Five biggest breakout candidates for the 2016-17 NBA season
There are some times when NBA players hit the jackpot and find the rare nexus where talent, opportunity, and circumstance all intersect. You can have all the talent in the Western Hemisphere, but with no opportunity and poor circumstantial luck, you’re basically rookie-year D’Angelo Russell: imprisoned in a cell built entirely out of parting Kobe Bryant bricks and guarded by Byron Scott’s folded arms.
With ample opportunity but questionable talent and equally questionable circumstance, you’ll faceplant and find yourself in The Anthony Bennett Zone, forever haunted by The Ghost of No. 1 Overall Picks Past. Talent and circumstance without opportunity turns you into pre-Enes-Kanter-trade Rudy Gobert or worse, Darko Milicic: selected No. 2 overall by a championship-caliber Detroit Pistons team but perpetually thumb-tacked to the end of their bench and finding himself cursing the mothers of European referees just four years later.
Even talent and opportunity sans circumstance guarantees you nothing if, say, you’re drafted onto a Washington Wizards team run by a competitive maniac named Michael Jordan, who shatters your psyche and your confidence in yourself from the moment you enter the league (sorry, Kwame).
But for these five players, the stars will align in 2016-17, and they’ll find themselves in prime position to achieve what so many before them for whatever reason couldn’t: a full-fledged breakout year.
Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks
Praise be on high to Bucks head coach Jason Kidd for wanting to bring the Association back to its halcyon days when mountainous men like Magic Johnson and Penny Hardaway used to run the point. With Kidd’s bold declaration that the 6-foot-11 Antetokounmpo will handle PG duties for Milwaukee this coming season, it’s popcorn time for the NBA fandom.
Shifting control of the offense over to our sublime Greek Freak and his slinky, gazelle-like style of play means more tempo for the Bucks. More tempo means more possessions and more pushing of the basketball, which means more opportunities for Giannis to torpedo dudes in the open floor. Si, por favor.
The potentially season-ending hamstring injury to Khris Middleton, who had the second-highest usage rate on the team last year, will also create a sort of trickle-down effect with regards to touches that’s sure to even further escalate Antetokounmpo’s responsibilities in 2016-17. Fortunately, with PER-GAME AVERAGES of 18.8 points, 8.6 rebounds, 7.2 assists, 1.4 steals, and 1.9 blocks after the All-Star break last season, our guy is a living, breathing video game, so I’d say he’s ready.
Antetokounmpo is immaculate in the halfcourt as well, possessing all the tools you could possibly want out of a primary creator. He’s adept at breaking down defenders with his dribble and penetrating, at setting up teammates through backdoors and through screen-and-roll actions, and at dwarfing opposing guards with post-ups, forcing the D to send help, and finding the open shooter after a quick survey of the floor.
Also showing tangible improvement as a close-range finisher (66.2 percent in the restricted area in 2015-16 as opposed to 61.2 percent in 2014-15) and using every inch of Mr. Fantastic-esque wingspan to barge into passing lanes and alter shots at the basket, Point Giannis is a weapon of mass destruction ready to be fully unleashed on the league this season.
Dennis Schröder, Atlanta Hawks
Contrary to popular belief, there is in fact a German player in the NBA not named Dirk Nowitzki, and he’s ready for his closeup, Mr. DeMille. Jeff Teague was traded to the Indiana Pacers in the offseason, meaning that we’re living in Dennis the Menace’s world now.
A couple points of concern for Schröder as he makes the transition to a full-time starter are his poor perimeter shooting (just a 31.4 percent conversion rate on jump shots last season) and his shoddy numbers as a pick-and-roll ball-handler (0.71 points per possession out of those sets in 2015-16, putting him below the 35th percentile in the league). But as we’re already seeing in the preseason, those concerns should subside some this year now that Schröder will actually have some honest-to-goodness floor spacing playing alongside Kyle Korver, Paul Millsap, and Dwight Howard instead of toiling away for the second unit with the likes of Mike Scott, Mike Muscala, and Tim Hardaway Jr.
Twitter lobbyists and “grass is always greener” proponents alike had long been clamoring for Schröder to be starting, even when he and Teague were still teammates. Interestingly enough, the quantitative evidence supported that notion as well. The Hawks were actually 6.1 points WORSE per 100 possessions last season with Teague on the floor as opposed to off, while they were 6.1 points BETTER with Schröder on versus Schröder off. While the virtually identical reverse dichotomy may have a lot to do with how the two rarely played next to each other, what’s more is that both Atlanta’s overall assist percentage as well as their collective true shooting percentage rose when Schröder was on the court rather than Teague. Those findings would imply that the German is a better fit for this roster with regard to keeping the basketball moving and setting up efficient looks for teammates.
And in terms of the 23-year-old’s ability to manufacture offense for himself, it’s really quite exhilarating to watch Schröder turn on the jets and morph into a human cannonball when he gets a head of steam going towards the basket.
The opportunity for Schröder this season is about as golden as the patch of hair on the left side of his head, so it will be delightful to see what the former No. 17 overall pick does with it.