NBA Metrics 101: Ranking Top NBA Breakout Players So Far This Season

Adam Fromal@fromal09National NBA Featured ColumnistDecember 12, 2018

NBA Metrics 101: Ranking Top NBA Breakout Players So Far This Season

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    Breakouts come in all different shapes and sizes in the NBA

    Some players can go from picking splinters out of their rear ends to logging legitimate minutes. Others begin generating serious All-Star buzz. Even established stars can break out by entering a new portion of the leaguewide hierarchy, as evidenced by Giannis Antetokounmpo and DeMar DeRozan both earning votes for Most Improved Player in 2017-18. 

    Though the jump from star to unabashed superstar might be the most difficult to complete, we're treating improvement of all varieties equally and looking at the biggest raw breakouts by using a blended rating called player score. 

    To determine this particular version of player score, we're pulling scores in five different overarching metrics: NBA Math's total points added, win shares, ESPN.com's real plus-minus (RPM), player efficiency rating (PER) and minutes per game. The first two look at volume-efficiency combinations, while the third and fourth focus on per-possession effectiveness. The last element is meant to reward those who receive more run and are thus more important to their teams. Volume and time on the court matter more than they might in other evaluations, since it's tough to break out when you aren't actually playing.

    To standardize the five metrics that operate on drastically different scales, we found the Z-scores in each category and summed them to find a player's total score.

    This was done for each of the 458 players who've logged minutes in 2018-19, as well as the 540 men who stepped onto the hardwood last year. From there, we ranked players based on the biggest upswings from one year to the next, ruling out those whose scores are boosted by returns from injuries (Gordon Hayward and Kawhi Leonard) or extremely small samples (Zhou Qi and Chris Boucher). 

10. Jarrett Allen, Brooklyn Nets: 5.04

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    Al Bello/Getty Images

    2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 8.2 points, 5.4 rebounds, 0.7 assists, 0.4 steals, 1.2 blocks

    2017-18 Player Score: 0.92 (No. 171)

    2018-19 Per-Game Stats: 12.3 points, 8.5 rebounds, 1.6 assists, 0.5 steals, 1.5 blocks

    2018-19 Player Score: 5.96 (No. 38)

    Jarrett Allen was a mediocre rookie for the Brooklyn Nets last year, one who only came on strong during the season's stretch run. But as a sophomore, he's developed into a fearsome defensive presence who understands his developing offensive role. 

    The latter has been more important, even if Allen isn't chasing as many shot-blocking opportunities and is instead remaining disciplined around the basket. 

    This Texas product still needs to improve his non-dunking touch around the basket, but he's shooting 58.7 percent from the field and is assuming a larger facilitating role as a sophomore. Having the confidence to kick the ball out to the perimeter after hauling in an offensive rebound is a massive step, as it depresses the number of times he gets into trouble by trying to force second-chance action. 

    Last year, the Nets scored 2.7 fewer points per 100 possessions with Allen on the court than when he was on the bench, as they were unable to trust him with the ball in his hands or feature him in the offensive flow unless he was rolling directly to the hoop. This year, his increasingly cerebral play has helped elevate the Brooklyn offense from a 103 to a 108.3 offensive rating—a team-best swing in the positive direction.  

    Honorable Mentions: Zach Collins, Portland Trail Blazers; Dorian Finney-Smith, Dallas Mavericks; Montrezl Harrell, Los Angeles Clippers; Emmanuel Mudiay, New York Knicks; Nerlens Noel, Oklahoma City Thunder

9. Marc Gasol, Memphis Grizzlies: 5.17

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    Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

    2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 17.2 points, 8.1 rebounds, 4.2 assists, 0.7 steals, 1.4 blocks

    2017-18 Player Score: 4.47 (No. 60)

    2018-19 Per-Game Stats: 16.7 points, 8.8 rebounds, 4.0 assists, 1.4 steals, 1.4 blocks

    2018-19 Player Score: 9.64 (No. 14)

    Marc Gasol is an anomaly. 

    He's the oldest player among the 10 listed breakouts. He's also one of two who earned a player score north of 4.0 during the 2017-18 season, which means he was already a positive presence who got that much better in 2018-19. Moreover, he's the lone featured man whose per-game line hasn't trended up substantially.

    But don't be fooled by Gasol's declining scoring average. He's made up for the slight downtick in volume by asserting himself on defense and upping his efficiency numbers like he's turned the clocks back to 2012-13, the season he won Defensive Player of the Year.

    Last year, Gasol shot 42.0 percent from the field, 34.1 percent from downtown and 83.4 percent from the stripe. This go-round, he's improved his slash line to 45.4/40.2/73.9 while spending more time on the floor and averaging 0.8 fewer turnovers per game. We're suddenly staring at another peak version of a man who previously looked beleaguered by the ceaseless advances of Father Time. 

    Not only has he helped spark the Memphis Grizzlies' early-season run into the Western Conference playoff race with his resurgent two-way prowess, but he's also skyrocketed up individual hierarchies. After finishing at No. 71 in ESPN.com's RPM last season (1.55), he's up to No. 4 during his age-34 campaign (5.96).

8. Domantas Sabonis, Indiana Pacers: 5.43

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    Michael Hickey/Getty Images

    2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 11.6 points, 7.7 rebounds, 2.0 assists, 0.5 steals, 0.4 blocks

    2017-18 Player Score: 2.04 (No. 123)

    2018-19 Per-Game Stats: 14.2 points, 9.6 rebounds, 3.1 assists, 0.6 steals, 0.6 blocks

    2018-19 Player Score: 7.47 (No. 30)

    Domantas Sabonis spent 2017-18 breaking out into a solid all-around player for the Indiana Pacers, quickly reversing his career trajectory after a miserable rookie season with the Oklahoma City Thunder. This year, he's doubling down on his across-the-board gains while filling an even more prominent role off the pine, which puts him in the running for both Most Improved Player and Sixth Man of the Year. 

    What can't the former Gonzaga Bulldog do? 

    He displays a potent blend of creativity and athleticism when operating around the basket with newfound aggression that allows him to post an admirable 0.444 free-throw rate. He can drain mid-range jumpers and splash home the occasional triple. He's a gifted facilitator capable of hitting spot-up shooters and cutters from either the blocks or elbows, and head coach Nate McMillan is increasingly counting on him in that role.

    He's averaging 14.0 rebounds per 36 minutes while proving adept on both the offensive and defensive glass. He's even proving to be a stellar stopping presence who sits at No. 38 overall in ESPN.com's DRPM. 

    If you're still looking for a weakness, you might want to pause and do something else with your time. You're going to have trouble finding one. 

7. Noah Vonleh, New York Knicks: 6.0

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    Sarah Stier/Getty Images

    2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 4.9 points, 5.8 rebounds, 0.6 assists, 0.4 steals, 0.3 blocks

    2017-18 Player Score: minus-1.76 (No. 315)

    2018-19 Per-Game Stats: 8.2 points, 8.1 rebounds, 2.0 assists, 0.8 steals, 0.9 blocks

    2018-19 Player Score: 4.24 (No. 59)

    If degree of surprise factored into these rankings, Noah Vonleh might be even higher. Marc Gasol has excelled before and is turning back the clocks. Jarrett Allen and Domantas Sabonis are delivering upon the promise they each showed in prior campaigns. Most other men populating this countdown fall into similar categories. 

    But as you can see by looking at his prior scores in box plus/minus, the 23-year-old Vonleh, who's now more than four years removed from coming off the board at No. 9 in the 2014 draft, could reasonably have been written off as a bust:

    • 2014-15 for the Charlotte Hornets: minus-5.6 BPM
    • 2015-16 for the Portland Trail Blazers: minus-4.0 BPM
    • 2016-17 for the Portland Trail Blazers: minus-3.9 BPM
    • 2017-18 for the Portland Trail Blazers: minus-3.3 BPM
    • 2017-18 for the Chicago Bulls: minus-2.8 BPM
    • 2018-19 for the New York Knicks: 2.0 BPM

    Sure, Vonleh had been trending up toward mediocrity throughout his NBA career, but he largely floundered in three different locations. This type of surge couldn't have been forecasted. 

    The Knicks are somehow bringing out the best in him, teasing out three-point production and immense development on defense. He's making the most of his boundless energy and spring-loaded athleticism by guarding players at multiple positions and no longer operating under the traditional shackles restricting many 6'9" contributors. 

    "I didn't realize how versatile he was," Knicks head coach David Fizdale admitted, per CBS Sports' James Herbert. "And [general manager] Scott Perry just kept saying it to me. He said, 'Coach, when this kid was in high school, man, this kid could do everything.'" 

6. Tristan Thompson, Cleveland Cavaliers: 6.03

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    David Liam Kyle/Getty Images

    2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 5.8 points, 6.6 rebounds, 0.6 assists, 0.3 steals, 0.3 blocks

    2017-18 Player Score: minus-1.82 (No. 321)

    2018-19 Per-Game Stats: 12.0 points, 11.6 rebounds, 2.1 assists, 0.8 steals, 0.4 blocks

    2018-19 Player Score: 4.21 (No. 62)

    Someone had to pick up the offensive slack following LeBron James' departure from the Cleveland Cavaliers, but Tristan Thompson never looked like an offensive stalwart waiting in the wings. His transformation from a seldom-used option into the team's fourth-leading per-game scorer (among those with at least 10 appearances) is shocking, especially since his previous career high (11.7) came a half-decade ago. 

    Additionally, Thompson shot 47.7 percent back in 2013-14, but he's knocking down 55.1 percent of his field-goal attempts this season. 

    A sprained foot will knock Thompson out for the next two to four weeks, per ESPN.com's Adrian Wojnarowski, but don't let that take away from the developments he's already shown during this early-season surge. He's submitting the highest offensive rebounding percentage of his career and is capitalizing on second-chance opportunities. He's also creating more of his own offense than he has since his first two NBA go-rounds. 

    Thompson isn't blossoming into a defensive stopper, but his overall profile looks drastically better when he's no longer wholly dependent on his teammates to generate offense. Considering rookie point guard Collin Sexton struggles to make the passes expected from a starting point guard in the NBA, that's good news for Thompson's long-term status with the Cavs. 

5. Pascal Siakam, Toronto Raptors: 6.51

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    Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images

    2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 7.3 points, 4.5 rebounds, 2.0 assists, 0.8 steals, 0.5 blocks

    2017-18 Player Score: 3.08 (No. 93)

    2018-19 Per-Game Stats: 14.6 points, 6.5 rebounds, 2.7 assists, 1.0 steals, 0.8 blocks

    2018-19 Player Score: 9.59 (No. 15)

    Blink at the wrong time when defending Pascal Siakam, and he may spin around you to earn a clear path toward the basket. Attempt to predict the move, and he'll run an effective counter that leaves you grasping at air. 

    Siakam's Tasmanian Devil impersonation has quietly become one of the NBA's deadliest moves, especially because he rarely forces the issue. Though he's grown into a strong enough offensive option that he could justify demanding more touches, he's instead content to maximize the opportunities he does receive while producing in every facet of the game—even the non-glamorous ones that don't show up in the box score. 

    "My goal has always been about getting better," Siakam said, per Yahoo Sports' Steven Psihogios. "If you look at me from freshman year in college to sophomore year, the improvement is crazy. That's something I always try to make sure I do every year. Go out and work on my game, and make sure the next year I become better."

    He's passed that goal with flying colors in 2018-19. 

    Though Siakam is scoring only 14.6 points per game while shooting 61.3 percent from the field, he's proved vital to the Toronto cause with his efficient offensive contributions and well-rounded defensive acumen. On some nights, he focuses on stopping an opposing wing. On others, he frequently switches onto bigger players. The next, he might shuffle between spot-up duties and constant slashes toward the hoop.

    He's a veritable Swiss army knife who should draw serious consideration for the All-Star roster in the Eastern Conference. That would've been unfathomable this time last year. 

4. Nikola Vucevic, Orlando Magic: 6.66

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    Fernando Medina/Getty Images

    2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 16.5 points, 9.2 rebounds, 3.4 assists, 1.0 steals, 1.1 blocks

    2017-18 Player Score: 4.79 (No. 53)

    2018-19 Per-Game Stats: 20.6 points, 11.5 rebounds, 3.7 assists, 1.0 steals, 1.0 blocks

    2018-19 Player Score: 11.45 (No. 9)

    As ESPN.com's Zach Lowe wrote, Nikola Vucevic has become a bona fide master of pivot-based scoring: 

    "Vucevic had good footwork as a kid, but he focused on pivot moves when he discovered he couldn't just shoot over NBA centers, he says. He watched film of footwork masters, including Kobe Bryant.

    "He doesn't need to blow by defenders, or fake them off their feet. Tipping them a hair off balance is enough. When Vucevic pivots into defenders' bodies, some instinctively back away just enough for him to flick a hook over them.

    "'I try to use my pivots to create a little space,' he says. It helps that he's nearly ambidextrous. Whatever window you reveal, Vucevic can sneak the ball through it."

    The 7-footer has been an effective go-to scorer in prior seasons, but this is the first time he's knocking on the door of star status. He's almost single-handedly kept the 12-15 Orlando Magic on the fringes of the Eastern Conference playoff race, helping them outscore opponents by a team-best 3.1 points per 100 possessions when he's on the floor. In doing so, he should've already locked up his first All-Star berth, even if his long- and mid-range shooting regress back to more realistic levels. 

    Vucevic will never be a two-way dynamo capable of anchoring a championship-caliber team, but he can at least hold his own defensively while forcing the opposition to bend itself around his finesse game. That's valuable in and of itself. 

    Currently boasting a top-10 RPM that places him directly behind Giannis Antetokounmpo and Stephen Curry, Vucevic has gone from finishing No. 53 in our player score metric last season to checking in at No. 9 thus far. 

3. Derrick Rose, Minnesota Timberwolves: 7.02

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    Jordan Johnson/Getty Images

    2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 8.4 points, 1.4 rebounds, 1.5 assists, 0.3 steals, 0.2 blocks

    2017-18 Player Score: minus-3.49 (No. 441)

    2018-19 Per-Game Stats: 18.4 points, 3.0 rebounds, 4.5 assists, 0.6 steals, 0.3 blocks

    2018-19 Player Score: 3.53 (No. 76)

    Derrick Rose's 2017-18 campaign was disastrous. 

    He quickly flamed out with the Cleveland Cavaliers, even though the team needed a steadying force at point guard. A three-team trade sent him to the Utah Jazz midway through the year, but the Jazz waived him instead of having him compete for minutes with a lackluster rotation of 1-guards. When he arrived in Minnesota to reunite with head coach Tom Thibodeau, Tyus Jones outplayed him for much of the year. 

    That hasn't been true in 2018-19, though. 

    Buoyed by the development of a reliable three-point stroke—Rose is now releasing the ball on the way toward the apex of his jump—he's turning back the clocks and looking like a potent offensive force. All of a sudden, he's averaging 18.4 points and 4.5 assists per game while shooting 48.8 percent from the field, 47.6 percent from downtown and 84.2 percent from the stripe. 

    Considering Rose is now 30 and has an extensive injury history, this breakout is almost unfathomable. Even if you mesh together the best of his previous single-season marks—including his prime, MVP-chasing years—his slash line would've registered at 48.9/34.0/87.4, still significantly worse than the current results.

    That he's elevated his three-point percentage so drastically while taking 3.4 long-range attempts per game boggles the mind. 

2. Juancho Hernangomez, Denver Nuggets: 7.15

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    Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images

    2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 3.3 points, 2.2 rebounds, 0.5 assists, 0.2 steals, 0.1 blocks

    2017-18 Player Score: minus-2.96 (No. 400)

    2018-19 Per-Game Stats: 9.9 points, 5.7 rebounds, 0.9 assists, 0.5 steals, 0.5 blocks

    2018-19 Player Score: 4.19 (No. 63)

    As injuries cripple the Denver Nuggets—Will Barton has already missed significant time, Isaiah Thomas and Michael Porter Jr. have yet to make their respective debuts, and Paul Millsap and Gary Harris are currently dealing with maladies—Juancho Hernangomez has been unexpectedly important. His sweet shooting stroke and the versatility of his game have gone a long way toward keeping the Nuggets near the top of the Western Conference standings.  

    During his sophomore campaign, which featured a battle with mononucleosis that prevented him from gaining a rhythm and building upon his rookie-year efforts, Hernangomez suited only up 25 times and played a meager 11.1 minutes per game. To date, he's already made more appearances this season while logging 27.2 minutes per contest.

    Most importantly, he's capitalized on the opportunity. 

    Thanks to his 44.4 percent clip from deep and his dedication to making an impact both on the glass and as a defender, the 23-year-old has helped boost Denver's net rating 0.7 points per 100 possessions when he's on the floor. That isn't a gaudy figure, but it's impressive all the same on a deep team featuring legitimate production from both the starters and the second-stringers. It also stands in stark contrast to the minus-6.1 and minus-3.3 marks from his first two seasons. 

    Hernangomez won't challenge for All-Star consideration in the ridiculously deep Western Conference. He might not even finish the season averaging double digits as a scorer. But his across-the-board contributions and malleability in an injury-riddled Nuggets lineup are vital all the same. 

1. De'Aaron Fox, Sacramento Kings: 8.87

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    Michael Hickey/Getty Images

    2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 11.6 points, 2.8 rebounds, 4.4 assists, 1.0 steals, 0.3 blocks

    2017-18 Player Score: minus-4.05 (No. 472)

    2018-19 Per-Game Stats: 18.1 points, 3.6 rebounds, 7.5 assists, 1.5 steals, 0.6 blocks

    2018-19 Player Score: 4.82 (No. 49)

    If you're ever looking for encouragement while rooting for a struggling rookie point guard, look to De'Aaron Fox for inspiration. 

    The Sacramento Kings floor general put together a miserable rookie season, looking completely lost on defense while operating without a reliable jumper or NBA-caliber distributing vision. He was among the league's least valuable players, and his team mustered a horrendous minus-10.1 net rating with him leading the charge. 

    That's changed in 2018-19. Drastically. 

    Fox might need more work on defense, but he's held his own against myriad matchups. On offense, the game seems like it's slowed down significantly for the 20-year-old—an ironic development for a team with a skyrocketing pace that plays right into the lightning-quick wheels of its starting floor general. 

    He's averaging an additional 5.1 points, 0.4 rebounds, 2.7 assists, 0.5 steals and 0.2 blocks per 36 minutes for a team that's now outscoring its adversaries by 4.1 points per 100 possessions when he plays. He's made those volume gains while upping his slash line from 41.2/30.7/72.3 to 47.6/41.5/71.6. 

    Everything has clicked, allowing for a rapid transition out of draft-bust territory and into the realm of legitimate franchise centerpieces. With Fox at the helm, the future in Sacramento finally looks bright. 

         

    Adam Fromal covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @fromal09.

    Unless otherwise indicated, all stats accurate heading into games Dec. 11 and courtesy of Basketball Reference, NBA.com, PBPStats.com, NBA Math or ESPN.com.