By Melo Ferguson, Jr.
Special to NBA Top Shot
- As the NBA season starts, we are taking a look at breakout candidates from all 30 teams.
- Read on for Melo Ferguson Jr.'s 15 breakout candidates from the Western Conference that are ready to take the next step.
- You can grab all of these players's Moments in the Marketplace.
Keldon Johnson warrants consideration, having joined head coach Gregg Popovich on an Olympic gold run this summer. Though, he won’t be the only one set for a higher workload following DeMar DeRozan’s departure. In the 17 games in which his usage percentage was above 25 percent, Murray produced All-Star calibers of: 19.8 points, 7.1 rebounds, 5.5 assists, and 1.8 steals per game on 45.5 percent shooting. He was also a part of an exclusive eight-player group that averaged at least 15.0 points, 7.0 rebounds, 5.0 assists, and 1.0 steals per game last season. Expect a career year from Murray, and plenty of swipes and fast break jams capable of Top Shot highlights along the way.
For years, Portland has gone against acquiring a traditional pass-first backup point guard, which means that it will be another “bombs away” season for Simons. Only two bench players averaged more 3-point attempts per minute than Simons in 2020-21 (min. 50 games), and the third-year guard doubles that with a No. 2 rank in accuracy on catch-and-shoot attempts. Pair that with the swagger of being the reigning Slam Dunk Champion, and there’s nightly highlight potential on offense. He’s also earned the trust of Chauncey Billups, upped his aggression as a defender, and showcased versatility this preseason, giving him an upward trend ahead of Year 4.
No player in the 2021-22 preseason is averaging more points per game than Jordan Poole (25.0). It’s clear that he’s established a rapport with Stephen Curry, hitting on audacious, deep 3-point attempts, handles as tight as a headlock, and overall comfort as a three-level scorer. He’s been a different player since his G-League venture, and this year, there’s already a raging dialogue surrounding Poole’s burgeoning case as the 2021-22 Most Improved Player. On a Warriors team already decimated by injuries, Poole has a chance to show what happens when opportunity meets preparation.
Ten of the players on the Lakers’ 17-man roster have played at least nine NBA seasons, making a true “breakout” candidate an interesting dynamic. Malik Monk appears poised to continue his ascension; his numbers have increased in each of his first four seasons. Last season, he saw the fourth-highest jump in 3-point percentage from 2019-20 to 2020-21 according to NBA.com’s John Schuhmann. He should benefit from the gravitational pull of the Lakers’ megastars and their defensive attention, while also becoming more of a household name and commodity on the Lakers, owners of the most televised games in 2021-22.
The positive news simply can’t stop coming for Clippers up-and-comer Terance Mann. There’s fresh ink on his new two-year, $22 million deal, and he was recently voted among GMs as “most likely to breakout.” He introduced himself to the NBA and NBA Top Shot audience with exclamation, sneaking up on the Utah Jazz with a 39-point Playoff game to advance to the Western Conference Finals. With Kawhi Leonard sidelined and no definitive timetable to follow, Mann is positioned for even more rim-shattering dunks and opportunities this upcoming season.
Despite remaining competitive, the Dallas Mavericks failed to sign a marquee superstar to pair with Luka Doncic, which means that internal improvement will be the biggest priority. Enter 25-year-old backup guard Jalen Brunson. Of the 138 players to hit at least 80 3-pointers last season — bigs, forwards, guards, everyone — Brunson’s field goal percentage (52.3), ranked seventh. This was extraordinary for a 6-foot-1 guard. Brunson is seeking to position himself for further success in his contract year, which requires similar efficiency and improvements as a passer. Motivated by an anticlimactic Playoff debut that he said “sat with him all summer,” Brunson will be a player to watch
How much better can Michael Porter Jr. truly get? His 64.6 eFG% was second only to Wilt Chamberlain among players to average at least 19 points per game, and he played “Robin” on a depleted Nuggets team that still made a trip to the second round. He won’t be lacking in motivation after signing a five-year deal worth up to $207 million. There are subtle tweaks to his game, such as defensive attention and a willingness to put the ball on the floor that could propel him into the next tier. With those additions, the ceiling of his game raises exponentially.
Of every player in the NBA, league GMs saw Jaren Jackson Jr. as the player most likely to breakout. Expectations were tempered for his 11-game cameo last season, as he was recovering from his torn meniscus, but all should be back to normal to start 2021-22. The Grizzlies traded away Jonas Valanciunas, signifying their all-in belief of Jackson as their frontcourt linchpin. Jackson’s quick release looks as lethal as ever this preseason, a trend that figures to remain steady come the regular season and beyond.
The Thunder have 18 first-round selections over the next seven years, and the NBA’s most cap space according to Spotrac. Given that they flipped neither of those assets for anything bigger this offseason, 2021-22 should offer a similar result: opportunities and production in bulk for Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. How does one “breakout” following a season of averaging 23.7 points, 4.7 rebounds, and 5.9 assists per game? Perhaps that means the 22-year-old makes his first All-Star game. A winning record won’t be a prerequisite for it — since 2019, the NBA has had 13 All-Stars from non-Playoff teams — so long as Gilgeous-Alexander’s production stays on the increase, he should be in contention.
For some players, the work they put in over the offseason takes a little time to showcase itself with the lights on bright. That hasn’t been the case for Cameron Johnson, who’s already displayed self-creation skills to go along with his already nuanced, unflappable game. If the Suns’ Finals run, and his dunk on PJ Tucker didn’t make him a household name, his work in 2021-22 should do the trick. Another year of playing with Chris Paul should make Johnson a formidable second-unit leader in Year Three.
Anthony Edwards is the more foolproof answer, as he’s likely to build upon a brilliant first season that earned him a Rookie of the Year runner-up. Jaden McDaniels is the under-the-radar pick. Despite an inconsistent preseason, McDaniels’ corner 3-point stroke looks improved, and he pairs that with lockdown defender potential in Year Two. One of his goals was to shoot 40 percent from deep, something that would make him a feared floor spacer opposite Karl-Anthony Towns and Anthony Edwards. If the three of them improve and Minnesota’s new pick-and-roll defensive schemes hold, look out for McDaniels to create big moments in abundance.
All eyes will be on No. 2 selection Jalen Green, but his backcourt co-star, Kevin Porter Jr. will also be a player to watch. Porter Jr.’s statistical profile is impressive; he nearly tripled his assists per game (2.2 to 6.3), and averaged 16.3 points as a 20-year-old. He’s also saying all of the right things about getting teammates involved, but it’s the balance; he has a Top Shot-friendly game comprised of complex dribbles and a nearly endless offensive repertoire. The Rockets should be competitive next year, with Porter Jr. playing a large role in that.
Per Basketball Reference, the Jazz ranked No. 1 in roster continuity, bringing back 90 percent of last season’s already-established, No. 1-seeded group. In great irony, it’s Eric Paschall, their new acquisition, that should be the one best positioned to break out. Paschall just missed the Splash Brothers’ best years, something that would have made him a more well-known player. In Utah, he could play a Paul Millsap-type role, bringing defensive versatility, intensity, spacing, and small doses of three-level scoring. Minutes among the frontcourt will be competitive, but Paschall should benefit from finally playing under the bright lights.
Nickeil Alexander-Walker may have to wait on his self-imagined goals of becoming an NBA champion and All-Star in 2021-22, but he is positioned to be one of the most up-and-comers on this Pelicans team. He made noticeable year-to-year improvements as a shooter inside the 3-point arc, and showed excellent potential when his role rises. In 13 games as a starter, he averaged 19.0 points, 5.0 rebounds, and 3.0 assists. He has the look of a veteran navigating through screens, and with his deep repertoire and shiftiness, he figures to be a staple in the Pelicans’ success going forward.
The Sacramento Kings nearly did the impossible last season, falling just shy of the Western Conference Play-In despite having the second-worst defensive rating in NBA history. Tyrese Haliburton will be among those tasked with ending the 15-year Playoff drought. Unlike most rookies, Haliburton didn’t take long in earning Luke Walton’s trust; almost immediately, he had plays designed to utilize Haliburton’s lob passing out of screens, and Haliburton doubled down by becoming one of the NBA’s best late-game scorers, going 14-of-24 in “clutch” environments. Now, with him sharing a backcourt with either De’Aaron Fox or defensive magnet Davion Mitchell, giving them a chance to potentially get the best of both worlds.
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