Predicting 2019 NBA Playoff Breakout Stars

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistMarch 28, 2019

Predicting 2019 NBA Playoff Breakout Stars

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    Established stars are generally a prerequisite for NBA playoff basketball. Teams don't make the dance unless they have a marquee name out front.

    But every top-end star needs help, and we should expect lesser-known names to pitch in when the stakes elevate during the postseason.

    The players we've picked have all made positive impacts this season, but they're nowhere close to being recognized as their team's best player.

    And though several of them will be familiar to diehard fans, most of these guys will make themselves known to a broader audience for the first time—both because of the larger playoff stage and because they figure to play key postseason roles.

    Let's get acquainted with them before they make their mark on the 2019 playoffs.

Pascal Siakam, Toronto Raptors

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    Pascal Siakam is one of four players averaging at least 16 points, six rebounds and three assists with a true shooting percentage north of 62 percent this season. The other three are Kevin Durant, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Karl-Anthony Towns.

    Decent company, right?

    Though Siakam is among the favorites for Most Improved Player this season, he ranks no better than fifth in casual-fan notoriety on his own team. Stop someone on the street and ask them to name as many Toronto Raptors as possible, and they'll surely list Kawhi Leonard, Kyle Lowry, Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka before getting to the 6'9" Cameroonian.

    That'll change when Siakam is pushing the pace in transition, blessing backpedalling defenders with his high-velocity spin move (as unstoppable as it is predictable) and disrupting opposing offenses with his length and closing speed.

    The easy comparison for the third-year forward is "Giannis Lite," as Siakam does a bit of everything you'd want from a guard while inhabiting the body of a frontcourt player. A league-average shooter from deep after topping out at 22 percent last year, expect Siakam to get the "I dare you" treatment from beyond the arc. If he knocks down a few treys and forces a defensive adjustment, prepare for him to obliterate closeouts for several nifty finishes and smart kickouts to shooters.

    It may be tough for Siakam to post big numbers with so much established star power on his team, but in a playoff environment that'll prize switching on defense, opportunistic runouts following defensive boards and general versatility, Siakam profiles as a player capable of making series-swinging contributions all over the floor.

Derrick White, San Antonio Spurs

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    The San Antonio Spurs will go as far as LaMarcus Aldridge's mid-post game takes them, but several relative unknowns will find themselves thrust into the spotlight alongside him.

    From the unsung starting trio of Derrick White, Bryn Forbes and Jakob Poeltl, someone is going to make a significant impact. The pick here is White, a defense-first point guard who, in his second NBA season, is already a surefire addition to the Spurs' long history of player-development success stories.

    White seems incapable of forcing a bad shot, and though much of his reserved offensive play is that of a game-manager, his work on the other end of the floor is entirely different. There, he's a game-destroyer.

    As nasty of a shot-blocker as you'll find at the point, White is somehow both disruptive and rock-solid in his approach. He and Jrue Holiday are the only guards to block six shots in a game this year. Holiday, of course, enjoyed his own defense-fueled coming-out party in last season's playoffs when he stifled Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum in a first-round upset.

    White's on-ball defense is sturdy, driven by quick feet and long arms. Away from the play, he's an opportunistic thief, ranking in the 79th percentile in steal rate at his position.

    More than anything, he imparts a sense of control. When he's on the floor, everything San Antonio does just works better.

    "He has been spectacular," head coach Gregg Popovich told reporters. "Everything he's done has been off the charts, and I couldn't be more thrilled for him."

    San Antonio is 7-8 with White out of the lineup, and its defensive rating when he's on the floor would rank in the league's top five. When he sits, the Spurs get stops at a rate well below the league average. Tasked with running an offense and guarding the opponent's most threatening scorer at the 1, 2 or 3, White will be on center stage in a first-round matchup that could include Stephen Curry, James Harden or Damian Lillard.

    Expect him to hold his own, and then some.

Jamal Murray, Denver Nuggets

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    This is a specific breakout prediction—one not necessarily based on Jamal Murray being a multiseries difference-maker, but instead built around a singular scoring outburst.

    At some point during the Denver Nuggets' first playoff trip since 2013, the 22-year-old guard is going to detonate. Murray owns two of the Nuggets' three 40-point outings this year, and Nikola Jokic (eight) is the only Denver player who tops Murray's six 30-point efforts.

    A 40 percent hit rate on catch-and-shoot threes makes Murray a must-guard priority whenever he's off the ball. He could drill eight or nine threes in a game if left unattended, but it's his involvement with Jokic in Denver's little used but highly effective inverted pick-and-roll that could really lead to a huge scoring night.

    Among guards, Murray is the most efficient roll man in the league, averaging 1.41 points per play. Denver doesn't break out such sets often, but if ever there were a time to see how this particular method of attack might work at high volume, the playoffs would seem to be it.

    Opponents will surely try to turn Jokic into a scorer, which could suppress some of Murray's value over the course of a series. Consider this a bet that there'll still be at least one game in which Murray goes off.

Spencer Dinwiddie, Brooklyn Nets

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    D'Angelo Russell would hardly count as a breakout star if he put up huge numbers in the Brooklyn Nets' playoff run. His arrival already happened during the regular season.

    It's Brooklyn's other backcourt star who'll open eyes this spring.

    Russell's pull-up shooting, patience in the pick-and-roll and deadly mid-range game are valuable weapons against conventional defenses, but he can struggle to beat defenders in one-on-one situations. We should expect to see more switching from opponents who have ample time to scout the Nets ahead of postseason play, and that could hinder much of what Russell does well by forcing him into situations where he's not quite as dangerous.

    It shouldn't come as a surprise that Russell ranks in the 47th percentile in isolation efficiency, or that he devotes only 11.2 percent of his possessions to such plays.

    Spencer Dinwiddie, in contrast, is dynamite in isolation. Among players who use at least three isolation possessions per game, Dinwiddie trails only James Harden in points per play and ranks in the 83rd percentile overall. He's Brooklyn's switch-smasher. Send a big out to guard him, and it's blow-by time.

    Isolation prowess is part of the reason Dinwiddie has actually been, by some measures, better than his more heralded teammate in clutch situations. Dinwiddie has played 15 fewer clutch minutes than Russell this year and trails him by 14 total points. But Dinwiddie has gotten to the foul line more than twice as often while handing out two more assists than Russell in close-and-late situations. Moreover, Dinwiddie has just seven clutch turnovers to Russell's 14.

    If opponents don't switch, Russell will get his numbers. If they do, Brooklyn will need to turn to Dinwiddie to get anything done on offense. He'll be ready.

Jaylen Brown, Boston Celtics

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    Last postseason, Jayson Tatum flashed go-to scoring skills that portended stardom as the shorthanded Boston Celtics made the conference finals.

    It may surprise you to learn that, statistically, Jaylen Brown's 2018 playoff breakout was just as significant—if less celebrated.

    Brown averaged 18.0 points per game in last year's playoffs (Tatum was at 18.5), drilling 39.3 percent of his 6.2 long-range attempts per game. Boston's offensive rating was higher with Brown on the court than it was with Tatum, and the two players' usage rates and true shooting percentages were within 1.5 percentage points of one another.

    Tatum, being a rookie, deserved the praise he got for shouldering such a heavy load at a young age. But Brown probably never got the credit he was due for making nearly as big of an impact.

    All Brown has to do to get noticed this time around is come close to last year's production while Tatum falls back to earth a bit. Considering Brown's scoring average, free-throw rate and three-point percentage are all trending up since the All-Star break while Tatum's are headed dramatically in the opposite direction, that doesn't seem like such a tall order.


    Stats courtesy of, Cleaning the Glass and Basketball Reference unless otherwise noted. Accurate through games played Wednesday, March 27.