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Which NBA players are on the verge of a breakout season?
Last year, it was third-year point guard Ja Morant, who increased his scoring to average to 27.4 points per game from 19.1 during his sophomore season and led the upstart Memphis Grizzlies to the league’s second-best record.
Morant set the breakout bar pretty high, but there are plenty of young candidates throughout the league who are ready for the leap.
Could second-year players, such as Cade Cunningham, Jalen Green and Josh Giddey, build off impressive rookie campaigns to take the next step? What about Indiana Pacers guard Tyrese Haliburton, who enters the 2022-23 season as their No. 1 option after a midseason trade from the Sacramento Kings?
Our NBA Insiders are making their picks for which breakout players should be on the watch list.
Claxton is the only center on the Nets’ roster who was in Steve Nash’s rotation last season. (Second-year big man Day’Ron Sharpe is expected to get a chance for more minutes, and Nash said early in training camp that Markieff Morris will get time at the 5 for the Nets as well.) Aside from Ben Simmons getting some run at center in various situations, it will be Claxton with the largest opportunity to succeed.
The 23-year-old had several solid stretches during the regular season while fighting for minutes alongside veterans Blake Griffin, LaMarcus Aldridge and Andre Drummond, but his most important stretch was during the playoffs. In four games against the Boston Celtics in the opening round, Nash went mostly with Claxton — who responded with an average of 10.5 points, 6.3 rebounds and 2.3 blocks in 24.5 minutes per game. Claxton’s biggest flaw: He went 4-for-22 from the free throw line during the series. Claxton said last week that he has reworked his shooting form over the summer, but his confidence at the line could help determine whether he’ll be on the court in clutch-time minutes.
— Nick Friedell
The Pistons are excited about their complement of young players, but their optimism begins with their second-year point guard, whose progression each year will be the key to whether they can pull off a successful rebuild. Cunningham, who turned 21 last week, split time this summer working out in Detroit and Los Angeles and says he tacked on about 15 pounds of muscle. The extra weight should help both with his durability and his finishing around the basket.
Cunningham still averaged 17-5-5 as a rookie despite a mix of injuries and adjusting to life in the pros. By the second half of 2021-22, the Pistons started to see glimpses of the future star they took with the No. 1 overall pick. Take a look at Cunningham’s performance in March: 22.9 points, 7.0 assists and 5.9 rebounds per game while shooting 48% from the field. If he can continue to improve his outside shooting and limit his turnovers, Cunningham could be ready to make a star turn.
— Jamal Collier
After receiving praise from Kevin Durant and LeBron James last season, Duarte has the potential to attain “your favorite player’s favorite player” status in the league. With Malcolm Brogdon, the Pacers’ leading scorer from a year ago, joining the Boston Celtics in the offseason, touches should open up for Duarte as a target for point guard Tyrese Haliburton. Duarte — a sinewy 6-foot-5, 190 pounds with a smooth jumper — should certainly be fed more left-corner 3s (43.5% from that spot last season) and cuts to the basket (59.4%) as an ultra-young Indy team builds its identity.
Duarte was money from the very start of his NBA career, exploding for 27 points on 9-for-15 shooting (6-for-9 from 3) in his debut as a 24-year-old rookie. It was a promising sign of things to come, as the Pacers had a 6-7 record when Duarte scored 18 points or more, which is impressive considering the team went just 25-57 overall on the season. While a left toe injury cost him the last 12 games of the season, Duarte told reporters on media day, “I’m doing better,” as he looks ahead to his sophomore season.
— Dave McMenamin
During the summer-league matchup between No. 2 overall pick Chet Holmgren and No. 3 overall pick Jabari Smith Jr., it was Giddey who might have impressed the most. Giddey didn’t seem to be playing particularly hard or trying to impress, it just appeared that the game had slowed down for him. This often happens with sophomores who are ready to break out.
Giddey’s summer league performance, in which he flirted with a triple-double average, continued what we saw from him last season before a hip injury ended his campaign in February. During his last 24 games of 2021-22, he averaged 14.5 points, 8.6 rebounds, 6.8 assists, 1.2 3s and 1.0 steals in 33.3 minutes per game. He notched four triple-doubles during that stretch, including three in his last four games. Giddey seems poised to build on those performances, taking higher usage while letting Shai Gilgeous-Alexander play more off the ball in one of the most exciting young backcourts in the NBA.
— André Snellings
It’s not exactly going out on a limb to predict a significant leap for Green. The No. 2 overall pick struggled as a teenager when thrown into the deep end before a strong finish to his rookie season. Green was Houston strength and conditioning coach Willie Cruz’s prized pupil. Green added 10 to 12 pounds of muscle to his slender frame, which should help the pure scorer get to his favorite spots and finish in traffic.
Green’s finish last season left Rockets fans salivating, as he averaged an efficient 29.3 points in the last seven games. That included a stretch of five straight 30-point performances, which no rookie had accomplished since Allen Iverson in 1997, according to ESPN Stats & Information research. Green’s 41-point finale was the highest-scoring game by any rookie last season — and by any Rockets rookie since Hakeem Olajuwon in 1984. Green averaged 20.7 points per game with an effective field goal percentage of 56.7 from February through the end of 2021-22.
— Tim MacMahon
Haliburton has all the ingredients for a breakout. A talented and versatile third-year guard, he has become the focal point on a rebuilding Pacers team with plenty of opportunity to shine, as three of the top five Pacers in shot attempts per game last season — Caris LeVert, Malcolm Brogdon and Domantas Sabonis — are on different teams this season. Buddy Hield is the only returning Pacer to average more shot attempts per game (15.6) than Haliburton (12.4).
In his 26 games with Indiana after a trade from the Sacramento Kings in the Sabonis deal, Haliburton increased his scoring and assists average from 14.3 points and 7.4 assists to 17.5 points and 9.6 assists while raising his field goal percentage from 45.7 to 50.2. In his last 10 games of the season, Haliburton collected five double-doubles, averaging 17.5 points and 10.3 assists over that span. During a five-game stretch from March 26 to April 3, Haliburton dished out 56 assists, including 17 dimes against Detroit. He will have plenty of chances to rack up monster nights like that this season.
— Ohm Youngmisuk
A bigger Murphy — perhaps the less heralded of last season’s Pelicans rookie trio that also included Herbert Jones and Jose Alvarado — is better. Murphy said at the end of last season he weighed 201 pounds. When he reported to New Orleans this fall, he was up to 214. And Murphy said he’s closer to 6-foot-10 now as well (he admitted he’s 6-foot-9½ but, as he put it, who isn’t going to stretch that to 6-foot-10?). Murphy earned a larger role late in 2021-22 and was pivotal during the Pelicans’ playoff push. Don’t be surprised to see Murphy force his way into the Pelicans’ closing lineups sooner rather than later.
Over the final 16 games of the regular season, Murphy averaged 10.1 points while shooting 45.1% from deep. He was huge for the Pelicans in their No. 8-seed clinching play-in victory over the LA Clippers, hitting three of his four 3-pointers in the fourth quarter as New Orleans came from behind to win. With Zion Williamson back, Murphy’s shooting will be even more valuable.
— Andrew Lopez
Through his first two seasons in Atlanta, Okongwu has shown flashes of what led the Hawks to pick him No. 6 overall in the 2020 draft. And, between the combination of Danilo Gallinari departing this summer, the uncertainty surrounding the future of John Collins and Clint Capela entering his ninth NBA season, the opportunity is there for the 6-foot-8 big man to stake his claim to a far bigger long-term role.
Okongwu has played just 98 out of a possible 154 games over the course of his first two NBA seasons. But the basketball world saw what he is capable of during Atlanta’s run to the Eastern Conference finals in 2021, including when he was arguably Atlanta’s best option against Milwaukee Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo in that series. Okongwu’s combination of defensive prowess and efficient inside scoring is a recipe for success, and his growth could be the key to Atlanta exceeding expectations in 2021-22.
— Tim Bontemps
Sengun, 20, has been buzzing in the analytics community since the lead-up to the 2021 draft. As an 18-year-old, he averaged 19.2 points (64.6% shooting, 81.2% at the free throw line), 9.4 rebounds, 1.7 blocks and 1.3 steals in 28.3 minutes per game to claim MVP of the Turkish Super League. Sengun again flashed those skills in the 2021 summer league, dominating with 15 points and 15 rebounds against Rookie of the Year runner-up Evan Mobley.
Sengun averaged 16.7 points, 9.5 rebounds, 4.5 assists and 1.6 blocks on a per-36-minute basis during the regular season, but he played only 20.7 minutes per game behind starting Rockets big man Christian Wood. The Rockets traded Wood this offseason, in large part to open up playing time for Sengun, whose productivity has translated to every level of competition thus far.
After a strong rookie campaign that earned the No. 8 overall pick All-Rookie First Team honors, Wagner showcased even more potential during this summer’s EuroBasket tournament, averaging 15.2 points per game on 53% shooting to help host Germany to the bronze medal. Wagner’s broad skill set and feel for the game makes him an ideal complement in the Orlando frontcourt alongside 2022 No. 1 overall pick Paolo Banchero. Banchero and Wagner are the building blocks as the Magic look to develop a team capable of winning a playoff series for the first time since 2010.
In the context of FIBA’s shorter games, Wagner averaging as many PPG as he did during his rookie season was all the more impressive. Wagner put up 20.6 points per 36 minutes, 16% better than his NBA mark. And he did it in part by hitting 46% of his 3s (19-for-41). More consistent 3-point shooting is the next step for Wagner, who hit 35% last season but showed above-average form at the free throw line (86%) — which can be an indicator of future 3-point success.
— Kevin Pelton