothing else, his floor is one that every team would kill to have—a premier three-and-D specialist.
Domantas Sabonis, Indiana Pacers
Age at Start of 2018-19: 22
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 11.6 points, 7.7 rebounds, 2.0 assists, 0.5 steals, 0.4 blocks, 51.4 percent shooting
Is it OK to be higher on Myles Turner long term but forecast a more meaningful breakout from Domantas Sabonis this season? Let's hope so, because he we are.
Sabonis arrived in a big way for the Indiana Pacers last season after an unremarkable rookie go-round with the Oklahoma City Thunder. He dominated the glass at both ends, set back-breaking screens and emerged as a go-to hand-off partner for his guards. He'll have to do even more than that to facilitate another appreciable jump.
Indy is stocked with frontcourt talent. Extra minutes won't come easy, particularly if Alize Johnson gets semi-frequent run. Branching out at both ends will be crucial to Sabonis earning the benefit of the doubt over his direct competition.
Jacking more threes is a good place to start on offense. The Pacers' shot distribution is a collective wart, but Sabonis launches enough long twos for an uptick to come within the flow of possessions. As The Ringer's Kevin O'Connor explained:
"Sabonis struggled as a spot-up shooter in Oklahoma City, but Indiana shouldn’t forget about his shooting. Sabonis shot 35.1 percent from three last season, but on only 37 attempts, a low number made more egregious by the 107 midrange shots he took from deeper than 16 feet, which he made only 34.6 percent of. The sooner Sabonis’s game catches up to math, the better: His three-point attempts led to 1.05 points per shot, while his attempts from midrange garnered a not-so-nice 0.69 points per shot. When Sabonis sets a screen it makes zero sense for him to pop to 18 feet when he’s equally capable from three."
Sabonis' defensive improvement rests almost entirely on his mobility outside the paint. Playing more minutes with Turner forces him to make quicker closeouts, cover 4s who attack off the dribble and switch onto guards.
Both bigs got their yoga on over the summer, so they might be ready for nomadic roles. But the offseason feels like it will have a greater impact on Sabonis. This is only the second year of his fresh start, and he's already the more polished offensive weapon of Indy's two primary bigs.
Calling Turner the better player now is fair. But Sabonis, aided by his comfort working with the ball and a scorching-hot preseason, might be coming for him.
Pascal Siakam, Toronto Raptors
Age at Start of 2018-19: 24
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 7.3 points, 4.5 rebounds, 2.0 assists, 0.8 steals, 0.5 blocks, 50.8 percent shooting
With wings galore on their roster, the Toronto Raptors are emphasizing small-ball arrangements. They have yet to start Serge Ibaka and Jonas Valanciunas together during the preseason, and they opened up two of their first three games with only one big in the lineup.
Head coach Nick Nurse has been adamant he doesn't see the need to stick with one iteration of his starting lineup, but that changes nothing. Toronto seems bent on staggering minutes for Ibaka and Valanciunas no matter how they play.
Enter Pascal Siakam. He is the Raptors' everything big. He can play with either Ibaka or Valanciunas if Toronto is looking for a more traditional frontcourt that doesn't compromise its switchability. Or he can anchor the middle on his own in one-big combinations.
Toronto outscored opponents by nearly 12 points per 100 possessions last season when Siakam manned the 5, according to Cleaning The Glass. Most of those reps came in tandem with Ibaka, but that only speaks to the extent of Siakam's orbit. He is both rangier and more of a center than the slightly taller Ibaka.
The Raptors figure to close games with Siakam and four non-bigs. Whether they unleash that lineup as more than a circumstantial novelty depends on how well they hold up on the glass and the progression of Siakam's three-point stroke.
Some of the rebounding concerns will work themselves out. Kawhi Leonard is better than most wings on the glass, which should help to neutralize instances in which Toronto is outsized. Siakam's outside touch is another matter. He converted only 22 percent of his long-range attempts as a sophomore.
Souped-up spacing should help his efficiency. The Raptors will give him the leeway to explore it. His jumper is that important. Siakam won't ever melt minds with his scoring totals, but when coupled with his quick passes, defensive portability and relative comfort working off the dribble, draining threes at a near-average clip would guarantee him prestige reserved for fringe All-Stars.