7 NBA Players Worth Betting on to Break Out in 2021-22
The constellation of NBA stars perpetually changes shape.
Each season sends a new batch of ballers into orbit, hence the annual award given to the Most Improved Player and the excitement surrounding every year's first-time All-Stars.
In 2020-21, players like Julius Randle, Jerami Grant, Jaylen Brown and Zion Williamson successfully made the leap. In 2021-22, a select group of up-and-comers will follow in their footsteps.
The following seven players may not all link up at this season's All-Star Game, but each will close the campaign at least one tier above where they reside.
OG Anunoby, Toronto Raptors
Much like Leonard, Anunoby first cut his teeth as a gritty, do-it-all defender who converted the catch-and-launch chances presented to him. Leonard, of course, eventually outgrew the confines of the three-and-D label, and Anunoby appears on his way to doing the same.
The Raptors have slowly but surely upped his offensive usage, both by volume and play type. While Toronto seldom looked his direction for shot creation in the past, the team started letting him go in his bag more last season. He handled at least one pick-and-roll possession per game last season and nearly one isolation as well. He went from having 64 percent of his two-point shots assisted to creating 49 percent of those baskets in one year's time.
Given all the shot-creators the Raptors have lost in recent years—from Leonard and Marc Gasol to Kyle Lowry and Norman Powell—there is seemingly a plan in place to put a lot more on Anunoby's plate this season. With his ability to finish with force, finesse or a little of both, he looks ready for a featured role on offense.
Leonard first lifted off in Year Five, adding nearly five points per game to his scoring output (16.5 to 21.2). In Anunoby's fourth year in the league, he increased his average by over five points (10.6 to 15.9). He has the ability and opportunity to continue the same trajectory as Leonard.
LaMelo Ball, Charlotte Hornets
The Hornets tried handling LaMelo Ball with kid gloves last season, until the eventual Rookie of the Year forced his way into a featured role.
With the gloves now off and buried inside some storage closet at the Spectrum Center, Ball looks primed for a buffet-style feast. Devonte' Graham is no longer around to trim into Ball's minutes and shots. The Hornets sign-and-traded him to the New Orleans Pelicans this summer and brought in veteran Ish Smith as a clear-cut backup to Ball.
Buzz City belongs to LaMelo now, and while he'll still share shots with Terry Rozier and Gordon Hayward, the Hornets will look to their young floor general first. Ball's production will pile up in no time. Between his promotion to the starting lineup last season and the wrist fracture that robbed him of a month-plus, he filled his stat line with 19.8 points, 6.4 assists and 5.9 rebounds along with a 46.9/43.2/83.6 shooting slash across 20 contests.
"He's special," Rozier told reporters in March. "We've got a star in the making."
Ball could book the first of many All-Star trips already this season.
Just matching those midseason numbers might do the trick, but with the offense in his hands, he could wind up in the neighborhood of 25 points and eight assists. Three players hit those marks last season: Luka Doncic, Nikola Jokic and Trae Young. Ball really can be special.
Darius Garland, Cleveland Cavaliers
Darius Garland is a prime example of why player evaluations can't be considered complete after a single season.
His rookie year was wonky—and that's being polite. He struggled with efficiency, turnovers and generally most of the things that drove Cleveland to select him fifth overall in 2019.
His sophomore season was a reminder of his silky smooth offensive game and sky-high ceiling. The season-long picture showed enough development to garner a few Most Improved Player votes. He looked the part of a rising star, dancing around defenders and deftly knocking down off-the-dribble jumpers and floaters, and the stat sheet backed it up: 17.4 points on 45.1/39.5/84.8 shooting, plus 6.1 assists per outing.
Still, one late-season snapshot is the real reason to buy big into Garland's stock. Over a 12-game stretch in April—a run derailed only by a left ankle injury—he averaged 23.1 points and 7.6 assists while shooting 48.4 percent from the field, 41.2 percent from deep and 86.5 percent at the line.
Cleveland needs Garland to sustain that production, if not exceed it. The Cavs don't get much on the offensive end from Isaac Okoro, and it's unclear how much time rookie Evan Mobley will need to get himself up to speed.
In other words, Garland should have all the touches he can handle. As that late-season surge showed, he might work magic with a neon-green light.
Tyrese Haliburton, Sacramento Kings
Tyrese Haliburton met expectations as a rookie. Billed as the steal of the 2020 draft as the 12th overall pick, he lived up to the label while snagging a spot on the All-Rookie first team.
This season, he can exceed expectations and cement himself alongside De'Aaron Fox as Sacramento's co-centerpieces.
The scouting report on Haliburton is simple: He gets it. He gets understanding how to succeed in this league without great size or explosion. He gets the offensive concepts of spacing and picking your spots. He gets how to defend players of different positions, styles and strengths.
If Haliburton breaks out this season, it might happen more subtly than the other players on this list. Some of his strongest attributes don't show up on the stat sheet—his IQ, his charisma, his competitive drive—so the numbers may not always reflect his impact.
Then again, maybe they will. The Kings could be on the verge of making big changes. Players like Buddy Hield, Marvin Bagley III and Harrison Barnes are regulars on the trade-machine circuit.
Haliburton, though, is off-limits—or, at the very least, the Kings won't include him or Fox in a Ben Simmons blockbuster, per The Athletic's Sam Amick. If that sounds surprising to any fans now, it will be crystal clear why Sacramento made that decision over the course of this campaign.
Jonathan Isaac, Orlando Magic
Jonathan Isaac is forcing me out on a limb here, since it's still unclear when he'll be ready to return from the Aug. 2020 tear of his ACL and meniscus in his left knee.
Assuming he makes it back sooner than later, though, it feels like enough time has passed for Isaac to remind NBA fans how good he can be—then take his game to the next level.
The last time Isaac hit the hardwood, he resembled a Defensive Player of the Year in training. Armed with the mobility to keep in front of perimeter players, the length to erase shots at the rim and the quick hands to gum up passing lanes, he had a counter for anything opposing offenses threw at him. By the end of his third season, he had become just the 15th player ever to average at least 2.0 blocks and 1.5 steals.
Orlando's 2019-20 defense fared 4.1 points better per 100 possessions with him than without. Opponents shot 4.0 percent worse against him than they did on average and a whopping 10.4 percentage points worse on shots within 10 feet of the basket.
His defense is already spectacular. The question is whether his offense can catch up. Provided he gets (and stays) healthy, I'm bullish on his outlook. He has flashed face-up ability going back to college, and he's had enough success at the free-throw line (career 79.7 percent) to think he can stretch his range past the arc (career 33.0 percent).
With Nikola Vucevic, Evan Fournier and Aaron Gordon all gone from the roster—and Terrence Ross just waiting to be poached by a win-now shopper—the Magic need scoring in the worst kind of way. They'll give Isaac every opportunity to show he can pick up that slack, and if he does, you're talking about a two-way star.
Michael Porter Jr., Denver Nuggets
Did Michael Porter Jr. already break out last season? You can make that argument.
Most NBA players will never have a scoring season like he just did. Averaging 19.0 points per game is special enough on its own, especially for a second-year player. But pairing that volume with a 54.2/44.5/79.1 shooting slash? That's absurdity.
So, why does Porter make the list? Because the combination of his skills and opportunity—by way of Jamal Murray's absence with a torn ACL in his left knee—could be lighting the fuse for an elite offensive explosion.
When Murray went down on April 12, Porter immediately responded by averaging 25.4 points on 57.9/50.8/84.6 shooting. Oh, and that 50.8 percent connection rate from three came on 8.1 attempts per outing.
He looked unguardable—because he might be. He's a 6'10" sniper who doubles as an explosive rim attacker, and when neither outlets are available, he has a mean in-between game to boot. He's a legitimate three-level scorer, and with Denver plugging him into at least a No. 2 role (he'll have a No. 1 workload on nights where he's really grooving), his scoring numbers could erupt.
He may never be much a playmaker, and despite big strides last season, he's an average defender on his good nights. Even still, he can shred nets with the best of them, and there's a non-zero chance he finishes this season as a top-20 scorer.
Kevin Porter Jr., Houston Rockets
The Rockets are big believers in Kevin Porter Jr. They have been since he landed in Space City back in January.
Almost immediately upon his G League promotion in March, Houston handed him the keys to the offense. He double-doubled in his Rockets' debut with 13 points and 10 assists, then dropped 27 points and eight dimes his next time out. Before the curtain fell on the 2020-21 campaign, he had engineered a jaw-dropping 50-point, 11-assist performance.
Saying that, the reasons for buying a KPJ breakout go beyond those numbers. There's also the fact Houston's attempt to trade John Wall, as reported by ESPN's Tim MacMahon, is all about clearing the runway for Porter.
"Really, it's about the Rockets don't want John Wall getting in the way," MacMahon said on The Lowe Post podcast (h/t Rockets Wire). "People talk about Jalen Green, but it's really about Kevin Porter Jr.'s development. They've decided that Kevin Porter Jr. is not only a point guard, but is their point guard of the future."
That's the kind of trust that can take Porter's stock to the moon.
He has always offered a dizzying blend of dribble moves and advanced shot-creation, but his efficiency has lagged behind his volume. That might still be the case given his development—and that of his young supporting cast—but a slight uptick in shooting percentages combined with a big spike in scoring and distributing still qualifies as a breakout.
With the ball in his hands and the offense ready to follow his lead, Porter could be on the cusp of big things.
Zach Buckley covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @ZachBuckleyNBA.