NBA Players Already Showing 2019-20 Breakout PotentialMarch 29, 2019
NBA Players Already Showing 2019-20 Breakout Potential
Nothing elevates a franchise or electrifies a fanbase quite like an NBA breakout.
That's partly due to the pleasantly surprising nature, but also to the excitement of seeing dramatic maturation and the knowledge that a player jumping from good to great (or even above average to really good) can reshape an organization's outlook.
Since breakouts are inherently surprising, predicting them is an inexact science. But when a budding baller sprinkles encouraging flashes of greatness among a year of positive development, that's often the recipe for unearthing the next up-and-comers.
Before we make our 2019-20 breakout picks, it's worth noting several youngsters have already broken out and therefore miss our cut. There's no sense including Luka Doncic or Trae Young, when both appear on a fast track to stardom already. Similarly, we're leaving out players who arguably should've been All-Stars this season, like John Collins and Pascal Siakam.
With that settled, let's get to the unheralded—or not heralded enough, at least—hoopers primed to change their stature in a major way next season.
De'Aaron Fox, Sacramento Kings
Fox's 22nd birthday isn't until late December. He's younger than potential 2019 lottery picks De'Andre Hunter and Brandon Clarke. There isn't any reason to assume Fox is close to reaching his peak.
That said, it would be tough to break out again after the campaign he's having. His stats skyrocketed in both volume and efficiency, and he kept the lowly Kings playoff relevant into the stretch run. Unless he dramatically improves his outside shot, a substantial jump in his third season seems unlikely, if only because it's hard to take a big leap forward from nightly contributions of 17.5 points and 7.2 assists.
Jaren Jackson Jr., Memphis Grizzlies
While stronger statistical days are almost assuredly ahead, Jackson already seems too well-regarded to fit the breakout mold. He hasn't always had the workload of a budding star, so his numbers don't quite jump off the page (13.8 points, 4.7 rebounds and 1.4 blocks). But it feels inevitable that they will, probably sooner than later.
Ostensibly a defense-first prospect, he scored 24 points on 12 shots in his second NBA game. His first 30-point performance—36 on 13-of-22 shooting, to be precise—came less than two months later. Before the calendar year was up, Memphis already positioned him as its franchise cornerstone.
"We never had to sit everyone down and have a big speech about Jaren being the franchise's future. It's like, 'Duh,'" Grizzlies executive vice president of basketball operations John Hollinger told Ben Golliver of the Washington Post in December.
Lauri Markkanen, Chicago Bulls
Like Jackson, Markkanen has seized control of his own franchise. The Bulls might have other pivotal players in their rebuild, but the sophomore 7-footer anchors the entire project.
Achieving that stature moves him north of the breakout designation. His numbers—while perhaps well shy of where they'll one day be—also argue his breakout is complete. With his season complete, he became just the fourth player to ever average at least 18 points, nine rebounds and two triples.
Marvin Bagley III, Sacramento Kings
Last June, the Kings made Bagley the second overall pick in this draft class. By January, Bleacher Report's Jonathan Wasserman ran a redraft and didn't have him coming off the board until the seventh selection. That might say more about the strength of these freshmen than anything, but it also shows how easy it's been for a first-year hooper not named Doncic or Young to fly under the radar.
While injuries have bumped Bagley's rookie run off course a couple times, his healthy version has been exactly what Sacramento wanted.
Over his first four months in the Association, he showcased his value through activity, energy and athleticism. Rim running, cutting, above-the-rim finishing, glass-cleaning—that's where he buttered his bread. But his arsenal is growing, as he flashes face-up ability, defensive versatility and a pinch of perimeter shot-making.
Pre-All-Star Bagley looked like a helpful glue guy, supplying 13.3 points and 6.9 rebounds per outing. But his post-All-Star version hints at elite upside: 19.7 points and 8.7 boards with 53.7 percent shooting overall and 43.5 percent from range.
"He's a special talent, man," Buddy Hield said, per NBC Sports Bay Area's James Ham. "Sometime you don't even run a play for him. He just gets our misses and puts it back in. That's what comes with a special talent. He's just going to keep growing and getting better."
Malcolm Brogdon, Milwaukee Bucks
Remember when safety seemed to be Brogdon's biggest selling point? When he wrapped a brilliant four-year career at Virginia in 2016, the thinking went he offered NBA-readiness but at the expense of upside.
Consider that one debunked.
After debuting as a double-digit scorer, 40 percent three-point splasher and Rookie of the Year recipient, he's kept busy upping the ante ever since. Last season was a step forward, and this one—likely on hold until the playoffs due to a minor plantar fascia tear—could be a springboard to stardom. He hit career marks in points (15.6) and rebounds (4.5) while joining the famed 50/40/90 club with an incredible 50.5/42.6/92.8 slash line.
While his age (26) and average athleticism theoretically limit his upside, the simple truth is he's played three NBA seasons and made significant strides in all of them. It's just that his understated approach makes him easy to overlook on the 57-win, Giannis Antetokounmpo-led Bucks.
"He isn't known as a handles guy who courts highlights, nor does he have the reputation of a three-point specialist. He's not thought of as a lockdown defender, either," The Ringer's Paolo Uggetti wrote. "But Brogdon is actually all of those things—a knockdown shooter, a ball-handling playmaker, and a good defender—in an understated, yet extremely important package."
Brogdon might be the closest to his ceiling of our breakout picks, but he's also perhaps one last leap away from averaging 20 points, five boards and five assists with mega-efficient shooting. With restricted free agency awaiting him, he'll make someone very happy for its lottery-sized investment in him.
Jonathan Isaac, Orlando Magic
The Magic have placed almost as much stock in length and athleticism as the Houston Rockets have in the long ball. Isaac, the sixth overall pick in 2017, is the embodiment of that approach.
He has the length of a center, the fluidity of a wing and bounce rarely seen in a near-7-footer. His tools have always been intriguing, but the way he's putting them all to use of late is rapidly improving his odds of a third-year breakthrough.
Perhaps propelled by being left off this season's Rising Stars Challenge roster, Isaac is displaying more of the aggression scouts have longed to see. Since the start of February, he's averaging 12.1 points and 9.6 field-goal attempts, up from 8.2 and 7.2, respectively, through the first three months. His efficiency has spiked, too, as he's gone from 40.8 percent shooting (27.6 outside) to 47.1 (37.4).
"He's been (shooting well) game after game now, and when his shots are there, he's taking them," Orlando coach Steve Clifford said, per Magic.com's John Denton. "He's got a lot of confidence, which comes when you put as much work into it as he does. I feel like he knows he's going to make them when he's open. He's made great strides that way."
Isaac played maybe his best game of the season in Orlando's had-to-have-it win over the Miami Heat on Tuesday, erupting for 19 points, six boards, three triples, two blocks, two assists and a steal. His ability to perform under maximum pressure and make the most of his physical tools could make him an All-Star sleeper as soon as next season.
Jamal Murray, Denver Nuggets
If this is a controversial pick for any reason, it's that Murray may have broken out already. He's one of just 22 players averaging 18 points, four assists and four rebounds, and earlier this season garnered the seventh-most All-Star player votes among Western Conference guards.
But his efficiency has dipped this season, and his volume looks lower than it could be.
It doesn't take too many viewings of his smooth shooting stroke to think he's capable of better than a 43.3/36.8/85.0 shooting slash. And while 18.1 points per game are nothing to scoff at, the average is lower than you'd expect from someone with a pair of 40-point outbursts this season—the same number that Kawhi Leonard, Kyrie Irving and Blake Griffin have.
Granted, there are other mouths to feed for the Nuggets, who have the league's fifth-ranked offense. But maybe a better explanation for Murray's inconsistency is that he just turned 22 in February. Combine his age with his handles, shooting arsenal and fearlessness, and he appears to have no ceiling at the offensive end.
"I think everybody knows what I'm capable of doing," Murray told Yahoo Sports' Vincent Goodwill. "We have a lot of talent, the deepest team in the league. Best team in the league from one through 15. There's really no complaining from my end, I don't have time to show it [my talent] all the time."
If the Nuggets give Murray a greener light next season, he could claim his place among the league's elite scoring guards.
Kelly Oubre Jr., Phoenix Suns
After seeming to stagnate with the Washington Wizards, Oubre appeared invigorated by a midseason trade to Phoenix. Over 40 games with the Suns, the sinewy swingman sent constant reminders of why the Wizards deemed him worthy of the 15th pick in 2015.
With suffocating length and effortless hops, he's always intrigued with what he might become. But his Suns tenure—cut short by thumb surgery—provided the most evidence to date he's capable of realizing that potential.
He cleared 20 points 12 different times with Phoenix. In three of those games, he also grabbed double-digit rebounds. His final tally in the desert included 16.9 points, 4.9 rebounds, 1.4 steals and 1.0 blocks per game. He also shot a career-best 45.3 percent and nudged his player efficiency rating north of average for the first time (16.4).
"Since he's been here, he's helped this team tremendously on both sides of the floor," Devin Booker said earlier this month, per Duane Rankin of the Arizona Republic. "He's not scared he's going to get blocked. He's going to rebound for us. He's making shots."
Oubre, still just 23 years old until December, faces a critical offseason with restricted free agency awaiting him. But if he lands in the right situation—be that Phoenix or elsewhere—he still has time to morph into a shutdown defender, an explosive slasher and complementary splasher.
Statistics used courtesy of Basketball Reference and NBA.com and current heading into games on Thursday, March 28.
Zach Buckley covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @ZachBuckleyNBA.