Top 15 NBA Players Set To Have Breakout Seasons
15 NBA Players On The Verge Of Breakout Years
As somebody who plays fantasy basketball every year, it is important to have a good eye when it comes to picking players who may have a breakout season. Sometimes it is easier than others, as some players end up on teams where nobody else is around to score, so they will get a ton of shots (see: Glen Davis).
However, it isn't always that easy. Sometimes it may be necessary to spend every night on NBA League Pass in order to get a good look at every team around the league in an attempt to find under-appreciated players. Sometimes that means sacrificing your free time in order to watch BJ Mullens chunk threes, or watch the Washington Wizards somehow play five separate games of one-on-one whenever they are on the court.
That is a sacrifice that a true basketball fan will gladly make, and sometimes it pays off by allowing you to see teams and players play that have been forgotten by the mainstream sports media. As a result of making these sacrifices, I have been able to compile what I believe is a stellar list of players set to breakout in one way or another this season. While it would have been easy to just compile a list of the best players in the league, I tried my best to diversify the selections. To do so, I broke up the top-15 list into three separate parts.
Numbers 15-11: Players who are set to improve because they fill glaring needs on their team. These are players who may not become stars, but their situations will allow them to excel in a few areas this season.
Numbers 10-6: These are players who have shown in the past that they can be successful, but they will make the leap to the next level this year thanks to either their maturity or their increased role on their teams.
Numbers 5-1: These are the five players that I believe will make the biggest jump this season, and all become household names if they are not already. These players are vastly underrated currently, but this season should change that.
Sit back, chuckle at the thought that BJ Mullens is attempting more than seven three-pointers a game, and enjoy the list. For the record, LeBron James is not on the list as the opening picture may suggest, I just didn't want to give away any of my selections before it started.
#15- Nikola Vucevic
Nikola Vucevic represents the "somebody has to get these points" theory very well. While Vucevic has started the season rather modestly with Big Baby Davis taking the bulk of the shots for the Orlando Magic (18.2 attempts per game), Vucevic has looked efficient during his time on the court.
While his averages of 10 points 7 rebounds don't scream "breakout", the sooner that the Magic realize that Big Baby's 38% shooting isn't best for the team and give Vucevic some of his touches, the numbers will increase. Vucevic obviously won't be able to fill Dwight Howard's shoes, but he has proved to be a capable scorer and rebounder so far this season, something that a team lacking size, as the Magic do, will need as the season wears on.
#14- Al-Farouq Aminu
I can admit that I was (and still am) one of Al-Farouq Aminu's harshest critics. I have always respected his athleticism and ability to find his way to the basket, but was constantly disappointed as he decided to settle for jumper after jumper (which he never hits). After averaging just 5.8 points per game during his first two years in the league (on an ugly 40% FG and 30% 3PT), Aminu has changed his approach this season.
Rather than sitting at the perimeter waiting to throw up a brick, Aminu is slashing the lane and getting better looks. In addition to his improved offensive approach, Aminu has also learned how to use his athleticism to pull down rebounds. Through the first five games, Aminu is averaging 12.8 & 8.6, a small sample size, but a great sign. The New Orleans Hornets will need production from everybody while Eric Gordon is out, and if Aminu can keep this up it looks as though the Hornets may have gotten more than just one asset in return for Chris Paul.
#13- Omer Asik
Let's just get it out of the way right now: Omer Asik has nearly any offensive ability whatsoever. If he keeps rebounding the way he is, I don't think the Houston Rockets will mind too much.
Asik currently ranks third in the NBA in rebounds per games, and second in offensive rebounds. Despite his offensive shortcomings, he still averages 7.2 points per game and has upped his free-throw percentage from 45% to 54%. If Asik is able to keep hauling in offensive rebounds the way he is (5 per game), and kicking them back out to the plethora of shooters on the Rockets, criticism of his contract (3 years-$25 million) may die down much sooner than expected.
#12- Paul George
With news breaking this week that Danny Granger will be out three months with a knee injury, the Indiana Pacers' playoff hopes took a hit. While they still have a deep squad capable of battling in the Eastern Conference until Granger returns, it is going to take big contributions from a few players, and Paul George is one of them.
While he has struggled early this season (which has contributed to the 2-4 start for the Pacers), George has shown signs of improved defense and rebounding. While his scoring is slightly up this year, his percentages are not where they need to be, or where they should be. If the Pacers are able to get Roy Hibbert going, and get back to an inside-out game, George will benefit greatly and the Pacers will be in a much better position.
#11- Damian Lillard
As much as I tried to keep rookies off of this list, Damian Lillard has been impossible to ignore so far this season. While his percentages took a hit after a rough game against the Dallas Mavericks last week, Lillard is still putting up strong numbers and proving that it won't be a one-man Rookie of the Year race this season.
Many critics thought that the Blazers would struggle working in a rookie point guard, but Lilard seemed to link up almost instantly with his teammates. Not only has Lillard been playing well, but Lamarcus Aldridge, Nicholas Batum, and Wesley Matthews have all started the season strong. While the Blazers biggest problem has been their lack of depth, their starting lineup has been near the top of the league in scoring, all four of the aforementioned players averaging 16.6 points per game or better.
While this season most likely won't result in a playoff berth for the Blazers, the emergence of Lillard ha and his ability to get his teammates involved has to be a promising sign for the team.
#10- James Harden
James Harden and his beard are a household name by now. Whether that is because he stellar seasons for the Oklahoma City Thunder, his strong showing in the 2012 Olympics, or the drama around his trade to the Rockets, everybody knows Harden.
Harden started the season on a tear, dropping 37 and 45 respectively in the first two games of the season (both wins). While his productively has taken a plunge in the past three games (all three losses), his ability to get to the line even when his shot isn't dropping has allowed him to keep scoring, and he still leads the league at 27.8 points per game.
The Rockets gameplan is no secret when Harden is in: get the ball to him and let him go to work. This gameplan alone will allow Harden to shatter his previous scoring numbers, and depending on how well he is able to carry the team will keep him in the MVP talks for a good amount of time. Whether or not the Iso-Harden offense is good for the team as a whole has yet to be seen. One thing is for certain though, other pieces of the Rockets team will have to step up to take the pressure off of Harden, or his career year may be abysmal percentage-wise. As long as he keeps getting the touches though, the points will come.
#9- Kenneth Faried
It is tough to top a rookie year where you average 10 and 8 on 58% shooting, but Kenneth Faried is doing just that so far this season. So far this year, Faried is averaging 13 & 10 and has seen his role in the offense grow from last season. While the majority of Faried's points will still come from dunks and putbacks, he has shown the ability to knock down the short jumper this season when he is given space.
While Faried started the year slowly, scoring just 8 points total in the Denver Nuggets' first two games, he has scored at least 15 points and pulled down 9 rebounds in their last four games including a huge 17 and 16 during a win against the Rockets.
If the beginning of the season is any indication, 'The Manimal' is starting to feel comfortable in the Denver wilderness, and is set for a huge year.
#8- Nikola Pekovic
With the injury to Kevin Love, it was obvious that the Minnesota Timberwolves would need a strong start from Nikola Pekovic. While his rebounding numbers are surprisingly low, his ability to play big inside has carried over from last season.
While the Timberwolves are displaying an extraordinarily balanced attack so far this season (with 10 players averaging between 5.8-13.8 points), Pekovic is the team's leading scorer. If he is able to get his rebounding numbers back on track, this will be Pekovic's most productive season yet. Even with added defensive pressure shifting his way, Pekovic has shown that last year wasn't a fluke, and he is set to be a producer at the Center position for a long time.
#7- Greg Monroe
If the Detroit Pistons didn't look so bad this season, Greg Monroe could have been even higher up on this list. As it sits currently though, the Pistons are 0-6 and everybody on the team seems to be struggling besides Monroe and rookie backup center Andre Drummond.
The offense lacks any rhythm, and the starting guards are shooting 36% and 22%, respectively (Brandon Knight and Rodney Stuckey. If there is anything on the team to be excited about, it is Monroe whose 15.7/8.8/4.0/1.5/1.2 statline is keeping the team in games even when Stuckey is trying to shoot them out of them.
If the Pistons were anywhere near contending for the playoffs this season, it would be plausible for Monroe to make an all-star game this season. As it stands currently though, he will have to be happy being the best player on the worst team in the league.
#6- Goran Dragic
Last season, Goran Dragic came on strong for the Rockets after Kyle Lowry was forced to miss an extended period of time. For one reason or another, the Rockets decided to let Dragic go to the Phoenix Suns where he was able to link up with former teammate Luis Scola.
So far this season, Dragic looks to be a perfect fit for the Suns. His pick-and-rolls with Scola are just effective as ever, and his ability to find Shannon Brown and Michael Beasley in transition has led to a ton of easy baskets. Dragic fits well in the Suns' up-tempo style, and everybody around him has benefited from his ability to distribute the ball. Perhaps nobody has benefited more from Dragic than Marcin Gortat who has found himself wide open shots countless times thanks to Dragic's court vision. If Dragic is able to keep it up, not only will he blow up, but the Suns chances of making the playoffs may increase as well.
#5- Larry Sanders
A guy from Milwaukee named Larry Sanders? He may sound like an average-Joe, but his play so far this season has helped him stand out (even if nobody watched the Milwaukee Bucks
Sanders only averaged 3.6 points last season in the limited playing time that he saw, as he was forced to watch Ersan Ilyasova act as the breakout player for the Bucks last season. However, with the trade of Andre Bogut to the Golden State Warriors, and the ineffectiveness of Samuel Dalembert, Sanders has seen an increase in his playing time this season and he hasn't disappointed.
Through the first four games of the season, Sanders is averaging 12.5 points, 8.5 rebounds and 3 blocks on 67.7% shooting. He has scored in double-figures every game so far, and has been able to provide both scoring and defense off the bench. If he is able to limit his fouls, Sanders should see big minutes throughout the season, and may make a case for the starting center spot if Dalembert keeps playing like Dalembert.
#4- Gordon Hayward
After being drafted out of Butler with the 9th pick of the 2010 NBA Draft, many analysts thought that the Utah Jazz made a terrible pick. Hayward came on strong in his second year in the league however, and despite a huge drop in his three-point%, he was able to average 12 points in his increased role.
While his role seems to have taken a step back this season with the Jazz's acquisitions of Mo Williams and Marvin Williams, Hayward seems to be the most consistent piece of the offense. He has scored in double-figures in five-of-the-six Jazz games, and the only game in which he didn't (a 2-11, 7 point night against the Los Angeles Lakers), he teamed up with Marvin Williams to play near-lockdown defense on Kobe Bryant and Ron Artest.
While the three-point percentage is still a little lower than it should be, Hayward is a proven shooter who will get his stroke back as the season wears on . The most encouraging sign is his ability to get to the basket and draw fouls. While many thought that he would be a shooting-specialist in the NBA, he has shown that he can still score even his shot isn't falling. If he starts knocking down threes again, Hayward could be an 18-point per game scorer without a doubt. Couple that with his underrated defense, and his selection at #9 doesn't look bad at all.
#3- Kyrie Irving
While it was tough for some to imagine that Kyrie Irving would extensively improve on his solid rookie season, he has done just that so far. Irving currently ranks fourth in the NBA in scoring (23.3 PPG), and along with rookie-teammate Dion Waiters has formed one of the most dangerous backcourts in the NBA.
It was assumed from the day that he was taken #1 overall that Irving would have a successful NBA career. However, nobody knew just how quickly Irving would grow into that success. Not only is Irving cementing himself at the top of the "best young point guard in the league" argument, but he is placing himself in the argument for the best point guard in the league overall. While he still needs to limit the turnovers and boost his assists numbers (how can you blame him for not wanting to pass to some of his teammates? Like CJ Miles and his 23% shooting), Irving's ability to score is at a much higher level than many thought it would be during his second year in the league.
If the Cleveland Cavaliers are able to add a little more offensive firepower this season (besides Irving and Waiters), Irving's assists numbers will benefit greatly. Even without the great assist numbers, Irving has shown that he was the no-doubt pick at #1, and the perfect piece for Cleveland to build around.
#2- Kawhi Leonard
In the winning machine known as the San Antonio Spurs, some players go unrecognized despite their solid contributions. While Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and Tim Duncan have been constants in the Spurs lineup for years, second-year wing Kawhi Leonard gets forgotten.
Leonard was the Spurs first-round pick last season, and worked his way into the playing rotation right away. While it is sometimes tough for rookies to get playing time on a successful, veteran-filled team, Leonard's work ethic and defensive ability were tough to keep on the bench. Couple that with his ability to knock down the open three, and Leonard (aka: Gerald Wallace 2.0) is the perfect piece to add to the Spurs puzzle.
Now that Leonard has hit spot in the starting lineup secured, there is no reason to expect anything but increased production. Leonard recorded back-to-back games with five steals to start the season, and his name should definitely be in the Defensive Player of the Year discussion. While his shot could still be more consistent, the fact that he is just 21 years old, and is surrounded by players like Duncan, Ginobili, and Parker bodes well for his development and his future success.
#1- Jeff Teague
With the trade of Joe Johnson to the Brooklyn Nets, the Atlanta Hawks knew that they would need increased production from their best players. With the return of all-star Al Horford, the signing of super-scorer Lou Williams, and the much-wished-for maturity of Josh Smith, that didn't seem like too big of a deal. With all that socring ability on the team, who would have imagined that the once-timid point guard Jeff Teague would prove to be the team's biggest weapon this weapon.
After fighting for respect and playing time for the past three season, Teague finally looks to have the team's faith. He can thank himself for that. Through four games, Teague is averaging 16 and 7 (on 60% shooting), and looks to have a newly-found sense of confidence that had been missing the past few seasons. While Hawks fans collectively grown every time that Josh Smith takes an ill-advised jumper, the opposite emotion is elicited every time Teague drives to the hoop. Already one of the quickest players in the league, Teague has shown an improved shot jumper this season. This improved shooting stroke forces defenders to come up and challenge the shot, allowing Teague to blow by his man on his way to the basket.
If the Hawks are able to limit the amount of dumb jumpers that Smith takes, and put the ball into Teague's hands more often, both Teague and the Hawks will be in a much better position. With the departure of Johnson to Brooklyn, this finally looks to be Teague's team, and he is looking more and more confident every day.