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Six NBA players on verge of a breakout season, led by Nuggets’ Michael Porter Jr., Bulls’ Coby White


Whether it’s picking stocks, drafting a Fantasy team or finding an under-the-radar series to binge watch, everyone wants in on the next big thing. When it comes to sports, evaluating players’ potential and developing their talent can be the difference between Executive of the Year and finding a new line of work.

Sometimes NBA players burst onto the scene from seemingly out of nowhere — take Devonte’ Graham, who averaged 4.7 points per game on 28 percent 3-point shooting as a rookie for the Hornets, only to become one of the most exciting young guards in the league last season while dropping 18 points per game on 37 percent 3-point shooting. Graham is an anomaly, however, as there is at least a general predictor of which players are poised to take a leap.

Most of the players who had a breakout 2019-20 season had a significant uptick in performance in the second half of the previous season. For example, last year’s Most Improved Player, Brandon Ingram, along with several others who received votes, showed great improvement from the first half of the 2018-19 season to the second half. Here’s a look at some of those players using NBA.com’s Player Impact Estimate (not a perfect stat, but generally shows a player’s efficiency and benefit to his team).

Brandon Ingram

8.5

13.5

5.0

Trae Young

10.5

15.1

4.6

Bam Adebayo

12.0

15.6

3.6

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander

7.7

9.6

1.9

Luka Doncic

14.5

15.9

1.4

By this logic, we should be able to look at the second half of the 2019-2020 season to predict which players could have a breakout campaign in 2020-21. So that’s exactly what we’ve done here. The six players listed below all showed significant improvement from the first half of last season to the second half. Obviously the second half of last season was a bit shorter than usual, so we have to take it with a grain of salt, but these players should still be prime candidates to have breakout campaigns given their skills and situations.

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Anyone who watched Porter in Orlando saw his prodigious potential, and Jerami Grant fleeing Denver for Detroit should open up significant minutes for Porter this season. After struggling to find consistent playing time throughout the season, Porter earned second team All-Bubble recognition by averaging 22 points and 8.6 rebounds while making 42 percent of his 6.4 3-point attempts per game. He also played well in the postseason, if not inconsistently, putting up 11.4 points and 6.7 rebounds per game on 38 percent 3-point shooting. Offense is not a question with Porter, who took a redshirt year after the Nuggets drafted him 14th overall in 2018. The only thing that could prevent him from having a breakout season is if his defense continues to be as poor as it was last year, when head coach Mike Malone was forced to take him off the court at times.

“It’s something that I’m taking head-on, and it’s something I want to do,” Porter said, via the Denver Post. “I want to be one of the best players [on the floor] and I want to guard the best players. And I want the best players on the other team to guard me. So it’s a challenge that I’m going to take on. And I’m looking forward to it.”

Whether he starts alongside Jamal Murray and Nikola Jokic or plays the sixth man role, Porter is poised for a breakout 2020-21 campaign given his skill set and increased opportunity.

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You probably don’t remember because it seems like 15 years ago, but White went on an absolute tear shortly before the season was postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Since the Bulls weren’t invited to the bubble, that’s the last we saw of him, but there’s a strong possibility that his post-All-Star break run of 24.7 points and 4.3 assists on 41 percent 3-point shooting is more than just a 10-game hot streak. Sharing the backcourt with Zach LaVine creates certain “only one ball” issues, but the new Chicago regime, led by head coach Billy Donovan, expects White to be a vocal leader as the team’s starting point guard this season. That should create more opportunity for him to initiate offense out of the pick-and-roll, where he can hit pull-up jumpers, finish at the rim and show off the improved playmaking he displayed in his final games of last season.

“We had nine months off, so I feel like I’ve taken a huge leap in my game, especially in my decision-making and playing off the pick-and-roll,” White said, via the Chicago Tribune. “Coming into last year’s season, coming off the pick-and-roll was something that we really didn’t do at North Carolina. So for me it was new, and then different coverages.

“This whole nine months I’ve had time to work on these different coverages, what’s open, what’s not, and how to attack these different coverages. And for me to more consistently shoot off the dribble, finish at the rim, those are three things I focused on the most.”

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So apparently this is going to be a huge year for players with the surname “White.” Derrick White came on after the All-Star break last season and took things to another level in the bubble, where he averaged nearly 19 points, five assists and 4.3 rebounds on 39 percent 3-point shooting. One of the biggest differences was the volume of his 3-point barrage, attempting eight 3s per game in the bubble after putting up just 2.6 per contest in the first 61 games of the season. The Spurs were at the bottom of the league in 3-point attempts last season, so if White has the green light to be one of the team’s primary distance shooters, he could be on the verge of a huge statistical improvement to go along with his stout defense and ball-handling. White may miss some time to begin the year as he recovers from offseason toe surgery, but he should be able to pick up right where he left off when he returns.

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One of the few young players on the Knicks who showed significant promise last season, Robinson played well in 10 games after the All-Star break, raising his averages across the board. He set the all-time NBA record with a .742 field goal percentage for the year, but perhaps the most significant development with Mitchell was that he began to learn how to stay out of foul trouble. He didn’t draw more than three fouls in any of the final nine games of the season (this is a guy who managed to foul out of four games last season in which he played fewer than 20 minutes). By avoiding foul trouble, Robinson stayed on the floor for nearly 27 minutes per game over that stretch, compared to the 22.6 he played prior to the All-Star break. That could be the key to Robinson having a breakout 2020-21 campaign. He also said he worked on his 3-point shot this offseason (he’s yet to attempt one in his career) and continued to improve his conditioning.

“Basically what I did this summer was still working on getting a jump shot. Did a lot of running. Because I want to be in better shape for the season to help my team out,” Robinson said, via SNY.  

If he can stay on the floor, Robinson is a production machine, and the Knicks may give him the starting center job — if not immediately, perhaps later in the season — as they look to see just how far the 22-year-old’s potential can reach.

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After being moved into the starting lineup, Johnson impressed during the Suns’ dominating 8-0 bubble performance, averaging 13.3 points and 5.9 rebounds on 35 percent 3-point shooting. Things should only get better for him this season with Chris Paul as his new point guard. Last season the Suns were 29th in the NBA in open 3-pointers attempted per game (10.9), according to NBA.com, while Johnson averaged 1.8 open 3-point attempts per game. Compare that to Paul’s stretch-four with the Thunder, Danilo Gallinari, who averaged 3.9 open attempts from deep last season (up from 2.6 open 3-point attempts per game in 2018-19 with the Clippers). That means Johnson, a pure shooter in his own right, will likely be getting much better looks from deep this season. He has much more to his game than just 3-point shooting, too, as he averaged 1.19 points per possession finishing at the rim last season, per Synergy. He was also in the 88th percentile as a transition scorer with 1.353 points per possession, with the ability to hit quick 3s or get behind the defense for easy buckets.

Watch here as Johnson needs only a split-second of daylight to swish this 3-pointer in transition over Aaron Holiday:

Later in the game, Holiday finds himself in the exact same position and this time cheats up because he clearly remembers Johnson splashing that 3 in his face. Johnson reads the situation perfectly and instead goes back-door for a wide-open dunk off of a sweet find from Devin Booker:

With his 3-point prowess and transition ability, Johnson should flourish with the addition of Paul to the dangerous Suns lineup.

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The Raptors have a hole in the middle after the departure of Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka, which will be filled by some combination of Aron Baynes, Alex Len and Boucher, who has showed tantalizing promise in limited minutes with Toronto over the past two seasons. Boucher posted eye-popping per-36 minute averages of 24 points, 13.3 rebounds and three blocks on 53 percent 3-point shooting in seven games in the bubble, which helped earn him a two-year, $13.5 million contract from the Raptors this offseason with the expectation of a larger role with the team.

“All I have to do is really focus on, what’s the next step? What’s the next thing I have to do to? How can I help the team a little bit more and be a day-in, day-out contributor?” Boucher said after re-signing with Toronto. “That’s most of the talks that we had — just how to be consistent and be able to contribute every day, not only one out of two.”

Boucher presents a rare combination of shot-blocking and 3-point shooting, and he’s quick enough to be able to guard both fours and fives. Also keep in mind that Baynes has struggled to remain on the court the last two seasons, which could make Boucher an even more important piece as the season goes on.





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Written by Chekmagazine

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