NBA Stars Most Ready to Break out in Season's 2nd Half
The late-season surge is a fairly common phenomenon in the NBA. Sometimes, it just takes players a couple of months to get healthy, find their rhythm or otherwise settle into a season.
Take Donovan Mitchell in 2018-19, for example.
On Dec. 31, he tweeted, "New year, new me."
The jump isn't always as dramatic as Mitchell's leap from inefficient volume scorer to bona fide superstar, but these stories happen every year.
Which players might pull it off in 2019-20?
A Handful of Candidates
One thing Kyle Kuzma has shown in his young career is that he can score. It came on below-average true shooting, but he averaged 18.7 points per game for a losing team last season.
He just hasn't been able to show much of that scoring prowess for a team that includes Anthony Davis and LeBron James in 2019-20. He's more than perked up in AD's absence, dropping 62 points on 46 field-goal attempts in two games.
Perhaps this run without Davis will serve as a jolt for Kuzma's confidence. He's been in trade rumors already this season, but if he can play with this kind of purpose for the rest of the season, he may be exactly the kind of spark the team needs in LeBron-less minutes.
It's been a rough go for RJ Barrett in the NBA. There's no getting around that. His 13.8 points with a 45.9 true shooting percentage makes him one of the least efficient scorers in the league.
Every once in a while, though, you see the outline of the player who made some sense as the third overall pick. He has solid size (6'6") and playmaking ability for a wing. In theory, he should provide some switchability on defense. Reality has looked a little different.
But there have been signs of life of late. In his last five games, Barrett is averaging 18.4 points per game and shooting 47.7 percent from the field. Perhaps most encouraging is his 77.1 free-throw percentage in that span. Prior to that, he was at just 55.4 percent from the stripe.
Jaren Jackson Jr.
Jaren Jackson Jr. is already having a good season, averaging 18.0 points and 2.7 threes and shooting 41.6 percent from three.
He can still break out.
Averages of 4.9 rebounds, 1.5 assists and 1.4 blocks all feel a little low for a player of his talent. If Jackson starts making more wide-ranging contributions for the Grizzlies, they should be able to hang in the race for eighth in the West.
Lauri Markkanen's points, rebounds and three-point percentage are all down this season. Thanks to a big jump in three-point attempt rate, his true shooting percentage is actually up, but this certainly feels like an off year for the 22-year-old stretch big.
He's already shown the ability to do more. Combining last season's aggressiveness with this season's shot selection would do wonders for both Markkanen and the Chicago Bulls, who still have a 14 percent chance to make the playoffs, according to FiveThirtyEight.
It's been nearly two years since Kristaps Porzingis tore his ACL as a New York Knick on Feb. 6, 2018. After spending all of 2018-19 rehabbing, he finally returned to NBA action on a new team and with a radically different role.
His slow start with the Dallas Mavericks makes plenty of sense in that context. He's averaging 17.3 points per game, his lowest output since his 2015-16 rookie campaign. He's also posting a negative net rating swing (meaning the Mavericks' plus/minus is better with him off the floor) for the first time in his career.
He's essentially been a floor-spacer for Luka Doncic this season, but the bigger culprit for his struggles may still be health. He's now experiencing soreness in his other knee.
ESPN's Tim MacMahon reported that KP had "...platelet-rich-plasma injection as part of the treatment for the soreness in his right knee..."
"The Mavs commonly use PRP injections to stimulate or assist healing and address symptoms such as pain in a variety of injuries, a source said, adding that the team occasionally uses it as part of preventative maintenance," he wrote. "The injections use elements of the patient's own blood, not medicine."
If the injections eliminate, or at least make manageable, the soreness in Porzingis' knee, expect an uptick in production over the second half of the season.
He's now had a few months to adapt to his role and NBA basketball generally. His new, smarter shot selection should help. He just has to start hitting those shots he's capable of hitting.
As was the case with Jaren Jackson Jr., putting Ben Simmons in this article almost feels nitpicky.
He's averaging a well-rounded 14.9 points, 8.5 assists, 7.5 rebounds and 2.2 steals per game. That last number leads the league, but the first one is a career-low.
Being part of a lineup that includes Joel Embiid, Tobias Harris, Josh Richardson and Al Horford probably necessitates a decrease in scoring from Simmons. And over the course of his career, the Philadelphia 76ers have been more likely to win when he takes fewer than 15 shots.
But Embiid's absence with ligament damage in his finger should force a little more aggression from Simmons. And though Embiid isn't expected to be out long, maybe this stretch will be the catalyst for Simmons to take a little more ownership over lineups that do include the big man.
That, in turn, could lead to a bounce back in the scoring column for Philly's do-everything point forward.
"Absolutely," ESPN's Jalen Rose said on Get Up! when asked whether Simmons might be better off with Embiid off the floor.
It will give him a chance to orchestrate every possession, get out and run and spend more time in his comfort zone at the rim.
It feels a little late in Mike Conley's career to be expecting a breakout. After 12 seasons with the Memphis Grizzlies, his inability to hit shots with the Utah Jazz might be easier to see as the beginning of the end than growing pains.
But this is a pretty dramatic change for a point guard who has had total command of his team's offenses over recent years. In Utah, Quin Snyder's 1s spend more time off the ball than most around the league, and the offense features plenty of complex actions and unique terminology.
"I think you need a Ph.D. to play here," Conley said earlier this season, per KSL's Ryan Miller. "They didn't tell us that before we came."
The veteran guard explained further: "It's not so much the plays. It's just a lot of terminology, a lot of things that are different words than most of the rest of the NBA, which is great once you learn them all. Nobody really knows what you're saying because you are speaking a foreign language than the rest of the league—which is brilliant."
Perhaps Conley's extended absence with a lingering hamstring injury could end up being a blessing in disguise. It came right as the Jazz's schedule got significantly easier. And sometimes, observing everything from the sideline can be as instructive as trying to run the plays yourself.
Equipped with healthy legs and a deeper understanding of Utah's system, Conley should be able to produce numbers closer to his career norms when he returns to the lineup.
This one feels obvious. Zion Williamson, the No. 1 pick in this summer's NBA draft, hasn't played a single game in 2019-20. But after seeing what he did in the preseason, it's hard to imagine anything from his return feeling like less than a breakout.
Williamson got seemingly whatever he wanted in those four exhibition games. He averaged 23.3 points, 6.5 rebounds, 2.3 assists and 1.5 steals in just 27.2 minutes. He also shot an absurd 71.4 percent from the field.
All the traits that led to Williamson having one of the greatest seasons in college basketball history were on brilliant display when he suited up for the New Orleans Pelicans. The strength, explosiveness, ball-handling and feel for the game that allowed him to exploit cutting lanes and rebounding opportunities makes for what looks like an unparalleled combination.
His potential January return feels like almost perfect timing (having him all season, of course, would've been preferable).
The Pelicans have been solid since Derrick Favors' return from injury and currently sport a 40 percent chance of making the playoffs, according to FiveThirtyEight's projections.
If Zion is fully healthy, his fit alongside Favors makes plenty of sense. His talent should offer a significant boost to New Orleans' playoff prospects.
If he leads the Pels there, he'll surely be one of the stars of 2020.