The 1 Player Every NBA Team Needs to Break Out ASAP

Greg Swartz@@CavsGregBRCleveland Cavaliers Lead WriterDecember 18, 2019

The 1 Player Every NBA Team Needs to Break Out ASAP

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    Patience may be a virtue, but waiting isn't always an option in the NBA.

    Some teams have high draft picks who have yet to reach their potential, while others need players to fill in for an injured star or bolster their trade value.

    Whatever the reason, every team has at least one young player from whom they need to see growthsome sooner than others.

    Roughly a third of the way through the 2019-20 season, here's who every team needs to get going ASAP.

Atlantic Division

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    Boston Celtics: Grant Williams, PF, 21

    While the Celtics have a bevy of guards and wings, their frontcourt—headlined by Daniel Theis and Enes Kanter—continues to be an area of weakness. While an upgrade via trade seems likely, Williams may be the Celtics' best chance at internal improvement in that spot now with Robert Williams III out for three weeks with a bone edema.

    But Williams has been one of the league's worst offensive players in his rookie season. His 25.0 field-goal percentage ranks dead-last among 304 qualified players.

    For a team that needs his rebounding—the Celtics are 19th in rebounding percentage at 49.2 percentWilliams must develop a better offensive game.


    Brooklyn Nets: Dzanan Musa, F, 20

    With Kevin Durant recovering from a torn Achilles and Caris LeVert nursing a thumb injury, Musa has been forced into rotation minutes in Brooklyn.

    The 2018 first-round pick has been dreadful thus far, shooting only 30.9 percent from the field and 18.4 percent from deep. The Nets have been outscored by 9.2 points per 100 possessions with Musa in the game.

    The Nets don't need Musa to play at a LeVert-like level. For now, hitting open shots would be a start.


    New York Knicks: Dennis Smith Jr., PG, 22

    Take your pick of Knicks here. Smith, Kevin Knox, and Frank Ntilikina would all qualify.

    Of the three, Smith carries the most star potential given his athleticism and previous impressive play with the Dallas Mavericks. He's been a disaster thus far this season, averaging 5.4 points, 2.7 assists and 1.9 rebounds while slashing .318/.303/.519 in his 17.2 minutes.

    After the Knicks flunked free agency following the Kristaps Porzingis trade, Smith was supposed to be one of their lone bright spots given his respectable 14.5 points and 4.9 assists in 101 games as a starter in Dallas. The Knicks need a downhill version of Smith, one that cuts down on jumpers and forces his way into the paint on a regular basis.


    Philadelphia 76ers: Zhaire Smith, SG, 20

    It's easy to forget about Smith, who has played only six games for the Sixers since they traded for him during the 2018 draft.

    While injuries derailed his rookie campaign, he has spent the majority of this year in the G League with the Delaware Blue Coats. He's averaging 12.8 points, 3.9 rebounds, 2.2 assists and 0.9 steals in 26.8 minutes while shooting 51.2 percent from the field.

    The Sixers could certainly use a breakout from the No. 16 overall pick, who flashed three-and-D potential coming into the draft.


    Toronto Raptors: OG Anunoby, SF, 22

    Anunoby represents not only the Raptors' future at small forward, but perhaps their best trade asset should they want to add another star before the deadline.

    The 2017 first-round pick has already enjoyed a mini-breakout this season with 11.0 points, 5.6 rebounds, 1.3 steals while shooting 38.7 percent from deep in his 29.7 minutes. However, Toronto would love it if he followed in the footsteps of Pascal Siakam and developed into a full-fledged star.

    The Raptors can't afford to wait, either. With Fred VanVleet, Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol all set to become free agents this summer, this may be Toronto's last shot at another Finals run for a while.

Central Division

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    Chicago Bulls: Coby White, PG, 19

    White has looked more like a bucket-getting sixth man than a franchise point guard, which is what the Bulls expected when they drafted him with the No. 7 overall pick in June.

    His shooting has helped to lift or sink the Bulls, who still appear to be a few years away from contention. In 10 wins this season, White has a true shooting percentage of 57.6 percent. In 19 losses, that figure plummets to 39.3 percent.

    Tomas Satoransky is best suited for a reserve role, and the Bulls likely won't re-sign Kris Dunn given his disappointing play. They need an efficient, more pass-happy version of White to reach their potential.


    Cleveland Cavaliers: Darius Garland, PG, 19

    Kevin Porter Jr. and Cedi Osman are also candidates here, but the Cavs' rebuild hopes start with Garland.

    The No. 5 overall pick of the 2019 draft not only needs to develop into a lights-out shooter, but he also must look to get his teammates more involved. For now, Garland averages a team-high 3.0 assists per game for a Cavs squad ranked 28th overall in passing.

    With Collin Sexton rarely looking interested in getting others involved, the Cavaliers need Garland to develop into a ball-distributing star.


    Detroit Pistons: Bruce Brown, G, 23

    Brown is a combo guard who's been forced to play the point this season with Reggie Jackson sidelined. He's looking like an athletic and speedy part of the Pistons' future.

    The post-heavy Pistons have been relying on Brown to serve as a playmaker in the starting unit, even though that isn't the strongest element of his game.

    The 2018 second-round pick needs to improve as a shooter (career 28.3 percent from three), especially on a team with two dominant bigs.


    Indiana Pacers: Myles Turner, C, 23

    Though he's now in his fifth NBA season, the Pacers are awaiting a true breakout from Turner.

    He's averaging only 11.1 points on a career-low 42.4 percent shooting, 5.7 rebounds and 2.4 blocks in 29.9 minutes, all of which are lower than his averages from last season. He's sharing a frontcourt with Domantas Sabonis for the first time and hasn't adjusted nearly as well as Sabonis has.

    The Pacers need Turner to become the defensive force and improving three-point shooter (38.8 percent in 2018-19) they saw last year to emerge as a legitimate threat to win the East.


    Milwaukee Bucks: Donte DiVincenzo, G, 22

    With starting point guard Eric Bledsoe sidelined for the next few weeks with a right fibula avulsion fracture, DiVincenzo should get more ball-handling duties in the starting lineup.

    The second-year guard has already made a nice jump from his injury-plagued rookie season, which is partially the result of more minutes and playing in the NBA's second-best offense.

    Although DiVincenzo is Milwaukee's youngest rotation player, he now finds himself with a potentially large role in the Bucks backcourt until Bledsoe returns.

Southeast Division

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    Atlanta Hawks: Cam Reddish, F, 20

    Reddish was underwhelming during his lone season at Duke, and he hasn't been much better in the pros.

    The 2019 No. 10 overall pick ranks 295th out of 302 players this season in box plus-minus (minus-6.7). he continues to look the part of an NBA wing, but his shooting woes (32.4 percent from the field, 26.5 percent from three) conjure up bad memories from college.

    Trae Young needs some serious help on a 6-22 Hawks squad, and Reddish may have the highest upside of any teammate not named John Collins.


    Charlotte Hornets: Malik Monk, SG, 21

    Monk was once thought to be the backcourt partner of the future alongside Kemba Walker. Now, he's a backup to Terry Rozer.

    Monk has shown little signs of improvement in his third NBA season. His three-point shooting has dipped from 34.2 percent as a rookie to 25.7 percent this year. He isn't moving the needle as a rebounder or playmaker, either. 

    With the 13-17 Hornets surprisingly still in playoff contention, they'll need him to finally start playing like a lottery pick.


    Miami Heat: Derrick Jones Jr., SF, 22

    Known for his dunking prowess, Jones has found a home in the Heat's rotation.

    As a backup to Jimmy Butler, he is a fantastic athlete. However, he needs to sharpen his skill set to either help Miami push for a top seed in the East or become part of a trade package for an additional star.

    Jones is a good defender, but his outside shooting (28.6 percent), rebounding (2.8) and playmaking (1.1 assists) leave much to be desired.


    Orlando Magic: Markelle Fultz, PG, 21

    While Fultz is having a nice bounce-back season in his return from thoracic outlet syndrome—he's averaging a career-high 11.6 points, 4.2 assists, 2.7 rebounds and 1.2 stealsOrlando needs even more from the 2017 No. 1 overall pick.

    On a team loaded with frontcourt talent, he represents the Magic's best chance at a backcourt star.

    Fultz has the skill set to develop into a star one day, and his encouraging 77.2 percent mark from the charity stripe suggests his outside shooting should only get better over time, too.


    Washington Wizards: Isaac Bonga, SF, 20

    Troy Brown Jr., Admiral Schofield and Bonga would all qualify here. Of the three, Bonga perhaps has both the most upside and the longest path to reach it.

    While Bonga has made the Wizards significantly better defensively when he's on the court (8.3 points per 100 possessions), he's bringing little to nothing on offense.

    Despite starting 14 games, he is averaging only 3.8 points, 2.7 rebounds and 1.3 assists in 16.2 minutes. He's also shooting a dreadful 5-of-17 (29.4 percent) from three.

Northwest Division

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    Denver Nuggets: Michael Porter Jr., PF, 21

    Most teams could afford to be patient with Porter, but these Nuggets have serious championship aspirations and a veteran power forward on an expiring contract. They need him to break out as soon as possible.

    With Paul Millsap possibly leaving in free agency this summer and Jerami Grant able to turn down a $9.3 million player option, Porter may be handed the starting power forward job as early as next season. For now, the Nuggets need his athleticism and versatility off the bench.

    So far, his inexperience has killed the Nuggets. The 2018 lottery pick has a net rating swing of minus-17.3 in his first 16 career games, by far the worst of any player on the Denver roster.


    Minnesota Timberwolves: Jarrett Culver, G/F, 20

    With Andrew Wiggins awaking from his five-year slumber, the Wolves just need one more breakout performer to create a Big Three alongside Karl-Anthony Towns.

    Culver seems the most likely option, especially since Minnesota traded up to No. 6 to select him out of Texas Tech.

    In 25 games (15 as a starter) he has struggled offensively with shooting marks of just 37.1 percent from the field and 25.0 percent from three. If the Wolves (10-15) want back in the playoff picture, the rookie might have to elevate his play.


    Oklahoma City Thunder: Terrance Ferguson, G/F, 21

    In his third season—his second as a full-time starter—it's finally time for Ferguson to give the Thunder more.

    Now moved to small forward following the additions of Chris Paul and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander in the backcourt, he is mostly being used as a floor spacer and defender.

    A first-round pick in 2017, Ferguson is averaging just 6.0 points and 1.9 rebounds in his 26.3 minutes per game. Even his catch-and-shoot numbers (38.2 percent from three) seem too low given the fact he shares a starting lineup with one of the best passers in NBA history.

    The Thunder have a future franchise piece in Gilgeous-Alexander. They need to know if Ferguson can be one, as well.


    Portland Trail Blazers: Nassir Little, F, 19

    An already-thin Blazers wing got even worse with the loss of Rodney Hood to a torn Achilles, an injury that will sideline him for the rest of the season.

    With few other options for Portland to turn to, Little may be called upon to play more and more minutes, despite being the youngest player on the team.

    While he's been a horrid three-point shooter thus far (16.7 percent), the Blazers got by for years with Al-Farouq Aminu as a rebounder and defender on the wing who couldn't shoot either. If Little can play anywhere close to Aminu's level, that will be a win for Portland.


    Utah Jazz: Dante Exum, G/F, 24

    Five years since he was drafted fifth overall, is it safe to label Exum a bust?

    The 6'5", 214-pound Australian has split time at point guard, shooting guard and small forward this season, all with disappointing results. Emmanuel Mudiay has replaced him as the team's backup floor general, a bad sign for Exum's career.

    The Jazz need to get quality minutes from Exum in some capacity, especially given he's under contract for $9.6 million both this year and next.

Pacific Division

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    Golden State Warriors: Jordan Poole, SG, 20

    The Warriors' first-round pick in June's draft, Poole has been horrendous for a Golden State team giving him plenty of opportunities.

    Of 302 qualified players this season, he ranks 301st in field-goal percentage (25.5 percent). Only Boston Celtics rookie Grant Williams is worse (25.0 percent), and he's taken 179 fewer shots.

    This Warriors' season has become strictly about developing young talent to complement returning veterans next year. Poole doesn't even look the part of an end-of-the-rotation player yet despite already starting nine games for Golden State.


    Los Angeles Clippers: Landry Shamet, SG, 22

    Shamet recently returned from an ankle injury and represents the perfect outside shooter to place next to a pair of superstars. Of course, that role isn't without its share of pressure.

    While he has been solid in his 11 games (9.3 points, 1.7 rebounds, 1.5 assists, 38.7 percent from three), the Clippers need him to become an elite outside shooter.

    There's no reason he can't become one of the NBA's best three-point shooters given his picture-perfect mechanics, especially given the attention opposing defenses have to pay to Kawhi Leonard, Paul George, Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell.


    Los Angeles Lakers: Kyle Kuzma, PF, 24

    On a veteran-filled Lakers roster, there are few breakout candidates left.

    Kuzma was never going to match his stat line from last year (18.7 points, 5.5 rebounds, 2.5 assists) with the addition of Anthony Davis moving him to the bench, and that's OK.

    Instead, the Lakers need the third-year forward to feast on second units, improve his defense and become a better catch-and-shoot threat. While Kuzma may have already "broken out" in the league, L.A. needs him to maximize his new role.


    Phoenix Suns: Cameron Johnson, PF, 23

    The pressure to perform came immediately for Johnson, as the Suns traded back from the sixth pick in the draft (and a shot at Jarrett Culver, Coby White, Jaxson Hayes, Rui Hachimura and Cam Reddish) to acquire Dario Saric and select the North Carolina product at No. 11.

    Nearly four years older than some members of this rookie class, Johnson's shooting skills have translated to the NBA level. He's averaging 9.4 points on 41.2 percent shooting from three off the Suns' bench.

    Phoenix needs to see what it has in Johnson now before Saric becomes a restricted free agent this summer. That way, the front office can decide just how much money it should be willing to commit to the 25-year-old forward.


    Sacramento Kings: Marvin Bagley III, PF, 20

    While Bagley missed 22 games with a thumb injury, the player who went one spot behind him in the 2018 draft was putting up nightly triple-doubles and guiding the Dallas Mavericks to the league's top-rated offense. So, no pressure.

    Luka Doncic is now out with an ankle injury and Bagley recently returned to the Kings, so it's time for last year's No. 2 overall pick to make a statement.

    Coming off an impressive rookie year (14.9 points, 7.6 rebounds, 1.0 blocks, 50.4 percent shooting), he likely needs to have a breakout sophomore season for the Kings to finally break into the playoffs.

Southwest Division

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    Dallas Mavericks: Jalen Brunson, PG, 23

    Brunson may not have star potential, but his skill set seems to make him destined for a lengthy NBA career.

    The 18-8 Mavs need the second-year guard more than ever now that Luka Doncic is nursing an ankle injury, as Brunson has taken over the MVP candidate's spot in the starting lineup.

    In 42 career starts, Brunson is averaging 12.8 points, 3.1 rebounds and 4.4 assists in 29.0 minutes per game while shooting 48.5 percent from the floor. For the Mavs to stay afloat without their best player, he will have to play a big role.       


    Houston Rockets: Ben McLemore, SG, 26

    Somewhere, the Sacramento Kings are still waiting for McLemore to break out.

    The No. 7 overall pick of the 2013 NBA draft, he has actually played a big role in the Rockets' rotation after averaging a career-low 3.9 points per game in his second stint as a King last season.

    With few young talents on the roster, McLemore represents the Rockets' best chance for a breakout performer, and his 10.6 points per game and 37.7 catch-and-shoot percentage on threes make for a good start.


    Memphis Grizzlies: Grayson Allen, SG, 24

    Without a single 30-year-old in their rotation, the Grizzlies have plenty of players they'd love to see break out.

    Ja Morant and Jaren Jackson Jr. will be stars. Jonas Valanciunas, Dillon Brooks and Brandon Clarke look like solid long-term pieces, as well.

    Memphis has to fill in the rest of its future with wings, and Allen has the shooting chops to be a rotation member with a sophomore jump. He's averaged 8.2 points, 2.9 rebounds and 1.5 assists while nailing 34.9 percent of his threes in 13 games, which is decent production the Grizzlies would no doubt like to see improve.


    New Orleans Pelicans: Lonzo Ball, PG, 22

    While Brandon Ingram has made his big post-Lakers leap, the same can't be said for Ball.

    Despite coming into the season with an improved shooting motion, he has actually seen his field-goal percentage drop to 37.4 percent. While his passing ability and defense remain strengths, we haven't witnessed any real shooting improvements since his time in L.A.

    With Ball eligible to sign a contract extension next summer and Jrue Holiday's future in New Orleans suddenly in doubt, the Pelicans need to see exactly what Ball's peak could be.


    San Antonio Spurs: Dejounte Murray, PG, 23

    While the Spurs could also use breakout performances from Derrick White and Lonnie Walker IV, they've invested the most money into Murray's future with the team.

    A four-year, $64 million contract extension looked like a bargain at the beginning of the season when he put up 14.0 points, 8.6 rebounds, 4.8 assists and 2.2 steals per outing in his first five games following a torn ACL. In the 18 games since, however, his numbers have dropped to 9.1 points, 5.3 rebounds, 3.8 assists and 1.6 steals per contest.

    Even at 10-15, the Spurs are just 1.5 games out of the Western Conference playoffs. A return to his strong form would help San Antonio reach that goal and continue its postseason streak.


    All stats, unless otherwise indicated, courtesy of Basketball Reference or and current heading into Tuesday's games.