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Thursday, December 12, 2019

10 young NBA players ready for a breakout season

Zach LaVine

The 2017-18 NBA season featured breakout performances from a number of talented young players: Victor Oladipo, Devin Booker, Fred VanVleet, and Jamal Murray, among others. Though at this point most attention is (understandably) focused on the key stars and title contenders for this coming season, we’re wondering which young players could go up a level in 2018-19.

Some of the following players just haven’t found the right fit. Others have stayed with one team, gradually improved, and seem poised to really emerge this season. Here are 10 breakout candidates we’ll be keeping an eye on.

10. Doug McDermott, Indiana Pacers

McDermott has bounced around since the Denver Nuggets selected the Creighton star No. 11 in the 2014 draft. He’s now on his fifth NBA team. McDermott’s shooting has never been an issue, but it became a major asset last season; after joining Dallas, he hit nearly 50 percent (!) of his outside attempts. His defense has gradually improved throughout his career, and he’s no longer a liability on that end. Indiana strikes me as the perfect fit for McBuckets. He should shine playing off of Victor Oladipo in Nate McMillan’s shooter-friendly system, much like Bojan Bogdanovic broke out last season.

9. Justise Winslow, Miami Heat

They say the secret to happiness is low expectations, and the opposite – high expectations – have plagued Winslow. Hype for the Duke product reached a crescendo on draft night, as Danny Ainge attempted to trade four future first-round picks so he could move up to pick Winslow. Winslow, 22, had his most efficient season as a pro in 2017-18 after missing most of 2016-17 with a shoulder injury. He’s always been an outstanding defender, and his offensive game is coming along. With Winslow heading into the fourth year of his rookie contract, the Heat haven’t yet decided whether to commit to him long-term. His uncertain contract should be all the motivation he needs to level up in 2018-19.

8. Norman Powell, Toronto Raptors

The Bucks selected Powell No. 46 on 2015 draft night and dealt him to the Raptors for Greivis Vasquez, who quickly exited the league. Powell bounced between the NBA and D-League as a rookie, but by the end of the season he was putting up big numbers in the pros. After a solid second season, he signed a four-year extension with Toronto, but his 2017-18 campaign left much to be desired. As a result, he played only 15.2 minutes per game. A strong athlete with high basketball IQ, Powell needs to focus on improving his jumper this offseason. If he develops a consistent shot, he could blossom into a longtime NBA starter.

7. Terry Rozier, Boston Celtics

“Scary Terry” made a name for himself in Kyrie Irving’s stead in this year’s postseason, but the 2017-18 campaign as a whole was a resounding success for Rozier, whom the Celtics selected in 2015 because they were unable to move up and pick Winslow. Rozier averaged career-bests in points (11.3), rebounds (4.7), and assists (2.9), in addition to putting up the best three-point percentage (38.1) of his career. Rozier isn’t afraid of big moments or of competing with the league’s best. Though he’ll have to jockey for minutes in Boston’s loaded backcourt (especially now that Marcus Smart is officially back), Rozier should continue to improve in 2018-19. If he has a strong first half of the season, look for Boston to ship him to another team – where he’ll have a bigger role – before the trade deadline.

6. De’Aaron Fox, Sacramento Kings

Fox and Jayson Tatum were my favorite prospects in the 2017 draft. As rookies, Tatum made me look like a genius, whereas it became clear Fox was on a slower timetable. He put up decent numbers in Year One in Sacramento – 11.6 points and 4.4 assists per game – but his shooting splits (41.2 percent from the field, 30.7 percent from three-point range) were abysmal. Additionally, he’ll have to compete for minutes this season with both Frank Mason and Yogi Ferrell. Still, I’m looking for the former Kentucky guard to have a big season. The 20-year-old lives for clutch moments and is already an exceptional finisher at the rim. The additions of young big men Marvin Bagley III and Harry Giles should help the lightning-quick Fox create.

5. Myles Turner, Indiana Pacers

Turner, the No. 11 pick in 2015, has been a consistent producer since he entered the league. He’s always seemed right on the cusp of becoming a star, but he hasn’t quite gotten there. Many expected he’d be Indiana’s No. 1 option in 2017-18, but Victor Oladipo stepped up and filled that role, while Turner dealt with elbow injuries. Turner’s outside shooting continues to improve, and this summer he’s focused on transforming his body. Turner, like Winslow, is entering a key contract year, and he’s hoping for numbers similar to those which Clint Capela recently received. If he can stay healthy and stay in shape, Turner could compete for an All-Star spot in a depleted Eastern Conference.

4. Aaron Gordon, Orlando Magic

In addition to landing his first Hollywood role – as Casper in the Uncle Drew movie – Gordon signed a big extension this offseason: four years and $84 million. In his fourth NBA season, he averaged his most minutes (32.9), points (17.6), rebounds (7.9), assists (2.3), steals (1.0), and blocks (0.8) per game. Gordon has always had the athletic ability to shine, as evidenced by his jaw-dropping performances in the Dunk Contest, but the rest of his game is starting to come along nicely. With this deal, the Magic have committed to him as the face – or one of the main faces – of the franchise. As he continues to develop and expand his outside-of-the-paint repertoire, Gordon will look to lead Orlando to its first postseason appearance since 2011-12.

3. Dejounte Murray, San Antonio Spurs

Murray was the Spurs’ starter at point guard for the majority of this season, and his minutes per game leapt from 8.5 as a rookie to 21.5. His other numbers made significant leaps as well: points (3.4 to 8.1), rebounds (1.1 to 5.7), assists (1.3 to 2.9), and steals (0.2 to 1.2). Now that Tony Parker has moved on, joining the Hornets, Murray’s role should continue to expand. Expect him to focus on that assist number in particular, in addition to getting to the free throw line more often. It’s clear he needs to become a better shooter, but he also needs to improve at the rim. Murray is still only 21 years old, and he should benefit from playing alongside the offensively gifted DeMar DeRozan. The Spurs believe in this young guy, so I do too.

2. Dennis Schroder, Oklahoma City Thunder

Schroder put up good numbers in Atlanta, but by the end of his time with the Hawks, the team was more than ready to move on (which they did by drafting Trae Young). Schroder was noted as a locker room cancer – a reputation he’ll look to shed now that he’s in Oklahoma City. Schroder’s talent has never been a question mark. Last season, he put up 19.4 points, 6.2 assists, and 3.1 rebounds per game. He’s also a solid defender; Schroder added 1.1 steals per game. The 24-year-old German will be the best backup Russell Westbrook has had since Reggie Jackson, and he should fit nicely with Westbrook and Paul George. With the scoring load and pressure off of him, and his natural gifts in isolation settings, Schroder should have a big comeback season for Billy Donovan’s squad.

1. Zach LaVine, Chicago Bulls

Like the Gordon situation in Orlando, the Bulls this summer committed to LaVine as one of the team’s key pieces of the future, giving him $78 million over four years. Now, the UCLA product has to prove he deserved that money — a mission he seems to be embracing. LaVine is a likable guy with athleticism to spare, and last season he came back nicely after tearing his ACL. Additionally, he’s spent a full year adjusting to Chicago and Fred Hoiberg’s system, and he’s continued to develop his already-impressive offensive skillset. The young Bulls are in an interesting place with Lauri Markkanen entering Year Two, the additions of Jabari Parker and Wendell Carter, and 24-year-old Kris Dunn looking to earn an extension. With expectations for the team low and a weakened Eastern Conference, this is the perfect year for LaVine to prove he can be a go-to guy.

Aaron Mansfield is a freelance sports writer whose work has appeared in Complex, USA Today, and the New York Times. You can reach him via email at [email protected]



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