6 NBA Players Who Can Make the Leap Next SeasonMay 2, 2022
6 NBA Players Who Can Make the Leap Next Season
During the 2021-22 season, Ja Morant and Darius Garland became All-Stars, Jordan Poole vaulted to stardom and Miles Bridges most likely secured himself a max contract by leveling up.
The question now: Who's next?
The six players featured here have all had some level of success during their short careers, but the best is yet to come. There's no clear-cut definition for a leap, but for some of these guys, next season's breakout could mean All-Star or All-NBA recognition.
Held back by lack of playing time and the typical difficulties of an NBA learning curve, these players are all primed to blow up in 2022-23. Buy stock now before it's too late.
Onyeka Okongwu, Atlanta Hawks
If Onyeka Okongwu is going to break out, he'll have to earn it. Clint Capela is on the books for $65.6 million through 2024-25, and the veteran center has averaged a double-double in each of the last five seasons.
Okongwu is firmly behind Capela on the Atlanta Hawks' depth chart. But should he be?
Signs emerged this year that Okongwu is ready for a larger role. He averaged 14.2 points, 10.3 rebounds and 2.2 blocks per 36 minutes while shooting a sterling 69.0 percent from the field. Individual numbers aside, Okongwu's minutes also coincided with a bigger positive net rating swing than Capela's, with most of the gains coming on defense. We have to include the caveat that Okongwu saw more time against backups, but his skill package should translate against first-unit opponents.
Okongwu held shooters to a lower field-goal percentage inside six feet than Capela this past season, and the 21-year-old big man's quick feet make him a much more useful switch defender. Years ago, Capela could survive in space, but nowadays, he's strictly an anchor big. Atlanta trusted Okongwu to cover point guards, shooting guards, small forwards and power forwards more often than Capela, as indicated by his superior Defensive Versatility score.
We get reminders every postseason that mobile bigs are a must-have. If the Hawks want to go deeper than the first round next year, they need to commit to Okongwu as their main man in the middle. Everything he did in 2021-22 suggests he's up to the challenge.
Jonathan Kuminga, Golden State Warriors
Jonathan Kuminga's breakout case has three prongs.
First, his physical tools are undeniably elite. At a chiseled 6'8", 210 pounds, the 19-year-old is almost always the best athlete on the floor. His open-court speed is legit, his hops are rafter-scraping and his sheer strength overwhelms opponents near the rim. That he already seeks contact and excels at finishing through it indicates he is going to pile up free throws through pure physicality.
Second, Kuminga has already been immensely productive. As a rookie, he averaged 19.8 points per 36 minutes and shot 51.3 percent from the field. His 60.0 true shooting percentage was tops among all rookies who attempted at least 400 shots.
Lastly, the Golden State Warriors are likely to hand him a much larger role in 2022-23. Otto Porter Jr., Nemanja Bjelica, Damion Lee, Gary Payton II, Andre Iguodala, Kevon Looney and Juan Toscano-Anderson are all free agents this summer. Golden State, a contender in a glamor market, will again attract quality veterans willing to sign for the minimum. But Kuminga will have every opportunity to grab hold of 30 minutes per game and never let them go.
Playing for a team with championship aspirations and limited patience for rookie mistakes, Kuminga didn't play a ton and flew under the radar in his first year. Next season, he's going to explode.
Tyrese Haliburton, Indiana Pacers
Maybe you missed it because Tyrese Haliburton spent this past season toiling in obscurity for the Sacramento Kings and Indiana Pacers, teams that combined for a 55-109 mark. But the second-year guard quietly established himself as one of the league's best young sources of offense—for himself and others.
Once given the keys following his trade to Indiana in February, the 6'5" Haliburton averaged 17.5 points and 9.6 assists per game with 62.9 percent true shooting percentage. If he'd sustained the numbers from that 26-game sample over the full season, he would have been the only player in the league to do so.
The fact that only five players have ever produced a season like that means it's unlikely Haliburton can sustain that pace for an entire year, particularly the gaudy scoring efficiency. But when you're looking for a player who might make a leap, shorter stretches of historic play are hard to ignore. Maybe he can extend that kind of run from 26 games to a half-season next year.
Haliburton has proved his reliability as a three-point shooter with a career 41.2 percent hit rate on 5.1 attempts per game, and he put to rest any doubts he could be a primary facilitator in the pick-and-roll once he took charge with the Pacers. His 1.00 points per play as a pick-and-roll ball-handler in Indy ranked in the 83rd percentile.
Much will depend on how well the Pacers perform early next year. If they're halfway decent through February, it's reasonable to imagine Haliburton making his first All-Star appearance prior to his 23rd birthday.
Wendell Carter Jr., Orlando Magic
Some might say Wendell Carter Jr.'s leap came in 2021-22 when he averaged 15.0 points and 10.5 rebounds per game with a career-best 60.1 true shooting percentage.
Those people should dream a little bigger.
For starters, Carter's three-point shot is coming. You can just tell. This past season, he looked increasingly comfortable farther from the basket, and his stroke was mechanically sound. Statistically, everything is headed in the right direction as well.
Carter more than doubled his three-point attempt rate this past season, firing from deep on 28.0 percent of his field goals after never topping 13.0 percent in any of his previous three years. He hit 32.7 percent of those treys while also ranking in the 72nd percentile among bigs in mid-range accuracy. And just to assuage any worries that Carter was becoming a perimeter specialist, he also hit 75.0 percent of his shots at the rim.
Defensively, Carter held opponents to a 53.0 percent hit rate inside six feet, a top-10 figure among players who defended at least 300 shots at that range.
Put it all together, and you've got a rim-protecting big man who can finish inside, clean the glass and likely become one of the league's better stretch-center options. Those 15.0 points and 10.5 rebounds per game were career highs, but they're going to look quaint a year from now.
Devin Vassell, San Antonio Spurs
The career-high seven threes that Devin Vassell hit during the San Antonio Spurs' play-in loss to the New Orleans Pelicans opened some eyes, but the second-year wing should have had everyone's attention a while ago.
Vassell finished 2021-22 with averages of 12.3 points, 4.3 rebounds, 1.9 assists and 1.1 steals in 27.3 minutes per game. Primarily a spot-up weapon who took almost exactly half his shots from deep, Vassell's 42.7/36.1/83.8 shooting splits don't leap off the page. But hidden within those full-season stats is a second-half surge.
A reserve early on, Vassell started all 20 contests after the All-Star break, upped his scoring average to 14.2 points per game and, most importantly, canned 39.3 percent of his long-distance shots. At the least, he looked like a premium floor-spacer who could hold up defensively. Among Spurs players who logged as many as Vassell's 1,937 minutes, only Keldon Johnson had a higher Defensive Versatility score.
San Antonio is no stranger to player-development success. Dejounte Murray made his first All-Star Game this past season, and 22-year-old Keldon Johnson quietly averaged 17.0 points on 39.8 percent shooting from three in his third year. The latter is as good of a "leap" pick as Vassell, but we'll stick with the younger prospect with more room to grow.
Vassell, 21, will continue to improve as a shooter on the move and as a self-sufficient generator of his own looks. As he increases his shot difficulty and ups his usage rate, he could see declines in efficiency. Then again, Vassell didn't have that problem when his role increased during the second half of the season. This time next year, we may be talking about him as one of the best young three-and-D wings in the game.
Precious Achiuwa, Toronto Raptors
This spot has been reserved for OG Anunoby over the last several years, but it's time to turn it over to another Toronto Raptors prospect.
Precious Achiuwa is the basketball equivalent of a raw five-tool prospect in baseball. Athletically and from a body composition standpoint, the speedy, springy 6'8" forward might as well be a blueprint for what NBA athletes are all going to look like 20 years from now. The Raptors are on the vanguard of lanky, positionless lineups, and Achiuwa fits right into that ahead-of-its-time approach.
With point guard training from his younger days in Nigeria, Achiuwa has mostly played center in the NBA—while guarding anything that moves across the positional spectrum. As he gained comfort in Toronto's system this year, Achiuwa went from looking occasionally lost to becoming a game-changing force on both ends.
Too quick for big men to cover on the perimeter and too powerful for guards and wings to handle near the basket, Achiuwa is as likely to blow by an opposing center as he is to maul a small forward down low.
Sometimes, he does both on the same play.
Achiuwa finished his sophomore season with a 35.9 percent hit rate from deep but drilled 39.2 percent on much higher volume after the break. If defenders have to play him honestly beyond the arc, he'll only have more chances to leverage his speed, power and developing ball-handling.
This is one of those situations where the breakout has already begun. The recognition, perhaps in the form of the 2022-23 Most Improved Player award, will come later.
Stats courtesy of NBA.com, Basketball Reference and Cleaning the Glass. Accurate through 2021-22 season. Salary info via Spotrac.