NBA: 14 potential breakout players in the 2021/22 season
THT, Herro, Porter Jr, Mamba... A look at some of the players whose NBA careers could take a giant leap forwards this year.
A surprise package, a sudden developer, a player who fulfils his potential… The concept of the ‘breakout player’ is a very broad one: it can refer to nearly men who finally become all-out stars, but tends to be applied to support acts who become much more than that and, above all, to youngsters who, for whatever reason, haven’t yet been able to demonstrate their abilities - and begin to do so.
These are some of the players who look well-placed to take giant strides forward and, in doing so, grab the headlines in the 2021/22 NBA season:
JORDAN POOLE (GOLDEN STATE WARRIORS)
Poole is a 22-year-old shooting guard who has gone from flirting with an early farewell to the NBA to earning himself an important role at the Warriors, alongside Stephen Curry. He was the 28th pick in the 2019 draft, a player with talent but who at times lacked discipline in Michigan. He had a poor rookie season, but emerged last year, apparently spurred on by his stint in the G League and by many hours spent working individually on his game. Adding to his accurate outside shooting, he evolved into a much more rounded player, with greater toughness and leadership, and a greater degree of comfort with the ball in his hands. And in this preseason he has shown that he looks to have taken another step forward ahead of his third year in the NBA: 23 points, 3.5 rebounds and 3.5 assists, with a 40% success rate from three pointers. For now, he’ll be a starter in the Warriors’ backcourt together with Curry, and will have a more important role after the departure of Kelly Oubre, and as Golden State wait for Klay Thompson.
JAREN JACKSON JR (MEMPHIS GRIZZLIES)
Twenty-two years old, Jackson made a very good impression when he arrived in the NBA after being the fourth pick in the 2018 draft… but, after three years in the league, he has also attracted very serious doubts about how far he can go. Injuries have played a key role in that, particularly a meniscus issue. And added to that are a few problems that are starting to look chronic: scant rebounding instincts for a man measuring six feet nine (so far, he has averaged 4.7 in his career) and a habit of committing personal fouls (almost four in under 27 on the court per game). So JJJ still hasn’t signed an extension to his rookie contract at a Memphis Grizzlies who are in the midst of a promising rebuild - one which would be greatly boosted if the power-forward were able to find his best form. And it feels like, finally, we could be about to witness that: he has had an excellent preseason, with averages of 18 points, 7.8 rebounds and 48% on threes. Jonas Valanciunas’ exit and the arrival of Steven Adams, an even more inside player than the Lithuanian, could give him more minutes as a center in smaller fives. A good way of exploiting his outside shooting. And if he really has improved, as it seems he has, his all-round potential is immense.
OG ANUNOBY (TORONTO RAPTORS)
The British small forward, 24, has a profile that fits to a tee the culture at the Raptors, a team who develop their youngsters and bring on great defenders who go on to maximise their potential in attack. His presence on this list may raise eyebrows given that he already took a major step forward in his third season, producing brilliant moments in the Florida bubble, and was a very important player for the Raptors in his fourth, last year. An average of more than 33 minutes on court, an undisputed starter, the team’s best defender and 15.9 points and 5.5 rebounds with almost a 40% success rate on three pointers, an area where he nearly doubled his attempts (from 3.3 to 6.1). However, the thing is that, particularly with Pascal Siakam carrying injury problems, there’s room to expect even better from Anunoby this year, one he goes into having signed a four-year, $72 million extension. The reasons to believe he can be even more than before are clear: he has very visibly improved year on year and finished last term extremely strongly. In the final 20 games, he averaged 18.3 points and 5.3 rebounds, registering at least 20 points in each of his last six appearances.
ISAIAH STEWART (DETROIT PISTONS)
Aged just 20, he already has a year in the NBA on his CV - a very good one for the number-16 pick in the 2020 draft, a generation that was the subject of significant doubts but came out looking good for the future. Stewart wasn't spectacular, but showed that he has the potential to be a very good inside player in the current NBA. He averaged eight points, seven rebounds and 1.3 blocks in over 21 minutes per game, but what’s most important is that when he was a starter (14 times) he registered almost 30 minutes on the court with 12.7 points, 9.4 rebounds and 2.1 blocks. And with a 57% shooting accuracy rate. He has no hesitation in shooting and has good defensive instincts, is good under the rim and doesn’t show the doubts many rookies have when protecting the pick and roll. Without Mason Plumlee, he’ll have a greater role in a season in which he should be the Pistons’ starting center.
DARIUS GARLAND (CLEVELAND CAVALIERS)
A key season is ahead for the number-five pick in the 2019 draft, a huge talent who proved rather fragile as a rookie, amid serious doubts about his compatibility in a starting backcourt with Collin Sexton. However, despite the progress made by the latter as an electric points scorer, Garland is viewed as the bigger talent, a player more important to the Cavaliers’ future. And one who will have Ricky Rubio as a mentor this season. Last term, he improved a lot as a scorer (17.4) and assist supplier (6.1) and got close to 40% on three pointers. An ankle injury stopped him in his tracks when he was showing signs of really exploding: between 17 March and 28 April, when he suffered his injury, he averaged 20.6 points and 6.8 assists, with 41.6% on threes and much improved assists/turnovers ratio. Now, the expectation on him is to show greater leadership and exploit his qualities further in a team that has added an inside player with shooting abilities in the shape of Lauri Markkanen and another, Evan Mobley, who does it all and has the potential to be a star.
MO BAMBA (ORLANDO MAGIC)
The 23-year-old has come close to being written off as a bust. Number six in the 2018 draft, many felt he could have been the top pick, as a seven-foot-tall player with an enormous wingspan and a world of possibilities if his very raw potential is polished. But injuries, illness and the Orlando Magic’s inconsistency have seen him struggle to perform. Indeed, a departure from Florida was talked about, and he still hasn’t signed an extension to his rookie contract. In three years in the NBA, he hasn’t surpassed the 16.3 minutes per game he registered in his rookie year, and he averages just 6.4 points and 5.8 rebounds. However, there are reasons to believe that, finally, we might be about to see the real Bamba: last season, when Vucevic and Birch left Orlando, he ended up with 11.1 points, 7.5 rebounds, 1.6 blocks and 34% on three pointers in his last 24 games. He has played well in preseason, he’s going to get a lot of minutes for a new-look, very youthful Magic and the presence of Jalen Suggs should mean more easy points for him, close to and above the rim. And, importantly, he seems stronger physically, with more work under his belt in that area between the end of last season and the beginning of this one. Against the Spurs, for example, he picked up 16 points, 10 rebounds and five blocks. And against the Celtics, 13+10+4.
JADEN MCDANIELS (MINNESOTA TIMBERWOLVES)
In the 2020 draft, the Wolves selected Anthony Edwards, who could end up being a much better number-one pick than many had predicted. And, with much less fanfare, at number 28 they picked up Jaden McDaniels, a forward from Washington who made an excellent impression as a rookie above and beyond his numbers (6.8 points, 3.7 rebounds). Moving between small forward and power forward, he could be the glue that sticks the team together, the player who sews things together and fills holes, who solves problems alongside team-mates with a lot of points in them: Russell, Towns, Edwards, Beasley… Chris Finch’s Wolves look coherent and exciting, two things that you haven’t always been able to say about Minnesota, and McDaniels fits in as a potentially top-class 3+D. Towns certainly has full faith in him. "He's going to be special. I've said that since day one, and I think everyone on this team knows just what Jaden will be," he told reporters earlier this month. "Man, we got lucky. We got really lucky to get him. He's improving every day. He's getting more experience. He's putting muscle on his body. He's becoming the player that we hoped he would become. He's a special, special, special specimen."
TALEN HORTON-TUCKER (LA LAKERS)
He’s no longer one of the worst-kept secrets in the NBA. At 20, he already has two seasons and 71 NBA games to his name (and a championship ring), and a lot of experience at a demanding, high-profile team. And he now has a good contract (three years, $32 million). In a new-look Lakers, with too many veterans and the need to find fresh solutions in the rotation, THT is tasked with making another big step forwards, although an injury has halted his progress in this early-season period (preseason and the opening weeks of the regular season). Many see star potential in him, and he certainly has that spark, that ability to do special things in important moments and a tremendous capacity for finishing plays close to the rim, for making things happen. His areas for improvement are clear: outside shooting and defence. If he can grow in those departments - and he has worked on that this summer - the sky is the limit for him.
TYRESE MAXEY (PHILADELPHIA 76ERS)
Straight from Kentucky to the Sixers (number 21 in the 2020 draft), Maxey played well in his rookie season: an average of eight points and two assists, with very promising performances when he was a starter, in a total of eight games (18.6 points, 4.3 rebounds and 3.9 assists). He has self-belief and talent, although he has a habit of overelaborating with the ball and taking difficult two-point shots. But in preseason he showed a greater ability to get to the rim and finish, a quality that could be a big development for him. Particularly now that the Ben Simmons situation has cleared the way to the starting five and will force Doc Rivers to show even more faith in him. As long as the Simmons stand-off continues and the Sixers don’t make a move for other options, Maxey will challenge with Shake Milton to be a starter and the point guard with the most minutes.
KEVIN PORTER JR (HOUSTON ROCKETS)
Still only 21, Porter Jr is trying to shake off his reputation as a bit of a tearaway. He has a lot of talent (he had a 50-point game last season) but so far he has proved something of a headache. Both in college - something that caused his drop to number 30 in the 2019 draft - and at the Cavaliers, who tired of him and sent him to Houston in January in exchange for a second-round pick. With nothing to lose amid their post-Harden rebuild, the Rockets took a punt on him to see what they could get out of him. And it worked: 16.6 points and 6.3 assists. He has a lot of talent and will be a starter in a new and promising backcourt alongside Jalen Green, the number-two pick in the 2021 draft. If he’s focused, if he wants it, he can be a terrific NBA player. He has a great opportunity; let’s see if he takes it.
NICKEIL ALEXANDER-WALKER (NEW ORLEANS PELICANS)
The number-17 pick in the 2019 draft, the Canadian shooting guard, 23, is part of the post-Anthony Davis rebuild at the Pelicans, a project revolving around Zion Williamson that needs to settle soon unless they want the situation with their franchise player to turn really ugly (there are already too many rumours). NAW can be important in this, and his task is to establish himself as a solid scorer with hot streaks in his locker. Last season he got to 11 points per game and looked good as a starter: in total, 13 games that yielded an average of 19 points, five rebounds, three assists and 3.1 three pointers, with 30 and 37-point displays. In a Pelicans team without Lonzo Ball or Eric Bledsoe, Alexander-Walker ought to have much more presence in the backcourt and take better advantage of the attention Zion gets in the paint. In theory, he should be a starter alongside recent arrival Devonte’ Graham.
DEJOUNTE MURRAY (SAN ANTONIO SPURS)
At a San Antonio Spurs who are looking for a new identity, Dejounte Murray - who is now 25 years old - has to be the skipper of the ship. The question is how far he can go, how much more he can grow, how close he can get to All-Star levels. He has that in defence, where he’s one of the best in the NBA In the perimeter, and he continues to improve in offence, as a scorer and playmaker. In his second season he began to show some pretty serious signs and made it into the 2018 All-NBA Defensive Second Team, but then a knee injury saw him miss the 2018/19 season. Despite that, the Spurs gave him a four-year, $64 million extension and he has shown he’s worth it… and more. Last season, he reached an average of 32 minutes on the court, with 15.7 points, 7.1 rebounds and 5.4 assists. A turbine that doesn’t stop learning and improving.
TYLER HERRO (MIAMI HEAT)
Herro has captured the headlines in recent days after saying he’s at the same level as young NBA stars like Luka Doncic. He isn’t, but it’s true that he has played very, very well in preseason for a much-strengthened Heat, a team that look like they’ll be very dangerous in the East, as they bid to put a mediocre 2020/21 campaign behind them. On an individual level, Herro is in the same situation. After excelling as a rookie, producing special displays in the playoffs, he didn’t develop as expected last season, amid rumours over his private life. Now, at 21, he wants to unlock his true potential once and for all. His preseason has been impressive: 29+6+6 with 10/15 shooting against the Celtics; 26 points against the Spurs; 24+9+3 with 7/13 against the Rockets; 26+4+4 with 9/12 against the Hawks…
MICHAEL PORTER JR (DENVER NUGGETS)
His back problems, coupled with doubts about how his desire to be a star would fit with the need for a process of development in the NBA, saw him drop to 14 in the 2018 draft, having been the favourite for top pick not long beforehand. Since arriving at the Nuggets, head coach Michael Malone has made him work hard for every last minute of court time, penalised him when he hasn’t done his bit in defence and demanded toughness and commitment. And it’s working, so much so that Porter Jr has signed a five-year, $207 million extension. In his first season he didn’t play, so as to ensure his back healed completely, and between the second and third, he took a giant leap forwards: from 9.3 points per game to 19, from 4.7 rebounds to 7.3, from 50.9% on shooting to 54.2%, with 44.5% on three pointers. At a Nuggets team who are contenders for the title, he’s a fundamental component and a more and more lethal shooter, making the most of the spaces that open up in front of him and the unique vision of Nikola Jokic. If he carries on improving in everything else, he’ll become a big star. This season will be key in finding out whether he’ll do that.
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